I’m not ashamed of it: I didn’t like Phantom Hourglass very much. When I heard Nintendo was having another crack at a DS Zelda game and had seen the first trailer and batch of screenshots, I cringed. Phantom Hourglass was a game that suffered from several very deterring gameplay mechanics – the sailing was made monotonous and dull, and The Temple of The Ocean King… well, we don’t mention that when we discuss the great moments of the Zelda franchise.
Phantom Hourglass showed many of us – or at least myself – that a Zelda game didn’t necessarily have to be a gem amongst dust and rubble. And yet we ate it up, and ate, and ate for over a year. Phantom Hourglass was the last word of Zelda in Nintendo’s longest development hiatus since the gap between Link’s Awakening and Ocarina of Time. To those of us who enjoyed Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks’s appearance was a godsend – to the rest, it signaled that Nintendo might have been out of touch with its core audience.
Spirit Tracks has now been out for over two months. Most of us have bought, played, and even finished the game. Was it an improvement over its predecessor? How will Spirit Tracks stand in Zelda history amongst its brethren? And, more importantly, what does Spirit Tracks say about how Nintendo is addressing its core audience of gamers?
The Quick Gist
Spirit Tracks takes place chronologically after Phantom Hourglass, roughly a century after Link and Tetra discover new land (though we’re not told how long it took them to find said new land). The land, unfortunately, is plagued by evil – these kids can never get a break, can they? – and the spirits of good must work to fend it off. With all their energy, they seal the great evil away beneath the ground and lock it up with the Spirit Tracks and the Tower of Spirits.
A century later, this great evil has returned in the form of Malladus, the Demon King. Naturally, it’s up to Link’s latest incarnation to stop him. This time, Link’s companion is a bit different: It’s Zelda, in the flesh. Or at least for a little while. Fueled by your usual assortment of plot devices and items, you make your way across this New Hyrule to gather the materials you need to be able to stop Malladus’s revival, and later his destruction of the world.
A Train Travel-tastic Adventure
With the backstory covered, you immediately notice something big: the Zelda series has finally returned to solid ground with Spirit Tracks. Of course, if you thought that the ocean was green and brown you probably didn’t notice, because the mechanics of traveling are essentially the same as Phantom Hourglass. You still travel about the overworld in a vehicle, unable to leave a given path you set, and unable to get out of your vehicle and explore on foot (which you could do in The Wind Waker). Although Nintendo has fussed with the mechanics of traveling about the overworld slightly since Phantom Hourglass, it still feels like a gigantic step back from the likes of The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and even earlier handheld Zelda games which allowed the player to freely roam about the world without the aid of a vehicle.
That said, it’s great and fun for what it is. You travel about New Hyrule in a train, along the sacred Spirit Tracks which keep Malladus bound to his prison. Unlike in Phantom Hourglass, where you could guide your steamboat anywhere on the ocean, your Spirit Train is restricted to a set path – the Spirit Tracks. You can preset your route along the tracks if you like, or make turns along the junctions manually.
In Phantom Hourglass, there was a tendency to, well, fall asleep while traveling about the ocean. Since you could also preset your route in Phantom Hourglass, the attention-grabbing sailing from The Wind Waker disappeared. In Spirit Tracks, Nintendo’s tweaked, more fixed formula alleviates the issue somewhat. There are obstacles along the tracks, and new tracks to discover. More often than not the set route you pick before you start your travels won’t be the route you take to your destination, as you’ll be constantly fighting enemies and avoiding obstacles moving along the tracks (such as other trains).
This all culminates to make train travel feel much fresher than steamboat travel, and more unique than The Wind Waker’s sailing. However, it does not fix one of the most significant issues of the Zelda series as of late: The implausibility of having such a disjointed kingdom. As in Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass, and even Twilight Princess, the overworld is essentially barren. This is alright in Twilight Princess because you can go anywhere – and the same in The Wind Waker.
But in Spirit Tracks, all you can do is pass by this barren land, this white space, and feel that something is being taken from you. There’s this entire world to explore, but you can’t go explore it. The world feels so much smaller as a result – in fact, the entire world feels like it only consists of six towns and five dungeons. And, well, it pretty much does. But although it’s the same case in other Zelda games, they rarely feel so empty – Nintendo has always done a good job of making its worlds feel grand and full of life when, in reality, the worlds are rather small and empty. In Spirit Tracks, you only see anything when you stop at a train station. The towns are small, underdeveloped, and have at maximum ten or so people living inside them.
