Personal Score: 5.0
Spirit Tracks was the second game released on the DS in the style of Phantom Hourglass. Immediate comparisons were drawn between the two, which is understandable, considering how similar the two games are. They use the same control scheme, art style, and overworld navigation. Reviews for the game were pretty solid, though the gushing normally associated with Zelda releases was largely absent from most reviews. The majority of reviewers were content to give it high scores based solely on the fact that it retains the charm and involvement we’ve all come to expect from a major Zelda game. The puzzles, enemy/boss encounters and dungeon layouts all received generally high marks. However, most reviewers cite boring train traveling and some repetitive elements throughout the game as reasons for not giving Spirit Tracks a higher score. Additionally, the control scheme used in Spirit Tracks (and Phantom Hourglass) is not universally loved by critics or gamers. One element of the game that is both praised and loathed in the gaming community is the inclusion of the Spirit Flute (the game’s obligatory instrument, which functions using the DS’s microphone and touch pad). It is here, in the control department, that I find myself unable to truly look beyond the flaws of Spirit Tracks. In my previous review, I praised Skyward Sword for its fantastic control scheme and stronger story, but found the character designs and environment layout severely lacking. When it comes to Spirit Tracks, the reverse becomes the case; Spirit Tracks excels at providing a memorable cast of characters and cleverly designed environments, but it derails itself with awkward controls and a forgettable story.
An interesting thing to note about Spirit Tracks is its place in the Zelda canon; it takes place several generations after Phantom Hourglass, in a time after Link and Tetra have discovered a new land to explore. Here, they establish a new Hyrule kingdom. The landscape is sprawling in all directions, with most areas of the map following standard Zelda environments (Forest, Fire, Ice, Desert, Water, etc). What makes these environments exciting to explore is their particular placement in Hyrule history. Having completed The Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass, traveling seemingly endless oceans in search of a new home, players are now faced with a brand new world to explore. This is an exciting prospect for one who follows the Zelda storylines. This is what Link and Tetra were looking for, following the final farewell of old Hyrule and its king as they were engulfed by the sea. I was there when Link and Tetra first set out, and I was eager to see what their search had yielded. The world of Spirit Tracks seems untouched and exhilarating, begging to be explored.
The character designs in Spirit Tracks are in the same vein as The Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass. Expressive, colorful and quirky, the characters in Spirit Tracks are among the most endearing in the Zelda franchise. Many of the characters are familiar faces from Wind Waker/Phantom Hourglass (or in some cases, distant relations). All of the characters you encounter are brimming with life and personality.
Link and Zelda are once again the focus of the story, but this time they’re very rarely apart from one another. Early on in the story, Zelda’s spirit is split from her body and her antagonists abscond with her lifeless coil. Throughout the remainder of the story, Zelda accompanies Link as a spirit, able to possess suits of armor in dungeons (referred to as ‘guardians’). When not dungeon crawling, Zelda and Link engage in some of the most heart-warming interactions found in the series to date. Zelda is a bit less ‘brave and bold’ than we’ve seen her in previous titles, adopting a more regal and delicate manner. Zelda attempts to deal with her unfortunate situation with trepidation and uncertainty, while Link blazes ahead with confidence and youthful exuberance. Part of the charm of Spirit Tracks is watching Zelda evolve from a frightened, mostly helpless girl into a more confident and helpful companion to Link. It’s definitely nice to see Zelda in something closer to an active role in the story, as opposed to a passive figurehead.
She looks pretty tough in that armor…but watch out for mice. Mice will MESS YOU UP, girl.
The NPCs in Spirit Tracks are also a bright spot throughout the game. Local wildlife, friends and enemies are all uniquely colorful and charming. Following the art style, NPCs tend to be flamboyant and evocative (i.e., Bunnio and the Postman). Most of the characters scattered about the land of New Hyrule are endearing and memorable, and help Spirit tracks stand out as a testament to Nintendo’s ability to craft unique, quirky and charming characters. The main antagonists are slightly less memorable than our heroes or the townsfolk, but are appealing in their own right none-the-less. Chancellor Cole and Byrne fill the roles of mustache-twiddling schemer and the strong, silent enforcer. Malladus (who steps in to fill the shoes of Ganondorf) is pretty typical of your final boss; intimidating, wicked, and somewhat mysterious. While he doesn’t exactly have the same iconic presence or significant ties to the main characters that Ganondorf does, he serves his purpose as the ‘larger-than-life evil entity’ well enough. It would be nice to see Nintendo revisit Malladus in the future, and perhaps give him some more complex motivations (similar the motivations Nintendo gave Skull Kid in Majora’s Mask, or Ganondorf in The Wind Waker).
The last standout feature of Spirit Tracks I’d like to address are the dungeons and bosses. Following Phantom Hourglass, Nintendo had moved the bar a little lower than previously set with other handheld Zelda games. Spirit Tracks improves on every design element in Phantom Hourglass and makes for some genuinely unique experiences in the Zelda franchise. Typically, most dungeons focus on using a touch pad mechanic that has been applied to a particular item (i.e. the boomerang or the whip). While this process definitely feels familiar to the Zelda faithful, Spirit Tracks seems to flow in such a way that keeps the entire dungeon fresh (the exception being The Tower of Spirits, which I’ll touch on later). I found myself traversing dungeons and completing puzzles in an almost seamless journey towards the boss encounter. The Sand Sanctuary in particular feels fluid and cohesive. This particular dungeon is a standout. Link and Zelda appear to have gotten mixed up in an Indiana Jones adventure, avoiding massive boulders and dispatching undead fiends while employing one of the coolest items in the series (the Sand Wand). When I’d finally completed the dungeon, I found myself feeling accomplished, but somewhat sorry that the experience was over.
