Exactly one year ago to this day, Spirit Tracks was released for the Nintendo DS. Initially, it was met with a rather diverse set of reviews by many gamers. Many hardcore Zelda fans considered it a huge upgrade over the previous Zelda DS title, Phantom Hourglass. Many others thought it was in the same vein as Phantom Hourglass, a big disappointment. While others thought it was just another amazing Zelda title added to the series. So one year later, what does Spirit Tracks bring to the table?
From a critical standpoint, you could say that Spirit Tracks was a failure. Now of course, this is all very relative, as when I use the term failure, I’m comparing it to other Zelda titles, and not all DS games. At Game Rankings.com, Spirit Tracks scores at an 86.92%, and at a similar website Meta Critic, the game comes in at an 87. These are hardly bad scores, but when you compare them to the rest of the Legend of Zelda series, they are not up to standard. In fact, not counting the Four Swords Spin-Offs, or the original NES Zelda games which simply don’t have enough reviews, Spirit Tracks has the worst critical ratings of any main series Zelda title to date.
An average score of 86.92% is by no means a bad score, and for most games, this score would be an amazing success. However, if you count all DS games with at least 10 reviews, the 86.92% is the 19th highest rated Nintendo DS game out there. (Phantom Hourglass comes in at the 8th spot). Is the 19th highest score of a console really what we think of when we think of Zelda titles? Hardly. This low score is uncharted territory for the Zelda series. Zelda fans have been spoiled with amazing games over the years. Using the same source, looking at the highest rated games per console, we can find that a Zelda game holds a top 5 spot for the Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Nintendo GameCube, Nintendo Wii, Gameboy Color, and Gameboy Advance. Even with consoles that have multiple Zelda games, every single Zelda game files in within the top 10. Spirit Tracks is the odd-man out.
So what was wrong with Spirit Tracks? Simply put, why did critics not think it was not up to the caliber of other Zelda games? Here at Zelda Dungeon, we’ve exhausted some of the things that we personally found wrong with the game. Last January I created a pair of videos discussing the Five Things Wrong with Spirit Tracks, and in August of this year, Axle the Beast gave his Spirit Tracks Impressions. Most of the complaints that I had with the game were more personal, and I hardly think that critics would give a lower review score because of the annoyance of collecting rabbits as a side quest. Rather, I think the main reason why Spirit Tracks wasn’t scored too high is that it was so similar to Phantom Hourglass in gameplay, that it seemed like the most unoriginal Zelda title. However, that’s just my opinion, but you’d have to read specific reviews to find the differences of individual reviewers.
Moving on though, critical reviews were not the only negative reaction to the game. Just looking at the sales of the game shows that people literally didn’t buy into it. Looking at VGChartz, a website that looks at giving rough estimates of the sales of video games, we can see that after one years time, Spirit Tracks has sold 2.65million copies. Similarly, for Phantom Hourglass, sales after the one year mark hit 4.07million copies. However, these numbers can be off a bit, since Phantom Hourglass experienced a 3-month release delay for America. So even with this disadvantage, Phantom Hourglass clearly outsold Spirit Tracks by a fairly large number of copies.
Perhaps another thing that is troubling about these sales numbers, is the pure number of handhelds in circulation. When Phantom Hourglass hit shelves in America in October of 2007, there were roughly 53million Nintendo DS handhelds in circulation. In comparison, when Spirit Tracks hit shelves in December 2009, there were nearly 117million. So the bottom line is that, Phantom Hourglass outsold Spirit Tracks significantly in the first year, even though Spirit Tracks had the luxury of being released right in the midst the holiday season, as well as having over double the number of Nintendo DS handhelds in circulation.
So why did Spirit Tracks not sell well? Could it be a possibility that fans played through Phantom Hourglass, didn’t like it, and thus, didn’t end up getting Spirit Tracks? To me, this seems like the most likely scenario, but perhaps there was more to it. Perhaps fans actually cared to look at the critical reviews of the game, to see that it was not doing as well as previous Zelda titles and then took a pass. Maybe… fans were just losing interest in the Zelda series? Who knows.
I can keep tossing numbers out there as much as I’d like, but with video games, and entertainment media in general, all it ever boils down to is personal opinion. I loved Phantom Hourglass, and as much as I think Spirit Tracks messed up in some cases, I still love the game. It’s certainly not one of my top Zelda games, but outside of Phantom Hourglass, it’s easily my favorite Nintendo DS game. It’s a worthy addition to the Zelda series, and I think history will judge Spirit Tracks as a pair with Phantom Hourglass. 10-15 years from now, we’ll refer to them as the DS Zelda titles, at which as a group, I think they’ll be viewed very favorably.