The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks shows that a game can revolve around the abduction of a royal woman while still avoiding the most tired aspects of the well-worn "save the princess" trope.
It might be funny if it wasn't such a cliche. Despite its name, The Legend of Zelda is mostly about Link. To be fair, Link isn't the most developed video game character; over the past twenty-five years, he hasn't even managed to speak a word. But viewed from a mechanical perspective, every Zelda game is about Link's development. Over the course of the adventure, the player learns new techniques and sharpens their skills as Link makes the transition from an innocent youth to a seasoned warrior. While all this is happening, Zelda is usually in hiding or imprisoned beyond the player's control and the plot's immediate attention.
However, there are some exceptions to this pattern. I recently played The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks and was pleasantly surprised to find that Zelda was more than a plot device. Spirit Tracks isn't a revolution in sophisticated storytelling, but it succeeds in making Zelda meaningful for reasons beyond tradition. Spirit Tracks shows that a game can revolve around the abduction of a royal woman while still avoiding the most tired aspects of the well-worn "save the princess" trope.
In order to make Zelda an appealing character, Spirit Tracks mimics key elements of Link's allure. Link's skills are tied to the player's mastery of increasingly complicated skills rather than grinding for experience points or buying the best equipment. Zelda games pair the player's competency with their avatar's skills, thus fostering a connection between the two. Spirit Tracks allows the player to play as Zelda as well as Link, and in this case, a few minutes of interaction is worth a thousand minutes of cutscenes.
Unlike most other games in the series, Zelda actually has a character arc in Spirit Tracks. From a mechanical perspective, Zelda's personality resembles that of Link's: she starts out with innate abilities that the player eventually hones into specific skills. Just as Link's bombs can be used as weapons, exploratory items, or remote timers, the armor suits that Zelda possesses offer unique abilities with multiple applications. Over the course of the game, the player and Zelda learn new ways of fighting, traversing difficult terrain, and solving puzzles by iterating on a few basic abilities. As opposed to other Zelda games, the Princess's powers don't just appear at the end of the game like a convenient plot device; they have been building over the course of the story. It's a process that connects the player to the character and lends weight to the action. When you use Zelda to protect Link from the final boss' attack, you're seeing her perform skills that you learned and applied in previous contexts.
Zelda and Link's different abilities lead to unique, asynchronous gameplay that has the added bonus of illustrating some of the franchise's long- unning themes. Switching between Link and Zelda resembles going back and forth between an action and a real-time strategy game. Using the Nintendo DS's touch screen, you can draw movement paths and mark strategic targets for Zelda before switching back to Link to take care of the obstacles that need more maneuverability and spontaneity. Because enemies pose little threat to her, directing Zelda around the map mostly tests the player's logic, while controlling Link is an exercise in actively negotiating dangerous situations. It's a nice nod to the Zelda fiction, which has long associated the Princess with the Triforce of Wisdom and Link with the Triforce of Courage.
Spirit Tracks's traditional plot fits comfortably alongside nearly every other game in the series, but the fact that Zelda accompanies you throughout the journey makes her a more complex character. Instead of playing the role of the aloof martyr or damsel in distress, Zelda is forced to deal with her predicament and take an active role in solving it. It's rare to see Zelda outside the castle walls among her subjects. Such a change of scenery offers glimpses of the person behind the legend. Small snippets of dialogue convey exasperation at her predicament as well as a refreshing sarcastic streak that occasionally surfaces during interactions with Hyrule's quirky characters. As much as I defend Navi, it's nice to have a companion whose tone is more conversational than nagging.
By the end of the game, Zelda proudly announces that she and Link are an unstoppable team. The player gets the chance to prove this during a final boss fight that requires the duo's combined skills to deliver the final blow. In fact, the final sword swing is a joint effort: after the smoke settles, the camera pans away to show both Zelda and Link clutching the handle. For long-time fans, it's a satisfying moment. Traditionally Zelda and Link are usually connected, but never close. Seeing them holding hands at the end of the game borders on saccharine, but the moment is justified. After an entire game of struggling together and a history of brief reunions followed by melancholy separations, they've earned their fleeting public display of affection.
Spirit Tracks's producer, Eiji Aonuma, said that one of the team's goals was to please folks looking for more independent women in the Zelda universe. While Spirit Tracks is still fairly conservative when it comes to gender, the development team has successfully created a female character who is more than a cliche. In the span of one game, Spirit Tracks does more to illustrate Zelda's personality, her relationship with Link, and her abilities than has been done over the past twenty five years. Dialogue and cutscenes help by adding some flourishes, but the most important factor in getting to know Zelda is interactivity. Finally, players get to accompany Zelda on a quest by battling alongside her, solving puzzles, and gaining new skills. It's hard to predict what the next game has in store, but Spirit Tracks makes a strong case for asking Zelda to take the lead in writing her legend's next chapter.
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