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The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS) artwork

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS) review

"The final form of the DS Zelda games turned out to be one of the best in the series"

We were at the end-of-the-line for the DS. Mobile devices rapidly halted its once explosive popularity. The iPhone and HTC Dream had already been released and the novelty of touch input and motion controls in the DS and Wii were wearing thin. Casual gamers had no loyalty to Nintendo and were abandoning it in droves for cheaper mobile experiences. While the new DSi partly mitigated the piracy that plagued the DS, the damage of cheap and abundant R4 cards had left a lasting mark on the DS market and developer's willingness to invest in the platform. The life of the DS was already over when The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks pulled into stations just a few months before it's successor, the 3DS, was announced.

It is not surprising that Spirit Tracks turned out to be one of the worst selling games in the series. Phantom Hourglass epitomized the milieu of DS shenanigans that traditional gamers decried as gimmicks, taking a beloved franchise and adding touch screen and microphone features they never wanted. While Phantom Hourglass could get by on goodwill, people knew what they were getting with Spirit Tracks. By 2009 it didn’t have the wind of raging DS sales in its sails to propel it along like Phantom did. Spirit Tracks is now that other weird DS Zelda game, selling only a third of what its predecessor had. Even here on HonestGamers, Phantom Hourglass has eight reviews; Spirit Tracks has one (the one you’re reading).

At a glance, it seems like Spirit Tracks’s obscurity is deserved. Not just being a twilight DS release, everything about it is weird. If you didn’t like Phantom Hourglass for its commitment to odd DS controls, then you’ll roll your eyes to find out how Spirit Tracks doubled down. Then there’s the locomotive theme, not to mention the on-rails exploration that spits in the face of the illusion of freedom the series has always provided. If you want to write off Spirit Tracks you have your pick of reasons.

But if you’re willing to blow all over your DS like an idiot, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best games in the series.

A Wide World

While I don’t really like thinking of games as spawning from a single creator's mind since so many people work on them, the train appears to be all Aonuma.

For the two years that Spirit Tracks was in development, half the time was spent working on the train and how the game loop would work. The odd inspiration came from a children’s book せんろはつづく (Senro wa tsuzuku, translated: The Tracks Go On and On) by Takeshita and Mamoru Suzuki. Aonuma was reading the book to his kid at the time and found inspiration in how a group of children explored a world by laying down new tracks and then taking the train home.

The Japanese subtitle for Spirit Tracks, Daichi no Kiteki, translates roughly to “Train Whistle of the Wide World.” The on-rails movement in Spirit Tracks would seem like the opposite of a “wide world” since the player cannot actually move freely, but like the children in Senro wa tsuzuki, the player has an open world in front of them and no way to access it because there are no tracks--in Spirit Tracks the tracks have literally disappeared from the world and need to be replaced. Though the initial map shown to the player has forests, rivers, and hints of interesting things laying just beyond its borders, progress is blocked because there is no way to get there.

This sets up a game loop where the player completes a dungeon or a side quest, which unlocks new tracks, allowing exploration of new areas that were previously inaccessible. Even though the player cannot jump out of the train and run around, there is still a sense of exploration and wonder around each bend of the tracks. New stations are unmarked until you find them along the way and there is genuine variety in the different locales. The overworked is quite dense with places of interest.

Like Phantom Hourglass, there are four quadrants to the overworld. Unlike its predecessor, these don’t all look like the same boring puddle. The different regions of New Hyrule have a personality of their own, with different music when you first ride into them, new set pieces, and plenty of places to find as you unlock new tracks. In Japanese, the name for each part of the map is called a “Wide World,” emphasizing the frontier-style exploration of the player. In English, Wide Worlds were localized with the more traditional name “Realms” (example: Wide World of the Forest became Forest Realm). While this change is minor and helps make Spirit Tracks fit better into the greater Hyrule fictional world, it de-emphasized the exploratory intent.

It’s not just the player exploring in Spirit Tracks. The team at Nintendo went off the rails. Phantom Hourglass stayed largely in the confines of the world set up by Windwaker, but Spirit Tracks throws series conventions out the window, and not just with the train thing. This game goes all-in on the touch controls to the extent that the Tower of Spirit, a central dungeon that is revisited half a dozen times, is built around the touch screen. Many puzzles have solutions that are novel in sometimes shocking ways. The story is also weird and goofy, and Spirit Tracks is the only game in the series with more than one ending.

