The following article is an editorial largely based on majority community opinions and the author’s own views. They are likely not to accurately reflect everyone’s individual views. Please note that this article contains spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. With that said, enjoy the read.
It would be quite an understatement to say that there were mixed emotions leading up to the release of Spirit Tracks. When the initial trailer was revealed earlier this year many people were greatly disappointed with the apparent direction of the series. Complaints ranged from the game being too ‘casual’, to complaints on train technology having such a fundamental role. With Spirit Tracks’ recent release, many people have taken back their first impressions, leaving only positive feedback in its place.
Spirit Tracks was another great adventure in the Zelda series, in all aspects from storyline to gameplay. While Phantom Hourglass was an enjoyable game, it never gave the impression of being a Zelda quest built specifically for the DS. Unlike its predecessor, Spirit Tracks fully utilized the various capabilities of the DS console, in a natural and unforced way.
Everyone was expecting and wishing for something special in this title. Ben Lamoreux for one, in his Bombers Article, Nintendo’s Missed Opportunity: Four Swords DS, wrote about how the DS could have been used to craft another Four Swords game, using the handheld console’s full potential. Everyone had an opinion of what the DS could do for Zelda, and whether or not every fan got their wishes with Spirit Tracks, Nintendo has definitely done it right this time.
Love or hate the game, Phantom Hourglass received a large amount of criticism, from both fans and critics alike. One that’s regularly heard of is the uncreativeness in new item design. Phantom Hourglass didn’t feature an item that had not appeared in a previous title in the series. While the items themselves were used in new ways with the new control style, from Bombchus and the Boomerang following a set path, or the Grappling Hook being used as a human slingshot, there were no items designed specially for DS use. Spirit Tracks improved on this criticism greatly.
The recent release incorporated an inventory of some of the classics, being the Bow and Arrow, Bombs and the Boomerang, but incorporated items which were new and exclusive to DS use. Some people with a critical mind might say that the Whirlwind is a slight tinkering of the Gust Jar, the Snake Whip is just the Grappling Hook and the Sand Wand is a slightly varied Cane of Somaria. Whether true or not, all three of these new items were made with the DS in mind, and because of that, blended effectively into the game, creating an enjoyable experience for the players.
These items were made specifically to reflect the DS’s capabilities of sensing when players blow into the microphone, and the touching ability. In Phantom Hourglass the Bow did have a tap to fire approach, but the Sand Wand of Spirit Tracks was created specifically with the touchscreen in mind. It would be an awkward item to implement into a 3D console title. The Whirlwind could have been a simple tap, but players became more involved when they also had to blow into the microphone to use the item.
There were also the new additions of the Rabbit Net, which well utilized the touchscreen, but most notable is the Spirit Flute. Phantom Hourglass was missing any form of an instrument entirely, which was a shock. The DS had the capability to bring a new depth to instruments in the series, and more realism to how it was played. Where Phantom Hourglass disappointed here, Spirit Tracks soared. The Spirit Flute was both enjoyable and challenging to play. Already it has won over many fans as their favorite instrument in the series, and why not? Brilliantly incorporating the touch screen and the microphone, it truly is a well designed item, clearly making the best possible use of what the DS can do.
Not only were the tunes played on the Spirit Flute great, but the whole soundtrack for Spirit Tracks was excellently composed. After fans were given a taste of the Spirit Tracks music from the initial trailer, many were impressed by the score. Some claimed that assuming the trailer music was anything like what the game had in store, Spirit Tracks was going to be a musical masterpiece. Regardless of what was expected of the game itself, the music was always looking good, and it did not disappoint. Phantom Hourglass’s soundtrack was seen as a disappointment overall, both in size and quality. Of course, such a vast soundtrack like we saw in Twilight Princess would not be feasible in a DS title, but Spirit Tracks still managed to compile a soundtrack around three times larger than that of Phantom Hourglass, while maintaining an excellent quality level.
Numerous tracks will be remembered from Spirit Tracks, to say the least. Soundtrack rips have already began to be added to fan’s music collections. Whether it’s Cole or Byrne’s theme, Link and Zelda’s duet, or the unison of Zelda and Byrne’s theme in the game’s emotional climax, there are plenty of classic pieces. Whether it’s theme songs for characters, theme songs for places, boss battle songs or overworld themes, Spirit Tracks has many more than its predecessor. Music is simply one of the areas where Spirit Tracks went far beyond what was seen in Phantom Hourglass.
