Monday, May 23, 2011

Phantom Hourglass vs. Spirit Tracks

Well, I was browsing through Zelda Universe forums the other day and saw this discussion about whether Phantom Hourglass or Spirit Tracks is the better game. And the opinions in there are sometimes a little extreme, calling Phantom Hourglass "the worst Zelda game yet" while putting Spirit Tracks on a pedestal in the same sentence. I couldn't agree less, which is why I thought I could make a little comparison here on Hyrule Blog. Actually I compared both games a lot already when Spirit Tracks came out and also when I replayed the game a couple of months ago, so this will cover just some of the major points and most of it will be repetition.

Round 1: General Game & Presentation

Story, visuals, music, controls... This is where Spirit Tracks was much better developed, which is probably the main reason why most Zelda fans prefer the game over its older brother Phantom Hourglass. With Phantom Hourglass Nintendo primarily focused on establishing a Zelda game on the Nintendo DS with its basic visuals, gameplay and controls. Especially the touchscreen part was really important. But the rest of the game came short. With Spirit Tracks on the other hand they were able to use everything from Phantom Hourglass as a base, so they could focus on all the other things and even improve everything from the predecessor. So it's only natural that Spirit Tracks takes the upper hand in this department. The story is much more interesting, the game has a much fuller soundtrack and it tried to improve several aspects of Phantom Hourglass.

About the soundtrack, I always thought that Phantom Hourglass with its more minimalistic tracks created its own unique charme. Like the island theme, I totally dig that one, even though its like just three notes or so. I don't know, I still liked it. Of course the music tracks of Spirit Tracks are much better, but part of this charme was lost on its way. And Linebeck was one awesome character, still having princess Zelda as your ghostly companion still beats him. You never interacted with Zelda as much as in Spirit Tracks, not counting the not so official CD-i games.

The graphics are mostly better in Spirit Tracks, but the game also suffers from lag, for example if you get attacked by the pirate tanks the game usually slows down. I don't know if this is still the case on a Nintendo DSi or 3DS, both having more horse power, but it's a problem on my Nintendo DS Lite. They also tried to improve the touch screen controls, now rolling is done by double tapping. But while it's now easier to roll, I accidently rolled into enemies many times, when I tried to hit them with fast strikes. And at some parts of the game (like the battle on top of the Gannon-Train) my touchscreen just went crazy and nothing worked anymore. I only beat the final boss fight once so far because of this. This might have been a problem with my screen protector, but it's definitely not a problem in Phantom Hourglass, there the controls always worked fine. Still, Spirit Tracks wins this round.

Winner: Spirit Tracks

Round 2: Boat vs. Train

My vote goes definitely to the boat. It's faster, you can warp all around the map and the ocean visuals are more suitable for the Nintendo DS. The train might haven been an interesting idea, but the execution was just terrible. It's too slooooooow. You spend tons of time in this game just with going from A to B. Most other Zelda games including Phantom Hourglass established some kind of fast warp system, which saves you the pain from unnecessary travelling. But those warp gates don't really help and the train is just awefully slow. It should go as fast as in the sequence, where you play Pacman with Dark Trains in the Dark Realm, then I wouldn't complain. And while having worlds like Forest, Snow and Fire Realm might be more interesting than just a bunch of islands, it all looks just so ugly. Tons of 2D sprite objects and super low resolution textures. I'm not a graphic whore, but it's just that the ocean world of Phantom Hourglass was more suitable for the Nintendo DS's power and looked therefore much more harmonious. You really notice that in the Ocean Realm of Spirit Tracks, probably the best looking train part.

Winner: Phantom Hourglass

Round 3: Freedom & Exploration

The train idea also came with the disadvantage of making Spirit Tracks much more linear. It's literally Zelda on rails. And everyone, who has read some of my posts on this blogs, knows how much I despise linearity. Not counting the sidequests this game is absolutely linear from start to finish, from exploring most parts of the so called overworld, over the order of the dungeons to the path through the dungeons theirselves. It isn't as bad as Twilight Princess, but it certainly doesn't leave you many options. Phantom Hourglass on the other hand likes to give you some choices. First half of the game might be linear, but if you go for the third sea chart, you can also chose to get the fourth sea chart in the same run. It might be much more difficult with about five minutes less on the clock and withouth the Bombchus and the Grappling Hook, but it's possible. And if you manage to do so, the entire second half of the game is an open world. You can visit all except one island in any order and play the dungeons in any order. Playing Mutoh's Temple first, then go for the Ice Temple and visiting Goron Island and Temple at the very end? Sounds impossible, but I did exactly that just for fun! And yes, it really was fun, freely exploring open worlds and playing dungeons out of order is much more fun than following a predestined path all the time.

Okay, to cut Spirit Tracks some slack, discovering and exploring all the hidden stations was really fun, too. But Phantom Hourglass also has some optional islands, so it is still the winner in this category.

Winner: Phantom Hourglass

Round 4: Dungeons

Both in Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks all of the normal dungeons are quite short, not too challenging and mostly nothing special at all. The focus was clearly on the master dungeon, the infamous Temple of the Ocean King and the Tower of Spirits. Both dungeons require you to return to them many times, they unlock more areas on the overworld, where the next normal dungeons are hidden. By beating the normal dungeons you usually open another section in the master dungeon and the process repeats itself. They also serve as your first and your final dungeon in the game. This is quite a unique concept in the Zelda series and both games approached this differently. Invincible Phantom enemies are part of both dungeons, but one focuses on a time limit, while the other focuses on controlling a Phantom. One goes down, one goes up. And so on.

