the legend of zelda: the phantom hourglass

a review of The Legend Of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass
a videogame developed by nintendo
and published by nintendo
for the nintendo DS
text by tim rogers

3.5 stars

Bottom line: The Legend Of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass is “the best reason so far this year to breathe continuously through your mouth for twenty straight hours”

Before you read this review, please ask yourself: “Have I breathed through my nose at any point during the last twenty-four hours?” If the answer is “no”, probe deeper: the last forty-eight hours, the last week, month, year? If the answer keeps coming up “No”, then chances are you don’t need to be reading this. The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass is better than a hand job from Super Mario Bros. 3-era Shigeru Miyamoto. If you find yourself continuing to read despite the revelation that you are, in fact, a mouth-breathing fan of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda franchise, it’s your fault if any of the following words hurts you.

That said, I absolutely loved this videogame. And believe me, it’s very rare that I use that word concerning anything outside of breakfast cereals. This game is a rare event indeed. It’s full of character, personality, attention to detail, and actual courage with regards to game design. It’s perhaps the best Zelda game Nintendo’s made since Link’s Awakening back on the Gameboy. It’s small, short, and polished to a high shine. The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass was a more fulfilling entertainment experience, on the whole, than any of the so-called “blockbuster” movies I’ve seen so far this “summer”. (Especially more than “Spider-Man 3”.)

Story-wise, the game is a direct sequel to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, which, coincidentally, I remember kind of hating. Wind Waker was fluffy, silly stuff, for the most part, with the main character, Link, being a big-eyed, stylized, cartoon child. When Nintendo originally unveiled Wind Waker, it spurred a weird controversy: apparently, the childish men voted most likely to bleep-bloop around with the babies’ toys called videogames deep into their forties or fifties complained that the game wasn’t being serious enough about its heritage. A confusing, dark era came and passed over the months after the game’s unveiling. Some true, champion-like gamers’ reaction was so fierce that they admitted on internet forums that they hoped the game’s box wasn’t too childish looking, or else they’d be ashamed to pay money for it. I mean, what if the cashier was a girl? Shrewd forum-goers were quick to suggest buying the game at a game store, because there wouldn’t be girls in there, though paranoia set in: the girls might be buying games for their boyfriends. The obvious rebuttal was that guys who play games don’t have girlfriends, and that girls who have boyfriends who do play games wouldn’t want to go out with you, regardless of whether or not you’re the type of cartoon pedophile to play Wind Waker. These kinds of comments set fire to lively conversations for months on end.

The fans ended up lining up overnight in freezing cold with Triforce face-paint to buy the game, anyway. Very few reviewers were able to put together a paragraph about the game without describing it as “near-perfect” or posing the million-dollar question: might this be the best game ever?

The objective truth is, Wind Waker, for the most part, was cloying, obsessive-compulsive bullstuff. It was the world’s slowest locomotive, powered by a vague combination of stinky fossil fuels and delicious watermelon Slurpees. On the one hand, it had a genuinely amazing visual style and tons of personality. On the other hand, it was cluttered up with nonsense. The game sold several million copies in America, where people have been known to vote Republican because their dads vote Republican, and Europe, where people generally respect their magazines’ critics. In Japan, though Weekly Famitsu gave it a dazzling 40/40 score, the game sold poorly, and littered bargain bins all over the place. Japanese Gamecube games came in these cute little paper sleeves; there’s Wind Waker, still overstocked today at my favorite game shop in Akihabara, only 980 yen new, paper sleeve all nicked and ripped, a sad sight.

The math was simple enough for even Nintendo of America’s eventual president Reggie to figure out: Zelda sold more in English than it did in Japanese. So it was that with the next Zelda, Nintendo would speak directly to the confused, huddled hordes ashamed to buy a game that might get them convicted of indirect pedophilia. That game was Twilight Princess, which is actually kind of a hilariously dainty title for “THE Serious Zelda Game”. Twilight Princess sent Nintendo press conference attendees into a panicking, screaming frenzy for something like three out-of-control minutes. Backstage, Nintendo PR guys were pushing earbuds into their ears and shouting into microphones: pause the hecking tele-prompter! I don’t care who you have to punch! we’re losing the speech! The internet was soon aflame with the news: “The new Zelda totally looks like ‘Lord of the Rings’ and it’s going to be awesome as heck.”

The next year, when the game still wasn’t released, Nintendo showed a longer trailer at their E3 press conference. From my seat, I could see the tele-prompter. After the trailer had ended, the words “PAUSE FOR APPLAUSE” stood there on the screen for a whole minute and a half. The applause, unfortunately, didn’t last that long. It would have been kind of hilarious if it did.

One of the consolation prizes for attending that press conference, for surviving the elbow-throwing mosh pit that kind of didn’t happen, was a DS card with the Twilight Princess trailer on it.

I sold mine on eBay, through a friend, for about a hundred dollars.

Twice, then thrice-delayed, Twilight Princess was said by producer Eiji Aonuma himself to be a more conscientious, focused Zelda. It ended up containing most of the joy of Wind Waker with surprisingly less fat. Rather than revel in aimless wandering, it sported series of joyous, breezy set-pieces. However, the specter of idiocy still loomed over the whole experience: the first “puzzle” in the game requires you to catch a fish for a cat, which won’t eat the first fish you catch, though he’ll go nuts for the second. To make things worse, the nuances of fishing just aren’t covered well enough in the game, which is semi-hilarious given how obsessive recent Zelda games are about constantly holding the player’s hand.

