Experience Nintendo Tour: The Legend of Zelda Spirit Tracks

by: Sean Colleli -
After cooperatively battling the Koopa horde in New Super Mario Bros Wii, John and Chuck took turns with Wii Fit Plus, while Janie handed me a DSi loaded up with The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. The demo they had on hand was the same one from PAX, but I had yet to play the game or even seriously research it. While little of the core gameplay has changed since Phantom Hourglass, there are a few significant additions that go a long way to making Spirit Tracks feel more like a real Zelda game.

I’ve never made it a secret that I was pretty disappointed in Phantom Hourglass, and a lot of it had to do with the control scheme. Scribbling on the touch screen to do everything, from using items to swordplay to just moving Link around, got tiring very quickly. It also trickled down into the dungeon design, taking the focus off of logical, sequential puzzle solving and putting it on pace-breaking and often arbitrary stylus use. Like most long-time Nintendo gamers I have a kind of instinct that guides me through Zelda dungeons and even Metroid games, but after spending hours with Phantom Hourglass, wandering in circles, particularly in the aggravatingly redundant phantom dungeon, my wrist cramped up and I went back to playing Link to the Past on my GBA.

It’s a real shame because I wanted to enjoy Phantom Hourglass but it clearly wasn’t designed for Zelda fans, it was designed for new Zelda fans, and I know a lot of those newcomers loved it. Well, if anything I’m persistent, so I wrung as much time out of the Spirit Tracks demo as I could.

First, the good. The dungeon I played around with flowed a lot smoother than the start-and-stop ones in Phantom Hourglass. I wasn’t lugging a giant key everywhere I went, or hiding Solid Snake-style from roving phantoms; in fact, I was controlling one. That’s right, possibly the most annoying enemy in Zelda history (currently tied with that bottle-stealing buzzard in Majora’s Mask) is actually an ally in this game, almost a pet for Link. You guide your phantom with, what else, paths drawn with the stylus, and he can go at least anywhere Link can get to. As in the previous game he’s nigh-indestructible, but that’s useful this time because he can block fire jets and wade through lava, with Link riding on his back.

All of the puzzles I encountered used this strange form of teamwork, and it was quite satisfying once I started thinking out of the traditional Zelda box. Swapping between Link and his phantom at will, moving them to different locations to flip switches or avoid hazards…this persistent coordination sucked my into the dungeon more than any Zelda game in quite some time. It’s this kind of innovating that I wish they’d done in Phantom Hourglass, stuff that sets me out of my comfort zone but puts a smile on my face once I puzzle it out.

Unfortunately the stylus still controls everything. I know Nintendo wanted to keep the controls bonehead simple for people who’ve never picked up a Zelda game, but why can’t I use the D-pad to move Link? We’ve had D-pads since at least the NES, I’m sure the majority of Nintendo’s new baby boomer audience played with an old NES controller back in the day and knows how to work a D-pad. They could at least include it as an option for more experienced players; the current control scheme has D-pad direction up open the map, with all the other directions and face buttons left unused, so it’s not like they couldn’t accommodate such a layout.

My main issue with the controls is congestion—with everything controlled by the stylus it’s easy to get confused. I always have a hard time moving Link in a direction and scribbling his little sword moves at the same time. Thankfully your pet phantom follows you around and will quite effectively wipe out any nearby enemies on his own, but I’d still like Link to be a more capable fighter.

Once the dungeon segment abruptly ended—Nintendo demos tend to time out right when things are getting interesting—I selected the boss battle from the main menu. This part was pure Zelda. The series is known for its creative and often humorous boss fights, and this time I was squaring off against a giant, well-rendered and cel shaded beetle. Its butt was pouring out noxious purple smoke and also happened to be its weak spot, and the only way for Link to deal damage was to remove the smoke first. In the dungeon, I’d acquired a pot that let me shoot air, similar to the Gust Jar in Minish Cap, except to use I had to blow into the DS mic.

After I cleared the smoke and landed a few good strikes the beetle took to the air, occasionally spitting out spiky, explosive worms. The worms curled up when slashed, and if I timed it right I could use the air pot to direct them into the beetle’s face via small whirlwinds. One it took a few blasts to the mandible the beetle fell, rewarding me with a staple Zelda treasure chest. The fight was fun, sufficiently challenging and original—the best kind of Zelda boss battle.

The final segment available was a train sequence, the gameplay the game derives its title from. Link’s adorable little train can be set to chug down the tracks at varying speeds, with a bomb-firing cannon for defense against raiding bokoblins riding their trademark pigs. Like Phantom Hourglass’s boat segments, you tap the touch screen to fire bombs while the top screen displays a map of the track. At key moments you’ll have to choose between branching paths to avoid colliding with other trains running at the same time, so it’s a good idea to glance at the map ahead of time.

I managed to direct Link’s choo-choo (seriously, I can’t talk about it in non-cute terms) for a few minutes and then entered a dark cave, where a large spider with an eyeball in its mouth started chasing me—I’m guessing it was a Ghoma. I landed a number of square hits with my cannon but once again the demo timed out and dumped me back on the title screen.

I’m having a hard time getting excited about the whole train thing. I’m sure it’s significant to the story but without any context, it’s just a different, slightly clunkier mode of transport than the boat. It still takes way too long to get where you’re going, there isn’t much to do along the way other than shoot at enemies, and you can’t alter your course as much as you could in the boat. I applaud Nintendo for doing something different but on-rails travel between dungeons isn’t very interesting. A big part of Zelda’s appeal is the aimless exploration of wandering through whatever land you find yourself in, stumbling across hidden items, caves full of treasure or quests off the beaten path.

I knew I’d have mixed feelings about Spirit Tracks and so far, I still do, though I’m a lot more optimistic. The dungeons and boss fights look promising but the train section falls flat. I’ve wanted a portable Zelda I could sink my teeth into ever since Minish Cap, but for now it looks like the real deal will remain on the Wii while the DS gets the casual stuff. At least Spirit Tracks isn’t what I initially predicted—a Zelda rail shooter. And it has more of what I love about the Zelda series and less of the unfocused, random and forced elements from Phantom Hourglass.

Most important though, is that Spirit Tracks has one gimmick this time that works—I’m intrigued by the pet phantom and the small taste I got makes me want a lot more. It looks like they got the DS experimenting out of the way last time, and now they can focus on a new idea for the series and really make it sparkle.
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