Editor’s note: I know my tolerance for drudgery in games isn’t anything like what it once was — sounds like Allistair’s having more trouble just saying no, though. How about you? -Demian
I just spent a wonderful and painful week with Link’s latest adventure, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. It has all the addictive puzzle-solving, dungeon-exploring, and excruciating world-traversing you expect from a 3D Zelda. You know, the fun stuff, like dying every ten minutes in the final dungeon only to spend three minutes climbing back to the top of the tower each time, taking half an hour to go back and forth in the world map only to discover you forgot something (make that an hour), and running over to the closest item shop whenever a sand worm eats your shield.
For every setback, I also had an incentive to venture on: It’s Zelda, and it’s really great. Yet I kept asking myself, “Why am I choosing to suffer so much just to have fun?”
Buckle the F up, this train ride is about to get leisurely.
Zelda vets should be accustomed to most of Spirit Track’s faults. The game won’t autosave for you, warping to destinations isn’t an option until it’s no longer relevant, the world may be open but the progression is still linear, etc.
But the biggest problem with Spirit Tracks is unique to this edition of the series: the train. What a quaint, charming, and excruciatingly slow way to travel the game world! The end of every dungeon marks the start of your menial day job as a virtual engineer, as you ride the rails at a snail’s pace to your next destination — or more likely, the wrong destination on the other side of the world map.
I blame Nintendo’s stubborn view on game design for most of Spirit Track’s issues. Traversing the world map shouldn’t be a painstaking procedure; after all, games like Grand Theft Auto 4 and Fallout 3 managed to get it right (by offering warping at the outset and plenty to do on the way should you choose to hoof it). Spirit Tracks’ high Metascore suggests that most reviewers are willing to take these problems in stride — just as I did — so why should Nintendo try to evolve what apparently qualifies as classic game design, warts and all?
Best job ever!
Spirit Tracks isn’t the only game that’s often hard to love. No More Heroes also comes to mind when I think of excellent ideas and gameplay wrapped around problematic design. NMH earned points for its otaku-pandering (or is it mocking?) cast, and the audacity of its bizarre story and world. But most reviewers didn’t talk about the day jobs and long treks across the world map required for progression. Anyone who has played Fable 2 or Saints Row 2 has seen that stuff done right, but NMH’s minimalism and monotony was hard to applaud. The jobs, much like Spirit Track’s train sections, marked the points wherein the player had to literally work for the promise of good things to come.
If you aren’t having fun, then what’s the point? Super Mario Galaxy and Uncharted 2 pack every minute full of visceral thrills and eye candy, yet Spirit Tracks somehow ventures into the land of 85+ Metascores with brief gasps of excellent dungeon exploration in between long, mind-numbing treks (someone always wants to bum a ride off Link). Did old classics like Ninja Gaiden and Contra train us to accept drudgery along with the good stuff, or do these chunks of boredome with little player input somehow complement the more active, challenging dungeons and boss fights? Zelda is a comfort game that Nintendo won’t soon reinvent, but isn’t it time that we dissect why we choose to suffer for a bit more fun?
I must’ve attempted one of the spirit flute sections in Spirit Tracks for 60 minutes — a faulty mic wasn’t doing me any favors. It was soul crushing, but I just couldn’t admit defeat. More importantly, I couldn’t accept the fact that there might be a Zelda dungeon I wouldn’t play through. I thought, “Hey! This isn’t any fun.” And I continued.