The oh so cyclical nature of moving forward, often involves recapturing the past…
In this way, I find myself fascinated with my own transformations within gaming, what attracts me, how I’m motivated etc…One doesn’t pursue the same interest for two decades with out some serious introspection, along side some heavy personal alterations.
Then again, some things never change.
All for the better that some things remain the same. Various video games have built mass empires based on the success of their formula, something I recently mused about in Encyclopedia Muranica. The idea isn’t that games can’t do something differently, it’s just that they can’t turn their back on formula entirely to do so. One series I point out as having the best of all worlds is the Legend of Zelda, with a history that has become so massive and rich, Nintendo recently released the Hyrule Historia. The tome chronicles, in great detail, the in’s out’s and what have you’s of the series, from the inner workings of Hyrule, to behind the scene commentary. The information on hand is quite explicit, and helps to explain the motivations and design ethics of the series as a whole.
In any case, I’m very satisfied that gaming has become renowned enough, so that a book like this can exist, and even make it to the top of the New York Times best sellers list. A good sign, if nothing else, that Zelda fans like to read as well as game.
Wisdom, Power, and Courage rolled into a single package.
I touch upon some of the qualities of the Zelda universe now, as I take another Link to the Past myself, and dig through The Attic to bring you an antique. With my recent efforts in showcasing Theory vs Execution, I brought up my own personal struggle in accepting Phantom Hourglass for the game it was. Not that I ever really embraced the title, but went out of my way to understand why PH went so astray from a series of such consistent quality.
So, in an effort to better detail my complaints in Phantom Hourglass, I now present to you my review of Phantom Hourglass, in it’s originally posted form on gamersinfo.net, from May 21st, 2008.
And now our feature presentation…
The Attic Presents:
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass Review
I LOVE Zelda games. Love, love, love them. A fanboy of Zelda? Sure! But… I think one of the harder things to do is ignore or deny such bias when taking a more critical approach to the material you have grown to love. To me, the Zelda franchise represents one of the cornerstones of the videogame medium, which has introduced, influenced and charmed generations of gamers with its simplistic yet stunningly beautiful gameplay mechanics. Phantom Hourglass has the task of giving Nintendo DS users a taste of what a little Link would be like in touchscreen format, after a waiting period quite familiar to most Zelda players. As DS and Zelda fans have been waiting eagerly to see the next big adventure in Hyrulian (or in this case, Great Sea) lore, does the game merit a “Get out of Jail” free card on the Zelda name alone?
The game starts out confidently enough, or familiar enough at least. After having saved Tetra (Zelda) from Ganondorf and maintaining calm waves on The Great Sea, she and Link continue on their way, mucking around in a boat and doing the pirate thing. There wouldn’t be an adventure if nothing happened, though, and in good fashion, the evil comes in the guise of the mysterious Ghost Ship and ends up enticing Tetra to come on over, leaving Link in the wake of a huge clean-up detail in getting her back.
The story with Zelda games more or less stays familiar, though the focus on Phantom Hourglasswas definitely the functionality and not the narrative. The DS has maintained itself as a legitimate system for a while now and little needs to be said on how well they’ve been able to use the features of the machine, especially the touchscreen. The move to control Phantom Hourglassentirely by touchscreen is bold to be sure. Not all of Nintendo’s biggest franchises have embraced the touchscreen mechanic, and pushing it for Phantom Hourglass really shows a combination of two different strengths the Big N knows its in possession of.
You’ll start with the basics: how to move, control and attack with Link and the stylus. Little to no response has been lost to the transition in stylus control, as the way you hold a pencil will have more affect on you controlling Link than the system itself. It’s obvious they spent a lot of time fine-tuning how sharply you can turn, how fast you can move, and the recognition of when Link rolls and attacks every which way. The game possess a strong sense of intuitive control with the touchscreen, and the only people who will be beside themselves are those who won’t be able to distance themselves from the traditional style of D-pad and analog control for Zelda in the past couple decades.
