Like Sands Through the Hourglass, These are the Games of our Lives
I’ve got a song stuck in my head right now. It’s a simple tune – only six notes long, just a quick skip down and then back up on the musical scale. No, it’s not Justin Timberlake or “Hey There, Delilah” or anything else that you could hear on the radio. But any Nintendo player worth his salt, whether you first started gaming on the NES or the Wii, will recognize it instantly. It’s the song that represents, victory, progress, success. It’s the song that means I’ve done something right. Da-da da-da da-daaaahh! And it’s music to my ears.
[image1]The song, of course, is the success theme from the Legend of Zelda games. It’s the tune that plays whenever you bomb the right patch of wall, or flip the switch, or otherwise get the next door to open. And the reason I’ve got it stuck in my head is because I’ve been obsessively playing The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass for the DS.
The storyline for the Phantom Hourglass takes place just after the events of Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Now that they’ve defeated Ganondorf, saved Hyrule, and have nothing better to do, Link and his swashbuckling princess buddy Tetra are sailing the high seas, looking for trouble. When they pull alongside a mysterious Ghost Ship, Tetra, whose lust for adventure has seemingly obliterated her critical thinking skills, decides to jump on board and check it out. Didn’t her mother tell her never to get into a stranger’s Ghost Ship? Of course, this decrepit frigate is more than it seems, and quickly disappears, taking Tetra with it into the dense fog and out of sight. As Tetra’s watery cry of distress fades out, Link vows to search out the Ghost Ship and find his judgement-impaired friend – no matter what it takes.
As it turns out, most of what it takes is your standard Zelda fare – crawling through dungeons, finding cool weapons, killing baddies with strange combination moves, and generally figuring out what you need to hit, push, pull, reflect, bounce off of, jump on, or set on fire to open that next door, hear your favorite song, and move forward. The majority of puzzles and weapons will be familiar to the Zelda connoisseur, but Nintendo has enough tricks up its sleeves to keep it fresh no matter how many times you may have solved Ocarina of Time.
[image2]The game’s namesake – the Phantom Hourglass – comes into play in the temple you have to explore to move forward in the game. The sand in the hourglass represents your life – life that gets slowly drained away bit by bit whenever you aren’t standing in one of the temple’s ‘Safe Zones’. Basically, this means that each temple works like a timed puzzle as your life force slowly slides away, but with the added bonus of being able to stop, catch your breath, and strategize your next move without having to worry about the clock all the time.
Besides the soul-sucking nature of the place itself, you have plenty else to worry about in the temples, such as invincible guards, sneaky traps, and mice who steal your door keys. Interestingly, Phantom Hourglass requires you to return to this one temple – The Temple of the Ocean King – time and time again as you level up. Each time, you’ll be able to descend deeper into the temple’s mysteries with the help of additional sand for your hourglass and new tools to open blocked paths. While it’s certainly convenient to have a central place to return to, this also means that you’ll be playing the upper levels over and over again before you can get down deeper.
The temples are also the locations of the game’s battle minigame, which can be played against the computer or with a friend. In this game, you take turns playing either Link or the temple guards. Link’s goal is to pick up triforce pieces from around the map and bring them back to his base. The goal of the guards, of course, is to smash Link. Each time Link is captured, the roles switch, so you may find yourself picking up the piece that your opponent just dropped. It’s addictive and fun to play. Part of what keeps it interesting is that each character is controlled differently – Link runs wherever your stylus is pointed on the touch screen, while you move the guards by tracing out paths for them on the map. Because you’re constantly switching back and forth, you’re always retraining yourself on how to move, which contributes to both the challenge and the fun.
[image3]It’s obvious from the moment you start playing Phantom Hourglass that Nintendo was committed to using the DS to its maximum potential. I’ll admit I was skeptical when I learned the game was going to be controlled almost completely with the stylus and touch screen, using the buttons only for menus. I thought there was no way that I would be able to run, jump, fight, and interact with the environment, using only the stylus, without it turning into a big old mess. But I’m happy to say that I was wrong. Using the stylus is incredibly intuitive. I can do anything I want to do from the touchscreen, pressing a button only when I need to switch weapons or look at my map. There are the occasional moments when the control doesn’t work quite as well as you’d like – the somersault Link is supposed to perform when you draw a circle at the edge of the screen is always a crapshoot, for instance – but overall the performance is good, particularly in battle situations.
Furthermore, the puzzles were clearly created with the capabilities of the DS firmly in mind. You are encouraged to scribble notes on your map, and in fact several puzzles require the use of the stylus to connect the dots or pinpoint locations. At other moments you need to blow or speak into the microphone to get past the next obstacle. Other games have played to the strengths of the DS like this, but none that I have seen have gone as far, or have been as successful, as Phantom Hourglass. It’s clever, organic, and most of all, fun.
[image4]Not only that, but the game looks fantastic. Stylistically, Phantom Hourglass follows the art direction of The Wind Waker. Nintendo has done a phenomenal job of translating the bright, cartoon-like quality of the Gamecube success to the small screen. Sure, the edges are a little choppier, but the feel is spot on, even down to the facial expressions of the characters. The animations are fluid, and you never feel locked down into the grid structure so many DS games seem to favor. Likewise, the audio sounds like it was lifted directly from the Gamecube and placed into the DS. As in all Zelda games, there is no voice acting other than Link’s grunts and gasps, but the music and sound effects are crisp and well-done.
If I had to find fault with this game, it would have to be in its highly linear nature. Games in the Zelda serious are never particularly open-ended, but generally you can double back and explore other areas if you don’t feel like tackling the next dungeon yet. While this is technically still true in Phantom Hourglass, your path is always crystal clear, and you get the sense that the game is tapping its foot and looking at its watch every time you wander off to explore an island or head back to town. It would have been nice to have a little bit more flexibility.
But honestly, I’m splitting hairs here. The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass is a great-looking game, it uses the DS better than any other title I’ve ever seen, and most importantly, it’s fun to play. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to listen to my favorite song again. Da-da da-da da-daaaahh!