Phantom Hourglass is, without a doubt, a wonderful game that pushes the limits of what the DS system is capable of (a system that I believed needed a push). Therefore, before anybody mentions that I did take three months to clear this game, note that I cannot complain about the first half of it at all, which took me only about a week.

For those of you who haven’t yet picked up the game but already know the gist: Link, after adventuring off with Tetra, runs into some funny-looking ship and Tetra, being brave and somewhat idiotic, leaps aboard only to be captured (ironically immediately after telling Link that she could have saved herself back in The Wind Waker). Link tries to leap onto the strange ship to rescue her, but falls in the sea and wakes up without any of his previous equipment from The Wind Waker, where he enlists the help of a Navi-like fairy named Ciela who has no memories and her keeper, an old man named Oshus.

My first question, almost instinctively, is “Where are the other pirates?” Unfortunately, you don’t learn the answer to this until the very end of the game, which is quite daunting because you never really know where you are. You assume you’re on the Great Sea. So we can be in to two possible situations:

  • First case scenario: You are so lost that you cannot be found, which is quite odd considering you can so easily discover the Ghost Ship’s whereabouts.
  • Second case scenario: The bunches of pirates who tagged along with you suddenly decided that Tetra and Link are a lost cause and abandoned themselves from the game, leaving you utterly alone, and still lost.

Luckily, being lost isn’t Link’s only problem. Nintendo was smart enough to dispose of the Master Sword in The Wind Waker, which means that there’s an entirely new plot device for this game: The Phantom Sword. Aside from its creative name it is, of course, the only weapon that can defeat Bellum, an ultimate-evil figure only revealed to Link after he has put his life in mortal danger halfway through the game. Granted, it follows the Zelda formula perfectly, but I get the feeling that it’s become a bit watered down, and that’s not just because the entire game is a vast ocean.

The first half of the game was an incredible experience filled with smiles. I finished it quickly and with never-ending joy, and dealt with the dungeon crawling as it came. I’m a huge fan of The Wind Waker, so playing its sister game is simply a magical experience for me. That said, despite anything I may negatively state about Phantom Hourglass (which will be quite a bit), I deeply love the game and feel that the experience is still somewhat magical, at least during the first half when the game’s resemblance to The Wind Waker on a device as weakly powered as the DS is still a sight to see. So, before I move on I will state that The Wind Waker is the only reason I came to ZU initially and all other Zelda games followed thereafter, because The Wind Waker was such an incredible experience.

Thus, hearing some of the same Wind Waker music play in-game during Phantom Hourglass made me squeal with joy. But I can’t help but feel that the developers got lazy after the first three song ports, because after the first few scenes the game only plays about three more songs: The town theme, the normal enemy-ridden island theme, and the sailing theme. While the sailing theme is clearly a beauty, everything else stinks like the festering remains of a compost heap. After reading IGN’s review that the game’s music was splendid and that I should “wear headphones” while playing the game, I’ll admit that by the first dungeon I only wore the headphones to satisfy the sanctity of aloneness in enjoying the Wind Waker sequel experience and not, in fact, to enjoy Phantom Hourglass’s music. New tunes are about as rare as the pure metals themselves.

But all of this is trifle compared to the granddaddy of all wonderful ideas: The Temple of the Ocean King, which pokes its ugly head into the player’s experience from square one, but never unleashes its true fury until Link must retrieve the last two Sea Charts. If anybody complained about sailing in The Wind Waker, which I did not and in fact found it to be a very enjoyable experience, fun to control and very freeform, then I could only guess that the most complained-about part of Phantom Hourglass is The Temple of the Ocean King. Like Yahtzee for Zero Punctuation (for our older readers out there), I became frustrated going down this bottomless tomb of action-packed stealth mode by about the sixth time, especially since I had gotten the midpoint portal and had bothered to go through those long floors below to get the third Sea Chart.