When the Wii console was launched in Japan, Wii Sports and Wii Play sold a million copies each, and Zelda failed to sell 100,000. Originally released for 7,000 yen, you can now find Twilight Princess for 2,000, new. When asked about this in an interview, Shigeru Miyamoto replied that Japanese gamers just don’t want complicated adventures anymore. The internet gasped so hard — through its mouth, yes — that a small animal somewhere might have imploded. Twilight Princess was quite simply a treat for die-hard Zelda fans — meaning, non-Japanese gamers. It was the first Zelda to not even have a Japanese title in Japan. They stuck the English version’s logo on there, title and all. They must have left the title in English because all of the Japanese players truly interested in the game had read about it from English sources.

So here’s The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, for the Nintendo DS. This is Miyamoto and Aonuma’s supposed streamlining of the Zelda experience, presented so that any human being capable of deciding to buy a DS and Brain Training would be able to make his or her way through the game. In addition to confirming that yes, Zelda games should have a cartoon aesthetic for as long as possible, it’s also something of a smashing success as a videogame.

For one thing, you control the entire game with the stylus. You move Link by touching the screen and holding the stylus atop the direction you want Link to run. The farther you hold the stylus from Link, the more quickly he moves. You even use the stylus to attack with the sword: tap an enemy to jump-slash at it, wherever it is on the screen. If Link’s path isn’t obstructed, he’ll score a hit. Slide the stylus to slash in your chosen direction. Swirl it in a circle to make Link do a swirling slash (do this too many times in a row and Link will get dizzy). If you’re thinking it seems impossible for such a battle system to present any challenge, you’re not thinking as creatively as Nintendo’s Genius Game Designers. Sometimes enemies will block your lock-on attacks, so you need to actually walk behind the enemies to attack them in the back. Yes — the simple idea of walking around the enemy with the stylus makes a battle magnitudes more challenging. And it just about never feels cheap. It feels like a real videogame, as robust as Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time.

The items are ingenious. The boomerang flies on the exact path you draw on the screen. The grappling hook can be used to fix a tightrope between two poles; you can then use that tightrope as either a bridge or a slingshot to make link jump farther. And the Bombchu — a bomb attached to a mechanical mouse — is brilliant: in Ocarina of Time, you could control it in 3D, though in Phantom Hourglass, the game pauses when you equip one, and then, once you’ve drawn a path on the map, the action un-pauses so that the Bombchu can run its course while you get where you have to go.

Though the first puzzle in the game is baby stuff — count the palm trees on the beach, write the number on a sign to unlock a door — it really sets the tone for the level of intelligence Phantom Hourglass‘s designers exhibit in some of the later dungeons. Say you encounter a puzzle where there’s a switch that causes a super-far-away door to open for a split second. You have to cross a couple of platforms to get to the door. The Bombchu can’t run across the platforms, because it’ll fall into the pit. What do you do? Of course, you draw a superfluously long patrol path for the Bombchu, release him from the edge of the pit, just as you’re about to board the first platform, and then run to the door while the Bombchu is happily running circles around the switch. Do you remember when Zelda games used to be about simply lighting all the torches in a room to unlock the door? What the hell did that even mean, anyway? How can lighting torches unlock a door? How can killing all the enemy spiders in a room make a key fall from the ceiling, either? Though Phantom Hourglass has its moments where killing spiders makes keys fall from the ceiling, at least they’re understated, and at least these moments happen strictly while you’re in frantic transit from one place to another; though there are points where you’ll have to light torches, at least they’re all uniquely fascinating. Say there are four torches in a room, all on pedestals, one of them lit, and the other three obstructed peculiarly from one side. You have to find a way first lower just one obstruction, and then get on top of that odd platform in the middle of the room, and throw the boomerang on a steady course to spread the flames.

For the most part, however, it’s the smart puzzles that stand out. If this is Nintendo’s effort to make a Zelda game that can appeal to the casual, Brain Training crowd, then it’s excellently fitting and kind of hilarious that the puzzles tend to require a certain sharper degree of actual intelligence than the last few Zeldas.

Personally, I liked a lot of Twilight Princess‘s execution; I liked how the boomerang was something of a clever little mini-game in and of itself. I like targeting a bomb and then a wall that needs to be bombed, all while dodging enemies. Twilight Princess has a certain thick, pleasant, action-heavy crunch to it. As an evolution of Zelda games, it’s a hell of a thing, and as a bit of a committed-for-life videogame-player, I can’t honestly say there’s anything wrong with it.

Phantom Hourglass is just exponentially fresher. Twilight Princess has a bad habit of willing, wanting, and waiting to be huge and epic, of stuffing one- or two-hour-long intermissions between dungeons and pre-dungeons, and then another fetch-quest intermission between the pre-dungeon and the actual dungeon. Unfortunately — and this might be hard for a die-hard Zelda fan to hear — the game just doesn’t look or sound good enough for all the dramatic intonations to hang together.

