Phantom Hourglass and Off the Spirit Tracks: Ace’s Top 5 Best and Worst

Hello again Ace Cadets! No? I still can’t call you that? C’mon its cute. We’ll talk about this later.

Anyways let me explain something to you. When Legend of Zelda Phantom Hourglass came out it was the first thing close to Wind Waker that they had released in so long. I was ecstatic. Here was gaming perfectly suited to the controls of the DS that was fun, rewarding, and visually beautiful. Needless to say, I had high hopes for its sequel game Spirit Tracks.

I was so disappointed that I didn’t even finish the game. This is why:

This will be a compilation of the top 5 best parts of Phantom Hourglass and the top 5 worst parts of Spirit Tracks.

5 – Phantom Hourglass. The Map System. It was so genius. So amazing. Such a perfect use of the DS to add to the appeal of the game. Now you had a fully comprehensive map where you could mark secrets and puzzles. Hell, you could write anything on it. The best part of the map by far though was that there were islands not on it.

This made the gameplay truly feel like you were exploring the vast landscape of the sea. I remember moving around an island and drawing as I went to have a fully comprehensive map of it. I remember the first time I closed my DS to transfer something from the top screen onto my map. Pure genius and wonderful integration of the system.

5 – Spirit Tracks. The Lore. Some characters are older? But one of the other pirates doesn’t seem to have aged at all? But Link hasn’t aged? But Zelda doesn’t seem to be Tetra? But the old pirate knows Link? So is this the original or a descendant of Link? Honestly, the lore feels so disjointed and out of sync with the first game that I had trouble even comprehending what rules of universe it was trying to sell me.

My other issue with this is Phantom Hourglass relies on pirate lore and the player’s current knowledge. But with Spirit Tracks there really isn’t any of that lore for a player to draw on. Instead they try to build their own filled with holes and shoed in past character cameos.
4 – Phantom Hourglass. The Characters. Each of your companion characters has a worthwhile story arc. Linebeck especially I feel is one of the most fleshed out and realistic Zelda characters in any Zelda universe. He’s got clear character motivation, a great backstory, and one of my favorite character arcs in ANY video game EVER.
Even the details of Tetra in the beginning portray her as one of the best incarnations of Zelda; a fearless pirate captain willing to hop on a ghost ship just to prove a point. She even refuses to be called Zelda, still wanting to be called Tetra.

Even the background characters in this game are all incredibly well-developed and designed. Every encounter yields more new and exciting content about them. The twists are pretty original and on my first playthrough I certainly didn’t expect them.

One of my favorite characters is the female pirate Jolene who is chasing Linebeck that you end up fighting several times throughout the game. Its clear she’s tough as nails and Linebeck is terrified of her and she’s not afraid to slice and dice you to get through you.

4 – Spirit Tracks. No more Tetra??? No, instead we have a return to form of the standard -insert female character here- Zelda. Throughout each level she makes the most basic quips that add no depth to her character at all.

Although I have to make one allowance here, and note that this is the only positive of the game for me: Not only is Zelda your constant spirit companion, but she can take over the forms of the Phantom suits of armor and fight as them to help you through dungeons. In the final boss bottle she even helps you fight as well. It’s the first really aggressive fighting role Zelda has taken in a game like this and I definitely think it was a step in right direction… if it hadn’t been sandwiched into all these other horrible creative choices.

The biggest example of this is that the game ends with Zelda… signing paperwork. I’m not joking.

That being said, how hard would it have been to just had a plot line around Tetra who fights alongside you? It would’ve been a lot more interesting to have her making sassy quips at you or failing to understand trains or… something. Or just have her being Tetra in general? Tetra’s pirates are still around why isn’t she? Ugh, the lore in this game is horrible.

3 – Phantom Hourglass. The Main Dungeon. The Temple of the Ocean King. This dungeon was so well-designed. The idea of a dungeon that you return to and slowly unlock each level of as you gain new items and abilities was amazing. It really maximized the feeling of accomplishment to continue returning to this familiar place after exploring all new lands out on the seas. The puzzles also made great use of the new map feature and the ability to draw shapes to solve puzzles with the 3DS.

It was a dungeon that felt familiar in layout to any Zelda fan but implemented very new mechanics with the “safe zones” you had to run into to avoid your life draining. Souls in skeletons would also give you hints on how to beat the current level and further provide a touch of a darker atmosphere lurking under the surface of this otherwise cheery game. It didn’t get old either, as you had to venture out and beat other dungeons in a totally different style that helped vary the gameplay.

