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The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for Nintendo DS
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9.2
                         

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Alternative Names

Zelda no Densetsu: Mugen no Sunadokei

ゼルダの伝説 夢幻の砂時計

Developer

Nintendo EAD

Genre

Adventure

Release Dates

10/02/07 Nintendo
06/24/07 Nintendo
10/20/07 Nintendo

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Owners: 1,008
Tracked: 7
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Now Playing: 11

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

By Khuutra 07th Apr 2009 | 3,446 views 

Happiness is a steam-powered boat and all the note-taking you can handle. Wait, what?

The Legend of Zelda series is one that is characterized by an evolution of gameplay mechanics and ideas, with only one or two exceptions to this rule. The first game laid out the groundwork, Link to the Past introduced the dual world mechanic, Ocarina of Time showed how puzzle solving logic changed in three dimensions, on and on. Though the series has innovated less with the last few major entries, Phantom Hourglass brings back the idea of innovation in a big way, making it different from every other Zelda game. More than just being a great game, it's an experience that is intrinsically tied to the Nintendo DS, and I don't think enough can be said on that front. Still, I'm going to try.

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is the actual and spiritual successor to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, which was released on the Gamecube in 2003. You are a young boy in green named Link (or whatever you choose to name him) who sails the high seas in search of adventure. Familiarity with the past title will help you know what to expect from the game in terms of content, but it's not necessary: Phantom Hourglass's intro outlines the events of Wind Waker, and nearly all of the characters, locales, and plot elements are unique to this game. Phantom Hourglass could exist in a vacuum and still be enjoyed just as much by newcomers and veterans alike. Some people might hold that a sequel tossing away so much of the established world of the first game is a waste, but the story of The Wind Waker was so complete that I think creating a new setting for this game was necessary. It benefits from the freshness of its locales and the uniqueness of its characters. If I had to give a newcomer to the series a Zelda game, this might be the one.

The first thing that anyone is going to notice about this game is the graphics. While the DS obviously can't push the sort of visuals that the Gamecube or Wii can, the world is bright, cheerful, and delightfully cel-shaded. Every character and environment in the game is distinct, and Phantom Hourglass carries on the Wind Waker tradition of having characters emote through their vivid facial expressions. There's enough texture detail and visual creativity to whet anyone's appetite for pretty graphics, and I don't think I overstep my boundaries by saying that, balanced out, this is technically the best-looking game on the DS. This is backed up by the game's art style, love it or hate it, to create the most visually complete package the system has to offer.

The second thing that anyone is going to notice about this game is the soundtrack, which leaves an even better impression than the graphics. The game thankfully retains its predecessor's Celtic influences in its compositions, mixing in fresh new stuff with classic tunes that will bring waves of nostalgia crashing down on anyone old enough to have been playing since the Nintendo 64 days. The returning tunes are nicely done or remixed where appropriate, and I don't think there could possibly be a better song for sailing the high seas, but it's the new stuff that will stick with you the best: the theme for the credits is one of the most tender, bittersweet songs I've ever heard put in a video game, as if it's supposed to remind you that happy endings can be sad too.

Phantom Hourglass also carries on the tradition of its predecessor's wit and charm, and fans of Wind Waker will know what I mean: all the characters have their own distinctive personalities, and everything has a sense of lightness to it even in moments of grave peril. In particular, it's interesting how Link, the traditionally emotionless (if not faceless) hero of the series, has been building up his own personality throughout the past few games, using nothing but his often comical facial expressions. I never thought I would say this, but Link may be one of my favorite characters in this game, a stalwart and heroic personality that is entirely himself without a single line of dialogue. He's funny as hell too, but that's to be expected in this game: the mix of the visuals and the voice sampling means that the game's sense of humor comes to the forefront, and while this doesn't get in the way of dramatic moments it ensures things don't stray into the bleak or dreary.

Those are things people expect out of Zelda games though. Gorgeous artwork and system-pushing graphics, excellent, memorable soundtracks, and populations of recognizable and impressing characters are so par for the course in the Zelda series that they're almost passé. What sets Phantom Hourglass apart from every other Zelda isn't its themes, which are ordinary enough, or its characters, or its style or its plot or its ability to pull you into its world. Simply put, this is a Nintendo DS game that utilizes the system's unique capabilities perfectly, a reminder that nobody knows how to use Nintendo's hardware like Nintendo does.

The left shoulder button on my DS Lite is broken, and has been for a couple of years. This makes playing some games hard, and even Phantom Hourglass has an optional use for it, but the operative word there is optional: I don't need the shoulder button at all to play this game. In fact, I don't need any of the buttons whatsoever unless I want to pause, because the entire game can be played using only the touch screen and the microphone. This doesn't sound like a lot, but it is: Nintendo has taken a touch-based, dual-screen interface often tossed aside as a passing gimmick and made it intrinsic to the way the game is played. No part of the DS's special features are left unused, and I'll touch on some parts of that here.

The game mechanics are simple: you touch a spot on the screen, and Link moves there. You draw a quick line in front of Link, and he'll swing his sword in the direction you drew the line, left, right, or a forward stab. You tap on enemies, he will jump-slash them from a distance or wail on them up close. You can pull out an equipped special item by clicking on its icon, or switch between them by opening up an unobtrusive menu. You pull down your map to make your own marks and notes – no compass in this game to tell you where treasure is folks, and you will be using your note-taking skills a lot. You will scribble, you will blow out candles, you will scream at the top of your lungs as the game makes demands of you that you would never expect but all of which make good sense in the context of the game, and all of which would be utterly impossible on any other piece of hardware on the market. Instead of being gimmicky, this rigorous and studious use of the hardware comes across like the carefully honed craftsmanship that it is, an entirely new way to experience the world.