What these games in the Zelda genre need to truly hold together is an ingenious gimmick. The Minnish Cap on Gameboy Advance thought it had that gimmick — a hat that makes you small, so that the world appears huge, allowing you to solve puzzles that have been ham-handedly plotted to be solved in a manner that requires you to change sizes as many times as possible. Majora’s Mask — where the player has three days to save the world, and must reset time to the start of the first day whenever necessary — much as I regard it as my favorite Zelda, didn’t quite get the gimmick right, either. Three game-days was almost too much time. The game was overwhelming for many players who had tromped through Ocarina of Time — in which the gimmick was your typical two-world time-traveling stuff — with ease. To tell the truth, it was overwhelming for me, for the longest time, as well. The game is a tough nut to crack, and it starts as terribly as it does awesomely. Whereas Ocarina of Time was a wide-armed welcoming of long-time Zelda fans who’d been replaying Link to the Past for five years, Majora’s Mask was an arms-akimbo bastard wearing a T-shirt that said “If the first hour bothers you, run the heck away.” It took a lot of balls to make Majora’s Mask, and it took just as many balls to make Wind Waker chock-full of cloying bullstuff again. Likewise, it took just as many barrels of balls to make Phantom Hourglass, only this time, they nailed the gimmick out of the park.

 

Phantom Hourglass‘s gimmick is that it features one large central dungeon — The Temple of the Sea King — into which you must enter multiple times throughout the game. An item called the “Phantom Hourglass” determines how long you can stay in this temple. Your goal in the temple is to find sea charts which will allow you to explore other regions of the sea, which contain islands containing temples containing the items you need to complete your quest. Find a sea chart, get out, sail to the new island, solve a couple of pre-dungeon puzzles, get in the dungeon, clear the dungeon, beat the boss (who then turns to sand for your Phantom Hourglass), get the mystic item, and then head back into the main temple on the first island. Sometimes, hijinks happen at sea on the way to the dungeon, or on the way back. Maybe you’ll get attacked by a sea monster, or a lady pirate. The hijinks are always scripted, though they’re never enough to distract your joy. The game is linear in its flow, yes — I mean, why can’t I just sail the ocean looking for these dungeons for myself? — though it’s indisputable that this is a joyful kind of linearity we’re dealing with here. The game is just short enough that the flow never gets tiring — one dungeon, main dungeon, another dungeon, main dungeon again, another dungeon, side-dungeon, main dungeon again, final series of dungeons, main dungeon one last time, final boss. The dungeons are all fun, the weird happenings at sea are fun, shooting the cannon at monsters or jumping over torpedoes at sea never has time to stop being entertaining, and the central dungeon is enthralling.

The hook of the central dungeon impressed me on paper and floored me in execution. (Literally, I played this game on the floor. That’s . . . where we sleep, in Japan.) You have a limited amount of time to explore the main dungeon. Time counts down when you’re moving about the dungeon, and the countdown freezes when you’re standing on a special, blessed, purple floor. Enemy knights called Phantoms patrol the dungeon on set paths. If they see you, they will hunt you down. If they slash you, you lose thirty seconds of time and are sent back to the entrance of the current floor. In Metal Gear Solid, the enemies will go back to their patrol and assume they were just seeing things if you hide for long enough after, say, shooting them in the leg. In Phantom Hourglass, the stupidity of the guards has an airtight, almost Final Fantastic reason — these purple floors are parts of the temple that the curse of the Phantoms has yet to leak into, so they simply don’t register.

In your first few forays in the Link’s Mysterious Dungeon, you might be nervous, or even on the edge of your seat. Get to the third basement to get the first sea chart, and then warp back out. The next time you come back, after the second dungeon, you’ll have to start the whole mysterious dungeon all over again. Only now, you’re not creeping around nearly as carefully. You’ve fallen into the Comfort Zone with those first three floors, and you feel like a genius chemist when you realize there’s a destructible wall near one of the Phantoms on the second floor. You didn’t have bombs the first time through the dungeon, though you do now! Might as well bomb that wall! Get down to the fourth basement, however, and things are complicated all over again. Finally get the next sea chart, beat the next dungeon, come back to the main temple, and now you have a bow and arrow, and you can shoot the Phantoms in the back, freezing them for a whole ten seconds or so. Yes! You now have a new strategy for getting through those first six floors.

Eventually, after popping in and out of the main dungeon enough times, you will waltz through those first couple floors like you own the place. And by the time you penetrate to the last couple floors, you’re packing all the items in the game; though the developers’ intended solution to any given puzzle might float to the surface if you relax your mind a bit, there’s a tiny bit of workable freedom with which to execute your own insane schemes (many of them involving the Bombchu, if you’re like me).

To wit: you’re able to draw on the map in this game. Just tap the map icon in the drop-down menu tab (or press down on the control pad) to make the map occupy the touch screen. Now draw or write whatever you want. Your first two or three trips into the dungeon, you might notice, say, destructible walls, so you might write “bomb” there, or even draw a cute bomb icon. There are red pots in the dungeon, which can be lifted, carried, and thrown wherever you want to throw them, spilling the holy essence of the purple-floored safe spots. I found myself — originally kind of suspicious of the map-memo-writing feature — chicken-scratching the letters “RP” at the location of every red pot. At some points in the dungeon, you’ll find yourself tracing the routes of guard patrols. If you’re savvy enough, you can trace the exact width of each guard’s range of vision, and find airtight safe spots in which to stand and shoot the guards in the backs with arrows.

This is the closest a videogame has ever come to making me feel like the hero of a heist movie, like Tom Cruise lowering himself through the laser net in “Mission: Impossible” — hell, they even made a videogame out of that! And here’s Phantom Hourglass, a videogame that makes me feel like a character in a movie so awesome that it would be super-disappointing if they made a videogame out of it.

This isn’t to say the dungeon is perfect, however. The chief fault is that the game doesn’t end if you run out of time. Rather, Link’s health simply starts to drain if he’s away from the safe spots. And there are blue pots everywhere, with abundant hearts in them. And unlike the red pots and yellow pots (which give you extra time), the blue pots reappear whenever you exit a floor and come back, so running out of time is hardly the end. I find this a very disappointing oversight: I wish the dungeon would simply kick me out for not making the time limit.

