Link's latest outing is his first on the DS, and the first that we've seen since Nintendo's new philosophy brought about the gaming industry's latest sea change towards games that are so accessible that even your dead grandmother could get a kick out of 'em. Does Phantom Hourglass maintain the legendary standard of gameplay set forth by Nintendo's previous efforts? Will Link's new stylus control have you stabbing yourself in the eye with aforementioned stylus?
Answers to these questions and more after yonder jump.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS)
Developed by Nintendo EAD
Released October 1, 2007
Zelda's recent history is a tale uniquely shapen by the internet -- one that, if you really think about it, might've gone in a much different direction had the masses not called for Miyamoto's freshly-plucked skull after the fateful E3 in which Wind Waker was formally introduced. Remember that? The "Celda" business, the outrage, the liberal sprinkling of the word "gay" throughout discussions on the deepest reaches of the GameFAQs message boards? A trying time for the developers and indeed for us all, one which led us down a path which inevitably came to a sputtering halt at the feet of Twilight Princess. That game, billed as a more adult experience, was praised as a messiah for some and akin to a swift kick in the face for others. My own feelings about the game aside, I'll say this: despite its many flaws I missed Wind Waker dearly the day I got my hands on Princess. Wind Waker was daring. It had balls so massive that, more than once, it tripped over said balls. But balls nonetheless.
That being said it should come as no surprise that Phantom Hourglass, a direct sequel to Wind Waker, takes risks with a similar brand of reckless abandon as its predecessor. As the first Zelda tite to hit the unstoppable Nintendo DS, Hourglass has the responsibility of representing both Nintendo's latest hardware offering as well as their new campaign to put games in the hands of all living creatures with hands to fill. Killing two birds with one stone, then, is as simple as implementing touch-screen controls for virtually everything that a directional pad and set of buttons used to handle. Virtually all of us present at this year's E3 got a chance to try it out for ourselves, and while reactions were mostly positive, I couldn't get behind it with the same fervor as most. Not even an option for us who prefer the traditional means of getting 'round?
Nintendo promises that ten minutes is all you'll need to get a handle on things, but gamers who have been rockin' Hyrule since the late eighties might require a bit more time. Everything, everything is controlled by the stylus. The player simply points in the direction they want Link to move, putting more distance between the point and the player for greater speed. Attacking is also simplified; the player need only tap on a nearby enemy to make Link close the distance with an overhead strike, or slash the stylus in any given direction for up close and personal attacks. Use of Link's secondary arsenal, however, is where the system will really shine for veteran players -- the boomerang, once engaged, will travel along a path sketched by the player with dizzying speed, and the bow and arrow is now literally "point and click". To equip subweapons, a menu at the bottom of the screen can be called upon with the touch of an on-screen button, or by pressing right on the directional pad. The shoulder button equip shortcut (L for right-handers, R for left), used to engage an equipped subweapon at a moment's notice, is an invaluable asset for those who hate tapping the touch screen exclusively for access to their arsenal.
As I said, it takes a little time to get used to it, especially for gamers with big burly man-hands like yours truly. Being right-handed, moving Link to the left almost always meant that some of the screen would be obscured, and my obsessive need for, y'know, seeing the Goddamn screen necessitated a change-up in how I held the stylus. Less like a pen and more like a small stick, braced against the end of my index finger with my thumb, increasing the reach of the stylus by the precious inch-point-five needed to keep things comfortable. It takes some adjustment, but after an hour of play or so, it'll feel as natural as anything else. After five, you'll never want to play a 2D Zelda the same way again.
Phantom Hourglass is unquestionably the prettiest game currently available on the platform, taking advantage of the creative 3D art style kicked off by Wind Waker while keeping the gameplay itself in a more or less 2D arrangement. The low resolution of the screen and available texture memory makes the graphics a little blocky, particularly in cut scenes in which characters, objects and other miscellenea are viewed up close. But what's really surprising is that the game is even in a position to be viewed under such a critical light -- the game runs so fluidly, is so colorful and well crafted, that holding it to standards we might have previously had for, say, last-gen home consoles seems only natural. It's a marked achievement for Nintendo's mighty portable, one that really makes you reconsider what the DS is capable of.
The influence of Nintendo's quest for accessibility permeates almost every aspect of Phantom Hourglass's gameplay with mixed results. Most notable (and perhaps most present throughout the game) is the ability to make any sort of mark or note you like on the in-game map which appears on the top screen of the DS while you make your way through the game. At the press of a button the map can be shifted to the touch screen where you can write whatever you want -- bombable walls, inaccessible chests, et cetera. An outrageously useful tool for a game like Zelda, but Phantom Hourglass makes the mistake of manufacturing uses for the map-marking system all too often throughout the game. Many of the puzzles peppered throughout the game rely on marking down a correct sequence found a couple of screens away, marking the number of palm trees on a beach, or locations of burning torches, that sort of thing.
