2007 was just downwind of Twilight Princess’ debut on both the Nintendo Wii and its older cousin the GameCube, but that didn’t stop the Zelda steamroller from barreling through the year at full strength, for there were several Zelda games still awaiting us down the pike. And for those gamers who were pining for the older Zelda games and missing Ocarina of Time all the more, well, Nintendo was certainly willing to satisfy by giving them a game that was truly reminiscent of the older days of Zelda.
Enter Phantom Hourglass on the already successful Nintendo DS.
Back to the high seas
Phantom Hourglass was an interesting sort of game in many respects. It had an overhead perspective very akin to that of Link’s Awakening DX on the Game Boy Color with bright colors and the occasional town. However, with this release Nintendo finally eschewed using sprite-based graphics that were, up until this point, the norm on portable devices and decided to render the upper screen (where you controlled Link) in three dimensions, making it the first 2.5D Zelda game in existence. Perhaps after suffering huge criticism of the control style for Super Mario 64 DS and its clumsy and awkward ability to fully control your character in 3D without the addition of a thumb stick, Nintendo decided to play it safe with Phantom Hourglass and keep the controls somewhat simpler by using only the 2D perspective.
Yet as if to show off the DS’ unique hardware, Nintendo added the ability to control Link (and his items!) via the touch screen. One of the more obvious uses of the touch panel was an inspiration from Wind Waker’s boomerang, which was the first time the boomerang could target multiple objects in order before returning to Link’s hand. In the DS title, players would, instead of simply aiming the boomerang and tossing it straight ahead (as was the case in A Link to the Past and Four Swords Adventures), use their stylus to draw a path originating from Link that could circle around corners and fly through complex circuits in one toss. Link was also no stranger to stylus controls himself, and the game allowed you the option of controlling him by stylus instead of the D-pad; doing so would cause Link to run towards the location of the stylus on screen. However, the implementation was at times clumsy; using the stylus to make Link roll on the ground required the player to draw little circles on the screen while coaxing Link in a given direction. This proved to be rather difficult, and ultimately Nintendo would change this to a double tap in the later DS title Spirit Tracks.
Outside of the islands, however, the graphics of the game changed from that of 2.5D to full 3D as Link took the helm of a ship and sailed from location to location. As if in defiance of the common complaint about Wind Waker’s sailing being tedious, Nintendo seemed adamant to prove gamers wrong by reprising sailing, albeit using different controls. Instead of using the Wind Waker to point the wind and requiring you to manually steer turn by turn, Nintendo had players draw out paths from place to place on the overworld map using the touch screen. Link’s ship would then follow that course — no matter how convoluted — as best as he was able. Because navigation was on autopilot from that point forward, players were free to take in the sights as they sailed by… and take on the new obstacles and challenges that attempted to thwart their journey. Flying enemies would harass the ship — which had its own “heart meter” — while seafolk would raise nets to catch the ship, requiring the player to make the ship jump over them. All in all, it was a decent concept, and really did help to give sailing the needed activity level to make it, well, not horrifically boring.
The dungeons were more or less given their own unique flair, though the inspiration of them actually harkens back to the original Legend of Zelda game itself. Many of the tropes used to pass through dungeons come from the original, and often it’s just a matter of defeating all the enemies or moving a single block in the room to unlock the next door or reveal a key. However, Phantom Hourglass did its own thing in some ways too. There were no real transitions from room to room on a single floor; in fact, each floor of the dungeon seemed to feel like one gigantic room that begged exploration all at once. Sometimes entire floors would be puzzles unto themselves, and this was especially prevalent in the Temple of the Ocean King, but more about that in just a moment.
