There are two ways Zelda games can be great. The newest entry in the series, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks summits one of those rarefied heights.
There are the Zelda games that are great in ways that influence an industry and nearly mandate that they be played. These groundbreakers include the very first Zelda and The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, both of which have, as a whole or in parts, inspired dozens of games and probably hundreds of developers.
Then there the Zelda games that are great at being Zelda games, achieving a less widely-appreciated magnificence, but one that plays to the fans. These Zelda games — A Link To The Past, Majora's Mask — excel at making enjoyable a clockwork complexity of characters, puzzles, music, locomotion, exploration, locked-room-mysteries, and hours-incubating-eurekas — a combination of design elements that may be the road hardest taken in video game franchise development. And it's in this latter category that Spirit Tracks, the third in the cartoon-Link series, the second on the DS and the first to put Link on a train with Zelda adventuring at his side, excels like the best of them.
(And for the newcomers, just note: This is an action-adventure game played mostly from an overhead perspective. You explore an overworld, visit towns and head into several dungeons to solve puzzles, fight enemies and gain key tools and items that enable you to explore more of the overworld. And it's almost all stylus-controlled.)
The New World: The map of Link's latest land in need of saving doesn't look all that different from the terrain earlier Links have tread before. There's snowy sections and mountains, beaches, forest and the rest of standards. Well, you can't judge a world by its topsoil. This is a world stuffed with interesting towns that contain interesting characters, more than the standard I-lost-my-chickens Zelda townsfolk but instead people with semi-real problems — think the love woes of Majora's Mask, for example — and good senses of humor. It's not just the people but the places. This is a world so full of diversions, many of them as well-hidden as anything put in a Zelda since the first entry in the series, that the optional wandering you do could probably account for half the game. And what you'll find for it is as surprising as, well, make sure, for example, that you find the pirate hide-out and therefore the best prison-break mini-game of the year. Discovery is possible in ways big and small. The relatively barren overworld of the Wii's Zelda, Twilight Princess, is not back.
Train Vs. Horse Vs. Boat: The boat and the horse, previous Zelda games' means of conveyance were great go-anywhere devices. For the first several hours of Spirit Tracks the train will feel like nothing but an inferiority. Then, surprisingly late in the game, the designers begin to celebrate what trains can do well — aside from stay on their tracks, avoid other trains and shoot cannons at boars. What trains do well is carry stuff and people and serve more uses than one. Eventually you're swapping train car types (I went with the skull-shaped engine), carrying ice or lumber or whatever was requested, ferrying passengers, watching out for bandits and pirates that might upset your animate and inanimate cargo, hitting warp gates and engineering like a pro. A few journeys in the game will feel long, but if you smartly multi-task a lot, then there's a lot of fun to running this train.
Amelie, The Game: One of the finest parts of a Zelda game I've ever played was a level in the little-discussed Four Swords four-player game made for the GameCube. Unusual in that it was multiplayer and broken into levels, it was also odd for having a level in which our hero(es) Link killed no one and nothing. This was a town level that took all of the item-trading and occasional favor-doing that Zelda players had done in previous games and dared to offer a satisfying level composed just of that. Spirit Tracks can, for hours on end, be played in just that way, with Link doing favors for people all around the game's expansive world. Technically these may be fetch quests — bring that ice from snow town to ocean town to chill the lady's fish and bring the kid to the castle town because he desires an adventure. But it's the writing and the clever construction of these quests — plus the ability to stack them by loading your train with supplies and a passenger related to two separate quests — that make this unadvertised element of Spirit Tracks possibly the best thing about the game. The traditionally single-species towns of Zelda games become integrated thanks to your efforts, odd constructions are built thanks to your supplies, and most magically, making people happy, generates new train tracks that lead to surprising hidden destinations. I've never had so much fun being nice in a video game.
The Music: The music the game plays for you — headphones are a must — is magical, diverse and superb, but it surpassed by the game's playable instrument, a pan flute that rivals Ocarina of Time's Ocarina for best interactive instrument. A combination of stylus-pressing and blowing on the DS mic closely mimics the physicality of playing a wind instrument in real life. It feels good (even though it looks a little goofy to bystanders on the subway, I'm sure!).
