All aboard the Zelda train! Next stop: the anorak masonry

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (2009)

I want to bring you, Henry Hill style, into a murky underworld. Don’t worry though, you won’t be an accomplice in anything, nobody’s getting whacked here. Still, there’s plenty of wiseguys having to look over their shoulder all the time, because they’re only minutes away from getting embroiled in it all. Welcome to the dark and seedy world of model trains.

You see, in this world, there is a secret society happening all around you, They Live-style. Not many people could admit to being a train enthusiast in public though, which is why this may be an earth-shattering revelation to you. I can sympathise there really, as it’s the same with Formula 1.

I do have a bit in common with the anoraks, and see where they’re coming from. Once you’ve established contact with an F1 fan in the wild, or even a business setting, you’re a made man. They will do you favours, you will do them favours, you will leave as bosom buddies. It opens doors for you, it’s like an anorak masonry.

I’m reliably informed that it’s the same with the train dweebs, the modellers and the spotters. You take what social attention you can get, I suppose. But this kind of niche hobby always breeds toxicity, as it always boils down to who is the bigger egghead in the end. It’s actually incredibly difficult to become friends with someone who obsesses over the same thing you do, because you’ll just always try to outdo each other.

Get into the deep end and the behaviour goes beyond belief. In the first instance, model trains is a bloody expensive hobby, although point me out an adult hobby that isn’t? We’re not usually talking mega money though, like the type of deep pockets you’d need to buy a ticket to the Grand Hibernian train, no longer running in Ireland but seven thousand bones wouldn’t have even gotten you a week on that thing. Three grand for a single trip ticket. Christ, imagine paying all that money and then you’re put next to Conor McGregor for the journey?!

But even so, these models are bloody expensive, so the customers won’t accept any drop off in quality or standards. To wit, if the axles on their shiny new wagon turns out to be half a millimetre too short, you can expect a loud, embarrassing adenoidal scream of anguish. The modelmakers could never, ever be forgiven even the slightest mis-coloration on the livery, even if it was purposely done to simulate the ageing and weathering process.

To these people, having the wrong seat upholstery is like having a pink Ferrari, or a leprechaun dressed in urine yellow. The brain cannot compute the aesthetic at all. This usually leads to murder being borne out on social media, or for the older generation, internet forums. And for the even older generation, the dozens of magazines on the subject of trains.

I’ve seen fights taking place on train platforms, punches being thrown if someone happens to block the light. I’ve seen enthusiastic discussions become racial tirades, I’ve heard death threats being issued, I’ve even witnessed people kick up rough about unacceptable levels of “flange squeal”, whatever on earth that is.

Well, trains seem like pretty serious business. I’m not so sure I want to take part, to take these boys on – and they are always boys. I definitely didn’t want to take part in The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks when I saw how similar it looked to the dreadful Phantom Hourglass, also on DS. I find it strange how the DS was generally so great, awash with excellent games from many of Nintendo’s franchises and beyond, yet the Zelda titles were so poor.

Even the name Spirit Tracks isn’t grandiose enough, I feel. It should have been called ‘Steamer of Destiny’ or something Elder Scrollsian like that. You’ll say I can’t attack the game for its name, but this kind of thing is terribly important. If the game’s name doesn’t have gravitas, then it means you won’t come into contact with characters like Sahashrahla and Darunia. Instead you’ll get Johnner and Whacker, individuals whom you wouldn’t regard as ideal companions for a journey on the Grand Hibernian.

But if I’m honest, though the title is slightly inferior, Spirit Tracks isn’t quite as bad a game as Phantom Hourglass. I was quite worried that picking a winner out of the two would have been like the classic picking which leg you’d rather have amputated.

Hourglass seemed more like a tech demo, a game that hadn’t been finished. Spirit Tracks, with the more elaborate story, much more varied music and what seems to be slightly better control (might be my imagination – I play Spirit Tracks on trains and Phantom Hourglass on boats; trains are smoother), this game is the clear winner.

But there has to be a but, there has to be a however. Let’s face it, even if those controls were better, it’s still almost entirely stylus-driven. I lose my DS styluses like you take a wee, so that means either getting a used us Bic biro on there, or smudging the screen with your fat, Dorito crusted hands. And the gameplay loop becomes very repetitive – go to the central dungeon, fight through the few more floors with the ghost of Zelda (long story), unlock the next area, then steam on down there in your spirit train.

Yes, they’ve only gone and brought back that damned Ocean King Temple-style dungeon again. And I know the time limit is gone and it’s easier, but that’s missing the point. I will say that the proper dungeons are better this time, some decent fun even with your limited array of items.

Another thing I should say as well is that this game has gotten a lot of stick for its panpipe instrument being unplayable, the mic never seeming to play ball. Honestly, I played this on 3DS and had no such trouble. You wouldn’t want to be playing the panpipes in public though, blowing your DS like crazy. You could get thrown off the train for that – while it’s in motion.

But onto the but everyone is here for: what’s it like to drive a train with Link? Well, at first it’s great: you hop aboard, draw out your route, set your speed and set off through the land. You can toot your horn and choose which direction to send your train down, it’s quite fun actually. Of course, they had to go and muck that one up as well, firstly by littering the track with much faster insta-kill trains.

Insta-kill in Zelda? You’re joking, aren’t you?  But once you’ve beaten that, you’ve got loads of other enemies accosting you, requiring you to fight back. I know scallies throw stones at passing trains sometimes, but come on. The best part of train travel is sitting back, relaxing, lashing a few cans into you and then going asleep in relative safety, and The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks won’t let you do that. And if the anoraks say they don’t want me doing that either, well, my head is plenty big enough to block their next camera shot. Eat that, Clive.

17 February 2023

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