Late in the game, though, near the very end, the main dungeon curls up like Ouroboros, though instead of eating its own tail, it just stuffs in its own mouth. I’m sure there’s someone on the internet who would see me dead for putting this in plain writing, though here we go: they give you a way to kill the Phantoms, and it’s way too easy. As invincible enemies, they were the most intriguing moving obstacles ever to exist in a Zelda game. Once you’re able to kill them, the main dungeon becomes depressingly easy.

The game swiftly recovers, however, by throwing in a thrilling final boss with enough surprise recoveries and epic final forms to gag Epona (that’s, um, the name of Link’s horse in Twilight Princess). Many of the boss encounters prior to this one had been smart, two-screen affairs, where the top screen offers you some kind of alternate view (for example, one battle uses the top screen as an FPS-camera-style view of Link from the monster’s eyes), though this final battle takes the cake. And what’s more, as the game winds down, these cute, breezy characters — Link’s fairy partner, Ciela, the greedy pirate Captain Lineback, the mysterious old man, the angry, squinting girl-pirate Jolene, and the kidnapped Princess Zelda / Tetra — whose ridiculous banter you’ve been half-enjoying and half groaning at for twenty hours suddenly become interesting, rounded-out people. It’s not quite expected at all for the game to become something of a fulfilling narrative at the end, though there it is, and I can’t help thinking that I would have never seen the end at all if they’d decided to stuff the game with unnecessary stuff of, say, Wind Waker.

 

The game is not without its teeth-grinding faults. And no, dear readers of GameFAQs, the “totally gay hub dungeon” is not one of them. If you go by GameFAQs’ Phantom Hourglass discussion forum circa the game’s launch, three of the most Frequently Asked Questions were “How many islands are there in this game?” “How big are the islands?” and “How do I get to the island on the first island?”

The problems with Phantom Hourglass tend to ironically revolve around the miraculous stylus control scheme. Sometimes, for example, Link will slow to a morbid crawl as you near the edge of a screen. The mathematical explanation for this is that Link’s running speed is programmed to be relative to the distance of the stylus from Link’s current position; Link is usually positioned at the center of the screen by default, though if you’re in a dungeon or a house, or nearing the exit of a location, Link will move to a different position on the screen, causing him to break his run and tiptoe toward the exit. It can be maddening when, say, there are Manic Monsters chasing you. Actually using Link’s rolling attack, so brain-bustingly simple and convenient in the 3D Zeldas, is just a few hairs short of writing a new proof of the Pythagorean Theorem on the back of a nine-millimeter bullet that’s flying toward your skull. It says you’re supposed to draw a quick circle with the stylus on the edge of the screen while Link is running, and it also says that you’re able to use this to shake trees to see if they have any items inside, though because Link rolls the instant you draw the little circle on the edge of the screen, the edge of the screen has to be an immaculately calculated distance from the tree you’re trying to roll into in order for Link to actually roll into the tree. It’s a real head-bender, man.

Sometimes, these fine movement issues will show up at precisely the wrong time, and you might find yourself screaming. If you scream, and some particles happen to land on the screen, be sure to pause the game before wiping the particles off, or else Link might gallop right into a lava pit, and you’ll be screaming again.

Other unfortunate problems involve the incessant hand-holding. I remember, back with the original Zelda, my little brother — a regular Baby Huey, he was sociopathically afraid of being locked in a department store after closing for most of his life (he still is, probably) — would mutter over and over again “You might want to take your bombs off” as I played. My brother was worried I would accidentally press the B button and lay a bomb, which would be a total waste. “You might want to take your arrows off”, he’d say, if it were arrows. Once, shaking with annoyance, I began placing bombs all around the screen, one at a time, listening to my brother shiver and spit and eventually start crying.

You don’t need my brother to enjoy this newest Zelda game, however. The game will do enough spitting and crying all on its own. Most groan-worthy are the messages when you pick up a small key: “This is a small key! You can use it to unlock one locked door. After you use the key once, it will disappear.” This Zelda game’s focus is on quick, frequent, taxing puzzles, which means a lot of locked doors, and a lot of keys, and a lot of instructions on how to use the keys.

It used to be, if you found a key in a Zelda game and you didn’t know what a key did, you were either mentally handicapped or you reached for the instruction manual. I suppose, eventually, someone in Nintendo’s R&D did a big Powerpoint presentation, with the cooperation of a local psychiatrist, proving — quite logically — that people absent-minded enough to forget what a key does have probably also lost both the box and instruction manual of the game they’re playing. As an employee in a videogame company’s marketing division myself, I could put up a convincing presentation to explain that we should probably just explain once what a key does, and then leave it up to these instruction-manual misplacers to either remember that, or figure it out anew. If anyone attacked my views and said that we can’t shut out the morons and the idiots just because most people — not to mention most gamers — aren’t either, I would jump up onto the boardroom table and scream, what the heck do you do if the person loses the hecking cartridge, huh? What the heck do you do then! Would you give out a free game and console to a shaky kid who showed up at a game shop and said that first he lost the manual, then the box, then he forgot what keys did, then he lost his lunch money, then he lost the game cartridge, and then his DS? There’s a certain line, separating the place where enough is enough and the place where enough is more than enough, and incessant “You got a key!” messages, as a habit, is at least a couple steps into “more than enough” country.