The best thing about this use of the system is that not only does it never feel like the game would play better with a normal controller, but there are sequences that use the DS's unique hardware with such creativity that you may literally stop and marvel at them afterwards. There are scenes in which the top screen ceases to function as a map and begins to function as a second perspective altogether, and I will not spoil how that works but I will say that I was more impressed by these segments than any others in the game.

The game still plays like Zelda, outside of how you interact with it: you are given a quest and must plumb fiery caves and dank dungeons in order to obtain items of power that will allow you to overcome the evils between you and your goal. The dungeon design is easily the best I've ever seen in a 2D Zelda, in some cases requiring a kind of lateral thinking that other Zelda games, up to this point, have not. It's not often that I have to relearn a puzzle-solving logic, and needing to do so in this case was a relief: the combination of the game's different interface and the carrying over of three-dimensional puzzle solving (Height is pretty important!) made getting through the game a treat like I haven't had in a long time. There is one area in particular which embodies all of these concepts, and the best puzzles in the game, into what may be my favorite dungeon in the franchise's history but what is to many people an albatross around Phantom Hourglass's neck: the Temple of the Ocean King.

The Temple of the Ocean King is the apotheosis of every single concept in the game, wherein you will use every item and skill you've obtained throughout the course of your adventure. There is a mechanic which limits the amount of time you can spend outside of designated safe zones before losing your health and ultimately your life, so thinking carefully and getting through the temple quickly is paramount. You will do this more than once: every time you beat a dungeon you get more time that you can spend in the dangerous zones of the temple, and your newly acquired item will allow you to explore new depths. All told, you will find yourself returning to this temple no less than half a dozen times. Is this as bad as it sounds? No, not really. There is a halfway point that saves your progress and allows you to jump right back into the thick of the dungeon, and each new item you acquire allows you to get through prior areas in new and much faster ways, so that every return is a different experience for those who care to apply new solutions to old problems. That said, a lot of people don't like returning to the Temple of the Ocean King, and your mileage may vary.

The only real gripe I can make with this game, and it is in my mind a small one, is that it is too short. I finished in about fifteen hours, and would probably take another five or seven to finish all of the game's various sidequests (the ship parts in particular would take a long time). I am the kind of person who can play an adventure of this type over and over, but most people are not like that, and once the credits roll and the title screen pops up many people may never pick up the game again. Fifteen hours is a good length for a game on the DS, and they are without question the best fifteen hours I've ever spent with the platform, but many people may want more out of the game and they won't find it here.

There is a multiplayer mode, involving one player controlling Link and another player setting down path for Phantoms who are out to get him. The mechanic echoes several sequences in the Temple of the Ocean King, wherein Link must retrieve Force Triangles and get them to a predetermined location without being spotted. Each person spends a turn as Link and a turn as the person mapping out the paths of the Phantoms. It's not especially deep, but it's more than most Zelda games have in terms of multiplayer (which is to say nothing).

Phantom Hourglass is still a Zelda game, with all the tropes that carries with it; Mario will jump on turtles, and Link will beat up giant monsters with magical items he found two hundred yards away. It's a logic that people who play the series have come to expect, and which newcomers will find as amusing and enchanting as they have in every other game in the series. It also carries on the Zelda tradition of pushing the system's hardware in a way only Nintendo seems capable of doing, using interfaces in a way most of us would never think of.  It is a font of creativity, a sign that the Zelda team are still titans of game design, and if the adventure were a few hours longer I would fight tooth and nail to make this one of the highest-rated games on the site, Temple of the Ocean King or no. More than just a lesson in game design though, Phantom Hourglass is one more adventure that has heart, an honesty and frankness that is both very serious and childlike in its innocence. When the game is over you will have said a reluctant goodbye to a world you would like to keep exploring forever, and I don't think there is any praise higher than that.


VGChartz Verdict


9
Outstanding

Read more about our Review Methodology here

Sales History

Total Sales
0.95m
Japan
1.85m
NA
1.80m
Europe
0.48m
Others
5.09m
Total
1 304,610 n/a n/a 304,610
2 153,122 n/a n/a 153,122
3 81,227 n/a n/a 81,227
4 72,411 n/a n/a 72,411
5 47,559 n/a n/a 47,559
6 35,458 n/a n/a 35,458
7 26,505 n/a n/a 26,505
8 23,454 n/a n/a 23,454
9 29,297 n/a n/a 29,297
10 13,754 n/a n/a 13,754

Opinion (152)

S.Peelman posted 28/02/2014, 01:05
5 million! Yay, congrats!
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Fededx posted 12/02/2014, 07:12
5 million! Incredible!
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S.Peelman posted 06/01/2014, 12:56
Come onnnnn... 5m.
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Fededx posted 03/01/2014, 02:14
So close to 5m, just 15 thousand more copies...
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atma998 posted 01/06/2013, 05:55
4.96M, might reach 5 million before years'end.
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S.Peelman posted 27/02/2013, 12:54
Come on!! Get to 5m already!
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