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Spirit Tracks: The Little Zelda That Could

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The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is similar to Majora’s Mask in more ways than one. Both are games that were developed at the end of their respective console’s life cycle, reusing assets from the last mainline Zelda while fleshing out concepts & mechanics introduced in their immediate predecessors. Spirit Tracks and Majora’s Mask recognize their individual similarities to Phantom Hourglass and Ocarina of Time respectively. Neither game is “more of the same.” Where Ocarina is a fantasy epic that redefined 3D gaming, Majora’s Mask is an introspective title that intentionally makes its audience uncomfortable. Where Phantom Hourglass juggles being a Wind Waker sequel and the first Zelda game on the DS, Spirit Tracks goes out of its way to make the most out of the hardware. 

Phantom Hourglass’ greatest fault is that it ultimately feels like a tech demo. Link controls nicely, but most mechanics inherent to the system are implemented superficially. Closing the handheld mid-game, blowing into the microphone to clear a map, and watching the top screen to scout a vantage point show off what the DS can do, but that’s it. Sailing returns from The Wind Waker, but on an incredibly basic level that forfeits most mechanical depth. There are eight full dungeons, but seven of which can be comfortably completed in less than half an hour. It feels like Phantom Hourglass is just crossing off a checklist most of the time. 

Spirit Tracks has more than its share of design flaws, but it makes use of the DS hardware more elegantly than Phantom Hourglass. For starters, Spirit Tracks can’t take refuge in the fact that it’s the first DS Zelda. PH might feel like a tech demo, but it’s easy to give it a pass. After all, Nintendo was trying something entirely brand new and in a bold way at that. Ditching conventional controls for touch was a risk, but it lends Phantom Hourglass an essential hook that drives the experience. To keep itself distinct, Spirit Tracks makes three key changes: rebalancing touch controls, replacing sailing, and introducing an alternative playable character to Link. 

While the gameplay is fundamentally the same between PH and ST, the latter’s combat & movement have been slightly retooled. Instead of making small circles at the edge of the screen to make Link roll, you now need to tap the screen twice. In Phantom Hourglass, tapping caused Link to lunge at enemies. Although this is still the case, revamped controls turn a missed stab into a roll. Your actions need to be far more deliberate during combat as a result. Randomly tapping at the screen is now a recipe for disaster. 

Phantom Hourglass’ items are fun to use, but they’re also all similar in function. The Boomerang, Grappling Hook, and Bombchu require you to draw a path while the Hammer and Shovel make you tap the screen. Spirit Tracks’ items actually make you use the DS in different ways. The Whirlwind is a literal leaf-blower that lets you create a gust of wind by breathing into the microphone. Using the Whip to swing from post to post requires tapping the screen at the right time to make sure Link doesn’t plummet. The brand new Sand Rod allows you to manipulate sand with the Stylus, adding a considerable amount of depth to block puzzles in the Sand Temple. 

Spirit Tracks’ enemies tend to be designed around items just as much as the sword. Even though the Whirlwind and Whip might seem like puzzle items at first glance, the former can be used to dizzy some foes or gust them into a bottomless pit, while the Whip stuns larger enemies and outright kills smaller ones with enough hits. The Whip can also rip away a Geozard’s Shield, removing their defenses completely. Bombs make a comeback, killing Stalfos in a single blow; the Bow & Arrow is eventually upgraded into the Light Bow which now has a charge attack, and drawing a path for the Boomerang is as smooth as ever. 

Bosses make the best use out of items in the game, toeing a very thin line between being puzzle fights and genuinely tense duels to the death. Fraaz requires Link to counter his fire and ice magic with the opposite element (similar to the Twinrova battle in Ocarina of Time,) but you need to quickly use your Boomerang to draw a path through the correct flame into Fraaz. As the battle progresses, your timing needs to be faster & faster, or else you’ll get hit. While fighting Phytops, you need to rip its thorns out with the Whip and fling it into its eyes to blind it. Against Cragma, you have to shoot all his weak points with Arrows while riding a minecart around his giant body. Every dungeon ends on a high note in ST

There aren’t as many dungeons as in Phantom Hourglass (capping out at a total of six,) but they’re more memorable on account of better item variety. Dungeons themselves are still too short, but strong visual identities and (much) better music keep them above the World of the Ocean King’s dull offerings. Spirit Tracks even has its own version of the Temple of the Ocean King – the Tower of Spirits. It’s debatable whether or not the Tower is actually any better than the Temple, but ST does have one clear advantage: Princess Zelda. 

