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The peanut butter and jelly sandwich has not changed much over the years.  Connoisseurs have added gourmet peanut butter or fancy jelly (passion fruit jelly anyone?), but its purpose has remained the same.  Take three ingredients, and combine them into an inexpensive and delicious sandwich.

The Legend of Zelda is the PB&J of the video game world.  The consoles are fancier and tweaks have been made, but the core idea has seen little to no innovation since the jump into the 3D realm.  Even the first DS title, Phantom Hourglass, fell prey to the series’ excessive dedication to formula.  One would think that the growing concern for the series’ longevity would generate some form of creativity.

Enter Spirit Tracks. The second installment on the DS takes advantage of the handheld’s gadgets and gizmos, but it clings to aging gameplay like an old man bent over his walking cane.

Like nearly every Zelda title, the core story remains the same.  A young buck in a small village finds himself wrapped in a world-ending plot.  He must rise up, like his ancestors did, and rid the world of evil.  However, this LoZ finds the princess adventuring with the young man.  Her body is stolen, a capable vessel for the returning demon king, and her spirit aids Link throughout his quest.

Alas, like every Zelda title before it, players will find themselves playing music and collecting elemental-themed trinkets.  They have also included a multiplayer mode, but it’s akin to the multiplayer added to Super Mario 64 DS, and is nothing but shameless novelty.

zelda3

The story isn’t anything to get excited about, but it is nice to see the series moving further away from Ganon or Ganondorf… even if the new villains are variations of them.  However, the game continues to cater to younger children in a non-meaningful way.  There is no attempt to bridge the gap between different audiences.  Link’s grunts and Zelda’s yelps were once charming and cute, but now border on irritating and annoying.  Almost every conversation that takes place is useless and unfunny.  A seemingly minor complaint, but the majority of the game forces you sit through this verbal diarrhea to catch much-needed information for traversing the dungeons.

In any Zelda game, the dungeons are the real attraction.  Every gamer remembers the ever-devastating Water Temple in nearly every title.  Yet, the dungeons in Spirit Tracks are derivatives of all the dungeons throughout the series’ history.  Gamers are hitting the same switches with the same weapons to collect the same prizes.  The biggest complaint with Phantom Hourglass - repeating the same dungeon – rears it’s ugly head again.  Players return to the Tower of Spirits after every elemental dungeon to continue their trek upward.

This is where Spirit Tracks gameplay hook appears.  Zelda’s spirit can posses the armored phantoms, and Link must use their special abilities to complete each section of the tower.  Players control the phantom with the stylus by drawing paths for them to follow.  The gameplay is unique to the handheld, but it’s plagued by the all stylus controls and Zelda’s terrible AI.  To its benefit, you don’t have to start the dungeon from the beginning every time, but constantly returning to the same area is exacerbated by the overworld travel.

zelda2

The overworld travel itself is done by way of train.  This strange choice severely limits the open world feel of the game because players can only follow the tracks in two directions.  It’s the only method of travel, and it becomes frustratingly boring after only a few hours.  Players can upgrade the train, but it’s only three different choices for the four cars that increase speed, damage, storage capacity, and health.  It isn’t necessary to complete the game, and the incentive to upgrade is minimal.

The train does a number on the game’s graphics as well.  Spirit Tracks is a beautiful game with bright colors and expansive visuals (thanks to the dual screens), but when riding around on the train there is obvious pixelation.  On top of that, when there is too much action on the screen, which breaks down to turning and firing the cannon, the frame rate drops severely.

