I, just moments ago, completed Spirit Tracks and thought I’d review it just for the heck of it. A good friend of mine (you may know him here as AppetitePat) told me I should try Phantom Hourglass a few years ago, as he knew how much of a Zelda fan I was. I always thought the stylus controls would turn me off, but it turns out Pat was right and PH became one of the few games in the series I completed in just a few sittings.
When it comes to The Legend of Zelda, I tend to think there are two different types of games in the series, 2D and 3D. The reason I differentiate them as such is because the dungeons are so completely different from the games in 2D compared to the 3D ones. Although I adore the 3D games, I slightly prefer the 2D. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no better adventure in 3D than going through a dungeon in Zelda. However, I was born and raised with The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link on the NES. After that I fell completely in love with A Link to the Past. At one point, a friend of mine came home with a curious Game Boy game with the Zelda logo on it and I never looked back. I love OoT, Majora’s Mask (one of my favorite console games), Wind Waker and Twilight Princess as much as the next guy but the experiences I had playing ALttP and Link’s Awakening as a younger child, will always be the ones most revered.
The reason I mention all of this is that I believe there are also two types of Zelda fans. The ones that only play the 3D games, and those who play all of them. I really think that people who fall into the first category are doing themselves a great injustice by not trying games like Spirit Tracks and Phantom Hourglass. The stylus controls alone make for a fantastic portable experience. If there is something that could turn non-fans away from Spirit Tracks however, it’s the linear-train gameplay. I have to admit, if I weren’t a hardcore fan, I would have put the game away after a few hours. I’m pretty sure fanatical Zelda fans will defend this to their grave, but there’s no way that the train aspects added anything to the actual game. Don’t get me wrong, they could have made this work by actually adding useful upgrades like more powerful bombs or faster trains (this seems like a no-brainer). Navigating the whole game becomes a chore. Taking part in side-quests is a pain in the ass, because of all the backtracking you do while you basically sit there and do nothing while the train rides itself. It’s almost like an on-rail Zelda. Does that sound all that appealing to you?
What’s wrong with exploring? Heck in the original Legend of Zelda, you could basically do the dungeons in any order you wanted with a few exceptions. In recent Zelda games (TP included to a certain degree), there’s not much incentive nor room to explore Hyrule. It’s a sad trend that the franchise has followed for a few years now and unfortunately; it doesn’t look like Skyward Sword will change this.
Another reason why fans are discouraged from exploring is thanks to the ugly visuals when riding that train. I’m surprised Nintendo couldn’t come up with anything prettier. I didn’t really enjoy the sailing in Wind Waker, but I sure found it awesome in Phantom Hourglass. Still though, if you can live past this, you’ll have yourself an awesome portable adventure that I highly recommend.
Another small drawback is the game’s storyline. I really enjoyed it, even made me laugh in multiple scenes. However, although it starts nicely, you get barely any advancement until the ten-hour mark. Phantom Hourglass had cut-scenes every hour or so and they would last pretty long. It was refreshing to have a Zelda game that took its time to tell a story. The plot is very touching in Spirit Tracks, but it does push your patience. I’m not a gamer who usually cares much for storylines; I think that it can sometimes break the mood when you have too many cut-scenes. Is it too much to ask for both?
The stylus controls for some reason are almost always criticized. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I did have some problems with this game from time to time but it’s hard to be perfect. In Phantom Hourglass, I don’t recall ever being frustrated or troubled by the stylus. In Spirit Tracks, there were a few bumps along the way. You will sometimes roll when you want to attack and attack when you want to roll. It’s no big deal as the game isn’t exactly hard. Your health can take quite a few hits, which has been anther trend in the series for the past several games. However, there is one part I would have lived without. Spirit Tracks introduces a flute item in which you need to blow into the microphone in order to play notes. While doing so, you also need to change notes with the stylus. Most songs are easy to play but there are a few that will test your patience. I really don’t think the challenge was intentional during those sequences. The flute segments simply don’t work very well.
It’s way easier to point out the things you don’t like about a game, than to mention the aspects you do. Even with the faults mentioned above, Spirit Tracks is still one of the best portable games out there, and a must own on the DS. The dungeons are simply amazing. Using all your different items to solve puzzles will not only be challenging, it will also be mandatory. Every item you gain will be used during the entire adventure, not just once and a while as per usual. The weapons are pretty cool too, made much more fun thanks to the stylus controls. If you have never played a 2D Zelda before, this is the perfect game to start. Some of the temples feature some of the best puzzles I’ve ever solved.
There’s not much else to say here. If you have time on your hands, and can enjoy a relaxing portable experience that will challenge you, by all means pick up Spirit Tracks if you haven’t already. To all those so-called Zelda fans that always skip out on these “inferior” 2D games, try this (or Phantom Hourglass) just once and see for yourself. The train navigating might be a bit too much, but you could always just go straight to the dungeons and not do too much “exploring”. Now that I’m done with Spirit Tracks, I can finally play OoT 3D! I do hope that this is not the last we get of 2D Zelda games. I do want a remake of Majora’s Mask, but a sequel to Spirit Tracks with an overworld would be even more fabulous.