Originally published in The Daily Toreador.
“The Legend of Zelda” has been around for a long time, and although the series always has been known for extremely high quality and great innovation, its formula hasn’t really changed in the 20-plus years it’s been around.
Playing as the iconic Nintendo hero Link, you explore, you find dungeons, you solve puzzles, you get items, you fight bosses and you save Princess Zelda, if not the entire world.
Long-time fans of the series usually can predict exactly how certain aspects of a “Zelda” game will go, and “The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks” for the Nintendo DS is no exception.
However, “Spirit Tracks” tries to build some of the innovations introduced in its Nintendo DS predecessor, “Phantom Hourglass,” and it manages to trump that game in many ways.In both games, you use the DS stylus almost exclusively, touching the screen to make Link walk, run, interact with objects and fight monsters. This still works surprisingly well, and it’s a great showcase for why the DS is a great portable gaming system.
But one of the greatest flaws in “Phantom Hourglass” was it could get repetitive, and Nintendo thankfully has solved much of this via better pacing of the main adventure. The story and action move along well, and things usually manage to remain fresh.
The story takes place 100 years after “Phantom Hourglass,” which was a sequel to “The Wind Waker” on the GameCube back in 2003. As such, this is a completely different Link and a completely different Zelda, thus making the “Zelda” series timeline even more weird and confusing.
But in the end, that’s OK, because Nintendo manages to tell a good story in this world.
You’re just probably better off not trying to find out how it fits in chronologically with the original game on the NES from the ’80s. All you need to know is you’re trying to stop the resurrection of a demon king, and you can only do that by restoring train tracks across the world.
Yes, weird. But surprisingly effective.
There are a few neat innovations in the game here and there. One of the most notable is the fact the titular Princess Zelda actually accompanies Link throughout most of his adventure across the land of Hyrule.
She often shows up to speak her mind or offer some advice, but in certain sections of the game you actually can direct her movement with the stylus, allowing her and Link to work together to battle enemies and solve puzzles.
The “Zelda” series has also been notable for its use of musical instruments, especially since “Ocarina of Time” on the Nintendo 64, which prompted many nerdy children worldwide (myself included) to purchase an ocarina.
“Spirit Tracks” lets you play the Spirit Flute, and although its songs aren’t quite as catchy as those from the series’ past, the way you play the flute tops anything that came before it.
You actually blow into the DS’s microphone and slide the flute left and right using the touch screen. It feels far more like playing an instrument than pushing buttons does.
But the game sadly isn’t without its flaws, and ironically the biggest flaw is the thing that was supposed to be the biggest deal: the train.
Sure, it’s cool to see Link riding a train around this fantasy world, but it makes moving around the world far too constricting. “Zelda” games of old had huge, fascinating world maps full of secrets and little side things to occupy yourself with when you weren’t on your main quest.
In “Spirit Tracks,” you have no such freedom. Your movement is limited to where the train tracks can take you. And riding around on these tracks can be slow and incredibly tedious.
As such, I hardly spent any time doing side quests or “exploring” Hyrule, as it was more of a pain than anything else.
Everything else is great. The dungeons are fun, the puzzles are tricky and the combat works well. But the entire method for traveling to dungeon to dungeon is a huge bummer.
In addition to the sizable single-player story, there’s a multiplayer mode for up to four players with only one copy of the game required. However, I will probably never touch it again. It’s honestly nothing to write home about.
But even with these blemishes, “Spirit Tracks” is a great experience, particularly for a handheld system. It definitely will please series fans and is easy to recommend to a large variety of gamers.