At 25YL, we love gaming, and moreover, we love The Legend of Zelda series. That’s why we’re going to cover the entire Nintendo Franchise, including handheld games, every week. This week, we are taking a look at both Nintendo DS entries Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks.
Unlike the last Legend of Zelda twofer I wrote about, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks are not as intrinsically linked. Taking place approximately a hundred years after Phantom Hourglass (and on a totally different continent), Spirit Tracks is more of a spiritual successor, pun only partially intended. Yet, the DNA between the two is so similar that it is hard to separate them. Spirit Tracks liberally reuses ideas and assets from Phantom Hourglass, reskins bosses with slightly updated behavior, and generally seeks to replicate the feeling of Phantom Hourglass. And while reuse isn’t a problem in and of itself, the problem lies in execution.
Just as Spirit Tracks is the successor to Phantom Hourglass, Hourglass is the successor to Wind Waker. Picking up almost immediately after the events of that game, we rejoin Link and Princess Zelda, who is once again garbed in her Wind Waker outfit and going by her “pirate” name Tetra, as they sail the seas of the flooded Hyrule. Their crew has a run-in with the mysterious Ghost Ship and Zelda leaps aboard. Link attempts to follow but is separated. He awakes on a new island where his adventure will begin in earnest, taking him across unfamiliar seas and through forgotten temples in his journey to rescue his captain, Tetra/Zelda.
This is all common territory for the series. Zelda is kidnapped, Link is sent on a quest through unfamiliar lands, but each game brings its own twist to the tale. Phantom Hourglass introduces several new mechanics and updates a few of the old ones. The clearest change is the movement controls. Link no longer moves with the DS d-pad, but by touch screen. In fact, the only buttons you (may) ever use are the L and R buttons for quick item access, but even those are just for convenience rather than necessity. Also new is the Temple of the Ocean King, a central dungeon that requires frequent return trips. And lastly, sailing has made a comeback from Wind Waker, albeit with a touch screen update.
Phantom Hourglass recognizes the limitations of touch screen controls. Movement works simply enough; just hold the stylus on the screen and Link will waddle towards it. Double tapping on the edges makes Link roll. That’s all there is to it. It’s a simple and intuitive system, one that meshes nicely with the combat. Tap on enemies to attack, draw a circle for a spin attack, and stand a bit back before tapping for a jump slash. Yet, for its simplicity, Phantom Hourglass is remarkably reserved with its combat. Monsters roam the world, but you’re never forced into combat with more than a few at a time. It acknowledges that tapping on enemies isn’t the most exciting and seeks to divert your attention elsewhere.
The central temple, or Temple of The Ocean King, is a remarkably unique mechanic for the series. The first time you arrive, you can only explore a bit of the first floor as the temple will slowly sap away your life. Upon your return, you get the titular Phantom Hourglass, an hourglass that will stop the temple from draining your life but only while it still has sand in it. Each visit foreshadows future shortcuts and secrets, showing you the pathways but denying you the tools. Return trips allow you to exploit these alternative routes, increasing your speed through the opening salvo of floors in order to save time in your hourglass for the unknown ahead.
And then there’s the sailing. While undeniably a major part of Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass does a lot to put its own spin on the mechanic. Gone are the wind controls and in their place are maps and updated cannons. A route is laid out in advance and can be edited on the fly, by tracing a path over the map with the touchscreen. Cannons can be fired at will, without using bombs, by tapping the screen. Between the map and the cannons, the game develops a real swashbuckling feel, like you are truly the captain of a sea vessel. It has its lulls, but secrets and treasure do a lot of work to keep you engaged. Not to mention that on long journeys you have the warp frogs, golden amphibians that serve as fast travel points, to help cut down on travel time.
There are various other one-off mechanics introduced, but never overused. One puzzle has you blowing into the DS’s microphone to clean off a map, another has you closing the DS completely to transfer a stamp. They’re short, sweet little gimmicks that make you think “huh, that was neat but I hope it doesn’t make me do it again.” And Phantom Hourglass never does.
