Of all the titles in the Legend of Zelda series, some of the most-respected have been for handheld consoles. Link's Awakening, the Oracle duo, and Minish Cap all manage to combine on-the-road gaming with a certain purity of Zelda-ness. Link's most recent adventure on the small screen, Phantom Hourglass, generally continues this tradition and introduces a number of new elements to the property. Unique controls, a true sequel, and cel-shaded graphics all make Hourglass stand out from 'traditional' Zelda games, and together the whole hangs together fairly well. Read on for my impressions of this pint-sized return to Hyrule.
Phantom Hourglass is a first for Nintendo in a few ways. Story-wise, it's the first time a Zelda game has directly referenced elements from a previous title. In this case, Hourglass is a direct sequel to 2003's Wind Waker. The first moments of Hourglass recap the end of the GameCube game, and sets the scene for the game's overall conflict. As befitting a handheld game, the story (at first) is a bit less epic than in games like Link to the Past. A ghost ship of some kind is haunting the waves, and snags Tetra/Zelda from the deck of her own vessel. Link hooks up with a scoundrel named Linebeck, who owns a paddleboat capable of crossing the seas. Together with the amnesiac fairy Ciela, the three adventurers explore the Temple of the Ocean King looking for clues as to where Tetra has gone. It's a brisk story, without a lot of deep characterization or extremely memorable moments, but it serves the gameplay quite well. Some Zelda games feel like a constant 'one more thing' struggle, as you finish X to get to Y but then find you you have to complete A to get to B before you can return to Y. Hourglass's fairly linear tale doesn't allow for many cul-de-sacs like that, and works just fine for a handheld title. My biggest complaint about the story is that the ending is fairly weak, especially compared to the finale of Wind Waker. I didn't feel as though I was satisfactorily paid off for my investment, and that's always frustrating. Gameplay-wise, the finale was great; I just wish they'd ended on a different story note.
- Title:Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
- Developer/Publisher: Nintendo
- System: DS
- Genre: Top-Down Adventure Game
- Score: 3/5: This game will appeal to genre fans. Not the strongest entry in the series, but worth your time.
On that gameplay front, Phantom Hourglass offers up more new elements than in any other recent Zelda title. Twilight Princess had Link swinging his sword with the Wiimote, but fundamentally the game played like pretty much every game since Ocarina. Phantom Hourglass makes full use of the DS's touch elements and microphone to produce a completely new play experience. Moving Link, attacking, throwing the boomerang, all are done with the stylus, and these elements were all polished to varying levels of success. Simple movement is effortless, and is an easy mental switchover from the D-pad. There are some moves done with the stylus that take some getting used to (like a circle at the edge of the screen for a tuck-and-roll), and those I found to be sometimes a bit clumsier. Actual combat is as easy as poking your enemy with the stylus, and those simple attacks also feel very 'right'. Some more advanced combat moves will require practice to get regularly, and some never quite felt spot-on to me. The best element of the touch controls is the 'drawing' gameplay, used for items like the boomerang and in navigating Linebeck's ship. The boomerang control feels like this is something that should have been in Zelda games from the very beginning, and it never got old using that simple 'low-level' item.
Beyond the controls, a lot of the gameplay additions were hit or miss. The phantom hourglass itself adds a time-based puzzle to the Temple of the Ocean King maps, requiring you to complete a series of puzzles in a specific amount of time. Given the handheld nature of the game I felt that worked really well. In fact, the handheld basis of the game was well respected throughout. Puzzles never required more than a minute or two of mulling to figure out, you can save whenever you want, and in most cases an entire island only required about 15-20 minutes of your time to complete. Sailing, on the other hand, was just as tedious as it was in Wind Waker. The designers took some deliberate steps to make the experience less onerous than in Hourglass's predecessor, but it still felt like far too much time was spent wandering the ocean or fighting off pirate attacks. Boss battles on the whole were fairly strong, often using DS touch elements in interesting ways. A few, like the requisite fight with Dodongo, felt like they made things different just for the sake of being different. The Gleeok battle, on the other hand, was a great use of the DS's charms to turn old hat into new fun.
Visually Phantom Hourglass holds up the standard of Wind Waker very well, which is highly impressive given that the latter is a GameCube title. I've always personally liked the cel-shaded style used in these games, but folks who found the style's use in the original game offputting won't find any comfort here. In fact, Hourglass goes a step further with the 'semi-cartoony' elements, giving Link some goofy expressions and over-the-top takes over the course of the game. If you go in expecting cartoon instead of Twilight Princess, none of these gags should be too annoying. Probably the only 'classic' element of the game is its auditory presentation. Sound FX are taken right out of Wind Waker, and the musical compositions are surprisingly sophisticated for a handheld game. I particularly liked the composition of the Zelda theme used for the title screen, a stirring combination with Wind Waker music elements set against an ocean scene.
It's strange saying that a Zelda title is 'merely competent', since I've over-the-top enjoyed most of the other entries in the venerable series. Link to the Past is still one of my favorite games, and so in some ways I feel like every new attempt to rescue the princess is held up to that gold standard. Here, sailing around islands that were once the mountaintops of Hyrule, I feel like the gameplay too was a bit flooded. Nintendo tried to cram a lot of new elements into one experience, and ended up with some that were spot-on, and some that weren't. I'm not even sure if the weaker components could have used more time; in this game, some things just felt out of place. Overall, though, it's hard to fault them for trying something so deliberately new. Phantom Hourglass is a fun handheld title, with a focus on quickly-resolving puzzle and action elements perfect for its format. It's well worth a look for anyone who has yet to tire of another try at the Triforce.