10 for ’10: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

I’ve got a longer, almost offensively nerdy post in the pipeline, but it’s not done yet, so instead you get this: The first entry in a new feature that I hope to finish up before the end of the year.

I don’t buy that many games. I play a lot of games, I just don’t buy that many. I’m at my most profligate if  I buy a dozen new games in any given calendar year. Part of this has always been a result of funds — I’ve never been in a financial position to splurge on games with rampant disregard, so it’s always been my way to choose my purchases carefully and make them last.

Nevertheless, Game of the Year discussions are starting to pop up, and while I don’t feel qualified to opine, while looking through the games I did buy this year I decided that there were about ten that merited some discussion, which is a nice round number. Plus, “10 for ’10” is a pretty nifty title, so I figured a postmortem on how I spent my gaming year might be a good way to fill some inches.

I’m kind of cheating here, because the first game on the list actually came out towards the tail end of 2009. I’m also none too happy about the fact that I already talked about Zelda at unconscionable length the other day — but Spirit Tracks was the first game I beat this year, and where’s a more logical place to start than that? So with that…

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

Developer: Nintendo EAD

Publisher: Nintendo

U.S. Release Date: December 7, 2009

Genre: It is a Zelda game.

I’ve always divided the Zelda series into three broad tiers of quality. At the top you’ve got the masterpieces, which are games that I enjoy pretty much without reservation or qualification. For me, the games in that tier are Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Link’s Awakening, and (if I’m in a generous mood) Twilight Princess.

(TP isn’t quite at this level in terms of quality, but it’s not in the second tier either, so I’m willing to give it a little extra nudge into first class.)

Tier two is where I put the games that would be masterpieces… but they have a “but”. These are games that have a lot going for them, and are better than most other games out there by virtue of being Zelda games, but have some kind of irritating flaw or design decision that rankles enough to keep them out of the top tier. For me, A Link to the Past and The Wind Waker go here.

Tier three is “the rest”. Most of these are good games, but ones that I can take or leave. If they represented the best the series had to offer, I wouldn’t call myself a Zelda fan, but rather a guy who can occasionally be talked into playing a Zelda game. Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass, the NES games, and probably the Oracle games (although I haven’t played them, they’re by the same team that made Minish Cap, which I found unimpressive, so they probably wouldn’t light my fire).

I stick Phantom Hourglass onto the third pile, but its problems all stem from its design, not its controls. In other words, I don’t penalize it for the stylus-only controls or the touch screen/microphone gimmicks the way some people do. On the contrary, I rather liked them, and felt that in a better game they’d be really impressive.

Spirit Tracks is not that game. That is, it is a better game, but it’s not the game that puts the touch screen gimmicks to good use. Rather, it attacks its predecessor at its weakest point: Its pedestrian, almost tech demo-ish game design. Gone are the gimmicky dungeon designs, with puzzles designed purely to exploit some newfangled DS feature. The central, recurring dungeon is still there, but its mechanics have been changed to the point where it’s unrecognizable. Even the plot is better, although it would be hard to make one worse.

Phantom Hourglass was all about showing off what this new DS-specific Zelda engine could do, and it was a weaker game for it. Spirit Tracks dispenses with that. Spirit Tracks is all about dungeons.

For fans like me who play Zelda games for their dungeons, and more specifically for the puzzles in their dungeons, Spirit Tracks is like manna from heaven. While it lacks the interconnectivity that defines the very best Zelda dungeons, Spirit Tracks has a puzzle in almost every room of its dungeons, usually a hard one that requires thinking for more than a few seconds. In the Tower of Spirits, Spirit Tracks’s analogue to Phantom Hourglass’s Temple of the Ocean King, Link’s usual arsenal of moves and tools is supplemented by the addition of Zelda, who accompanies Link as a disembodied spirit trying to get her body back. In the Tower of Spirits, Zelda can possess the invincible armored Phantoms, allowing for challenging and complex two-man puzzles that stand with the best the series has to offer. It feels more than a little like The Lost Vikings, and in my book anything that makes something more like The Lost Vikings is a welcome addition indeed. (Why hasn’t that series been revived yet, again? …Oh yeah. WoW.)

