Jan 312008
 

Last night, as Hillary accepted the zero delegates she won from Florida, I finished the latest entry in the Legend of Zelda series, Phantom Hourglass. I found it to be a fun, lightweight romp.

Phantom Hourglass is a sequel to the Gamecube game Wind Waker. It inherits cel-shaded rendering, a general character aesthetic, and an oceanic setting from its predecessor, while the terraced look of the islands (once you are on them) is more closely related to Zelda games from the SNES days (see left). Motion and combat are touch-driven, as are all of the tools—boomerang and bombchu routes are drawn on the screen. So too is your steamship’s route through the seas (below, right). You can annotate the map (shown in these shots on the upper screen), circling important points or noting safe routes through treacherous areas. The controls generally work well and make most of the tools and weapons very intuitive. There were a couple of hiccups, however.

The first was that the touch control is not quite as sensitive as I might like. I had difficulty executing roll attacks consistently, and to be honest I was never quite able to pin down the motion that would produce one regularly. Also, I found stopping time in the final battle to be a bit of a crapshoot—I typically needed to draw five of the required hourglass shapes before one took. The other problem is that there just isn’t a very good way to make Link run left (or the right, if you’re left-handed). Unless you use an odd grip on the stylus your hand tends to block one screen or the other.

These minor issues aside, the gameplay is not very challenging, especially if you quickly catch on to how the various tools can be used. The eponymous hourglass serves as a time limit on one of the dungeons, in which a modest kind of stealth is required. This, not a serious challenge, is the most difficult part of the game except for one of the boss battles.

The gameplay fits the classic Zelda mold with the same additions as Wind Waker: you travel around the sea, visiting various islands and breaking into their dungeons. The dungeons themselves are pathfinding environmental puzzles—each dungeon contains a tool that is needed to traverse it and a bafmodad you are supposed to retrieve. Though the islands seem a little closer together than they were in Wind Waker you still spend a lot of time in transit, and the occasional appearances by enemies and pursuers are more annoying than entertaining. On the other hand, the addition of a minigame has much improved the dullest task in Wind Waker, i.e. the retrieval of sunken treasure.

Mini-games and sidequests are abundant, as is typical for these games. Seeking out all the various power-ups and perfecting your scores in these accessory games can add plenty of time to the game. However, your actual rewards are somewhat paltry, and mostly come in the form of parts for your ship. You can customize your ship in various ways, but the result is almost entirely aesthetic. Your ship gains greater stamina if all its parts come from the same set, but with one exception there’s no reason to choose one set over another. Even a few minor effects would have made this more interesting—if, for instance, the stone hull decreased your speed but added stamina, or the restful cabin healed Link at a slow rate while he was on the ship. Effects of this kind would have added interesting dimensions without taking up much space on the card.

The role of guide and assistant is once more played by a fairy. Fortunately Ciela is much more helpful (and much less annoying) than Navi. She has a story, and it’s somewhat interesting, but in general the story of Phantom Hourglass is very lightweight and silly. This was true of Wind Waker as well, but that game did a better job of winking at its own silliness, and also gained a sense of gravitas from the helplessness and regret expressed by the various spirits you encountered. Phantom Hourglass lacks both sensibilities, and as a result no real theme ever emerges.

In the end, the light story and easy gameplay make Phantom Hourglass seem like a slight little breeze of a game. It’s easy to pick up and easy to forget once you put it down. The adventure sandwiched in between is fun, and retains much of the charm of its predecessor. Despite a few interesting variations on the way some items are used, however, it just doesn’t leave much of an impression.

And now, a definition:

bafmodad (baf mō dad) – In a video game, an object which is not of any intrinsic use but which must be obtained in order to advance the plot. The Medallions from Ocarina of Time are a classic example. The bafmodad is conceptually related to the cinematic MacGuffin. Term invented by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik as a corruption of the name of an actual item from Starfox Adventures.

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