The Nintendo DS was released worldwide in 2004. Much like the Game Boy product line it succeeded, it became a best-selling console, selling millions upon millions of units worldwide. One of its launch titles was a remake of the pioneering Super Mario 64 and the first side-scrolling entry in the Mario franchise since Super Mario World, New Super Mario Bros., debuted the following year. With Nintendo’s big-name franchises making an appearance on the new console, fans began speculating on a new Zelda installment. All doubt was eliminated during the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2005 when Nintendo unveiled Phantom Hourglass. Following a series of delays as a result of diverting resources to finish Twilight Princess and Shigeru Miyamoto’s desire to become involved with the development cycle, it was released in 2007. Though some were skeptical over the game’s reliance on the touch screen, Phantom Hourglass was a success, amassing a lot of critical acclaim across the board. In the face of this success, there was only one logical thing to do: make a sequel.
Phantom Hourglass was created by many of the same people behind Four Swords Adventures. Half of the Phantom Hourglass staff in turn remained for the development of its sequel. Helming the project once again was Daiki Iwamoto while Eiji Aonuma served as its producer. As they already had an engine right out of the box, Mr. Aonuma speculated that this new game wouldn’t take long to complete. After all, while the idea for Ocarina of Time had been pitched since 1995 before seeing its release in 1998, Majora’s Mask only took a single year to complete. Though it wasn’t delayed at any point and the development progressed smoothly enough, this new game wound up taking two years to complete.
Mr. Iwamoto and his team used the same art style as Phantom Hourglass. Mr. Aonuma later commented that realistic graphics would make the characters scale poorly with their surroundings. He relented it was theoretically possible, though not ideal. Despite being confirmed as a sequel to Phantom Hourglass, Link was not going to travel by boat this time around. Mr. Aonuma wanted to retain the sense of seeing land becoming clearer as Link approaches it, but decided to approach the idea from a different angle. That is to say, Link would conduct a train instead. Mr. Aonuma cited a children’s book named The Tracks Go On and On as an inspiration for this game’s basic premise. In it, children construct railroad tracks, creating tunnels and bridges whenever they find mountains or rivers. He thought this book would fit with the series, though he didn’t tell his fellow developers about it at the time.
Surprisingly, one of the biggest difficulties the development team had was coming up a subtitle for this installment. Among the first proposed was Pan Flute of the [Something]. This was quickly shot down when they decided the title would be too long and inappropriate considering the Pan Flute obtained in the game isn’t a main item. They then decided to change Pan Flute to Train Whistle, reflecting Link’s ability to conduct a train in this new installment. The next step was to determine what the [Something] should be. In an ironic twist, the English subtitle had been decided before the domestic one: Spirit Tracks. Examining the English title, the development team decided that, because spirit means soul, they should name the game Train Whistle of the Soul. This too was rejected when the team felt it sounded too creepy – Mr. Aonuma in particular felt it made it sound “haunted”, which ran counter to the premise. Said premise was the idea of “running a train across wide-open spaces”. After asking for suggestions from the staff, they at last settled on The Legend of Zelda: Train Whistle of the Earth.
Around that time, the Nintendo DSi was unveiled. It was to be a newer model for the Nintendo DS capable of downloading digital titles in addition to utilizing physical cards. To Nintendo’s surprise, fans reacted much more strongly to the reveal of Spirit Tracks. Writing for IGN, Craig Harris found the storyline “compelling” with an “interesting premise”. He was consequently quite excited to play it for himself. He wasn’t the only one, for when Spirit Tracks saw its worldwide release in December of 2009, Nintendo had another hit on their hands. By the end of the financial year ending in March of 2010, Spirit Tracks sold over 2.5 million copies. Despite being a success, the figures were roughly half as much as those for Phantom Hourglass. The reception, though mostly positive, seemed a little less universal this time around with critics having a number of issues with the game. Taking the numbers at face value, it’s easy to get the impression that Spirit Tracks is a step down from Phantom Hourglass. Does Spirit Tracks hold up? Was the less enthusiastic reception a result of the touch-screen novelty having run its course?
Playing the Game
WARNING: The following review will contain spoilers for this game, The Wind Waker, and Phantom Hourglass.