All of the gameplay is controlled through the stylus.  This style choice gives players a lot of freedom to control Link’s gadgets, but it comes at a price.  Link will find himself walking into spikes and pitfalls as players maneuver him around the dungeons.  The game will detect basic movement as rolls, and the edge of the screen is a no man’s land that will send Zelda’s phantom careening in the wrong direction.

zelda4

While there is a lot to complain about in regards to the Zelda series using the same gameplay over and over, the reasoning is very sound.  The gameplay is effective.  When the stylus isn’t forcing Link over cliffs, exploring the dungeons is fun and engaging.  The puzzles benefit exponentially from stylus control and there is a supreme satisfaction when you solve the difficult ones.  Some gadgets require you blow on the screen while others let you draw trajectories; it’s a process that feels inclusive and benefits the exploration.  The dual screens work together, and, like Phantom Hourglass, the top screen is the map and the bottom is adventureland.  Players can still draw whatever they want on the above map.  For those of you that get frustrated, drawing a giant penis in a difficult room will not solve the puzzle.

The boss battles are exceptional as well.  The massive bosses require quick thinking and reflexes.  The one that stands out the most is the fire realm’s boss.  (Spoilers ahead), Link must dodge his massive hands while riding a mine cart around the his body shooting weak points while spiraling up to his head.  It’s an epic battle, and one of the best of the series.

But those high points aren’t enough to lift Spirit Tracks into the halls of gaming history alongside some of its predecessors.  It’s time to lift the veil and admit that the Zelda games are no longer the epitome of adventure.  Yes, they are still good games, but, in the video game industry, good is a dirty word.  Spirit Tracks is the weakest title in the entire series, and it symbolizes the potential end of Zelda’s golden age.

Rating Category
8.5 Presentation
Beautiful colors and graphics give gamers something to look at, but riding in the train slows frame rate and induces pixelation.
How does our scoring system work?
7.0 Gameplay
Awful overworld travel and complete stylus control weigh down the engaging, albeit overused, gameplay.
7.0 Sound
The music is crisp and the sound effects are clear, but they add nothing more than background noise.
6.5 Longevity
The adventure is a decent length: 20+ hours, but there is no reason to play it again.
7.0 Overall
Spirit Tracks is the weakest title in the series. It isn't a bad game, but it symbolizes a need to retire Link before his career is tarnished.

  1. I couldn’t agree more: I was so bored of the rail sections, that I actually put a paper weight on my DS so it would just constantly sound the horn.

    The dialogue was also needlessly terrible. “Oh! But I have put away my sword, and would not dare to wield it again. For I am just a simple steam engine builder!”

    I also wasn’t a fan of Phantom Hourglass due to the repetitive nature of the game, and this isn’t much different. I kind of wish the entire game was just boss battles.

  2. “Spirit Tracks is the weakest title in the entire series”

    That is quite a bold statement to make, and disappointing to hear at the same time. I wasn’t planning on picking up this game to be honest with you, and now I’m even more convinced that I shouldn’t.

  3. So if I’m literally less than an hour in, is it worth even continuing? I got bored with the boat shit from Phantom, and if the trains are even more terrible, I don’t know if I can put up with that.

  4. avatar Josiah Purtlebaugh

    I’m pretty sure this review is just bunk; I’m a good ten hours in and still loving it. Some parts ring true such as the frame rate issues but they are few and far between. Also, just because you’re hitting switches with the boomerang doesn’t mean it’s as simple as it was the first time you did it in Link to the Past; this game brings all new things to the table in its dungeons. The new items also feel excellent.

  5. Chase may have been a little harsh, but he’s about right in the mix with everybody else. He’s just not afraid to call this Zelda game as he sees it: mediocre, while everyone else who gave it 8s noted similar problems. Just because its Zelda, it doesn’t mean that the game is a gift from the Nintendo gods. They dropped the ball a little bit this time around.

  6. Thanks for the review! Couldn’t really find myself interested in the game (lacking a DS could be part of that), but I have so many other entries in the series to catch up on. I missed everything between Link’s Awakening and Twilight Princess!

  7. avatar Josh Coulon

    I disagree with a lot of this review actually. I’m about 10 hours in the game myself, and I’m having trouble putting it down. I don’t understand reviewers’ or gamers’ need to put down the repetitive nature of a series. By definition, a series has similar gameplay and story styles throughout or else you would be playing a different series. When you pick up a Zelda game, you know what you will be playing.

