It finally happened. A Legend of Zelda game has bored me.
I never thought I’d see the day. After a quarter of a century nearly unbroken by mediocrity (an ill-advised turn on the Philips CD-i notwithstanding), the Zelda series had long since earned a place among those few series perennially beyond reproach.
But The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is different—precisely because it isn’t.
Spirit Tracks’ misstep is perhaps an inevitable one. As time wears on, innovation becomes a scarce commodity. For the last decade or so, Zelda’s saving grace has been its ability, against all odds, to make visiting the same dungeons, collecting the same adventuring kit, and defeating the same nigh-invulnerable malevolent porcine warrior-wizard feel new and refreshing.
Nintendo devoted considerable muscle toward convincing us that “Zelda—now with trains!” is just the latest way they’ve turned teaching an old dog new tricks into an art form, but maybe the marketing department doth protest too much.
Zelda games demand certain concessions from their players. Some ask that we turn into wolves; others strap pelicans to our heads and send us on merry adventures with the Littles. Players by and large have abided—even expected—them; we understand that when you’re as old as Zelda, your mind has the tendency to wander.
As long as Zelda titles contain the prerequisite combination of no less than one new, novel gameplay element and the tried-and-true ritual of stabbing demon pigs with holy swords, players have been happy to accept these eccentricities as part of the status quo. What Spirit Tracks lacks is a reputable attempt at the former.
Spirit Tracks is the second DS Zelda and the third entry in the alternate timeline featuring the cell-shaded version of series hero Link that first debuted by Nintendo in LoZ: Wind Waker. Conceptually, it sounds like a formula for an easy win. Compartmentalizing Wind Waker Link on the DS and using the platform as a way to entice retro gaming fans with a classic top-down Zelda adventure, while experimenting with the possibilities opened by the DS hardware, is an idea that practically writes its own Handheld Game of the Year acceptance speech.
And that’s exactly what happened—a couple of years ago, with LoZ: Phantom Hourglass. Spirit Tracks does that—and only that—again, but this time, the very existence of its predecessor is enough to warrant serious questions about what else Spirit Tracks offers, questions the game can’t convincingly answer.
There’s an ugly, inexorable sameness that permeates Spirit Tracks. Unlike the last few Zelda games, this one doesn’t even attempt to add anything substantial to the series’ considerable stable of gameplay ideas. Link’s train—the de facto primary setting of Spirit Track—and the destinations to which it travels lack the cheerful Waterworld charm that made Wind Waker’s nautical timeline so strangely compelling. This “new” landscape is at best a lateral thematic shift and at worst a dumbing-down of systems that in Phantom Hourglass were barely complicated enough as it is.
Everything—literally everything—else about Spirit Tracks is lifted wholesale from Phantom Hourglass. The god-awful touch-only control scheme, which requires players to somehow accomplish everything from navigation to item use to combat while obscuring the screen with their own filthy stylus-laden meat-hooks, makes its not-so-triumphant return, as does the progression mechanism that requires players to celebrate all major accomplishments by visiting an obligatory central hub and futzing around with an absurd mechanic to access another part of the game world.
These two elements by themselves were almost bad enough to turn Phantom Hourglass from a great game into an unbearable one. To so blatantly phone Spirit Tracks in, returning with a sequel that sees these and so many other rehashed elements intact? On a system that’s supposed to encourage innovation, during an era in which Nintendo’s party line is that it’s reinventing gaming? I call shenanigans.
Spirit Tracks is just too formulaic for its own good. We have accepted frustration, annoyance, even confusion (especially confusion) from our Zeldas, and we’ve never needed anyone to convince us that it should be any other way. If boredom is the last bastion of novelty left to the series, maybe it’s time to consider moving on.