Something that was NOT new, though, was the puzzle design in this new Zelda game. While many of the puzzle mechanics in Phantom Hourglass were brand new to the Zelda series, most if not all of the puzzles for this game were actually copied and pasted straight from another Nintendo title Trace Memory. Certain puzzles that the player had to perform were direct rip-offs and lead me to suspect that many of the programmers or designers on the two projects were one and the same (or at least copied notes from one another). It brought back the requirement of using the microphone to destroy Pols Voices (oddly enough bombs weren’t loud enough to kill them, something that stumped me for ages). One puzzle required you to trace symbols on the touch screen. And then there was even one that required the player to, no joke, close the DS (sending it into sleep mode) and then open it back up. It seemed like every possible hardware gimmick that could be employed by the DS’ hardware was in there, and the last of those was the most telling because Trace Memory contained a puzzle that required the very same gimmick. However, unlike Trace Memory, Phantom Hourglass at least gave you ample hints on what the proper solution was given how illogical and arcane the sleep-mode activation puzzle truly is.
It seemed like every possible gimmick that could be employed by the Nintendo DS’ hardware was in the game.
The story of the game, though almost nowhere to be found, still does weakly exist. Tetra and Link, while exploring some ghost ship on the high seas, are suddenly attacked. Tetra is snatched away and disappears from sight, and as Link attempts to follow her into the void, somehow he gets flung overboard and ends up adrift in the ocean. Later on, when going back to search through the ghost ship and slaying the four Cubus Sisters, Link finds Tetra, but she has been turned to stone, and Link learns about Bellum, a squid-demon trying to consume Tetra’s Life Force for some nefarious purpose. This forces Link to find three pure metals to form the Phantom Sword to chase him down. The whole plot screams of the Zelda Formula down to the last dungeon, with Link chasing after MacGuffins to save the girl.
What wasn’t formulaic however was the addition of one of the most well-known characters from the series: Captain Linebeck, and it’s him that single-handedly saves Phantom Hourglass from being utterly forgettable. Linebeck, who becomes Link’s captain and “caretaker,” recruits Link to helm his ship wherever he pleases so that Linebeck, upon arrival can hunt for treasure to his heart’s content. Yet Linebeck is hardly a simple, one-dimensional character; he is also equal parts cowardly yet overconfident and chauvinistic, lazy yet thrill-seeker, full of bravado yet incredibly wimpy. He comically boasts that, “On a typical day, [he] blaze[s] through one or two temples… before breakfast!” yet shrivels in fear up the moment he spots the pirate Jolene from the crow’s nest. If nothing else, Linebeck is an eccentric character that provides both comic relief and plot device all in one, and it’s hard to not like him for all of the sweet complications of his personality.
Yet beyond Linebeck, the only memorable components of Phantom Hourglass really swing to the negative side. The most well-known negative was the Temple of the Ocean King, a dungeon that brought together the unholy trinity of time limits, indestructible guards, and repeat playthroughs. The dungeon has a massive 14 floors, but extra floors to the dungeon are only added three at a time as Link levels up not only his arsenal (which allow him to take shortcuts later on) but also the titular Phantom Hourglass, the plot device that enforces the time limit on the dungeon. Though the timer does not count down while standing on the safe zones (which also make Link invisible to the guards), you’re usually standing on the zones solely to stop and plan your next move.
The concept of the time limit was grossly unpopular at first back in Majora’s Mask when players, through the Inverted Song of Time, had three wall-clock hours with which to navigate each dungeon’s labyrinth and defeat the boss, and failure meant doing it all over. While the maximum time limit in Phantom Hourglass was only 25 minutes (plus safe zone planning), a theoretical point in its favor since failure would mean that less time was wasted in the process, players ran up against the time limit much more frequently than Majora’s Mask and also grew more frustrated with a dungeon that they had already played several times prior. While a recurring dungeon would still be used in Spirit Tracks, it eventually was fixed up so as not to produce this same grief in gamers.
