Despite the triumph that was The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, there were jeers from certain quarters of the gaming community claiming that after 20 years of pushing boundaries, the franchise was becoming stale - lacking imagination, sticking to tried and tested gameplay traditions and without the bravery to take risks in order to push the series onward and upwards. Has Nintendo managed to appease the cries of unsettled fans with Phantom Hourglass or is the scathing criticism set to continue? Jump on board, raise the anchor and prepare to set sail on a journey with one of the DS’ most anticipated games to find out.
Phantom Hourglass takes place after the events of the Nintendo GameCube’s The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. Link, Tetra and their pirate pals are sailing the sea on the hunt for the Ghost Ship - a vessel rumoured to hold great treasures. Inevitably the crew encounter said ship, at which point Tetra’s daring nature gets the better of her. She jumps on board, but soon disappears with a high-pitched scream. In an attempt to help, Link hangs onto the side of the Ghost Ship for dear life and is carried with it into a thick blanket of fog. The next thing he knows is waking up on the beach of a mysterious island with nothing but the tunic on his back. He is joined by a fairy suffering with amnesia; spoken to by an old man about the tales of the Ghost Ship and the mysteries surrounding it. As if you didn’t know it, here the adventure begins to track it down and rescue Tetra.
It might sound fairly bog standard for a Zelda adventure so far, but thanks to the beautifully implemented control system, that’s just about where any over-familiar similarities with other games in the series end. Buttons? Schumuttons! Apart from the odd menu shortcut, Phantom Hourglass is controlled entirely by using the stylus and touch screen. Tap a spot and Link will run to it (moving faster or slower depending on how close you touch to him); tap a sign and our pointy-eared protagonist will read it; draw tiny circles at the edge of the screen and he’ll execute a forward roll of textbook standard. It takes a little getting used to at first, but after a while you’ll wonder how you ever put up with other top-down adventure games with such a ‘primitive’ D-pad and button input.
That’s all seamless enough, but it’s in making use of Link’s offensive repertoire and weaponry that the touch control really comes into its own. Swordplay is a simple case of tapping, drawing quick horizontal/vertical lines or tracing a circle around our hero to perform a spin attack. Bombs, bow and arrow, hookshot/tightrope (and other weapons) all function with the same glorious simplicity, but the boomerang’s implementation is perhaps the best example of taking an old weapon and freshening it right up. It will follow any line drawn by the stylus exactly, making it an indispensable and essential tool for breaking far-off pots, knocking enemies from behind and hitting multiple switches simultaneously in temples – staples of the series that are, notably, as great a lesson in level design as they always have been.
Simply put, the DS has allowed Nintendo to breathe new life into a tried and tested gameplay formula. While the general settings of temples and even the types of puzzles will be more than recognisable to veterans of the series (torch lighting, ice melting switch pulling), the use of the touch screen magically transforms them into something new and exciting. Take the ability to switch the map to the bottom screen to mark the location of chests or scribble helpful notes or secret pathways, or physically closing the console to transfer objects from one screen to the other or blowing into the microphone to power wind turbines. If we wore a hat while playing, the number of times we’d have had to tip it in recognition of novel (not just there for the sake of it) moments of gameplay that we couldn’t help grin stupidly at, is remarkable.
Given that all of Phantom Hourglass’ action takes place on a variety of islands separated by the vast ocean, you’ll be sailing from port to port rather a lot. However, whilst its GameCube prequel was blighted by a system that required players to command the direction of the wind in order to propel their vessel, Phantom Hourglass’ sea-faring navigation is a breeze - and once again it’s the touch screen that makes it so easy. Simply draw the path you want to take and off your tugboat goes, leaving you free to enjoy the fresh air, pan the camera in 360 flawless degrees and take out the odd enemy with a barrage of cannons, launched by - you guessed it - touching the direction in which you want to fire.
After the main adventure, there are a couple of side quests and treasure-hunting distractions, but it’s the online-enabled multiplayer mode that is probably the most likely reason players will cite for returning to the world of Phantom Hourglass. In a game that plays similar to Pac-Man vs. on the GameCube, one player controls Link as he does his best to collect as many triforce shards as possible, while the other does their best, as phantoms, to catch him. The winner is the player who has collected the most triforce pieces after multiple rounds. It boils down to a glorified version of ‘tag’, but is surprisingly addictive, especially against online opponents.
Graphically, Phantom Hourglass blows every other Nintendo DS title so far right out of the water. Nintendo has somehow managed to take everything that (somewhat controversially) made Wind Waker so brilliant and cram it piece by piece into a DS cart that overflows with variety, colour, grandeur and an ever-appealing art style. Whether it’s the emotion in Link’s saucepan-sized eyes, the fluid animation of the screen-filling bosses or the vast scale of the open sea, Phantom Hourglass never, from beginning to end, falters in the aesthetics department. The portable’s relative lack of technological oomph makes such a feat all the more admirable, and is sure-fire proof of what the DS is capable of in the loving hands of those development teams that know it best.
For all its fantastic achievements, however, Phantom Hourglass isn’t without its faults. Perhaps the biggest annoyance is the Hourglass Castle from which the game takes its name. You’ll return here every time you’ve successfully pieced together another major part of the puzzle in your quest to rescue Tetra, and it’s a temple that forces you both to repeat certain floors on numerous occasions, as well as racing against the time constraints of the hourglass’ sands - it all just seems a little unnecessary in the grand scheme of things, stunting the otherwise constant flow of the quest in hand.
Other gripes? These will mostly come down to personal preference, but some may find the 15 hour romp through Phantom Hourglass a tad on the easy side – that’s not to say that the title isn’t head-scratchingly difficult in parts, it’s just that the solution to some tasks could have been made that little less obvious; very occasionally your own hand might impede your vision of the onscreen action, causing unfair damage from enemies or unnecessary deaths; and the omission of staples of the Zelda franchise such as heart pieces, bottles, wallets and hunting down maps and compasses might be enough to upset purists.
A Legend of Zelda adventure for the Nintendo DS to call its very own has been a surprisingly long time coming, but there’s no doubt that it has been worth the wait. We’ve kept storyline and even gameplay details to a minimum in this review, because it really is an experience best enjoyed at first hand and one we really wouldn’t want to spoil for anyone. Sublime controls, gorgeous graphics and engaging gameplay demonstrate Nintendo’s knack of adapting its biggest franchises to any given hardware in full effect. Mere minutes with The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass will be all it takes to silence any critics of the series’ forward momentum, and proof enough that when it comes to big first party titles, ‘innovation’ is still Nintendo’s middle name.
Final score: 9 out of 10 - Very Good (How do we rate games?)