Phantom Hourglass: Time Well Spent
by on October 20, 2018

Everyone has games they love. A game can have a emotional impact on a player, mark a special moment in their life, or be a source of pride. Whatever the case, certain games can just mean more to one individual than another.

That’s what makes people’s rejection of certain games so interesting to me. It’s the inverse of my previous statement. Something about a game can be especially off-putting. It doesn’t speak to the quality of the game, most of the time, but our personal opinions and tastes certainly make it appear as if it does.

This love/hate dynamic is something I see and hear a lot in regards to Phantom Hourglass (PH). PH is one of my absolute favorite Zelda games, so naturally the criticism the game receives is more noticeable to me. Now, I could just let my maturity levels dip a bit and call everyone who doesn’t like the game wrong, but for the sake of truly voicing my opinions (as well as writing a full-length article), I’m going to do my best to explore the supposed major “weak points” of PH and explain how I see them.  I want to share my point of view, and how it is I actually enjoy everything this game offers.

A touchy subject

Probably the second-most talked about point of debate, the controls of PH are far from conventional, in sense that they are not conventional at all. The touchscreen is used for the vast majority of player inputs, from moving Link, to using items to the sailing of the S.S. Linebeck. Nintendo tends to try and beat us over the head with whatever innovative mechanics they introduce, and PH was another example of them very loudly saying, “Did you know the bottom screen is a touchscreen?”

The thing is, despite any sense of overbearing, it works for the game. Nintendo at least made sure of that. PH is designed from the ground up to be played with the touchscreen, and more importantly, to be thought about as a game that uses the touch screen.

How exactly? I’m glad I’m pretending you asked. First, the controls work because any thought-out new experience is a welcomed experience. That’s how I can enjoy a game like PH or Skyward Sword, but dislike a game like Tri Force Heroes (TFH). The controls in the first two game take some getting used to, but they clearly have good design principles behind them.

Without going into much detail, I believe TFH’s single-player campaign is a good example of something being executed poorly in a Zelda game. Switching between characters is awkward, and the design of most levels do not accommodate just one player. In my opinion they should have spent more time on developing the one-player mode, or made the game multiplayer-only. The game felt rushed, and thus didn’t make good on its own design.

Second, this new control scheme allows for the refreshing new use of items. When you really think about it, items and weapons in most Zelda games are fairly straightforward and simple to use. Select the bow, shoot the single target and move on. In PH there is an instance where you stand on a floating platform that moves around above a bottomless pit. In this room there are also various switches that must be shot with arrows. This is done by tracking and taking aim with the stylus, and quickly firing as you pass the targets. Use of a touchscreen makes the added depth to the standard bow shooting more engaging and more entertaining. Touchscreens are fun. How many of you are reading this on a touchscreen right now? (That’s one point for me.) Items feel more like true puzzle-solving tools, and not often-redundant weapons that work for simpler obstacles.

The final thing I need to mention is how the touch controls influenced future games. The layout is convenient, granting easy access to Link, the items, the menu and the maps. This all has transferred over to many other games, most noticeably to the 3DS and HD remakes. These game were drastically improved with the inclusion of the touchscreen. Playing through the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time 3D is beyond proof enough of this. (That’s another point for me.)

Getting to the bottom of things

The other point I want to cover is the most infamous dungeon in PH and possibly the entirety of the series: The temple of the Ocean King, or ToTOK for short.

Anyone who’s played PH, whether they still play it all the time or only played it once years ago, will never forget the daunting labyrinth. From the get-go, Link has limited time, limited resources and seemingly impervious enemies he must contend with in order to clear each section of the temple. The player has to rely on their wits and carefully navigate figurative and literal pitfalls. I’ll admit, it gets stressful the more the dungeon is explored and the more the timer on the hourglass diminishes. I guess that’s why people get discouraged when they return to the temple later on and realize they have to do everything all over again. Yes, all progress gets reset after each visit, and everything must be redone while also venturing even further down.

Now, at first glance some may be inclined to believe such a task is tedious or even unreasonably stressful. But for me personally, I think it’s great. If you accept it for what it is, rather than simply desiring a closer following of dungeon conventions, you see that the ToTOK challenges us in ways never before seen in a Zelda game.

You start out so weak in every Zelda game, and PH takes the bold approach of forcing you to start out in the most difficult location of the game. You have nothing, not even time as I mentioned earlier, so you must think. You must be clever and crafty. The Phantoms are not to be messed with and must be avoided at all cost.

Stealth missions have been seen in Zelda games before, but typically are simple and brief gimmick points. You might be thinking of the Gerudo Fortress in Ocarina of Time right now as a clear example of me being completely wrong. True, it’s a more fleshed-out and challenging obstacle in the game, but the ToTOK is on a whole other level. The Gerudo Fortress still has the basic premise: get where you need to be while taking out the guards before they spot you. The guards can be knocked out, and there is no time limit. The Gerudo also need to be standing in front of you to spot you, otherwise they are oblivious to Link’s presence.

Phantoms are so much more. They can’t be killed (more or less), will defeat Link in a single blow, will chase him down wherever he goes, and, most importantly, can be alerted to the fact that he’s nearby. Other enemies can give Link’s position away, but the Phantoms can also hear you. Make a loud noise by using a bomb or hitting something with your sword, and any nearby Phantoms will come to investigate. Oh, and certain Phantoms can also teleport. The Phantoms are more than just enemies, they are an event within the game, one the player must endure time and time again.

Also, don’t forget about the timer, and how dealing with everything I just mentioned can turn into a frantic race to the finish. I’ll say it again, I love how this dungeon tries to get me to panic.

All of this is why ToTOK is so different and fun. It forces the player to think and to think differently about everything. It’s an amazing challenge.

Progression is key in ToTOK, and Nintendo gets that part right. The fact that all your progress gets erased after each visit might make you skeptical of that this, but hear me out. With every trip to the temple, Link is returning a little bit stronger. You the player are returning a little bit stronger. It almost gives the feeling of RPG elements in the game. There’s a sense of “leveling up” whenever you use a newly-acquired item to progress further while also moving through previous areas more quickly. Eventually you do obtain a way to kill the Phantoms, and I’m not going to lie, I myself felt all-powerful after killing my first one. After all of the hardships, the tables had finally turned.

This dungeon is the physical representation of everything that develops throughout the game. We see the growth in Link’s own strength, the unraveling of the narrative’s mysteries, and the refinement of our own skills as players. By the time you’ve reached the end, the payoff is immense.

Time for fun

Phantom Hourglass diverts far from the beaten path. Perhaps too much for some, which is fine and I can understand that, but I believe this game is an often-overlooked gem that only asks that more time be given in order to understand it. Adaptation and experimentation are essential for growth. Nintendo always looks for ways to refresh an experience found in Zelda games, which is important. Games would get stale otherwise. Likewise, we as players need to be more open-minded and creative in our playing of a game. Phantom Hourglass is a lesson in this, and is a game I truly believe is worth the effort.

Zac Pricener
Just your typical Nintendo and Legend of Zelda fanatic.