I'm not much for chronic wrist pain, which is why I choose my portable entertainment carefully. This fact comes up often when feeding my DS addiction, as too many of its games have bombed by overusing the touch screen. Call me crazy, but I prefer not to hold a game system like an archaic claw.
The latest series to go touch-only is Nintendo's biggie, The Legend of Zelda. The fact that Phantom Hourglass pulls off the switch without wrist cramping is impressive in its own right, but that minor success isn't enough change in a series that, more than any other Nintendo franchise, is defined by pushing boundaries. The kid in green tights still traverses a large world, digging through the usual dungeons (fire, ice, etc.) and using the usual items (sword, bomb, arrows, etc.). But the game's new touch system runs smoothly, and it creates some unique gameplay moments, like drawing paths on the screen to send bomb-mice out for battle.
The change in controls has also had a surprising, and somewhat negative, impact on the game's depth. You can now draw on maps and save notes for later; however, the game gives you fully detailed maps from the start, which means one of the series' core concepts—figuring out convoluted dungeons—has been rendered moot. Most of the usual scavenger hunts and item varieties have been nixed as well, making Phantom come off like Zelda comfort food.
This streamlining of the gameplay will annoy many Zelda fans, but the growing crowd of semicasual DS gamers will enjoy touching their way through Phantom's hours of exploration. That's not to say this is Zelda for moms; a few abrupt spikes in challenge, like the timed tower challenge, will prove too aggravating for the Brain Age crowd.
Nintendo tries to give every level of player something to enjoy here, but the resulting imbalance is Phantom's fatal flaw. Too few twists for old-schoolers, too many rough patches for weary newcomers. Still, it's not a junk game. For starters, the cat-and-mouse online battle mode is a first for the series. And Zelda's high standard of quality is upheld in most other respects, like the best 3-D presentation yet on the underpowered DS, the relatively engaging quest and, well, the all-important lack of wrist agony.