    This game is polished and fun, the addition of Zelda adds more to the gameplay than reviewers are giving credit, and this game is a must-own for any DS owner. It is one of the best games on the system IMO, and I’m (again) only 10 hours into it.

    It seems to be the cool things nowadays to badmouth the Zelda series, but the fact of the matter is that the series is still head and shoulders above a lot of the trash out there people call “games”.

  8. While I agree with some of your points Josh, it is really hard for me to agree it is the best on the DS. Bowser’s Inside Story?

    A 7 isn’t bad by any means. But I do feel that attempting to hold this game in the same light as previous Zelda games is a bit unfair.

    Nonetheless, to each their own.

  9. avatar Ram

    I was hoping for a review, not an ex-Zelda fan bashing his once beloved series. Bad dialogue? Thats one of the most pathetic complaints I’ve ever heard of. “Not afraid to call it as he sees it”? Thats suggesting everyone who likes this game is being biased. Just because one person tries to stand out and call BS, you think he’s the right one out of the entire crowd? Go back to your Link to the past and cry about how ST is the future and death of the series.

    You’ve failed as a reviewer.

  10. avatar Uma

    Worst. review. ever.

  11. Is Spirit Tracks worse than Phantom Hourglass? The train sections at least make it so.

    Is Phantom Hourglass an “8″-ish game; that strives to be as good as classics like Wind Waker, and Majora’s Mask? Heck yes. There’s no way someone could compare Phantom with those greats.

    So naturally, Spirit Tracks would lie within the “7″ range, which, according to our rating system, is still good – “These titles have few problems, are extremely fun to play, but don’t really pass the line of an “A” title. “ Personally, I’m about 8 hours in, and just gave up because I wasn’t having much fun, added to the fact that it was just too simple.

    Also, if you disagree with the review, we encourage you to blog your own! As far as the general hate goes above, I see this review was linked to by GoNintendo.

  12. avatar Ram

    Not to mention ST has more exploration, inspite of being glued to the tracks, than PH ever did. PH had an open world you could go around every inch with, but its an illusion of freedom. Spirit Tracks at least admits Zelda DS never had much free will with its overworld to begin with, but it does offer more of it than PH even though it doesn’t look like it should. 100% the game.

    and yet you guys loved PH, which is the ‘real’ weakest title in the franchise. You picked and prodded at as many minor problems(and in some cases, personal preferences rather than actual ‘flaws’) as you could, and by the end of it it just turned into a: “Zelda is dying for me, Assassins creed is where its at. I hate the train even though I found the steamboat and ocean just peachy. I hate new Zelda because of my memories of her previously bland characteristics. How dare they make her act like a child even though she really is. Exploration is a myth”

    I give you the train is slow, but its no worse than sailing, especially steam boat sailing. Thats the only problem, along with a lack of innovation, that you were right about. Everything else just felt like a whiney, modern gamer admitting he’s out of Zelda now. I would’ve rather read reader reviews.

  13. avatar Ram

    “The train sections make it seem so”

    Theres two ways to take that:

    1(You think its too linear/no exploration

    2(You think its too slow.

    I’ll give you 2, but 1 is a mistake. PH has less exploration than ST, and far less sidequests/meaningful sidequests. “So naturally ST would fall in the 7 range”. Great logic, you totally deserve to review games as well. Your simplicity far surpasses detailed logic.

  14. I disagree, therefore wrong.

    That’s just logic, guys.

  15. I’m starting to pull my hair out over these Nintendo fails

  16. @Josh
    “I don’t understand reviewers’ or gamers’ need to put down the repetitive nature of a series. By definition, a series has similar gameplay and story styles throughout or else you would be playing a different series.”

    Similar gameplay is fine, but repetition is a different kettle of fish altogether. What’s fun about playing yet another game in a series that fails to evolve?

    Lack of innovation in this day and age is just not on for a series like LoZ.