Well, maybe the message is meant to convey that the key will disappear after one use? Maybe so, Sherlock. Though maybe it might be best if you add a little animation that shows the key fly out of the lock and float in the center of the screen and poof into purple smoke, all in the space of one second, whenever a key is used. Maybe that’d be better than words displayed before the key disappears. Show, don’t tell. Live in the moment. Trust the player’s common sense, et cetera.

Nintendo’s pathological belief that the majority of newcomers to videogames are also repulsive idiots penetrates deep into Phantom Hourglass, and rears one of its hundreds of ghostly eyeballs at numerous points. The non-optional side-quests, for example: sometimes you have to use the shovel to dig in the right place on an island, though instead of presenting you with a riddle as to where you have to dig, a stone plaque will contain the necessary information verbatim. “Connect the upper-right tree and the lower-left tree, and then the lower-right and the upper-left trees, and dig where the lines intersect.” At the beginning of the game, such a puzzle feels kind of fresh. It kind of recalls the old point-and-click adventure games that people seem to still long for so hungrily. You feel kind of cool, as you wander the island, finding the four items, marking them on the map, and then connecting them, and then heading for the X-marked spot. Get a little farther, though, and many of the non-optional puzzles are still playing the same game. They tell you what to connect, and you’ll obey, and that’ll be that.

Other elements of the game, quite frankly, make me feel like I’m being talked-down-to by a three-year-old, and that stuff just isn’t appreciated. For one thing, before every boss, there’ll be a stone plaque that explains that you can use this blue portal to return to the dungeon entrance. Then a blue portal appears. Okay. After you beat the boss, a treasure chest containing a heart container — the game explains what a heart container is, of course, every time — drops down, and then, slowly, the screen narrows to letterbox again, and a blue portal appears. Your fairy is ecstatic: “Link! We can use this blue portal to go back to the dungeon entrance!” Does Nintendo think people are goldfish, or what? The natural thing to do, when faced with a dead end, is go back one room. And then, hey, there’s that blue portal, there. At least let us feel like we’ve made some effort to walk back out of the dungeon.

Other tiny flaws seem to run ironically counter to Nintendo’s hand-holding habits. Like the first shop, which sells bombs, even though Link isn’t allowed to have bombs. “You need a bomb bag to carry these bombs!” you’re told, when you try to buy them. When you find bombs in a dungeon, the text box tells you “There’s a bomb bag included!” What the hell? Just don’t sell bombs in that shop, if I’m not allowed to buy them. For god’s sake.

In every dungeon, the fairy pops out right at the entrance and says “Here we are, in the dungeon! Maybe the item we’re looking for is somewhere in this room!” What a blue-baller. Of course the item isn’t in that room. We have a whole huge map up on the top of the screen.

The stone plaques with hints on them can be weirdly frustrating, as well. You might click on one, only to have Link run around to the side of it, and try to read it. A message pops up: “It’s hard to read it from here.” For heck’s sake, I clicked on the plaque itself — Link will jump out and slash an enemy I’ve clicked on; why can’t he walk around to the font side of a plaque and read it when I click on it? You figure in a game with pathological key-explanation messages, this sort of thing would be balance-tweaked, yeah?

Deeper balance issues include the boss keys — which are huge, and must be carried back to the boss door over Link’s head. I’m sure this was a good idea on paper, though in execution, it totally falls flat. It’s neither frustrating nor challenging nor fun. It’s just there. There’s Link, waiting for a platform so he can cross a pit over to the boss door. Yawn. On the way to obtaining the boss key, you’ll have unlocked numerous mandatory sub-puzzles that open a wide, eight-lane-highway-like path back to the dungeon entrance. And then, you open the boss door, and . . . huh? There’s a blue portal back to the entrance of the dungeon. You should think, “What do I need this for?” or “This isn’t hard anymore.” This is almost a compliment: it’s like solving a Rubik’s Cube, and then turning one side one click over and handing it to your friend and daring him to solve it. Just leave the Rubik’s Cube solved, man!

And then there’s the hecking postman. With squinted eyes and buck teeth and a little red hat and a Kid Icarus getup and this poofy little sound effect as he flies in and out, flapping his arms like a hypnotized man imitating a chicken, he’s a pretty disgusting-looking character — a simultaneous mixed bash of homosexuals, Greek mythological cosplayers, mail carriers, people without sunglasses on a sunny day, and Warner Bros. cartoon characters. And there he is, every time you get off your hecking boat, delivering you a letter you don’t want from a character you couldn’t care less about. Oh, here’s a letter from the guy who runs the cannon-shooting minigame. He’s lonely and wouldn’t mind it if you came around to play again. Who gives a flying heck! The letter-senders always attach gifts, as well, usually treasure trinkets you can trade for money, or give to friends over Wi-Fi for no real reason. Is this supposed to be fun?

The Animal Crossing inspirations are appreciated, though the execution falls flat before it can even take its first steps. For one thing, though Link can upgrade and change the appearance of his boat, the changes are merely cosmetic. Also, though you may collect tons of unique treasures, there’s no visual representation of them. You can walk around the cabin of Link’s boat at will, viewing your treasures. So what’s the point of collecting and trading them, if you can only view them through a stupid menu? These features seem tacked-on, and tacky.