Following the defeat of Bellum in the Ocean King’s domain, Link, Tetra, and her band of pirates set out to discover new land. To their amazement, they eventually happened upon an uninhabited landmass far larger than any island they had ever laid eyes on. As Tetra knew she was the reincarnation of Princess Zelda, they christened this land New Hyrule, reinstating the Hyrulean monarchy. An age of peace followed with the Spirits of Good watching over the people.
Some time before Tetra and her crew discovered the land, a war was fought between the Demon King Malladus and the Spirits of Good. The benevolent spirits subdued their foe, but were unable to destroy him. He was sealed beneath the earth in giant shackles. Built above ground to prevent his escape was an edifice called the Tower of Spirits. Because the power of the Spirits had been depleted during the conflict, they ascended to the heavens, leaving New Hyrule in the hands of the chosen Hyrulean people. They prospered in the years that followed, forging the chains used to bind Malladus into tracks, which in turn served as the impetus for a new technological marvel: the train.
One-hundred years have passed since the kingdom’s founding. Another youth by the name of Link is an apprentice to a train engineer named Alfonzo. He has proven exceptionally skilled and his final test is to guide a train to Hyrule Castle in order to receive his engineer’s certificate from Princess Zelda, the great-granddaughter of Tetra.
This right here is the first major difference between Spirit Tracks and its predecessor. Before Link is even given a sword, you are introduced to this game’s main mode of transportation. Accordingly, navigation isn’t as simple as drawing a straight line from your current position to your destination. You do set a course for your train by drawing a line on the touch screen, but because of the nature of this vehicle, you obviously cannot stray from the tracks. The lever on the side of the screen functions like a gear shift. With it, you can alternate between a fast, normal, stopped, and reverse state.
The rope above the lever blows the train’s whistle when you pull it. You might encounter an animal on the tracks along the way to the castle. If you do, you can scare it off the tracks by sounding the whistle. If you collide with it, the animal will become enraged and ram into your train, damaging it. As with the S.S. Linebeck, the train has its own energy meter. Like Link’s own life bar, it is measured in hearts. However, while the monsters you may encounter in the future vary in the damage they inflict, the train only ever takes damage in single-heart increments – no more and no less.
Moreover, while the only boats you had to deal with belonged to pirates in Phantom Hourglass, you must keep in mind that on your way to Hyrule Castle, there are other trains on the tracks. When you come to a junction, a lever appears on the bottom of the screen, allowing you to choose between the two directions. The train is set to go in the direction based on the line you drew, but along the way to Hyrule Castle, you might see that your current route is on a collision course with another train. Fortunately, unlike in Phantom Hourglass, you don’t have to draw another route to correct yourself. You can simply use the junction lever to avoid crashing into the train. The train’s current route is shown as a dotted line on the map, so you can plan your course in advance. Should you crash into another train, the game automatically ends and you must start over from the beginning of your trek.
Making his way to the castle, Link meets Princess Zelda for the first time. She rewards Link for his service, giving him his much sought-after certificate. She also slips him a note. In it, she tells Link of her suspicions regarding her right-hand man, Chancellor Cole. Also in the note is a map detailing a hidden path to her room. There, she informs Link about the Spirit Tracks, which have been disappearing from New Hyrule. The few tracks you saw learning how to navigate the train are all that remain of them. She wants to do something about it, but is confined to her room. Link agrees to escort her out of her room to the Tower of Spirits. To help him, Zelda hands Link a change of clothing: a green hat and tunic used by fresh recruits.
Getting Zelda out of the castle introduces players to what will become another important mechanic throughout the game. That is to say, for the first time in the core series, Zelda is a playable character. Your goal is to escape the castle without alerting the guards. If she’s caught, you must start over from the beginning of the scene. When you want to control her directly you must tap her icon on the touch screen. Near Zelda, a swirling circle appears. It’s blue by default, indicating that she is following Link. By tapping the circle, you can draw a path for her to follow. Once she has reached her destination, the circle will turn pink. She will stay in that location until you either draw another path or have Link whistle. If you opt for the latter option, she will reunite with Link.
Link himself controls similarly to how he did in Phantom Hourglass. Unlike his predecessor, he doesn’t have a fairy companion to act as a guiding icon, but you still control him via the touch screen. You move him by holding down the edges of the screen with the touch pad in the direction in which you want him to move. One big improvement over Phantom Hourglass reveals itself as a character explains the basic controls to you. To roll in Phantom Hourglass, you had to draw small circles in front of Link. This made it nearly impossible to roll in a precise direction as drawing a circle caused the game to think you were going in a different direction momentarily. Worse still, drawing circles often did nothing; in practice, you had to move the stylus back and forth quickly to achieve the desired effect. In Spirit Tracks, rolls are executed by tapping the ground in front of Link, which is both easier and more intuitive.
