Time is of the Essence
Ask any Zelda fan what their favorite game in the long-running Nintendo franchise is, and you’ll get a plethora of different answers, ranging from last year’s enthralling Twilight Princess all the way back to the original 8-bit NES hit that started it all. Quite some time has passed since we’ve seen a new handheld Zelda game, but once you get your hands on The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass you’ll see it was well worth the wait.
Rather than dishing up a completely overhauled design concept for the series’ first entry on the DS, Nintendo has opted to give fans something they’ve craved for some time: a proper sequel to The Wind Waker. Not only is this ambitious move pulled of almost flawlessly on the DS, which is a truly impressive feat in itself, but vast improvements have also been made to suit the system’s unique capabilities.
Phantom Hourglass retains the same beautifully rendered cel-shaded look of its Game Cube predecessor, and even with less power under the hood the 3-D graphics come amazingly close to the original. After Link’s (you can name him whatever you like in Phantom Hourglass) mature transformation in Twilight Princess, it’s great to see the cutesy cartoon style hero back in action again. Though the overall graphical implementation is slightly rough around the edges when compared to the Wind Waker, mainly due to the DS’s limitations, the visuals are still quite stunning. There are an abundance of moments throughout the game where it’s hard to believe this kind of stuff is happening on a handheld system. The cinematic cut-scenes and environments are marvelously put together, and even the dungeons – the one part of the game which will likely remind players of the old school days of Zelda – are impressively designed. The high-quality presentation is certainly a huge cut above the standard fare players have come expect on the DS. Essentially, Nintendo has successfully taken an epic, console-level production and refined it down to a pocket size format, leaving the overall quality intact.
As a true sequel, the story picks up months after where things left off in Wind Waker, with Link sailing the high seas among a scruffy batch of misfit pirates led by Tetra (a piratical Princess Zelda in disguise). A brief story recap on the events leading up to the game’s opening scene is included, executed in a neat grainy cut-and-paste art style, for players picking up a Zelda game for the first time – yes, it’s hard to imagine. Set upon by a patch of ominous, thick fog, the group discovers a ghost ship, and Tetra foolishly jumps aboard to investigate. Before long Tetra is in trouble and Link jumps to her rescue, only he misses and falls into the sea. You wash up on a mysterious island, meet a fairy companion named Ciela, and set out recover your friend from her ghostly captors. Beyond that, the memorable story unfolds across a lengthy quest spanning land and sea, with numerous side quests and hidden secrets to uncover.
Players will find themselves dungeon hopping, hunting for items on islands and in the ocean, solving puzzles, chatting up a bevy of strange characters, unleashing some sword action, and generally engaging in many of the same kinds of activities you’d expect to find in a Zelda title. This may sound pretty standard fare, but it’s the way the controls are handled which keeps these tasks feeling incredibly fresh and fun. The d-pad is only used to access shortcut menus, check maps, and for on-the-fly item selection. Every other action associated with controlling Link is handled completely with the stylus.
Link’s fairy friend serves as a cursor to guide his movement. Tapping and holding the stylus over a location on the touch screen will cause Ciela to fly there, and Link will move in that direction as long as the stylus is not lifted from the screen. His movement speed increases or decreases depending on how far away from him you move the cursor (Ciela), and he can tumble by drawing squiggles at the edge of the screen. Combat and item usage is also incredibly simple. With sword in hand, tapping on an enemy will cause Link to leap at it and execute a standard sword lunge. You can continue to tap a foe, or draw short lines across it to continue a series of sword slice maneuvers. Drawing a quick circle around Link will cause him to pull off a trademark whirlwind attack. Picking up pots, grabbing levers, or interacting with other objects only requires a quick tap. Later in the game the stylus can be used to direct the hook shot, aim your bow, and draw out the path for your boomerang to follow, among other things. There’s a lot that could have gone horribly wrong with implementing this control scheme, but it really is well thought-out and easy to use. When you get right down to it, the controls are simple, intuitive, and a hell of a lot of fun.
There are other areas where the stylus and the DS’ other functions are cunningly put into play. You’ll be blowing or speaking into the microphone at times to solve puzzles, opening and closing the DS, and using the stylus in interesting ways. Whether you’re on land or sea, the constant top-screen map will help you track your position. At any time, a single d-pad button press will drop the map to the touch screen, allowing you to mark it up as you see fit. The ability to scribble notes and mark important areas on dungeon maps and sea charts is a great feature, and it’s used frequently throughout the game.