E3 07: The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass Preview

Everyone kept telling me it worked. As I ran into other journalists during the first day of E3, I heard multiple times that the touch-based control in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass really does make sense. I was skeptical because, while I have appreciated the reprisal of the Wind Waker visual direction on the DS, my brief experiences with the game at various events last year did not leave me with as glowing an impression as I would have liked.

Something was clearly tweaked between those events and the game's Japanese release last month, because my colleagues were right. Good thing, because a full-length Zelda adventure whose controls are a roadblock is an unpalatable thought indeed and, as gamers know, it is all too easy to half-ass an entirely stylus-based control scheme.

In Phantom Hourglass, Link walks or runs towards the point where your stylus meets the screen, similarly to the click-and-drag mechanics of Diablo and similar top-down games. Like an analog stick, the farther the stylus is pushed, the faster Link will run. Tapping the edge of the screen performs Link's roll; as in other Zelda games, jumping is handled automatically on a context-sensitive basis.

One of the successes of the scheme is that, again as in Diablo as well as in old-school PC adventure games, tapping an object or NPC anywhere on the screen will have Link run over and perform his interaction himself, as long as his path is not blocked. There is no need to guide him over manually.

Combat in particular was what surprised me about the controls. It too works quite well. The same principle for interacting with objects works when attacking enemies--just tap an enemy, and Link will lunge over and perform a sword attack. To swing the sword normally, just make a small swiping motion with the stylus, and to execute the trademark spin attack, trace a small circle. To keep the spin attack from being abused, since it can be used nearly instantaneously rather than having to be charged up, Link will get visibly dizzy after four spins, as demonstrated by a wonderfully convincing animation showing his exhaustion akin to Wind Waker's impossibly expressive animation.

The Wind Waker style is pulled off impressively on the DS hardware. More limited texture memory means the game is more obviously tile-based in some areas, but Phantom Hourglass absolutely nails it in the areas that count--charm, fluidity, and attention to detail in the areas that matter, rather than a vain attempt to apply the same level of graphical fidelity to every aspect of the game's world. It is that latter property that both allows the game to succeed visually without seeming hampered by the portable's horsepower, and gives it the same kind of high-impact simplicity its home console predecessor used to such great effect.

Thankfully for a series that has continually grown more polished and refined but has seen little genuine puzzle design and gameplay advancement in recent years, the touch screen adds some new elements. Some of these are fairly basic and, quite frankly, a little dumb, such as an early puzzle that requires players to backtrack a few screens to count some trees on a beach then write the resultant number on a slate to open a locked door.

Beyond that, however, there are some great stylus-based additions. Most notable is the new map, which can be pulled down from the top screen to the bottom screen with the press of a button, and which can actually be drawn upon with the stylus--hallelujah! This is the kind of so-obvious-in-hindsight design decision that feels like it should be implemented in every exploration-based adventure or platformer on the system, as the next evolution of the ever-present map seen in the DS' Castlevania titles and other games in the genre. It even extends to NPCs to an extent; when being given a task, an NPC can "point" to a location on the map with a flashing icon, after which you can mark it if you so desire.

Other touchpad treats include the ability to draw a path for the boomerang, which brings the iconic weapon up to speed with its Wii counterpart, and drawing naval courses for sailing, which should remove much of the tedium of The Wind Waker's sailing portions. The ability to draw on the screen will undoubtedly be used in other puzzle situations as well, but unfortunately the E3 demo was time-limited to 15 minutes, precluding deep investigation.

More than most large-scale adventures born on home consoles, Zelda has always retained its high standard of quality when taken to portable systems. Phantom Hourglass looks to continue that trend, but to provide some fresh design elements as well, all wrapped up in an attractive visual style.

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