Handheld gaming has evolved eons from the days of slim-lined Gameboys and brick-weighted GameGears, but the philosophy (and subsequent debate) has remained relatively the same: Can portable games really stack up against their bigger, immobile cousins? With dated video games receiving the digital makeover treatment these days, reboots are just about a dime a dozen on the DS shelves, making it harder to seek out those lesser known gems born out of fresh minds. But can even these original titles give the same excitement a Blu-ray quality game can? In the Zelda universe, titles like Link’s Awakening and the Oracle of Ages and Seasons are often overlooked simply because they’re of a smaller scale. But in the case of Spirit Tracks, portable doesn’t mean less, and it certainly doesn’t mean bad. While maintaining the tangental approach to the series that Phantom Hourglass did, Spirit Tracks fine tunes many of the small gripes its predecessor had, all the while creating a refreshing tale that breaks Zelda out of her usual helpless damsel role.
Taking place a century after the events of Phantom Hourglass, LZST sees our hero about to graduate and lead a life of train whistles and locomotive engineering. Utilizing the fabled spirit tracks laid out across the land, Link visits Zelda to receive his diploma, only to wind up witnessing her advisor grow small horns and begin his claim for divine power. After a brief scuffle, the spirit tower is broken into separate pieces and Link and Zelda are tasked with awakening the guardians of the spirit tracks to rebuild the tower and lock away the evil spirits that were unleashed. How’s that for a different Zelda game?
If you ventured the curiosity to play Phantom Hourglass (and if you have access to a DS, you should), it won’t take long to feel at home with Spirit Tracks. Exploration and combat tactics are all utilized by the stylus while the menu and weapon selection are handled with the standard button layout. The similarities between the games, by a technical standpoint, are extensive mainly because they work so well. Link responds accurately to the stylus, and the use of the microphone built into the DS maintains a subtle and easy way to keep the player engaged in a manner other than scribbling with his hand. As before, Link and Zelda must return to a central point in the game several times in order to open up other areas in the world, but the designers thankfully removed the frustrating time limit burdened on you in Phantom Hourglass as well as the exhausting task of having to travel through the same portions of the dungeon over and over and over again. This time around, the dungeon portions of the spirit tower are kept segregated from one another, and the heroic pair are allowed to traverse the hallways for as long as you need.
Speaking of pairs, perhaps the biggest creative difference in LZST is the inclusion of Zelda as a friend and teammate to the usual lone hero. Without spoiling certain plot points, Zelda and Link are forced to team up in order to bring the world back into balance, something Nintendo was mature enough to poke fun at throughout the game. While the majority of the game sees Zelda act as a spiritual successor to the fairy companion Navi from Ocarina of Time, the teamwork portion rears its head when Zelda possesses the bodies of various soldiers and guardians. During these times, you are able to plot her course and actions with the stylus and then switch control back over to Link. This mechanic becomes integral in the latter portion of the game in terms of defeating certain enemies and solving most puzzles. Fortunately, this buddy system is streamlined and simple in execution, never allowing it to become frustrating or too much to handle in combat situations. Moreover, there’s something oddly satisfying about seeing Zelda become a more active character instead of being the regular act opener and closer she’s been accustomed to all these years. For her sake, I hope this idea is continued in future Zelda titles (after all, the game is called Legend of ZELDA…just sayin.)
The game’s biggest change, however, is in it’s namesake. In order to traverse the various regions of the world, Link and Zelda make use of the spirit tracks by use of a train that travels somewhere between the speed of smell and a segway. There isn’t really a given explanation as to why the train only has four speeds (and you’ll only be using one of them for nearly the entire game), so a large portion of your time spent playing the game will be spent on these tracks. While controlling the train and fighting off approaching baddies is very simple to do, the whole system starts to feel tired and constricting after only a few hours, and by the end of the game I was quite ready to be done with it. Moreover, the spirit tracks are populated by several demon trains that travel much faster than your own. Since they cannot be killed, you’re forced to develop precognitive abilities in planning your route to avoid them, lest you end up driving head on into them a not a goddamn thing you can do about it; sure you can try to stun them and go in reverse, but after the fifth time that fails to work, you’ll start to wonder about that whole ‘speed’ thing all over again.
But locomotion obstacles aside, Spirit Tracks proves to be a great sequel to an already worthy DS adventure. The single greatest quality born from Phantom Hourglass and honed in Spirit Tracks is its newfound spur of creativity in an established universe. It’s no secret that Zelda has been hurting for a change these past few years, and while Miyamoto has promised new directions in the upcoming Wii iteration, these portable versions are a welcome reinvigoration for long-time fans. They may not crack the case on the whole Split Timeline Theory or anything, but where would be the fun in that?
See you in the next level,