Rewind Review - The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
Here at Rewind Reviews I - your beloved RR-sama - try my best to keep a level head when reviewing nostalgic titles that my readers love. At the cost of my own sanity, I have done my best to maintain as close to an objective view on older games through the lens of a modern video game critic. However, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass - the game that we will be covering for week 13 of the Legend of Zelda Rewind Review - has tipped me over the edge.
Regardless, I will do my best to follow the standards of this column. As with all Rewind Reviews, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass will undergo a review process through the eyes of a modern critic. No nostalgia glasses, no excuses, no rationalizing hardware limitations, and no sparing myself from angry fans and readers. Nothing will excuse this game from anything that we - as modern gamers - would expect to see in the genre today.
So without further ado, let's visit the Temple of the Ocean King, and run away from scary phantom knights in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass on the Nintendo DS.
Some may be wondering why I started off this section with this image. For those who do not know, this image pretty much appears every time you start up the game through a save file. That's right... it appears every... single... time...
Let's get one thing straight about Phantom Hourglass: the game centers itself around repetition. How so? Well, listen to this plot and see if it sounds familiar.
Immediately after the events of The Wind Waker, Link sets out with Tetra and her pirates to find a new land that they will be able to call Hyrule. Along the way, Link and Tetra encounter a strange ship and enter it. However, immediately after entering the "Ghost Ship," Link is promptly knocked off the ship and falls into the ocean. Link then washes ashore in a foreign land where he is awakened by a fairy named Ciela. Link soon finds a man named Oshus who wants to help Link reunite with Tetra. He then enlists the aid of a man named Linebeck who helps him venture across the Great Sea in search of three Spirits of Wisdom, Courage, and Power.
Link continuously returns to a dungeon known as The Temple of the Ocean King - which worships a giant whale. After eventually saving the day (there's pretty much no story between the start and the end of the game) Link reveals that the Ocean King is actually Oshus, and the world fades away. Link and Tetra reawaken on the Ghost Ship they started their adventure on, and they sail onward. But in the background a horn goes off, and Linebeck's ship can be seen sailing away.
*END OF SPOILERS*
For those who have not caught on yet, the game is quite literally a hybrid of The Wind Waker and Link's Awakening with minor substitutions. There is nothing original about the plot, and frankly if there are story elements between the first dungeon and the end of the game, I can't recall any of it. I thought that early Legend of Zelda games had weak plot, but this game makes The Adventure of Link look like Nintendo's magnum opus in comparison.
I can't bash on Phantom Hourglass for everything. It is a Nintendo product, after all, and as such it has met their standards of quality to a degree. However, the good is found few and far in between.
Touch screen controls are about as tight as they can be, and that's not saying much considering the Nintendo DS's DPI being much lower than the 3DS or 3DS XL. Playing the game on a 3DS doesn't help either since the hardware "downgrades" itself in order to play DS software. That said, it gets the job it needs to done.
Item creativity is the highlight of this game as old equipment has received new life via touch screen controls. The boomerang (right) travels along a path the player draws, as do bombchus. This change allows for interesting puzzles that have not been recreated in any other 2D Zelda style, and for that I applaud this game. The grappling hook has also been changed to allow Link to walk along it like a tightrope - provided a line is drawn between two posts. These are interesting reinventions, even if the rest of Link's inventory acts as it typically does.
The Downright Hideous
Just about everything this game does is wrong in terms of game design. Remember how I said that this game revolves around repetition? Well, it's not a central theme or anything. It just does it a lot.
The biggest culprit of this is the Temple of the Ocean King (seen on the right). This dungeon is one that Link must return to a total of 6 times. That's almost once per dungeon, and at least once per item Link finds on his adventures. While this wouldn't be much of a problem if you simply continued onward after solving a certain puzzle, then returned with a new item to finish the next, that is not the case. Instead, the player must repeat the puzzles again each time they want to get further into the dungeon.
Oh, but that's not all. While in the Temple of the Ocean King, Link is faced with two additional challenges: a timer based on how much sand he has collected for the titular Phantom Hourglass, and invincible Phantoms which can take out a significant portion of Link's health. As such, players will have to wait for them to pass before they can move forward - and this means wasting more hourglass time. All of this puzzle-solving is nowhere near as fun as it is taxing, especially with the touch screen being your control pad, and your only visualization of the world's events - aside from the top screen's practical (but hardly functional) map. It leads to a dizzying experience that will make you feel like dropping the game once you hit the third revisit to this mind-numbing dungeon.