The guards’ field of vision is represented by a translucent cone in front of their respective icons on the map. Simply put, Zelda will be caught if she wanders into this cone. This becomes a problem when certain guards refuse to move from their spot and are blocking the only path Link and Zelda can take. What can they do? The answer is simple. You can position Link in front of a guard. While Link diverts his attention, you can have Zelda sneak by and exit through the gates.
After escaping the castle, they meet up with Alfonzo. As a former soldier, he agrees to help Link and Zelda travel to the Tower of Spirits. On the way there, the tracks suddenly disappear from under the train, causing it to derail and crash. Arriving on the scene is Chancellor Cole and an enigmatic man named Byrne. It is here the former reveals himself to be a demon and the mastermind behind all of these strange events. Though Alfonzo puts up a valiant effort fending off these assailants, Byrne overpowers him, rendering him unconscious before doing the same to Link. Cole then uses a strange spell on Zelda, causing her to fall lifelessly to the ground. The duo then uses an arcane power to summon the Demon Train, which in turn disrupts the natural order and causes the remaining tracks to disappear.
Awakening in Hyrule Castle, he is shocked to see Zelda floating above him. Furthermore, only he can see her. Dismayed at her current state, she gives Link the Spirit Flute and asks him to take her to the Tower of Spirits using an old tunnel behind the castle. Before Link leaves the castle, he receives a sword from the recruits. Once again, it is used by quickly drawing the stylus across the touch screen in a slashing motion. The same principle in Phantom Hourglass is true in Spirit Tracks as well; the direction of your own motions generally translates to how Link slashes the sword.
One notable difference concerning swordplay in Spirit Tracks is that it’s slightly more difficult to execute targeted attacks. This is especially noticeable whenever you’re fighting smaller enemies. On some level, I can understand why this was done; in Phantom Hourglass, you could mindlessly tap each enemy on the screen with no deeper tactics on your part required. Nonetheless, fresh off of Phantom Hourglass, this small change can be a little jarring. It does make combat slightly more tedious, though thankfully, an enemy’s size typically corresponds to the threat they pose to Link. It’s only when you’re swarmed with smaller enemies that this quirk manifests.
Link and Zelda reach the Tower of Spirits shortly thereafter. They are greeted by an old woman named Anjean, identifying herself as a Lokomo. She speaks to Link and Zelda about Malladus and that his influence has caused the tracks to disappear. The only way to restore the Spirit Tracks is to find the four Rail Maps hidden in the tower. Once they do, Spirit Tracks leading to four of the five temples across the land will be restored.
When you guide Link to the first proper floor of the dungeon, you’ll realize the task is easier said than done. Patrolling the hallways is a Phantom. These heavily armored foes cannot be defeated through brute force. Like the castle guards, you can gauge their field of vision by examining the map. You’ll know Link has been spotted if a dramatic musical cue plays. By evading the Phantoms for a long enough time or retreating to a marked safe zone, they will give up the chase and resume their normal patrol. Because the Tower of Spirits does not drain the life force out of those who venture into it, the only consequence for getting attacked by one is that Link gets sent back to his point of ingress with one heart deduced from his life meter.
Only at the very end of Phantom Hourglass could Link take revenge on the Phantoms by wielding a sword capable of harming them. In Spirit Tracks, a way to combat them appears to be presented to him as early as his first encounter with them. You’re told that by collecting three Tears of Light, Link can strike a Phantom in the back. As this was how Link dispatched them in Phantom Hourglass, the uninitiated player will gleefully do so only to be stunned when the attack appears ineffective. Thinking quickly, Zelda flies toward the Phantom. To her amazement, she is now in control of the guardian.
