NA Release Date: December 7, 2009 (DS)
Playthrough: c. May – June, 2022 (2DS)
Wrapping up our stay in the Adult Timeline is the second release for the NDS, Spirit Tracks. Right or wrong, this game is almost always discussed in the context of its predecessor, Phantom Hourglass. Given how rarely we get two main-line entries for a single console, as well as the unique control scheme the two share, it becomes only natural to compare and contrast between them, so I’d recommend giving the prior entry a read for some context.
Still, ST easily stands out- from really every other game in the franchise- because it has TRAINS. Up until the moment I actually laid hands on this game, I was pretty harshly prejudging it because of the train gimmick. At face value, it seems pretty silly- what on earth is Link doing riding a train, and how could this scrap of an idea possibly sustain a fully-fledged game? ST is fortunately a shining example of the fact that if the game is actually fun to play, you can get away with an awful lot.
There’s a Lot to Love
For much of the game, I actually loved the train mechanic. It was fun to scratch out the route on the map, then briefly just lean in to the ‘Zelda As A Literal On-Rails Shooter’ aspect, blasting rocks and enemies and occasionally trying to catch rabbits (don’t ask…). For maybe two-thirds of the game, these distractions are enough to make locomotive travel fun. The baseline enemies aren’t too difficult, especially when the soundtrack telegraphs their arrival, and even plotting your way around the Dark Trains is fun for a bit. If there’s nothing immediately threatening, you can always play target practice with the rocks.
I must also confess that half the damn fun of driving the train is the overworld theme. This song was completely inspired, using instrumental choices (pan flute, mandolin-like strumming instrument?) that we don’t often hear, as well as having a propulsive melody that just really conveys a sense of wind-in-your-hair adventure. It’s such a perfect fit that it wasn’t until maybe 20+ hours in that I found myself cooling on it- and even then, just a bit. If you’ve never heard it, or it’s been a while, give it a spin:
I’ve read in other places people calling out the soundtrack for this game as one of its strong points, and while I can’t outright disagree, I feel quite strongly that this theme and its variations are doing nearly all the heavy lifting there.
Speaking of pan flutes, I also mostly really enjoyed the musical mechanic of the Spirit Flute. In the past I’ve found the microphone mechanic a little dopey, where the game asks you to speak or yell or whatever, but it turns out just blowing into the mic will register the requisite input. In ST, you’re actually playing an honest-to-god wind instrument, so it makes sense to blow to play it. It’s easy enough to coordinate your breaths with shifting the flute on the touch pad, so this was one of those rare times when the DS hardware was actually immersive in a way that really added some real fun to the game.
Granted… I felt pretty betrayed by the flute bit in the final battle. Zelda insists, in the middle of fighting the Main Bad, that you learn a magical song on the flute to like, defeat him with the power of song or some such notion (we seemed to have stumbled into a Macross story here). Turns out, in a totally fair and reasonable progression of difficulty, that this last duet song has two ‘jumps’ where successive notes are not adjacent on the flute. It also turns out that this was the limit of my competency on the instrument, and so I got to try this song an embarrassing number of times until I got it right to progress the last boss fight :/
Finally, ST did a pretty admirable job of addressing the cardinal sin of PH’s Temple of the Ocean King. By eliminating the need to speed-run all prior floors of the central dungeon (here, the Spirit Tower) upon your periodic returns, and eliminating the time limit, it was so much more enjoyable. Further, in literally making the Spirit Tower at the center of New Hyrule and utilizing the discovery of Rail Maps therein to open up new areas, it actually makes a lot of sense to keep returning there over and over again.
Speaking of the Spirit Tower puzzles, this is as good of a time as any to segue to the actual best thing this game has going for it:
Zelda is a (Thoughtfully Developed, Playable) Character (with Agency!)
Read that title again, and think carefully about how many other games in the series we can say that about? Pretty sure the answer there is ‘none’, and even for its shortcomings we can never take that away from ST. Zelda is given a clear motive (recovering her corporeal form) and answers the call to action by choosing to accompany Link to restore order to New Hyrule. Her motivation is deeply personal, and this is even played for laughs at a few points, but represents real progress for the character after the somewhat wasted potential of Tetra in WW, not to mention the borderline-criminal squandering of her usage in PH.