The other negative reaction was the introduction of new races into Phantom Hourglass. Despite the fact that the game was a direct sequel to Wind Waker, the Rito — perhaps one of the most well-loved races in the game — were surprisingly absent; Gorons, on the other hand, who were extremely rare in Wind Waker, had their own civilization, and Link of course would talk nicely to them as he passed through to the dungeon. For me, I’m very much not a fan of Gorons, and so getting to see only this race reprise without the Rito wasn’t my favorite design choice. Adding insult to injury however was the addition of two new races, the benevolent Anouki and the hostile Yook. The former… well, I really have no idea what they’re supposed to be. If Gorons are rock-people, Zora are fish-people, and Rito are bird-people, then the Anouki are… penguin-reindeer-people? They just didn’t seem to be all that exciting, especially since their only useful skill seemed to be being beaten up by the Yook, which were basically Yetis or abominable snowmen. Either way, either way, not a memorable addition.
If Gorons are rock-people, Zora are fish-people, and Rito are bird-people, then the Anouki are… penguin-reindeer-people?
Link enjoys some minigames
Last but not least, Phantom Hourglass was the first Zelda title to give Zelda fanatics the first crack at online multiplayer. Supporting both local wireless and online play, the multiplayer mode essentially paired you up one-on-one with someone else as the two of you played a variant of childhood game “keep away”. Link would be controlled by one of the players, and his goal was to pick up Force Gems and haul them over to his central base; the other would control a trio of Phantom Guardians who would chase after Link in an attempt to either kill him or make it otherwise impossible to transport the gems.
Just like the Temple of the Ocean King, the Phantom Guardians couldn’t see Link when he stood on the safe zones; what made the mode more difficult for the Phantom Guardians was that his movements were drawn on the screen using the stylus instead of using the D-pad. Ultimately the game felt very weighted in favor of Link, but given that both players would get play each side three times in a match, it all worked out. I played multiplayer a few times when the game came out, but eventually, due to not having too many people to play with, I ultimately forgot about it and moved onto other things.
Switching gears, the Wii would see another Zelda title as well this year, though it certainly wasn’t a full-fledged Zelda release. With the introduction of the Wii Zapper came Link’s Crossbow Training, a budget title that came for free with the Zapper. Bundling a Zelda title with the Zapper had to be an incredibly smart move for Nintendo because I really don’t know if they could have sold the Zapper peripheral any other way given that I cannot recall there being any other game for the Wii that I actually used (or even needed!) the Zapper for. (Though technically, I suppose no game really REQUIRED gamers to use a cheap piece of plastic. Wii Wheel, anyone?)
The game was an inspiration from the Hidden Village subplot in Twilight Princess where you go around ambushing archers from behind while sniping enemies from afar with the bow and arrow. The game took you to several locations about Twilight Princess’s version of Hyrule and forced you to go through several challenges as Link wielding an automatic crossbow. Sometimes it was simply target practice; sometimes Link became mobile and had to navigate a miniature cave in order to kill a certain number of enemies within a fixed time period; sometimes you were ambushed by enemies all around, and you had to defend yourself for as long as possible. The game rewarded accuracy by increasing the multiplier of your score with each consecutive hit, but missing or hitting a “friendly” target would reduce your multiplier back to one.
Link’s Crossbow Training was actually legitimately fun, and I had a blast trying to outscore my friends and, ultimately, outscore myself as my skill with the game increased. And as someone who was incredibly fond of Twilight Princess, it allowed me to re-enter the world of Hyrule that I loved and experience it from a fresh, new perspective. However, being that it was a budget title without any sense of story or longevity other than striving for the high score, it was a game that players would likely get bored with quickly before moving to something else. Yet for the cheap cost of $20 (at least here in the US), it was worth a look at, even if I felt subconsciously swindled by the fact that I paid $20 for a cheap piece of plastic to display my Nunchuck and Wiimote in.
Link’s Crossbow Training was legitimately fun, even if I felt subconsciously swindled by the fact that I paid $20 for a cheap piece of plastic to display my Nunchuck and Wiimote in.
