Much like its prequel, the exquisite The Wind Waker, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass hits like a refreshing sea breeze. The combination of cheery cartoon visuals, fun controls and epic scope set it apart from most video games, not just DS ones, and we enjoyed most of its offerings, but there were times we couldn't play this game, either from frustration or because we fell asleep.
Much of this comes from Nintendo's refusal to truly innovate. Locations change, a few new faces appear and there are new control mechanics, but none of this hides the fact that it's the same Zelda adventure that appeared twenty years ago. Once again, you play as a green clad hero in search of a kidnapped princess, and similar to other games in the series, you'll need to find a sword, listen to a fairy's ramblings and navigate through a series of dungeons, most of which end in thrilling boss fights, though in Phantom Hourglass' case, rather easy ones. And to make things especially irritating, Nintendo throws in some timed challenges that, if you fail, force you to restart from the beginning of the dungeon. These, more than anything else, made us shut off the DS. Also what's up with the reappearing rocks and enemies? We don't want to repeatedly kill the same creatures and smash the same obstructions.
Yet, despite these gripes, we returned to the adventure because the game's more captivating than boring, thanks to a host of features starting with the visuals. Nintendo further displays its mastery of the DS hardware, cramming near Wind Waker quality graphics onto those two, tiny screens. The bright, cheery colors make the game pop, and we love the characters' facial expressions and dialogue. Some ramble on far too long, but we felt closer to them in comparison to characters in previous Zelda adventures.
Gameplay is a satisfying mix of fresh and familiar. You still wander through dungeons in search of keys and other goodies, but Nintendo keeps things interesting with the controls. Gone are traditional d-pad/face button combos, now there's a touch screen system in which you maneuver Link by dragging the stylus along the bottom screen, and fight by drawing quick slashes or circling him so he performs a spin attack. But it goes deeper than that, as you can draw a path for his boomerang to travel and jot down notes on the map to help solve puzzles. With that said, the controls needed tweaking, as the DS sometimes fails to recognize commands, which leads to Link accidentally falling off cliffs or rolling into an enemy instead of attacking it.
Similar to The Wind Waker, you'll hop into a boat and sail to all sorts of exciting places, but instead of actually controlling the ship, you plot a course on the ocean map (using the stylus) and watch the boat travel from point A to point B. You can stop at any time to manipulate the camera for a 360-degree view and fire the ship's canon at the game's enemies, such as marauding pirates and hungry sea creatures. Even upgrade the boat with all sorts of parts, and this customization adds much needed depth to the game.
In addition, Phantom Hourglass contains a multiplayer component, a battle mode in which one player (as Link) collects as many triangle pieces as possible without getting caught by the opposing player who is controling these creatures called Phantoms. It's fun, and the ability to play via AdHoc using a single cartridge (results don't get saved), two cartridges and WiFi connection (letting you play against gamers the world over) adds plenty of replay value, but we don't see ourselves returning to it. An online enabled Four Swords would have been much sweeter.
Phantom Hourglass' controls, combined with the boat segments, make it a quality adventure worth everyone's time. You'll admire the graphics and bury yourself in the numerous side missions. For that, Nintendo deserves credit for shoving such a large world onto a tiny DS cart while retaining everything that makes a Zelda game enjoyable, from the memorable boss encounters to the catchy music (definitely play this game with headphones). Just don't believe all the hype. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is a great video game and a must buy, though it's not the evolution we hoped it'd be.