The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass Review

Last Christmas, Nintendo's DS handheld was home to a bevy of exciting new releases, including Brownie Brown's first Magical Vacation game in English, Magical Starsign. It was a decent RPG with one fatal flaw - it featured 100% touch screen controls. Gamers had already been complaining about DS games with tacked on touch screen features, and for a lot of people, Magical Starsign was the last straw. The touch screen controls made a mildly enjoyable RPG into a frustrating and almost unplayable nightmare. Games like Pokemon Ranger and Kirby: Canvas Curse had already proved that touch screen games could be excellent, and that made Magical Starsign even less forgivable.

Imagine Zelda fans' disbelief when Nintendo announced that the first DS itineration of their beloved franchise would not only be a direct sequel to the Gamecube's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, but it would be controlled entirely with the touch screen and stylus. Some Zelda fans maligned The Wind Waker for its cel-shaded graphics and its "too kiddy" appearance. Of course, these people are fools; The Wind Waker was one of the best Zelda games to date. Despite Wind Waker's previous greatness, I was wary of its sequel, which is the first DS Zelda title. Most new Zelda games are stand-alone games, not extensions of past titles and for every DS game that is enhanced by touch screen controls, five are made worse by ditching the buttons for the stylus.

If you've has those thoughts and are holding out to see if this new touch screen game is for you, I can hereby dispel your anxiety. Phantom Hourglass is easily the best handheld Zelda adventure to date and, in some respects, it can stand toe-to-toe with, and sometimes eclipse, its bigger brothers on the home consoles.

As you start the game, you'll be filled in on Link's adventures between the end of Wind Waker and now. Instead of going to Disney World, Link chose to stick with the pirate Tetra and her crew. Personally, if I had bested Ganondorf with my own two hands, the last place to look for me would be on a pirate ship. You'd be much more likely to find me in my pajamas playing Guitar Hero all day, every day. Either way, Link made his bed, so he can sleep in it for all I care. Anyway, Tetra gets herself pirate-napped by a Ghost Ship, which has been causing problems all over the world. What does Link do in response? He gets a sword, a shield and an annoying new sidekick, of course!

The story is nothing short of a complete Xerox copy of nearly every other Zelda game out there. That's fine with me; if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The main gripe I have with the story is that due to a shipwreck, Link is left without any of the items or weapons he amassed in the Wind Waker. This plot device felt weaker and weaker every time a new Metroid used it, but now its influence has bled over to the Zelda series. If Zelda sequels are to become the order of the day, Nintendo really needs to come up with some new reasons a previously buff character is again reduced to a three-heart weenie. It would be tough to say, but at this point, I feel like I've collected the bombs and arrows more times than Square Enix has remade the first couple Final Fantasy games.

The plot may be familiar territory, but the controls are completely different from every other Zelda game to date. As I said before and you've no doubt heard, Phantom Hourglass is (almost) entirely a touch screen game. Basically, you use the stylus to point Link in the right direction, solve puzzles, chart sea routes and make notes on your many maps. Simply reading about the controls doesn't do them justice; you'll need to check it out for yourself to fully understand how well they work. The only exceptions to the touch screen rule are the d-pad and shoulder buttons. The d-pad will bring down a map from the top screen while the shoulder buttons ready whichever item you're holding. They serve as "hotkeys," but aside from that, the DS buttons have no role to play in Phantom Hourglass.

Most of the controls feel natural after a minute or two, except for link's famous "roll" move. The game instructs you to draw "tiny circles" at the edge of the touch screen to pull off the move. The problem is… it doesn't work. Instead, a quick back and forth motion at the screen edges will do the job. Nintendo gave us a brand new control scheme; you'd think they'd have the game correctly explain how to handle things.