The sword combat reminds me of the games somewhat 2D, 3D nature, as there isn’t the “z-targeting” feature found in the 3D ventures and the mechanics stick to short jabs and limited variety in the swordplay department. While implementing the sword art is very easy with the stylus, only a few variations are found, with your shield being an automatic battering ram when lined up with the enemy attacks. For the 2D mechanics (3D being the graphics style), it works fine, as I never really had complaints with the Oracle’s (or Link’s Awakening) combat “systems,” or any of the top-down Zelda games for that matter. The only reason it gets mention here is how enjoyable I found the rather cultivated sword arts to be in Wind Waker, despite people cries of sorrow for the game’s “shallow kiddy atmosphere.”
The other quirks of the DS system are used in complementary and unique ways here as well. While there will be certain times when you will have to use a combination of voice or breath to solve small puzzles, you also will use the structure of the DS itself in an interesting way. The ability to make notes on almost all the maps and write and draw symbols and diagrams to further your way into the several dungeons and overworld areas cements this game as a strong practitioner for excellence in DS controls. The game’s exploitation of DS functionality is superb and its strongest suit, whether that be for better or for worse.
The worse I mention lies within the reflection that Nintendo and the DS has had on the Zelda series itself. Nintendo’s “blue ocean” strategy of attracting as many new gamers to its systems as possible is affecting the very way its games are being made, and subsequently played. Even with the DS system having a more casual crowd, I’ve always been impressed by the ability of several of the familiar franchises to allow for many roads to be travelled by several types of gamers and have none worse for the wear. Phantom Hourglass has missed this treatment, unfortunately, and has made this old Zelda fan bitter because of it.
While I’ve had a slight problem with the Big N’s recent changes to its traditional formulas, this is clearly highlighted in Phantom Hourglass. Every Zelda may have the same age-old feel, but this was always a positive notion — you’re back in the same place you love to visit. Each Zelda is dressed up in marvellous ways to differentiate itself each time it starts anew so that you never feel bored, even with the same pattern of events. Each portrays a new unique take on adventure and exploration so that you never get bored with what the game has to offer.
In fewer words, Phantom Hourglass just doesn’t seem up to Zelda standards. The handheld arena is no excuse, as previous Zelda games have delivered in exactly the same way you’d expect the console brethren to live up to. The progression is too slow, with the first three dungeons holding your hand for far too long. The magic of sailing on the Great Sea has all but vanished, as so much of the travelling is automatic; there seems to be little room for the boat mechanics to really even take a large part in interactivity. I realized that something was missing when I had yet to complete any major side quests halfway through the game, and how most of what was offered on the various undiscovered islands were tiny minigames for rupees and the occasional heart container.
The item selection is a bit tawdry as well. Things like the boomerang and bow and arrow aren’t causes of major complaints, but I guess there really isn’t enough content here to spread out the gadgets’ usefulness. I felt as almost all of the previous items became superfluous after their newer counterparts were received. You would get a better version of the last dungeon’s toy, with the exception of the grappling hook. The grappling hook provided what was one of the only exciting dungeons for me in the entire game, and then later abandoned some of its more entertaining aspects shortly thereafter. The hammer feels to cheapen combat; and to make bombchus a main level’s item … felt a bit lackluster to me, considering the last level’s items were already bombs. Also, when making a dungeon, make sure the dungeon’s premise is not backtracking on time limitations. I couldn’t count the times I felt like I was being hassled through the Ocean King temple with only the feeling of chore on my mind.
Another huge gripe I had with the game was the puzzles it offered. I’m all for exercising the brain in a bunch of goofy ways to pass the time in the Zelda franchise, but Phantom Hourglass would chime in with the puzzles solution before you even got a chance to solve it yourself! With the exception of one memory puzzle (which you could still practically bypass by paying rupees), the game would present you with a seemingly cool little time sink in creativity, only to have the game allude to the answer and then give it completely away. The worst area I’ve ever played in a Zelda game, the Island of the Dead, was the main offender in this case. The entire thing was set up as the big puzzle island; yet you arrive there to find that every time you think you’re about to be given a step to solve something, you’re walked right through the solution in what turns out to be a terrible waste of time. The game breaks so many of the cardinal rules of Zelda in my eyes, and the entire experience feels lacking because of it.
Changing gears a little … I’m glad to see the graphics for the DS still being pushed to the limits, as Wind Waker-esque visuals are being used here as much as possible. Cell shading has lost a little in translation with the smooth rounded textures, but the enemies and character models don’t fail in an eye-catching sense because of this. The little water and fire effects are still appealing, and aside from the weird shape of Link’s head (he looked far more expressive inWind Waker), the only source of contention I would have is with the dungeons themselves.Phantom Hourglass seems on the whole a lot darker then the brighter contrasts you find inWind Waker. From rather bland rooms to an overall feeling of missing description, the transition in graphics is a good rendition, even if it falls short of being a fantastic recreation.