Zelda’s addition also makes for a charming and upbeat story. She and Link have great chemistry (given that one of them can’t talk), and Zelda’s cheerful nature gives the story a light, tongue-in-cheek quality that the series had been sorely lacking. All the Zelda games have humorous scenes somewhere, but Spirit Tracks is the only one that runs with that side of the narrative, heading almost (but not quite) into the realm of self-parody. It’s no Paper Zelda, but it’s as close as we’re likely to get. The plot itself is no great shakes, but it’s a decent enough excuse to run around with Zelda by your side.Link and Zelda, sittin' in a tree...

Link and Zelda, two great tastes that taste great together.

Plus… there’s Byrne.

I’d say that Byrne’s the best new character this series has introduced in years, but… Midna, so that’s out. Still, he’s a great foe, with a clean design and awesome theme music. Plus, his fight is pretty awesome. Battling Byrne  in his multi-stage, tag-team boss fight has made me wonder whether Zelda, like Mega Man, is better suited for small, quick, humanoid bosses rather than hulking monstrosities. The best Mega Man bosses are enemies like Vile, Zero, Colonel, Commander Craft, and Omega who match the protagonist’s speed and versatility… and the most memorable Zelda enemies are foes like Dark Link and Wind Waker Ganondorf who outfight Link rather than simply crushing him.

Anyway, Byrne’s motivation is pretty standard, but at least he has one, and it isn’t “Grrr evil”. And Byrne’s little scene at the end is on the short list for best scene in the game.

It isn’t all sweetness and light, though. Spirit Tracks contains a number of annoying flaws, not in the least of which is its basic structure. Like Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks requires you to negotiate the overworld by plotting a course for your vehicle, in this case a train. This is beyond tedious. The train doesn’t go very fast even on the fastest speed, and the world is enormous. This would be fine if there were lots of things to see or do, but the scenery is both interchangeable and forgettable (grassland/snowy land/ocean/volcano/desert… yawn), and there’s rarely anything more interesting to do than chase off one of the three whole kinds of enemies who attack you while traversing the overworld.

Godammit, Nintendo.Of course, when Nintendo decides to switch things up on you, you’ll wish they hadn’t. Occasionally the overworld will become peppered with Doom Trains, completely invincible enemies that ride the same tracks as you and will instantly kill you if you collide with them. They perform no function except to waste your time and encourage you to hurry along to the next plot event as quickly as you can manage… something you more or less have to do anyway, because side content in this game is… well, not rare, but rarely worth the effort. It’s not like Majora’s Mask or Wind Waker; if you don’t like the main quest in Spirit Tracks, you don’t like Spirit Tracks. The sidequests don’t do anything to sweeten the pot, being both tedious and annoying. They don’t give you anything except a material reward… there’s a tangent here, but I’ll save it for another post. Secrets and hidden locations are rare thanks to the way the map is unlocked, and they’re rarely worth the effort it takes to hunt them down.

I’ve come to the conclusion that vehicle-based overworlds just don’t work in Zelda games. Reducing a one-expansive world into a few dozen waypoints kills the exploration vibe, where something cool might be found in any cave or under any rock, and any attempt to fix this (as Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks both try, badly, to do) just exacerbates the problem by drawing attention to it. I wanna go about on foot next time, Nintendo.

Still, the main quest here is a fun and humorous enough romp to make the entire game worth the candle, I think. I’m willing to slot the game in as a solid tier two entry — mostly excellent, but with glaring flaws.

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2 Responses to “10 for ’10: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks”


  1. 1 falselogic November 29, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    Ohh! I forgot about Spirit Tracks. I should put it on my Gamefly queue. I played through Phantom Hourglass and while I enjoyed parts of it the central dungeon was not one of them. The boss battles in that game though certainly were! I loved how they utilized the two screens, the touch based movement system and whatever new tool you got in each dungeon to make a fun and memorable battle.

  2. 2 falselogic November 29, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    Ohh! I forgot about Spirit Tracks. I should put it on my Gamefly queue. I played through Phantom Hourglass and while I enjoyed parts of it the central dungeon was not one of them. The boss battles in that game though certainly were! I loved how they utilized the two screens, the touch based movement system and whatever new tool you got in each dungeon to make a fun and memorable battle.


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