Spirit Tracks is the second Legend of Zelda game that was released on the Nintendo DS. It follows Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass, though I think this one takes places generations after Phantom Hourglass (but let’s not worry about the Legend of Zelda timeline right now). I ended up just picking this game up on a whim from a local retro game store. Crazy to think how the Nintendo DS is already considered “retro” but this game was released TEN YEARS ago in 2009.
Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass both take place in a world filled with oceans and has Link traveling between places by boat. Spirit Tracks ditches the boat for a train.
I’ve seen Wind Waker being a bit of a divisive game in the series. Less so now-a-days after the release of the HD remaster which supposedly included several quality of life improvements. It’s also had ample amounts of time to develop a cult following as well as gather nostalgia. But one big theme that I saw brought up a lot was that sailing was slow and not very interesting (though I think the remaster fixed this issue quite a bit).
Well…it turns out that driving a train around isn’t very fast or interesting either.
Even on the highest speed, driving the train from place to place feels very sluggish. As you’re driving, you can do things like hit targets for health/rupees and hit enemies that will attack your train’s health. There are also rabbits at certain locations that you can try to catch as part of a collectibles sidequest.
There’s also these sort of evil demon trains on the tracks that you have to avoid. Colliding with one of those results in an instant game over. They’re invincible but you can stun them for a short amount of time as you try to get away.
If you game over, you start back at the last station you were at. So if you attempt to traverse across a zone into another one without stopping, you have to be pretty careful or else you’ll start right back at the beginning. I would say that unless you’re up against several demon trains, traversing the world isn’t very dangerous or difficult if you’re paying attention to random enemy spawns.
Now obviously I’m not a stranger to the concept of losing progress to game overs, but personally, I found this to be too frustrating by the third zone. Although the zone are all aesthetically different (and they are very all beautiful places), mechanically it’s the all same. The train moves along the tracks on its own and there’s not a lot to do. Shooting targets only ever got me green rupees, blue rupees, or a heart, so the only incentive I had to do that was to kill time. I would say that 60% of the time, I was just watching and doing nothing.
I tried to multitask a couple times and have the train going on a path that I deemed as “relatively safe” i.e. there were no evil trains, but I’m fairly bad at multitasking though so this usually ended up with me being killed by enemies, since the train can only take four hits and enemies usually show up two at a time. I’m sure there’s a way to upgrade the health on the train, but mine was still at the base four hearts.
There’s warp points throughout the map, but I only unlocked two of them and both of them only warped between the forest realm and the ice realm (the first and second zone).
This all sounds pretty harsh, but honestly the rest of the game is pretty fun. This and Phantom Hourglass and are played purely with touch pad controls. That along with needing to blow into the DS microphone to play the flute felt really gimmicky but I got use to it faster than I thought I would. It still felt a bit awkward at points, but it was alright.
The dungeons are pretty standard Zelda dungeons so I quite enjoyed those too. They did feel much easier than other Zelda games because you already have a full map and compass, but they were still fun.
There’s also sections in which you traverse through dungeon floors with Zelda in a Phantom Armor. I thought that these puzzles were fairly cool. There’s actions that only Zelda can do (i.e. walk across hazards, distract phantoms) and actions only Link can do (i.e. walk across sand, boomerangs). I’ll say the puzzles were pretty standard for teamwork puzzles, but I enjoyed them all the same.
I also found a lot of satisfaction in filling out my stamp book.
Honestly, I really wanted to like this game more than I did. I love the aesthetic of the game and I liked the standard towns and dungeons gameplay. But after unlocking the fourth zone, I decided that I wasn’t enjoying this game as much as I hoped, so I am putting it on indefinite hiatus.
I spent some time trying to think of why I disliked this so much but loved traversing giant swaths of empty land in Breath of the Wild. I think the best analogy I could think of is that Breath of the Wild felt like walking on a hiking trail and Spirit Tracks is like driving down a highway with cruise control turned on.
On the flip side, SNES Online for the Switch was just released, which means I can finally play A Link to the Past for the first time.