And then there are the items that are actually important to the game — the fairy power-ups, which will increase Link’s various powers for every ten of them he collects. Sometimes these are buried in odd spots on islands, or sometimes they’re obtained by playing a shockingly fun deep-sea-salvage mini-game out on the ocean, though more often than not, they’re attached to letters from out-of-left-field characters. It’s clear that this Zelda game is determined to roll back on the Collectible Bullstuff Disorder that’s wracked the last few Zeldas — most famously manifested with the heart containers in Twilight Princess being made up of five pieces each instead of the usual four. In Phantom Hourglass, there are no heart pieces — only full hearts. And, amazingly, Link can only obtain a maximum of sixteen heart containers. What’s more, the dungeons no longer have compasses or maps. So far so good, yeah? Then there are these puzzling fairy drops, given away at the weirdest, most random moments, simultaneously belittling both the concept of inane Collectible Bullstuff in games and the developers’ desire to cut back on said bullstuff. It’s a confusing whirlwind of feeling.

 

Despite all these weird, sometimes-angry complaints, I arrived at the end of this game feeling like I’d just been read a picture book called “All That is Joyful in the World”. Looking back on its breezy construction makes me realize how much a work of the times it is, how evenly it fits in with the new Nintendo “Brain Training”, “Games for People, not for Gamers”, “Gamers are people too” aesthetic. The highest compliment I can pay Phantom Hourglass is that I realize how easy it must have been to make it, once the developers had realized what its hooks would be and how they would be positioned.

The developers of this game are the exact same people who created Four Swords Adventure for Gamecube, and subsequently destroyed its flow with hideous puzzles that required the four players to read signs to one another, or wander aimlessly around a town, talking to townspeople. As shown at E3, the game was fresh and fast. The Phantom Hourglass Dungeon reminds me quite heavily of the spirt of Four Swords Adventures, now perfected. Even the multiplayer mode of Phantom Hourglass radiates enlightenment: as something of a mix of Four Swords and Pac-Man VS, one player controls Link while the other controls three Phantoms (moved by drawing lines on the map). Link disappears from the Phantom player’s map whenever he stands in a safe spot. Meanwhile, Link can’t see the Phantoms on his own map until he picks up a Force chunk, which he then has to transport back to his base. If Link is caught, the player controlling the Phantoms becomes Link. It’s an amazing dynamic, especially when you get into the more complicated tactics — like stealing your opponent’s force out of his base on the other side of the arena, or using the staircases to warp around the battlefield, or mobilizing the Phantoms to the potential staircases where Link could be about to reappear after he disappears into a safe spot. It’s enthralling stuff, if a tiny bit thin.

What I want is for these same developers to make a sequel to this game every year. In fact, one might say I require it. I want to see bigger and better puzzles, and I don’t even mind if they use the exact same central dungeon concept and the same basic multiplayer mode. I wouldn’t mind spinoff games starring the pirate captain, or the Goron prince. Simply put, I want to see more of this level of creativity, with maybe a bit less of the bullstuff. In the past couple of years, I’ve come to groan at Zelda‘s fervent fandom, and have, many times, wondered why people aren’t more receptive to, I don’t know, new franchises, though with Phantom Hourglass, I guess I’ve given up. Go ahead, Nintendo. Keep making Zelda games, then. You’ve already reinvented the series quite significantly with Phantom Hourglass, and the game has sold, in just one week, more than four times what the Wii version sold in six months. You have your cue. Time to retrofit this level of ingenuity back into a console Zelda. I don’t even care if it’s not 1080p or fully voice-acted (as it should be) the next time around. Just get on it. And — so help me god — don’t you dare ever tell me that a key can unlock a door ever again.

–tim rogers

Comments

18 Responses to the legend of zelda: the phantom hourglass

  1. From what I have seen the games looks like it will have it’s flaw, and the controls will be frustrating at times, but I’m betting it will be good.

    Here in the USA it doesn’t come out until 1 October but I am hoping on that day I will find the Zelda experience that I have been hoping for and have not found for years.

  2. You’ve got the Compass! Now, you can see where the chests and Nightmare are hidden! This Compass has a new feature – a tone will tell you if a key is hidden in a room when you enter!

    but it’s funny how handhelds have a way of pushing developers to focus more. i guess the diminished size causes them to try to squeeze as much juice out of every screen.

    too bad about that mailman thing, you know.

  3. solid.

    i was kind of on the fence about this one. while i actually did enjoy wind waker, especially the style, it wasn’t worth writing home about.

    but i do like keys.

  4. Maybe I need to re-read this, because the impression I’m left with is not of a game deserving 3.5 stars. Maybe all that patronizing crap just wipes from my memory whatever virtues you described. All that OCD triple underlining and anxious gesturing by the designers ruins what’s great about this kind of game, which is being present somewhere… Seeing something because it’s there. Forming a silent understanding from direct experience. The intimacy and preciousness of a private epiphany. All of that is annihilated by the ham-fisted over-involvement of directorial guidance.

    Little story… One day I was playing Twilight Princess. This girl asked me to blow up the boulders blocking her river, using my bomb arrows. The first wall of boulders was right there. I blew it up with two shots; the first made a big dent, the second wiped out what was left. So I set off down the river. After a little bit I came to this traffic-circle type thing, where the river arrived at a sort of cul-de-sac where it revolved clockwise around a central jutting rock. The current would have swept me to the left, but by chance, I arrived far enough to the right that it seemed like I might be able to make it around the “wrong way.” Just to see, I fought the current.

    With some effort, I turned the corner of that central rock, angling left and right, trying not to get swept back. The second wall of boulders came into view. I drew by bow and fired a bomb arrow directly into it. It exploded, but the boulders didn’t react. I fired twice more, to no effect. So I gave in and let the water carry me around the other way, the way I was supposed to have gone.