A century later, a new Link wakes up to a presentation being given by an ancestor of Tetra’s crew. The crew member recants the tale of the Spirit Tracks, mystical train tracks that run across the land, linked by the Tower of Spirits, and the demon they bind beneath. It’s also the day of Link’s engineer ceremony which will allow him to drive the trains that ride the Spirit Tracks. At the ceremony, Zelda warns Link of the chancellor, a small man wearing two conspicuous hats, and convinces Link to take her to the Tower to learn more of the Tracks. There, the chancellor reveals himself to be an agent of the chained demon and summarily removes Zelda’s spirit from her body before breaking apart the tower and destroying the Spirit Tracks. Link is left to rebuild the Tower and restore the tracks with the help of Zelda, now in spirit form, before the demon awakens.
Spirit Tracks does a decent bit to break from the normal storytelling of the Zelda franchise and integrates it with new mechanics. While Zelda may still be in trouble, she is far more an active participant in the journey than in other games. In addition to taking on a lot more dialogue, she also possesses a variety of phantoms, hulking suits of armor that patrol the Tower. We see a return of Phantom Hourglass’s touch screen mechanics, unchanged. Musical instruments also make a return after skipping Hourglass, albeit with new mechanics. And, of course, there are the trains.
Outside of the tower (and specific temples), Zelda simply hangs around Link’s head, waiting for the player to tap on her as a means of re-boarding the train. In specific temples, she’ll chat with the Lokomos, an elder race of man/train hybrids, but it’s the Tower where Zelda plays the biggest role, taking over phantoms to use their powers for puzzle-solving purposes. By default, Phantom Zelda will follow behind Link, but she can also be controlled by drawing a path with the touch screen. She’ll follow the path perfectly and can hit switches, chat up other Phantoms as a distraction, and kill small enemies. Pressing the call button will have her lumbering her way back to Link. It can be a bit cumbersome at times, as Zelda is prone to getting stuck on walls if you don’t give them enough berth, but the core idea of allowing the player to control a Phantom is engaging, especially after cowering from them through most of Hourglass.
Less engaging is the instrument. Historically, Legend of Zelda instruments have worked one of two ways. In games like Link’s Awakening, you select the instrument, select the song, and then Link will jam out. Games like Ocarina of Time add some complexity. You must select the instrument, play the song yourself through button presses, then Link will take over to finish the song. Spirit Tracks falls in line with the second style, but with an extra step. Link plays a pan pipe in Spirit Tracks and, because the DS has a microphone, requires the player to blow into the mic while moving the pipe on the touch screen. Not only can be it be exhausting (the microphone isn’t the best and, certainly unrelated, I am out of shape) but holding the DS that close to your face makes it really hard to see where the pipe is at. And sometimes you smack yourself in the face.
The final “new” mechanic is the train. I say “new” because it’s just a rehash of the sailing mechanic from Hourglass only now it’s literally and figuratively on rails. Draw a path where you want to go and the train goes. Tap to shoot with your cannon. Sometimes you’ll pull a rope to blow your horn. Occasionally, sections of track will intersect. If you’ve set your path ahead of time, the intersection will already be pointing you the right way. If not, you have the option to change which way the turn takes you. It’s not terribly engaging.
A Difference in Approach
Before I dive face-first into the flaws of Spirit Tracks, I do want to give it some credit. The idea of a Zelda game with trains still appeals to me, in the same way that the 90s motorcycle Link concept art appeals to me. It’s goofy as all hell, but there’s some meat to the idea.
(90’s motorcycle link image, if needed – We could always just hyperlink it? I think its a little obscure to reference it and not give an explanation)
This is also where they really started to give Zelda her voice. Tetra is great in Wind Waker, but Zelda is less so. She’s missing entirely from Hourglass, but Spirit Tracks tried to do something with her. She has some character, and in the Tower she feels like more of the protagonist than Link does, lumbering around in that huge armor, solving puzzles he can’t.
