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This is a reason to buy a DS for those who don’t have one. And an excuse to find/dust off/unbox the handheld for hardcore gamers who do.
Above: Time to root around your sock drawer for that DS
Just process that for a second. We all know Nintendo’s little machine is shovelware central just now. But Link’s disarming, consistently clever RPG adventure, which is chock-full of ingenious puzzles and bosses so big they sometimes fill both screens, is honestly good enough to convince you to buy one. No mean feat for a game about a kid who rides trains in green pyjamas for 20 hours.
But before we tell you exactly why this is one of the best DS games of 2009, lets get the plot bit out of the way first. Set a generation after its predecessor Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks sees you explore a completely new world with your favourite elf-esque, tunic-clad hero. Unlike previous games, though, Princess Zelda is no longer the useless damsel in distress.
Y’see, about an hour or so into the game, the usually dainty royal figure becomes somewhat of a badass ghost, after Chancellor Cole, the game’s chief evil-doer, exorcises her soul from her body.
Above: The latest Zelda and the Exorcist are pretty similar, though you definitely murder less priests in the former
The need to kick evil’s ass rises once again, then. And soon after, Zelda’s spirit joins Link’s quest as a handy co-op partner (more on this later). The pair subsequently travel the land to find Zelda’s body, so they can stuff her soul back into her regal corpse. But although the dialogue always charms, the story is just window-dressing in the lengthy puzzle-intensive journey that follows.
What really matters, especially on such an under-powered handheld, is the touchscreen controls. And this is where Spirit Tracks becomes essential, thanks to an intuitive control scheme that uses every one of the DS’ unique features with a real confidence and grace.
Above: Best this bug by blowing rocks into its face with the mic
Simply put, it handles beautifully. Whether it’s a puzzle where you pair off Eskimo-style creatures with the use of notes you draw on your map and view on the top screen or the train sections (where you can pull down an on-screen chain for a thunderous whistle); the controls continually slap a smile on your face.
The best use of the inventive stylus-only controls centre around Spirit Tracks’ gadgets. Like the Gamecube title that so heavily influences its art style, the most important is a musical instrument. Here, it’s the Spirit Pipes, a magical item you control with the stylus and microphone. It works like this. You pull it up to Link’s mouth on the top screen and then blow into the different coloured pipes to compose melodies. These often open doors or reward you with new items and are essential for progression in the game’s puzzle-heavy temples.
Above: Jammin' - Zelda style
What’s amazing is it actually makes you feel like you’re a musician. Alright, you won’t exactly feel like a concert pianist. You can’t escape the fact you’re just someone who looks like a bit of a twat as they blow into a piece of plastic. But the sense of tangible interaction with the console is hugely enjoyable, if a bit fiddly thanks to the overly sensitive mic.
The rest of the touchscreen controls mostly work really well. Like Phantom Hourglass, the game ignores the face buttons in favour of the stylus, which controls everything from Link’s movement to the cannon strapped to the front of his new steam train. Although it doesn’t happen much, there are rare times when the system feels imprecise. And this leads to ultra sweary frustration when the game demands precision movement during certain temples.
Above: The Tower of Spirits' puzzles demand stylus ninjary
If the thought of the trains mentioned above conjures up imagery of middle-aged men that wear anoraks and scribble stuff down in notepads, don’t worry. Zelda’s take on trainspotting lets you kill monsters with a giant cannon on the front of the hero’s steam engine.
Unlike Phantom Hourglass’ relatively passive boat travel, Link’s locomotive trips are hugely interactive and offer a succulent slice of meaty gameplay. Battles against baddies where you fire cannonballs with the stylus, bits where you have to strategically switch tracks to avoid demon trains, or even moments where you use the whistle to scare off rabbits; it’s all brilliant fun and it all demands your full attention.