Perhaps the biggest complaint directed at Phantom Hourglass was the repetition. With The Temple of the Ocean King constantly being revisited between dungeons, and floors having to be repeated over and over again, fans often felt like they weren’t progressing. Then there was the demand of the time limit, significantly reducing the ability to explore. The Temple of the Ocean King was not effectively designed, but in Spirit Tracks, The Tower of Spirits was. It did away with time demands completely, and removed any unnecessary repetition. The Tower of Spirits was based upon puzzles, whereas the Ocean King’s temple was based on stealth, and tediously waiting for the phantoms to be in the most precise position. While the tower was constantly visited, acting as a central hub to the quest, floors didn’t have to be completed over and over. Each visit to the tower bought something new, something not as repetitive, and throughout the whole game, Link had some leverage over the phantoms, unlike how powerless he was against them in Phantom Hourglass until it was almost over.
On the topic of being tedious and overused, after The Wind Waker had given fans more video game sailing than they ever needed, Phantom Hourglass continued the sea-borne journey upon the S. S. Linebeck. Fans have often testified how the sailing consumed too much of the game’s make up. In other words, it got old fast. Spirit Tracks, of course, replaced the boats with the Spirit Train, and although there was as much time spent traveling by train as there was by boat in Phantom Hourglass, very little negativity has been heard towards the train, if at all. Being something new, and different, many fans greatly enjoyed driving the train. If a similar control styled train appears in a future Zelda title, things will likely change, but for now, skilfully maneuvering the train and having more control than with the steamboat is greatly pleasing to majority of the series’ fanbase.
When it comes to difficulty and challenges in the series, Phantom Hourglass is often listed amongst the easiest. Spirit Tracks can hardly be said to be alike. While it starts off simply, by the time of the Fire Temple, Sand Temple and the later levels of the Tower of Spirits, many of the puzzles were simply stunning. They were excellently crafted and challenging to players, whether new or old to the series. People have to admit the occasionally moment of having no idea of how to reach their goal, whether a key or opening a door. These times were few in Phantom Hourglass. Often during the game there were moments of simple awe when you discovered how items, characters and the environment came together to form the solution. Zelda developer Eiji Aonuma didn’t lie when he spoke about Spirit Tracks having amazing puzzles, like none before seen in the series.
Another way that Spirit Tracks shines is by not just having a stunning main storyline, but also a vast array of sidequests. Perhaps this is the most often mentioned improvement from the first DS title. Phantom Hourglass had very little outside of the chief story, a part from some such as the mermaid sidequest, a trading sequence and the usual heart pieces. As the Official Nintendo Magazine said pre-release, Spirit Tracks ‘is rammed to the gills with side-quests’, and it is. There’s collectibles, stamps, rabbits to catch, passengers to ferry around, the whip race, the Goron Target Range, the Pirate Hideout quest, as well as the usual upgrades, heart pieces, unlockable areas and hidden secrets. Even all that is just a start to the many extras Spirit Tracks held in store.
One of the key points of Ben’s article on a Four Swords game for DS was how the controlling of multiple Links could be done better than on any other console with the DS. While not going in this direction exactly, there were large proportions of Spirit Tracks where players controlled both Link, and Zelda in the bodies of various Phantoms. Controlling multiple characters at once was simply perfect for the DS. Phantom Hourglass didn’t take advantage of this concept, except in a brief stint with Gongoron, but Spirit Tracks used it greatly, both in dungeons and in battles. And although Zelda may not have always done what you wanted, the concept of two playable characters at once, working together as a team, was great for the series, and perfected on the DS. The Four Swords series never quite got as good as this.
Yet another criticism of Phantom Hourglass is both its storyline and its apparent lack of purpose for the overall series. Both Spirit Tracks and Phantom Hourglass deviate from the formula of a Triforce and Ganon driven story, showing that even though they are the icons of the series, they are not always necessary. Both games have new villains and very new problems. Storywise, Phantom Hourglass was original, but it was lacking. Barring the backstory, the popular ghost ship scene, and the ending, much of the earlier and later portion of the game was left completely blank, with no twists, with nothing revealed. It begun as ‘awaken the three spirits’ and then continued as ‘collect the pure metals’ to make the Phantom Sword. It was simply dungeon to dungeon until the final boss, Bellum. The purpose for the dungeons was forced, but not with Spirit Tracks. Spirit Tracks managed to remain consistent. While it had the formula for each realm, there was a clear cut goal, nothing stretching the game for the sake of more temples. Storyline was revealed piece by piece throughout the game, with cut scenes well spaced, not grouped. Spirit Tracks kept a great balance of both gameplay and story right throughout the game.
Spirit Tracks doesn’t improve on the adventure mode alone, but also the multiplayer battle mode. The Phantom Hourglass Battle mode is fairly stagnant. It’s simply alternating turns between playing as Link and the Phantoms, seeing who can get the most force gems safely into their base as Link, with the Phantoms opposing them. There is little that can really be done. Spirit Tracks’s Battle mode is overall more enjoyable as there are pits around the courses, bomb flowers, and other attacks that can be used on opposition players. It is literally a battle amongst the players: more fast paced and more action packed. It wasn’t solely stealth based like Phantom Hourglass. The battle grounds were also more enjoyable, with more varied designs, and different obstacles, from lava to ice. The idea of playing a multiplayer Zelda mini-game against your friends has been made more attractive with Spirit Tracks.
