Use the DS' stylus to guide Link’s boomerang to tricky spots.
By contributor
updated 10/8/2007 8:15:37 PM ET 2007-10-09T00:15:37

Nintendo DS players have been tapping their styli, waiting patiently for their own "Zelda." "The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass," the latest in Nintendo’s much revered, long-running series, is upon us. Was it worth the wait?

While "Zelda" purists may take issue with the new aspects of the gameplay, the rest of us are in for a revolutionary handheld game experience.

Nintendo's "Phantom Hourglass" takes up shortly after the close of "The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker," the 2003 GameCube adventure. Princess Zelda — who now goes by the name Tetra — leads hero Link and a motley band of pirates through a series of adventures. During their travels, Tetra gets nabbed after boarding a ghost ship and Link sets out to rescue her. Classic "Zelda" stuff.

The revolutionary part commences as soon as you put stylus to screen. "Phantom Hourglass" is almost entirely played without any conventional controls like the d-pad or buttons. It’s a completely fresh approach and it feels wonderful.

Link’s movements follow a little fairy: Wherever you tap the stylus, the fairy dutifully floats, Link in tow. While the placement of the stylus occasionally obstructs your view of the game, you get used to it pretty quickly. To lay a beat-down on foes, you'll wield the stylus like a mini-weapon. A little stylus swipe against the screen swings the sword against your enemy and a circular motion around Link’s figure results in a devastating 360-degree spin attack.

If you tend to stumble on button combinations and control schemes, "Phantom Hourglass" is made with you in mind. Tapping, dragging and pulling objects for Link to investigate and manipulate opens up the game to players of varied skill levels. (Cue the grumbling of the Zelda" traditionalists.)

The gameplay involves a mix of landlocked quests and seafaring exploration. The dungeon crawls, a "Zelda" mainstay, take place in tight layouts packed with clever puzzles. The smaller dungeons are connected by a larger maze beneath the castle of the Sea King, necessitating return visits. Tedium is ingeniously avoided by a sense of urgency — the castle dungeon is full of poisonous gas. Like dungeons aren’t depressing enough.

The maps, another integral part of any self-respecting adventure game, are displayed on the upper DS screen and can be moved down to the main screen at any time. Yet another deft game design move enables notes to be written on the maps, a handy feature that’s especially important in solving some of the more difficult puzzles.

An early part of the game sees Link faced with four handles which must be pulled in the correct order. The task becomes simplified when hints are collected and you jot down the order on the map. It’s a no-brainer feature that you’ll wish you had next time you play a role-playing game.

"Phantom Hourglass" might have felt too small, too restricted without the sea levels. Like "Wind Waker," you can set out on the high seas to reach new lands and embark on optional treasure hunts. The little DS manages to keep up with impressive 3-D scenes while you pilot the ship by drawing lines on the map and target enemies with taps from the stylus.

If you liked the cartoony, cel-shaded look of "Wind Waker," it's back in "Phantom Hourglass."  From the top-down perspective,  Link looks awfully cute putting along. It’s a far cry from the relative realism of "Twilight Princess" for the Wii, but charming nonetheless.

Such a stellar single-player experience is crowned by a simple, frantic two-player battle mode. Local wireless and remote Wi-Fi play pits one player guiding Link through dungeon maps, collecting gems, while the opponent routes enemy guards. Link races to return the gems to his home base. If time runs out or he’s caught, the roles switch.

"The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass" is a brilliantly conceived and executed game; a whole new form of handheld gaming that sets the bar higher for games to come. Little Link should be proud.

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