Revisiting The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
Few franchises committed to the central premise of the Nintendo DS as intensely as The Legend of Zelda. Where even Mario’s flagship DS titles made sure to feature traditional control schemes, Phantom Hourglass sought to be a game that could only be made for the DS. Eventually, at least. Development actually began as a sequel to Four Swords Adventures that utilized a mixture of traditional controls with touch inputs. Inspired by the potential the DS’ Touch Screen offered, however, producer Eiji Aonuma suggested that the team abandon a standard control scheme entirely. The stylus was deemed more than enough to guide the game’s direction, and what would have been a Four Swords on dual screens became The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass.
While buttons weren’t phased out entirely (L opens the Menu bar, R opens the Item bar, and Start pauses the game,) Link is controlled exclusively with the Stylus. The DS’ Top Screen shows the in-game map while gameplay occurs on the bottom Touch Screen. Link is positioned directly in the center of the screen so your hand doesn’t obstruct his avatar during gameplay, and he follows whatever direction the Stylus is pointed in. The closer the Stylus is to Link, the slower he’ll move. Conversely, directing Link from afar causes him to break into a sprint.
Rolling can be done by drawing little circles at the edge of the screen while running, Link will pick up objects simply by tapping them, and seamlessly pull or push blocks by just touching them. Touch controls ostensibly replace context-sensitive actions, allowing players to do virtually anything with their base controls. This is seen to its fullest with swordplay. Cutting across the screen causes Link to slash his sword, tapping enemies outright launches him into a stab, and drawing a full circle triggers the ever-reliable Spin Attack. It’s surprising just how well Link’s controls translate to touch.
Items play even better than the sword, while also playing off buttons. R opens up the Item menu (which doesn’t pause gameplay this time around,) allowing players to quickly tap an item to equip. Although Link’s item loadout is very limited compared to previous titles, this allows for quicker item management. What items that are present make great use of touch controls. You can draw a set path for the Boomerang with the Stylus; the Bow & Arrow now has dead accurate aiming thanks to the Touch Screen; and Bombchus allows you to draw their path like an RC car.
On that note, Phantom Hourglass makes extensive use of drawing. Link no longer needs to find dungeon maps. Instead, every single room in the game has a detailed map that players can draw and take notes on. Note taking becomes a handy tool inside of dungeons and on the overworld, allowing you to cross-reference information you otherwise might have forgotten. A few puzzles also require players to draw symbols in a single stroke – from the Triforce to the titular Phantom Hourglass. Drawing even plays a key role in the final boss fight.
For as gracefully as Phantom Hourglass approaches touch controls, the same can’t be said for the game’s other DS oddities. There are times where PH feels more like a tech demo than a proper Zelda. Folding the DS to press an imprint onto a map or blowing into the microphone to call out to NPCs stand out as clever uses of the hardware, but it’s all too superficial to feel like anything other than a gimmick.
Despite being a 2D Zelda at its core, Phantom Hourglass uses visual tricks to feign depth. Several boss fights feature rotating rooms which lend the impression of 3D while replacing the top screen’s map to convey other information. Crayk turns invisible but his point of view can be watched on the top screen, allowing players to watch & position themselves when the boss spots them. Eox is a giant stone golem whose body has to be hit from all sides, top to bottom, requiring Link to use the Hammer to launch himself into the air. The battle against Bellum likewise features a spiral staircase that starts at the bottom screen and scales naturally to the top.
Unlike the microphone or physically closing the DS, the use of dual screens often bolsters gameplay. Some of the best set pieces wouldn’t be possible on a single screen. In terms of visuals, Phantom Hourglass presents itself well overall. Character models are expressive and designed in the spirit of The Wind Waker, an aesthetic that is only fitting given the story’s direct link to TWW. Unfortunately, Phantom Hourglass’ soundtrack does the game no justice. While both Toru Minegishi and Kenta Nagata returned from Wind Waker to compose the music, the final score mostly features derivative remixes of franchise staples that all sound worse across the board.
The worst offenders are ‘In the Dark Dungeon’ – a droning theme that’s used for all eight dungeons in the game & wears out its welcome before the first is over – and ‘At Sea,’ a remix of The Wind Waker’s Great Sea theme which rips all the weight out of the song. What’s especially disappointing is that the new songs actually composed for the DS’ sound chip are at least memorable. Bellum has an imposing leitmotif with great battle tracks, and Linebeck (one of Link’s partners this time around) has one of the catchiest themes in the series.
It’s fitting that ‘At Sea’ is a poor imitation of the Great Sea’s main theme since Phantom Hourglass’ sailing is a poor imitation of The Wind Waker’s. While sailing the Great Sea was a voyage filled with beautiful visuals, an incredible score, and actual boat controls, the World of the Ocean King locks players to comparatively dull auto-sailing. Link isn’t sailing his own ship this around, leaving steer duties to Linebeck. Players instead chart a course on the world map and let their boat handle the rest. Auto-sailing makes sense, granted, but it doesn’t work.