I think that may be part of my problem with the game as well. There’s enough in Spirit Tracks to get me excited, but every misstep pulls me further and further out of it. So if Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks share so much of the same DNA, why does Phantom Hourglass just feel so much better? The answer boils down to pacing. From story, to transportation, to combat, to gimmicks, everything in Hourglass works in service of pushing the game forward. Spirit Tracks just feels lost in its own ideas.
To best explain this, let’s start by looking at what should be the pacing killer of both games: their central temples. Hourglass’s Temple of the Ocean King and Spirit Tracks’s Tower of Spirits. Both require multiple visits, each time arriving at new floors with new threats. In theory, they should both be complete slogs, constantly returning after every dungeon, traipsing through the same temple. But in Hourglass, each successive visit feels better than the last. The floor that took you five minutes on your first visit you blast through in under 30 seconds with the grappling hook. It’s satisfying watching your time get quicker and quicker as you find new ways to exploit the weaknesses of the Phantoms. In Spirit Tracks, however, there are no repeat floors. You get to go right to the new section of the tower each time you enter. There’s no feeling of superiority as you zip past a Phantom, just a slow climb up an empty stairwell.
Hourglass makes each visit feel new. It’s rewarding and exciting in a way that keeps you engaged. Returning with new gear makes the Temple feel like a different dungeon every time. Returning to Spirit Tracks’s Tower feels like a punishment for your success. You cleared out that dungeon, got a cool new item, and beat the boss. Your reward is a climb that is longer than the last.
But of course, there’s more to the games than just dungeon crawling, there are boats and trains! This is where the shared DNA really bites Spirit Tracks. The travel system was clearly designed with boats in mind. Tracing your path across a wide-open sea was not only liberating but felt authentically nautical. I can draw squiggles on my map because I’m the captain and it’s my path. And it feels like charting a course, not just traveling from point A to B. The roaming marauder attacks add on another level of authenticity as cannon battles suddenly erupt from a calm sea. The scattered Xs of sunken treasure is just the icing on the cake.
That doesn’t translate to trains. You have limited paths and sketching it out ahead of time doesn’t have the same feel. You’re not charting a course, free from restriction, you’re tracing pre-made paths. Traveling down straight railways outside of a train sim is incredibly disengaging. Hourglass had uncharted islands, secrets, and pirates. Spirit Tracks has the occasional unmarked town, but you don’t so much find them in exploration as you do stumble upon them while you are ambling from one location to another. Add on a warp system that only works in specific spots and you have constant, mindless train travel killing any momentum created by a dungeon.
Lastly, there’s the core of every Zelda game: movement and combat. While both games work using the same controls, Hourglass knows the touchscreen is only so engaging. Instead of extended combat sequences, it opted for a focus on stealth mechanics and items that boost your movement options. Traditional weapons like bombs and arrows are used more to distract and stun than fight. It’s a slick integration of mechanics that diverts your attention away from combat and pushes you to keep moving.
Spirit Tracks ignored these ideas. Combat is not only more encouraged but frequently required. Hordes of enemies can board your train leaving you to just tap on your screen for upwards of two minutes. Dungeon puzzles more frequently rely on “just kill enemies.” These moments, like so many others, pull up the brakes and grind the game to a halt. It stops being about the cross-country trek and becomes about mindless tapping, causing you to wondering when this will end so your quest can resume.
Of course, Phantom Hourglass is not a perfect game either. It has its own lulls and pitfalls. But it seems far more aware of its issues and does everything it can to keep the pace moving. If you don’t like something, just give it a moment and Hourglass will move onto something better. Spirit Tracks wallows. It doubles down on every decision, making sure you feel every moment. Don’t like something? Too bad. You’re stuck with it. Even with some clever and unique ideas for the Zelda series, Spirit Tracks just flounders in its own pacing, leaving behind a game that never manages to live up to its own DNA.