Retro Review: The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS)

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Well, somewhat recently I had seen a post about what your favorite Zelda game says about you. In it, it was suggested that Phantom Hourglass was among the worst in the series.  In my experience, most if not all Zelda games are at least good games. However, it has been a while since I last played Phantom Hourglass, and the best of my recollection was that it was still good. I wanted to play it again to see if that is actually true, or if I was judging the game through some case of nostalgia.

LOZPH
Box art for The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass.

First and foremost, everyone needs to know that the game requires touch controls. To move Link, you have to tap and hold in the direction you want him to go. To attack, you tap or swipe the screen near the enemy or object you wish to strike. There are some button shortcuts for menus or for using items on both the directional pad and buttons, but they are situational, and not for full control of the player. It should be noted that they are on both sides of the console, so that left or right-handed players can access these shortcuts.

These controls work somewhat better than expected, but considering the camera view, (and how most Zelda games play, both before and after this game) it should have been possible to control Link without touch controls, but the game doesn’t give the player that option. It is important to note that I got hand cramps playing this game this time around, which I don’t remember the other times I had played it. I also found that my hand blocked part of the screen at times, limiting my view and leading to a few mistakes.

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A quick look at game play for Phantom Hourglass. This game uses touch controls only.

Additionally, there are some points that require speaking into the mic. In once instance, it impacted the price of an object that was mandatory to progress! I ended up yelling “Give me the salvage arm!” a few times only to get the message it costs 1,000 rupees each time, but I didn’t have that cash on me. I changed that yell to “salvage arm” and the price was 300 rupees, a far more manageable price. Thankfully I was in a private location when I was playing…

A big criticism this game gets was the fact that the player has to return to a dungeon multiple times throughout this game’s story. This dungeon, the Temple of the Ocean King, is not a convenient place to return to. Even with some shortcuts based on newly acquired items, (and one checkpoint) it is a hassle to replay most of what you had already explored in this area. There is also a time limit and invincible enemies called phantoms to deal with, making for some intense stealth missions. (Spoiler) You eventually can defeat these phantoms, which is quite satisfying considering how much trouble they give you time and time again (End Spoiler).

LOZPHoceanking
Map of one room of the Temple of the Ocean King. The blue armored things are Phantoms, which are invincible. Also notice the time limit.

Many of the other dungeons felt short. If I am not mistaken, they could each be completed in 30-45 mins each, and few of the puzzles could stump me at the time. Incidentally, the first boss was unusually difficult to figure out how to beat. The obvious way to take him out only seems to work if you wait long enough before attempting it, with no indicator that something changed. The third boss, however did use the two screens in a neat way, with the top screen showing his perspective, and you had to shoot an arrow at his face using that perspective to score a hit and stun him.

Perhaps the one feature I liked about this game was the ability to draw notes on your map. This is a nice way to remind yourself that there is something worth exploring later, or how to solve a puzzle a little bit further away from the clue. I wish more games had something like this to work with, especially DS, 3DS, and Wii U games.

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A quick sample of how the two screens work in this game. Notice the helpful markings the player was able to make on the top screen.

There is also a LOT of boat travel in this game. Unlike the original version of Wind Waker, you can move freely in any direction independent of wind direction, but you do have to draw your route before you move. The boat sequences do take a while, and there is no real way to dodge the enemies that show up. You can either shoot bombs at them, shoot bombs at their projectiles, or make the boat jump if the foe moves a certain way. Additionally, if you want to dodge the pirate Jolene, you just have to move out of her way, jump over her ship’s torpedoes, and hope she stops chasing you. She usually does catch up, and this results in a duel that you could easily get tired of.

Lastly, the ending is a little weird and raises a few more questions than it answers, and the final stage of the last battle felt like a tacked on excuse for a sword duel. It was a little inconvenient to figure out how to fight this last challenge as well, though I figured it out agian without a game over.

Here are some play recommendations:

  • Play till the story is complete if you can handle the strange controls.
  • Some exploration might be worth your while, leading to some neat options like a flaming sword and sword beam capabilities if you feel like investing more time in the game.
  • Gathering everything is only for completionists, you should simply stop playing by the time this is done. Not even mini-game high scores are worth more plays.

Here is a list of Pro’s and Con’s to the game:

Pro’s:

  • Marking the map is a helpful part of the game.
  • Touch controls work better than expected.
  • Slaying phantoms is satisfying near the end of the game.
  • There are some good riddles here, the likes of which are worthy of the Zelda name.

Con’s

  • Touch controls are required.
  • The Temple of the Ocean King is a drag. You must repeat most of it several times.
  • Ending was lame and inconsequential to the series.
  • Some riddles were a little obtuse, and the solution wasn’t too visible.

And now, the final verdict:

7/10: A good game hampered by odd design decisions

It turns out I was seeing this game through some nostalgia, as it wasn’t quite as good as I remember. It still had some good parts, but the control scheme and repeat dungeon just didn’t make any sense here. As such, it is among the worst of the Zelda games, but is still a relatively good video game. Keep in mind, I didn’t say it was a great game, just a good one. I would still say it isn’t for everyone, or even every Zelda fan.


Those are my thoughts and opinions on The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. What did you think of the game? Am I being too kind? What other games should I review? Tell me all this and why in the comments below!

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2 thoughts on “Retro Review: The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS)

  1. I wanted to like Phantom Hourglass more than I did because I really like the novel, touch-screen-centric gameplay. Unfortunately, the Temple of the Ocean King is probably the single worst dungeon in the series; making players trudge through the same floors that many times – even with shortcuts available – is inexcusable. I also felt the cast was rather bland – the exception being Linebeck, who is probably the single most annoying character in the franchise. The only other character that comes close is Tingle. Don’t get me wrong, Tingle himself is pretty dire, but even in The Wind Waker, interacting with him only constituted a fairly small portion of the game. All in all, Phantom Hourglass was a decent effort for its time, but I’d say Spirit Tracks surpassed it handily.

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    1. I will admit this game has its faults, and the temple of the Ocean King was annoying to play through. While I could do a review of Spirit Tracks, I no longer own a copy, (I disliked it enough at the time to trade it in) and would have to review it by memory. I ended up liking Spirit Tracks less, in case you were wondering. I could do a brief comparison article and come to a conclusion without a score. Would that kind of article be worthwhile? Again, I would have to do so by memory, but my opinion is not completely without reason.

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