Defying series tradition, Princess Zelda serves as Link’s partner throughout the game. Not just that, she’s actually playable. After losing her body at the start of the story, Zelda spends the rest of the game a spirit by Link’s side. While she sits out most dungeons, Zelda can possess Phantoms inside the Tower of Spirits. And unlike Link, she isn’t guided by the Stylus to move. Instead, you need to draw her a path that she follows. Zelda strikes any enemies she walks by, chats up other Phantoms so Link can sneak around, and gets a sizable amount of play time inside the Tower of Spirits. 

Virtually every puzzle involves Zelda in some capacity. She’s naturally stronger than Link as a Phantom, allowing her to push large blocks or help him open heavy doors. Zelda can walk through lava, carry Link on her shield, and obliterate boulders that would flatten the hero. Zelda can also possess different types of Phantoms with their own unique abilities. Fire Phantoms come equipped with a flame sword that can light torches and illuminate dark rooms; Rolling Phantoms curl up into a ball to move, destroying everything in their path; and Warp Phantoms can teleport between Phantom Eyes to reach rooms otherwise locked out to Link. 

Zelda’s weight as a Phantom means she sinks in the sand and will be caught by Key Masters in hot pursuit. You need to keep an eye on her at all times – she isn’t a superfluous part of gameplay. Link needs to work in tandem with Zelda, with you the player often needing to control both at the same time. It’s satisfying to see Zelda be an active participant in the game, fighting beside Link for a change. She has her own gameplay quirks, as well. Zelda will freeze in terror if a mouse walks by her, and yell at Link if he stands in her way while she’s moving. She’s just as much the main character as Link and the Tower of Spirits serves to reinforce that notion through gameplay. 

Unlike with the Temple of the Ocean King, there is no time limit for the Tower of Spirits. You aren’t expected to repeat any floors either, even though Link & Zelda will be visiting the Tower in-between every dungeon. This keeps each trip to the Tower of Spirits a fresh experience, one where players are actually allowed to take their time. This in turn allows the Tower to make use of harder puzzles than the Temple while maintaining the spotlight on dense dungeon crawling. Notes lose some of their value without repeat visits, but there’s still plenty of note-taking (especially on later floors.) Most importantly, completing a full block in the Tower of Spirits unlocks new areas of the world map.

Spirit Tracks replaces the S.S. Linebeck with a steam train. Link no longer sets sail on the open sea, instead driving his way through New Hyrule. Overworld traversal is still on rails, but at least justifiably now. The Spirit Train is the most magitech the franchise has ever gotten, but that suits a game set a century after The Wind Waker. New Hyrule is poorly named, but it’s an advanced kingdom with technology that’s still unique for The Legend of Zelda

Where Linebeck did all the sailing in Phantom Hourglass, Link maneuvers the Spirit Train through a Control Gear. Link can start the train, stop it, speed up, and reverse. All you need to do is adjust the gear accordingly on-screen. It’s not much in terms of gripping gameplay, but it’s more engaging than sailing in the World of the Ocean King. Link also has a whistle he can pull to scare animals off the tracks, and players have the opportunity to change direction at upcoming turns. 

For the conductor who doesn’t want to drive their train, you can plan out an entire route on the overworld map – turns and all. The only thing you need to keep an eye out for is enemies to pelt with Bombs, otherwise, the Spirit Train simply stays on course. Visually, riding the train has more aesthetic variety than sailing. While The Great Sea had a day & night cycle that changed the ocean’s color while sailing, Phantom Hourglass’ sailing is completely static. Save for one area with fog, it’s sunny skies for most of the game. 

Spirit Tracks has Link exploring four diverse biomes – the Forest, Snow, Ocean, and Fire Realms – all of which are visually distinct with their own local flora and fauna. The Ocean Realm even has a dessert hidden within that can only be accessed through the Fire Realm, making up a hidden Sand Realm. By completing side quests, players can actually unlock new Rails to drive on, allowing you to explore more of each Realm. NPCs all over the world request Link’s services. Most reward Force Gems which often create shortcuts, open up new areas, and generally just make overworld traversal a smoother experience.  

Unfortunately, it’s here where Spirit Tracks starts to stumble. Sailing in Phantom Hourglass was bland, but the World of the Ocean King was rich in collectibles with side quests to go with them. Spirit Tracks’ New Hyrule is visually distinct and the train gives it a unique personality, but the side quests are rough. NPCs only ever need Link to escort them to another station or deliver goods to another town. This culminates in a lot more trainplay than is really necessary. Worse is how monotonous the escorting process is. 

You actually need to abide by traffic laws if you have a passenger on board. If a passenger gets too upset, they’ll roll out of the train and give you a scolding. Link is expected to slow down at slow signs, speed up when appropriate, and never reverse suddenly. Enemies will aggro the Spirit Train with higher frequency, upsetting passengers if they get to the train. You need to keep a constant eye out for any possible obstacles all while babying someone’s mood. Repeat this process 20 times and that’s Spirit Tracks’ side quest system. 