  17. avatar HeresSomeWeapons

    I agree almost word for word with everything this reviewer had to say. This game, in my opinion, is horrible. The plot is shallow, riding the train is tedious, and the dungeons are generic. I have never disliked a Zelda game before, but I don’t like this one at all.

    I encourage everyone who is bashing this reviewer to take off their fanboy hats and realize there is some merit to his words.

  18. avatar Ryan82

    I’m a huge, HUGE Zelda fan. I’ve played them all and beaten them all. Sooooo with that in mind, I do feel that Spirit Tracks is basically Phantom Hourglass with a train tacked on as a gimmick instead of the boat. Actually, I never thought I’d say this but I much prefer the boat sailing over the train.

    My problem with Spirit Tracks is how similar it is to Phantom Hourglass. Not being able to control Link with the dpad is absolutely ridiculous. Phantom Hourglass wasn’t that strong of a portable Zelda title to begin with, and for Spirit Tracks to build off of it, well, I felt disappointed.

    I would like a portable Zelda title in the vein of Minish Cap or the Oracle games. I have the same issue with Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks that I did with Star Fox Command, and that is the stylus control. Stylus control is good for other types of games like Trauma Center, but not in a game where you constantly have to move your character around the screen for hours at a time.

    Hopefully Nintendo will realize this and give us a new 2D Zelda game. I don’t care if it’s on WiiWare, as long as it happens.

  19. avatar Ram

    ^So in other words you just hate stylus. Heard that one before.

    ^^(Obviously, the more arrows up there are, the higher up I’m going in responding to the comments) You liking PH, and thinking ST is horrible destroys any and absolutely all merit you could have ever had. PH is horrible, and I could understand if you didn’t like ST either for that same reason, but hating ST without hating PH is so wrong, its almost hypocritical. There is no merit to his words. Just because he’s talking down on Zelda, it has to be true? Wrong. His entire review sounds like a retired Zelda fanatic that can’t stand the train and little kids having personalities in his once-beloved Zelda games.

    Hardcore Zelda fans may just hate Zelda DS altogether, but most of them have been admitting ST is at least better than PH. Thats not what I’m even complaining about though, I’m complaining about all this needless, personal **** coming from his opinion on the franchise as a whole being brought out to brain wash people into thinking like him. i.e, hardcore gamer. Rofl, right. He over-burned the train and made it sound like this game has no freedom, when it clearly has more than PH (100% the game, you’ll see how much there is to do compared to the last title), even though PH lets you go in any direction you want, its an ILLUSION of freedom. Zelda DS has never let you explore the overworld very much, so why isn’t it so damning to their review on PH? Because they just want open space, even if it gives you ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, and thats IDIOTIC. Go ahead and complain about the trains slow speed, I’ll give you that one. Its true, but its far from gamebreaking, and I’d much rather have that annoyance than a game-breaking central temple, lack of music, lack of difficulty in ANYTHING, lack of usefulness for half your items, lack of good plot. These are all the weaknesses of PH, not to mention its shorter than ST.

    In short: You can’t dislike ST without HATING PH. It was a bad review, it hardly detailed faults compared to how much it whined. Go ahead and rate it lower, but give better reasons, and tell me why the hell PH could be ANY better.

  20. avatar Chase cook

    For the record, I feel that Phantom Hourglass was a weak Zelda title and I didn’t give it the glowing review it received. However, I would rather have decent illusionary exploration than a meaningless world to explore. I appreciate all of your comments.

  21. Fanboys are so entertaining

  22. Try to remember, readers, that a 7 doesn’t mean that the game sucked; it just means that it wasn’t the most absolutely amazing game ever.

  23. Controversial review is controversial.

  24. avatar LOL

    Ram is a fanboy

  25. avatar Anonymous

    I disagree strongly with this review because it exaggerates many of the flaws in what I feel is a rather misinformative manner.
    I don’t have time to provide a full deconstruction but I’ll go over a few:

    1. “Almost every conversation that takes place is useless and unfunny. A seemingly minor complaint, but the majority of the game
    forces you sit through this verbal diarrhea to catch much-needed information for traversing the dungeons.”

