Monday, February 24, 2014

Zelda: Spirit Tracks, Review

Back in the early 90's, I got a job at a small game company in Japan doing localization for imported video games from Australia and Germany. At the time, the main system was still the Super Famicom (SNES), although it was going to be replaced by the Sega and Play Station systems pretty soon. At the time, some of the other guys were playing the original Legend of Zelda, and they showed me a bit of the game play. A few years later, in the U.S., someone else found a Gameboy cartridge in a parking lot somewhere and gave it to me - it was the Gameboy port for Legend of Zelda. I didn't have a player then, so I went out to buy one used specifically to play that game. Unfortunately, while I did manage to finish LoZ, which I enjoyed, BTW, I somehow succeeded in leaving the Gameboy itself in a seat pocket on an airplane during a business trip and the airline never returned it to me. Anyway, I had a Playstation 2, and I was happy just playing PS2 games from that point. Last year, I decided to get another handheld, and I chose a used Gameboy DS, and I bought Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass as well. So, yes, I do have some level of nostalgia when it comes to Zelda.

A few weeks ago, when I was looking through the 1,000 yen bin ($10 USD) at Bic Camera, I discovered Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks in with everything else. Spirit Tracks is essentially a sequel to Hourglass, with one of the shopkeepers, Linebeck III, being the descendent of your Hourglass ship captain, Linebeck the First. However, instead of Linebeck being your main companion on your travels, you're accompanied by Zelda herself. And rather than getting around by boat, this time the primary form of transportation is a steam train.

(In one of the villages.)

The story starts out with you meeting Princess Zelda in the castle, along with her uppity adviser. Pretty soon, the adviser reveals himself to be a demon, and he steals Zelda's body to use it as a vessel for summoning the demon king, Malladus. At the same time, all of the train tracks disappear. It's your job as Link to return the tracks, defeat Malladus and save Zelda. The fun part is that Zelda's spirit form can go where you go, and possess Phantom armors in aiding you to solve some of the dungeon puzzles. It's pretty funny watching a big, almost invulnerable armor cringe at the sight of mice. There are 5 primary dungeons, plus the Spirit Tower, that have to be cleaned out before you can get initial access to the final boss battle (in Hourglass, you fought ship vs ship, now it's train vs train). After that, there's well over 20 side quests available to help power up further. One difference is that while in Hourglass you could fairly easily get the parts to make several different boat bodies (with the Golden Boat having the most hearts), with Tracks you're finding pieces of treasure throughout the game that can be converted to the various train cars (4 cars total: Engine, cannon, passenger car and flatbed). Locating the super rare treasures needed to make the Golden Train is incredibly time consuming and not especially enjoyable. The final boss can be beaten with any of the other train types (all four cars of the same type, i.e. - iron, dragon, dessert), but you'll only have 6 hearts at best, compared to 8 hearts for the Golden Train.

(Iron train, but since only 3 of the cars are Iron, you only get 5 hearts.)

For me, the real fun in the Zelda games is in getting each of the tool/weapons (bow, boomerang, bombs) and solving the puzzles with them. I really dislike the mini-games where you have to finish a race course on ice within a few seconds, or shoot at moving targets. That's not what I want to spend my time on, and unfortunately, these kinds of mini-games show up a lot in Tracks and you need to best them if you want extra heart containers or the super-rare treasures needed for the Golden train set. I'm still short of finishing all the side quests, although I may be able to do that with about 16 more hours of game play. And that's the thing - getting around on the map with the train is very slow. It kills the momentum of the game, even if you use the shortcuts. Many of the side quests involve hauling passengers or freight from one town to another, and if you don't do it exactly right, you either lose the freight or anger the passenger, and you have to try it all over again. So, I'm skipping anything that doesn't directly help me beat the final boss. Therefore, yes, I'm not going to have all 16 heart containers. I'm not that much of a compulsive completist. (Although I did end up getting all sword attack types, and all of the cars for each of the train sets, including the Golden Train.)

(The kind of puzzle we expect from a Zelda game.)

I do like the artwork, the music and many of the puzzles. And, Zelda is one of the only games I've see so far that takes advantage of many of the Gameboy DS's features, like being able to draw on the maps, use the stylus for entering patterns for opening doors, and even employing the microphone. This last one is both fun and infuriating. One of the tools you get is a windfan. You point the fan in some direction and then blow into the microphone to make whirlwinds to take out enemies (fun) or push you around on the water. Additionally, you get a pan pipe, where you blow into the mike to play different notes on the pipe. These notes can either be for "casting spells" (healing or summoning birds) or for playing interactive duets with some of the other characters. The infuriating part comes in when you have to do a duet to progress further in the game, and it keeps telling you that your rhythm or notes are wrong. If I were a regular flute player, maybe this part of the game wouldn't be so hard.

Bottom line is that if you like Zelda, you've probably already played Spirit Tracks and you know what I'm talking about. But, I waited to get it used, and now that it's cheaper, I do want to finish it off. If you haven't played ST, then I suggest trying Phantom Hourglass first. If you like that, then give Spirit Tracks a go, but only if you can find a discounted copy.

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