ew video game franchises have seen the success that The Legend of Zelda has over the course of its twenty-one year history. Spanning fourteen games and appearing on every console Nintendo has manufactured, Zelda is right up there as one of the most prolific series in gaming. When it rewrote the formula for adventure games in 1987, everything about The Legend of Zelda seemed different and fresh. Was it unfair to expect the same of the series' recent DS debut: Phantom Hourglass? I'm still not certain.
In much the same way players feared Wind Waker's graphics, many worried that Phantom Hourglass's stylus-centric controls would render the title unplayable. I can assure you that this isn't the case – in fact, its stylus controls are perhaps Phantom Hourglass's greatest asset. Though featuring Wind Waker's distinctive graphical style, game play is top-down and quite reminiscent of the outstanding Link's Awakening on Game Boy. However, where Link's Awakening succeeded as a completely fleshed out Zelda experience in the palm of your hand, Phantom Hourglass falters, being too short and too simplistic to feel rewarding for longtime fans.
Phantom Hourglass's controls really do serve it well. Players input every command in the game using the DS stylus. Whether attacking, running or sailing the high seas, all of these actions are controlled via screen taps – the buttons only serve as shortcuts to enter the game's various menus. For most actions, this control scheme is optimal considering the game's top-down perspective. I don't think it's ever been easier to hit multiple targets with the boomerang or time a spin attack against a large number of enemies. This system did become a bit of a drag in more complex levels – I often ended up blocking the screen with my hand as I frantically tried to tap in commands. Still, I never found myself overly frustrated by the controls.
When it came to the game's puzzles, however, frustration was far too common. It's not that they were difficult, mind you, just poorly executed. For instance, one puzzle requires the player to draw a symbol on a door in order to open it. I literally spent an hour trying to draw what I knew was the correct symbol, but to no avail. I eventually discovered that the problem wasn't what I was drawing, but how I was drawing it. It was like the character recognition issues in Brain Age, but ten times more infuriating. Many puzzles involve the player "writing notes" to themselves on top of dungeon maps for later reference – an interesting idea, but one that will appeal more to trivia buffs than fans of Zelda's characteristic environmental brain teasers. The designers could have used Ciela, the fairy who accompanies Link throughout his quest, to help guide the player who fails the same puzzle time and time again. Sadly, they didn't, which is a major blow to the title's "casual gamer" credibility.
Phantom Hourglass's story also disappointed. Wind Waker, the title on which this newest release is based, was both charming and morose – its islands were the mountain peaks of a civilization that had destroyed itself. Though Phantom Hourglass retains some of its predecessor's charm, any reference to its underlying darkness is gone. What we're left with is a shallow story that primarily takes place in a single dungeon (the Ocean King's Temple) and across a smattering of generic islands. Though it follows the familiar and successful Zelda formula by which new items enable the player to access new areas, much of the usual wonderment and sense of exploration is lost due to environments that are far too alike and far too few in number.
Perhaps I'm being a bit too hard on Phantom Hourglass. After all, the game is quite fun and is one of the best choices out there for an on-the-go adventure fix. Still, this is a Zelda game. Despite its incredibly functional controls, most of what's here will feel stale to longtime players. For a franchise that's garnered a reputation for innovation and self-reinvention, that's really too bad.