Zelda fans, me included, are not an easy crowd to please. Always demanding nothing short of perfection, we complained about the infamous Wind Waker (2003, GameCube) fetch quest, its superfluous amount of sailing, and its measly six dungeons—and that’s not to mention the uproar some of us contributed to over the game’s cartoony art style. Nintendo listened, and they gave us The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006, Wii) in return, sporting nine massive dungeons, zero sailing, a toned-down emphasis on collection and backtracking, and one of the darkest settings and storylines for any Zelda game to date. Yet still we weren’t satisfied—we grumbled about its excessive similarity to Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998, GameCube), widely considered to be among the greatest games ever created.
So today, Nintendo takes another crack at placating its demanding fanbase by presenting us with Link’s first appearance on the Nintendo DS. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is a direct sequel to 2003’s The Wind Waker, borrowing everything from its characters and setting to its beautiful cell-shaded art style. However, while the game may be similar aesthetically to the GameCube blockbuster, its gameplay is another story altogether. Here, Phantom Hourglass is quite different than any previous Zelda title, mostly thanks to a completely revamped control scheme (simplified by the DS’ touch interface), as well as some startlingly innovative new ideas for puzzles—again, mostly thanks to the touch screen. In totality, while it isn’t perfect (or even really amongst the best the Zelda series has to offer), Phantom Hourglass’ beautiful graphical presentation and conducive gameplay render it one of the DS’ most compelling action/adventure titles to date.
A Link to the Stylus
Phantom Hourglass doesn’t just find ways to implement the DS touch interface; it builds the entire experience around it. In fact, you can do anything you need to do in the game through the use of the stylus and touch screen (thanks be to Nintendo for not resurrecting the Wind Waker baton in an effort to tie the storyline to the gameplay). To walk, you simply drag your stylus around the screen in the direction you wish Link to move—he invariably moves in a straight line directly toward your stylus. You can attack enemies by either tapping them or swiping the stylus across the screen (you can also draw a circle around Link to execute a spin attack). It’s very easy, and never really tedious. Using items is equally intuitive; to throw your boomerang, draw a path for it around the screen and then let it fly. Or, tap, drag, and release to aim and shoot with your bow and arrow. Items are toggled either by tapping an icon in the corner of the screen or by holding the L/R button. For the most part, this new approach to a Zelda control scheme works well, though at times it can be problematic (no matter what, touch controls are never as precise as button presses). Presumably, Nintendo invented this simplified control scheme in an effort to lure newer gamers to the Zelda series—and there’s further evidence to support this theory, as we’ll discuss in a moment.
While most of the game is presented from an isometric overhead viewpoint, sailing (as well as some boss battles) is entirely three-dimensional. Before I go any further, yes, plenty of sailing occurs in Phantom Hourglass. But don’t worry; it’s not the same old pick-your-heading-and-then-go-make-a-sandwich situation as it was in The Wind Waker. In Hourglass, you draw a path on your sea chart for your ship to take, and while your captain steers the ship, you’re in charge of keeping it in one piece. Very early on, that’s as simple as jumping over so-called “sea hazards”, but once you’re fitted with the cannon, you’ll be dragging the stylus to rotate the camera and tapping enemies from all directions to keep the ship moving safely ahead. You’ll also get to use the salvage arm—which, when used in the proper locations at sea, invokes a little treasure-retrieval mini-game—as well as try to catch fish (no easy feat to be certain).
One final feature made possible by the touch interface is the ability to draw and take notes directly on the in-game maps. This makes for some intriguing puzzles (e.g., “at the intersection point between these lines on the island, dig for treasure…”), and simply helps to further differentiate Phantom Hourglass from previous entries in the Zelda franchise. If Twilight Princess’ downfall was its failure to take the series in a new direction, this is where Hourglass succeeds.
Oracle of Dungeons
In terms of dungeon quantity, Hourglass definitely improves upon what Wind Waker had to offer; rather than six, here we have seven, plus a very, very large “main” dungeon that plays a fundamental role in the storyline and is really quite challenging strategically (it’s perhaps the only dungeon that is even remotely challenging, sadly). Moreover, its centrality to the plot is not the only thing about this dungeon that sets it apart from your typical Zelda temple—it’s also timed. You see (slight spoilers ahead) the Phantom Hourglass is a magical item that protects you from the ills of this temple for a short period of time (ten minutes at the start). As you progress through the game, you collect more and more sand for the hourglass that, in conjunction with your growing arsenal of items, permits you to explore deeper into the dungeon. Perfectionists will quickly come to appreciate the arcade-like quality of this very unique dungeon, impulsively replaying portions of it that they had previously completed in an effort to improve upon their time.
However, in terms of the rest of the dungeons, they’re all much smaller than the Zelda norm. The dungeons are, as usual, each based on a particular theme—fire, ice, desert, what have you—to help vary the experience and keep the gameplay feeling fresh. Unfortunately, in addition to their relatively small size, none of them is particularly difficult either (with the exception of the aforementioned “main” dungeon), and they’re very linear for the most part (while some of the puzzles are quite clever, it’s nearly impossible to get lost wandering around the dungeons, and there really isn’t all that much to explore).
