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The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS) artwork

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS) review

"A tech demo on the right track for a sequel"

Regardless of its legacy today, Windwaker was a game that started in controversy. A tech demo showing a dark, gritty, Ocarina of Time-esque adventure on Gamecube hardware garnered much attention at Space World 2000, but when Windwaker was shown the next year with its cartoon style, Internet message boards were quick to decry “Cell-da.” It’s no surprise that it’s sequel, Phantom Hourglass, shared a similar malalignment.

Phantom Hourglass started life as a sequel to Four Swords Adventure, a spin-off the required so many peripherals to play that it was doomed to be the worst selling game in the series, regardless of quality. As this sequel materialized on DS, focus appears to have shifted to the control scheme more so than the game’s content. In demos of the game before its release as well as interviews with Aonuma, the focus was usually on the input method and not the game itself. In fact, Aonuma has stated that Phantom Hourglass is his personal favorite game in the series because of the “new style of gameplay.”

Indeed, in 2007 there wasn’t anything like Phantom Hourglass. Touch controls for movement were not new, but not to this extent. Super Mario 64 DS, a launch title for the Nintendo DS, had an input setup that combined using the touch screen for movement with a one-handed grip, similar to Metroid Prime: Hunters. Other games on the DS used the touch screen for various functions with varying degrees of success, but Phantom Hourglass is one of the few action games that uses the touch screen exclusively. Running, jumping, throwing, grabbing, attacking, rolling--every action Link can traditionally do can be accomplished with just the touch screen.

Even today, the mere fact that the touch screen is the sole input method is astounding. Before gaming with touch screens on mobile devices was a thing, Phantom Hourglass did touch input and it did it extremely well. After a few minutes of re-training my old gaming habits, controlling Link with the touch screen became second nature. Not only that, it was actually enjoyable.

Link always stays in the center of the screen,and is moved by holding the stylus in the direction you want him to go, moving the stylus further away to move faster. Unlike Super Mario 64 DS, Link appears on the touch screen so you need to hold the stylus closer to the top so your hand doesn’t obscure your view of the playing area. The sword is controlled by tapping (to lunge) or drawing a line between you and the enemy (to slash). The only technique I couldn’t easily execute was a roll, which is made by drawing circles near the edge of the screen.

Controlling Link with the touch screen works far better than I would have expected. Not pictured: your hand

The touch input is shockingly not the biggest nor most controversial departure Phantom Hourglass makes from other titles in the series. The story revolves around a divisive dungeon called The Temple of the Ocean King, which the player will return to about half a dozen times over the course of the game. Similar to the brief puzzles that appear in other games in the series where Link needed to avoid being seen by guards, the Temple of the Ocean King is a lengthy dungeon built around that mechanic, feeling more like Metal Gear Solid.

Every foray into the Temple of the Ocean King is timed by the titular phantom hourglass. Defeating bosses in other dungeons increases the amount of sand in the hourglass, allowing Link to spend more time in the dungeon, but this is only a serious obstacle the first few times into its depth. The phantom enemies that populate the dungeon will chop off a chunk of time from the hourglass if they capture Link, which encourages careful and slow play. There are absolute safe areas throughout the dungeon where enemies cannot hurt Link and the timer stops, so progress is more often blocked because the player lacks an item found in another dungeon.

The Temple of the Ocean King is a mixed experience, and my esteem of it varied throughout the game. Each time you enter it, you start on the first floor and all the puzzles reset. While this sounds dreadful, the new items acquired in other dungeons will allow these puzzles to be completed in new (and quicker) ways. For example, there’s a puzzle where Link needs to find three pieces of a triforce emblem and set them on pedestals while sneaking around phantom guards. Once Link has the grappling hook, he can propel himself to a ledge and completely skip the floor (even keeping a key from the floor to use later). This mostly mitigates the tedium of the Temple.

Mostly mitigates. You cannot save your position in the Temple of the Ocean King, and it can take 30-45 minutes to do some runs the first time. All it takes is one or two instances of running out of time or needing to turn the game off because life interrupted and suddenly you dread returning. If the game is played as intended, no two runs through the Temple will be the same--in practice, you’ll end up doing extra, you’ll hate them, and the memory of them may ruin the game for you.

