Like a slipping into a warm pair of slippers or happily sipping on a piping hot mug of cocoa, playing the latest Zelda game feels reassuringly comforting. Since the series emerged in the '80s it has gone on to become one of Nintendo's most iconic franchises; registering sizeable critical and commercial success in the process.
After what seems like an eternity in development, it's finally the turn of the DS to get the highly anticipated Zelda treatment. And in keeping with the revolutionary nature of the host hardware, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass complements the irresistible gameplay of the series with some truly mesmerising interface advancements.
Taking place directly after the events of the GameCube's hugely enjoyable Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass opens with the unfortunate disappearance of pirate captain Tetra, who – would you believe it – is actually Princess Zelda. Allowing her over-enthusiasm to get the better of her, Tetra/Zelda leaps aboard a mysterious Ghost Ship in search of treasure only to be swept away by strange and malevolent forces. Thus begins another Link's quest to rescue his princess. And unravel the secret of this peculiar spectral vessel in the process.
Nintendo has fully embraced the unique aspects of the DS hardware with this game – everything is controlled using the stylus. The D-pad and buttons are relegated to providing handy menu shortcuts and nothing else. It's a drastic move, but one that's entirely successful.
To move Link you simply tap the direction you wish him to take, with the distance of the tap from Link himself determining his pace. This grants vital analogue control that comes in very handy when negotiating some of the more slender ledges and platforms found later in the game.
Offensive manoeuvres are also handled astonishingly efficiently. Tapping an enemy instigates a targeted attack, which is most effective when facing slow-moving enemies. Faster and more unpredictable opponents require the use of horizontal slashes (performed by drawing several lines in-between Link and his foe), stabs (draw a line from Link to his target) and the famous Spin Attack (draw a circle around Link, but be careful not to overdo it as our hero quickly becomes dizzy).
Within the space of a few minutes, the newfangled interface becomes wholly intuitive and after a little longer you'll be so comfortable with it that conventional D-pad input will seem ludicrously clunky. It's no exaggeration to say that now Nintendo has taken the DS by the scruff of the neck and shown what is really possible when it comes to control, things will never be the same again.
The touchscreen is utilized in a more traditional sense when it comes to annotating your map. For example, an early conundrum involves tripping a series of switches in a particular order. The solution is helpfully noted down elsewhere in the level and, once discovered, can be penned onto your map for later reference.
Further adherence to tradition involves special weapons such as bombs, boomerangs and bows, which have been commonplace in Zelda titles for two decades. However, thanks to the groundbreaking interface you'd think it's 1987 all over again – these legendary weapons suddenly feel fresh and new. For instance, the boomerang relies on you drawing a course with the stylus before you throw it. Once unleashed, it dutifully follows the route you've drawn, happily flicking switches, stunning enemies and collecting items as it does so.
Even the microphone is also called into play. One door can only be unlocked by blowing out two candles, requiring a hearty puff on the DS mic does the trick. Although hardly revolutionary, it's nevertheless pleasing to see the undervalued feature being integrated thoughtfully for a change in intelligent puzzles.
Control innovations aside, Phantom Hourglass conforms to the trusty Zelda template we all know and love. You head from one location to the next, picking up various useful items along the way. The trademark boss battles make a return and are truly exhilarating; the new stylus control has enabled the developer to experiment with fresh attack patterns and ideas.
The biggest addition in terms of gameplay is the titular 'Phantom Hourglass'. This supernatural egg timer is vital to unlocking the secrets of the Temple of the Ocean King – just setting foot in this oppressive building drains Link's life force but so long as he still has sand in the mystical hourglass he is protected.
The temple doesn't divulge its secrets instantly, of course, thanks to a series of magically sealed doors that can only be opened by collecting important items from elsewhere in the gameworld. As Link progresses, more sand is added to his hourglass, granting more time with which to tackle some of the more difficult lower levels of the temple.
Visually, Phantom Hourglass retains the charming cel-shaded cartoon aesthetics of its GameCube prequel. The DS may be inferior in terms of graphical muscle, but Nintendo has worked wonders in shoehorning the signature Wind Waker imagery into more humble hardware.
Another facet that has been carried over from the GameCube epic is the oceanic theme. Rather than taking place in the traditional Hylian landscape of lush, rolling hills, Phantom Hourglass inhabits a world made up of a series of small islands, which are travelled between by boat.
Those of you who struggled with this aspect of the GameCube title will be relieved to discover that the whole process of journeying from island to island has been noticeably streamlined here. All that's required is for you to draw a line from one island to another, and the ship will follow that course. You can also fire your cannon at enemy ships along the way, make your vessel leap into the air to avoid hazards and use your on-board crane, all via simple touchscreen commands.
But to divulge too much is to spoil the experience. All you really need to know is Phantom Hourglass provides hours of solid-gold entertainment and represents the finest and most enjoyable game yet released on the Nintendo DS. It feels like the game the machine was built around, effortlessly incorporating all of the console's signature tricks and specialties.
Perhaps the biggest praise one can lavish on Phantom Hourglass is that it's arguably one of the very best Zelda titles we've seen so far – which, when you consider the esteemed family it can count itself part of, is really saying something.
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