Version tested: DS
Don't buy this game. Which is to say, don't buy the game called Zelda no Densetsu: Mugen no Sunadokei. The game we've struggled through in Japanese, with the aid of a dog-eared printout from GameFAQs, in order to bring you this import review.
In fact, it's quite playable. By Zelda standards, the first DS entry in the series is all action and no talk: a lean, fighting-fit, fast-paced, dungeon-crawling, puzzle-solving adventure that's relatively light on towns, side-quests and social duties. But the myth-making will go over your head, you'll have to cheat your way through the riddles, you won't get the jokes, and subtleties of story, mood and character will completely pass you by. And Phantom Hourglass is far, far, far too good to miss out on a single moment.
Since we're buried under brilliant DS software as diverse as Slitherlink, Ouendan, Animal Crossing and Phoenix Wright, odds are you weren't waiting for the DS's defining masterpiece. But here it is anyway. Here's the game, were it any other console, we'd have been dying to play for years; the one that happens when brilliant minds squeeze every last drop out of a piece of hardware, the one that makes the competition look like idiots within minutes of play.
The first thing that stuns you is the control interface. It's so staggeringly intuitive, simple and slick that you can't quite believe third-person DS adventures haven't been made this way since day one, and you're certain they all will be from now on. The game, which is in 3D but viewed top-down in a classic Zelda style, can be controlled entirely with the stylus (although there are some useful button shortcuts). Just point in the direction you want Link to go and he'll go there, running faster the further away your fairy/cursor/stylus tip is. Tap on a chest you want him to open, a person you want him to speak to, a key you want him to pick up, and he'll do it. Slash, tap, circle and wiggle to perform sword attacks and rolls.
Like so much of Phantom Hourglass, the items on offer follow the well-worn path of Zelda tradition, but are transformed by the DS. Bombs land exactly where you want them, volleys of arrows are launched with astonishing accuracy and speed, the boomerang curls round any path you draw for it. The ease, precision and total tactile enjoyment of playing with Link and his toys is devastating. God help the competition if Nintendo ever achieves the same feat with a Wii game.
The second thing that stuns you - and yes, the controls are so good that it does take a while to get to it, a couple of paragraphs to be preicse - is the graphics. Phantom Hourglass follows the events of the GameCube's Wind Waker, and does an unbelievably successful job of aping its visual style too, wisely focusing on creating expressive and beautifully-animated characters rather than effects, or environmental detail. As happy as most fans were to see Twilight Princess revive Ocarina's epic mood, the immense charm and polish of Wind Waker's art deserved better than the scrap heap, and so it's a delight to see it continued here.
And then there's the map. It's no exaggeration, nor is it irrelevant, to say that Phantom Hourglass has the best map system in any game, ever. The fact that you can annotate your map by just pulling it down and drawing on it isn't just an enormous boon when it comes to keeping track of mysteries, remembering warp symbols, plotting routes and solving the beautiful puzzles and treasure-hunts designed specifically around this feature. It captures a spirit of adventure as successfully as any of the 3D games' grand gestures or sweeping vistas, putting you in Link's boots as he scribbles away, cutely, on the top screen, turning a gamey convenience into a whole new way to appreciate, interact with and understand the game's world.
The map and controls are only the most important of the many ways that producer Eiji Aonuma and his team have found to exploit the DS hardware for fun and involvment. Transfer a stamp from screen to screen by closing the DS, snuff out candles by blowing into the mic, guide your treasure-seeking winch with a steady hand on the lever, sign for a letter, transcribe symbols and clues from signs, battle towering bosses in full 3D by propelling yourself into the top screen. There are countless moments like this, exquisite little throwaway ideas that make you grin like an idiot all the way to the next one, and they just keep coming.
But what, you might reasonably ask, about the game itself? You know - the actual business end of a Zelda, the dungeons, the overworld, the puzzles?
At this point we almost have to rein in our frothing praise - almost. Phantom Hourglass is short (though still pretty weighty by DS standards), and easy. None of the six regular dungeons will trouble you for more than a couple of hours, and most of your time outside them is spent sailing the high seas, or exploring islands and caves that might as well be tiny outdoor dungeons. Towns are small, and side-quests and collectable treasure are minimal and completely optional.
It's inevitably a little disappointing, but also a relief. This is a compact, manageable game that quietly drops some of Zelda's more cumbersome traditions. And though the dungeons may not be hard, they're still superb experiences - heavy on puzzles and new ideas, light on repetition and back-tracking. In this case it really isn't damning the game with faint praise to say that it feels like it's over too soon.
Many who played Wind Waker will regard sailing around the overworld with trepidation, but that's mostly misplaced. It's much smaller and the winds don't matter - you plot your paddle steamer's course on your chart - leaving you with more freedom to explore and less distance to cover. The rest of the game is so very densely packed that you're grateful of a chance just to watch the world go by (or batter it with cannon fire), and the ability to customise your ship with parts salvaged from the sea bed is a compelling, if totally pointless, distraction. You'll end up taking circuitous sea voyages just for the sake of it, just to spin your time in this lovely miniature world out a little longer.
One last, and rather important, thing. The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed we wrote "six regular dungeons" up there. The seventh, the castle of the Sea King, is a sort of uber-dungeon in a style quite new to the Zelda series. You return to it between each other temple, each time getting a little further thanks to the treasures you find, and the increasing power of the Phantom Hourglass itself, which keeps you alive in its poisoned air. Effectively this gives you a time limit - and that's not all. The castle is patrolled by invincible guards who take not just health but time when they hit, so you need to watch their movements on the map and stay out of the way, Metal Gear-style. Thankfully there are 'safe zones' where the guards can't see you and the clock doesn't tick.
The castle's against-the-clock stealth can be frustrating, as can its insistence on repetition, but without it, Phantom Hourglass would be half the game it is. (Well alright, three quarters.) It joins the controls in making this a breath of fresh air in a series which - especially in its top-down variant - is in danger of getting stale. And it is designed with the combination of brutal ingenuity and light touch that only the very best Zelda dungeons are. Once you get into its rhythm, you'll consider coming back to it after finishing the game to do speed runs, squeezing every trick and secret out of it to shave seconds off your total time.
The castle is also responsible for Phantom Hourglass' fine multiplayer mode, a game of hide-and-seek where one player controls Link, trying to steal treasure, and the other plots paths around the maze for three guards, trying to stop him. It's feather-light but very clever and ruthlessly addictive, and you can play it online, ad hoc or by download play. In any other game it would be a standout feature; as it stands, it's just another example of how Phantom Hourglass is the DS game that has everything.
But despite all we've said - despite the fact that, if you're anything like us, you've already typed the URL of your favourite import site into the address bar up there - do not buy this game. Be strong. It's less than two months until Phantom Hourglass is released in English, in the US, on 1st October. You can wait that long, and it will be worth it, because then you'll be able to fully appreciate every last line, surprise, puzzle and pixel of the freshest Zelda in years, and the most complete game on the DS.
9 / 10
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass will be released in Europe by Nintendo on 19th October.