I’m driven to habit every time a Zelda game comes out. It’s like clockwork. The game launches, I run to grab my copy and I play the hell out of it straight until it’s beaten. Then when I’ve finished, I go back for more because I couldn’t believe how incredible it all was. It’s been this way for me since way before I could even buy games myself and way before 3D was even “the next generation of gaming.” So were my expectations too high for this game? No, because I try not to read into hype and, generally, avoid a lot of information on the game before release to stay fresh. My problems may have simply laid in the series itself and putting a lot of stock in what I expected from it (and how it always seemed to deliver without fail). So when I say that Phantom Hourglass has this problem, or that problem, or how much I didn’t enjoy this, it’s simply me disliking the direction the game was given and not that the experience overall wouldn’t be fun for a lot of other people.
Even though it felt like the gameplay took backseat to showcasing what the DS could do, I’m saying as a long-time Zelda fan, it seemed that the game lacked so much flavor I’ve known with the other entries, and Wind Waker in particular. While I believe that a lot of DS owners could get some mileage out of this Zelda game, it’s definitely not my Zelda game. With missed aspirations to a spot-on translation, this game not being of Zelda quality seems like an oxymoron in premise and, ultimately, leaves me wondering if this is the sign of rocky times ahead in the series. If you’re looking for a slew of quick fixes when you’re on the road, try the game. If you’re looking for the kind of epic nature Zelda provides, even in a smaller portion, be happy you have the GameBoy Advance slot on the bottom of your DS.
Where to start…
Thinking back to this review, and reading it here now, I sometimes wonder if my editors at gamersinfo read through my reviews in their entirety Clearly, this review needed some extra time, but a simplistic gaming faux pas, like the common misspelling of Cell-Shading instead of Cel-Shading, makes my skin crawl. Posting these old reviews without any touch ups can be a painful reminder of my own historical flaws, at the very least. Quite surprised I come off so positively through out this review. Phantom Hourglass was a very real kind of frustration, in every sense and meaning of the word.
I believe I tried to be too falsely optimistic in this review, perhaps with the denial that a Zelda game could actually fail so hard. I know this second hand critique of my own opinion brings into question my entire credential as a reviewer. All I can say to this line of thought is, I am just as flawed as the next gamer. While some of the DS functionality is fun (note taking), and the touch controls do their job, it’s more of a lack of in game control that bothered me. The whole pseudo 3D feeling (2.5 D really), is what truly irked me. I liked Link’s Awakening for the faithful 2D translation it provided, and greatly disliked PH’s failure in re-creating a true 3D environment, much like Wind Waker was. Phantom Hourglass, and this lazy reliance on the aesthetic of Wind Waker, rather than the depth of Wind Waker, is where the game falters the hardest.
I felt as if I stumbled in warning how much of a Zelda fan I am, with my own correlation of how lacking the game really is. The finishing line “If you’re looking for the kind of epic nature Zelda provides, even in a smaller portion, be happy you have the GameBoy Advance slot on the bottom of your DS.” seemed to accurately express my own distaste for the game. I am further surprised reading the review today that I didn’t take this more caustic approach in describing it from the get go.
Well, I’m not sure if this is the last time you’ll hear about Phantom Hourglass from me. The succulent irony of a huge Zelda Fan, going on about the only game he didn’t like, rather than all of the one’s he does, should give you an idea of I derail myself in every day life. Phantom Hourglass left me in strange places, with strange questions, and helped to blur my own sense of the fictional. I no longer was seeking Zelda in my spare time…I desperately needed to find her.
Eventually, I looked to the skies for my answer.
But that’s for another time….and that about wraps up my thoughts on Phantom Hourglass…again.
The oh so cyclical nature of moving forward, often involves recapturing the past…
In this way, I find myself fascinated with the Zelda Series transformation within gaming, what attracts me, how the games motivate me etc…one doesn’t pursue the same gaming series for two decades without some serious introspection, along side some heavy personal alterations.
Then again, some things never change.