So me and Nintendo have different ideas on what to do with this Zelda license. I tend to think that the franchise needs an overhaul, a desperate tweaking of its stagnant format. I say enough to tired gameplay ideas, like dungeons built around a bow and arrow, or Link saving a Princess with a Triforce. How radical would it be to play a Legend of Zelda game that doesn’t star Link? On the other hand, Nintendo believes that it’s merely the input methods of the game that have gone flat. People are bored and confused with using controller button presses to swing a sword as opposed to the idea of using a sword in general, that’s all. Funny, I’ve been changing channels with a remote for twenty years and I’ve never thought to myself “gosh, I wish I could waggle my way through primetime.”
It started with Twilight Princess on the Wii. Set aside the questionably responsive Wii controls and you have a game so stereotypically-Zelda that it could be the victim of police brutality in if it’s not careful. On the other hand, Phantom Hourglass on the DS reworked the entire control method through stylus interplay, hinting at the possibility of exciting new gameplay concepts. It wasn’t sterling perfection but at least it gave hope for the future. And now that the future has arrived in Spirit Tracks, I can say that hope was blind and this game needs to find itself in the wrong part of town alone with those cops.
The game stars a strapping young boy whom just so happens to be the hero of destiny, whom just so happens to be around when Princess Zelda is kidnapped by an evil force, and just so happens to need to visit several dungeons in order to open the path to that evil force. Boy that sounds familiar. The key difference in this game is accessing that evil force involves restoring magical train tracks. You know how most Zelda games have “that gimmick”? That one little tweak that somehow justifies reusing everything else in franchise games prior? Gimmicks like the shrinking hat, the evil-faced moon crashing into the Earth, the sailing, the wolf form, or everybody’s favorite, “the alternate realm”. In Spirit Tracks, the game is all about riding your own private train, for the train tracks are the magical binds that tie down an evil beast…or something.
So you’ll frequently ride your train to access your assorted destinations. All apologies to fans of Railroad Simulator, model trains or maybe even riding real trains, but conducting locomotives in this game just isn’t interesting. Controls are limited to adjusting speed, pulling a string to blow the horn, firing a cannon and turning at forks, and even that latter part is automated through drawing a path on the map. So what we have here is a glorified, sluggish rail shooter. Occasionally, you’ll be asked to carry a passenger to a destination, and these passengers are a finicky bunch, insisting you follow speed limits signs, and blow the horn when a sign tells you to. For some reason, they find enjoyment out of your obeying the strange road laws of Hyrule, like this is Reverse Crazy Taxi or something. I never thought I’d say this, but the barebones travel system of Spirit Tracks is so boring that it almost makes me yearn for the sailing of Phantom Hourglass or Wind Waker. And that is no compliment to their sailing.
On foot, the gameplay mechanics will remind players of that other DS Zelda game. You’ll use the stylus to handle every gameplay aspect short of stretching your back after the long ass train ride. You’ll walk, barrel roll, sword swing, even access menus by way of “touching it” with your pen. For the most part, Link responds well to the finger-pointing you’ll give him via stylus, but Spirit Tracks also highlights some of the weaknesses with the format. Some enemies are considerably too agile for sword swipes, and often the best course of action is to unleash the boomerang and just scribble a path on the screen to unleash some kind of strange stylus Spread Gun. Also, keep in mind that to use special attacks like the boomerang and the bow and arrow (of course they would be appearing in a Zelda game), you have to press a button on the touch screen. Link will then stand perfectly still while you aim your equipped weapon with the pen. Most enemies and especially the bosses do not have the patience to wait around while you wait to aim your attack. So the boss encounters in particular are rather frustrating, curse-word-laden affairs. Maybe I don’t have the penmanship necessary to thrive in this game, but I don’t remember having too many of these problems in the last game, let alone a Zelda game manipulated by good ol’ controller buttons.
You may either remember, or attempt to block out of your mind, parts of Phantom Hourglass where you had to explore this giant spirit dungeon thingy, retreading certain areas over and over again, all under the influence of a time limit. Spirit Tracks has something similar in the . Mercifully, both the time limit and the peddling of treaded territory are gone. Instead, the hook of these areas is that the ghost of Princess Zelda can possess a giant armour beast, and subsequently obey your commands. Thus, you’ll have the obligatory “both people need to stand on this switch” puzzles that EVERY game of this kind needs. It can be kind of satisfying to work through a puzzle that requires navigating both the hulking armour and the scrawny Link. Though it bears mentioning that Princess Armour Man is controlled by means of drawing a path through the stage, then growling in anger as the princess grinds up against a wall like a senior citizen’s shopping cart at the aisles of Walmart.
And then there is the microphone. For whatever reason, Nintendo thinks people want to talk into the blasted microphone, moreso than they ever did before. You’ll be asked periodically to blow into the microphone, for one of the power-ups, and to play the game’s pan flute instrument. The upside is that the microphone is sensitive enough that light puffs from a distance will be picked up, ideal for coworkers to not notice you blowing into your system like a fool. The downside is that the background noise of a bus, subway or automobile also counts as “blowing”. This is a handheld game, Nintendo! Where do you think people are going to play it, the library? There came a part in Spirit Tracks where my instrument playing demanded a modicum of precision, and thus I needed to wait until I got home to play my portable video game. Home, where I have TVs with bigger video games, computers, family members, friends and things much more entertaining than your stupid handheld game. And forget the blowing, there was a part where my progress was halted unless I spoke specific words into the microphone; another progress halter for anyone that doesn’t want to look like a schizoid in public.
I get the impression that because of all this microphone nonsense, that Spirit Tracks was meant to be played by kids who normally play their handheld Pokemon games at home while simultaneously watching Pokemon cartoons and shuffling their Pokemon card decks. But at the same time, some of the stylus-based gameplay feels too frustrating for players as well. So in my mind, the target audience for Spirit Tracks is “people that don’t value dignity in public places.” As it is, Spirit Tracks marks the jumping of the shark for Zelda on the DS, that we’ve gone as far as we can with the system’s controls in regards to making an entertaining game. It’s time for this franchise to return to the drawing board.
2 ½ stars