even though it had been little more than half a year since i’d finished phantom hourglass i ended up playing through its immediate sequel the legend of zelda: spirit tracks. zelda fans seem to be divided when comparing it to its predecessor: they either strongly prefer one or the other. (the comments in this post at gonintendo.com about the difference in sales between the two games provides a good sampling.)
i fall squarely in the spirit tracks camp, for several reasons. first off, i, along with many other people, was initially very skeptical about the central train mechanics, and was worried it was too un-zelda-like. the creators themselves (as discussed in the as always insightful iwata asks feature for the game) were initially unsure about this as well, but it works quite well as a variation of the ship-sailing mechanic seen in hourglass. although there are occasional reprieves, travelling by train gets to be rather dull, but after wind waker and hourglass i was just relieved that i didn’t have to endure any more of that monotonous sailing.
in general phantom hourglass cribbed too much from wind waker, and in spirit tracks you can really feel the creators enjoying the freedom of not having to rely on a previous template, despite reusing the same game engine. in fact, as with majora’s mask‘s reuse of ocarina of time‘s engine, being freed of focusing on the game engine seems to have given the zelda team the opportunity to develop some almost completely new ideas for the series, and in this case the biggest one is the successful dual-character mechanic involving zelda herself in a starring role for the first time (although similar gameplay has been used to a lesser extent in other zelda games). this in itself would be noteworthy, but aside from some slightly awkward controls the ghost/link partnership provides some great gameplay that doesn’t get stale, helped by the fact that, as with phantom hourglass, these sections take place in the central multi-part dungeon and alternate with the more-traditional dungeons. (although unlike hourglass thankfully you don’t have to trek through the same sections over and over again.)
the game also wins points for being notably more difficult than hourglass. the touchscreen controls are almost identical, as are many of the items, but there are a few new items, one of which is completely new to the series. the DS’s mic input is a bit overused for my taste, but it does help make the game distinct from others in the series. the sidequests are as useless as ever and the useless ship parts make a reappearance here as train parts, but i definitely appreciated that the tedious and slow treasure-hauling mechanic from hourglass is replaced by a snappy “hunt the rabbit” mini-game.
all in all even though i played it a bit too soon after hourglass, spirit tracks feels superior in pretty much every way, and not only that but it’s a highlight to the entire series as well. so much so that it somewhat surprisingly chugs ahead of many of the other zelda games i’ve played recently and onto my “greatest games of all time” list. the game’s mechanics are so well-integrated with the DS itself that it’s hard to imagine how the inevitable 3DS zelda is going to top it, but if any company can be counted on to continue to impress, it’s nintendo. looking forward to that whenever it comes, but in the meantime i’m excited to see what they come up with in the upcoming skyward sword, due out in just under a month.
some spirited spirit tracks links:
– the official site doesn’t have many surprises, but it does include some official wallpapers
– entry at zelda.wikia.com. can you believe this is the 15th game in the series??
– great commercial for the game that aired in north america
– as a promotion, aardman animations created several flipnotes for the game
– the game was featured on a recent edition of nintendo week
– and a bit of trivia: apparently only north america got a different box for the game