'Zelda' takes a new track

Twenty years on, "Zelda" games are creatures of habit, to their own detriment.

Link never speaks, Zelda's always in trouble, and the road to fixing that trouble typically runs through approximately eight dungeons, each of which contains a special item that numerous times thereafter will come serendipitously in handy.

Superficially, it all holds true yet again in "The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks," which brings back the cartoony art style and stylus-based control scheme that worked pretty well two years ago in "The Phantom Hourglass." "Tracks" even recycles a few ideas "Hourglass" introduced - most prominently, setting half of its dungeon-related content inside a single building Link will have to revisit multiple times before the credits roll.

But "Tracks" also gets right what "Hourglass" got wrong. For instance, players don't have to start the dungeon from scratch each time they re-enter: This time, whenever the story dictates a return to the tower, a new door takes Link straight to the next portion.

More importantly, there's no time limit hanging over Link's head, which means the challenges are free to be a little more intellectually interesting than they were in "Hourglass."

These portions also benefit from Zelda joining Link in (literal) spirit as a playable character. Players can chart a path for Zelda to take, and she can distract and even possess enemies while Link works elsewhere. Stealth levels are nothing new to "Zelda" games, and "Tracks" doesn't go overboard with them, but the dual character control makes them one of "Tracks'" better assets.

The smarter central dungeon design trickles down to the rest of "Tracks'" labyrinths, which appear to have benefited greatly from Nintendo's further refinement of the control techniques it introduced in "Hourglass." The brain teasers in "Tracks" are among the most satisfyingly intricate to appear in a "Zelda" game this decade, and the dual-screen boss fights, while easy, are nonetheless clever.

As always, a new "Zelda" game introduces some new items to complement the usual bombs, sword and boomerang. Revealing them here would spoil the surprise of finding them, and opinions will diverge on how ingenious or annoying Nintendo's application of the DS' special abilities are with regard to using them.

If you plan to play "Tracks" in a public space, just know a few items - including the musical instrument that once again provides mock spell-casting capabilities - require you to blow into the DS' microphone and potentially look a little strange doing so.

No mention of "Tracks" would be complete without discussing the train. The wildly convoluted (but, to Nintendo's credit, satisfactorily explained) story line explains the train's importance, but its utility - like the horse and boat before it - is to get Link and Zelda around the world map.

This likely will amount to most players' least favorite portion of "Tracks." Controlling the train's path, though a mix of route planning and speed/track switch toggles, is actually pretty fun, and the experience improves once you outfit it with some necessary weaponry.

But after a few instances of backtracking across the map to a village before trucking back to the next dungeon, the experience loses its luster.


The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

FOR: Nintendo DS

FROM: Nintendo

ESRB RATING: Everyone 10+ (mild fantasy violence)