Second only to Mario, The Legend of Zelda series is one of the biggest titles in Nintendo’s stable, if not the entirety of gaming. Just saying the name, The Legend of Zelda, brings an air of gravitas. It’s not just a fantasy or a quest, it’s a legend. With The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks the adventure comes to the Nintendo DS for a second time.
The game opens with a young Link setting off to Hyrule Castle for a graduation ceremony to become a full-fledged train engineer. Following the ceremony Princess Zelda asks Link to help her sneak out of the castle. One thing leads to another and Zelda’s spirit ends up being ripped from her body. It’s up to Link to stop a nefarious plot and to reunite the princess’s flesh and soul.
The world of Spirit Tracks is covered in train tracks. Gone are the familiar over world maps from previous Zelda games. Instead, Link uses a system of train rails, called Spirit Tracks, to travel between towns and dungeons. Leaving a town brings up a rail map on the touch screen where the player can then plot out a path along the rails to their destination. Once a course has been plotted and the train is underway, the player can use the stylus to increase or decrease the train’s speed, blow the whistle to scare animals off the track, or change course at crossroads in order to avoid collisions with other trains. But this isn’t a train simulator, and later Link is given a cannon to defend himself from marauding monsters.
The game is controlled almost entirely by the stylus with the buttons on the DS, largely serving as shortcuts for functions still accessible through touch screen menus. Players tap the screen to make Link move to a desired location, or hold the stylus down to make him continuously run in that direction. Tapping twice in quick succession makes him do a quick roll, handy for dodging attacks, and swiping the stylus across an enemy makes Link attack. Even Link’s trademark spin attack is available by drawing a quick circle around the character.
As in previous games the gameplay is centered on discovering and exploring dungeons. Each dungeon is built around puzzles and challenges that present the player with a new weapon or tool that in turn is used to defeat the boss and explore new areas. Subsequent dungeons often make use of items found in previous ones. This, of course, is the classic Zelda gameplay formula. As with everything else, the items gained in the dungeons are specially designed for the touch screen: arrows are aimed with a tap of the screen, paths are drawn for boomerangs, and a quick succession of taps lets Link traverse chasms with a whip, ala Indiana Jones. But the use of the DS hardware doesn’t stop there; the whirlwind item has the players aim with the stylus and then blow into the microphone to create powerful gusts of wind. Players also use the stylus and microphone to play the Spirit Flute, a magical instrument that casts spells with different songs. From time to time the player is also able to control Zelda by directing her to possess certain monsters and statues thereby allowing Link to solve puzzles and reach new areas.
The sound and music of Spirit Tracks are just what you would expect from a new Zelda game. The sound effects are crisp and clear with new effects joining the classic jingles and sounds from previous titles. The soundtrack brings up similar feelings of nostalgia with familiar themes surfacing in the music.
Graphically Spirit Tracks is fantastic. The cell-shaded look from Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass returns once again and it is clear that the graphical style is perfectly suited to the DS. The vibrant colors and clean lines read well on the handheld screen, and the characters are large enough to be full of life and emotion without taking up too much real estate. The animations are just as full of life and character. To put it lightly, the graphics are nothing short of charming.
All of this comes together in a game that is worthy of the Legend of Zelda name. While the controls can be frustrating at times and the save system could be a little more forgiving, there is nothing to keep Spirit Tracks from becoming a classic on the DS and a memorable entry in the revered series. If you own a DS, you owe it to yourself to at least check this game out.