It’s also the only game in the series where you get to play as Zelda.

Phantom Zelda

The Japanese subtitle was actually determined after the English Spirit Tracks had been decided. The English title emphasises the story centered around spirits imprisoning the evil Malladus as well as your spirit companion. One of the rejected Japanese titles was “Train Whistle of the Spirit,” which would have been more inline with the English name but was also a bit creepy, like a ghost train.

You do have a ghost-like companion, but she has more sass than ghast. Shortly after meeting Princess Zelda during your engineering graduation ceremony, her physical body is stolen and she is left in spirit form. This might be the only time in history where a princess is kidnapped and then enlisted to save herself. Her spirit plays the typically loathed role of helper companion, joining the infamous likes of Navi and Midna. But hey, listen, Zelda is actually not annoying; in fact, she plays one of the most important and unique functions in the game.
This might be the only time in history where a princess is kidnapped and enlisted to save herself.

Spirit Tracks contains a recurring dungeon analogous to the Temple of the Ocean King from Phantom Hourglass. Before you rage quit this review at the mere mention of that dreaded place, the Spirit Tower is very different. To start, once you clear a segment of the tower, you need never return to it again. There is also no timer and puzzles do not reset when you leave. These changes alone nullify the chief issues with the Temple of the Ocean King. You can return to previous floors later, if you want, to access a few hidden treasures that were not accessible until you acquired a later item, but this is entirely optional.

The Spirit Tower still has indestructible phantoms that Link must avoid, but these are a short-lived threat. After obtaining 3 light crystals, Link can power up his sword and stab phantoms from behind. While stunned, Zelda can possess the phantom and take control of it, becoming a nearly indestructible instrument of death. She can obliterate foes, distract phantoms, walk through spikes and fire, teleport across the map, carry heavy objects (including Link), and other things that Link cannot do. The Spirit Tower is built around exploiting these new abilities and having Link and Zelda work together

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS) imageThe Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS) image
Unlike Navi and similar companions, you’ll never feel the urge to kill Zelda, which is good because she’s already dead.

This is not some glorified escort mission though as Zelda is indestructible. The player can freely switch between Link and Zelda, requiring the abilities of both characters to complete puzzles. To control Zelda, the player draws a line and she will follow it, allowing the player to give her commands and then switch back to Link while she asynchronously completes her task. It’s like playing Ico, except you can directly control Yorda and she’s a behemoth death knight.

The fact that this dual character control works with just a touch screen boggles my mind. Switching between the two characters is seamless, easy, and requires so little mental energy that the player can focus on important stuff, like how the heck you are supposed to hit that stupid switch you can’t figure out how to reach.

Throughout the Spirit Tower, the player will encounter different types of phantoms with their own abilities. One phantom has a flaming sword that can light the way through dark areas; another lets Zelda roll around like a boulder and destroy terrain.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS) imageThe Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS) image
Zelda can possess phantoms (left) and then be directly controlled by drawing a path for her to walk (right).

The big difference between the Spirit Tower and the Temple of the Ocean King is that I actually enjoyed it. Several times in Phantom Hourglass I knew I needed to return to the Temple, and just had to force myself through it to move on, but in the half dozen returns to the Spirit Tower, I felt no such hate. Each foray revealed new mechanics and new ways of playing that were often a complete surprise. The solution to many of the puzzles resulted in me saying “cool!” under my breath when I found the solution.

One of my favorite parts involved fighting a boss with both characters. The player needed to use Link to get the foe to miss an attack with a grappling hook, then have Zelda grab it and yank the foe down, and then have Link attack. The fact that the player can control two characters so effortlessly with just a stylus is a credit to just how well designed this mechanic is.

Refinement and Reinvention

Spirit Tracks inherits a lot of mechanics directly from Phantom Hourglass, but improves them in key areas. The most obvious control changes are rolling, which is now executed with a double tap and is much easier to do on-demand, and pausing the action while the player switches items. Just below the surface, there are a lot of other small changes that add up in a big way.