The Spirit Train is slow enough as is, but needing to obey traffic laws makes travel even slower. Certain enemies like the Dark Train also kill you in a single hit while changing course sporadically. It’s not unusual to have to reroute just to save Link and his passenger from getting annihilated. It is time-consuming, however, and gets boring long before New Hyrule is fully industrialized. What’s especially disappointing is that Spirit Tracks’ other side quests aren’t much better. 

Rabbits can be found hiding behind boulders in the overworld. Once their hiding place has been blown up, you go into a catching mini-game. You need to tap the screen in order to drop a net on the rabbit, but their erratic hops mean you need to tap where they’re going to be next, not where they are. It’s a fun mini-game that nets Link the Sword Beam once every rabbit has been collected, but Spirit Tracks once again overindulges. There are 50 rabbits to collect, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but feels like it when there’s so much overworld to unlock and traverse. 

While Phantom Hourglass could reward players with Heart Containers, Spirit Gems, Treasure, or even Ship Parts, Spirit Tracks is very reserved with its rewards. Aside from Force Gems, don’t expect anything other than the rare Heart or Rupees. Train Parts can only be obtained from Linebeck III’s Trading Post now and the entire Spirit Gem upgrade system has been scrapped. Instead, players are intended to collect Stamps from all around New Hyrule. Doing so unlocks the Hero of Winds’ Shield from Phantom Hourglass, Link’s conductor’s outfit from the beginning of the game, and the Great Spin Attack. Stamps offer interesting rewards, but they’re nowhere as satisfying to find as Spirit Gems.

Spirit Tracks has a side quest problem, but optional content can be ignored at the end of the day. Just following the main story, New Hyrule never overstays its welcome and the plot even moves at a refreshingly steady pace for The Legend of Zelda. The game does hit several roadblocks in the form of the Spirit Flute, however – an instrument with the same in-game importance the Ocarina of Time had in its eponymous game. Where the Ocarina was implemented flawlessly, the Flute is desperately in need of polish. 

Playing the Flute isn’t difficult in theory. Simply blow into the mic and move the Stylus across the flute so Link hits the right notes. There are six pipes, all of which color-coordinated, and songs only require players to hit notes in the right order – no worries about pitch or pacing. Learnable songs are even fairly useful. The Song of Awakening activates statues, the Song of Discovery uncovers hidden objects, and the Song of Healing nets Link a free heal once per dungeon. The real issues lie with the Lokomo Duets. 

In order to access each dungeon, Link must perform a duet with one of the ancient Lokomos – New Hyrule’s version of Sages. Each Lokomo will teach Link a few notes that he’ll then need to perform “flawlessly” during the duet in order to access a new set of rails. Timing is key during duets, but the microphone has a habit of locking up if you blow too hard. The DS mic’s oversensitivity means you need to use light puffs to keep any mic-play consistent. This isn’t an issue for most DS games because most titles on the system don’t use the mic for long periods of time. Spirit Tracks’ duets are lengthy enough where unsavvy players will lock their mic without realizing. 

Between nailing the timing for each note, moving the Stylus from pipe to pipe, and actually blowing into the mic, it’s very easy to mess up a duet on the Spirit Flute. This issue is only exacerbated by playing on the 3DS or Wii U, whose microphones are even worse than the Nintendo DS’. If you aren’t playing on original hardware, you’re better off grabbing a headset with a built-in microphone – it’ll work far better and with more consistency. Even then, duets are just pace breakers. It’s admirable Nintendo wanted to use the DS’ microphone in a meaningful manner, but duets are so poorly implemented, the Flute should have been scrapped outright. 

The actual nuances behind playing the Flute deserve particular criticism. Solos are simple enough and implemented respectably. Duets do not explain to players the visual cues they should be following, nor does your timing have to be all that accurate. If you forget a note, it’s safer to blindly blow into the mic than do nothing. You actually can’t start playing until the camera settles on Link, with the bubbles that pop out of pipes signifying how well you’re doing. If multiple bubbles pop out, you’re hit the right note. If it’s just one, you somehow messed up. How, though, the Lokomos won’t bother letting you know. If you’re struggling with a song, it’s up to you to figure out why. 

Not helping Lokomo Duets are the fact that they fulfill a similar function to the Tower of Spirits. Both unlock new areas of the overworld to explore, but completing an entire set of floors in the latter is a triumph. Getting through a duet is a relief. That said, the Tower tragically has the opposite problem Phantom Hourglass had with the Temple of the Ocean King: it starts strong but ends weak. Visiting the Tower of Spirits and controlling Zelda is engaging the first few go-arounds, but it loses its luster by the midway point. Visits keep getting longer and longer, to the point where Spirit Tracks’ pace grinds to a screeching halt during the final dungeon. 

