No doubt partly driven by necessity as much as strategy, Nintendo's Virtual Console efforts on Wii U have been notable for including not only Game Boy Advance titles, but also various releases from the DS library. With the latter only possible courtesy of the Wii U GamePad questions of practicality are fairly raised; The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is put to the test, then, as it was the second franchise entry to rely solely on touch controls. What we have is a functional version of game, though a high quality title like this arguably deserves its native surroundings.
It's easy to forget what a game-changer the DS initially was in terms of introducing prominent touch controls, and Spirit Tracks adopted the same mechanics as The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass with core movement mapped to stylus pressure, taps and swipes. Though this method is a smidge less precise than physical controls, it's nevertheless intuitive and easy-to-use for any gamer comfortable with touch screen gestures. With the precision afforded by a stylus on a resistive screen there's a solid combination of inputs; with a little practice most will be able to explore, fight and solve puzzles with few mishaps.
This was also the second portable entry to use a 3D world, with on-foot exploration being locked on an overhead view while sequences riding this title's train show off the wider environment and dynamic camera. This portrayal of the Toon Link aesthetic may look rather rough by modern standards, especially if blown up on a TV or even just the GamePad screen, but they have a charm to their design that helps ease the cross-generational shortcomings. You can also enable the image smoothing feature of the Virtual Console to take a little bit of the edge off.
The design and storytelling can easily win you over, in any case. From the headstrong Princess Zelda to the delicious exaggeration of a heroic train driver saving the day, this delivers a typically heart warming experience. Overall the setting and context are rather odd, even by the franchise's standards; all to accommodate the fact that the development team clearly thought it'd be fun for our hero to drive a train. It may just be a case of drawling a line on a map and making mild adjustments - or firing a cannon - as you ride the rails, but it's undoubtedly designed primarily to raise a smile. Messing around and spending hours upgrading the train becomes an oddly transfixing part of the experience, as does running errands and transporting passengers around the world.
There are other smart ideas at play among a raft of familiar and recycled features, too. Naturally you travel the world unlocking areas, while also accessing new levels of the Tower of Spirits once each region of the world has been conquered fully. In general the dungeons do a good job of introducing new items and posing a respectable challenge, providing a nice game loop of travel, puzzle solving and boss fights. Occasionally you also tackle puzzles in which you manage and control both Link and a phantom, with some of the later areas within the Tower of Spirits being particularly tricky and fun to figure out.
It's the same excellent game we reviewed upon its original DS release, then, but we do feel this is a good example of a title that falls down a notch on unfamiliar hardware. Just like with Phantom Hourglass you need to find a setup that works, and any that involve both the TV and Wii U touchscreen are rather flawed; areas that require constant referencing of the map aren't very well suited to having the bottom screen on the GamePad and that top screen map on the TV, while the viewpoint that shows a virtualised DS handheld within a horizontal screen on the controller is a tad silly in practice.
Yet having both screens (left or right-handed) on a vertical GamePad is also flawed. Though the actual screen real estate matches up quite well with the DS hardware it's an ergonomic nightmare, with the vertical Wii U controller feeling heavy and ill-suited to that approach. The biggest issue, though, is with the microphone.
This is a game that requires regular blowing into the microphone, either for some special items or to play a set of pipes that are required in the storyline. Blowing into the microphone with the vertical setup, while manipulating the notes on the touchscreen, is remarkably flawed. Though fine in its horizontal setup - which isn't ideal for the reasons highlighted above - the GamePad's microphone seems to struggle to pick up blowing inputs when the controller's being held vertically. So you can struggle in vain using the vertical aspect that works best with 90% of play, or switch screen types when you need to learn a new song and make progress. As for boss fights that require near constant use of the microphone, be prepared to turn the air a little blue.
That's the key point we want to make in this review - this is the same charming, high quality DS Zelda experience that we assessed in 2009, but it's now bolted onto hardware that doesn't suit its unique controls quite so well.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is an excellent entry in the series - it tweaks, expands and in some ways improves on the foundations of Phantom Hourglass. Yet its touch based controls with liberal use of the microphone don't work as well as they should on the GamePad, with the Wii U struggling to find the ideal display format for the title. If you're playing this on the DS or even using the backwards compatibility of the 3DS, our original review stands and you can add a point to the score below. If you're playing on Wii U, however, be prepared for fiddly compromise in order to enjoy a lovely game.