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Published October 1, 2007

When Twilight Princess arrived on the Wii last fall, it absolutely knocked my socks off. Perhaps it wasn’t the game to prove the system’s potential, but the dungeons were still expertly crafted and there were enough surprises throughout Link’s quest to justify the hype preceding its release. A year later, the handheld equivalent has arrives in the form of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. Though the some of the new control elements feel gimmicky and the dungeon designs leave something to be desired, Phantom Hourglass still manages to be the best handheld Zelda game since Link’s Awakening.

As you’ve most likely read elsewhere (or noticed in any of the screenshots), this is the direct sequel to the Gamecube classic Wind Waker. The characters, the story (*Spoilers* Gannon’s dead), and especially the presentation have all made the transition to the DS remarkably well. Despite hardware limitations, Link, Tetra, and newcomer Captain Linebeck are incredibly expressive and retain that beautiful “Celda” style that was so controversial years ago. Though developers in the past have used compressed FMVs to tell their stories, this cartoony take on Zelda demonstrates that such shortcuts aren’t always necessary despite the hardware limitations. Other than Metroid Prime Hunters, there isn’t another game on the Nintendo DS that’s anywhere near as stunning. The audio doesn’t make quite the same first impression, but the compositional quality is still topnotch as usual and the voice clips are only occasionally bothersome (“LISTEN!”). Nintendo should be applauded for putting so much oomph into a handheld game.

If you’ve played any top-down Zelda game, then the basics are nothing new. Find some clues in town, head to a dungeon, uncover a new tool, beat the boss, and then use that new tool to discover your new path. However, seeing as this is on the Nintendo DS, Aonuma and his crew decided that Link needed to be controlled with the touch screen. In the first village (similar to Outset Island, minus Link’s granny), you’ll need to take a few minutes to adapt to the new scheme. Stabbing enemies and spinning with your sword require simple pokes and circles, making combat a breeze. Unfortunately, moving Link around is not always as easy. In order to make our hero run, you need to drag the on-screen fairy cursor in the direction you want him to travel. Though it sounds simple, this method doesn’t always feel precise. Even late in the game, I was still occasionally falling off cliffs or tripping into ponds. Though I eventually learned to deal with the minor annoyances, I wish that the control pad had been supported for more than quick menu access.

Even though navigating through corridors can be a real pain in the behind, using Link’s new arsenal of tools is as exciting as it has ever been. All of the old standbys – the boomerang, the bow, bombchus, etc. – are directly guided using the stylus. Sure, some of them aren’t mind-blowing (Woooo! A shovel!), but the new controls manage to make some of the old favorites feel new again. Even so, I wouldn’t mind a little more pizzazz in the next DS Zelda. There’s nothing here that’s as wacky as the Deku Leaf or the Spinner. I love my bombs and grappling hook, but a few surprises would be nice later in the game.

The dungeons could have also used a little sprucing up. The puzzles aren’t bad, just familiar. Move the switch, kill the enemies, blow up walls – it’s becoming a little bland. Thankfully, the innovative use of the touch-screen keeps these designs interesting even with all of the Zelda clichés firmly in place. Much like in Hotel Dusk: Room 215, you’re recommended…make that ordered to write down clues to certain special puzzles, such as drawing paths through jagged rocks. Though this is usually dull, occasional twists give this new concept some value. When you find an uncharted island that doesn’t have a map, this feature suddenly becomes much cooler.

Sailing, the bane of every Wind Waker fan, is back, but is no longer the chore that it used to be thanks to Linebeck’s steam powered ship. Before lifting your anchor, you’re asked to draw out your next course on a map of one of the world’s four quadrants. Once you start your engine, the voyage takes minutes instead of (what felt like) hours. You may wish for direct control every now and then, but this only comes into play when you see a rare warp frog or hidden island. You can upgrade the ship with a number of additional parts, including a cannon for taking down opposing pirate ships, sharks, or even seafaring bosses, as well a crane for hauling up treasure. Speaking of which, treasure hunting requires a bit more effort this time in the form of a mine-dodging mini game. You’re just given a lot more to do on the open waters and less redirecting of your ship since wind is no longer an issue.

Though the new tools and improved boating are welcome, the Phantom Hourglass has a few other big ideas that should have been left on the cutting room floor. First and foremost is the god-awful Ocean King temple that you’re required to visit five times throughout Link’s quest. FIVE! Oh sure, the time limit (where the game gets its subtitle) and constant collecting of new weapons adds some variety, and I dig the whole Zelda Gear Solid vibe, but you’re essentially solving the same sets of puzzles over and over and over and over again. Ugh! This isn’t quite the Triforce quest deal breaker from Wind Waker, but it still sucks. I’d also like to take the opportunity to remind Nintendo that not every feature on the DS needs to be featured in each game. Maybe blowing sand off a map or closing the DS lid to print a stamp was clever or novel three years ago, but now it’s just dumb. Or annoying to anyone around you, if you’re talking about the mechanic who requests that you scream into the microphone for a good deal. I’d rather be ripped off.

OK, so not everything is fresh or engaging as it could have been. So why then is this still a stellar Zelda game? Well, it’s all about the little moments. In one dungeon, you get to switch off between Link and a Goron sidekick, a clear nod to the Deku Scrub and the bird girl from Wind Waker, but more exhilarating considering that this rocky ally can roll through the dungeon at breakneck speeds. Honestly, I wish every dungeon featured this guy. Another mazelike island is practically a dungeon leading up to another dungeon, with plenty of clever challenges for unsuspecting adventurers. And then there are the bosses. The first boss may be the crappiest boss ever to grace a modern Zelda game (a lame, bottom-of-the-barrel troll), but the rest are very clever. For instance, one boss is invisible, but you can see through the monster’s eyes on the top screen. Another boss towards the end of the game is two screens tall and requires the use of catapults to get within attacking range. It should also be noted that these boss monsters demonstrate the versatility of the graphics engine and show that the top-down perspective is a gameplay choice rather than a necessity.

Once you complete the main quest, you’ll have access to tons of mini-games, hidden islands, and numerous side quests if you’re still looking for more Zelda action. Hell, I haven’t even touched the multiplayer mode (Unfortunately, all of my reviews will not be able to take into account any online stuff – Sorry!), but there’s so much single player content that this didn’t even matter. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass may be showing its age in the simple dungeon designs and the familiar items, but the Triforce is still shining brightly.

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