Hands up. I confess. In retrospect, like a lot of people, I probably over-rated The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass. It was so great to see a proper Zelda game running on a handheld system, and so easy to be bowled over by the game’s sublime use of the DS hardware, that I was prepared to gloss over some of the details that – in the end – dragged the game back from greatness. I might have turned a blind eye to the limitations of the games world, to the lack of excitement in its oceans, and toned down my darker thoughts on the hideous frustrations of The Ocean God’s Temple. Don’t get me wrong: I still think it’s a brilliant DS game. But classic Zelda? No. Not quite.
With Spirit Tracks, there’s really nothing to ignore, excuse or gloss over. It is classic Legend of Zelda, through and through. It feels like a fully-worked, whole-baked addition to the core Zelda canon, and it’s a sprawling, wondrous, fearsomely challenging adventure that will soak up hour after hour of your spare time. We’re not talking about a great handheld Zelda, but a great Zelda and a great game full-stop.
Like The Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks takes its visual cues from the controversial GameCube Zelda, The Wind Waker, and once again the cel-shaded, heavily stylised visuals are a perfect match for the limited 3D capabilities of the DS. True, you’ll have to put up with some blocky characters and ugly low-res textures from time to time, but the character and creature design, the animation and the overall production values are so good that the overall effect works brilliantly.
Spirit Tracks also adopts and improves the Phantom Hourglass’ superb touchscreen control system, meaning you can run, fight and throw a boomerang around without ever having to reach for the D-Pad or face buttons. The combat controls seem to be a little faster and more responsive this time, and it actually leaves you wondering why more DS games – particularly RPGS and adventures – haven’t taken Nintendo’s lead and adopted a similar system.
Unlike The Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks is not a direct sequel. Instead, the new game picks up several thousand years later, with a new youthful Link in training to become a locomotive engineer, and a new Princess Zelda in need of a hero. Still, while the protagonists change, you can rely on some things staying pretty much the same. In fact, in terms of general plot and structure, Spirit Tracks is actually one of the more conservative Zeldas of recent years.
After the traditional scene-setting prologue we’re back to locating the next dungeon, completing a few tasks in order to open it, surviving a few floors of death-trap puzzles and deadly creatures, defeating a mini-boss, gaining some new weapon or implement, then using said weapon or implement to complete the dungeon and destroy its boss in a final, set-piece battle. Then repeat. If you’re one of those people that moans that every Zelda is really just the same game, then you’ll still find plenty to moan about here.