    - I really question the validity of this one simply because the conversations were on par with just about every other Zelda
    game. You can bring up the unoriginality card here, but considering that this game featured probably the best developed
    Princess Zelda character out of all the games, I feel that is something not many people will agree with. The use of the term
    “verbal diarrhea” didn’t make me think of ANYTHING from this game. It made me think of the owl from Ocarina of Time – did you
    have an issue with that as well?

    2. “The biggest complaint with Phantom Hourglass – repeating the same dungeon – rears it’s ugly head again”

    - A horribly misleading statement. Tell me again – what part of the dungeon did you actually have to *repeat*? After you said that,
    you went out and pointed out yourself that you don’t have to start the dungeon from the beginning every time, which pretty much reveals the
    truth that this is actually a non-issue. Truth is, the Tower of Spirits is NOT a dungeon that you have to repeat, it is structurally
    many separate, discrete dungeons in one area, each with their own style of puzzles. Many reviews gave praise to this feature.

    3. The constant bashing of the stylus controls

    - I can’t believe how polarizing the issue of stylus controls is. This review is written almost with the assumption that it is
    a universally accepted truth that the stylus controls are bad – which is clearly not the case. I can respect your opinion,
    but again your reasonings contain some misinformation. Let’s just break down a few:
    “the edge of the screen is a no man’s land that will send Zelda’s phantom careening in the wrong direction”
    - This is misleading because it gives the impression that once you set a course for the phantom, it will not
    change course. The truth is….it is very easy to just change her course while she’s moving. Just let the
    camera follow her and plot her path as she moves…
    “Link will find himself walking into spikes and pitfalls as players maneuver him around the dungeons.”
    - This gives the false impression that the controls are imprecise – which they are not and that has
    been pointed out by many people/reviewers. It sounds like you’re simply not used to the controls. In which case, I must say someone who is new to using a d-pad or an analog stick is susceptible to the same issues.

    The game is not perfect, I know. But judging from the fact that this review has a tendency to understate the positives and
    overstate the negatives, I don’t think this review is either.

  26. avatar Ram

    LOL is an idiot.

  27. @Anonymous
    I honestly felt like the dialogue was MUCH worse than any Zelda game I’ve ever played.

    As I brought up before in my first comment, Alfonzo’s lines are easily the worst written bits in any Nintendo game.

    I also feel like praising the Tower of Spirits just because it’s better than Phantom’s Temple is a fallacy. If I gave you two pieces of moldy bread, would it be better than one? I personally felt like I was repeating myself over and over, with the exact same “grab three pieces of power” environment.

  28. avatar Anonymous

    Ha. Good thing Chase reviewed this, I would have given it an even lower song. I’ve never been more disappointed in a sequel. I loved Phantom Hourglass; it is one of my favorite DS titles. But Spirit Tracks just doesn’t have the same gusto, and just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    And the best developed princess zelda character? Then you’ve never played Ocarina of Time, which is LEAGUES AND LEAGUES better than either DS game.

    In Phantom Hourglass, you didn’t have to start the dungeon from the beginning either.

  29. avatar Anonymous

    That’s a fair opinion, however I felt it was not conveyed well in the review itself. For the Tower of Spirits, it simply failed to clearly mention the differences (no time limit, no health draining, no repeating areas) and instead almost gives it the false impression that it is the same as Phantom’s Temple. I felt for the Tower, they did a good job of varying the puzzles with the different phantom types that were introduced. The teleportation puzzles or the boss battle I shouldn’t spoil here were the highlights for me so far.

    As for the dialogue, I won’t argue personal opinion again. However since Alfonzo has a pretty small role in the plot (practically one cutscene), I’ll still take the stance that there are equally bad or worse offenders in every Zelda game. Think about the many Tingles, or the OoT owl.

    Again my issue with this review is that it overstated many of the negatives, almost to the point of misinforming the uninformed reader.

    It sounds like we could agree to disagree.

