The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
Nintendo are renown for keeping hold of releases for their major franchises until they are pixel perfect and ready for release. This reputation can only be further established with the release of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass which has obviously had all the time it needed to germinate, grow and become a fully fledged Zelda experience. This is evident not only from the long gestation period but from the resulting quality of the first handheld Zelda since The Minish Cap.
Believe it or not Zelda has been having something of a torrid time amongst Japanese gamers; the likes of Wind Waker and Twighlight Princess haven't been received with the same enthusiasm as older titles such as the chart topping Ocarina of Time. What better idea for Nintendo, to revive the prospects of young Link than to twin him with their super selling handheld. One in seven people in Japan own a DS, that's a lot of dual screen goodness. Early indications are that they have successfully engineered a Zelda comeback, with the combined marketing forces of the game in hand and an impressive appearance in the upcoming Smash Brothers Brawl on the equally strong Wii.
On European and US soils there may have been less riding on the Phantom Hourglass, but there was no less expectation for the release. It was therefore with considerable glee that the game plonked through the PlayTM letterbox. Like a feverish child at Christmas we had the wrapping off and game in-slot within minutes. From the first few scenes and tutorial it is pretty clear that Nintendo have again delivered the goods. And there are many goods to grab a headline here; from the intuitive control scheme, returning Wind Waker visuals to the masterly scaling of the Zelda experience to suit on the go play. To flesh these out here would be getting ahead of ourselves. So back to starting the game.
The visuals of Phantom Hourglass are some of the most polished to have graced the DS. Whilst they may have been pipped to the post by the gloss and pizzazz of Mario Hoops, they hold the crown for animation and communication. A simple wink from the doe-eyed Link communicates more than a paragraph of text does in many other games. The game engine provides this solid three dimensional experience, but at the same time understands that to leave the player to grapple freely with this world would be more than the DS controls could handle. To that end the world is held to a fixed isometric perspective, not a million miles away from the classic top down Zelda games on the GBA, SNES and NES. However, Phantom Hourglass's third dimension and analogue stylus control means that you can move Link in any direction, rather than being stuck to the limited 8-compass-point movement of the older games. Whilst this may seem like a minor point, it makes the game world and wider experience feel much more open, and creates more involved puzzles and battles.
Cut scenes are all rendered in the game engine, which really really coalesces the game's different aspects into a coherent whole. This sort of continuity extends on into the various encounters which all feel genuinely Zelda-y. All the usual Hyrule fare is here from the iconic trumpet blast and to camera presentation of the contents of a chest, to the art style and design of each island level.
The game's score continues the good work that is started with the graphics and provides a boost to the sense of occasion. The first time you hit the sea in your little boat and stand on the bow leaning into the wind, and a familiar Zelda tune pipes up is enough to send tingles down your spine. It's this attention to detail that keeps Nintendo so close to their fans' hearts. The music is further complemented by the various spot effects and the sounds that accompany the action. The whole audio ensemble is enough to transport you to your own imaginary Hyrule alone, combine that with the visual feast and you are set for a treat. Whilst this is more true for those who can appreciate the developing Zelda tradition in these games, even the new comers can't help being impressed by the high production values, and the game's maintaining such a high delivery on these values throughout.
Although it's all on the diminutive DS, this really is a fully fledge Zelda experience, and whilst many have been highlighting how foreshortened it all is, we really felt like this was the real deal. Tasks and stages have been suitably tailored for those snatched moments of gameplay available to the more casual gamer, but the experience as a whole still has a grand epic feel to it. At times we were quite overwhelmed by the sheer amount of side quests and variety of items to collect.
The learning curve has been tweaked in the easier direction, which is obviously a nod to the more casual player, or those who haven't played a Zelda game before (yes there are still some Zelda-virgins out there). This again attests to how well Nintendo understands their own game, what could so easily have been the undoing of their franchise has in fact been handled with a deft and knowing touch. The changes that have been made to both the structure and play mechanics all accommodate the physical-focus of the DS control scheme.
The game is loosely built around a series of islands that can be navigated and give way to a more familiar dungeon-exploration-dungeon structure. The major difference is that Phantom Hourglass works around a central hub dungeon. You return here after collecting different items that let you delve ever deeper. Although there has been some clever design to ensure subsequent visits can progress quicker through the dungeon, it still feels a bit forced to make you troll back down through the same levels each time you unlock another section. For us this was probably the low point of the experience, although even this delivered a fare amount of fun.
Apart from this, the game structure is a real out and out Zelda experience. Some have said that it felt too paired down for the DS audience, but unless you are real Zelda aficionado we don't think you will feel the game is too small in any way. There is plenty here to keep the vast majority of the population occupied for many hours. We found that the individual servings of Zelda goodness had been cut into smaller portions, but that this meant there were simply more pieces to get through.
The release of Zelda marks the coming of age for any platform (something which made the launch Zelda for the Wii something doubly special). It feels like the DS is now a proper bona fide member of the Nintendo family; now it has its very own Zelda. Not only does it raise the stature of the handheld console in the eyes of many gamers, but it also brings Link and his related protagonists back to a much wider audience. It brings together Nintendo's two great successes of recent decades: compelling hardcore gaming and casual play on the go.