Early in the game’s development cycle, the team decided to focus on the ability to control a Phantom. Having one of the most fearsome enemies in Phantom Hourglass under your command certainly seemed like a novel idea, but this naturally raised the question of why a Phantom would fight on Link’s side. In response to this question, the team felt that a second character should take control of the Phantom – and Zelda was the one to do it. Surveys conducted in the United States indicated consumers liked headstrong, independent female characters. Among Zelda fans, two of the title princess’s alter egos, Sheik and Tetra proved particularly popular. Agreeing with the survey’s results, Mr. Iwamoto also expressed a desire to make Zelda an important part of Spirit Tracks. Through these brainstorming sessions, they decided Zelda as a Phantom standing side-by-side with Link was exactly what the series needed.
It is here that you realize the true purpose of the escort mission; it was subtlety preparing players for this development. Controlling Zelda in this state is exactly the same as it was when you were sneaking her out of the castle. If an enemy happens to be in the way of the path you draw for Zelda, she will attack them automatically – provided they remain there when she arrives, of course. As a Phantom, Zelda has abilities Link does not possess. She can traverse hazards such as spikes and lava without taking damage. She can also transport Link past said hazards by having him ride on her shield. To accomplish this, he needs to jump down onto it from a ledge or any other vantage point.
Resting on a pedestal on the tower’s third floor is the first Rail Map. True to Anjean’s word, collecting it causes railroad tracks to magically appear. The development team originally thought to have players lay the tracks themselves. This idea was eventually vetoed when Mr. Aonuma realized what a logistical nightmare it would be. Players wouldn’t know where to lay the tracks, potentially allowing them to access later areas early or render the game unwinnable. Even after making the decision to have the tracks appear in fixed locations, the travel system took roughly one year to complete. As it is in the final product, the tracks are always there, but you need to find Force Gems to render them visible. Only the larger ones found in temples are required to complete the game. Even so, there are twenty smaller ones available as rewards for helping citizens in sidequests. These don’t cause as many tracks to appear, but they could prove useful, opening up shortcuts or new areas teeming with desirable items such as Heart Containers or treasures.
Because Spirit Tracks was built on the same engine as Phantom Hourglass, it would be a perfectly sound assumption that many of the issues plaguing the latter remain here. That would indeed be the case. One of the problems I had with Phantom Hourglass concerned how difficult it was to multitask. You can move and attack at the same time effortlessly in a game that operates with a standard controller due to one hand controlling a different separate action. With the touch-screen gameplay of Phantom Hourglass, and by extension, Spirit Tracks, movements and attacks are executed using the same hand. Coupled with said hand frequently blocking the action onscreen, and even using standard sword slashes became unnecessarily difficult. If anything, this flaw was made worse due to the retouched mechanics making targeted attacks harder to carry out successfully.
One of the biggest sources of irritation, however, stems from having to use the microphone extensively. For context, Phantom Hourglass had an occasional puzzle that utilized the microphone such as one instance in which you extinguished a candle by blowing into it. They were clever because the answer is right in front of you. By virtue of being released on the DS, the game had already given you everything you needed to solve these dilemmas – all you needed to do was realize it.
Unfortunately, when developing Spirit Tracks, the team saw fit to utilize the microphone to rather intrusive degrees. Housed in the game’s first dungeon is the Whirlwind, a handheld propeller capable of conjuring small whirlwinds. Admittedly, the fact that it’s activated by blowing into the microphone makes both equipping and aiming it easy. Where the extensive microphone usage becomes particularly irritating is whenever you’re made to use the Spirit Flute. Much the Ocarina of Time, the Spirit Flute is a magical instrument, the effects of which Link activates by playing songs. I give the developers credit for making these songs easy to play.
This goodwill is shattered whenever you meet a guardian of one of the land’s five temples. In order to restore the tracks leading to the next temple, you must play a duet with them. While the songs you play throughout the game aren’t complicated and register as long as you sound the correct notes, the duet requires a sense of timing and pacing. This by itself isn’t an untoward requirement, but the game is wildly inconsistent about what constitutes a passable performance. There were duets in which I fumbled several notes, yet still passed while the final one necessitated at least ten attempts despite the tune sounding correct. The guardians will tell you if you’re completely out of sync or on the right track, but without any deeper feedback than that, it can be difficult to tell what you’re doing wrong.
Finally, no critique of Spirit Tracks would be complete without commenting on what is arguably its main draw. I find it difficult to say one way or another if the Spirit Train granted to Link and Zelda by Anjean is an objective improvement over the S.S. Linebeck. One significant advantage it has over its predecessor is that it the train doesn’t stop for any reason unless you put on the brakes. Though this makes arriving at destinations a little more difficult, it’s a good thing in practice because it means you don’t have to constantly update your route if you need to make a detour for whatever reason.
