The peanut butter and jelly sandwich has not changed much over the years. Connoisseurs have added gourmet peanut butter or fancy jelly (passion fruit jelly anyone?), but its purpose has remained the same. Take three ingredients, and combine them into an inexpensive and delicious sandwich.
The Legend of Zelda is the PB&J of the video game world. The consoles are fancier and tweaks have been made, but the core idea has seen little to no innovation since the jump into the 3D realm. Even the first DS title, Phantom Hourglass, fell prey to the series’ excessive dedication to formula. One would think that the growing concern for the series’ longevity would generate some form of creativity.
Enter Spirit Tracks. The second installment on the DS takes advantage of the handheld’s gadgets and gizmos, but it clings to aging gameplay like an old man bent over his walking cane.
Like nearly every Zelda title, the core story remains the same. A young buck in a small village finds himself wrapped in a world-ending plot. He must rise up, like his ancestors did, and rid the world of evil. However, this LoZ finds the princess adventuring with the young man. Her body is stolen, a capable vessel for the returning demon king, and her spirit aids Link throughout his quest.
Alas, like every Zelda title before it, players will find themselves playing music and collecting elemental-themed trinkets. They have also included a multiplayer mode, but it’s akin to the multiplayer added to Super Mario 64 DS, and is nothing but shameless novelty.
The story isn’t anything to get excited about, but it is nice to see the series moving further away from Ganon or Ganondorf… even if the new villains are variations of them. However, the game continues to cater to younger children in a non-meaningful way. There is no attempt to bridge the gap between different audiences. Link’s grunts and Zelda’s yelps were once charming and cute, but now border on irritating and annoying. Almost every conversation that takes place is useless and unfunny. A seemingly minor complaint, but the majority of the game forces you sit through this verbal diarrhea to catch much-needed information for traversing the dungeons.
In any Zelda game, the dungeons are the real attraction. Every gamer remembers the ever-devastating Water Temple in nearly every title. Yet, the dungeons in Spirit Tracks are derivatives of all the dungeons throughout the series’ history. Gamers are hitting the same switches with the same weapons to collect the same prizes. The biggest complaint with Phantom Hourglass - repeating the same dungeon – rears it’s ugly head again. Players return to the Tower of Spirits after every elemental dungeon to continue their trek upward.
This is where Spirit Tracks‘ gameplay hook appears. Zelda’s spirit can posses the armored phantoms, and Link must use their special abilities to complete each section of the tower. Players control the phantom with the stylus by drawing paths for them to follow. The gameplay is unique to the handheld, but it’s plagued by the all stylus controls and Zelda’s terrible AI. To its benefit, you don’t have to start the dungeon from the beginning every time, but constantly returning to the same area is exacerbated by the overworld travel.
The overworld travel itself is done by way of train. This strange choice severely limits the open world feel of the game because players can only follow the tracks in two directions. It’s the only method of travel, and it becomes frustratingly boring after only a few hours. Players can upgrade the train, but it’s only three different choices for the four cars that increase speed, damage, storage capacity, and health. It isn’t necessary to complete the game, and the incentive to upgrade is minimal.
The train does a number on the game’s graphics as well. Spirit Tracks is a beautiful game with bright colors and expansive visuals (thanks to the dual screens), but when riding around on the train there is obvious pixelation. On top of that, when there is too much action on the screen, which breaks down to turning and firing the cannon, the frame rate drops severely.
All of the gameplay is controlled through the stylus. This style choice gives players a lot of freedom to control Link’s gadgets, but it comes at a price. Link will find himself walking into spikes and pitfalls as players maneuver him around the dungeons. The game will detect basic movement as rolls, and the edge of the screen is a no man’s land that will send Zelda’s phantom careening in the wrong direction.
While there is a lot to complain about in regards to the Zelda series using the same gameplay over and over, the reasoning is very sound. The gameplay is effective. When the stylus isn’t forcing Link over cliffs, exploring the dungeons is fun and engaging. The puzzles benefit exponentially from stylus control and there is a supreme satisfaction when you solve the difficult ones. Some gadgets require you blow on the screen while others let you draw trajectories; it’s a process that feels inclusive and benefits the exploration. The dual screens work together, and, like Phantom Hourglass, the top screen is the map and the bottom is adventureland. Players can still draw whatever they want on the above map. For those of you that get frustrated, drawing a giant penis in a difficult room will not solve the puzzle.
The boss battles are exceptional as well. The massive bosses require quick thinking and reflexes. The one that stands out the most is the fire realm’s boss. (Spoilers ahead), Link must dodge his massive hands while riding a mine cart around the his body shooting weak points while spiraling up to his head. It’s an epic battle, and one of the best of the series.
Beautiful colors and graphics give gamers something to look at, but riding in the train slows frame rate and induces pixelation.
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Awful overworld travel and complete stylus control weigh down the engaging, albeit overused, gameplay.
The music is crisp and the sound effects are clear, but they add nothing more than background noise.
The adventure is a decent length: 20+ hours, but there is no reason to play it again.
Spirit Tracks is the weakest title in the series. It isn't a bad game, but it symbolizes a need to retire Link before his career is tarnished.