This past year, I hadn’t been playing my Nintendo DS that much anymore. I still had some great games that are always good to play for a few minutes while killing time, but it had been a long time since I’d gotten a new game for it that sucked me in.
And as much as I tried, I just could never ever finish the first Zelda game on Nintendo DS. Phantom Hourglass had a lot of fresh ideas for the series, but it had a showstopping hub temple that was frustrating as all get out. In the last act of the game, you’re forced to play through the entire thing again in order to progress, and it was a huge roadblock that killed my interest in completing the game.
Zelda: Spirit Tracks overcomes those two obstacles and has me loving my DS again. It uses pretty much the same graphical and gameplay formula as the first Zelda DS, but improves upon it in ways that really make me reconsider whether or not the first one was actually even that good at all. It overcomes the stigma of the DS only containing games good for short bursts, and it improves upon the idea of having a repeating hub temple. That, and a few other factors make it my favorite DS game of the past few year.
We might never see a Zelda game that really and truly refreshes the same cookie cutter template of the past two decades, but this one tries enough new things to make it feel pretty fresh this time around. There are only four real temples, but that in no way says that it’s a short game. There are now a lot of mini-challenges and side quests that are actually required for progression, but still integral and fun. Which is kind of a new thing for a Zelda game, and it works pretty well. I groaned a bit when I heard that the idea of a hub temple was being brought back, but I’m eating crow now. You never replay any of it once, and it actually adds a lot of mind bending gameplay time to the game without resorting to cheap tricks. If only this idea had been put into place in the first one, I might have actually finished it.
I do have a few gripes, however. The idea of riding a train around the overworld is respectable enough in that it’s something new, but it does limit what you can do. You literally do ride on rails, which makes this Hyrule feel much less open and explorable. It sometimes even becomes frustrating when you can’t maneuver around as you might need to. Also, for whatever reason, the insanely fun online multiplayer from the first game is inexplicably gone here. There’s a WiFi only option in it’s place, which is both limiting and disappointing.
Overall, I totally recommend Spirit Tracks. Whether or not you played (or enjoyed) the first Zelda DS, you’ll love it. Not since Majora’s Mask has there been a Zelda game that mixed the game up a bit, and the changes are mostly more than welcome here.