The last DS Zelda game released on December 7th, 2009. I got it at launch and played the first few dungeons, but ultimately lost interest in the game as other games came out. After I finally went back to finish Skyward Sword, I decided I would go back and finish Spirit Tracks as well. I don’t like having unfinished Zelda games on my plate.
Returning to the game I immediately remembered the main reason I had lost interest in the first place. The game is operated entirely from the touch screen on the DS. No buttons are ever used for any part of the game. The whole game could be on a smart phone if Nintendo had wanted. This fact alone makes me dislike the game quite a bit. I don’t enjoy smartphone games because they lack the buttons, and to force this playstyle on me in a Zelda game when the devices comes with controller buttons on it is ridiculous. Because I am limited to screen touches for all movement, items, and menus, and the system can only recognize one input at a time, everything done in the game is overly complicated. I have to drag my stylus along to move Link. I have to tap enemies to have him swing the sword. I have to tap the menu icon, select an item to put it on the main screen, then select that item from the main screen so that when I click an object the item is used instead of Link trying to walk to it. This means the controls are extremely limiting because my character is extremely limited. Nintendo compensated by making sure nothing in the game was going to be all that fast paced that would require better controls, but that just makes the game feel kind of cheap.
The music and graphics of the game are quite decent as I would expect from a Zelda title, however the storyline was something of a let down. The story is a direct sequel from the Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass story arc. The new land that Link and Tetra found in Phantom Hourglass has become the new Hyrule, and now 100 years later their descendants have covered the country in train tracks. Ultimately an ancient evil being known as Malladus makes himself known, and steals Zelda’s body so he can use it to resurrect himself in physical form. You spend the game repairing the train tracks around the country to unlock new dungeons so you can confront Malladus and get Zelda’s body back. Zelda’s spirit becomes your companion helper much like Navi, Midna, or Fi from previous games. This adds new gameplay elements when you instruct her to inhabit the body of enemies as well. While the idea is kind of cool, actually doing it with the games limited touch screen interface borders on infuriating.
You traverse the world by means of your train which is basically an even more limited version of the boat in Wind Waker. It takes forever to get anywhere, and enemies encountered along the way are an annoyance more than an excitement. It just isn’t very fun to ride the train, and it doesn’t take long before you dread having to travel anywhere.
As if standard for Zelda games now, the instrument Link uses in game is a pan flute. I found the little mini-game of playing the flute to learn songs to be quite annoying given that I have almost no sense of rhythm. Worse even than that, to actually ‘play’ each note you must blow into the DS microphone while using the touch screen to move the flute back and forth to the correct pipe. This is not something I would ever wish to do in public, as I’m sure it looks ridiculous. It also makes me very much miss that old ocarina.
Looking back and reading reviews of the game, most of the big name critics game the game 8’s and 9’s. I however felt very much differently about the game. Had it come with a more normal control style, I would have enjoyed it much more. Even that however wouldn’t have made the game that awesome. The story is bland, the train travel is tedious, and the controls are horrendous. Ultimately I felt that Spirit Tracks may well be the worst Zelda title I have ever played, and that includes The Adventures of Link. I am really hoping for better from the newest Zelda handheld title out later this year, Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. No word yet on how dependent on the touch screen it will be. Hopefully now that Nintendo’s main gimmick is 3D, they will go back to limiting the touch screen gimmick to simple tasks instead of running the whole game on it.