By the way: I'm not done ripping into this game yet.
The next failure of this game is its overall difficulty. As I have noted - by observing my own gameplay, and that of others - players fall into one of two camps: those who breeze through the game but lose out to a lack of time while in the Temple of the Ocean King, and those who take unnecessary damage because of poor controls. Combat has been simplified to the extent that any damage you do take is not your fault, but rather the failure of the touch screen to read your motions properly. If you have a poorly calibrated or faulty touch screen... don't bother with this game at all.
This is the sum of the game's difficulty, and as anyone who has followed my column for long enough knows by now: I hate virtual difficulty with a passion. A game should never punish you for that which is outside of your control. In this game, however, you almost always feel like the damage you took could have been avoided but the game doesn't let you due to the poor controls. This goes doubly for the Temple of the Ocean King. Players who have not gone out of the way to collect Sand of Hours found at the bottom of the sea will take damage relentlessly until they die or escape the temple.
Which brings me to the last point: the Great Sea.
The Great Sea was a wonderful addition to The Wind Waker... if you liked mind-numbing endless sailing. But guess what? Phantom Hourglass made it worse! Instead of boring real-time sailing, now you have on-rails sailing in a near empty void! To make things worse, the only thing that the Great Sea in Phantom Hourglass has added are enemies that must be defeated using Linebeck's on-board cannon.
This leads to some of the most cringe-worthy gameplay in the game. During sea-battles with larger creatures you are forced to alternate between crappy cannon controls, and re-drawing your on-rails experience on the touch screen map via the route button. The execution is sloppy, and it's not like sea-battles were much fun to begin with in The Wind Waker.
Remember how fun it was trying to aim the cannon in The Wind Waker? Yeah. It's about that much fun in Phantom Hourglass too, and this time you can't get close to aim either...
What can I say about this game's presentation... Well, for starters: the graphics are downright terrible. Honestly speaking, I have no idea what possessed Nintendo to force the Nintendo DS to run 3D graphics in this game. Instead of creating what could have been a nice looking game on the Gamecube or the Wii, Nintendo decided to try fitting the bubbly and beautiful art style of The Wind Waker into the pixel-y mess of the DS.
Backgrounds look barely passable, and Link looks like he has certainly seen better days. In fact, the art style that made The Wind Waker so good on the Gamecube actually makes this game look a bit creepy at times. It's certainly not the worst that I've ever seen, but I just don't know why the developers couldn't have settled for something a little more... flat?
At least the music is at least catchy. Some of the tunes in this game are downright memorable, especially those surrounding the character of Linebeck. The final boss theme will certainly stick with me for many years to come. I still would have loved to see this game developed on a better platform though. The low-quality music is painful to listen to, especially when you know what it could have sounded like. Have a listen for yourself:
If it isn't obvious enough... I really didn't enjoy this game. By all means, it's not a terrible game. It's playable, and the things it does well are done as well as they can be on the hardware. But it's just so painful knowing what could have been in contrast to what actually is.
The game has many failings in its control scheme, difficulty, repetitive nature, and so forth that it blots out the few innovative designs it has. As such, I give The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass a 4/10. Phantom Hourglass is a Legend of Zelda title that is more memorable for its highlights than it is a game. As such, I consider this title to be much like the original Legend of Zelda on the NES: a title held up by pure nostalgia.
Sorry, Link, but I think this game would have been better off if you simply knocked your head on the way into the water and that was it...
This marks the end of Week 13 of my Legend of Zelda Rewind Review, meaning there are only 3 more games to go. What do you guys think about The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass? Do you think I'm being too harsh on the game? Did you share a similar experience? Is there anything I might have missed that you feel necessary to mention? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!
Reviews in this Series:
- The Legend of Zelda (NES)
- The Adventure of Link (NES)
- A Link to the Past (SNES/GBA)
- Link's Awakening/Link's Awakening DX (GB/GBC)
- Ocarina of Time/OoT 3DS (N64/3DS)
- Majora's Mask/MM 3DS (N64/3DS)
- Oracle of Ages/Oracle of Seasons (GBC)
- Four Swords (GBA)
- The Wind Waker (GC)
- Four Swords Adventures (GC)
- The Minish Cap (GBA)
- Twilight Princess (GC/Wii)
- Phantom Hourglass (DS)
- Spirit Tracks (DS)
- Skyward Sword (Wii)
- A Link Between Worlds (3DS)
- Tri Force Heroes (3DS)