3 – Spirit Tracks. Copy Pasting. One of my big problems with this game is while Phantom Hourglass’s mechanics all felt new and exciting; things that were nostalgic to Zelda games but still innovative and unique… This game just took everything (especially dungeon-wise) and re-mapped it. Instead of the Ocean Temple going down you’re just making your way up a tower with basically the same levels. Still hiding from Phantoms. Still hitting switches. Boring. With the time management aspect removed from the game you just end up with a lot of clumsily guiding Zelda and inching your way through levels instead of the reward of trying to blast through them like in Phantom.

Even a lot of the character designs are recycled, perhaps meant to give you a feeling like these are the ancestors of the original characters (?), but it just ends up feeling lazy and contrived.

2 – Phantom Hourglass. The Ocean. The open world ocean really made you feel like you were sailing. You had to deal with ocean enemies, pirates chasing you, and the wind itself. Just like Wind Waker it made actual travel in the game interesting and worthwhile. Upgrading your ship was also a really well-implemented mechanic and allowed you to have a sense of customization that you usually don’t find in any aspect of a Zelda game.

Especially, with so many goodies and secrets scattered across the ocean and not explicitly shown on the maps. Even when the game was purposely trying to bar you from an area it still felt like you had an expansive and wide world to continue exploring. It was so similar to Wind Waker but just different enough to add in elements like fast travel and underwater treasure hunting. At no point does it feels like drudgery to be sailing because you’re constantly encountering and finding new reasons and things to backtrack for.

2 – Spirit Tracks. The Villain. The villain is an evil leprechaun… I just… I just can’t. It’s so obvious he’s the villain within seconds of seeing him that it’s almost painful. He’s even wearing two little stupid hats on his head to hide his demon horns. Has this never been an issue? In all his time as the Chancellor has he never taken these two hats off? Has no one ever asked him “why are you wearing two small dumb hats?” Am I the only one bothered by the fact his horns are two different sizes? This game is driving me insane. At least with the other Zelda games the villain has some kind of presence but this one just seems like a joke that wasn’t pulled off quite right.

The Villain’s left hand man (this is a joke because he has… a giant… robotic left hand… I wish I was kidding) is also your standard moody henchmen drenched in black eyeliner eternal conflict. He’s so close to a Shadow the Hedgehog OC that I forgot his real name and started calling him that instead.

Seriously, his arc is so melodramatic that is should be written in the back of a middle school notebook. His only fighting equal is an old lady in a wheel chair… All right, admittedly that is pretty badass on her part but damn I hate this Naruto universe self insert Sasuke character so much.

He’s not the big bad thankfully. Instead he’s trying to release Malladus who looks like the villain from Scooby Doo and the Cyberchase. Let’s move on…

1 – The Phantom Hourglass. The Phantom Hourglass. Yes, I think both the best and worst elements from both games are their own namesakes. This is where this game gets really intense in layering mechanics. When you are handed the Phantom Hourglass itself it really does become a huge mechanic in the Temple of the Ocean King. Now suddenly you’re managing one resource on a large scale: time. As you advance in the game you get more time on the hourglass that allows you to dive deeper and deeper into the Temple of the Ocean King.

The more items and techniques you unlock; the less time ends up being used by the hourglass. This means you’re always searching for new and innovative ways to complete the levels, sometimes even replaying them to give yourself more time on the hourglass. Time management becomes a huge aspect of the familiar Zelda dungeoning gameplay that adds a new level of difficulty that is refreshing to long-time fans for sure.

It takes the game from something where you bash through enemies in a dungeon, to a careful game of time management while trying to quickly solve puzzles. It’s an entirely unique mechanic that really makes the game stand out to me against all the others.

1 – The Spirit Tracks. The Spirit Tracks. Ironically, the game’s namesake is absolutely the death of the game for me. Whereas Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass are these open world feeling experiences where you have the freedom to decide where you go and when; Spirit Tracks implements this on rails travel system that makes you feel like… well a player being lead through a game instead of a person experiencing an adventure.

Every sequence involving travel felt like complete drudgery with no real enjoyable gameplay. Even some of the boss fights are on rails which could have led to some cool, action sequences but instead feel like an underwhelming stroll while you chug along and shoot behind you with no real control of the situation.

And what is your reward for all this travel? A stamp. Well, Phantom Hourglass gets the stamp of approval from me while Spirit Tracks… Gets a big red FAIL.

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