Boss encounters in Spirit Tracks are a definite improvement over Phantom Hourglass. While a good portion of them retain the dreaded “use the item you just got in a telegraphed manner” formula frequently used in Zelda games, Spirit Tracks manages to use the DS hardware and dungeon-specific items in memorable ways. The fight with Cragma and Byrne are particularly memorable, using the top and bottom screens of the DS to create a very dramatic encounter. If Nintendo decides to revisit the Phantom Hourglass/Spirit Tracks formula of play for the 3DS, I’d relish the opportunity to encounter more bosses like the ones present in Spirit Tracks.
Reading THE PROS, you might think I’d have given Spirit Tracks a much higher score. The sad fact is, there are a few key aspects of the game that almost ruin the experience for me. Notably, the control scheme, a weak story, repetitive elements and the damn Spirit Flute work together to make Spirit Tracks my least favorite Zelda game to date. I consistently had to force myself to complete certain sections of the game, specifically every visit to The Tower of Spirits and any segment requiring me to use the Spirit Flute. I expect great things as a Zelda fan, and no amount of charm can redeem a game that I have to wince through.
To be fair, most of what I didn’t enjoy about Spirit Tracks is largely a result of individual preference and not necessarily any technical problems with the game. I would consider Spirit Tracks a strong entry in the series based solely on it’s aesthetic quality and more unique gameplay elements. However, not everything about Spirit Tracks is objectively without flaw. One point of criticism that seems to follow the entries in this particular storyline (WW, PH and ST) is the tedious over-world travel. In The Wind Waker we had a vast sea to sail on, as we did in Phantom Hourglass. In Spirit Tracks, the tedium of the predetermined paths in Phantom Hourglass is simply put on rails. Moving from one locale to the next requires you to plot out a course following the train tracks that lay over the landscape, with nothing much to do except wait for your train to arrive at its destination (save the occasional necessity of fending off aggressive animals with bombs, or altering your course to avoid malicious steam engines). This makes pursuing many side quests a bit of a chore, considering you’ll be plotting a course that will take time and might distance you even further from your next destination.
Another qualm that reviewers (and myself) have found with Spirit Tracks involves the necessity to return to the Tower of Spirits following the completion of each dungeon. Each visit results in largely the same experience…activate switches and/or light torches, avoid/kill occasional enemies, and try to get Zelda to go in the direction you draw on the map. This is always a bit awkward, as you must stop what you’re doing in order to direct Zelda about the dungeon quite frequently. Drawing her route on the touch pad is technically sound, but it is definitely tedious. You must return to this dungeon six times. SIX. I found myself having to take a break from playing after completing the other dungeons, knowing I’d have to go back to the Tower of Spirits ONCE AGAIN.
TOWER OF SPIRITS: HERE WE GO AGAIN…AGAIN.
The story of Spirit Tracks might not have anything to do with the Triforce or Ganondorf, but it’s feels pretty familiar. Hyrule is in danger from a demon king, the spirits of Hyrule are powerless to stop it without Link and Zelda’s help, and Link and Zelda have to traipse about the land gathering gems and whatnot before they can confront the big baddie. Aside from a rotating cast of characters, Spirit Tracks does nothing innovative in terms of storytelling to set it apart from other Zelda games. In fact, it’s even more primitive than previous entries in the series, having little in the way of political intrigue or inter-woven plots. Following the superior storytelling of Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, Spirit Tracks is a massive step backwards.
Now to address the Spirit Flute. The bloody Spirit Flute. Whoever thought it was a brilliant idea to blow into the microphone and use the touch pad at the same time should have their fingernails removed. I found this mechanic to be awkward, unresponsive, and downright silly. I often play my DS while in bed, while my wife is sleeping next to me. You can imagine how thrilled she was to hear me blowing air at my DS in the wee hours of the night. Sorta like this…
Me: *blows air at the DS*
Wife: *rolls over* “What the hell are you doing?”
Me: “Um…playing the flute.”
Wife: “Go to sleep, weirdo.”
Needless to say, this prevented me from playing the game at night. Even during daylight hours I found myself unable to effectively play the Spirit Flute. Whether it was a flaw with my technique or a faulty microphone, I never had an easy time playing the various songs throughout the Spirit Tracks. Dreading having to play the Spirit Flute made me dread playing the game at all.
The Spirit Flute, combined with the repetitive nature of The Tower of Spirits, the tedium of riding the train, and the weak story create a massive disappointment for me as a Zelda fan. The reason I’ve developed a sore spot for this game in particular is because I love SO MUCH about it. The characters are great. The concept of New Hyrule and what it could mean for future Zelda titles is exciting. Truly enjoyable dungeons offer some shining moments in The Legend of Zelda’s storied history. There are entries in the series that I found far less innovative or exciting. Yet I never had to force myself to play a Zelda game prior to Spirit Tracks. As much as I wanted to lose myself in New Hyrule and get swept into a rousing Zelda experience, I simply could not.
I’ve given Spirit Tracks a high score because I believe it is an objectively great game. Despite my own dislike for the game, I would call Spirit Tracks an essential playthrough for anyone remotely interested in The Legend of Zelda. It made great improvements to the formula introduced in Phantom Hourglass and was able to stay true to what could be considered ‘the Zelda experience.’ Almost all of what makes Spirit Tracks my least favorite entry is based on personal caveats in the gameplay and storytelling department. I hope that one day I may be able to return to New Hyrule with a new perspective and really be able to enjoy Spirit Tracks. Until then, I cannot bring myself to award it a high personal score.