Phantom Hourglass Thoughts

NA Release Date: October 1, 2007 (DS)
Playthrough: c. February – April, 2022 (2DS)

The release of the Nintendo DS-era Legend of Zelda games (PH, ST) coincides with the nadir of my engagement with the franchise. After Twilight Princess, I skipped these two since I didn’t have a DS. As it turns out, Phantom Hourglass is a very curious take on the Legend of Zelda ‘formula’: in almost equal measures it cribs unabashedly from the stylistic panache of WW, while also foisting a new, highly innovative, and unique control scheme on the player.

As it turns out, the results are not entirely without merit. There are some brief flashes where PH is a real delight to play; unfortunately the unevenness of the overall execution and the ever-present mental burden of interfacing exclusively via the stylus made PH something of a chore for me to complete.

The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword
There’s really no sense in trying to dodge the issue here: PH largely lives and dies by the stylus controls. Perhaps emboldened by the tacked-on motion controls in the Wii-flavor of TP, Nintendo re-imagined what a Zelda game would look like with an entirely different input scheme. On paper, this makes some sense, and for basic things it is easier than the traditional method. Your most basic offensive move is to just ‘tap the guy you want to attack’ and Link dutifully jumps across the screen directly to the enemy and slashes. This is nice when you need to clear out a bunch of pushovers: a couple of quick taps and you’re done.

For more difficult enemies though, this quickly becomes cumbersome because the same input you use to move (holding the stylus to a point on the screen) is closely related to your basic attack. The main thrust of combat in an adventure game is timing the character’s movement with their attack, so having these be nearly the same thing gets annoying fast. As the game progresses, more sophisticated control techniques are presented: draw a line to swipe; draw a circle around Link to perform the spin attack; (and my personal favorite) draw tiny circles at the edge of the screen in the direction that you want Link to perform a dash-roll. The underlying pain point is when you intend to do one thing (ie: trigger a spin attack by drawing a circle) and the DS screen interprets it as something else (ie: Link turning in some arbitrary direction).

Maybe it was more fun if you had the official exclusive Phantom Hourglass Stylus?

I’m sure if you had the patience and put in the effort to really hone your skills, these could all be mastered in due time, but the problem is PH is just too easy. There’s basically no incentive to ever get fancy with any of this because you’re so infrequently held responsible for it. In practice this means you can just hack your way through 95%+ of the game without issue, only to eventually crash into one of the handful of enemies that requires some finesse and suddenly PH becomes uncharacteristically frustrating. (Come to think of it, I had basically the same issue with Skyward Sword the first time I played it…)

Don’t get me wrong: the gimmick can be fun once you get used to it, but I never fully bought in. Even after almost 26 hours playing this game, I still found myself missing the ease of the D-pad when navigating terrain. I still found myself wishing that one hand could be moving my character, and the other triggering an attack; maybe it’s just years of learned behavior, but that seems easier to me still.

A topical Easter egg that made me laugh pretty good: one of the fallen adventurer skeletons, which will normally impart some helpful clue, instead says…

“It’s no fun not being able to play using the +Control Pad. If I have one regret, it’s being so stubborn and saying such a thing…”

…sure thing, pal.

Before I sound like I’m totally down on the whole idea, there is another side of the coin: as tedious as swordplay feels with the stylus, it makes using nearly all of the items way more fun.

  • Boomerang: you can now define a custom path, physics be damned, just by sketching exactly where you’d like it to go.
  • Bombs: no more having to guess at Link’s precise angular alignment- tap precisely where you want to throw them and they always land true.
  • Grappling Hook: tap where you want it to secure it by dragging across the screen- grip-able points when selected respond with both an audio and visual cue.
  • Hammer: tap what you want to smash and it will do ranged damage via the fairy helper?! This might be the most useful incarnation of the hammer that’s ever been seen in a Zelda game.
  • Last but certainly not least Bombchus: draw a path on the map where you want it to go. These win my award for ‘most improved’ from their debut (in OOT where they just go straight, but can climb walls). It’s much more fun to route them through mazes like little remote mines, and it makes them so much more useful as well.

The real point where all of these ease-of-use improvements really shine is with the boss battles, which were far and away my favorite part of PH, hands down. They were one of the only moments where I felt the dual-screen configuration was really being used to its full potential, and they were a complete joy to play. To have the world suddenly ‘open up’ to the upper screen really made for a far more immersive experience.

One of the earlier bosses, Cyclock, spends most of his time floating high above Link in the second screen, only descending to the lower screen when staggered by a bomb. Eox is a towering golem/automaton which spans both screens- Link must use spring-boards to fling himself high enough to hammer the weak spots. Both require some (albeit not much) vertical thinking, which is a really welcome change of pace for a game that is a nominally bound to the three-quarters-view design aesthetic. Even the ho-hum penultimate encounter with Bellum, while somewhat underwhelming from a gameplay standpoint, still does an excellent job having some visual fun with the z-axis.

