is about Zelda.
In this case, "Zelda" isn't shorthand for the franchise title "The Legend of Zelda." I'm talking about the Princess herself. I recently finished The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks and was pleasantly surprised to find that Zelda was an active participant in the adventure. She usually spends the majority of the game imprisoned or in hiding, emerging only at the end to offer Link a tightly-scripted helping hand. Spirit Tracks bucks this trend by pairing Link and Zelda at the beginning of the game and forcing the player to master both characters' unique skills.
The Zelda series is regularly criticized for being stagnant. Some of this criticism is deserved: its overall format haven't changed much since the early 1990s and the games' specific plots are essentially interchangeable. However, in terms of specific design choices, they remain some of the most clever games out there. Every challenge builds on the last by forcing the player to learn new uses for old tools and apply some actual thought to discerning the puzzles' solutions. The Zelda games are about the player mirroring Link's transition from novice to master through developing skills rather than grinding for experience or groping around for a random solution.
Still, it's all grown very familiar to veteran players. Link's bombs might have multiple distinct uses, but they're the same uses we discovered years ago. Spirit Tracks shakes up the routine by including Zelda as a playable character, one who has drastically different abilities with novel applications. This creates a familiar sense of growth over the course of the game while adding some welcome variety to Link's traditional arsenal.
From a plot perspective, I love seeing Zelda and Link actually interact with each other. Zelda herself is usually a non-entity, and her relationship with Link is usually taken as a given. Spirit Tracks isn't a masterpiece, but it does manage to give Zelda a personality in its own quiet way. The combination of Zelda's amusing dialog and her ludic contributions in some of the dungeons reminds me of the dynamic between the Prince and Elika in 2008's Prince of Persia. Both games include princesses in danger, but neither is reduced to simply playing a damsel in distress.
So, what is the future of Zelda as a character? The trailers for the forthcoming Skyward Sword don't inspire confidence, as they suggest she'll be returning to her role as a prize to be won at the end of the game rather than a meaningful character. This is a shame because Zelda's involvement in Spirit Tracks, modest though it may be, is a breath of fresh air in an often-stuffy series.