In 2009 it was time for yet again another Zelda controversy. At the Game Developers Conference, Nintendo announced the next Zelda game for the Nintendo DS: Spirit Tracks. While most people seemed to be excited for Link’s upcoming adventure, there was a fair share of fans that were concerned about the fact that this game would be about… trains.
- “The game is about LINK RIDING A TRAIN?!?!?!”
- “Nobody in the world should have the guts to ruin Zelda with a train.”
- “What do you all think? Spirit Tracks – is it going to be awesome, or does that train look like rubbish?”
- “It seems like it’s more of a ‘WOOO HOO TRAINS RULE’ game than a Zelda game.”
Speculation over Phantoms and sword girls
Those are just some of the quotes from an early discussion on Zelda Universe about the game. Up until Spirit Tracks was released, people kept complaining that the train was too high-tech to be in a Zelda game. This is despite the fact that Link’s Awakening had a telephone and The Wind Waker featured a color camera. The seemingly high jump in technology did throw Zelda theorists off though. Where would this game take place in the timeline? It had to be last, people figured, because train tracks had not been seen anywhere else in the series and technology certainly doesn’t get worse over time.
The second biggest complaint about Spirit Tracks, after the train, was that it looked too much like Phantom Hourglass. There were fans who wanted Nintendo to make the next Zelda game on the Wii with Twilight Princess graphics (and there would later come more controversy when it turned out that Skyward Sword would be cartoony). It was true though: Spirit Tracks looked pretty much exactly like Phantom Hourglass and seemed to play exactly the same apart from a few details like riding a train instead of a boat and having a Phantom to partner with instead of just fighting them.
Then, a few months later, the attention of Zelda fans turned to a single picture; a very special picture revealed at E3. It was the first piece of art from the game that was then only known as Zelda Wii. This image featured Link standing back-to-back with a mysterious girl who looked suspiciously similar to the Master Sword, while holding no sword himself. This of course caused many people to (correctly) speculate that this mystery girl was the Master Sword, though not everybody was convinced at the time. This was also one of the main causes of the Skyward Sword visual controversy mentioned earlier. As you can clearly see, this image looks a lot like Twilight Princess Link and many people thought that this would surely be a direct sequel to Twilight Princess, which would look and play much the same, much like the similarities between Majora’s Mask and Ocarina of Time.
On the right track
Come December, Spirit Tracks was released. Possibly fearing a repeat of the backlash they encountered after revealing Twilight Princess early and then delaying the game, Nintendo had been sparse with details about Spirit Tracks up until a few weeks before its release when a load of information suddenly appeared. This included more about the game’s story, which intrigued a lot of people because Nintendo revealed a pretty big spoiler: Princess Zelda, or at least her spirit, would be Link’s companion in this game.
By this point even the game’s skeptics had gotten used to the idea of the train, and so when it was released gamers around the world ventured through Hyrule in a game that turned out a lot better than most people had hoped. It really seemed like Nintendo had a really good grip on what worked and what didn’t work for a DS Zelda after Phantom Hourglass. If Phantom Hourglass was good, then Spirit Tracks was great.
Nintendo took several learnings from Phantom Hourglass and improved upon them in Spirit Tracks. Yes, the Phantoms return, but you can attack and have Zelda possess them. Yes, there is a central hub dungeon, but you don’t have to repeat the same floors over and over, which was one of the biggest complaints about Phantom Hourglass. The stylus controls also improved; the awkward rolling mechanic was replaced with a double tap.
Princess Zelda as Link’s official partner was exciting to fans tired of rescuing her again and again.
Spirit Tracks is a direct sequel to Phantom Hourglass, set 100 years later. A new incarnation of Link begins the game as an apprentice engineer ready to graduate to Royal Engineer. Despite the fact that part of Hyrule’s train network – the Spirit Tracks – has begun to disappear, Link travels to Hyrule Castle to attend his graduation ceremony. Afterwards, Princess Zelda meets with Link privately and shares her concerns about the Spirit Tracks. Providing transportation is not their only function; they also act as protective seals that keep the Demon King Malladus imprisoned. Therefore having these seals disappear is quite alarming! Zelda believes that the Tower of Spirits will hold more answers about why they’re disappearing. She asks Link to sneak her out of the castle and take her there because she does not trust her advisor, Chancellor Cole. On the way, they are attacked by Cole and his henchman Byrne, and Zelda is killed… or so it seems (unless you’d already been spoiled by Nintendo’s announcement prior to the game’s release or watched the game’s full title screen). After Cole and Byrne have departed with her body, Link discovers that Zelda’s spirit has remained behind and so Princess Zelda becomes Link’s partner in the game.
It was a strong opening that promised a cracking story and some interesting characters. It wouldn’t be the first time that Zelda would assist Link on his quests, but to have her as Link’s official partner was exciting to fans tired of rescuing her again and again. She still needed saving – to be returned to her body – but by having her with you she became a character that you wanted to save because you cared about her and not just because you had to.
Spirit Tracks introduced a new musical instrument: the Spirit Pipes. This took advantage of two Nintendo DS hardware features: the microphone and the touch screen. Gamers had to slide the pipes on the touch screen to select the note to play, while blowing into the mic to actually sound it. Given that this was more complicated than simply pushing buttons to play an instrument, the first song that you learn in the game has only two notes. It did a decent job at recreating the feeling of actually playing the pipes but could also feel a little awkward when playing in public.
