For a franchise as lengthy and storied as that of The Legend of Zelda, we're honestly surprised that Nintendo has managed to keep things fresh and engaging throughout each of the titles. Take Wind Waker, for example, which was quickly met with cries of "Cel-da!" and "This looks like utter crap!" by many internet-faring folks following its unveiling, but managed to be one of the best entries to date (it was our favorite before Twilight Princess hit the scene, to be honest).
But, for as much as Nintendo has tried to keep the franchise alive and well, The Legend of Zelda games have always maintained a set of core features and values, becoming a bit formulaic lately. Hey, don't get us wrong, we love the games, but you have to admit that it's becoming old hat in the way that they are doing things, always sidetracking you with another task when all you want is entry into one area of the game (see: where you need to go). This "gopher" way of doing things (go for this, then you can go for this) is kind of becoming a problem with the franchise.
One of the ways Wind Waker was better than its predecessors and tried to nip this in the bud a bit was the inclusion of its open seas, allowing the player to go wherever they wanted from the get-go. Sure, the fields and other locales that made up Hyrule proper in these titles (even in Twilight Princess, which released several years after Wind Waker) were accessible and presented an illusion of a game world that was freely navigable from the outset. The reality was, in fact, different.
So, what does this have to do with Phantom Hourglass? Everything.
Phantom Hourglass takes place during some time period lacking determination after Wind Waker, where Link has defeated Ganon and decided to hit the high seas with Tetra permanently. As if on cue, Tetra is kidnapped by what is known as the Ghost Ship. After trying to board the ship himself to save her, Link falls overboard and washes up on an island, with only a fairy to talk to in Ciela. From here on out, the two are joined at the hip and determined to save Tetra from whatever unspeakable evil kidnapped her. But first, they'll need a ship, which is where Captain Linebeck comes in.
The game chooses a kind of "Wind Waker Lite" or "Diet Wind Waker" approach, in a way. It allows you to do a lot of the same things that were in the first game, just to a lesser degree. Take, for example, navigating the seas.
One thing Phantom Hourglass has over Wind Waker is the sea-faring vessel. While we love the King of Red Lions, having a boat with an engine is a BIG plus. And, it makes the navigation much easier, as you're no longer dependent on the wind, trading that in for your stylus. In plotting courses on the bottom screen, your ship will follow your line exactly. But, where you might have enjoyed the visual aspect of sailing in Wind Waker, the seas and sky don't look as breathtaking as they did in the GameCube game. But, hey, who wasn't expecting that? But, what we love is that you're free to roam the seas and not limited to going somewhere because you can't bomb a big rock or jump a tall fence with your horse.
The stylus, as you may well know, also heavily influences Link's behavior. It not only commands his movement, but also his combat actions and allows you to scribble on the game's various maps, so that you may remember aspects of puzzles or certain important locations. Slashing the stylus across the screen will task Link with doing the same with his sword. Drawing circles around the little guy will have him perform his spin attack. Drawing small circles at the edge of the touch screen will allow Link to roll, knocking loose goodies from trees if you position yourself correctly. Tapping objects in the environment such as rocks and jars will have Link pick them up. It's an intuitive control set-up and never gets in the way of the game.
As with other games bearing the Zelda name, Phantom Hourglass is a large game. There's plenty of dungeons to explore, as well as numerous islands in the game world, ship parts to unlock (the possible combinations are ridiculous), sea charts to find; it's enough to make your head spin. There are also a few different side quests in the game, for good measure. AND, there are tons of different gems to find, which can be taken to a hidden island and traded in for special abilities that are bestowed upon Link. Oh, and salvaging returns from Wind Waker (remember using the grappling hook to hoist treasure from the sea floor?), but it isn't as frequent a thing as it was in Wind Waker. It actually is a good thing, because we can't tell you how many times we had to leave treasure behind because our wallet was full.
Even with all of that, Nintendo saw fit to include multiplayer over Nintendo Wi-Fi Connect, adding even more replay value to the game. Here, players take turns (it's one-on-one) playing as Link or the three Phantoms. As Link, it's your job to grab the pieces laying around the map and drop them on your color zone. Once done, you're awarded points. Also, as Link, you'll find orbs located around that can give you special abilities (faster walk speed, super strength, etc.). As the Phantoms, you draw lines on the game map and try to block Link in or get close enough so that your Phantom will slash Link and let you take over as him. It's incredibly basic, but incredibly fun.
A look at the game's multiplayer action.
Given everything that makes up Phantom Hourglass, it's easily the best game on the DS. Ever. Seriously, for how much we love our DS and the incredible amount of amazing games available for it, Phantom Hourglass bests them all. It's a fully-fledged console title crammed into a tiny cart. Even stacked against some of the other entries in the franchise, it's still arguably one of the best. If you buy yourself one DS game this holiday season, it should be The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass.
Final Score: 9.5/10