As Link’s constant companion, we get to see her reaction beat by beat as the story develops, and through the phantom possession mechanic, Zelda (by way of the player) actually exerts her will in a very concrete way on the story. That Link and Zelda work in concert as a team for so much of ST was such a refreshing change of pace and it certainly allows the game to punch above its weight narrative-wise.
Putting aside for a minute the edification we get from having our eponymous princess finally being along for the journey itself, the Phantom possession gimmick is pretty fun. While the path-drawing technique is a little inelegant at times, it allows the player to synchronize execution of a plan with Link and Zelda simultaneously, which is impressive given the simple input scheme. Even though it’s obnoxious, I liked that the Z-Phantom is vulnerable to rats- ditto for her sinking in the sand. These are annoying drawbacks, but the additional constraints add complexity which makes the Spirit Tower puzzles some of the richest and most challenging on a handheld entry that I can recall.
Best of all: as the game goes on, different types of phantoms are introduced, with each one giving Zelda unique abilities. One kind can turn into a boulder, rolling through enemies and stunning other phantoms, one of them can carry Link across lava, yet another can use those vexing Phantom Eyes as warp points. Even though I was pretty sick of the Spirit Tower by the end of the game, mixing in the various types of phantoms with puzzles that required very specific uses of their powers was an excellent finale that proved a true test of the player’s prowess at the co-op puzzles.
Guess I’m No Train-iac…
While I’m doing my best not to re-litigate prior grievances which simply carry over from PH (chiefly, the input scheme), there’s one that I have to call out. The game has an elaborate collectibles scheme with tons of cool treasure to find, but what do you do with it? You buy train parts. These can technically increase your (train) health by one heart for two matching non-Spirit Train cars, and increase it by two if you have the full set (the gold set maxes out at eight hearts). This is a nice buff, but given how limited train combat is for roughly 95% of the game, it was hard to see the point.
Even if you really need/want the health perk though, the designs for the alternate trains were sufficiently gaudy that I was totally turned off. I never went back to see Linebeck III, and I never purchased a single train part, I just rode the stock Spirit Train all the way to the end of the line- as it were. I will say that reducing the number of customizable components from PH’s eight ship parts to just four types of cars seems like the right move. The real money left on the table here though, what would really have made me desperately want to collect these, if they could have made your train go faster in some way. If there was some terminal goal of collecting enough parts that made the train speedier, and the game easier/more fun to play, that would have added a ton of value.
There’s even precedence in the game for this: collecting all 50 rabbits (which, in turn, requires a lot of passenger ferrying to acquire force gems to open up secret railways) eventually rewards you with a swordsman’s scroll. This powers up the Lokomo sword to shoot beams when Link has full health. While I didn’t bother personally, this is a real actual reward for your trouble that feels approximately proportionate to the effort invested to acquire it. The train parts don’t have any complementary function, and their questionable design aesthetic really pulled me out of the world (or… would have, if I’d bothered to ever buy any).
Weaving A Story
Something that can be easy to overlook while you’re feeling bad about your pan flute skills, or going insane from boredom due to the glacial pace of your train, is that ST has a sneaky-good story. Hearkening back to my initial skepticism concerning the relevance of trains to Zelda, the game’s narrative has a surprisingly succinct and plausible explanation: the creator-gods of this land, the Spirits of Good, devised a prison for their arch foe, Malladus; the Spirit Tracks keep him bound deep underground, and the Spirit Tower is the linchpin of this whole system. If the tracks are now this sacred, very crucial, unalterable aspect of the landscape, it sort of follows that the people who live there might adapt them for some use.
It’s not Shakespeare, but at least there’s a justification for the existence of this somewhat arbitrary thing. It also rationalizes the time-honored Zelda trope of locking out some areas of the game until the player progresses far enough to open them (via the Rail Maps) somewhat better than the basic ‘broken bridge’ bit we find in other games (though that scheme is also used here…).
