Oct 1, 2007
In some people’s Zelda codec, boat = monotony. Wind Waker’s Triforce trawl and irksome wind realignment did for many of you, leaving jaded gamers in its wake. Well, get over it. Although a canonical continuation of Wind Waker, this is a custom-built DS outing, determined to deliver more than a control-scheme makeover. From the moment Link plunges his hand into a chest and pulls out… nothing at all to an off-key discovery jingle, you know you’re in for something quite different.
Ignoring the under-nourished connotations; Hourglass is Zelda Lite - throwing out the end-of-the-world bombast that producer Eiji Aonuma usually can’t resist. Ganondorf’s gone and the only thing standing in the way of Link’s life of leisure is a phantom ship that whisks away his pirate chum Tetra. Hardly a classic villain - it’s a boat for crying out loud - but it fits perfectly with the scale of this particular adventure. Hourglass is a smaller, tightly choreographed romp - a portable experience through and through.
Gone is the sprawling ocean, wisely squeezing all the islands into a two-by-two world map that takes only five minutes to circumnavigate. Unlike Wind Waker, where the lonely doldrums above water made those few submerged Hyrulian moments oh-so-special, PH knows not to push its luck - you just chart a course on to the map with the stylus, and off you go.
Music soars, seagulls tailgate your vessel and Link stands proudly on deck, beaming at the impressive draw distance. This would have been enough for us soppy romantics, but Nintendo know more is needed to keep people on board (har har). And so golden frogs explode from the ocean froth, horse-racing fences rise and need a tap of the jump icon to traverse, and a variety of pirates and marine-based nasties taste canon ball, courtesy of highly responsive screen-tap cannon attacks.
Link is drawn towards the stylus like a moth to a flame, giving him a fluidity of movement that far surpasses the old-school dual axis movement of previous handheld Zeldas. With silky movement at their disposal, the designers are allowed to lob all manner of dexterous spatial tasks Link’s way.
With each new foray you can jot down info on the handy map. Scratch that. It’s not just handy, it’s bloody brilliant. Tap down and it slides from top screen to the bottom, ready for annotating with lever-yanking combinations, routes through booby traps and side quest info. Scribbling becomes second nature, and is a must for Link’s future DS outings. Admittedly, it’s used less in the last few dungeons, but by then you’ll be playing with your toybox too full of items to care.
This tightening ethos flows into the dungeons. The longest can be outsmarted in 45 minutes - not indicating lazy design streamlining, but delicate filtering. Remove the dull bits from any Zelda dungeon - rooms of countless foes to smite or 40 iterations of the old “light three torches” routine - and you’re probably left with around 10 moments of proper puzzling ingenuity. Hourglass simply takes this to an extreme by offering only these choice dungeon cuts.
Any bittiness is fully justified by the structuring of the game around the Sea King’s Temple. Washed up on an island, Link discovers that the means to save Tetra lie in this mysterious structure - a series of trap-laden floors leading deep underground. It’s here that you liberate that blue-coated chap, Lineback. Lineback is a rare thing in the Zelda universe, a genuinely funny comic creation. Dressed in the finest foppery and sporting an impressive catalogue of wily facial expressions, he lets Link explore ahead - finding the eponymous hourglass in the process.
Via some supernatural means, the titular Phantom Hourglass enables Link to wander the temple without choking on pink fog - but only as long as the sand flows. Guarded by the armored chasers, you have to traverse each floor without wandering into their Metal Gear-ish cones of vision - they’ll give chase should they spot you. One swipe from their swords and it’s back to that floor’s entrance, minus some time. Padding out the stealth sections of Wind Waker and combining them with the level of puzzling usually reserved for the toughest dungeons means you’ve got a Zelda innovation of serious note.
Deeper floors reveal new dungeons on the “outside” containing the items and sand required to go deeper still. You’d think the back and forth would grow tiresome, but the Sea King’s Temple has been designed with repeat visits in mind. It’s a stunning piece of level design, constantly unfolding in surprising new ways.
And items? How did we cope before? When you realize that the boomerang can spell out your name, there’s no question what a godsend stylus-driven items are. Not simply content with giving you huge amounts of control - drawing intricate paths for the boomerang and bombchu never grows old - they’ve found new things to do with the most tired of items. If the hookshot’s tightrope tricks don’t make it into the next Wii Zelda, there are going to be some angry letters.
Handheld honing will annoy some factions of the Zelda community, though. Despite sporting a solid 15-hour story, side quests aren’t as plentiful as we’d hoped. Cannon-shooting minigames and letter delivery tasks are fine, but the main “fairy stones” task is somewhat voided by it only really kicking in after the main quest - which was when you actually needed the power-ups offered as a reward. However, this is a tiny gripe.
As a single-player DS experience, Phantom Hourglass is unmatched. It lacks the legs of Final Fantasy III - PH’s nearest rival - but there’s little in that that can match Hourglass working at full power. The game is, in every way, the adventure of a lifetime. Whether slicing through the ocean, smiting the finest bosses the Zelda team have dredged up in years (special mention to one fight carried out from the first-person perspective of the boss himself) or simply whacking cuccos with your sword - it’s one dazzling highlight after another. And we’d gladly sail the seas to play this gem.