The fact of the matter is that auto-sailing is a clear step back. Perhaps touch controls couldn’t emulate The Wind Waker’s sailing well enough to port it 1:1, but in that case, sailing should have just been abandoned as a mechanic outright. As is, there’s not enough interaction to capture the same feel as sailing The Great Sea, and auto-sailing tries to break up the monotony with busywork. Enemies aggroing the ship? Tap some bombs into them. A fence suddenly popped out from the ocean floor? Jump over it.
Salvaging treasure makes a return from The Wind Waker, but now has a mini-game associated with it. You actually need to control the Salvage Arm as it descends underwater, making sure not to trip off any Octomines. This is an excellent way of adding an element of skill to treasure hunting, but it has one fatal flaw: damage. Bumping into an Octomine does damage to the Salvage Arm, potentially breaking it. The only way to repair Salvage Arm damage is to sail back to Mercay Island (which players will already be doing quite often due to the Temple of the Ocean King.) Worse, the Salvage Arm’s slippery controls give it a rough difficulty curve that repairing simply doesn’t pair well with.
One area where Phantom Hourglass does correct upon a Wind Waker wrong is in regards to fishing. The Great Sea was a massive ocean with a distinct lack of fishing. In Phantom Hourglass, fish start showing up on the overworld after you obtain the Fishing Rod on Banaan Island. So long as you chart a course by their shadow, Link can toss out his rod and engage in a fishing mini-game. You need to pull back on the line to keep it from snapping, make little circles to reel fish in, and let go when they jump out of the water (playing off mechanics Ocarina of Time’s fishing introduced.)
The only real downside to fishing is the RNG involved. There’s no way of knowing which fish you’ll be reeling on the overworld, and the only way of unlocking the Big Lure and progressing the side quest is to find a Loovar – one of the rarest fish in the game. Most of Phantom Hourglass’ side quests are similarly demanding, but the game actually thrives when it comes to optional content. Sailing itself isn’t very fun, but the Ocean King’s 16 islands all have more than enough goodies to warrant thorough exploration.
Spirit Gems are Phantom Hourglass’ most abundant collectible, but they’re also a fantastic reward for side quests, puzzles, and exploration. There are 60 Spirit Gems in the game, with 20 each all representing one aspect of the Triforce. Power Gems are red, Wisdom Gems are blue, and Courage Gems are green. Once you’ve collected at least 10 Spirit Gems of a single type, they can be exchanged at Spirit Island for a buff. Power Gems make Link’s sword stronger, Wisdom Gems buff defense, and Courage Gems unlock the classic Sword Beam. Only one upgrade can be equipped at a time, ensuring players are never too overpowered.
Adding a layer of personality to sailing are Ship Parts. Unlike the King of Red Lions, players can fully customize the S.S. Linebeck. There are eight full sets to collect outside of the S.S. Linebeck, with each set made up of eight parts. Ship Parts also buff the S.S. Linebeck’s defense. Three parts from the same set add one Heart, Six parts add two Hearts, and a complete set adds three Hearts. Prior to 2013, you could even hop online to trade Ship Parts with other players – an important distinction that plays off the RNG associated with obtaining Ship Parts.
Interestingly, Phantom Hourglass takes a step backwards when it comes to Hearts. Heart Pieces have been replaced with Heart Containers. Link no longer has to gather 4 Pieces (5 in Twilight Princess’ case) to get a new Container. There’s a reason A Link to the Past – the third game in the series – exchanged Heart Containers for Heart Pieces as side quest rewards: they’re better for progression. Getting a new full Heart requires completing multiple side quests, exploring, or just any combination of optional tasks.
A new Heart Container is a reward you build up to, likewise lending the series an RPG-esque quality where Link’s growth can be tracked & paced without the need for a leveling system. To its credit, Phantom Hourglass does get around this by featuring more substantial side quests for Heart Containers, 60 Spirit Gems to collect, Ship Parts, and one of the best Rupee economies in the series. Swapping Pieces for Containers doesn’t feel like a matter of quality over quantity either, since there are so few optional Containers to collect. With seven proper dungeons, there are only six Heart Containers to collect – a pitifully low amount for Zelda.
Dungeons themselves are a bit of a mixed bag. Fully detailed maps are useful for taking notes, but they make exploration far too simple. Most dungeons are also fairly short, to begin with, often taking less than 25 minutes to complete. This is especially strange since the puzzle design values quantity over quality, with virtually every single room featuring some sort of touch puzzle. Phantom Hourglass’ puzzles consistently make the best use of touch controls in the game, but they’re barely brainteasers half the time. With the exception of Goron Temple (which has players swapping control between Link and a young Goron,) the main dungeons are also particularly unmemorable.