Seeing the world through rose-colored rupees
However, if Phantom Hourglass and Link’s Crossbow Training were largely forgettable, there was a different game that was… well, not unforgettable. And that would be the first game in the Zelda spinoff series Freshly-Picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland. (See? That title alone is unforgettable!) Though it came out in Japan back in 2006, it would finally hit Europe in 2007 as well. However, as Nintendo of Europe was preparing for the launch of Tingle’s debut as the star of his own game, Nintendo of America, after really mulling on it, would announce that they had no intention of bringing Rupeeland to North America. In the Zelda community, this decision, as is with all things Nintendo does, was a bit controversial as the argument basically boiled down to what it meant to be a “true Zelda fan.” “True Zelda fans” would play every Zelda game no matter how good or bad they were, argued one side, while the other would posit that it wasn’t necessarily a Zelda game just because it happened to have a single character that happened to also appear in a Zelda game. Nevertheless, since the Nintendo DS didn’t have region locking on it (unlike today’s 3DS and all of Nintendo’s console systems), many people who argued that all Zelda fans should play every Zelda game were offered the opportunity to import the game Stateside…
… To the tune of $50 plus shipping. Now our Australian friends will probably laugh that we’d complain over this cost since their portable titles have habitually sold for much more, but in those days DS titles were still selling for $30. (It would not be until the re-release of Chrono Trigger on the DS in 2008 that would usher in the age of $35 DS titles… and then $40 with the 3DS!) This was an expensive proposition, and most American gamers would balk at it (especially since it was, well, a TINGLE game), but a few decided to go ahead and buy the game at £30 plus shipping for the import.
And once we got the game, well, it was plain to see why Nintendo of America decided not to release the game.
The gameplay involved Tingle trying to find his way to Rupeeland at the beckoning of Old Man Rupee, who promised how totally awesome and dope it was. Tingle and his occasional bodyguards-for-hire would venture out into the world and defeat enemies, each of whom would do damage to you in terms of rupees, behind a big smoke cloud that masked the scuffle not unlike a 1950s cartoon. Winning the fight would often yield rupees in addition to rare items, which could then be converted into other rare craft items, which could then be sold for more rupees than the sum of the rare items put together. As you travel along, people will try to sell you ingredients and recipes, health fill-ups and secret information, and ultimately the game progresses by helping people out and earning more rupees so you can jump off of the super duper Rupee tower (no, that’s not the real name) that sprang up next to your house so you can balloon your way to further-flung locations.
As for why the game wasn’t brought here? Well, there were two biggies. The first was that the game was frustratingly unplayably difficult. The game makes it very clear that running out of rupees meant, very simply, that you died. And so it was very easy to be stingy with your own rupees. The thing was that doing that could just as equally lead to your downfall. Many of the game’s NPCs would attempt to sell you information or items; the thing was that you, as Tingle, were required to name your price on the items, much like some of the characters would do in the original Legend of Zelda. You would reasonably suspect that any offer below the magical minimum offer number would be rejected, and anything above that would be accepted, right? Well there was a twist.
Imagine I were this shopkeeper, and I had an item that I’d sell you for… oh… 1000 rupees. Now you have to guess what that magical number might be and try to not pay too much more than that. So let’s say you offered me 600 rupees; I take those rupees, count them out, and keep them. And then I proudly say, “Nuh uh, not going to talk yet.” Now the logical person would assume that the player would only have to pay me 400 more rupees to cause me to sell. And the answer is… NO. I still require you to pay me 1000 (or more) rupees in a SINGLE, LUMP-SUM PAYMENT to sell the item. So depending upon how stingy you were trying to be, you could waste sums of 600, 700, 800, 900, and 1000 rupees trying to pay as little as possible when, ironically, you could have paid double what I wanted and ultimately paid less. The hitch was that the relative cost and worth of items has absolutely no correlation with one another; it was ultimately completely arbitrary. The only way to make the game reasonably playable (at least for an impatient gamer who wasn’t fond of resetting the system every twelve seconds) was to find a strategy guide online, and it was unsurprisingly rare to find them as sales in the EU and America weren’t especially strong.