After Link and Zelda have seemingly cleared the Tower of Spirits for the last time, they learn that there’s a hidden set of floors guarding the Compass of Light. The final stretch of the Tower is exhaustingly long and outstays its welcome before you even hit the halfway point. The game has short dungeons across the board, so the presence of a longer one should be a good thing, but it’s too much right at the end of the very end. A good final dungeon serves as a to-the-point test of your mastery over the game. The Tower of Spirits is an endurance match that tests your patience. 

The last stretch doesn’t hold back either, featuring a massive dark room you need to learn how to navigate and several Phantom puzzles that demand constant backtracking. Half of the final dungeon is spent tracking down keys that only lead to a more elaborate set of Phantom puzzles. In a particularly disappointing twist, Spirit Tracks’ ultimate weapon – the Lokomo Sword – is just handed over to Link before the grand finale as well. For all its faults, Phantom Hourglass had Link trekking through three dungeons in order to find materials to forge the Phantom Sword. All the build-up made finally being able to cut down Phantoms immensely satisfying. Spirit Tracks can’t have paid off for build-up that isn’t there, so the Lokomo Sword carries no weight. 

What’s worse is that Phantom Hourglass made the last two trips through the Temple of the Ocean King arguably the best set pieces in the game. It takes a while for the Temple to get interesting and really let you experiment, but when it does, it’s the best part of Phantom Hourglass. Spirit Tracks lacks that sense of growth, where you’re able to plow through obstacles that once gave you trouble. You didn’t earn the Lokomo Sword, it turns out there’s more to a dungeon that was seemingly over, and the climax is put on hold for yet another trip to the Tower of Spirits. 

If nothing else, the actual final boss and ending highlight what Spirit Tracks excels at most: presentation. The soundtrack is much better & more varied than Phantom Hourglass’, character models are more expressive with action-packed cutscenes a regular occurrence, and the story does an excellent job building up the final confrontation. The main antagonist isn’t the beastly Malladus, but Chancellor Cole – Princess Zelda’s advisor who’s essentially usurped control of the kingdom by the start of the game. Cole kills Zelda very early into the story, stealing her body to be Malladus’ host. 

Link does most of the heavy lifting, but Zelda’s by his side every single step of the way. Where Zelda initially believes she won’t be much help to Link, she’s instrumental in saving New Hyrule and stopping Cole. Zelda even has to earn her body back in a trial by fire. While Link protects her from Cole’s attacks, Zelda takes Malladus’ power head-on – marching towards him while the demon tries to kill her. Zelda gets to wield the Light Bow in the final battle after she gets her body back and Malladus possesses Cole, with you actually controlling when she shoots. 

The final battle is a team effort that puts Princess Zelda in the spotlight. She even shares the killing blow with Link. Not strong enough to finish off Malladus himself, Zelda rushes over and helps Link drive the Lokomo Sword into the demon. Spirit Tracks ends with New Hyrule saved, the Lokomo leaving the world of man, and Link & Zelda holding hands. Malladus isn’t an easy final boss either, arguably the hardest gameplay challenge between Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks. The spike in difficulty is jarring, but it’s not unwelcome by any means. Like Majora’s Mask, Spirit Tracks uses the fact most fans will have played its predecessor to its advantage. 

At the end of the day, though, Spirit Tracks is a more uneven game than Phantom Hourglass. It has much higher highs and improves upon PH in meaningful ways, but the Temple of Spirits, Spirit Train, and Spirit Flute all leave too much to be desired. The Temple gets worse as the game goes on; the Spirit Train gets boring, and the Spirit Flute never gets engaging. These are the core gimmicks that define gameplay and they don’t work well. But the actual controls are tighter than Phantom Hourglass’, the story gives Zelda her best character arc yet, and the main dungeons are all incredibly fun thanks to a great set of items. 

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks tries and fails where it matters most, but at least it tries. The Temple of Spirits becomes a chore, but it’s also the first dungeon that’s ever asked players to control Zelda – and she’s damn fun to play as too. The Spirit Train is aggressively overused, but stick to the main story and you’ll think it’s the series’ best transportation system yet. The Spirit Flute has a high learning curve that’s made worse by playing on newer hardware, but how many DS games let you emulate a pan flute? 

Not every Zelda game breaks the mold and most that try ultimately play it safe in some capacity. Spirit Tracks doesn’t. It takes bold gameplay pioneered by Phantom Hourglass and adds its own unique twists that haven’t been done anywhere else in the franchise. Spirit Tracks is far from the best title in the series, but its ambition and resolve to be something truly different makes it one of the most respectable Zelda games ever made. 

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and The Legend of Zelda, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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