To celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, we're running a series of features looking at a specific aspect — a theme, character, mechanic, location, memory or something else entirely — from each of the mainline Zelda games. Today, Mitch looks back on an underrated handheld entry that gave the titular princess her biggest role yet in a game with her name (and something to do other than turn up at last knockings with the Bow of Light)...
Take a look at Zelda games made in the past couple decades, and it’s clear to see that each one has had clear gimmicks and goals to separate it from previous iterations. Majora’s Mask, for example, was defined by it’s transformations and repeating three-day cycle. Skyward Sword was all about integrating motion controls into everything and blurring the neat line that used to exist between the overworld and dungeons. This commitment to introducing fresh ideas and interesting experiments with each entry has likely been a large part of why the Legend of Zelda series has become such a beloved and respected institution in the gaming world.
Even so, a lot of similarities have always been kept in: there’s always some big bad that the lone hero needs to overcome; your main goal is to run through dungeons which combine combat and puzzle challenges; and those dungeons are usually spread across a large map. Along the way, you’ve got a diverse arsenal of tools to help you overcome the challenges, too. At the heart of all of this, however, is the fact that you always play as Link (or whatever you care to call him). With one notable exception: Spirit Tracks.
Wind Waker was the first game to explore the concept of playing as alternate characters (ones that weren't just Link wearing a different coloured tunic, that is), but these sections were relegated to mostly small parts in just a couple dungeons. It was Spirit Tracks (and, as of yet, only Spirit Tracks) that explored building a Zelda game around someone other than just Link, and I think it’s important that we remember this; though the series will likely always be based around that familiar green-garbed hero, the ideas touched upon in Spirit Tracks still have a lot more potential if Nintendo ever wants to go that route.
What I’m referring to here is, of course, the great amount of focus put on Phantom Zelda. Though most of Spirit Tracks was a bog-standard classic adventure with Link as the front-and-center hero, the massive Tower of Spirits that you return to over the course of the game was distinct in how it gave you another play character to contend with. Each new floor of the dungeon introduced new obstacles that only Phantom Zelda could overcome, which opened the door to a wealth of interesting dungeon design ideas.
For example, there were some sections where only Phantom Zelda could carry the boss key needed to progress in the dungeon, and you had to draw the route for her to carry it while fighting off enemies trying to take the key. Sometimes she had to carry Link over lava pits or past arrow traps. Sometimes Link had to walk over sandpits she couldn’t cross to hit switches to help her over. Zelda games have always been about finding ways around obstacles, but the power to overcome them usually rests in a singular hero. Here, that power was split in two, and only by utilizing the strengths of each character in tandem could the player progress.
As a kid, this concept floored me, and I’ve found it kind of disappointing that Nintendo has never felt the need to explore it more in future Zelda releases. I imagine two characters, each with their own arsenal of items and powers they accrue over the adventure (maybe even with their own diverging storylines), and the two frequently reuniting for expansive dungeons that they can only overcome together. It could be a way of finally putting co-op into a Zelda game without simply cloning Link, and it could lead to some wonderfully complex puzzles that require you to account for the limitations and strengths of both characters. Barring some incredible revelation about Breath of the Wild 2, I doubt that we’ll see something like this done in a future game, and that’s fine with me because Breath of the Wild showed that Nintendo certainly isn’t running out of ideas for this series anytime soon.
Even so, I wish that Spirit Tracks would get a little more recognition in the broader community for what it represented to the series and what a cool game it turned out to be. Phantom Zelda aside, traversing the open world by train was an awesome idea that got a lot of fleshing out through side quests, puzzles, and boss fights (and gave us some of the finest Zelda music — Zelda choo choo music — in the series). The Spirit Pipes (as infuriating as they were if you weren't playing in a near-silent environment) introduced a neat way of using the DS microphone as a game mechanic.
Spirit Tracks was a shining example of ‘less is more’ philosophy in action, and it deserves to be respected for what it accomplished. It may not be many fans’ favorite entry—it’s not even mine—but Spirit Tracks was an important step for the Zelda series, and I would say it stands up there with the best of them.