Another thing I like about the train is that because it stays on fixed routes, dealing with enemies is much easier. While tanks driven by hostile forces randomly show up, you usually don’t have to worry about crashing into them and taking damage. In Phantom Hourglass, theoretically having the enemy come from any given direction made it easy for them to swarm you. With Spirit Tracks, enemies generally move in a more predictable fashion, making it simple to return fire. Also, from a pure aesthetical standpoint, traveling by land is far more visually pleasing than sailing an endless sea. The Wind Waker found a way to make it work, but this aspect didn’t translate well to the DS.
Like the S.S. Linebeck, you eventually gain the ability to customize the train. Instead of finding parts randomly as rewards for completing sidequests, Spirit Tracks features a crafting system. Throughout the game, you will find treasures of varying values. You can sell them at the trading post for rupees or you can exchange them for train parts. As before, your train’s integrity is improved if the parts match. This process is much more streamlined than the corresponding one in Phantom Hourglass, in which you were left at the mercy of the random number generator as to whether you would obtain the one ship part you wanted. On top of that, there are only four sections of the train to customize as opposed to eight types of ship parts, ensuring you don’t have to expend too many resources to obtain the best set.
As fun as it is to travel by train, this mechanic seems to take just as many steps back as it does forward. Though traveling the Ocean King’s realm quickly became boring, being able to warp at any time to any of the designated zones significantly mitigated the problem. In Spirit Tracks, you are practically obligated to enjoy riding down the railroad tracks because you will spend a lot of time on them. There are shortcuts in the form of warp gates. They are activated by shooting them with your cannon. When you do, it takes the train to a corresponding gate somewhere else in New Hyrule. While this an appreciated feature, it makes traveling much more tedious. Instead of being able to simply warp whenever you want by drawing the appropriate symbol, you have to drive the train to a gate, sound the whistle, and go through the portal. As you will have to use the portal to see where it goes, this often leads to using it once and going back through it to return to the previous area. Rarely is adding steps to what was previously a simple process a good idea, and this particular instance is not an exception.
It’s also worth mentioning that many of the sidequests involve transporting people or items in bulk. They’re not so bad at first, but it doesn’t make up for the fact that you’re doing the exact same things every time. If your train has a passenger, you have to obey the signs on the road. This means sounding the whistle, slowing down, and speeding up when appropriate. Meanwhile, when you’re given items to transport, the circumstances typically result in them dissipating, necessitating you to deliver them as quickly as possible. Even if they don’t, you have to contend with enemies along the way, and you will lose cargo if the train takes a hit.
Speaking of which, one of the most annoying aspects about conducting in this game is when you have to contend with Dark Trains. These possessed trains proceed with reckless abandon, and a collision with them will end the game instantly. It is almost always a bad idea to introduce enemies capable of felling the player character in a single blow to games that feature health meters. If the developer chooses to do so, they must find a way to make dealing with them tolerable. Unfortunately, I would argue this team failed to do so. In fact, during my first playthrough of this game, every single one of my losses could be attributed to these Dark Trains. They can be slowed down by shooting them five times, but if you’re going in reverse, they will still outpace your train. Even worse, later portions of the game introduce Armored Trains, which can turn around on a dime and are impervious to your cannon. Mercifully, they are much slower than Dark Trains.
Now that I’ve said my piece on how this game falls short, I feel it’s only fair to point out what it does right. One of the problems I had with Phantom Hourglass is that its selection of items was both predictable and largely redundant. Other than to showcase the touch screen mechanics, there was no reason to have two variety of explosive weapons. Similar to Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks has a small array of items, though this time, the puzzles do a much better job building on themselves. For example, though you obtain the Whirlwind in the first dungeon, you are always finding new applications for it. A similar principle applies to the later items you find, and there is a much better balance to be found between mainstays and entirely new mechanics. On top of all this, switching items now pauses the game, meaning you no longer have to worry about leaving yourself vulnerable to enemy attacks while doing so.
