Is the hourglass half empty or half full?
When Nintendo said Twilight Princess would be the last Zelda as we knew the series, I wasn't sure what to think. Now that Phantom Hourglass has been released, I'm still not sure what to think. While this DS game provides many clever additions and twists to the Zelda universe, it also stumbles where its brethren are usually strongest, making it among the weakest of the Zelda games.
Phantom Hourglass introduces a refreshing new control scheme, with some growing pains. Using the stylus to control both movement and attacks feels natural and intuitive. Tap a baddy to charge towards it and attack. Draw a circle for a spin attack. Pull out your map and write notes or doodle! While I initially felt as though I was playing Animal Crossing Wild World, I quickly adjusted and grew to love this slick new setup. The controls out at sea, which consist of drawing a route on the map, then defending your ship with your cannon, are also surprisingly entertaining. The D-pad (or face buttons for lefties) is optional but useful for quickly opening a menu, and the currently selected item (e.g. your boomerang) is at the ready with either shoulder button in conjunction with the stylus. In fact, the touch screen equivalents are counterproductive: inadvertent taps of on-screen buttons are an annoyance, and intentional taps are still less convenient than the D-pad and trigger finger shortcuts. Other minor control quips include being vulnerable when accessing the item menu, since the game doesn't pause, and that the roll gesture rarely registers.
The Wind Waker presentation also pays off on the DS. Sure, the game has some blurry textures (Link's eyebrows look really weird when the camera zooms in), but the cel-shading looks awesome. Even when seven or eight enemies are on the screen, or the game renders 3D on both screens, Phantom Hourglass rarely slows down. Lighthearted storytelling with amusing dialog—especially between Celia the fairy and the self-centered pansy, Linebeck—keeps the plot interesting in spite of its simplicity.
Unfortunately, like in Zelda 2 for the NES, the series-defying risks don't always pay off, and the game's quality therefore slips. The game unnecessarily strives to justify its touch screen controls through many puzzles that rely on the same basic premises of making note of a solution or hint on your map, then somehow using that note later. At first it's cute, but Phantom Hourglass has far too many push-in-this-order puzzles with solutions revealed on nearby stone tablets. The presence of such tasteless puzzles in Super Paper Mario and now Phantom Hourglass is rather discomforting, as they should be beneath Nintendo. Dungeons are also significantly shorter than in prior Zelda games—I completed one of the later dungeons in fifteen minutes. The only exception, the Temple of the Ocean King, emphasizes what remains the series' weakest game mechanic: stealth. While one could argue shorter dungeons are appropriate for a handheld game, dungeon length wasn't a problem for the prior four Zelda portables, and Phantom Hourglass doesn't really offer more dungeons to deliver a comparable amount of content. What's more, for the first time since A Link to the Past, dungeons recycle the same music. In fact, most of the game's music, including the dungeon music, is unbelievably boring!
All things considered, Phantom Hourglass is still an enjoyable game. Eiji Aonuma and his team clearly worked hard to reinvent Zelda for a new era; only to some extent, the Phantom Hourglass team threw the baby out with the bathwater. Hopefully Nintendo can retain Phantom Hourglass's victories while reclaiming the series' historic strengths as it sails into its next big Zelda game.