The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is the first Zelda game for the DS, and Nintendo decided to go whole-hog. No D-pad and buttons for them: you move by touching the screen in the direction you want to go, you attack an enemy by either drawing a slashing motion or by touching an enemy.

Which must have taken a lot of guts to decide on; I commend them for it. And it works well enough; unfortunately, enough of the other decisions that they made in the game grated on me that it ended up being the first new Zelda that I didn’t finish.

Hmm, how to structure this post? Let’s try an experiment:

Good: Moving and fighting with the stylus works surprisingly well.

Bad: It’s partly good in a “talking dog” sort of way: my expectations were pretty low, so I’m impressed that it works at all. To be fair, it works fine for core stuff, but it has its rough spots (switching between items, in particular), and I don’t think it actually improved movement/combat at all.

Good: You get to draw on the map. In particular, that’s a nice way to set your course while sailing the ship.

Bad:: It’s only a nice way because the ocean environment is so plain; ship travel is less tedious here than in Wind Waker, but I still far prefer dry land overworlds. Also, drawing on maps to take notes in dungeons mean that you got lots of puzzles of the form “there are four switches over here, and you learn over there in which order to hit them” (And then write the numbers on the map to remember them.) Which gets a little old.

Bad: The microphone-based puzzles were really annoying. (And limited the locations in which you can play the game.) I particularly disliked the bit where how loud you shouted into the mic determined the cost of your salvage arm.

Good: Uh, there were only three or four of them?

Good: I liked the grappling hook item where you could draw on the screen to connect two posts.

Bad: The cartridge only has two save slots.

Good: Only two people can be annoyed by the game at once?

Enough of that; basically, it’s a series of interesting experiments, most of which weren’t too bad, some of which had some real benefits. I hope that they tone it down in their next offering, but I hope that they take some of those techniques and use them on their next DS outing. (Some of the ideas might even work on the Wii.)

But partially successful experiments don’t add up to a reason for me to stop playing the game. The reason why I stopped is that one of the dungeons isn’t like the others. There’s this central dungeon that you start and (I believe?) end the game in, and return to after almost every other dungeon. Each time in the dungeon, you retrace your steps, going a bit farther.

Unfortunately, there are two things I didn’t like about that dungeon: it was stealth-based and it was timed. Stealth-based games may be other people’s cup of tea; they are not mine. I’m not violently against the notion, and certainly I would have been fine with one or two dungeons with a significant stealth element. But I didn’t want to play a stealth-based segment over and over again.

And having it timed was just rubbing salt in my wounds: if I can’t figure out how to retrace my steps and do the next two levels of the dungeon that I’ve unlocked quickly enough, my reward is to replay my last fifteen minutes. None of your traditional wandering around, thinking about puzzles, wondering how on earth you’ll get to that chest over there: you have to be focused on optimizing your path through the dungeon. It also hurts your ability to stop playing the game at a moment’s notice, which can be important on a handheld system, and you probably don’t want to take a couple of weeks, off from playing the game. (Or even a couple of days off, depending on your memory.)

I played through most of it; at the place where I stopped, I had (as far as I can tell) two trips remaining to the annoying dungeon and one traditional dungeon that I hadn’t explored. (Which I couldn’t get to without going back to the annoying dungeon first.) And I decided that it was unlikely that I’d enjoy or learn enough from the remaining traditional dungeon to make it worth going through the annoying dungeon again.

Other people may well like the game more (indeed, clearly have); I probably would have thought it was pretty good if I basically enjoyed stealth games. And I’m glad I gave it a try, so I could see what the controls were like. But it still left a bad taste in my mouth.

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