I don’t think the game makes it clear enough that your mission is to retrieve two sea charts, for this fact completely passed over my brother and I, and both of us ended up back in The Temple of the Ocean King once again to go through those same floors and get the Sea Chart we had failed to pick up before.

This, you see, is where the game got put down, and all through November and half of December I told myself, “Today’s the day I’m going to get that darned Sea Chart,” but I couldn’t do it. The Temple of the Ocean King is very easy, but it’s also very slow, and twice as boring. I would have never picked up the game again if my little brother (henceforth Max) decided to get me the last sea chart. I had tried several times to have fun while getting it, but during those tries I ended up leaving my DS shut and on overnight, not wanting to actually finish the puzzles then and believing my battery would last long enough for me to procrastinate. The batteries, of course, died, and I had to repeat the process. And after four or five times letting this happen, I admitted that I was not going to bother with the Temple and I begged my brother, who enjoyed the Temple more than I, to bring good ol’ Link to the Sea Chart for me.

It’s not that The Temple of the Ocean King is the worst thing in the world, it’s that the entire game is designed like a dungeon crawler and less like a Zelda game, and that the stealth mode of the Temple stands in such high contrast to the constant action that the rest of the game offers and looks awkwardly out of place. The game feels, overall, rushed and compacted. With only five or so rotating songs throughout the game, it never feels like the player has gone anywhere. Furthermore the sailing, which I thought was fun and freeform in the past, becomes a monotonous “draw a line and wait” saga. The enemies are clearly only there to keep the player attached to the game while Linebeck’s ship makes its merry way across the seas, for without them we’d all be walking away from our consoles and having a hearty breakfast in the meantime. Although it’s quicker, it really makes exploring drab unlike it was in The Wind Waker. Lastly, while it’s a very small gripe, everybody likes to believe that Link is in a sailboat for some reason, although it’s clearly a steamboat.

A genre? Naw.

What also perplexed me was the obvious lengthening of dungeons by increasing the number of puzzles on the surrounding island(s). It always seems like the puzzles completed outside of the dungeon are far more difficult compared to the actual dungeon puzzles themselves, making the dungeons seem either rather useless or just very long and mundane. Although the puzzles get creative and interesting near the end of the game, it never quite makes up for the fact that Link spends nearly all of the game in some winding, twisting enemy-infested maze. Does he ever get a break? Only, really, to read mail, and then it’s off to another dungeon. It becomes dungeon after dungeon after dungeon, which is indeed the Zelda formula, but the dungeons are so close in proximity with one another and the player has hardly any interaction with the towns (if there are any) that it leans away from the Zelda formula and enters into the dungeon crawler realm, where it hangs in the middle like some foster child confused about who his real mother is.

The ending is my final gripe. Up until that point the game had made perfect sense, and I was accepting that the plot followed a general Zelda formula with some whipped cream on top and wasn’t going to change by this far into the game. I suppose it would be like trying to put a proper plot in a Mario game; it’s not the plot anybody is really looking for when they play Mario, and like Mario the Zelda plotlines are all rather the same, so it felt awkward when out of nowhere came this “other world” nonsense shoved in my face right before the ending. I felt like I had just played Link’s Awakening (the first thing I said when I saw the Ocean King’s true form was “wind fish!”), only this time I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Then in a flash of fog everybody is gone and you’re back where you started, as if the game only wanted to confuse me more and make me wonder if anything I just did was worth anything at all. On top of that, the pirates who had never bothered to look for you decide to find you, and say that you’ve only been gone for ten minutes – short enough to completely void all of Link’s adventures and make Tetra mad enough to strangle and shake the nearest pirate for making no sense at all, similar to what I thought about doing to my DS at this time. To make matters more complicated, one of the pirates suggests that it may have been a dream.