If you play Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks one after the other, the difference in quality of the dungeons is stark. Phantom Hourglass’s dungeons and puzzles were serviceable, but beyond using the touch screen they did not stray far from what we’ve been seeing in the series for decades. Spirit Tracks goes out of its way to try new ideas and use all it's items in different ways. The whirlwind acquired in the first dungeon, for example, can be used to confuse enemies, clear debris, attack, and even move objects. One puzzle that stumped me for awhile required me to use it to blow Zelda over a pit! There were lots of moments like that in every dungeon. According to Aonuma, many of the puzzles in the game were prepared not by a scenario designer as is typical but rather by a software engineer. This might explain why so many puzzles feel very different from the rest of the series.

It’s not just the puzzles that are better though. Each dungeon just looks and sounds unique. The Forest Temple actually looks like it belongs in a forest; the Fire Temple actually has fire. There’s music instead of dead silence (the overworld theme rivals even the best on console offerings). While these are just basic expectations for a 3D adventure game, Spirit Tracks is the first handheld game in the series to live up to the high standards set by Ocarina of Time.

While Phantom Hourglass has decent bosses, Spirit Tracks makes them larger and more complex. Each boss has multiple forms and requires much more interesting item usage to take down. One of my favorites was a fire monster. The player needs to get the foe to break a rock to create a platform, carry the platform to make a bridge across lava, and then ride a mine cart up the shaft to get high enough to shoot it in the eye. All of the bosses are like this: fun with a satisfying amount of challenge and some attractive set pieces. (As a great addition, all of the bosses can be replayed in a minigame at Hyrule Castle.)

About half of the dungeon tools from Phantom Hourglass return. The highly versatile boomerang is back and used throughout the game in new ways, like freezing paths across water. Arrows and bombs also return, although bombs are an optional acquisition and seldom used. Several new items dig in on the DS microphone, but not in contrived ways like it's predecessor. use of DS features, but may be polarizing. Unlike blowing out torches or shouting in Phantom Hourglass (which are stupid), blowing in the microphone in Spirit Tracks is essentially performing a task that would have required a third hand. The whirlwind fan, for example, is aimed with the stylus and then fired by blowing into the microphone. Without blowing, the input would be something more cumbersome.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS) imageThe Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS) image
Controlling Link is great and slightly more refined the Phantom Hourglass. New items like the Spirit Flute (right) use the microphone which works better on original hardware.

The Spirit Flute probably gets the most hate. The player uses the touch screen to hold and slide a pan flute, and then blows into the microphone to play it, which feels like a natural way to use it. I found this easy to execute on a DSi--possibly even a little fun. Like Ocarina of Time, Link will gain a few songs to play on the flute to perform a few specific tasks, like awakening statues and finding items buried in the ground. And summoning chickens. The flute is also used to play duets with characters to unlock each dungeon. If you read around forums, you’ll see a lot of people had trouble with these duets, although I was able to complete all of them on the first or second try. The game shows the notes on the screen, gives the player a chance to practice, and does not have any penalty for failure.

I theorize that microphone issues have more to do with hardware than the game. Both the DS Lite and DSi have their microphones at the joint between the two screens, where the player would naturally blow. Some other devices have the microphone in a less convenient location. For example, on the original 3DS, the microphone would be obscured by the player’s hand for right-handed play. Some players may have difficulting using it through no fault of the game as it could not have anticipated the design of newer hardware.

As a whole, the dungeons and items in Spirit Tracks have both a personality and a uniqueness about them that Phantom Hourglass lacked. There are puzzles and items here that you’ll only see in this game because they are so specific to the DS hardware, and not in that gimmicky DS way either. At a time when the Legend of Zelda series was starting to look formulaic with Twilight Princess, Spirit Tracks is entirely its own thing.

Freedom on Rails

The Legend of Zelda series has always played a balancing act between balancing its design for exploration and metroidvania-like progression with guiding the player and crafting an experience. On one end of the spectrum are games like the original Legend of Zelda and A Link Between World where the player can tackle dungeons in different orders. On the other end are games like Windwaker where freedom is an illusion frequently dissipated by clear roadblocks that force a player to go down a specific path.

