Monday, May 19, 2008

What I'm Playing: Phantom Hourglass and Dragon Sword

I am currently playing two games on my Nintendo DS -- Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword. I didn't intend to play them together. I started Phantom Hourglass after it came out, but got stuck in one of the dungeons. Not seriously stuck, just stuck without sufficient time to work out the solution. (This happens to me a lot -- not having extended amounts of time to dedicate to gaming. As a result, there are certain games I get "stuck" in just because they require an hour or so to make progress and I just can't find the time. But that is fodder for a separate rant.)

So I put Hourglass aside and went back to other games. In the meantime, I picked up Ninja Gaiden and started playing it. Then about a week ago I actually had two free evenings, so I went back to Phantom Hourglass, completed the dungeon and moved on. That same evening, I played more of Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword as well.

What's interesting about playing these games together is that -- if you were to describe them -- they sound almost identical. But the experiences from playing them are almost exact opposites.

Both games are action adventures where your goal is to free a kidnapped female. They both use the stylus almost exclusively. (Dragon Sword allows the use of a button as guard. Otherwise all interactions are with the stylus.) Both are story-driven, largely linear gameplay -- although both give the impression of free roaming -- where you fight a seeming endless supply of enemies, followed by intermittent boss battles. In both games your primary weapon is a sword you swing by slashing with the stylus. In both you also have secondary weapons (shuriken in Dragon Sword and a boomerang to begin with in Hourglass).

So what's the difference? Well, style certainly. But not just style. It's timing as well.

Stylistically Dragon Sword is realistic pseudo-3D. The backgrounds are definitely flat 2D images -- like 1950's painted movie backdrops -- but your character gets to move "around" as if it were a 3D space (forward, backward, left, right, and up and down when appropriate). The character is probably rendered as 2D sprites, but it is rendered in a realistic style that gives the feel of 3D.

Hourglass, on the other hand is real 3D programming in a cartoonish style. Large blocks of bright colors, very little texture mapping, big headed cartoon characters. Even the sounds are bright and cheerful, with lots of major chords and bright tinkling and chiming noises as enemies disappear in a puff of colored smoke.

But it is not just the graphics that create the distinction. Kingdom Hearts (on PS2) is also cartoonish, but doesn't have the same feel as Phantom Hourglass. Much of the difference is in the timing. In Phantom Hourglass, the enemies, although endless, appear in a fairly regular pattern one or two at a time. Except for boss battles, you usually have plenty of time to plan your attack. When there are multiples, they are spread out so you can easily take them out one at a time. It is planned, almost rhythmic in nature.

In comparison, the enemies in Dragon Sword appear in groups. They come at you as a swarm or surround you; there is no taking one out while ignoring the rest. The pace is frantic and intended to raise your adrenaline level at least two notches.

The result is that -- although the storylines are almost identical and the challenges similar in nature -- playing Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword is like knocking down a hornets' nest and having to figure out what to do next, while playing Phantom Hourglass is more like popping balloons and seeing if you can do it in the right order to win a prize.

One other distinction between the games is how they handle the hardware limitations. Both games push the limits of the DS hardware: Dragon Sword in its striving for realism and Phantom Hourglass in its use of 3D.

In the boss battles, Dragon Sword really shines -- the realism and details of the characters and their actions, the urgency of the battle while still requiring strategic action -- these are the best parts of the game. The boss characters are also large, fairly filling the screen. However, during the interludes where you wander through woods, caverns, and palaces fighting off hordes of lesser minions, the realism falters. The 2D backgrounds are detailed, but your movement is artificially limited. And much of the detail is lost simply due to the small size of the figures on the screen. This is particularly notable when it comes time to talk to people and the game has to revert to flat cartoon stills of faces to provide "character" to the story.

Hourglass, in the other hand, always stays just within the bounds of what the machine can do. The graphics are fully 3D, but are kept simple not to push the hardware too much. Cut scenes also zoom in and take dramatic camera angles to emphasize the "3D-ness" of the game. but they still manage to get smoke effects and plenty of action onto the screen.

Dragon Sword is an impressive achievement, both as a game and a technical demonstration. However, Hourglass stands out with Mario Kart DS as perhaps the best and most consistently powerful use of the system so far.

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