  30. avatar Anonymous

    To the previous Anonymous:

    I simply pointed out valid inconsistencies between the review and the actual product. Note that I didn’t even claim the game is better or worse than anything.

    Glad you’re probably not a professional at reviewing games. Intelligent debate does not seem to be your forte.

  31. avatar SxYSpAz

    link needs to retire? well, that definitely tells me that you and me are on two very different levels of gaming. I’ll probably stop gaming when i start thinking that. So, am i buying this game anyways? yeah, i think so.

  32. avatar Mark

    This is the epitome of bad reviews.

  33. avatar Heinster

    ‘Spirit Tracks is the weakest title in the entire series’

    Betrayes the reviewers knowledge… He hasn’t even seen or heard the 3 CDI titles, otherwhise he could have never said anything like this.

    But as an old fan of Zelda Link to the past and Ocarina of time, I can only agree with the declining quality in game experience ever since.

  34. avatar Dr. Eggnog

    I like Ram’s comment, and perhaps he doesn’t count the CDI titiles as part of the series. I’m playing Phamtom Hourglass right now, and it’s okay, I guess. It’s too easy, but I like the stylus controls really well actually. And I think this was a solid review.

  35. avatar Reap

    @ Ram

    I KNOW! It’s not like person 1 could like object A and hate object B and person 2 could like object B and hate object A!!!! ONE OF THEM HAS TO BE WRONG!!!! It’s not like, you know, people could like different things about different games! That would be like an OPINION! Nobody has one of those!

  36. avatar the kid gamer (actully!)

    I think that ph and st were meant for kids. Think about it gofey graphics, easy puzzels, all that stuff if you are a grown up I under stand how fell about ph and st but if your a kid get a life! (not really)

  37. avatar Georgie

    I buy Nintendo consoles especially for Zelda and as yet I have never been able to finish 1 of them! At the moment on ST Im stuck on playing the 2nd tune with the flute thing. I know where Ive got to blow and the tune to play and at what tempo, but my DS misses some of the notes and now im well peed off with it. Ive blown gently, hard, tilted the blow hole at different angles, does anyone have any tips please. Im contemplating putting my hairdryer on and using that see if it works Im that desperate!!!

  38. avatar TVT

    While it’s true that Spirit Tracks represents a stagnation, it’s largely a sign of lazy game design rather than that the general formula is becoming weak and boring. Zelda’s console entries are reliably incredible, and LttP and the traditional handhelds have always been awesome (MC’s length and difficulty issues aside).

    The main issue with the series’ DS entries is not that the formula is old, but that the DS games don’t actually have the formula. Usually, it’s “Pointless Hour of Tutorials” followed by “First Dungeon” followed by “Engaging Exploration in the Detailed Overworld Full of Secrets” followed by the next dungeon, and so on until the end. PH and ST don’t have that. Rather, we have “Pointless Hour of Tutorials” followed by “Visit the Annoying Pointless Linear Stealth-Based Dungeon Full of Invincible Phantoms that Contains a Magical Map”, followed by “Painfully Linear Traversal of an Entirely Empty Overworld with No Secrets Whatsoever Yet is Inexplicably Full of Easy Enemies That Serve No Purpose But to Ensure That You Are Paying Attention”, followed by “Unremarkable Dungeon”, rinse and repeat, INCLUDING the pointless tutorials on how to fire your cannon or move the Phantom around or follow pointless signs.

    Zelda needs to stick to the basic formula, but actually execute it with flair and creativity, instead of gutting the formula and giving us its cel-shaded mutilated corpse.

  39. avatar Jonathan d

    Its good to see a series like zelda NOT innovate so much that it becomes something else entirely (final fantasy xiii anyone?). I love the familiarity and thats the reason i love the zelda series. Change up the dungeon, new item, boss formula and try to come up with an “edgy” spin and this series will be ruined. Amazing that i see reviews blasting games for being too different or too familiar; there truly is no winning. Judge the game for what it is; if you havent figured out Zelda yet, i have to question your knowledge of video games.

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