The new release of Spirit Tracks reminds me that I never commented on it's predecessor, Phantom Hourglass. It's not that I didn't play it - I did. But I sent it back after only a couple sittings. I know, I know - I sent back a freaking Zelda games.
I love the Zelda series. The original game totally blew my elementary school mind. A Link to the Past is definitely one of my all time favorites (I'm sure boosted a bit due to my overall SNES nostalgia). I missed Ocarina of Time on the N64, but thankfully got to play it on the GameCube. I loved what Wind Waker did with the art style and with the story. The Minish Cap was a good enough handheld throwback. Twilight Princess was appropriately epic, but I really regret playing it on the Wii instead of the GameCube (the Wii controls were terribly gimmicky). There have been some missteps in the series for sure, but in general it has continued to satisfy me throughout.
Phantom Hourglass, however, frustrated me to no end. It wasn't the stylus controls. I was able to deal with those and appreciate that they made some things better and some things worse (I would argue a lot of those functions would work better if simply mapped to buttons). No, the thing that killed the game for me was the goddamn boat.
Instead of having an overworld to navigate through you're given a big sea and a boat. You trace out a path and the boat will follow that to get from island to island. That doesn't seem so bad, but then you're supposed to pay attention to fire the ship's cannons to avoid monsters and obstacles. The controls aren't terribly precise, but the real problem is the pacing. Most of the time there'll be nothing to worry about, and since you don't have to interact much you'll start to mentally check out. But you can't, because if some little monster pops up and wails on you might have to start your journey over from the beginning. So you're forced to be attentive in the face of overwhelming boredom.
The boat trips drove me absolutely nuts. I was mostly enjoying the game and then as soon as I had to use the boat I pretty much hit a brick wall. So I sent the game back to GameFly, heartbroken. It's too bad, because there were some good ideas in there, but just too many hang-ups for me to continue. And now the sequel is out in Spirit Tracks, and I don't know what to do. It's a reportedly high quality Zelda game, so I should play it? It's been described as just like Phantom Hourglass but with a train instead of a boat... should I give the formula another fair shake?
Venting on a completely different issue: please, developers, never ever use the DS microphone. A large percentage of people play handheld games in public places, and most of them are not interested in looking like an idiot in public. Phantom Hourglass had this part where I was supposed to blow out a torch using the microphone input, and rather than freak out the person next to me on the bus I closed up my DS to save that experience for later. But when I got around to it later that day it was way more annoying than I even anticipated. I blew soft, I blew hard, I blew from all different angles*, until eventually the flame went out with some random combination. It was frustrating, and I wasn't looking forward to any more "puzzles" based on that crap.
It seems unfair of me to be so unsatisfied when a game fails to evolve, but then also be upset here when a game fails during experimentation. I recognize that it's unfair, but that's how I feel.
I worry about the new trend in game controls (be it the DS stylus, touch on the iPhone, the Wii remote, or even Natal). These things have huge potential to open up accessibility of gaming to more people, but used incorrectly they create an imprecise frustrating mess. It takes some restraint to temper the new shinny thing with reason and arrive at a control scheme that makes sense. Okay, I'll say it: Japanese culture is obsessed with kitsch and gimmick. In the broad sense I think that's fine and healthy, but I don't know how much I can look to them to lead the charge on quality gaming. I'm worried that eastern development studios like Nintendo are losing touch with what they did to connect to me in the first place. Of course down the road something awesome will come out and temporarily restore my faith in them, but right now my optimism is low. Here's hoping my friends working on Natal nail it.
* Yes, that is what she said