    A Zora guy popped out of the water, interrupting gameplay. Letterboxing appeared, and the camera moved in on his face. He began to speak through a text box. I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something like, “hey! There you are! You must be here to blow up the boulders! That’s good! There just happen to be some boulders right over here!” He turned, and the camera moved past him, indicating the wall of boulders I’d already encountered. The Zora suggested I blow up the boulders. Then, I was back in control. I took aim and let fly a bomb arrow, which smacked satisfyingly into the wall, blowing off a big chunk. A second arrow cleared away the rest. And my little boat was swept through the new opening, downstream, towards whatever the game intended for me next.

    The lesson here is that bomb arrows do not blow up a wall of boulders unless an NPC has specifically pointed out the boulders to me and suggested I blow them up.

    This is what’s known as a miracle — a unique and inexplicable event that betrays the natural laws of the universe.

    It’s not necessary to state what’s so disturbing and threatening about this. But I will. It means that the player’s purpose is baldly, transparently, nothing more than to perform whatever meaningless, isolated and arbitrary task is plunked down in front of him. Autonomous, exploratory action will not be acknowledged by the world. Your own priorities are irrelevant. Your best efforts are impotent. If you connect the dots without any divergent impulse, you might not notice how actually empty Hyrule is. But try to bring your own consciousness, perspective and self to bear, and you’ll find out how unwelcome you really are.

  5. Yeah — see, the kind of existential anti-miracle you describe does not manifest itself once in Phantom Hourglass. I was hoping someone would bring this issue up in the comments,

    I will admit that this review is perhaps a tiny bit lopsided because of the focus on bad things in the latter half. Let me tell you, though — I kept track of the things I didn’t like, by jotting down quick memos in an outgoing mail message on my cellular phone as I played the game. In other words, the bad things I catalog here are all the bad things about the game.

    The hand-holding, though, yeah. They do need to wipe it completely. The reason today’s kids can’t play the original Zelda and enjoy themselves as purely as they would with, say, Link to the Past is not because Link to the Past makes the objectives more obvious; it is, plainly and simply, because Link to the Past is a more smartly put-together game. (That’s not to say it’s better, or worse, though.)

    Even Ocarina of Time, to a certain extent, let the player feel at home, and welcome to explore the game. Majora’s Mask forced you to get comfortable as quickly as possible. I guess that puts Wind Waker and Twilight Princess dead in the middle.

  6. I just think Aonuma must feel like Link in the recent games: draped in the robes of venerated tradition, equipped with a mighty power, laden with epic, trembling, world-wide expectation, the hopes, fears, and anxieties of the multitudes on his shoulders… Nobody’s more lucky and unfortunate.

    In Twilight Princess, you’re the legendary hero, the most talented, strong, well-funded guy in the world. But somehow this doesn’t translate to freedom and empowerment. No, you’re beholden to everyone. Everybody you meet expects something of you, and what hangs in the balance? Anything from a personal trauma to a civilization-shattering cataclysm. JEE-ZUS.

    How depressing and isolating all this must be. TP actually makes overtures to such themes, cursing Link into the shape of a wolf and forcing him to skulk around his village as a feared outcast, thieving from necessity. And then, after you’ve returned to your preferred, WB heartthrob incarnation, the nice pregnant lady who sees the sword on your back says, just as you’re about to leave, “oh! You retrieved it from the monsters! You’re so wonderful — keep it if it will help you!” I confess to the pang of guilt that shot through me at that moment. Link’s personal, emotional troubles, though skirting against 20th century anti-hero cliche, threaten to spike the story with an alcoholic edge of adult complexity. But nothing comes of it. This promising early sub-plot, indicated further by an eventual, disturbing cut-scene where Link and his girlfriend have no pupils, gets dropped in the later stages of the game, when trundling towards a comprehensive, reverential, multi-form confrontation with sinister franchise stalwart Ganon supplants any of the game’s original or individualistic impulses.

    You can see this sort of thing in Wind Waker, too: What’s most original and defining about the game (sailing the post-apocalyptic overworld) is underdeveloped, and the response is a retreat towards tradition, an abdication of directorial vision: Twilight Princess.

    Looks like Aonuma’s hair grayed a lot in the past few years.

    Anyway, it’s good to hear the map and compass are gone. A factoid like that seems to speak volumes, but hey — there’s no magic meter in TP, and at one point I made too much of that. Getting back to the review, the central dungeon sounds cool. Sounds like it really has a feel and a purpose, like it means something, and its meaning changes as the game proceeds. I guess I am a little more interested in this game than I was before…

  7. uh, the style of game where you are just there to solve a puzzle with one solution are interesting because they can teach you something (often through the very act of solving it), or show you something new.

    the reason so many sand boxy games just end up seeming hollow and weak is simple. the in-game happenings are only interesting inasmuch as your own behavior interests you.

    games need to combine both styles of play (having a person show you something interesting, and allowing you to create an unique solutions to the problem) in order to be truly great.

  8. That’s not what I’m saying. The problem with recent Zeldas is not that there aren’t a million solutions to any given problem, or that characters aren’t indifferent to your choices. It’s that … it’s not even [i]honest[/i]. The world doesn’t even behave in a consistent way, so how can I believe in it? I don’t mind being at a dead-end with only one possible escape route. I do mind getting jostled and patronized like a kid on class photo day.