It's not all bad -- for example, one puzzle in which a symbol to be drawn on a door must be divined by finding vertices of the symbol represented by tablets scattered throughout a level -- but many of these puzzles need only require legwork on the part of the player rather than any sort of creative thinking, making them less like puzzles and more like busywork. My frustration with this sort of thing hit its peak when, prior to granting me entry to a dungeon located on a Goron island, I was asked to count the number of goron children, homes, and know the location of a chest. There's simply too much of this, and every time it comes up I find myself struggling to achieve the same sort of flow that I had going prior to the interruption. Hourglass makes great use of the map system, but not in the way that I would have hoped. Much of it feels somehow artificial, born not out of the player's need but because of puzzles designed specifically to utilize it. This complaint isn't likely to be shared by audiences new to the Zelda series, but for us jerks who spent our youths sketching out our own maps on graph paper, it isn't quite as successful.
Map shenanigans aside, the dungeons and environments are very well designed, if a little sparse and brief. While the puzzles that don't involve sketching symbols and marking locations are also a little simplified versus previous titles, they still make for pretty solid experiences when they come around, thanks to a bustling populace of monsters to beat up and the awesome subweapons at your disposal. Most notable for the dungeon experience are the bosses, which have been scaled up to almost console-level size and require some pretty complicated methods to take 'em down.
One dungeon you'll be seeing a lot of is the Temple of the Ocean King, a cursed dungeon full of traps and evil bastards that resets upon every entry, making each trip inside a start from the beginning. Further complicating things is the Phantom Hourglass, a mystical item from which the game's title is derived, which allows you to make your way through the dungeon without succumbing to its horrible curse -- but only for a limited amount of time which increases as you defeat more bosses. Prowling the halls of the temple are Phantoms, fierce and evil jerkfaces that will chase Link around the levels and, if they succeed in smacking him with their swords, strike 30 seconds off of the ever-ticking clock. The levels are spotted with safe zones in which Link can hide from the Phantoms and time will not decrease, but you can't stay there forever -- there are puzzles to be solved, after all.
You'll be solving these puzzles over and over, as the game's plot necessitates visits between many of the dungeons. Thankfully, there are waypoints on certain floors that, once activated, will allow you to skip ahead to a particular point with your most recent record of time taken to get there decreased from your Phantom Hourglass. Furthermore, the dungeons are full of secondary and tertiary routes that are made available by way of the items and subweapons you find along the way, making the trips down quicker and leaving more time for exploring the unknown. I'd complain about the fact that I did get a little sick of it by my 5th or 6th descent, but it's difficult to ignore the fact that, in the end, it is creative level design, one that evolves as you progress through the game.
The world itself is full of all kinds of creatures to kick around, including an appearance by the Pols Voice from the original Zelda, defeatable only after stunning it with -- you guessed it -- a loud roar into the DS microphone. (Fun fact: This is a throwback to the original Zelda on the Famicom, which were vulnerable to attacks via the built-in microphone on the second controller.) While combat in Phantom Hourglass is never too difficult, thanks to the streamlined touch controls and a rich beastiary, it's almost always fun.
Speaking of that Pols Voice, it's worth noting that Nintendo has made full use of the capabilities of the platform, and not just in terms of visuals. Everything -- everything -- that the DS can do is represented in one way or another, be it the microphone and screaming a Pols Voice into submission or even the DS's sleep mode, engaged when the system is closed shut. The touch screen naturally gets a lot of use, but often times in ways that you wouldn't quite expect. It's an outside-the-box brand of cleverness that is representative of Nintendo's attention to detail.
Navigating the seas makes a return appearance without the hangups of Wind Waker -- no more managing the direction of the wind to get from A to B, no more needless hunting for Triforce segments in the vast blue ocean. Plotting a course is as simple as, well, plotting a course on your sea chart for the ship to follow, leaving the player able to fire the cannon upon enemies along the way. Salvage operations (optional!) are managed via an inventive minigame in which the player must guide the equipment down to the murky depths without getting tore up by the monsters inhabiting the deep along the way. Getting to your destination was never this much fun in Wind Waker, and it feels as much a part of the game as anything else -- definitely a step in the right direction.
If the campaign's not enough, Hourglass offers an online versus mode based loosely upon the Temple of the Ocean King in which one player takes control of Link and the other manages the paths of three Phantoms on the hunt. The goal is to retrieve Force Gems from the map and return them to your home base in a weird, decentralized sort of capture the flag arrangement. It's a nice diversion and features eight stages in total to battle it out with friends and strangers, but like most online DS components, it feels a little shallow compared to the main game, and particularly against previous multiplayer Zelda experiences.
Phantom Hourglass's value comes down to a question of audience. Clearly, Nintendo was looking to attract a league of gamers not as familiar with the series as those who have been following it since its inception, and in so doing have created one of the most accessible action-adventure titles ever created, portable or otherwise. Hardcore players might be left wanting a challenge geared a little higher, puzzles and combat a little fiercer, but the cleft between these gaming experiences, the hardcore and the casual, is probably no more than a point. Either way you swing, you can't look at a game like Phantom Hourglass and not feel a profound sense of respect for Nintendo's attention to detail and their ability to craft a quality, complete adventure that can appeal to both camps.
Verdict: Buy it!