The characters the game gives us are no slouches either. Zelda was discussed some prior, but it’s worth pointing out again she was really given quite a bit of depth. Yes, she’s scared of rats, and apprehensive about going on the journey, but also at the very start of the game she gives Link a reassuring smile during the induction ceremony and brushes Cole off when he objects. Even before she needed his help to recover her body, Zelda truly seems to be a genuinely kind and warm person.
Another subplot I enjoyed was the internal politics of the Lokomos. Byrne, as the former apprentice of Anjean, Link and Zelda’s Lokomo guide, basically turns to the dark side driven by his lust for power. He eventually returns to battle his old mentor on behalf of Cole at a crucial point in the story. It’s all pretty good stuff, even if it’s basically a straight Star Wars bit- right down to Byrne having a change of heart at the final moment and stepping in to help Link and Zelda against
Emperor Palpatine Malladus. For his heroism, Byrne is killed by the demon spirit on the spot. This struck me, since we don’t often see people killed outright in these games (with some notable exceptions). Even though it’s something of a Disney Death, it gave the final battle some real stakes, and Byrne a well-defined character arc.
Winner: Song of Healing
I suppose some folks might complain that this makes the game too easy, but I liked it. Essentially all of the dungeons and Spirit Tower levels have enough healing items that there’s no need for it normally, but on thorny bosses with mechanics that took some time to figure out, it was nice to have this ace in your pocket to keep from having to mess with a Game Over and just beat them on the first try.
Loser: Malladus and Cole
Neither one of them had hardly any development. Malladus has barely any lines in the script, and is only described as being some ‘Demon King’ who ‘destroys everything.’ For how well fleshed out lots of other characters were, this seems like a big miss, to basically ignore the primary antagonist. Cole isn’t much better, but at least has an interesting character design and distinctive music. Would have been neat to know more about what made him decide to break bad and set about resurrecting Malladus.
These guys were neat. The gimmick that they’re always tooling around in these cute little cars was an interesting nod to their names and the train theme. I don’t know that the reasoning for it was ever explained, though Anjean is shown to have legs/feet at the end… Speaking of Anjean, how about when she just outright hands you a totally badass sword near the end of the game? I really liked the design of the Lokomo Sword- it was a cool riff on the classic Master Sword silhouette but also has some nice homages to distinctive ST elements: the tracks themselves on the blade, the gear-like motif on the crossguard, and a force gem set right in the center.
Loser: Me, Trying to Finish This Game.
The part in the Dark Realm where you need to use the Tears of Light to kill all the armored trains wasn’t bad, but wow it is so much easier when you realize pulling the train horn makes you insanely fast. Where
I did have a terrible, terrible time was the first phase of the Malladus battle where Zelda needs to be protected from the meteor things. It was kindof sad, because I’d mostly been enjoying my time with ST, but this final gauntlet and my repeated failure to get the my hands and the stylus and the damn resistive touch screen to all work at precisely the same time burned away any last vestige of patience for this control scheme that I may have had left. A remaster of these games with stick/button combat would instantly make them immeasurably more fun…
Just have a real soft spot for this guy. A dude obsessed with trains who spends his days running around a world covered in train tracks to take train photos eventually enlists Link to take him on train rides so he can pursue his train-related interests. My man is living his best life.
Loser: Arrow Aimers
Putting aside the fact that these seemingly passive objects violate momentum conservation, they also make for pretty crummy puzzles. So many times their associated rooms require them to be placed at the correct height to hit a given target, but the 3/4 vantage point makes discerning depth frustratingly difficult and so I felt like I was always struggling against that ambiguity…
Moving forward, leaving behind the cursed control scheme of the NDS games is a real albatross off my shoulders, to be sure… but I find myself pleasantly surprised that I’ll miss ST a bit. This game had a real wealth of charm and uniqueness to it. The originality of the concept coupled with the Zelda co-op segments make it hard to really stay too mad at this game, even if some parts could get frustrating and tedious.
Unlike a certain unnamed NDS Zelda game, if/when I return to the Adult Timeline again, I am sincerely looking forward to getting out on the rails of New Hyrule again eventually. There are even slight variations in the post-credits cinematic depending on how you answer Zelda’s “what will you do after” question, which is a fun touch and something new for the next time out.
Majora’s Mask (2DS)