The Sea and Little Fishes

The Sea and Little Fishes

Up until Phantom Hourglass, the only game I had ever taken online was Star Fox Command.

It wasn't that great. It was a quick taste of something intriguing done poorly.

I've never been an online guy, due to one part intimidation and two parts economics. Because the DS strips away most of what's associated with online play (chat, convenience), it's an ideal testing ground for an online noob. There's not at lot at stake - no breach in the intimacy of gameplay, just a much more compelling Intelligence on the other end.

Battle Mode is your typical game of cat and mouse. The mouse (Link) tries to get the cheese (Force Gem) back to his home (mat) while the cats (Phantom Guards) clunk around with big swords trying to cut him in two. Eight arenas run from small to large, dense to sparse; items drop to make you stronger, faster or give you more time. Twee Link can carry small Gems easily, but moves slower the bigger the prize. Guards follow paths drawn by the stylus and can be used to block, intercept, chase, defend - I've found the higher the rank of my opponent, the more interesting the gameplay becomes.

I don't have friends. Not DS friends, anyway. The game compassionately offers four options for random play, which works fine, except it sucks that after a great match (or series of) I'm likely never going to face that opponent again. Just now I finished a marathon session with some dude named 'Link' that was several rounds of fantastic. I'd play him/her again in a second, but Nintendo is keeping me friendless under the guise of protecting me from Predators.

It's s tricky situation. On the one hand, you don't want to be the person who says, "To hell with your PREDATORS!" because, frankly, it makes you look suspicious. But it's continually ridiculous, both in games and society, that we as a people would rather censor and edit than outright tell our kids, "There are some bad people/things out there and you need to follow these rules/never feel like you can't tell me things." My belief is that an informed child is a protected child - unless you're a dumbass and have raised dumbass kids, at which point they can't be helped, just sterilized.

And yes, I realize that the very thing that draws me as a noob to online multiplayer is exactly what I just bitched about. Don't interrupt.

So - ships pass in the night on DS online. It's a minor point. The core gameplay is entirely fun and addictive if you hit a great match. There was another guy, 'link', who blew my mind. He kept throwing his own gems off his mat and into the neutral zones, whittling away his score. It took me a few minutes to figure it out - then it became a race to zero. Online leaderboards be dammed - that shit was cool.

Nintendo is dolling out online functionality in drips and drabs that make it much more palatable to many more people. This little bite of online play has whet my appetite for more - just as I can see it doing for hundreds of Momtendos out there. Just as the Adventure Mode in Phantom Hourglass will draw them into a real game-y game.

And we've come, as they say, to the heart of the matter.

Phantom Hourglass is the best Zelda ever.

It is not especially long. It is not particularly hard. Challenging, but nothing to bust a nut over. As the game finds it's rhythm, it becomes apparent that it never intends to punish you. That's not it's style. It doesn't mind telling you what to do - because the real joy is how you do it.

Holy crap.

I wasn't worried about touch screen control, but I didn't think I'd be SO jazzed about it. That might be the real reason why I'm big on Battle Mode - because tooling around as Link is fantastic. He's tiny and spry and runs to the tip of your stylus with determined cartoon enthusiasm. He yips and hies and springs at your taps and slashes. It feels almost like puppetry - instead of climbing inside a character, you direct it's actions with graceful gestures from a distance. It's kind of like you're one of those meddlesome old Greek gods, peering, tapping, writing, scratching and blowing into your DS at a small corner of a charming, bright world.

Plus it's got Johnny Depp in it.

The game starts where the Wind Waker ended, with Link and Tetra on the Great Sea. A fog rolls in bearing a dark sinister shape. ZOMG GHOST SHIP! Tetra is taken, Link tries to follow but falls into the sea.

Cue being woken up on a beach by a fairy.

The fairy tells you to go find Grandpa, who in turn tells you to seek out Johnny Depp, who today is called Captain Linebeck. He's a braggart and a coward, but he's the one to talk to about this Ghost Ship business. Throughout the quest he is your begrudging chauffeur - he and the fairy don't get along, and he's more interested in treasure than the greater good. Like Wal-Mart.

But unlike Wal-Mart he brings a nice new energy into the Zelda mix and helps further flesh out the character of this world. The Wind Waker took genuine risks with the franchise - it traded traditional land-locked fantasy Hyrule for a living ocean of treasure and pirates (and way before pirates were so in). It's nice to see that risk rewarded with the tiny toy world of Phantom Hourglass. This is the direction Zelda should have kept going.

The quest begins and ends in the Temple of the Ocean King.

There are several traditional dungeons with exquisitely fun bosses, but all of them serve one purpose - to buy you more time in the Temple.

The air is poisoned with evil. Invincible Phantom Guards patrol the halls and slice to kill. There are safe zones on each floor where the evil hasn't reached - here the sands in the Hourglass stop counting, and the Guards can't see you. Here you pull down your map from the top screen and make notes on what you've seen in dashes between safety, to paint a picture of the puzzle before you. People with a Brain Age of 43 shouldn't have much trouble with the solutions, but again, the joy is in the execution.

That goes double for items: the arsenal is small, entirely familiar and wonderfully functional. Everyone knows about the boomerang and most people know about the Bombchus but there's one item that surpassed all my expectations for it. I won't spoil it except to say it's the last one you get. From the stance li'l Link takes to the Tex Avery of it all - that was the moment my like of Phantom Hourglass turned to love.

To say nothing of the sea.

Oh, the sea. How you were missed.

See, the sea is infinitely cooler than some tired old cave in some dusty old kingdom. The sea represents life, death, mystery and adventure. It is one part of our world that seems actively, frighteningly alive. People are dust to it's whims - untamable, fathomless and surging with raw, pusling power.

That's not at all like sea in Phantom Hourglass, which is bright blue and calm all the time. But every sea still evokes thoughts of... The Sea; it represents endless potential. The great unknown. As a canvass for adventure, it piques the imagination like few other backdrops can, mostly because it isn't so played out as land.

Tiny toy sea is filled with pirates and treasure and interesting island people. Gulls circle your ship anytime you're near land, making ideal target practice. Navigating is done on the map before you head out, and you can stop the ride at any time to plot a different course. Now you are free to shoot the holy hell out of everything. Especially bracing are encounters with your typical three ship pirate raiding parties, furiously redrawing circles between tapping out cannonballs.

It is a joy to play in every way. I didn't realize how much Twilight Princess had dampened my spirits for the franchise. All the elements were there, but at a certain point they failed to impress. It was the first in the franchise to show a bit of fatigue. Not a bad game by any stretch - yet, somehow, some of the magic had gone.

Luckily it didn't go far.

Phantom Hourglass is a gem.