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Is Zelda: Spirit Tracks worth the ticket to ride?

The Nintendo DS finishes its year with yet another Zelda sequel. Is it one too many for green-hatted Link?

Link makes like a train-car-riding hobo in Spirit Tracks.

While plenty of people are still readily awaiting a sequel to Mario Kart DS or New Super Mario Bros., it didn't take Nintendo much time at all to shoot off a follow-up to its 2007 Nintendo DS Zelda adventure, The Phantom Hourglass.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, set 100 years after Phantom Hourglass and set in a very similar cell-shaded cartoonish universe, at first looks like it might be a pale shadow of the first touch-screen DS game, swapping out train travel for long boat voyages. We were a little surprised and skeptical when the game was first announced, especially since train travel sounds a lot more passive than sailing. After riding around with Link for a weekend, did our opinion change?

I admit, I was originally dubious about Zelda: Spirit Tracks' ability to be as good as its predecessor, Phantom Hourglass. However, to my pleasant surprise, Spirit Tracks is not only a true sequel to Phantom Hourglass, it's also equally good. In fact, in some ways it's even better.

To address first: the trains in this game are set on tracks that traverse a series of small towns and other locations, and pulling up at destinations is essentially the same as docking your boat in Phantom Hourglass. Actually, the train controls are a bit simpler to operate on the go. The rest of the game, including its focus on a central mega-dungeon that unlocks secrets throughout, is very reminiscent of the first DS Zelda. That's not so bad, though--we'd take more of Phantom Hourglass and less of many other crappy DS games any day of the week.

The storyline, which features evil trains, floating towers, and a floating Zelda spirit that helps haunt statues to do your bidding in co-op puzzle solving, is both bizarre and clever, and is closest to the N64 cult classic Majora's Mask in terms of how it feels thematically. Nintendo's greatest achievement is how it adopts charming dialogue and characters to sell us this absurd tale and not have it feel stale or stilted--it's what makes the Zelda games more approachable to a newcomer than some of Square Enix's numerous RPGs.

After a few hours of play, the train riding aspect fades into the background, and Spirit Tracks is about the things all Zelda games are about: finding small towns, unlocking side quests, getting weapons, conquering dungeon puzzles. It's as classic as any Zelda game before it.

A new multiplayer mode works with only one copy of the game across multiple DS units, but to be honest we like our Zelda best when it's a solo affair. In a season of many great Nintendo DS adventure games--Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story and Professor Layton 2 among them--Spirit Tracks just might be the best. And, in this case, it's nice to finally see Nintendo rapidly do a follow-up to a franchise favorite (they might be getting the hint, considering next year's Super Mario Galaxy 2).

Fans of the first Zelda game on the DS will be happy to know that Spirit Tracks trumps Phantom Hourglass in almost every way possible. Gone are the seemingly endless repetitive elements that ultimately created a frustrating experience.

Zelda and Link still don't get it on. GameSpot

In Spirit Tracks, Link's adventure is guided by the spirit of Zelda across the land of Hyrule. This time around, you'll be navigating the land via train, as opposed to a boat in Phantom Hourglass. Long-time fans of the Zelda franchise will be rewarded generously, as this game continues to pay respect to earlier titles, and the game once again carries with it the adorable cell-shaded art-style originally made popular in the GameCube's Wind Waker title.

The classic Zelda game structure and its proven formula are once again present here, but during our time with the title we couldn't help but become apathetic about something we've done so many times before. Maybe not enough time has passed since Phantom Hourglass, but during Spirit Tracks, it simply felt like more of the same. Not to take anything away from the game's fantastic level and puzzle design, we just think Nintendo may have emptied the tank on DS Zelda games.

Truth be told, we would have taken a new Wii Zelda game over the DS version, no questions asked. Sure, the development time for a console game exceeds that of a handheld's, but we'd gladly wait the extra year or so.

Make no mistake about it, Spirit Tracks is excellent and shouldn't be passed up by any fan of the series. That said, we think there's a very definitive line that casual fans who may have already experienced Phantom Hourglass might not want to cross.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is available now for $34.99.