"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.
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.
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
Community review by dagoss (June 02, 2021)
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