As a matter of fact, it’s not just the dungeons that seem more linear this time around. The puzzles throughout the entire game, while undeniably creative in many cases, are all generally more obvious than those in previous Zelda games. Even those irregular situations where quite a bit of thought is required are provided with more assistance and linearity than in the past; most of the time, there’s always someone there to drop a hint or provide a solution, and even when there isn’t, you’re left with just about no place to go until you discover the answer for yourself. Seasoned Zelda vets will find this disappointing, as the abundant multi-room puzzles found within the massive dungeons in Twilight Princess are many times more complex than anything Phantom Hourglass has to offer. Thankfully, complexity isn’t everything, and the inventive puzzle ideas made possible by the touch interface prove that… but it’s still a bit of a letdown.
Perhaps equally distressing is the fact that one enormously overlooked aspect of Phantom Hourglass—the soundtrack—really holds back the overall atmosphere of the game and significantly hampers the presentation. While the in-game music is excellent in terms of instrumentation, it is anything but superior compositionally; words like forgettable and repetitive come to mind. Zelda games are frequently known for their proficiency in terms of presentation, and music is a large part of that. For whatever reason, to the degree that the visual presentation is impressive and creative, the musical composition is uninspired and flat. This really takes away from the sense of variation from dungeon to dungeon (and island to island), as every dungeon in the game features the same background music. Likewise, the overworld music never changes (and it’s among the blandest of any Zelda game to date—it’s hardly more than mere ambience), and it’s the same story with every town, cave, and building in the game. The few songs that are memorable are often simply modifications to various Wind Waker tunes. What a shame.
Another limiting factor is the (lack of) difficulty. As is becoming a trend in the Zelda series these days, Phantom Hourglass is just plain too easy. In fact, the only time you’ll ever probably be in danger of dying is when you’re sailing the open seas with generally no more than five hearts at your disposal. It only makes sense that, with a growing arsenal of heart containers, as the game progresses it should also gradually become easier to take damage. Whatever happened to enemies that sap more than a single (or even half!) heart from our hero? Link to the Past had it nailed in this category, and it seems that ever since then the balancing has just suffered more and more. I think it’s safe to say that Nintendo sharply underestimates the gaming resolve of their customers.
But fortunately, other, more positive deviations from the usual Zelda formula also apply. Assuming you’re a Zelda purist, if I told you that Phantom Hourglass features no heart pieces to collect (only full heart containers), you would probably begin drumming your head against the nearest hard surface in short order. But have no fear! While it’s true that Hourglass features no collectible heart containers (or wallets—thank goodness), there are plenty of other, more varied items to collect in the game that lead to probably more interesting rewards. For one thing, you will run across three different types of gems that can be used to upgrade your abilities. In addition to that, you’ll find myriad ship parts (in eight different categories) with which you can customize your ship and improve its stamina. These items are scattered throughout the game in treasure chests, both above ground and under the sea, and as rewards for mini-games (of which there are a few; the maze one in particular was my personal favorite). And finally, there are the traditional bomb and arrow capacity upgrades. So, surprisingly, the lack of the usual collectible heart pieces is actually a very positive change in Hourglass.
Overall, while the game isn’t as lengthy as even some of the other two-dimensional Zelda titles, there’s plenty of quality content here to justify a purchase.
The Wand of Gameplayelon (eh…)
But more than anything else, it’s the gameplay (the fresh new puzzle ideas in particular) that really sets Phantom Hourglass apart. Sure, it doesn’t come close to matching the brilliance of, say, Link’s Awakening DX in terms of the overall experience, but the new puzzle concepts and inventive touch-based gameplay elements really set this one apart from the pack. You might want to invest in a phantom hourglass of your own, though, because this is one of those games you’ll end up playing for hours on end without realizing how much time has passed… long into the twilight (I am so fired).
At first, I was a bit concerned about the “main” dungeon idea; I was worried that it would become tedious having to retrace my steps through the dungeon every time I revisited it. Honestly, though, it really isn't frustrating at all, mostly because it isn't unreasonably difficult. I think probably the hardest thing about it is not getting nervous and moving too quickly so the guards end up hearing you. If you ask me, this dungeon definitely feels more fast-paced and nerve-wracking than typical Zelda, but given that the rest of the game is a walk in the park, it's a spicy addition to the formula that actually improves the overall game. It's also different enough (and massive) to the extent that the game feels more unique than recent Zelda titles.
Each time you play through it, also, you are able to execute extremely powerful shortcuts with the use of your newly-acquired items... so it actually doesn't feel like the same thing over and over really.
So overall, while Phantom Hourglass isn’t quite the best Zelda has to offer, it’s the closest thing to a refreshing approach to the handheld branch of the series that we’ve seen in recent years. While it’s true it was definitely developed with more casual gamers in mind—as evidenced by the simplified control scheme, linear dungeons, shallower overworld, and shorter overall adventure—Nintendo fans still shouldn’t miss this one. And if you happen to be new to gaming and you’re interested in giving the Zelda series a shot, there’s really never been a better time to dive in.