The entire population of New Hyrule might not be more than fifty folks. Your local neighborhood has a population many times the size of this. Heck, your high school might have a population ten or twenty times the size of New Hyrule. This wouldn’t be an issue if the land didn’t feel so empty – and the cause is the train mechanics. The steamboat traveling. The sailing.
While train travel was fun, even downright enjoyable, and the experience polished to a T, it was the direct cause of a much more striking issue: In future games, a de-facto “method of transportation” must disappear. After three games, it’s getting rather tired and it shrinks the size of this beautiful new world Nintendo has so carefully crafted by orders of magnitude simply for what it is.
Nintendo is clearly aware of this; Zelda Wii is expected to change things up a bit – or a lot. But for now, it remains that most of the Spirit Tracks gameplay is, essentially, what you saw in Phantom Hourglass.
The Control Scheme
In fact, the entire Phantom Hourglass formula remains essentially unchanged. This includes the inability to control Link using any sort of physical button and, although I can appreciate Nintendo’s interface decisions, there really is no excuse after the complaints with Phantom Hourglass to not include the option to control Link’s movements with the D-Pad. The D-Pad again becomes this useless instrument, with only the down button serving any actual function.
I can’t help but feel that the gameplay and interface issues caused by Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks are steps backward from over two decades of interface innovation in software and games. Apple’s iPhone has taught us that gaming without buttons is a different beast entirely, and Nintendo’s handheld was not set up for an all-touch interface. Ignoring half of your own product’s interface is not the proper way to push a system; it never has been, and it never will be.
Nintendo had learned how to properly implement Zelda controls with buttons on a handheld device the day it released Link’s Awakening for Game Boy, and for some reason it feels that it needs to forget that its systems have buttons that most gamers would cry to be able to use. This is an issue I have with the DS that goes well beyond Spirit Tracks, but it’s worth mentioning here because I can only hope that some smart interface designer at Nintendo is reading this article.
- The DS’s touch screen is resistive, and not very sensitive. This makes it not very ideal for short gestures, or gestures which require a high degree of accuracy. While you get this kind of accuracy on capacitive screens like Apple’s iPhone and other modern mobile phones, you don’t get it on the DS. The DS’s touch screen, in today’s market, is almost unforgivable in its accuracy and quality; there are better solutions out there that didn’t come from my circa 2003 Palm Pilot. This wouldn’t be an issue if not for the following…
- Nintendo omits button controls and replaces them with gestures that require accuracy that the DS does not have. Swiping is the big no-no here. In Phantom Hourglass, it was the little circles. Tapping is the only “gesture” that truly works flawlessly on the DS.
- A touch screen is not a replacement for buttons. Games want tactile feedback because tactile feedback results in high accuracy. Nintendo needs to use the L and R buttons, the D-Pad, X, Y, A and B. They should be able to make innovations without sacrificing controls, or else build a console made for full-on touch controls.
That’s all I’ll say about that, because I don’t want to wrongly give impression that I hate Spirit Tracks because of Nintendo’s interface decisions. Rather, I’d like to now focus on what Nintendo did right with the interface and gameplay in Spirit Tracks, and where touch controls work the best and are used appropriately.
What’s Right With the World
The touch controls that involve tapping are implemented gloriously; they’re just right. Tapping on an enemy to hit it has always felt great since Phantom Hourglass, and I’m glad that was left unchanged, even if it makes it essentially a piece of cake to kill any enemy.
I’m especially glad that the circles-to-roll gesture was abolished for a double tap for the reasons I explained above; that said, the slashing is still less accurate that it could be, and doesn’t always work, again for the reasons I explained above. Nintendo’s touch screen just isn’t up to spec with what it could be for the money we pay for this console.
The train controls are what’s right with the world here. Although I’ve already spoken about the train, I have to reiterate that it was executed skillfully – the train is fun, and fun to control, much more so than the steamboat! The variety of things you can do with the train and its controls make it second only to the King of Red Lions in transport and versatility.
