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• The Legend of Zelda – Phantom Hourglass

developed & published by Nintendo/2007.10.01
1-4 Players (2 save slots)/Flash ROM/Nintendo DS

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Phantom Hourglass, the first Zelda title designed for the Nintendo DS, picks up where The Windwaker left off.  A comical seafaring adventure in the cel-shaded style, Phantom Hourglass makes excellent use of the DS graphical capabilities as well as its touch screen, delivering one of the best games for the system yet.

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Story

For those who never played it, The Windwaker‘s story is quickly summed up in a cute cardboard cut-out slideshow at the start of the game.  Without warning a Ghost Ship appears out of a mysterious fog and Tetra decides to explore it.  Before Link can join her, the ship pulls away and he finds himself helplessly plunging into the ocean!  Link awakens on the shore of a small island and begins his search for the Ghost Ship.  It’s a simple set-up that feels like just about every other Zelda game, minus Gannon.

Personally, I’m a big fan of the Zelda games that don’t star Ganon as the main villain.  They’re often the direct sequels, such as Zelda 2: Adventure of Link, Majora’s Mask, and now Phantom Hourglass.  While this frees up the scenario somewhat, perhaps it’s time to make some even bigger changes.  For example, this game could have starred Tetra as the hero, and had Link kidnapped by the Ghost Ship.  It’s high time that Zelda got in on the action herself.

Gameplay

The DS begged the question, “How would a Zelda game play using the touchscreen?” and Phantom Hourglass is the answer.  Eschewing both the d-pad and face buttons entirely, Phantom Hourglass can be played with the touch screen alone, with the option of using the L button for readying secondary items.  This is a big change, but die-hard Zelda fans can breathe easily as the controls couldn’t feel any more natural.

Link will move wherever you touch the screen, and attack enemies when you tap on them with your stylus.  You can also perform fancier moves, such as the spin-slash by drawing a circle around him.  Where things get really interesting (and innovative) is how the player uses secondary items such as bombs, arrows, and the boomerang.  It’s amazing how intuitive the controls are for each item and in most cases it’s an improvement over the typical 2D Zelda control mechanisms.

Touching is Good

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One of the coolest additions to the game play is the ability to draw on the map screen.  Clues for solving a puzzle can be quickly jotted down, or the location of buried treasure can be sketched onto the map.  This isn’t just a gimmick as you’ll be making memos throughout the entire game.  X marks the spot!

Phantom Hourglass even improves on game play specific to The Windwaker.  Instead of having to conduct the wind to sail around the ocean, players simply plot their course by drawing a line on the map.  Tapping enemies that attack you on the high seas will fire the cannons with surprising accuracy.  You can even upgrade and customize your ship with dozens of different parts.

The best new addition to seafaring is dragging up treasure from the deep.  In The Windwaker, you simply navigated to the spot marked on your map and the treasure was yours.  In Phantom Hourglass, you now get to control the salvage arm as it drops below the water’s surface.  Collecting each buried treasure plays out like a mini-game where you have to avoid mines and rocky cliffs while snagging rupees, until finally latching onto the treasure chest on the seafloor!

Time is of the Essence!

Key to solving the mysteries of the game is delving deeper and deeper into the Temple of the Ocean King.  Unfortunately, the temple is cursed – anyone who dares to venture inside will have their life drained – and there are Phantoms about who mean serious business!  This is where the titular Phantom Hourglass comes into play.  The hourglass prevents your life from being drained for a time (just how much time is determined by how much special sand you have collected).  Making things a bit easier are safety zones which pause the timer and prevent Phantoms from seeing you.

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It’s a bit of a chore to return inside the temple (which players must do at least 5 times throughout the game), but the handy warp points and Link’s arsenal of items provide for handy shortcuts, cutting down on the back-tracking quite a bit.

Multiplayer

New to the Zelda franchise is the addition of a minigame where players take alternate turns controlling Link or the Phantom Guards.  The objective of the game is to collect force gems, and the player with the most gems wins.  As Link you can collect force gems and special items that make it easier to avoid the enemy player’s Phantoms.  When it’s the other player’s turn, you draw lines on the map to command 3 Phantom Guards, in an effort to stop the other Link from grabbing force gems.  It’s a surprisingly fun and cool little bonus that can be played locally or through wi-fi.

Presentation

The DS isn’t exactly known for its power (often playing second fiddle to the PSP) but Phantom Hourglass looks and sounds like a portable version of The Windwaker.  It may be a little rough around the edges, but it does a great job overall.  Characters are especially expressive by DS standards, and the bosses and cinematics (often stretching across both screens) are a sight to behold.

Difficulty & Closing Thoughts

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Enticing non-gamers to play is Nintendo’s mandate, and Phantom Hourglass could be described as an “entry level” Zelda game.  Relying entirely on touch screen controls required a simpler design, and some traditional Zelda elements were truncated as a result.  Dungeons are linear, puzzles are easier, and enemies don’t put up much of a fight.  That said, the game is still fun to play, the bosses are epic even by Zelda’s standards and the minigames will test even the best player’s skill with the touch-screen.  For my money, Phantom Hourglass is one of the best DS titles available, and a solid if not spectacular addition to the Zelda franchise.

Quick Run-Down

PROS:

  • Excellent use of the DS touch-screen
  • Good for inexperienced players
  • Cute story and characters

CONS:

  • A bit too easy for Zelda veterans
  • Returning to the Temple of the Ocean King can get annoying

One Sentence Review: Puts a great spin on classic Zelda controls.

One Word Review: Touchable!

Zelda – Phantom Hourglass (official site)

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  • Techni

    Really? This is one of DS’s best games? I thought it was horrible!! I own every Zelda game, some I have multiple copies of due to how awesome it was (LttP) But this is the first Zelda game I hated.

    Repeating the whole dungeon a minimum of 7 times?
    So they used the same gameplay element to punish the user for failure, as they did to reward them for progression?
    When I heard about this from ZeroPunctuation, I simply gave up the game.

    The controls are absolutely horrible! Like they used an Apple Newton’s handwriting recognition to control the game. It’s fraught with false negatives and positives. And you can no longer move and use items at the same time.

    • Robotbling

      I also own all the Zelda titles. It’s not the best Zelda ever made, but judging it by other DS software it is hardly horrible. I stand by my statement.