October 18, 2007

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Legend of Zelda: the Phantom Hourglass (DS)
Nintendo, October 1
By Glenn "Where's Tingle?" Given production@hippopress.com

Cel-da returns with a touch-sensitive bone to pick about a missing princess and a ghostly pirate ship in Phantom Hourglass, a tricksy adventure that’s cuter to paw at than a basket of kittens.

The GameCube’s Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker is, for my money, the best Zelda title ever produced. Finally the franchise had matched the heights of its level design and gameplay with a style and artistry that astounded. Sure, it wasn’t as challenging as Ocarina of Time, or as perfectly paced as A Link to the Past, but those differences were marginal. The biggest strike many gamers leveled against it was its cartoon cel-shading. But I’m not a photo-realist and Miyamoto and crew did well to present a beautiful world in a distinctive Saturday morning style.

Since then Twilight Princess has blown critics out of the water as the Zelda phenom, but I must disagree. Not that TP is anything less than glee tincture but it just never made me smile like skipping over the waves of a drowned Hyrule in the King of the Red Lions. With Phantom Hourglass we return to that vast ocean and its island dungeons right after Wind Waker ends. Link is a-pirating the seas with the disguised Princess Zelda when they catch up to the elusive Ghost Ship of WW side-quest fame. Zelda brashly boards the phantom vessel and is whisked away to some nether dimension. Guess who needs to man up and save her?

Play is dramatically changed here, though. You maneuver Link by dragging the stylus and tapping enemies to attack or drawing circles to slice or execute a spin attack. In the most dramatic use of the pointer you can trace out complex flight paths for your erstwhile boomerang, which of course comes in quite useful in the game’s many puzzles and tricks. But the little handheld that prints money shines its versatility moreso by integrating the microphone (yelled into to gain the attention of island passersby, or gently blown upon to snuff candles) as well. Maps and sea charts play a heavy role in Phantom Hourglass as you will be repeatedly making notations on them with the stylus, scratching away stains on charts to reveal hidden items, or inscribing symbols, numbers and the like to unlock doors and bypass obstacles. There is such variety to the interface that it’s an hour or so before you realize that you’ve barely touched a button on the video game, and that’s an oddly satisfying feeling.

The majority of the game is spent in top-down view ala early Zelda, though your jaunts seaward in your “sidekick” Linebeck’s steamship bring 3-D to the dual screen. After plotting your course on the sea charts your ship will dutifully follow your scribblings across the vast ocean but on the way you can blast cannonades at monsters, jump obstacles and edit your course on the fly. The dungeons owe a lot to the design of both Wind Waker (though they have signifigantly less vertical orientation) and Link to the Past. So, maybe they’re not so suprising, but the familiarity belies the challenge that they hold. Boss encounters, as usual, hinge upon smart deployment of the preceding dungeon’s hidden treasure — par for the Zelda course, as is skipping from place to place to assemble your powers.

Phantom Hourglass’ skeleton is old but incredibly strong. Its meat is clever, thoughtful and challenging and its skin is simply delightful to look at. From the opening cry of the cartoon gulls to your frantic stylus slashes against ghost pirates Phantom Hourglass is great. A+Glenn Given