Back when Phantom Hourglass was released back in 2007, the controls were a big deal. The game was to be completely controlled by the stylus, and many people were unsure of whether it would work out or not. Upon release, the game was praised for its innovative controls. Reviews praised its puzzles and its reinvention of many staples of the Zelda franchise like Link’s famous roll or new precise boomerang controls. Our own ex-writer Nick Geml was one of these critics who gave the game’s controls a rave review in his article “Phantom Hourglass: Touching Feels Good”.
Then just over two years later came Spirit Tracks. In many ways, it was the same controls, but instead of reinventing old Zelda items for the DS, it created new Zelda items specifically for the DS. The Spirit Flute and The Whirlwind, for instance, utilized what the DS could do much better than Phantom Hourglass had done. This time around, I was amongst the people praising the game with my article, “Spirit Tracks: Zelda for the DS Done Right”. However; things just don’t seem to be the same anymore. Touching once felt good, but nowadays, touching feels bad.
It has just now been a whole year since Spirit Tracks was released, and in that spirit, I decided to give the game another playthrough for its first birthday. I’m not a hater, that’s for sure. Both Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks were, and still are, enjoyable games. I’m glad there are touch controls in the games and I can understand why Nintendo incorporated them. Why not use one of your largest franchises to show off what the DS can do? Zelda did exactly that, and when we first experienced them, they were great. But now, years later, touching doesn’t seem so good. To be honest, it is a tad annoying.
That’s a personal thing, however you look at it. Some people will still love the controls, some will always have hated them, and others like me will be getting over them. The ultimate issue isn’t with the controls per say. I’m glad that the innovation is there. The issue, I believe, is with the dependence upon those controls. Both Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks can’t be played any other way. The whole experience that gamers take away with them is dependent upon how they respond to the touch controls. Apart from minimal shortcuts, neither game really uses the buttons. To me, that is the main pitfall of the latest two handheld Zeldas.
Take some other DS games as examples. Pokémon incorporates both touch and button controls, even giving the option between the two in some cases. Dragon Quest IX is the perfect illustration here. It could be controlled entirely by touch, or entirely by button input. I controlled my party with the directional pad over the stylus, and it was great, simply because I could. Now, I know, the way I am playing hearkens back to the good old days. I don’t see myself as unwilling to accept the new technology, I just prefer to play that way. I tried Twilight Princess on the Wii for the experience, but the Gamecube version is still the real one to me. I guess it goes without saying, things like Dragon Quest IX were simply games on the DS, whereas these two Zeldas were games for the DS. Perhaps they couldn’t have been played any other way. Wrong. Some control scheme options would have been nice.
What I’m considering here is how different people respond to games and how they enjoy them. Nintendo wants to appeal to everyone. Take the recent rerelease of Goldeneye 007 on the Wii. You have the choice between the Wii Zapper, or the classic controller. Players can choose what they are most comfortable with – modern motions or classic controllers. Also consider the upcoming 3DS. Its central feature is 3D, and the games can utilize that, but it has been stated that games will not be dependent upon the 3D. Why? Because not everyone likes 3D, and not everyone can see it. The 3D slider allows the effect to be controlled and turned off. All of these are the exact reasons why touch controls should not have been required in Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks. Some people don’t like it, so will cast the game aside before giving it a go. Some people are physically challenged, making sophisticated touch controls near impossible.
It is all about choice, and allowing gamers to experience the game how they want to. Options, options, options. In my latest play through of Spirit Tracks I wanted to control Link with the directional pad, but couldn’t. On occasions I wanted to press B to use my sword, but couldn’t. If only the option was there, even a generic directional slash, I would have been happier. The past is sealed, but the future isn’t. When Zelda comes to the 3DS I hope this same downfall isn’t present. The 3DS has a directional pad that could be an option to control Link as well as the touch screen. Options, I feel, will make Zelda on the DS, and any other game, more enjoyable for a wider audience. There’s also Skyward Sword. If it fails to present alternative control schemes, the whole game will be judged and potentially fall down upon the motion controls. Let gamers play the way they want to. Give them options. Let them touch if it feels good, but don’t force them to. After all, isn’t touching supposed to be consensual?