The Tower of Spirits – Spirit Tracks’s counterpart to the Temple of the Ocean King – is probably the most welcome change in the game. Gone is the time limit and the stealth; in fact, everything about the Temple of the Ocean King you probably hated has been done away with for what really is six different dungeons that all happen to be in the same building. And controlling Zelda inside of those dungeons is easy – it took some getting used to, but in the end worked out great. Zelda’s inclusion I’ll get to in a bit, but for what it is it made the game much better, not worse.
But I have to reiterate – the Tower of Spirits is good. It’s really good, and it’s really challenging by the final two visits. It’s even unforgiving in some ways, but in good ways – none of it involves stealth and all of it involves great co-op puzzle-solving with Zelda and a slew of different types of Phantoms, each with a unique ability that only make the puzzles more fun to solve.
Overall, I think that Spirit Tracks is one of Nintendo’s more adventurous titles, in terms of gameplay. Their interface missteps overlooked (as that’s more of a console-wide issue of the DS being the illegitimate child of an iPhone and a Game Boy) Spirit Tracks offers a much more enjoyable and improved version of what you’ve seen before in titles like The Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass.
The Interesting Inclusion of Zelda
Nintendo has marketed Spirit Tracks as a revolutionary type of Zelda game, and it is – in a way. It is the first time that Zelda has accompanied Link, but she plays the rather standard role of “Link’s partner and guide”, which means she’s joining the ranks of Navi, the King of Red Lions, Midna, Ezlo, and Ciela.
When you really look back on it, these characters – with the exception of the King of Red Lions and Midna – have a history of being, well, not the most tolerable. They’re akin to Clippy from Office ’97. They’re supposed to help people out, and they do, only so much as one can tolerate them.
That said, Nintendo has made an increasingly valiant effort to work these partners deep into the story. Oddly enough, the most successful partners I know of are Midna and Issun – and Issun doesn’t even come from a Zelda game. Issun is from Okami, a Zelda-esque title for Wii and PS2, and is an example of a partner who screams personality. Midna is an example of a partner who doesn’t exist just to provide comic relief. Neither of these characters are plunged into their respective stories without serious reason for being there, which makes them not only integral to, but also essential to the experience of the game.
In Spirit Tracks, there was no reason to include a fairy – so no need for Ciela. In fact, it seems hard to imagine a way to spearhead an extra character into the game that actually adds something useful to the plot. The best way to go about it was to take a character that exists in practically every Zelda game and make that character Link’s partner – yes, Zelda herself.
To say it’s revolutionary might be a step too far. But it was the right decision. Zelda definitely isn’t going anywhere in the series, and to give her a real face – even if she’s the descendant of the already-vocal Tetra – is actually a welcome breath of fresh air for the series.
For probably the first time in a Zelda game, you really get to know Zelda’s personality. Twilight Princess had one of the most adult and yet one of the most mysterious Zelda characters of all; this is quite the opposite. Whereas you almost never saw Zelda in Twilight Princess, you’re with Zelda all the time now. She’s a brat – but she’s smart. She’s not there to provide you hints so much as drive plot, and that’s a good thing.
Where Zelda comes in handy is the Tower of Spirits, as the inclusion of her ghost opens the door to the co-op gameplay of that building. As I said, it’s a very successful remixing of the core elements of the Temple of the Ocean King. It’s not only welcome – it’s fun and adds something to the Zelda experience that you only got in other innovative Zelda titles like The Minish Cap.
Moreover, Zelda’s inclusion feels right and not out of place at all. And it’s about time that she was off protecting her own kingdom.
When I first began Spirit Tracks, I wasn’t thinking too much about graphics. Running with a DS (or really with Nintendo in general), you get used to having low graphical expectations and instead generate an appreciation for good gameplay. With Spirit Tracks, it takes a subtle eye to notice the graphical improvements from its predecessor, Phantom Hourglass. However, once you see them, it becomes immediately clear the spit and polish and effort that went into creative what really is a graphical marvel on a system like this.
For example, Spirit Tracks’s graphics engine does something most modern console games still never do at all: anti-aliasing, or edge smoothing. Why do games never do this on consoles? Unlike their PC counterparts, consoles have fixed processing power. Game developers usually opt for graphics that are not anti-aliased to save that processing power and get higher frame rates, which makes for a smoother picture on the screen.
