When a brand new Zelda adventure was announced for the Nintendo DS in 2006, the 12,500 gamers attending the annual Game Developers Conference in San Jose, California immediately thought it would be the greatest game to ever grace Nintendo’s latest portable system. Accompanying the announcement was a trailer, a trailer which revealed that much of the game would be controlled via the stylus. A few months went by, and it became apparent that the entire game would be controlled solely by the touch screen, and the success of Phantom Hourglass was dependent on how well this new system worked. And something this big would present some pretty big changes, most notably in terms of gameplay.
Easily the most prominent change the touch screen permits is the simple way of how one gets around, and immediately players noticed how intuitive and fun stylus control really could be. Walking or running around was as easy as pointing in the direction you wanted to go. Moving was crisp and smooth, not the slightest bit awkward or uncomfortable. A few things do take a while to get used to, rolling especially, but after a few minutes with the game it all feels second nature. And that’s a good thing – there are plenty of dungeons to be explored.
Roaming through a handful of the game’s temples reveals that there is a multitude of new puzzles awaiting fans of the series. A majority of these puzzles come from touch control: tracing a unique path with the boomerang to hit objects spread across the screen, sketching notes and locations of treasure on maps, and drawing symbols on doors to advance further into the dungeon. That’s only the tip of the iceberg – Phantom Hourglass has some tricks up its sleeve that will certainly have you racking your brain trying to remember all of the DS’s unique features.
Remember the old days when you simply pressed the B button to slice up an enemy? Those days are over now that the touch screen reigns supreme. Now, when a pesky Red ChuChu stands it your way, just give ‘em a tap and he’s taken care of. One of those nasty Moldorm slithering around your ankles? Draw a few lines to slash up his weak spot and he’s done for. And if you’re surrounded by a group of Keese, sketching a few quick circles on the touch screen will launch a deadly spin attack, sending the group off to the great bat cave in the sky.
Link introducing his sword to a common enemy
The sword isn’t the only weapon in the game, of course, and Phantom Hourglass succeeds in reinventing some of the items found in previous titles. The boomerang, a weapon introduced in the original Zelda, gets a drastic overhaul this time around. Before, the boomerang could only be thrown in a single, linear direction. Now, the path of the classic weapon can be as accurate as the player wants it to be. Gamers can equip the boomerang and take out an enemy in ambush waiting around a corner, knock out multiple enemies in one single throw, carry fire to light multiple torches, and hit far-off switches hidden on platforms or ledges.
As you might have expected, other items received massive overhauls as well. With the bow equipped, all you need to do is touch the screen in whatever direction you want to shoot an arrow. Another classic item, the hammer, is controlled by Ciela this time around, but is still just as painful as you may expect. The bombchu has evolved so that it can now scurry across complex paths drawn by the player, hitting switches and blowing up baddies. An item from The Wind Waker, the grappling hook, now creates bridge-like structures used as a tightrope of sorts, allowing the player to reach previously unreachable areas. The bow can even be used while walking across the grappling hook, creating even more types of puzzles. It should be noted that all of these weapons and items can be conveniently accessed by pressing the L-button if you’re right handed, or the R-button if you’re a southpaw.
While most of the changes the DS brought on had to do with control, a majority of the boss fights in Phantom Hourglass take advantage of the DS’s unique structure itself. An example: the fight against a temple’s leader is no longer set on one screen. That’s right, the climactic battles to cap off each level now take place on both screens, making for some truly unique skirmishes. After clearing the second dungeon, gamers will be pitted against a giant, nasty creature named Cyclok. While Link roams the bottom screen, the Octorock will hover above the battlefield on the top screen, creating cyclones which try and pull Link up into the air. Much to Cyclok’s demise however, Link is armed with a pocket full of bombs. Throwing these explosives into the cyclones causes them to shoot upwards, blasting the disgusting creature like its never been blasted before.
Explosives and giant Octorocks don’t mix
Another boss fight, the dual against the crab-creature Crayk, has to be one of the weirdest fights in all of Zelda history. What makes it so bizarre is that as soon as you walk into the room, Crayk becomes invisible. The top screen then shifts to show a first person view of the giant crab, which is the only way of knowing its location. Once you figure out where it is, you must take out the bow and strike his eye with a well placed arrow. Weird? Yes. Different? Of course. Fun? You betcha.
Ah, the open sea. So beautiful, calm, and tranquil. Right? Wrong. Just because you don’t have to worry about actually controlling the ship doesn’t mean you get to sit in the Captain’s Quarters with Linebeck, sipping Lon-Lon milk and chatting the night away. Please! There are enemies to take care of! After sketching a course on the touch screen, you’ll set off into the sea, where Gyorgs, Sea Octorocks, and Eye Plants are all waiting deep beneath the waves for your arrival. And don’t forget about pirates. Lucky for you however, the S.S. Linebeck is loaded with a retractable cannon, which is more than capable of taking out all of the baddies you may come across. Killing these nuances is as easy as tapping the screen, and in time, you’ll be blasting enemies to smithereens before they even know what hit ‘em.
Still, don’t think that fighting is all there is to be done out in the open waters. There’s always something genuinely fun to do in Phantom Hourglass. Fishing, a Zelda series mainstay, returns as a fun mini-game which uses the touch screen to reel in all sorts of exotic little critters.
The Skippyjack: Not at all a Hylian Loach
Previously, in The Wind Waker, nabbing treasure from the depths of the sea was more of a cinematic activity; other than finding its location, there was no real work involved. Now, thanks to the Salvage Arm, extracting goodies has become a fun little mini-game. Using a control icon found on the touch screen, you weave the arm through rocks and explosive traps to grab treasure from the sea floor. The game is almost reminiscent of Operation, where making even the slightest wrong move results in disaster.
Even when you’re not blasting through a dungeon or sailing across the seas, there are still activities that are bound to keep you busy. The Goron Race, for example, gives you control of the feisty Gongoron. Using the stylus, you zip him across a maze, collecting gems as you go. Another exciting mini-game puts players in the S.S. Linebeck, where you follow a set path, striking moving targets as you go with cannon fire. A version of the classic archery game is back, and uses the same stylus-controlled bow and arrow mechanics to hit targets moving across the screen.
Even with all of the positives brought on by the touch revolution, negatives are inevitable. A big problem with full stylus control is that hands are not invisible, and can at times obstruct your vision in the middle of a big fight. Likewise, navigating through menus to switch items during a fierce battle guarantees at least a few hits by the enemy. Other than occasionally letting you down during combat though, the touch screen works like a charm.
It’s probably safe to say that everyone had their doubts when they learned of the brand new control scheme in Phantom Hourglass. But these doubts vanished the moment the game was fired up, and people began to wonder how they ever played Zelda any differently. While the ultimate fate of Phantom Hourglass is still up in the air, it’s easy to say that the game was fun, unique, and satisfying. I really hope this isn’t the last time our little green parrot straps up his booties on the DS.