And of course, there’s the train. As a mechanic, there was nothing wrong with it, and in some ways it wasn’t too different to the boat in Phantom Hourglass. You draw on a map on the touch screen to create a route to the destination, and then the train moves automatically, allowing players to control its speed, toot the whistle to clear animals off the track, and shoot enemies with the cannon. You could also fit it with different parts and upgrades, like you could with Linebeck’s boat. By the time many gamers played Spirit Tracks, they were used to the idea of a Zelda game with a train in it. So one of the biggest complaints about the train after the game’s release wasn’t so much that it didn’t fit in a Zelda game, but that it took away the chance to traverse the overworld on foot and removed the element of exploration that is often an important part of Zelda games.
Ultimately, the game’s promising beginning developed into a mostly-average story with mostly-average dungeons, although the final part of the game was a lot of fun. Don’t get us wrong; Spirit Tracks is a great game. But in the ranks of Zelda games, it’s rather forgettable.
The only feature-length Zelda fan movie to date
2009 also saw one of the most ambitious fan-made Zelda projects so far come to fruition. The Hero of Time was a full-length feature film loosely based on Ocarina of Time. Created by a group of filmmakers called BMB Finishes, the project first came to notice back in 2006 when a trailer was posted online. It generated a lot of excitement and hype at the time, but a lack of updates due to the problems with finding volunteers to work on the film lead many to believe it was a hoax or that it had simply fallen through. Nonetheless, BMB persisted behind the scenes and after several delays the film premiered on June 6, 2009 in Atlanta. BMB held several screenings over the following months, in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and even in Kassel, Germany. After the screenings, the film was premiered online through Dailymotion on December 14.
Unfortunately, on January 1, 2010, the film was suddenly taken offline and distribution stopped. A notice appeared on the site stating: “We just wanted to let you know that Dec. 31 was the last day that The Hero of Time was available for viewing. We came to an agreement with Nintendo earlier this month to stop distributing the film. In the spirit of the holiday season they were good enough to let us keep the movie up for you to watch and enjoy through the end of 2009, but not past 2009. We understand Nintendo’s right to protect its characters and trademarks and understand how in order to keep their property unspoiled by fan’s interpretation of the franchise, Nintendo needs to protect itself — even from fan-works with good intentions.” What had happened was that the hype surrounding this film had grown so big that it reached the attention of the big N itself. Nintendo, who are normally tolerant of fan works, decided that this movie had become a bit too big for its booties. It’s a shame that the film had to be taken offline, as it was clearly independent, but I do remember many fans being confused and thinking that it could be an official Zelda movie.
The film was directed by Joel Musch and starred David Blane as Link, Hannah Fierman as Princess Zelda, and Adam Boyer as Ganon. In the story, Link, who has been raised by the Kokiri, is sent to Hyrule City by the Great Deku Tree. Once there, he meets Princess Zelda who tells him what the Triforce symbol on his hand means and exactly who he is. Meanwhile, Ganon has arranged a banquet for the king, but this gesture, seemingly in good faith, is just a part of his evil scheme. At the banquet the king is poisoned, and Ganon overthrows the kingdom. Link flees to the Temple of Time and takes the Master Sword, but is shocked when he finds he has suddenly traveled into the future. Link discovers that it is a bleak future, for Ganon has destroyed the land, and so he sets out to find Zelda. Along the way he meets Sheik, and learns that he will need the help of the sages to defeat Ganon. After he defeats demons that are guarding the sages, Link returns to Hyrule where he confronts dozens of Gerudo warriors and ultimately fights Ganon. Along the way, other characters from the game make appearances, including Saria, Impa, Malon, and Talon.
While there are a few dark moments in the story, the movie never takes itself too seriously, and there are plenty of humorous scenes along the way, as well as plenty of hidden tidbits for the extra amusement of Zelda fans. While the movie will appeal mainly to Zelda fans, anyone who enjoys fantasy adventure should enjoy this movie, and they’ll still be able to follow the plot because The Hero of Time attempts to cater to those who haven’t played Zelda games. One of the highlights of this movie is its beautiful soundtrack, composed by the talented George R. Powell. The music is original, with a definite Zelda flavor, and it is stunning. I highly recommend that you listen to it here.
Some fans had issues with the differences from Ocarina of Time. But when viewed as a fan-made film, it’s a remarkable effort. It’s a new Zelda tale in its own right.
Overall, the response from fans was positive, although some had issues with the differences from the game and felt that, despite a limited budget and resources, some of the differences could have been more in-line with the game. But when viewed as a fan-made film and not a Hollywood production, it’s a remarkable effort. It is clear while watching the movie that it was never meant to be a direct translation of Ocarina of Time onto the big screen, and this film is a new Zelda tale in its own right. Translating a video game from console to the big screen is never an easy task. Video game movies have a reputation for being pretty bad, and you only need to remember that a Nintendo game has not been made into a movie since the poorly-received Super Mario Bros. movie of the early 1990s.
BMB Finishes succeeded very well in adapting Zelda for the big screen and condensing it into an approximately one-hour-40 minute runtime. Zelda games mainly consist of Link running around by himself, exploring dungeons and solving puzzles, and it would get very boring very fast to see this in a movie. While the Link in this movie must also complete a lot of his quest alone, the scenes where Link is by himself are broken up as he meets several colorful characters along the way. The story moves quite quickly, and does not become repetitive with watching Link do the same thing over and over like he does in the games. Zelda fans who were worried about the fact that Link speaks in this movie need not be. Yes, he does speak, but not excessively, and the film strikes a perfect balance between having Link talk when he needs to, and following the games where other characters do most of the talking.
Fans who were looking for a Hollywood big-budget style, blow-by-blow recreation of Ocarina of Time were disappointed by The Hero of Time. But what this movie is is a spirited new telling of a familiar story, made by Zelda fans for the enjoyment of other Zelda fans. While the film was taken offline by its creators at the end of the year, nothing on the Internet ever truly dies; someone had ripped it and therefore if you haven’t seen The Hero of Time yet, you can always watch it over on YouTube.