The best dungeon in the game is the Temple of the Ocean King – a 13-floor gauntlet that players will chip away at multiple times. Over the course of six visits, Link will get progressively closer to exploring the whole temple. This also has to be done on a timer each visit. The titular Phantom Hourglass ticks down as Link explores the Temple, with only the rare safe zone stopping the clock. Unkillable Phantoms stalk the halls, taking away some of your time every time they attack. You’re expected to stealth your way through the temple, intelligently solving puzzles while saving time and avoiding unnecessary confrontation.
The Temple of the Ocean King is really just alright. There’s not much tension on the early floors, and by the time the difficulty curve starts to pick up, you unlock a halfway point that skips through the first set of floors. Phantom Hourglass paces the visits out extremely poorly, as well. After Link’s visit at the very start of the game, he’s already back after the first dungeon and then again after the second. From there, they have two more dungeons before they’re chucked back into the Temple yet again. It’s too much, too often.
The dungeon is nowhere near as tedious as it could be, but it also takes too long for the Temple of the Ocean King to get interesting. The first few visits are some of the dullest parts of Phantom Hourglass, but gaining new items help make the last two trips very fulfilling. Doubly so when Link finally forges the Phantom Sword and can simply kill the Phantoms that stalk the halls. This does little to mitigate the blander trips up the dungeon, but there is at least some solid pay off for the Temple of the Ocean King.
The same can’t really be said for the story, which strikes out on most fronts. Despite being a direct sequel to The Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass removes Tetra from the plot immediately. Link spends the first half of the game trying to rescue her and the second half trying to unfreeze her after she’s been turned into a statue. The Wind Waker already has problems with Tetra’s agency (notably how she loses most of it when she initially becomes Zelda,) so Phantom Hourglass’ removal is nothing short of disappointing.
Tetra’s replacements aren’t much better, either. Linebeck is a fine partner, but Ciela is downright irritating. A fairy Link befriends at the start of the game (and who actually serves as the player’s cursor,) Ciela is everything fans misremember Navi being. She isn’t helpful, she almost exclusively repeats information you’ve just been told, and her connection with Link is superfluous at best. There’s an attempt at giving Ciela an arc ala Tatl from Majora’s Mask, but it falls flat on its face. So much of Ciela’s dialogue is spent regurgitating information (sometimes for comic relief) that it’s difficult to see her as anything but a nuisance. Ciela is a frustratingly juvenile character, even for Zelda.
Not doing Ciela any favors is Linebeck, a washed-up captain who Link “befriends” at the start of the game. Linebeck is a rude, cowardly man who’s using Link just as much as Link is using him, but he grows over the course of the game. Link’s heroism inspires Linebeck and ancillary dialogue suggests he’s always had a softer side. He’s callous, but he can have good intentions. Even better is that Linebeck isn’t perpetually stuck by Link’s side, allowing his scenes in the story to carry an actual impact, unlike Ciela.
Linebeck’s role ends up having considerable payoff in the finale where – when trying to save Link and Tetra’s life – he gets himself possessed by the main antagonist, Bellum. Without Linebeck’s possession, there’s no real weight to the final boss since there’s no real weight to Bellum. Nowhere near as menacing as Majora nor an existential threat like Koholint’s Nightmares, Bellum is an ancient evil who the Ocean King has tried to keep locked at the bottom of his Temple. Bellum has no discernible characteristics, what threat he poses is unrelatable & ill-defined, and he has no in-game presence before the halfway point. The inciting Ghost Ship feels more like a leftover from an earlier draft than a natural extension of Bellum.
Bellum is interesting, but he has no gravitas. Similarly, the lore surrounding the Oshus the Ocean King is fascinating, but he’s a bland character hurt by having all his main interactions play off Ciela. All this said, Phantom Hourglass is arguably brought down most by its ending. The World of the Ocean King is revealed to have been a parallel world, with Oshus actually a mystical whale like the Wind Fish from Link’s Awakening. Where LA very carefully built up to its ending and carries potent existentialist themes, PH is derivative for the sake of being derivative – failing to understand what made Koholint Island’s impermanence so powerful. It’s a haphazard reference at best and a dumb twist at worst.
Eiji Aonuma considers Phantom Hourglass his favorite Zelda game and it’s not hard to see why from a producer’s perspective. This is an extremely creative game that made use of the DS’ hardware better than any game that came before it. Touch controls are so seamlessly integrated you often forget you’re not attacking or exploring with buttons. PH is basically a miniature Wind Waker, streamlining sailing while featuring even more dungeons and substantial side quests. But auto-sailing is painfully dull, the dungeons are mostly unremarkable, and the story is a massive letdown considering this is a sequel to one of the best written games in the series. Phantom Hourglass is a strong showcase of what the DS is capable of, but The Legend of Zelda functions better as a game – not a tech demo.