Her Majesty: The inclusion of Zelda as a partner character for the duration of the game is no mere marketing gimmick. Zelda's companionship makes the well-told story more interesting because her feisty personality enlivens moments that would normally only see the presence of Mr. No Personality, Link. In gameplay she's better, elaborating on the teases of single-player/two-character control that have been dabbled with by Zelda designers since at least the GameCube's Wind Waker. There are moments when the game asks of the player the dexterity of someone who can fight one enemy with two characters, controlling both with a mix of stylus swipes, taps and line-drawing (to denote Zelda's path of attack). No video game has asked for these kinds of hand gymnastics since Square-Enix's The World Ends With You. But this game builds to that complexity with skillful purpose and pacing. The learned ability — the rare instance of a Zelda game asking the player to improve his or her own skills rather than just rely on Link's game-long improvement of his own — is great reward. Why, I can control Zelda, who is pretty much only playable when she is possessing a suit of armor, so well that I can make her do the notorious series-cliche block-pushing puzzles for me by just drawing a few paths for her. That's terrific.
The Dungeons: Words fail in describing the complexity of a Zelda dungeon. But you know a well-designed one when you play one. Those are the only kinds of Zelda dungeons in this game, which includes a handful of main ones, a central one for the Link-Zelda play that is re-visited (without the annoyance of needing to be re-played) throughout the game and many other places that, buried in narrative are essentially mini-dungeons of their own. There are many puzzles, several items and a lot of clever solutions.
Visuals: The game looks better than its DS predecessor, The Phantom Hourglass, probably mostly thanks to rich art design. There is some annoying pop-in that makes it hard to see certain objects ahead of you while you're on the train, but that limitation is compensated for by a top-screen map that has all the info you need. For better or worse, some of the game can even be played with just your eyes on the top-screen map, but it's so tempting to look at the bottom screen because this is, maybe one of five best-looking DS games ever made?
Lost Princess: There are some technological drawbacks, though. The game's most ambitious dungeons, full of moving characters, force framerate slowdowns than only add to panic when a cool head is needed. Worse, Zelda in her clunky armor does not always waddle over when you call her. Her path-finding in some dungeons has her walking the wrong way and/or into a wall instead of toward Link. Thankfully the player can always assume manual control to overcome this problem.
Bad Reflexes: There are some things done in Zelda games that must be in there only because That's How It Was Always Done. Why must every gem I remove from a treasure chest be accompanied by a message telling me how much it's worth? I get it. And why can't I return to this world after I finish this game? Thankfully a save prompt right before the final battle allows for a post-credits return by the player to the game in its 11th hour, when, I gather, it is still possible to do the generous amount of side-adventuring offered in the game.
Wind Breaker: The game's musical instrument requires the player to blow into the mic. That is the same mic that can pick up sounds. Woe to the person who tries to play the healing song and restore their nearly-dead Link to health during a boss battle while riding in a New York City subway car. The clatter of the real train fools the game into thinking notes are being played. These are the wrong notes. The song isn't played. Link isn't healed. He gets killed. If only there was an option for players in noisy environments. Or I'll just yell: "Quiet everyone! I'm playing Zelda."
I've not described the story or named the new items. I've not detailed a puzzle or described the game's allusions to Ocarina of Time. I've left a lot out because discovery is the fun of a Zelda game. In 2000, Majora's Mask won me over because it took a formula I knew and contorted it, gave extra verve to the types of characters who appear in the series and impressed me with the complex precision of its interactive machinery.
There is a way to play and not like The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. The train might be dull for people who don't wait for the designers to get warmed up and who ignore the side quests. The dungeons may well be too hard for some of the DS's newest consumers. This game may not have the broadest of appeals, but if you like Zelda, this is upper-echelon stuff.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks was developed and published by Nintendo for the Nintendo DS on December 7. Retails for $34.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played the campaign until the end, but was unable to play the local wireless multiplayer mode, which was not considered for this review. Saved the world in the campaign, of course, and made a few gold dolphins jump.
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