Once you managed to find your strategy guide, the game went from being impossible to play to… being just plain bizarre and weird, which turned out to be the second reason it wasn’t brought to the Americas: Japanese tropes and content issues. If a player wouldn’t be dissuaded by the fact that pretty much every other player in the game was a complete and utter jerk and wanted nothing more than to take every last rupee of yours (and remember, that means death!), certainly one might have been creeped out by the fact that the game really was tailored to Japanese interests. Several of you might know of the comedian and street performer Hard Gay; well, he makes not one, not two, but three separate appearances in the game as construction workers straight out of the Village People. (This is NOT a joke). Of course, he asks you for rupees to build bridges in the same manner above so that, once you jumped off of your tower and floated to new lands, you can actually get back. Allowing him to complete the bridge will ultimately result in his happiness and a few pelvic thrusts before he wanders away to the next bridge that requires building.
Once you had a strategy guide the game went from being impossible to play to just plain bizarre and weird.
And if that weren’t enough, Nintendo of America would have EASILY balked at the fact that there’s a sex scene in the game. Yes, there’s a “Zelda game” out there with a sex scene in it. Now let me say that there’s nothing explicit, and you really don’t see anything. Tingle’s big red balloon inflates up nice and large to cover up pretty much… everything going on. But hearing Tingle elicit cries and moans of passion (which, incidentally, are the same sound effects Tingle uses throughout the game!) is going to get the rejection stamp from NoA no matter how you try to cover it up. I’m not going to dare link to it here, but if your curiosity is morbid enough, do a YouTube search for the secret ending of Rupeeland and prepare to gouge your eyes out.
Okay, with all of the frustrating and weird stuff out, are there redeeming points to the game? Actually, yes there are. Because, really, the game wasn’t terrible. The dungeons were actually legitimately fun and actually feel like Legend of Zelda dungeons in their own right even if the combat is unlike most Zelda games. There’s lots of fighting baddies, lots of switch pressing, and lots of devious little puzzles as you progress from room to room. And as you explore each place, you definitely feel as if you get to make progress as you learn where to get which items and how to defeat enemies and gain rupees. With a strategy guide at your beck and call, the game is compelling to some small degree, which is very odd; looking back, I really don’t know WHY I played the game until its conclusion. Though I can say that, to my nerd credit, beating that game adds a precious feather into my hat in claiming that I’m a “true Zelda fan,” whatever that actually means.
April fooling around
Last, but not least, 2007 began the year when big video game media sites (that is, beyond all the Zelda fan sites in our little community) began to start pranking Zelda fans on April Fool’s Day. The first one was brought to us by WiiTV who decided to tease us with a secret, future look at the next Zelda game to be released for the Wii. The game was allegedly going to shed its fantasy setting and theme and go for something much more science fiction by having guns, blasters, flying cars, and apocalyptic landscapes. Though the land was still supposed to be called Hyrule, things would be inherently different. Instead of having a horse named Epona, Link would be some goth-tripped urbanite riding a motorcycle that he called Epona. Essentially their goal was to say that “everything that you’ve thought you knew or come to know is changing 180° to something that you never expected [and] never thought you’d see.”
And for a moment, every Zelda fan looked on in horror as the familiar setting of forest glades and stretching fields, cerulean lakes and sandy deserts vanished and became the theme of every post-apocalyptic FPS title on the market. I even thought to myself when I saw this in 2007, “What in the world is Zelda becoming?!” Yet oddly enough, the whole thing proved an easily recognizable fake because their trailer was really essentially Google Image Search: The Game: The Trailer: The Reckoning. The whole thing was clever with calculated pans over supposed concept art that was just an aggregation of a few choice fan art pieces of Link (sometimes Fierce Deity Link, to give him a darker feel) and science fiction settings from other sci-fi universes. I remember seeing one piece of artwork deep into the video that I recognized from somewhere else, and that suspension of disbelief was shattered in a heartbeat. Still, many gamers were horrified and ready to throw their controllers on the ground in protest as a result.
But if you thought that was a good April Fool’s joke, you should stick around, for tomorrow in 2008, we’re going to cover what could be the coup de grâce of all Zelda April Fool’s jokes. Stay tuned.