In Defense of the DS Zelda Games

When it comes to the Zelda series, one major point of contention between me and seemingly the entire rest of the fanbase has been the handheld entries. Even though I was never that into the classic ones, I’ve repeatedly found myself to be a dissenter just for liking the DS games.

Just now reaching the final stages of the second DS game, Spirit Tracks, I still think it’s a great game, especially in the midst of forums and blogs repeatedly talking about how stale the franchise is. Despite their shortcomings I’ve always found the DS Zelda games to be perfect examples of Nintendo’s philosophies as well as a fresh take on the series.

Of course the defining aspects of both Phantom Hourglass and its sequel are their unique touch screen-based controls which I think are brilliant. Yes, directing Link’s actions with point n’ click is a fundamental shift in how you play the game, but people do keep saying they want something fresh for the franchise, and doing something that fundamental changes everything.

Link may use the same tools he has in every Zelda game, but through the touch screen players use those tools in completely different ways. Personally, I found the touch screen to be an improvement over the pad and buttons in most regards. It gives Link a greater degree of control with the boomerang and bow for instance while simplifying the interface. It’s the perfect image of what Nintendo keeps saying they want to do – make things more accessible, while also balancing that with depth of gameplay.

Ultimately that’s what drew me to Phantom Hourglass so much, interacting with it felt new and novel, yet easily to pick up. I think that’s what draws people to Nintendo games and hardware in the first place – control interfaces that bring people closer to the fun, or let them experience it in a new way. When you look at the Zelda series in particular, over the years what kept it fresh was how you interacted with the game in each new entry. Ocarina of Time skillfully added a dimension to the classic formula while defining many of today’s common action adventure elements. I don’t see why the DS games can’t reboot the UI again. I think what ultimately validates Phantom Hourglass is how it influenced later DS action adventure games like Dragon Ball Origins and Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword.

Okay so maybe Phantom Hourglass wasn’t as mentally challenging as other Zelda games. Nintendo sort of did make it to be the perfect casual entry. I still appreciated the way many of the puzzles made you think not with video game sense but with common sense. When I walked around a particular island for several minutes trying to activate its map, I finally talked to the game’s deuterogamist who told me to just draw one on the touch screen. That signaled to me that Nintendo wanted me change the way I thought about solving problems in this game.

Even if you didn’t like the more direct mentality of design Phantom Hourglass offered, you can’t deny that Spirit Tracks became the hardcore sequel to that game. Its dungeons take the rules Phantom Hourglass established and apply them to the design intricacies of all the other Zelda games. I’ll even say that the boss battles in Spirit Tracks felt legitimately challenging – probably some of the hardest challenges I’ve had to endure with touch screen controls. You just can’t deny how well these games utilize the DS hardware.

Okay fine, I’ll admit the repeating stealth sections with the invincible one-hit-kill guards were a load of crap. I’ll even admit that Spirit Tracks was the first Zelda game I bought and didn’t finish immediately, primarily because of the rail-based exploration system. While I thought the sailing system in Phantom Hourglass was enjoyable I didn’t want to deal with the railroad. When you think about it, it’s a wonder why Nintendo didn’t just design another straight-up on-foot 2D Zelda game like Link’s Awakening but with the new control setup they had. In my opinion that would’ve been just about perfect.


  • Resident Evil 4 is on sale for $10 on Xbox Live right now. I could not recommend the game any more strongly if you still haven’t played it.
  • Both Bioshock games on PC for less than $10 on Amazon: The keys unlock on Steam.
  • I’m not hearing really great things about Medal of Honor: Warfighter, but the PC version on max settings looks freaking ridiculous: I could definitely see myself buying it on sale at some point in the future just to test out a new computer Saving Private Ryan style.
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