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The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS) artwork

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS) review

"You Nintendo bastards. You think you can take over the world with your touch screens and your motion-sensitive remotes? This battle against the conventions of gaming has raged on for years, and now look what youíve done. Youíve dragged Zelda into this mess. Havenít you reanimated enough familiar franchises as is? Canít you give it a rest? You can do whatever you want to Kirby and Metroid, but not Zelda, man! LEAVE MY ZELDA ALONE! "

You Nintendo bastards. You think you can take over the world with your touch screens and your motion-sensitive remotes? This battle against the conventions of gaming has raged on for years, and now look what youíve done. Youíve dragged Zelda into this mess. Havenít you reanimated enough familiar franchises as is? Canít you give it a rest? You can do whatever you want to Kirby and Metroid, but not Zelda, man! LEAVE MY ZELDA ALONE!

Yep. At a glance, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass seems like my worst nightmare turned into a reality.

Despite what that paragraph may indicate, I am not at all against the incorporation of touch screen controls into modern gaming. My fears for Hourglass were stemming from the fact that Nintendo has opted to ďrevolutionizeĒ the one series I didnít want them to tamper with. I mean, if you look closely at the franchiseís history, youíll notice that the reason itís maintained its success throughout the years is BECAUSE it hasnít changed.

Think about it.

The Legend of Zelda?

A Link to the Past?

Ocarina of Time?

These are some of the best games ever made, and yet they all follow the same age-old formula: Go to these places; get these items; explore these dungeons; solve these puzzles; defeat these monsters; save this princess; be a hero! Zelda works because it combines every integral element of gaming so flawlessly into one distinct package. Think about all of the things that make an action/adventure game good Ė depth, variety, longevity, vastness, visual flair, etc. Ė and youíll find you can apply them to the Zelda universe.

Well, silly me. Hourglass follows this formula too, albeit from a completely different perspective. The game is controlled almost entirely by touch screen, with buttons being used only for menus and item usage. If anyone out there has any doubts as to whether or not touch screen control can be applied to conventional gaming, play Hourglass and be amazed: The game is incredibly intuitive to play, and itís all thanks to touch.

Want Link to move? Simply touch a spot on the screen, and Link will walk (or run) in that direction. Want him to talk to somebody? Tap that person and a conversation will be initiated. Want him to throw something? Tap a location on the screen, and heíll toss whatever heís carrying right to that spot. Want him to FIGHT? Well, youíve got options: A quick jab away from Link gets you a stab; a line drawn across him will result in a slash; a circle around him will trigger a spin attack. That so many actions could be pulled off so easily without the aid of any buttons whatsoever is a serious testament to the powers of touch screen gaming. It hasnít been perfected yet Ė controls occasionally arenít as precise as youíre used to, and Linkís somersault simply doesnít work properly (though youíll never have to use it) Ė but the big picture is a magnificent one. An hour with this title and youíll never want to play Zelda with buttons and a d-pad again.

Hourglass is a direct sequel to the 2003 hit The Wind Waker, a title controversial among Zelda fans for many reasons, but mostly for introducing the much-debated cel-shaded graphical style that has now become something of a staple for the series. One of the many things Hourglass does right is its impeccable eye for jaw-dropping visuals. The first thing you see after booting up Hourglass is a pair of seagulls flying over an impossibly blue Great Sea, still lined with the familiar foam pattern any true Zelda fan will recognize instantly. Itís on this ocean that the game gets to show off the height of its graphical prowess.

Four Swords Adventures and The Minish Cap both tried to recreate the big-headed cartoon version of Zelda as first introduced by The Wind Waker, but I realize now that it takes a true 3D perspective to grasp what it is that made that game so gorgeous. Your journeys from island to island in your new steamboat will bring back memories not only of the vastness of the Great Sea, but of the joy of seeing a jagged new island jut out of the blue horizon in front of you and creep closer and closer.

The return of the Great Sea means that Hourglass literally FEELS as huge and vast and limitless as The Wind Waker did, without the added tediousness of getting from one island to the next. Your steamboat means that wind is no longer an issue; in fact, whenever you want to get somewhere, you simply plot a route on your map, and your boat will travel along it automatically while you man the cannon and fight off any enemies that might obstruct your path. There are a number of islands to be explored in Hourglass, some of which arenít marked on your map Ė meaning youíve got to go out looking for them.

Once youíre on land, it will become clear that Nintendo had no intention of shedding Zeldaís top-down, 2D heritage. The dungeons, still as labyrinthine and puzzle-laden as ever, unravel nostalgic thoughts of handheld classics like Linkís Awakening (but not so much The Minish Cap, which I wasnít particularly fond of). Whatís most important, perhaps, is the way Nintendo chooses to incorporate touch screen elements into the dungeons themselves. You now have the ability to write down notes on your map. This probably sounds gimmicky, yet youíd be surprised how many ways they managed to weave this feature into the puzzle design. (For example, you may have to draw a path leading over an invisible walkway, or mark switches that must be pulled in a certain order.)

Unfortunately, Hourglass has a flaw, and itís called the Temple of the Ocean King. This timed, stealth-based dungeon proves three things: (a) Stealth works in Zelda, but only in very brief interludes, (b) time limits are annoying, and (c) forcing people to play through the same dungeon repeatedly is a very stupid idea. Players will find the means of progression (i.e., directions to new destinations) within this temple, and must rely on their continuously expanding inventory to gradually delve deeper and deeper into it at various points throughout the game. The level of frustration and redundancy derived from this dungeon is way too off-putting for such a smart, intuitive series of games.

But that this game managed to score a 9/10 from me having taken such an enormous risk is really a mark of incredible skill. No one does it like Nintendo, indeed, and those creative bastards can consider this glowing review a formal apology for ever doubting them Ė something Iíll try not to do ever again. Theyíve taken a questionable concept and turned it into something magnificent. I canít wait to see what they pull off on the Wii.

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (October 13, 2007)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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