E3 06: The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass Hands-On

Link's original DS adventure proves that touching is still good.

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LOS ANGELES--We've been itching to get our paws on The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass ever since the game was revealed at this year's GDC. The game's Wind Waker looks and touch-screen functionality certainly had us excited for what's possible on a DS Zelda. Thankfully, we haven't had to wait too long to see just how the game is going to play. At a recent pre-E3 event, Nintendo let us get our hands on a short four-stage demo of the upcoming game. We don't expect it will come as a shock to hear that it's pretty fricking cool.

The demo is broken up into four stages: sea, field, dungeon, and boss. Though it's possible to select each level separately, they're actually connected in the game. The game began in the sea stage, which finds young Link navigating the ocean. Control is simple--you'll use your stylus to adjust your speed and heading before entering combat. You'll adjust speed by tapping onscreen gears and switching between two speeds or a full stop. Your heading is set by calling up a map and then drawing your route. Once your route is plotted out, you'll set it and then return to the gameplay screen. Combat is initiated by tapping an onscreen cannonball icon that will the then let you aim and fire your ship's cannon by sliding your stylus and tapping the screen to fire. In the demo we were supposed to guide Link's boat to an island harbor. Once the course was plotted and we were under way, random enemies appeared around us as we traveled in our boat. Taking out the octoroks wasn't too much trouble, but, when we neared our destination, the boss appeared and that's when things got interesting. The fight required us to plot a course around our foe so that we could fire shots at its vulnerable spot, its eye, as remaining stationary only ensured Link and his boat would go down faster than the Titanic. Once the battle was over, the boat docked in the harbor and Link hopped off and went into town.

The town sequence comprised the "field" stage and focused on Link exploring the small harbor town that was made up of a handful of houses. This stage featured three houses whose residents all offered helpful gameplay tips and directed Link to check out nearby caves and a mysterious red door. While this was all pretty standard fare, the big deal is how you control Link by using the stylus. Touching the screen will make a Navi appear that alerts you to Link's orientation and where he's going. Link will move anywhere you're holding the stylus over, breaking into a run or auto-jumping as needed. To attack, you'll tap on an enemy for a quick jab or, for Link's trademark spin attack, you'll just draw a circle around him. To pick up items you'll just guide Link to an object and hold the stylus over it. Double-tapping on a target gets him to throw whatever he's holding at it. The trek up to the caves and the red door also showed off the game's map system, which lets you personally annotate your map with information. In the demo, we came across a sign that pointed out the location of several doors. Rather than commit those locations to memory, we simply called up our map and noted them with a mark. When we came to our first door we drew the image of an hourglass, as was seen in the first trailer for the game. Doing so caused the door to open and let us enter the dungeon.

Once inside the dungeon we began working our way through the many puzzles to be surmounted. The puzzles ranged from the familiar "collect key, move on, and kill all enemies" variety, to more sophisticated challenges that included hitting switches, using your boomerang, and practicing stealth. As always, you're tasked with finding dungeon items that will come in handy for locating the boss. The boomerang sequences were very cool, as you just drew a course for it and let it fly. The preplotted course came in very handy for hitting out-of-reach switches or taking out mobs of enemies. The stealth segments found us avoiding large creatures that were patrolling different areas. If spotted, we had to run to safe patches in the rooms where the creatures were going about their business. Once on the safe patch, the critters lost interest in us and ambled off, allowing us to try to sneak past them again.

The final bit of the demo had us facing off against a flying boss that cruised along in the upper part of the screen. In order to attack it we had to grab bombs from nearby bomb plants and throw them into small tornados that randomly appeared in the outdoor area where we were battling. However, in order to throw the bomb in the right tornado that would launch the explosive at our foe, we had to track his shadow, which was challenging. Once the boss was hit by the bomb, it would drop to the ground where we could hack at it. As with all previous Zeldas, we simply had to lather, rinse, and repeat the process until we were rewarded with a puff of smoke and some loot.

The visuals in the game are, as previously noted, cel-shaded and feature the same art style as The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker on the GameCube. Despite the DS's obvious disparity in processing power when compared to the GameCube, the game looked sharp and ran extremely well. Link looks and moves great and all the enemies we saw had a fluid movement that was impressive. We were quite surprised as to how close the game's approximation of its GC cousin is.

Based on what we played, The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass is heading in the right direction. The game's mechanics are fresh and work well with the now-familiar visuals. We're curious to see just what's happening in terms of story, as the game is basically a follow-up to the Wind Waker. If the quest in Phantom Hourglass is comparable to the console Zelda adventures, then the DS title will most certainly rock the house. Look for more on The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass soon.

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