The Legend of Zelda:
Shadow of the Colossus

A Visual Critique
Another knock I have for PH is the visual style. As was discussed prior in detail, I am a converted Celda believer. I’ve come to really love the childlike countenance of the character designs as well as the smooth lines and bright colors that really give WW its adventuring spirit. PH, as a true direct sequel, carries on in this vein, but it does so on the Nintendo DS, in all its 256 x 192 px glory. I got whiplash coming from the proper 1080p glow-up of WW HD and getting dumped straight into this:

I was making this same face, but for a different reason.

Now I’m not about to spill a bunch of digital ink here dunking on the NDS graphics, but I’ll contend that this treatment is particularly harsh on the style, and is a substantial downgrade from the GCN’s 480p that WW debuted with. And the scene direction didn’t do PH any favors either, working within these constraints. For example, Link looks mostly OK straight on, but when he turns to the side, his eyes tend to nearly disappear, revealing his face glaringly as a 2D-projection on a crude sphere polygon:

That’s all generally forgivable, though. It’s something, like the stylus controls, I got used to after a beat. What I never did quite warm up to were the aesthetic decisions concerning the optional ship’s parts. You are technically incentivized to collect these- matching multiple parts from a given ‘set’ increases the SS Linebeck’s number of stamina hearts. In playing the whole game I never managed to find more than two from any of the sets, and never died more than a handful of times on the sea. They were often exorbitantly priced, and I found the style pretty off-putting.

The Iron Ship (left) is somewhat garish, with the flashy red colors and excessive plate-mail. It also segues nicely into the questions raised by the Dignified Ship (right), which resembles a fairly modern ocean liner. It looks like the technology exists (in whatever strange pocket-universe PH takes place in) for sophisticated metallurgical feats, complex petroleum-fueled engines, as well as plate glass windows. One of the boats is entirely made of stone, a material notable for many things, among them that most kinds sink in water.

These designs do mostly gel with the general chibi-ness of the cell-shading style, but they’re glaringly anachronistic, and until you build a full set its even worse since you only have a patchwork collection of all these ugly things. It’s unfortunate PH didn’t find some in-universe rationale for still being able to control the wind (didn’t Link still have the Wind Waker, after all…?), since I think ships with sails were a better fit for The Great Sea World of the Ocean King, and avoid the thorny world-building baggage these self-propelled craft bring with them.

It Just Goes On and On, My Friends
You knew it was coming: let’s talk about that Temple of the Ocean King.
Here’s the pitch:

So you’ve got puzzle solving in a top-down Zelda game, right? You play around with the environment, trying different items and exploring every nook and cranny until you happen upon the solution, and are allowed to progress to the next puzzle or exciting combat encounter.

What if, instead of solving the puzzle just once though, we had the player solve the puzzle again? And again? And maybe a third, or even fourth time! Not back-to-back, but some time later. Just long enough so that they’d forgotten the solution. Oh! Don’t worry- it’s OK, we gave them an in-game pen/pad to take notes! Lest this get too boring, the whole thing is also timed! And to make the puzzles longer we added a stealth mechanic, wherein failure means invincible enemies descend on the player and the penalty is stealing more time off their clock!

Artist’s rendition of a fatefully bad day in the PH working group, c. 2005

This ghoulish cycle repeats itself I think 5-6 times over the course of the entire game. Each time you are required to repeat large chunks of the temple. At some point, you get the option to lock in a time to the midpoint, and you can jump there on future trips, taking the same time penalty to get there as your previous run. The level designers did also add in some ‘shortcuts’ which make earlier stages go faster once you have some of the mid-/late-game items, but it didn’t really feel like much of an assist to me.

When one of the most memorable features of a game is memorable only because you were forced to repeatedly do it over and over to progress the main plot thread, that’s probably not a great sign? The sad thing is, the puzzles in the Temple of the Ocean King are pretty good- great even, by PH standards! -but the repetition nearly instantly saps their fun upon your return. I struggle to decide for myself if there is a grain of a neat idea here, and the execution was flawed, or if the whole scheme itself is irredeemable. Supposedly a similar, substantially improved, iteration of this is employed by Spirit Tracks, so I guess we’ll get another chance to answer the question.

Personality Goes a Long Way
Out last section here is an abbreviated love letter to Linebeck. It’s unfortunate that he toils away in obscurity in one of the least-loved entries in the franchise when he is one of the best supporting characters to ever grace the series. The writing in PH gives him a fair amount of physical comedy, which for some reason I never tire of.