Outside of the Temple of the Ocean King are seven dungeons that are serviceable but entirely forgettable. There’s the usual fire, ice, rock, and wind temples, but they all look mostly the same and are fairly forgettable. One of the dungeons is a ghost ship, which could be an interesting theme but is rendered entirely unfun by mixing the stealth elements from the Temple of the Ocean King with everyone’s favorite thing: an escort mission. It truly is scary!

One problem with dungeons is that there is no map item to acquire. Instead, Link gets to see the full map of the dungeon upon entering, which takes out most of the mystery and unknowns. It’s pretty easy to figure out where chests will be when looking at the map, and even if it’s not, you can pay a few rupees to some talking statues to just be told where to find hidden stuff. And just in case you were afraid a puzzle might come up without an obvious answer, you’re talking fairy companion will often just tell you want to do.

The bosses liven things up a bit, with a size and scope similar to Ocarina of Time. For example, one of the bosses has you strategically rigging up the grappling hook to bounce projectiles. Another has Link flinging himself through the air to rain hammery destruction upon a golem. While they introduce cool set pieces, the bosses have obvious tells and weak points, and are easy even by Legend of Zelda standards.

The tools found during dungeon progression are all familiar, but they are used in interesting ways. The boomerang, for example, is controlled by drawing a path on the touch screen. The grappling hook not only pulls Link to distant targets, but can be strung up like a tightrope between two points, which can be used to walk across gaps or slingshot Link to high areas. All of the items work surprisingly well on the touch screen, but the fact that none of them are actually new is a disappointment. By the end, all of the items end up being variations of tap-to-fire-something or draw-to-fire-something and not much else.

The humble boomerang works so well here I will genuinely miss it in other Legend of Zelda games

Outside of dungeons, sea travel returns from Windwaker. This is perhaps the biggest personal disappointment in Phantom Hourglass. While sea travel in Windwaker was marked by the gorgeous rolling waves, a beautiful music score, and a wonderful sense of swashbuckling adventure, Phantom Hourglass’s steam ship is absolutely boring. Rather than controlling the boat, Link draws a line on the map and the boat just goes there. There’s random enemies that pop up while travelling and you can shoot them with a cannon, but they feel like a nuisance that only exists to pass the time. The thrill of adventure and discovery from Windwaker is gone and what is left is a boring sail shooter. It doesn’t work well and Phantom Hourglass would be a better game without it.

Controlling your boat by drawing a path is neither engaging or fun

One of the things you can do at sea is find treasure buried under the ocean, like Windwaker. Unlike its predecessor, here Link needs to complete a minigame where the player guides the crane arm down while avoiding octomines. The slippery way the crane moves and the way octomines can shoot jets of water makes this an exercise in frustration. Except for one instance where the player is required to dredge up a chest, all you’ll get are random parts to customize your boat. If you use a matching set, your boat will have more health, but the reward isn’t even close to worth the effort, regardless of how un-fun see scavenging can be.

Phantom Hourglass introduces another new feature that I greatly appreciated: if you press start during some cut scenes, you can skip them. The story here is just boring. Tetra isn’t Zelda anymore, she’s a pirate that gets kidnapped by a ghost ship, and then turned into a statue. The Ocean King wants you to defeat a monster called Bellum at the bottom of the Temple of the Ocean King, despite the fact that I don’t really remember what Bellum did wrong. A lot of characters are chatty. Put this tale under stories I don’t care about.

Yes, I get it. You’re lazy. Can you let me play the game again?

As a whole Phantom Hourglass is a disappointment, but do not mistake it for a bad game. It does not seem to have been fondly remembered and is often characterized these days as a tech demo, which, while true, is not incompatible with being fun. I actually had a lot of fun playing Phantom Hourglass, but there are so many little things that I want to change in it and so much missed potential that disappointment is the only way to describe it. It’s a good game, but it could have been a great game. Perhaps if it did not have the Legend of Zelda lineage behind it, Phantom Hourglass might have been remembered more fondly.

What makes Phantom Hourglass worth playing today is the same thing that made it worth playing in 2007: it is a showcase of clever ways to use the DS. Some of its experiments fall flat--such as yelling into the microphone to get a character’s attention or putting the DS to sleep to fold a map in half--but the way swordplay and items have been implemented using the touch screen is extraordinarily well designed. It’s just a shame more attention wasn’t spent on the rest of the experience.

But I think Nintendo might have been on the right track for a sequel.

dagoss's avatar
Community review by dagoss (May 06, 2021)

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