Spirit Tracks selectively anti-aliases elements of the environment that never move. What does that mean? Well, it means that the edges of, say, the train station in Castle Town are perfectly smooth – but the train station is still generated in real time, in 3D. To you, though, you might have thought it was a pre-rendered background. A painting. Something, well, not 3D.
This is where you begin to notice where Spirit Tracks differs from Phantom Hourglass graphically. You start to notice the spit and polish that went into the Phantom Hourglass graphical engine, and it all culminates into an impressive package. Cutscenes are cinematic and the frame rate never drops, except in some rare occasions on the overworld when tanks or pirate ships appear. The smoothness of the game is a testament to more powerful systems that this kind of heavyweight graphical processing can exist without compromising the frame rate of the game.
In short, Nintendo has coupled one of the most graphically intensive rendering styles (cel-shading, which is more intensive than realistic rendering) with one of the most graphically intensive processes – anti-aliasing – and come out with a smooth and beautiful game. It is, in short, a one-of-a-kind experience on a handheld, and other developers should take a hint and start making games this way. Nintendo has just proven that virtually any handheld on the market can handle some form of anti-aliasing; the DS is the least powerful of the bunch, and yet it can handle anti-aliasing in Spirit Tracks, even if selectively.
Hoo boy – this one’s a biggy. I hate to keep referencing back to Phantom Hourglass, but I have to restate my feelings on this one: Phantom Hourglass’s score was abysmal. Koji Kondo wasn’t even on the team for this one (if you didn’t know that, now you do – Koji Kondo had no part in the composition of music in Phantom Hourglass).
Of course, Nintendo must have realized their blunder, and put good ol’ Mr. Kondo back on the team for Spirit Tracks. The result is one of the most impressive musical scores any Zelda game has had – ever. Totaling over 140 tracks, it’s a beast, and is likely proof that Nintendo was determined to make Spirit Tracks the game that Phantom Hourglass wanted to so badly to be.
I can’t express how afraid I was that Nintendo would repeat their mistake with Phantom Hourglass and skimp on the score with Spirit Tracks. But they outdid themselves – there’s a new track in practically every room of every building. At some point, you lose yourself in all this music. It’s really great; this should be the standard of musical quality in a handheld Zelda game.
If you look back to only ten years ago, you can see the difference in quality we now expect. Phantom Hourglass’s score was roughly equivalent to the Oracle games’ scores combined, but you don’t often hear complaints about the blips and beeps of the Game Boy age. We now expect fully “orchestrated” scores to go with our handheld console releases.
Do I feel a bit spoiled? I do, but I also think that one of Nintendo’s most popular franchises deserves to have the level of quality that makes its player feel spoiled. Nintendo could have probably ignored the whiners here and let the Spirit Tracks score fall short, but they didn’t – and even made sure that Koji Kondo was back on the force composing music himself.
Despite its interface pitfalls, which are clearly large and glaring and have not all been fixed since Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks has proven itself to be the game that I wished Phantom Hourglass was, and probably what I consider to be the only “worthy” sequel to The Wind Waker. The Wind Waker is my personal favorite Zelda game, which probably only compounded my disappointment with Phantom Hourglass, and heightened my excitement over Spirit Tracks.
An anonymous source I know connected to Nintendo once referred to Spirit Tracks as Nintendo’s “redemption” for the mediocrity that was Phantom Hourglass. It was Nintendo’s best effort to make a title that didn’t forget its core audience – us, here, who unwittingly purchase every Zelda game that passes onto shelves, who demand a challenge and a game with the utmost quality that reflects the game-changing experience Zelda has come to be over the years.
Does Spirit Tracks truly redeem Nintendo for the abandonment of their core audience with Phantom Hourglass? Only you can answer that – but what Spirit Tracks does do is strike a great balance between ludicrous difficulty and playability. Anyone can pick up Spirit Tracks and figure out how to play it – but it’s going to take effort to figure out how to beat it, unlike Phantom Hourglass. Couple that with the sheer level of polish in Spirit Tracks’s graphical and musical departments, and you’ve got what could be called the start of a “redemption.”
Here’s hoping that Nintendo tries to “redeem” itself more often.