VIDEO: The trailer for Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
When details emerged regarding Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, the venerable franchise’s long-delayed first foray into DS territory, the skeptical reactions heard throughout the Internet were predictable. Okay, the idea doesn’t sound great on paper: the game is controlled entirely with the stylus and the touchscreen, and it uses the same cartoony, cutesy æsthetic previously seen in the Gamecube’s installment of the Wind Waker series. Was this going to be yet another instance of the Nintendo folks driving away their core audience in favor of the “casual gamers” market they covet so much?
In a word, no. Phantom Hourglass not only lives up to the lofty expectations that come with the Zelda imprimatur as a solid dungeon crawler, it feels, with its intuitive controls and vibrant visuals, like a natural fit for the handheld. It’s hard to imagine Nintendo doing this any other way.
The stylus-and-touchscreen control system is stunning. You move Link by dragging his fairy companion around the screen. You attack monsters by tapping on them. You aim bombs and arrows by pointing at what you want blown up or pierced. You can even plot out the precise trajectory of your boomerang by drawing a path for it around the screen. The only function that doesn’t always work as well as you’d like is switching items: the action doesn’t stop when you bring up the menu. A shortcut button (and there are some here) might have helped. But these complaints are minor; the simple fact that this works at all — let alone that it works as well as it does — is a real achievement.
The game is a direct sequel to Wind Waker, taking place briefly after the conclusion of that game’s story. Link is still a young adventurer, traveling with a band of pirates led by Tetra, who’s actually Princess Zelda traveling under an alias. As is her wont, Tetra/Zelda gets kidnapped, but her usual captor, Gannon, is not the culprit — she’s taken aboard a Ghost Ship by a mysterious, vengeful spirit. Wind Waker vets may be tempted to roll their eyes as they realize that this game is also headed for the high seas. But here the ship is an ordinary steamboat rather than a schoolmarmish enchanted skiff that scolds you every time you veer off course, and there’s nothing in Phantom Hourglass anywhere near as tedious as Wind Waker’s quest for Triforce pieces strewn across the ocean floor.
The various puzzles Link has to solve along the way are just challenging enough to require some brainpower but not so difficult as to frustrate your average gamer. Some of them require use of the DS itself — like extinguishing torches by blowing into the DS’s microphone. The bad news is that being able to make notes or draw paths on Link’s maps can take the drama out of the proceedings — it’s neither difficult nor all that much fun to trace over a line you’ve already drawn.
Yet though Phantom Hourglass is somewhat streamlined in scope, there’s still plenty here for gamers who are willing to put in some time with it. It may not offer the massive overworld or epic storyline of previous Zelda efforts, but it’s much easier to play in shorter bursts, an advantage for any DS title. I only wish it had come out sooner — it could serve as a lesson on how to adapt a franchise for play on the Nintendo DS.