Above: Striking a blow for arachnophobes everywhere
The world itself, though similar to its predecessor in terms of art style, actually has more in common with the legendary Ocarina of Time. Spooky forests, acres of picturesque grassland and a fiery desert realm mean Spirit Tracks feels fresh next to the last game’s retread of Wind Waker’s locations.
The open-world train sections, though brilliant fun, are really just a means to an end. That end, like all Zelda titles, is the game’s temples. Full of puzzles that often test your grey matter more than a four hour stint on Brain Training, they remain the driving force behind the series’ appeal. And it’s the thrill of exploration inside these often labyrinth-like complexes that constantly keep you going.
Above: Solving Zelda's puzzles is as rewarding as getting a gold star from that one hot teacher you had at school
Fun to explore or not, the format you use to progress through the dungeons is as well worn as a ten-year-old pair of trainers. Like the Metroid games, the action is all about items you need to find to open up new areas. Really, we should be bored stiff of a mechanic that’s being doing the rounds for 20 years now. So thank all your gaming gods Spirit Tracks’ inventive new weapons (including a personal tornado machine and a snake which acts as a whip) breathe some new life into the old formula.
The best of the new weapons is the Whirlwind. A strange contraption that uses the mic, it lets Link solve puzzles with gale force winds. It’s an awesome tool and one that forges a real connection between you and your environment. This is never clearer than in the second temple, where you blow yourself around on precarious platforms to avoid deathly cold water.
Above: You need some serious lung capacity for all of Zelda's microphone puzzles. Smokers need not apply
Like the last DS title, you have to return to a central structure after you beat each temple to collect glyphs to access the next one (though thankfully this structure is free of Hourglass' restrictive time limits). Called the Tower of Spirits, it’s here the clever co-op stuff with the princess’ ghost kicks in.
Because the tower is full of knight-like Phantoms, which can kill Link in one hit, you need to work with Zelda to progress. Luckily she can possess these big bastards and once you’ve done this, Zelda acts like your own personal, two tonne bodyguard.
Above: Working with Zelda is always rewarding
She’s a bit like a loyal lapdog. Draw a line around the map and she’ll go wherever you tell her to. Being a multi-talented girl she can also distract enemies while you stab them in the spine, and she can even ferry you across inaccessible areas (like pits of fire). After years of having to save the princess from peril, it’s nice to see the fragile slipper on the other royal foot.
The best compliment we can pay Spirit Tracks is it feels like a proper full-fat Zelda game. This isn’t some stripped-down poor cousin to the console entries. Instead, it’s the perfect example of how a developer can successfully squeeze a console series onto a handheld by using the hardware’s strengths.
Above: Making your train whistle is a constant guilty pleasure
It might not look as good as its bigger relatives (prepare yourself for some fugly ass 2D textures). But in terms of personality, bright ideas and charm, this dwarfs almost every other game from 2009.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass? Yes. Although it keeps Hourglass’ central temple mechanic, it removes its restrictive time limits, so it’s far less frustrating. The world is also more varied, with greater contrasting environments to keep things fresh. Most importantly, Link’s Train is more fun to use than the boat from the last game, as it requires loads of player input.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess? No. While Spirit Tracks’ puzzles and weapons are inventive, the complexity of its world, and particularly its dungeons, simply can’t match up to the Wii game. Twilight Princess’ narrative is also darker and more interesting than the DS game’s relatively simple tale. Although, for our moolah, Spirit Tracks' puzzles use the touchscreen more imaginatively than Twilight ever used the Wiimote.
Metroid Prime Hunters? Yes. Thanks to Metroid losing most of the exploration elements that linked the two series in the past, Hunters is a much simpler, one dimensional game next to Spirit Tracks. Both titles use the stylus more effectively than 95% of the other games on the system, but we’d say Zelda’s controls just edge it because of their ingenuity. In the looks department, though, Metroid wins hands down.
It boils down to this: Spirit Tracks is the most consistently inventive game on the DS, with the best touchscreen controls on the system.
Dec 7, 2009