Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release Date: 2007
Platform: Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
Sequel to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Ever since the original NES game The Legend of Zelda, the franchise has been defined by top-down adventure, a sword-wielding hero who gets more powerful as the game goes on, swords that can be upgraded or replaced with more powerful ones, and a plethora of useful, multi-purpose tools for use both as weapons and for solving puzzles. It's one of my favorite video game franchises, and I've played several of them through to their conclusion.
Phantom Hourglass is a phenomenal addition to the series, bringing not only a new edition of innovative gameplay and fun puzzles to the player, but also making good, practical use of the Nintendo DS's many features (dual screens, touchscreen, microphone, wireless capability, and even the ability to close the cover gets used in the game!).
The real killer app of Phantom Hourglass is the ability to draw on the touchscreen. In fact, there's one uncharted island where you need to use this ability to draw the map in the first place. Drawing on the map lets you make notes, trace out safe routes, mark the location of valuable items, and write reminders to yourself. Similarly, you trace out the route of Linebeck's ship on the sea charts and the path you want the boomerang to take on the action screen. These features are used quite often, since the world of Phantom Hourglass is a series of islands in the ocean, and the boomerang is used to trip switches and levers around corners and behind obstacles. Finally, there are several points in the game where you need to draw symbols on doors, signs, and other objects to activate them. It really fits seamlessly into the game and adds a lot to puzzle solving aspect.
The dual screens are used to good effect, allowing the player to have the map on the top screen while walking around on the bottom screen, and occasionally showing a different point of view on one screen or the other. Then of course there are also the giant, two-screen high boss enemies and extended views for mini-games.
Additionally, the microphone is used to blow out candles and "shout" at people to get their attention a couple of times. I was worried about that part, since shouting at your video game is a little weird in a portable system that you could potentially be using on, say for example, an airplane. But it turns out you can discreetly blow into the microphone to satisfy the requirements just as well.
There are three modes of play
(not counting the several mini-games)
First is the generic top-down view. In this mode, there is a map on the upper screen and Link is on the lower, touchscreen. The game is not played with the D-pad and buttons, rather almost every action command is performed with the touchscreen. While this means that your hand and stylus will cover part of the screen while playing, and thus potentially hiding an enemy, in practice this is never a problem. Running, sword swinging, lunging attacks, and item use are all touchscreen functions. This does take some getting used to, but the fact that you can aim an item or weapon in any arbitrary direction, rather than only the classic 8 D-pad directions, brings such a wonderful freedom to the game that you'll wonder how you will ever get along without it again.
Second is sailing. After you meet Linebeck, you get to use his ship to sail all over the world map, or at least in the places you have sea charts for. When sailing, the ship follows any arbitrary route you trace on the sea chart with the touchscreen, and you can look around and fire your cannon (when you get it) 360 degrees around.
Third is an arena battle, mostly used for boss fights. Rather than a top-down view, the camera switches to a view slightly above and behind Link. It works out to be very similar to the top-down view, but the additional field of vision in front of you is essential for figuring out how to strike their weak spots.
Phantom Hourglass gets full points for fun. Massively innovative gameplay, good use of the Nintendo DS's special features, and puzzles that are tricky but never get frustrating combine to make what I consider the second† best Legend of Zelda game to date.
† updated: I just played Twilight Princess, which has taken Phantom Hourglass's place as #1
There were a couple of things that the game doesn't explain very well. Knowing these will make the game more enjoyable without ruining it.
The grappling hook, when stretched between two posts, can be used as a tightrope, something to bounce things off of, and also a slingshot to toss Link over wide chasms.
Ignore everything the game tells you about fishing. This is how to fish:
After you get the fishing rod, ride your boat over a fish shadow on the map and select "Fish" from the menu. When the fish grabs the bait, the screen will say PULL!. All you have to do at this point is press the stylus against the bottom center of the screen. As long as you keep the stylus at the bottom of the screen you will charge the meter on the left side that shows how securely the fish is hooked. If the fish pulls right, slide the stylus to the bottom-left, and bottom-right if the fish pulls left. Pick up the stylus temporarily when the fish jumps. Make circles on the screen with the stylus to reel in the fish, but the meter will drop as you do this, let it drop too far and you'll lose the fish. Put the stylus back on the bottom of the screen to charge the meter in between reelings.
Special thanks to Shannon Spencer Fox, whose Side-Quest FAQ taught me how to fish.