Similar to how Link’s predecessor had to return to the Temple of the Ocean King to obtain a new Sea Chart, this incarnation finds himself going back to the Tower of Spirits upon completing a dungeon. The Temple of the Ocean King was without any question the worst dungeon the series had seen by that point in its history, forcing players to traverse the same floors with a barely justified timer hanging over their heads. Conversely, this Link can take a staircase to reach the newest floors of the tower directly. In doing so, this dungeon comes across as a sly apology for the woefully misbegotten Temple of the Ocean King. In a way, it’s actually a bit more accurate to describe the Tower of Spirits as a compilation of mini-dungeons than a singular one.
Without a time limit or the need to repeat what you already accomplished, it’s far easier to appreciate the Tower of Spirits for its unique mechanics. Before you gather all three Tears of Light, the game becomes an extended stealth mission. The series had dabbled with stealth sections in the past, but as was the case with Phantom Hourglass, the developers realized what makes them work. With careful planning and observation of the map, it’s easy enough to evade the Phantoms.
When you do have Zelda take control of a Phantom, Spirit Tracks begins acting like a puzzle game. To an even greater extent than the dungeons Link traverses alone, there is the sense that you need to know the mechanics inside and out to have any kind of success – random trial and error will get you nowhere. This is because a lot of the challenge lies in how you control Zelda. Escorting her out of the castle becomes humorous in hindsight because in a lot of ways, the roles are reversed for the rest of the game. Though Link is the better fighter, she often finds herself protecting him – whether it’s from other Phantoms or rolling boulders. In fact, you can even have her divert a Phantom’s attention – just like how Link did for her with the palace guards.
As you will quickly find out, there are several varieties of Phantoms, and utilizing their unique abilities is vital to traversing the tower. Sometimes you’ll find that you simply can’t proceed using a certain Phantom. To correct this, you can have Link attack another Phantom from behind, allowing Zelda to switch bodies – so to speak. This automatically causes the original Phantom to disappear, so you don’t have to worry about it reanimating and coming after Link in retribution.
All in all, perhaps the greatest strength of Spirit Tracks is that, for the most part, it doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. To put it another way, the developers realized that, for all of its flaws, Phantom Hourglass had quite a few flashes of brilliance. The bosses were well-designed, it had firm grasp on how mandatory stealth should work in an action-adventure game, and it boasted many creative puzzles. All of those aspects remain true in Spirit Tracks – the first of which becomes crystal clear when the second boss proves to be amazingly difficult.
Analyzing the Story
The story of Phantom Hourglass failed in a number of ways. Its most egregious mistake was sidelining Tetra in favor of the insufferable Linebeck. Rendering a well-developed character a stereotypical damsel in distress – something The Wind Waker had made a point to avoid – was one of the worst narrative decisions the franchise had seen by that point. Then again, the narrative’s biggest flaw was something less obvious.
When Link’s Awakening was released in 1993, people accepted Game Boy releases being inferior versions of console titles with the sole advantage they had being the fact that they were portable. Nobody could have expected the narrative to boast as much ambition as it did. It seemed to imply that the creators would craft a unique story for every single Zelda game. With the exception of Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures, which had a greater focus on multiplayer sessions, the series appeared to stay true to this pattern. It was therefore a disappointment when Phantom Hourglass brought nothing new to the table as a sequel to The Wind Waker. Zelda has been kidnapped by a demon and Link must amass enough power to defeat it. Phantom Hourglass seemed to ignore the evolution the series had undergone in the twenty years leading up to it by operating on a premise wouldn’t have felt out of place in the 8-bit era.
In the wake of Phantom Hourglass, could Spirit Tracks be considered an improvement? I would say the answer to that question is yes. The ironic thing is that Spirit Tracks accomplishes this task in a roundabout way. The overarching goal is to save Zelda and defeat a powerful demon. It may seem like another derivative plot and it rarely gets any more advanced than that. How can a game with such a straightforward premise hope to stand out from its predecessors? The answer is quite simple: the narrative of Spirit Tracks could be read as one big affectionate parody of its own conventions. The evidence is littered throughout the experience. The game doesn’t even try to hide Chancellor Cole’s status as the conflict’s driving force – the artists having given him an appearance that screams, “Bad guy”. Upon reaching a dungeon, Zelda says that she will wait for Link at the entrance, claiming it to be family tradition. There’s even a moment in which Link and Zelda congratulate each other after defeating Byrne only for him take advantage of their momentary distraction and flee the scene.