  9. I haven’t gotten far into TP (I’m really not motivated to play it), but my favorite part so far was when I first got to the Gorons while in wolf form. I found one Goron spirit at the end of a path who was saying “I wonder why they made me stand me? It doesn’t make any sense.” That one line (paraphrased) speaks volumes. It’s just like Midna saying things like “do this task for me. I won’t tell you why you’re doing it or what it will accomplish, but you’ll do it anyway because you’re the hero”. The whole game is so depressingly self-aware of how pointless it is. It’s as though the characters are talking about the game itself. “I don’t know why you’re playing this game, but you’re going to anyway, because it’s *Zelda*.”

  10. The reason nothing ever comes of it, Hellman, is because it’s unintended. When the woman says, “Oh, I see you got the sword from the monsters!”, it’s not supposed to send a guilt pang into your stomach, or indicate the emotional cracks that the pressure of Link’s life must impress on his soul; it’s just because it’d be dumb if the wolf stole the sword and then Link had it and everyone could see it but no one said anything. That’s it. It’s a next-generation bit of clean-up, the kind of thing you wouldn’t have had the memory to put in an Atari cartridge, the videogame equivalent of Jerry Bruckheimer’s cameras all being in focus.

    It’s artless expertise, technical mastery. That’s what’s so depressing about it, and what makes Twilight Princess so hard to play.

  11. CubaLibre:

    Uhh, I’m not so sure… I sort of remember talking to the lady, and then just when I’m leaving, she stops me and says the thing about the sword. They kind of made a point of it. But okay, let’s say it was half-accidental, or just my subjective response to things. There is still totally a theme about “belonging” and “not belonging” going on in the story. At first you’re running around your village, everyone knows you, everyone likes you. Then you get zapped into this dark flip-side world, become a wolf, and start taking orders from a fat gremlin. When you return to your village, your friends are scared of you — even one of the domestic animals whom you can now talk with says you should watch out because you look like a monster and the humans are on edge. And later on, the whole back story is about this tribe that got banished from the light into a world of darkness, where they change into weird creatures and can nevermore chill with normal people, etc. The exposition cut scene that tells of the legend provocatively casts Link and Blondie from the village as blank-eyed, greed-consumed, treacherous members of that cursed tribe. I won’t go on, but it’s abundantly clear that the story is supposed to be about traffic between darkness and light, whatever that really means, and that Link becomes the… connection between, and champion of, both. So. I just don’t think they made enough of a particular dramatic angle.

  12. P.S.

    “It’s artless expertise, technical mastery. That’s what’s so depressing about it, and what makes Twilight Princess so hard to play.”

    I would definitely question the mastery of the Zelda team. I mean, they have mastered … something. But it’s not game design.

  13. “I would definitely question the mastery of the Zelda team. I mean, they have mastered … something. But it’s not game design.”

    Well no, no more than Jerry Bruckheimer has mastered the art of movie direction or Tom Clancy has mastered the art of the novel. But they sure have mastered something. How to scratch a particular itch.

  14. As a non-native speaker, I think I missed a lot of the annoyance factor of the repetitive messages in Phantom Hourglass. It’s a lot easier to take “Draw a line between point A and B and then rotate C to be parallel” if you don’t know for sure whether that’s “parallel” or “intersecting at the center point”. That said, I agree with the repetitive messages about keys, and the blue return points. I mean, did you ever use the return points, outside of the yellow one in the main dungeon? I don’t even know for sure why you would want to; if you don’t make it through a dungeon with enough life and equipment to survive a boss fight, you’re not going to survive the boss fight even *with* all that stuff.

    I have to say that I found the character all the more charming for the fact that they don’t speak. Link’s facial expressions are ten times more evocative than any voice actor could be, I think, not that any voice actor but a Japanese woman would really be believable coming out of that super-cute head. The scene where Link reaches for Tetra in slow-motion is a clear setup, but still has a lot of power simply because of how much emotion their faces carry. And I’ll admit, I teared up a little at the final farewell scene.

    Perhaps it’s too easy, and perhaps it’s too short, but Phantom Hourglass is a game I wouldn’t have had time to sit down and play if it hadn’t been a short, easy, portable game. This is the perfect commuter game – certainly there are many more concessions to quick break gamers with the sleep mode *and* save-anytime features – but will stand up to 4 hours of concerted play as well. And there’s something for everyone in this game: MGS-style sneaking, Shadow of the Colossus-style giant boss battles, puzzles, humor, and the best DS control scheme since Chou Soujuu Mecha MG. Incidentally, this is also the first Zelda game I’ve played through completely.

    This may just be the game that most completely uses the DS as a platform, and I really do hope, as Tim does, that there will be more games based on this engine and world. It’s not perfect, no, and it clearly is oriented towards more casual gamers, but I think it’s the best DS game I own and certainly one I will recommend to all my friends, whether they have ever played a Zelda game or not.

  15. i love both twilight princess and phantom hourglass!
    i like twilight princess because the characters look so real and the made-up creatures like the gorons and zoras are so fascinating. however, i think it’s a little hard.
    i like the phantom hourglass
    1. because captain Linebeck is an AWESOME sidekick! he’s so funny and makes the game a whole lot better in my opinion.
    2. because I think it’s so neat how some things you have to do are like blowing into the mic to blow out a candle or closing the DS to transport something on the top screen to the bottom and things like that.
    i dont really mind the whole key thing. all you do is tap on the screen and it goes away. i mean, it’s not like an hour description each time.
    the only thing i hate is having to re-do the ocean king temple over and over again until you get to the newest floor.
    other than that, i think they did a great job with the game! 😀

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