Spirit Tracks, like Phantom Hourglass, falls under the latter. All events must be completed in a specific order and, outside of sidequests, there is no latitude with how the player can progress. Spirit Tracks largely holds the player's hand and leaves little ambiguity about where to go and what to do next.

Outside of the main quest, Spirit Tracks provides a paradoxical amount of freedom. The player lays down new tracks every time Link receives a force gem from an NPC. These are usually dolled out for banial tasks like transporting people from one station to another or delivering cargo between towns. As the player completes primary objectives like the main temples, more and more opportunities to acquire force gems appear, with a total of 20.

The new tracks made available through force gems typically include at least one or two things of interest, such as a new station or a shortcut to make travel between realms faster. This is where the “wide world” vision can really be felt. Stations and areas of interest are not marked until they are visited so there’s still a sense of mystery and exploration about what’s around the next turn, even if there is no freedom of movement.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS) imageThe Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS) image
While there is more variety driving compared to the boat in Phantom Hourglass, it is painfully slow if you just need to get from point A to B. At least blowing the whistle never gets old.

Whether Spirit Tracks succeeds in this vision is open to debate. The different optional stations are showcases for ideas that didn’t make their way into dungeons. For example, Spirit Tracks forgoes the time-honored target shooting mini-game with the bow and replaces it with a prison escape set piece where the play shoots enemies while being chased in a minecart. Another station takes away all of Link’s weapons and has him run through mini recreation of the Temple of the Ocean King. In total, there’s nearly a dozen optional places to visit.

I would personally like to complain about one side quest in particular that has the player catching rabbits hidden along the tracks. The mini-game for catching them isn’t very fun and there’s 50 freaking rabbits. It’s reminiscent of the gold skulltulas in Ocarina of Time, where the effort and rewards are not proportional. Don’t feel shame if you just use a map online to find them all.

A Spectre in the Series Canon

Spirit Tracks sits in a strange place in the Legend of Zelda series. Taking place in some alternate future timeline, it’s not related to any other game in the series narratively or thematically. As the sequel to the polarizing Phantom Hourglass and being released late in the DS’s life, it didn’t make it into many player’s hands either so it can’t rely on nostalgia to keep its memory alive.

The style of gameplay that started with Phantom Hourglass died with Spirit Tracks. It was an evolutionary dead-end made official with A Link Between Worlds, which dropped the touch screen controls despite being on the 3DS. With the 3DS officially deprecated by Nintendo, we are unlikely to see a game like this again nor are we likely to see a re-release.

Both Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks have a doomed future. The long gone Wii U Virtual Console had some DS titles available, but as the 3DS withers away these games will be inaccessible without original hardware. Emulation has saved countless obscure and poor selling games from obscurity (cf. Minish Cap), but that won’t be the case with Spirit Tracks. It uses so much about what makes the DS special that playing it on anything except a DS will always be imperfect.
Emulation has saved countless obscure and poor selling games from obscurity, but that won’t be the case with Spirit Tracks.

It’s a shame that Spirit Tracks will not be able to defend itself going forward. Diving into Internet forums, it is clear that the DS Zelda games were divisive from the beginning, garnering praise and hate often for the same things. Control schemes like blowing into the DS to play the spirit flute may be derided among some gamers on principle, but if you really want to decide for yourself then you will need to go to some effort to actually play it. Unlike Minish Cap and Majora’s Mask, which have both been redeemed and better appreciated after their release, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks will never receive such a resurrection.

Phantom Hourglass might not be making into most people’s list of favorite Zelda games, but Spirit Tracks made it into mine--no small feat considering the pedigree of this series. The unique setting, fantastic puzzles, and dual-character controls make this stand apart not just in its series but among the vast DS and 3DS library. There is just nothing else like it, and given the direction of new hardware interactions, we are likely not to see anything like it again.

I don’t mince words here: Spirit Tracks is one of the best games in this series. Those who skipped it because of its superficial DS gimmicky missed one of the best games of its generation. If you still have a DS or a 3DS, you need to experience this game while you still can, before hardware failures and technical limitations doom Spirit Tracks to inevitable obscurity.

dagoss's avatar
Community review by dagoss (June 02, 2021)

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