I don’t believe in bad Zelda games. Sure, there are games in the franchise that have disappointed dedicated fans, but that doesn’t make them awful in general. I missed out on Spirit Tracks when it initially released, and the negative buzz towards the game didn’t encourage me to make it a priority. Eventually I picked up the game during a sale and tossed it on my pile of backlogged games. A few months back I retrieved it, popped it into my DS to accompany me on a long airplane trip, and had a good time.

Exploring the Zelda series’ vast overworlds has always been a passion of mine, but I adore the dungeons just as much. Spirit Tracks felt like a series of dungeons strung together by streamlined locomotive-based exploration. For some, that takes all the fun out of the Zelda formula. For my bite-sized stints with the game during travel, it was perfect. The linear nature of train tracks made it so I always knew where I was going. That made for a rewarding experience each time I cracked open my DS. I’ve trekked through my fair share of expansive Hyrule overworlds in my day. Not every Zelda game needs to have a cookie cutter clone of the same map.

Though I’ll defend Spirit Tracks’ means of transport and the core dungeon design, a few facets made me regret passing on Okamiden in favor of this cart. The Phantom Armor carryover from Phantom Hourglass almost derailed the entire experience. Babysitting suits of armor possessed by Princess Zelda became tedious. It reminded me too much of Phantom Hourglass’s déjà vu-inducing Temple of the Ocean King. Making matters worse, the last boss battle in Spirit Tracks was easily the worst in the entire series. As if having to control both Link and Zelda atop a demonic train wasn’t bad enough, later you’ve got to deflect dozens of huge fireballs in succession using the touchscreen’s dodgy combat controls.

My complaints may seem severe, but you’ve got to keep things in perspective. This is a Zelda game. Nobody should ignore Spirit Tracks simply because a handful of diehard fans whined about it not having Epona. Spirit Tracks is still a wonderful game, and I’m happy I took a chance bringing it on a long trip. I’ve definitely traveled with less charming companions.

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[This essay first appeared in Game Informer issue #222]