Review: The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass – Rediscovering the Magic of Zelda

Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo
: Nintendo DS
Release: October 11, 2007

When Nintendo initially revealed the Nintendo DS, questions were raised as to how a Zelda game would fare on the double-screened gadget. How would the beloved series make use of a touch screen? What about the microphone? Would it be another multiplayer Four Swords type game, this time making use of the system’s online capabilities?

During the Game Developers Conference of 2006, Nintendo revealed The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. The latest in the acclaimed franchise would adopt the controversial, but indisputably unique art style seen in The Wind Waker. Nintendo also announced that the latest pocket Zelda would serve as a direct sequel to the GameCube title, in turn setting up the game with some hefty expectations. Now, has Phantom Hourglass impressed – as Zelda games often do – or has the green-clad hero crossed one too many Moblins on his way to the princess?

First thing’s first. It’s been confirmed by dozens of sources at this stage, but yes, the controls work very well over the course of this ocean voyage. The game is controlled entirely by the touch screen: touch where Link should go, and he’ll walk there. Trace a path for your boomerang, and it will follow as it cuts through the air. Want to hurl a bomb to a specific position? Tap and the bomb will land no further than you expected. That throwing mechanic is especially refined over previous Zelda entries, as once finicky puzzles that involved throwing items over chasms are now a breeze.

I found that the DS’s unique hardware enhanced the game experience, rather than forced gameplay mechanics that felt tacked on or gimmicky. Using the touch screen to swipe Link’s sword at an enemy feels great, and more novel mechanics, like using the microphone to get a character’s attention, never outstay their welcome. This is the advantage of developing Phantom Hourglass from the ground up for the Nintendo DS, unlike Zelda: Twilight Princess (which was converted into a Wii game late in development).

While it’s a fair assessment that the game would be easier to control if it were button-based, the novelty of Phantom Hourglass’ touch controls is altogether endearing. Zelda’s never had a greater level of precision, and it feels nothing if not refreshing.

Phantom Hourglass’ storyline isn’t exactly Tolkien material, but it serves as likeable enough through its 10 to 12 hour duration. It follows the events of The Wind Waker, where Link has set out with Tetra’s salty crew of pirates in search of new lands and treasures. Upon encountering an ominous ghost ship, Link is separated from his friends and falls into the ocean. It’s typical of all Zelda games at this point, but this initially simple problem eventually culminates into something larger. And while the seasoned Zelda player might be thirsting for something grander, the real takeaway from Phantom Hourglass is its gameplay.

From a design standpoint, Phantom Hourglass’ gameplay takes a simpler approach than previous series entries. Nintendo has seemingly designed this game not to overwhelm new players; it doesn’t feel as longwinded as the monstrous Twilight Princess. Perhaps reminiscent of the series’ humbler beginnings, there are only seven obtainable tools for Link’s inventory and far fewer health upgrades to collect than usual. This isn’t to say that Phantom Hourglass feels small and unvaried, however – rather, the applications for Link’s tools have widened. For example, a grappling hook can be used to swing Link across chasms, but also to make a tightrope, upon which Link can simultaneously balance and use his other tools.

There are also plenty of adorable upgrades for Link’s little steamboat, as well as dozens of sunken goodies to haul up, including treasure that can be sold for profit and maps for hunting said treasure. Rounding out the package are a fair share of mini-games and side quests that modestly extend the game’s playability – including fishing, which is always an added bonus. Some of the side quests demand patience and skill beyond what Zelda players have come to expect, which should come as good news to those who’ll breeze through the main quest.

Oh, and another thing: Phantom Hourglass’ economy is a step above previous Zelda games, meaning players will need to spend hundreds if not thousands of rupees to progress through the game. While rupees aren’t exactly hard to come by, players who are unfortunate to find themselves strapped for cash may be turned off at the prospect of grinding for it.

Beyond its daring new control scheme, Phantom Hourglass also experiments with the series’ traditional level structure. Alongside more typical dungeons, the game features a maze-like complex known as the Temple of the Ocean King: a gargantuan and challenging labyrinth that the player will return to several times over their quest, delving deeper with each visit. The Temple also introduces a timer (the titular hourglass), which restricts how long Link can explore the dungeon before it drains his life. What’s more, this new dungeon houses invincible Phantom enemies that pursue the player and cut the hourglass’ time short when they attack.

The Temple of the Ocean King demands that players solve puzzles, avoid Phantoms and defeat other enemies quickly, lest they run out of time. Most inconvenient of all is that the dungeon’s puzzles reset when the player leaves and returns to the Temple, meaning that redoing the dungeon is a requirement with each successive visit. While a recurring dungeon is certainly an interesting first for the series, the execution here quickly becomes bothersome. You’ll be happy to leave this dungeon behind.

The DS isn’t exactly a graphics powerhouse, but Phantom Hourglass ranks alongside Metroid Prime Hunters with the handheld’s prettiest games. While questing on land, Phantom Hourglass borrows the top-down perspective of A Link to the Past and Minish Cap, with characters, enemies and certain objects rendered in charming 3D. I especially appreciated the camerawork when Link opens a treasure chest or talks to a character – seeing the camera break away from the series’ top-down viewpoint lends a lot to the game’s charismatic art style. This camerawork extends into cutscenes, which almost make you forget that you’re looking at a handheld game. Despite the occasional frame drop, everything looks spectacular.

The same praise can’t be said for the game’s audio, however. While boss and character themes stand out, the soundtrack doesn’t exactly inspire much in the way of adventurism, with tunes that are painfully bland, short and repetitive. Several areas and dungeons feature the same, generic background music, which ultimately robs the game’s environments of their variety and sense of character – something previous Zelda titles perhaps took for granted. Following a legacy of beloved background audio that the series is known for, it comes as somewhat of a disappointment.

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass feels as though it has been crafted to appeal to series newcomers and dedicated fans alike, and for the most part, it succeeds. As a player from the latter camp, experiencing Phantom Hourglass felt like playing Zelda for the first time, thanks to its blend of new gameplay mechanics and simple yet effective presentation. Despite its blemishes, Phantom Hourglass still possesses that Zelda magic. Linebeck kicks ass, too.

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