The Designer’s Drugs: The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo DS

Medium: Video Game – Portable

Stimuli:  The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo DS

Annos: 2007, 2009

 

I don’t like touchscreen video games.  Playing a game with imprecise wipes of one’s greasy fingers or clutching a pen to write one’s way to victory is to me way too gimmicky and usually not very fun.  As the years have passed I have grown to really like the dual screen setup of the Nintendo DS, but I stick to the games that run on d-pads and buttons.  Any game that primarily requires me to poke that tiny bottom screen gets nothing but distance from me.  For example, Metroid Prime: Hunters was a crappy first person shooter that was almost as unplayable as it was bland, and Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword was another severe franchise disappointment that had none of the superninja excitement of the rest of its family.

Yet I’ve always had a morbid interest in playing the DS entries of the Legend of Zelda series, two games which run primarily by poking that bottom screen.  My loathing of the style kept me away for a long time, but I finally decided to give them a try.  While Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks didn’t come close to converting me away from d-pad gameplay, they largely convinced me that good touchscreen games could be made – or at least one of them did.

They’re basically the same game, the cartoon visuals of The Wind Waker mixed with the top-down 2D gameplay of A Link to the Past.  Young Link rides around the land, enters a dungeon, gains a magic item, and uses that item ad nauseum to clear said underworld.  Side quest, wash, rinse, search for heart containers, repeat.  The action was fun but extremely unsurprising.

The main difference in gameplay is that Phantom Hourglass uses a boat as transportation while Spirit Tracks squires Link around in a train.  The train sucks hard.  Really, this brings up a larger point.  Despite the fact that Phantom Hourglass is the earlier game and has rougher controls and a time limit dungeon the player must complete multiple times, it is far better.

The elaborate train controls of Spirit Tracks, which grossly interfere with getting where one wants to go and defending against enemies along the way, are the most obvious point against it.  On the other hand, one draws a line on a map in Hourglass, and the boat goes on its merry way.  Oh, and that game also features teleportation at will, which doesn’t appear in its successor.  I don’t like overworld traveling in any game, but Hourglass is about as good as it gets.

The gameplay sins of Spirit Tracks don’t end there.  They also include the forced use of the DS microphone which one must blow into to use a gameplay item and a plot-advancing musical item.  One is also treated to such joys as having to control two people at the same time and the subsequently unplayable dungeon puzzles that come with that clunky setup.  Best of all is the horrible, horrible end boss sequence, which brings all those clunky train riding, flute playing, simultaneous two player elements into one titanic clusterfuck with the additional bonus of having to play meteor tennis with a giant behemoth – and if you miss one ball, you must start, all, over, again.  I ended up swearing heavily at my DS at this low point in my gaming history.

A game should be difficult because a player sucks.  It shouldn’t be difficult because the controls suck.  Spirit Tracks unfortunately takes from both columns.  Phantom Hourglass is much better, though the more solid and careful nature of its gameplay also kept it from blowing my mind.

I don’t regret playing these games, but I think I’ll stay off the touchscreen for the time being.

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