If you want to play The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks you'd better like trains or Zelda games. If you love either, you'll enjoy this title. If you don't, there might be too many little things that irk you to finish it.
Spirit Tracks has everything we love about Zelda games. There's tricky puzzle solving, engaging side quests, gratifying weapons, and those completely unnecessary but oddly compelling pieces of hearts. The game is modeled after Phantom Hourglass closely, but with two important distinctions: You use a train instead of a boat, and there is no dungeon timer. Unfortunately, Spirit Tracks also requires you to return back to the same locations over, and over, and over again.
The all-stylus-all-the-time gameplay is the same too (though there is a button for equipping and de-equipping your currently held item). Stylus gameplay is a charming departure from other Zelda titles, because of its titillating effects (like the boomerang following whatever path your stylus desires). But certain situations induce problems d-pad gameplay would solve. One common problem is slipping off ledges. Wherever you touch the screen, Link goes, and if you have him too close to a ledge while you're carelessly fiddling with something else, he will dutifully chase the stylus and leap in water, pits, and lava.
This occurs more often when you control Zelda. Zelda can be used in the Spirit Tower where she inhabits hulking suits of armour. To control her, you must touch a tiny ball at her feet, and slowly trace the path you wish her to follow. She then marches the exact path you traced at unbearably slow speeds. If you touch the screen while she crawls to her end point, you automatically switch back to Link. This creates too much accidental switching back and forth between characters. But once you accept Zelda's pace, you open yourself to the game's innovative and gratifying ability to solve one puzzle from two angles.
The Spirit Tracks story is a familiar legend. Old evil is back, and new good must vanquish it using old power. What's different this time is Zelda herself. She's less angelic and more like an anime character, which is appropriate – tiny DS, cutesy character. Link must restore the Spirit Tower to fend off evil, which is why you're always heading back to that tower.
This is also why, unless you have some childhood affection for trains, the gameplay can become repetitive. Rewarding a gamer for beating a dungeon with a smaller dungeon is cruel, but making them take the long train ride to get there is malicious. Nintendo tried to make that trek engaging. There are rabbits to be hunted, a cannon to shoot at enemies and rocks, an enticing whistle cord that dangles on the screen, and an interactive map to trace the train's route. These accessories make riding the spirit tracks bearable for a short time, but quickly become laborious. There's a magical exploration in the older Zelda games where, even if you were on Epona, you were able to explore the world map as intimately as a dungeon. Linear gameplay is OK, but a game that literally is on rails is too much.
Just as in Hourglass, Spirit Tracks also has treasures that can be collected from dungeon chests and special quests. Treasures can be used to upgrade your train. It's a clever addition that is similar to collecting pieces of heart containers – better treasures means more train hearts. Playing the mini games (the Goron Shooting Gallery, Whip Race, and Pirate Hideout mini game) are a great for rare treasures. But some trains (like the dragon train) require 20 demon fossils with drop rates 80% to 90% lower than treasures of equal value. There's many tricks on the 'net to getting these demon fossils (buy from the vendor every day and reset the DS clock, go to Whittletown and blow the leaves, etc.) but they all require time; the treasure simply isn't easy to get. Rewarding skill, instead of forcing time on a gamer would have been better.
This sounds like nitpicking, but trains and treasures are the fundamental part of every side quest in the game. If you're not transporting some villager on the spirit tracks you're uncovering new spirit tracks to areas where treasure is the end reward. Side quests in Spirit Tracks don't have the same allure as say, the Biggoron's Sword from Ocarina of Time (which was like wielding your own penis, if your penis was a destructive force that was so big you needed two hands just to hold onto it).
It's difficult to forget the brilliance of earlier games in the series when you're staring at its twilight. Riding a choo choo train doesn't have the same effect on a boy as unsheathing the sword of a hero. All we need is the courage to grasp its handle, and triumphantly raise the glistening blade above our head to remind us that, even the small can be heroes.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Mild Fantasy Violence.