…don’t mind me…

Certainly the trope of the lovable scamp side character is nothing new, but Linebeck’s commitment to his bit as the greedy, cowardly opportunist is commendable. Of course he gets a nice arc, where we find his beef with Jolene is really an artifact of his cowardice, but at the pivotal moment he finds his courage to try and stand up to Bellum. Some light narrative tension exists when he is possessed to become the final boss, but we all know our boy’s Plot Armor is way too thick for that, and of course he emerges from the encounter unscathed. Oshus does him a solid and returns his boat, and thus the true hero of this game gets to ride off into the sunset.

I think mainly my Linebeck crush stems from his brazen disdain for Ciela. Not that I have anything in particular against the fairy, but she comes off as a bit of a Mary Sue: mysterious amnesia causes her to forget she is an attendant of Oshus with tremendous power who is important to The Plot. She is always playing the Straight Man to Linebeck’s rapscallion, and Linebeck just isn’t having it. He constantly pushing against her optimism in a pretty relatable way- if instead it caused Ciela to acknowledge some of her own self-doubt, I think that would have been pretty interesting.

Still, Linebeck is written so consistently you can’t help but love him, even when he’s pulling some stunt like faking an injury to get out of helping. I think we give him a pass because the player has no expectation that he will actually help with any puzzles or combat- he’s a sidekick. Unlike Ciela, or most of the fairies for that matter, instead of offering mundane hints about obvious tasks we need to perform, he brings a kind of manic, craven energy to the whole expedition which gives PH a much-needed boost of charm. Take him out of the game, and who’s gonna carry the comedic weight of this thing…? That weird Postman dude?

Winners/Losers
Loser: The Other Fairies (Leaf, Neri). For how important these beings are to the story, they have essentially zero personality. Ciela may be a little obnoxious, but at least she seems like a real character; these two are just accessories to facilitate the game’s mediocre power-up system.

Winner: Niko’s Cutout Stories. These were just absolutely gorgeous. It made me wish the whole game was in this style…

Father of the year, ladies and gentlemen.

Loser: Old Wayfarer. What a total jerk. This guy basically deserts his family to go on a selfish adventure. It messes his son up pretty good to boot. Later Link finds a letter from Old Wayfarer ostensibly intended for his son, apologizing for his actions and trying to explain himself.

This could be a nice beat, except the letter is hidden away in the Old Wayfarer’s secret hideaway, which only adventuring type people would find. Pretty pathetic to pen an apology to your family for abandoning them and then hide it in a cave where they’ll never find it. >:(

Winner: Cobble Kingdom. I really enjoyed the puzzles leading up to the temple here, and there is also some really fun world-building that I wish had been given more room to breathe. Something I missed on my playthrough was that it is implied that Zauz, the swordsmith, is a descendant of this long-lost race, which is such a clever touch. Their character designs are also some of the most unique in all of PH, so it’s a bummer they didn’t have a larger role to play in the narrative. The idea of an ancient civilization with superior architectural and technological prowess mysteriously disappearing is just a really fun conceit to me, especially when fully deployed like we see with BOTW’s ancient Shiekah.

Loser: Biggoron. The ‘quiz’ he gives you felt to me like the pinnacle of triviality in this game. It’s fine that Link needs to chat with all of the Gorons to progress, but to demand instant recall of myriad uninteresting details (ie: how many are inside/outside, how many are adults/children, what they’re looking at, etc.) is uncalled for. It’s not like the character designs or the island itself was so rich and brimming with personality that it would be any fun to go collect all that information; instead the exercise feels like pure filler.

Dudes can’t catch a break.

Winner: Yooks. I was surprised reading the Anouki’s description of the Yooks: “…crazed animals! Those beasts are so crazy…” and “…they’re hairy, crazed weirdos, I tell ya!” Not that I come looking for a lot of tolerance and acceptance in a pretend race of penguin-folks, but the language seemed overly disparaging for what is apparently a sentient race of people capable of diplomatic negotiation?

And then Link, gullible dupe that he is, proceeds to just straight up murder the Yooks because the Anouki say they’re bad. But in the end, it turned out they were just mind-controlled and Link didn’t actually kill anyone and they just amble around their ice field now and are OK? I’m calling that a win, for Inexplicably Becoming Un-Killed.

Final Thoughts
I walk away from PH not really all that enamored with the experience. I’m willing to admit that’s partially due to my personal angle: I have no nostalgia for it (unlike, say, the Oracle series) which probably undercuts its likability in the face of the dated visuals and non-traditional control scheme. Even accounting for that, the underlying concept still feels like a miss. To take the visuals and open sea gameplay directly from WW and try to recreate that using the DS is doomed to invite unfavorable comparisons.

In spite of that, the key items were a lot of fun to play with using the stylus, and the boss fights almost universally made creative use of all the DS had to offer. While I understand the appeal, this one just wasn’t really for me. It might be damning with faint praise, but even a middling Zelda game is still a work of unique quality and vision- PH may be the poster-child for that argument. Unfortunately this pretty good game that just happens to compare unfavorably with most of the other entries in the series.

Up Next
Spirit Tracks (2DS)

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