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?