Looking at the two DS titles from a wider series perspective, Phantom Hourglass is seen as contributing very little to the chronology, or further developing notable aspects of the series. It is seen as a deviation from the main conflicts, alike to Majora’s Mask. That doesn’t make them unimportant, or not great Zelda games, but when whatever morals and story there was is complete, the series hasn’t developed in depth. Phantom Hourglass vaguely added to the topic of Life Force, and Force Gems, but carried little for the series. Spirit Tracks is seen as quite the opposite. While it isn’t the classic Ganondorf tale, it holds much importance for the series. Some are even calling it the game that ‘saved the timeline’.
Leading up to pre-release of Spirit Tracks, Aonuma claimed that with these newer games he was trying to connect the earlier games together, towards a more definitive timeline. Likewise to what he said about the puzzles, this was accomplished. Spirit Tracks has confirmed the commonly accepted belief of a new Hyrule being founded post flood, allowing for other games in the series to be placed on the adult timeline. Furthermore, it elaborates on the concept of Life Force and Force Gems being energy that can be given as a gift of gratitude, explaining the Force Gem given to men in The Minish Cap backstory. Along with that, due to the similar art style many have seen a strong connection and indication of the Four Swords series being a post Spirit Tracks chain of events. However you interpret what’s given, Spirit Tracks gives more to the overall series than Phantom Hourglass did.
Spirit Tracks is certainly a fantastic game. It took all of the criticism heaped on Phantom Hourglass, and constructively improved on it. While it isn’t near the overall favorite of the entire series, Spirit Tracks brings many elements to the series that were previously unseen, and some that have been desired for decades. Finally, in Spirit Tracks, Zelda took the more active role that many have wanted her to take for decades. She was no damsel in distress. Rather, she was Link’s partner right throughout the quest. Not only that, but there was the aspect of romance, long missing from the series since The Adventure of Link, except for vague hints here and there. Spirit Tracks presented romance that was beyond the usual, but not so much as to overshadow the story. It gave us enough to satisfy the players who have wanted it.
There is one new aspect that Spirit Tracks brings to the series morally and emotionally, which has inspired many players. It deals with some very human emotions. For a game that was initially called ‘casual’ and ‘childish’, Spirit Tracks is very mature. Phantom Hourglass was strongly humor driven, but Spirit Tracks is beyond that, even though it has humor in appropriate doses. Fans have deemed Spirit Tracks to be one of the saddest endings to any game in the Zelda series, due to people’s attachment to the character Byrne. To many, it is the series’ most emotional ending.
In many ways, Byrne represents many of us. He lusted for power, and did things that he wasn’t proud of, but he saw reason before the end. The Legend of Zelda has spent too long focusing on the one hero that comes and overthrows the villain and lives happily ever after. Spirit Tracks introduces the other type of hero. It adds an element of realism. Spirit Tracks shows us that sometimes people have to give their lives so that evil can be undone. They are the heroes that allow for others to do what will be remembered as the heroic deed. While it is a common moral in history and classic fantasy novels, it is new to Zelda. Byrne had to give his life for Zelda and Link to go on to succeed. Spirit Tracks introduced the concept of dying to protect what you believe in, not just fighting for it. Without question, Byrne has quickly become a favorite, having many tears shed for him by players at his death. For once in the series, Link and Zelda fight with a very personal grudge for what was taken from them by the villain.
Spirit Tracks has done much for the Zelda series, for the DS, and Nintendo as a company. Despite initial impressions, it has delivered more than anyone expected, and deserves its spot as one of the most anticipated games of 2009. We’ve all learned that not only should you not judge a book by its cover, but you shouldn’t judge a game before it even has a cover. Frankly, any ideas of the ‘casual versus hardcore’ idea has vanished with Spirit Tracks. There is only The Legend of Zelda: a delight for fans both new and old.
Phantom Hourglass had its limitations, and although Spirit Tracks isn’t without some of its own, Nintendo has made up for all of those in Phantom Hourglass this time around. Many are calling Spirit Tracks the best Zelda since The Wind Waker, and whether you agree or not, it was one truly amazing adventure. It was Zelda all over, but also very unique. Phantom Hourglass was a Zelda game on the DS, but not until Spirit Tracks did we meet a Zelda game clearly made for the DS. A game that used the console’s unmatched potential. Spirit Tracks could never have been executed this well on any other console, but Phantom Hourglass, with a few adjustments could have been a Wii adventure. It may have taken them two goes at it, but Nintendo definitely got it right this time with Spirit Tracks.