“The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks” has chugged its way slowly along to The Lantern newsroom, and by the time it got here it was already feeling pretty tired.
It is hard to make such a well-established franchise as “Zelda” feel fresh, but Nintendo is usually a master of trotting out its aging mascots and making them fun again, à la “Weekend at Bernie’s.” They usually prove that the dead can dance. Usually.
“Spirit Tracks,” however, is pretty obviously dead on arrival, looking and tasting like a stale piece of bread from start to finish, even as it tries desperately to jig its way into a few new hearts with its novel mechanics.
The shiny new features are as flat as the tone of Link’s new train whistle. The main character, a newer incarnation of “Wind Waker’s” cell-shaded Link, starts out the game with a shiny new train taking him along the rather limiting tracks of “the kingdom.” Predictably, he’s also present for the kidnapping of a princess named Zelda, just in time to witness the awakening of a unintentionally hilarious new villain.
The toony character design makes it even harder than usual to take the tropes and triteness of “Zelda” seriously. I mean, honestly, how can players be expected to not suspect a character who looks like a leprechaun wearing two top hats? Are we really not supposed to laugh when a giant, floating train nearly takes out the main characters?
Sadly, Link’s shiny new “spirit train” quickly becomes the game’s major frustration, easily trumping simplistic puzzles and ridiculous character design. Every traversable area of the game is only accessible by the tracks, and for the most part nothing happens on the not-so-scenic treks from one side of the huge world map to the other. There’s just enough annoying little enemies to blow away with a cannon to keep players from leaving their DSes on and getting a drink while they wait, but not nearly enough to keep things entertaining.
Just to smear flavorless icing the cardboard cake, most of the game’s side-missions require hauling things or people around the world’s rails to places you’ve already been to. Players are left wondering why the game isn’t called “The Legend of Zelda: The Spirit of Backtracking.”
The dungeons, as usual for a “Zelda” game, are pretty spot on. Every once in a while there’s a good stumper of a puzzle that requires more than drawing some lines and pushing some boxes, and the new items like the sand wand and whirlwind are great new tools that really make their particular dungeons very involving. The levels in the tower of spirits also let you play around with controlling phantoms, which is a surprisingly solid mechanic that could’ve been used elsewhere to great effect. Still, the more difficult the phantom-based puzzles are, the more tedious they tend to be, and by the end there’s as much backtracking in dungeons as on the train tracks.
Overall, the newest Zelda is a handheld chore. Although the core gameplay is still as solid and compelling as ever, the train rides are not nearly compelling enough to pull the scattered locations into a coherent, fun whole. Nintendo made a great effort at bringing in something new for its handheld offering, but the locomotive mechanics are too central and too rigid to pull together “Spirit Tracks” into a really great, playable whole.