But no matter, for Link pulls out the Phantom Hourglass – somehow separated from the Phantom Sword, perplexity number one, and somehow completely empty, perplexity number two. I don’t think anybody will ever understand why the Ocean King would send half of what is the only device that can defeat evil to another dimension, but I also assume that when another big evil shows up Oshus will get what’s coming to him and wish he hadn’t given away the Hourglass and sent it to some far off world. The game ends with its pretty credits while the player is left in a sort-of plotline purgatory, if you will, wondering what the heck this “other world” is/was.

The control scheme, however, is a shining jewel in the midst of all this nonsense. If anything is absolutely superb in Phantom hourglass, it is the control scheme. Link moves easily and every stroke feels natural. Drawing on the map is fun, albeit everything that needs to be drawn is rather dictated to you by the funny-looking Gossip Stones. The game feels easy in that sense, but it never detracts from the joy the player receives from pulling levers and slashing the sword (and later shooting laser beams from it).

Absolutely Ship-tastic

Although it’s not game-centric, I must talk about ship parts, because that seems to be where all the fun is in Phantom Hourglass. Although I’ve never found merit in running around collecting items that aren’t at the end of a dungeon, ship parts are fun and easy to get, and fun and easy to trade.

Tag mode trading sounds like a good idea in practice. You put your goodies in a box, close your DS and be merrily on your way and out of nowhere will come somebody willing to trade with you. But, as usual, reality likes to ruin our fun: you’ll never actually find anybody else who is in tag mode walking down the street.

It is, and I can say this because Max has proven it, possible to get all of the ship parts entirely on your own if you play the game day-in and day-out, reset your clocks and switch the dates on your DS, and make the system itself eventually implode. It’s great fun, even though it’s incredibly time-consuming and the only thing the player can get out of collecting the elusive Golden Ship Parts is one extra heart on his or her ship (eight instead of seven) and a clear look at what the word “tacky” really means (see the gold-dipped iPhone, or anything else dipped in gold for that matter). How such a weak metal can fare at sea where an iron-clad battleship cannot is beyond me, but it doesn’t damage the excitement of hunting for ship parts. Also, when The Temple of the Ocean King finally gets fun and you can kill those darned Phantoms, there is a ship part waiting for you once you kill them all (a fitting reward for sweet revenge).

However, since I don’t have an addictive personality like Max does, I’ll probably be asking people if they’d like to trade with me. I “bought” a Golden Chimney with my Freebie Card – the only useful thing Beedle ever gave a customer. When the Compliment Card makes its return it seems more nostalgic than anything else, and I don’t have a problem with it since it came after the Freebie Card, and not before.

All-in-all, Phantom Hourglass is enjoyable and almost as magical as The Wind Waker – at least the first half. Once the player really begins traversing The Temple of the Ocean King time and time again he or she might realize that Nintendo spent more energy deriving a way to drag out the game’s length this time than when they created the Triforce shard hunt in The Wind Waker. It remains cleverly disguised for only a short time – perhaps the developers should think of an even more clever way to drag out the length of a game as short as Phantom Hourglass. Perhaps they could concoct more inventive boss battles, which were usually fun but always incredibly short and easy to defeat. Either way, it’s become clear that finding a way to stall for time during game play is not fun, and that wonderful games never come from the practice.

I suppose one could argue that the Temple is more plot-centric than any other method the developers could have used to lengthen the game, but stealth and Zelda still don’t mix nicely. It would have been the icing on the cake if Nintendo hadn’t deviated and tried to include stealth in only part of a Zelda game, and dungeon crawling throughout the rest. It ends up creating a game that looks beautiful and plays wonderfully while the game is fresh and the player is ignorant, but once the player wises up The Temple of the Ocean King becomes frustrating and the game incredibly repetitive. The controls may be innovative, but more could have surely been done with Phantom Hourglass beyond that and the pretty visuals. But perhaps now it is time to say that The Wind Waker saga is finally over and done with, and although I loved Wind Waker more than any other man, I can say that I’m happy to see that section of Zelda history go out the way it did with Phantom Hourglass. Timeline theorists may now dismiss my statements that Zelda plots are repetitive.