Self-parodies are exceptionally difficult to pull off. When done poorly, it could come across as the writers acknowledging their flaws without taking any significant steps to address them. I feel Spirit Tracks succeeds where many other works with a similar tone fail because the jokes exist for self-deprecating purposes than as a cheap substitute for any legitimate issues. I think what also helps is that by 2009, the Zelda franchise had existed for over two decades without ever hitting a rough patch. In doing so, the creators earned the right to make fun of their own franchise, and it’s a definite step up from the bland Phantom Hourglass.
As far as tone in concerned, the game’s story has a quality very similar to that of Earthbound. That is, it is silly quite a lot of the time, yet it knows when to put on a straight face. It’s not even afraid to be endearing, as the interactions between Link and Zelda throughout the game more than prove. Due to Zelda taking possession of an animated set of armor, many observant fans have compared this game with Fullmetal Alchemist – a popular anime and manga series at the time. Specifically, one of its leads is a young boy who, through bizarre circumstances, possesses a suit of armor. Zelda commandeering the Phantoms has a similar appeal to it. It’s quite amusing to see what is usually a fearsome foe speak to Link excitedly or express fear over seeing a rat.
Zelda’s state throughout the game also helps resolve one of the most annoying issues plaguing Phantom Hourglass. Linebeck’s cowardly nature was clearly intended to justify Link exploring the dungeons alone. On top of being a tenuous premise, it raises the question of why Link couldn’t simply operate the boat himself. Zelda is always traveling with Link in spirit form, but she can’t directly aid him unless she is in control of a Phantom, which only exist in the Tower of Spirits. On top of being a much better reason for why she can only help Link under the right circumstances, it gives her an actual character arc. At the beginning of the game, it’s clear she lived a sheltered life and though she desires to protect her land, she’s driven a little bit more by getting her body back. As the game continues, she becomes much more adamant about saving New Hyrule, transforming into a true hero.
It’s difficult to believe she’s even the same character anymore when she expresses determination to fight alongside Link against Byrne, Cole, and Malladus. The last situation in particular leads to an incredible sequence in which she helps Link deliver the coup de grâce.
The conflict, though not particularly deep, has quite a few interesting story beats as well. Byrne was once one of the Lokomo. He turned on his mentor Anjean and the Spirits of Good when they didn’t give him the power he desired. After Malladus takes over Zelda’s body, Cole betrays Byrne. Realizing the error of his ways, he gives Link valuable information on how to save her. In the final battle, he is killed by Malladus in his last stand. Though this is a basic last-minute villain redemption moment, it’s well-executed, and ends the game on a surprisingly bittersweet note. Fortunately, it’s not at all tonally jarring, and it does show that the writers put quite a bit more though into this narrative than they did with Phantom Hourglass.
Drawing a Conclusion
I find how Spirit Tracks was received to be an interesting subject. While Phantom Hourglass took the critical circle by storm with its touch screen-centric gameplay, Spirit Tracks seemed to come and go with little fanfare by comparison. It’s debatable that, by the end of the decade, the DS’s touch screen had lost its novelty, and a second game using a similar control scheme wasn’t likely to get anyone’s attention. It’s a bit of a shame because I see Spirit Tracks as the game Phantom Hourglass should have been from the beginning. It takes one of the decade’s most beloved games and uses its contribution to the series’ canon as a springboard to explore different ideas. One of the failings of Phantom Hourglass was that it clearly took many cues from The Wind Waker. In doing so, it comes across as a lesser version of that game, which was the fate of many early portable titles and one Yoshiaki Koizumi actively sought to avoid when conceiving the scenario to Link’s Awakening.
Though itself not quite on the same level as The Wind Waker, Spirit Tracks is a worthy follow-up. Taking the numbers at face value, it’s easy to get the impression that Spirit Tracks is the inferior effort. I can imagine quite a few critics believed that to be true simply because of its nearly identical gameplay. In the face of that particular criticism, I like to think of Spirit Tracks as a mulligan game. In other words, it is clearly cast in the same mold as Phantom Hourglass, but with a majority of its glaring weaknesses having been discarded. Though I appreciate that Spirit Tracks itself has quite a litany of annoyances, they’re either easy to tolerate or downplayed enough that getting through the game never becomes work. Even if you tried to get into Phantom Hourglass but couldn’t, I think Spirit Tracks is worth looking into. The touch screen takes some time to master, but the simplistic interface belies a very intricately designed game with clever puzzles and excellent characters.
Final Score: 7/10