The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS)
I treat Zelda games like I treat my mom. It's not like I don't love my mom. I do. But I barely ever call her. I barely ever call anybody. But I should make the effort, you know? After all the nice things she's done for me over the years -- the nice things she continues to do for me -- I really ought to just pick up the phone and say, "thanks."
Just recently the Game Trust got on a tear about Nintendo games. About how they're not as good as they used to be. That may be true. In the midst of the argument I remembered my review of The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass. I thought maybe I'd been too kind to the game -- let the fog of nostalgia cloud my critical eye. Then I started playing The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. It was like settling into the comfortable embrace of a friend.
At first The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks feels samey in a way that makes me resentful. Link meets a mentor. He leaves home. He goes to a castle. He learns to fight. He gets a sword. Yawn. But then he gets a train. And out of the station the controls seem overly simple. Go. Go faster. Stop. Backwards. If you trace your route on the map, the game automatically flips the track switches for you. Jeez, I think, looks like I'm going to be tooling around Hyrule on autopilot. I couldn't have been more wrong.
Fast-forward a handful of hours. My time in the engine is a white-knuckle experience. I'm barreling toward a fork in the track with two giant, bullet-shaped monster trains bearing down on me. My passenger is nearly at the end of his rope, angry at me because I threw my train into reverse at full speed to avoid being devoured by a steaming steel beast. It doesn't help that my train has just been peppered by a dive-bombing creep -- each impact further worsening my passenger's mood. I hang a quick left at the fork, narrowly missing my pursuers. I run a gauntlet of angry snowmen -- they throw their heads at me. I return fire with cannonballs, nailing the noggins first, then the bodies. I pull into the station, making sure to slow gradually and stop square with the station. A bad parking job here could be the final straw. Luckily I nail the approach, and my passenger leaves shaken but happy.
Later I pick up a load of fish, hoping to sell it at a profit in another town. But before I return to my train I realize that a new venue has opened up to me, thanks to the new equipment I've just acquired.
I'd noticed birds circling earlier, gripping trapeze bars between their talons. I equip my orange, serpentine bullwhip and lash it toward the nearest bird. The snake's mouth clamps onto the rod and I swing out over the water. The bird carries me toward new islands, where treasure and who knows what else awaits. But as I explore these new areas, a tiny counter pops up. The number of fish in my train's storage compartment has just dropped from 20 to 19. I'd been warned that birds might take a liking to my fishy cargo. But I hadn't realized they'd poach my load at the station. By the time I make it back to the train, the birds have cleaned me out.
All the action, intrigue and distractions of riding the rails aren't what most would expect from a Zelda game. As for all the stuff you're expecting? It's not all perfect. The Hyrule overworld is damn ugly on the Nintendo DS. Parts of it feel like a Disney dark ride -- rows of trees, merely flats, stand what seems a foot or so out from a painted backdrop. It's like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride with spiders that'll give you a rupee if you whack 'em just right.
But all this is just in-between stuff. It's merely the iron thread that sews the dungeons together. And every time you're underground, the game kicks all kinds of ass. Sometimes you're crawling with the ghost of Princess Zelda at your side. Under the right circumstance, she can possess those hulking suits of armor. Then you're responsible for both Link and Phantom Zelda. The puzzles that you solve while wrangling this duo are some of the best in the game.
Link also travels solo -- plumbing other depths with only his own wits to save him. You move Link by dragging the stylus around the dungeon; you slash the stylus to attack. Only occasionally do I feel frustrated. I'm not entirely sure I've mastered the most powerful slash attack. But I get by. I like the way Link's weapons work: Trace a line across the floor and his boomerang will follow the path. Tap a hook and Link will whip his bullwhip out, latch on, and swing across an empty chasm. One or two bits of the arsenal feel gimmicky. I hate having to blow into the DS to use Link's pan flute. Same goes for the whirlwind attack. If I want to huff and puff, I'll walk to the liquor store.
But there I go again. Being resentful, despite all the good stuff the game has done for me. One night I stayed up way too late trying to get to the next dungeon. Not because I had a review due, but because I was legitimately jonesing to tackle more puzzles -- to loot more chests and find more goodies. I probably don't say this enough, so here goes. Thank you, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. Thanks for trains, treasure, rupees, whips and boomerangs. Thanks for Princess Zelda doing more than waiting to be rescued. Thanks for being kinda different, and thanks for mostly being the same. Thanks for cutting the crusts off my bologna sandwich. I promise I'll call more often. Honest.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game for the provided by the publisher.