Most people tend to hate the Temple of the Ocean King, mainly because it is very repetitive. You have to return to the dungeon over and over again and you have play the same stuff over and over again. But actually this isn't really the case, there are many shortcuts and because of this no playthrough should be like the other. There is even a warp point, that let's you skip half of the dungeon. And like I already said, you can get the third and fourth sea chart in one run. It might be a little bit difficult to do this and the time might even run out while doing so. But people also complain, that the game is way too easy, so this little challenge should be welcomed. And with that you don't have to return to the dungeon until the END of the game, where you can already slay the Phantoms with your Phantom Sword. You can play three normal dungeons without having to return to the Ocean King Temple. In my eyes this should really add another perspective to all the complaints. If you know the dungeon, it's not a problem. It's little bit like in Majora's Mask. There people complain about the time limit. "Zelda with a time limit is not fun." But the game never really was about having a time limit, but about playing with time. If you know how the time system works, you should have never any trouble with beating a dungeon or a quest. It's the same with the Temple of the Ocean King. If you know the dungeon, you really learn to like it and appreciate its concepts. This dungeon is a science of its own, I never studied a dungeon of the Zelda series as much as this one. I've even written an entire FAQ about (speed)running through the dungeon with a full hourglass. I would never do such a thing for any other dungeon in the series, not even the Tower of the Spirits.

The latter tries to get rid of all the complaints about the Ocean King Temple. You don't have to repeat any sections, save for some sidequests, and there is no time limit. It focuses on the Phantom coop gameplay instead, which probably is much more enjoyable than running against a clock. But the dungeon is also less memorable in my opinion. What really makes it great are some very clever puzzles that kept me busy for quite some time. It definitely has some of the better puzzles in the series. Overall the dungeon wasn't as challenging or fascinating as the Ocean King Temple for me, but I can see why most people prefer it over the Ocean King Temple.

Additionally Spirit Tracks also has some mini dungeons in storage, one of them being a Mini Ocean King Temple, which is definitely great. Yeah, and Spirit Tracks has better dungeon music by simply not playing the cave music of A Link to the Past over and over again. So, overall I'd say Spirit Tracks wins this category, though the Temple of the Ocean King offers the most memorable experience.

Winner: Spirit Tracks

Round 5: Items

Well, this is pretty much old versus new items. Phantom Hourglass just used familiar items and modified them for touchscreen use. But you have to praise the Bombchus, drawing their path on a map was pretty fun and this was actually the first time that this item was useful. And the Hammer was extremely kick ass, even though it was really unbalanced. Spirit Tracks introduced more balanced and new items using the touch screen, but also the microphone. Blowing away stuff with the Whirlwind was surprisingly fun and the Whip has the potential of becoming a new established item in the series. Also, the Sand Staff was a pretty clever puzzle item. On the other hand having a shovel like in Link's Awakening was great and playing the Spirit Pipes in some occasions was really annoying. About the status items, I enjoyed that I could switch between fairies with different abilities in Phantom Hourglass, that was really cool. But Spirit Tracks on the other hand gave me the option of playing in a different outfit, which was also really cool as well. Mhhh, this is really close, so I'd say it's a draw.

Winner: -

Round 6: Sidequests

Spirit Tracks suffers here from really predictable patterns. Bunnies are caught while at riding at train, ten bunnies per area. You get one stamp per area, upgrades and heart containers are gotten in minigames or shops. Force Gems are gotten by transporting goods and people. The only thing that you can basically find everywhere are the random treasures. Because of this you don't really have to search through stations or dungeons, you basically can't miss anything important. Unlike in Phantom Hourglass, where Spirit Gems, Treasure Charts, random treasures and ship parts are all mixed up and distributed everywhere. I especially enjoyed collecting the Spirit Gems and the neat abilities, which you got for them.

Both games suffer from stupid random items. Actually Phantom Hourglass handles the random system much better, there are very rare ship parts and treasures, but also spots, where it's more likely to find the rare ones. However, due to the larger number of random items (64 ship parts), it gets very tedious and hard if you're down to the last few ones. Spirit Tracks only got 16 treasures and you buy the train cars from the treasures. Much, much better idea, but the totally screwed it up with making some treasures super rare despite their lower price. Prepare for a tedious, repetitive and boring task of playing the same minigames over and over again just to collect enough treasures for all train cars. It wouldn't be much of a problem if they didn't totally fuck up the probabilities. But they did and so Spirit Tracks might be even worse than collecting all the tons of ship parts in Phantom Hourglass.

However, in the end Spirit Tracks has much more to offer in the sidequest department. Especially all the optional mini dungeons like the cool Lost at Sea Station, which emulates some classic Ocean King Temple gameplay, are really awesome. Or the "Take 'Em All On!" challenge in Hyrule Castle Town, where you even can fight all the bosses in a row. Phantom Hourglass might have the better collectible quests, but it can't compete with that.

But I enjoyed the minigames in Phantom Hourglass more. Especially the target shooting, I spent hours with this game (collecting ship parts). Spirit Tracks copied most minigames from Phantom Hourglass, but made them less fun. The target shooting for example takes too long and there's quite some lack. So, i guess this is a draw.

Winner: -

Round 7: Multiplayer

Both tried and both failed in their own way. I already did a "Zelda and Multiplayer" special, so this is the short version. Phantom Hourglass can be played online, but overall the Phantom gameplay isn't much fun. Spirit Tracks has a great fun looking Deathmatch style gameplay, which I would prefer, but it can't be played online, which renders the whole thing useless for most people outside of Japan. If the multiplayer of Spirit Tracks could be played online, it would be perfect, I probably would even play this from time to time. But it can't be played online, so this is again a draw.

Winner: -

The bottom line is that in my opinion both games are equally good or bad. What was done right in one game, was done wrong in the other, and vice versa. Overall both are mediocre Zelda games, lacking in difficulty and replay value and screwing up sidequests with randomness.

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