The Legend of Zelda is an adventure; a journey; an experience. It is a quest of trial and error; failure and triumph; frustration and delight; light and dark. Zelda is a series full of moral enlightenment and philosophy, and it is these very complexities that have always attracted me to the franchise.
Phantom Hourglass on the Nintendo DS is often criticized for its lack of these elements. Many critics say that while it is a great game, it is not a great Zelda game, and that may very well be true. I play Zelda for its complexities both in gameplay and deeper moral significance. The Wind Waker’s DS sequel does fall short there, however, to me it is actually the most fun installment in the whole franchise.
When I game for the mere joy of it, then I seek something other than The Legend of Zelda. I play Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros. I find pure fun in the cuteness that is Kirby’s Epic Yarn. The level design is simple yet smart. The gameplay is also simple but it brings laughter and sheer joy to those playing together.
The two Super Mario Galaxy titles are games where the experience is in the basic fun of playing through the levels and trying them over and over even when you keep failing. It doesn’t require much thought, but it is entertaining. It is fun. Phantom Hourglass is exactly the same.
Link’s first quest on the DS was just a simple pick-up and play type game, despite being a single player action adventure. The controls are basic and cute, yet they are also intuitive and intelligent. Phantom Hourglass is an easy quest with simple puzzles which make you smile to solve but aren’t difficult. The biggest frustration is merely the repetition of the Temple of the Ocean King.
The story matches the gameplay in that it is simple and cute. There’s nothing specifically engrossing about young Link trying to save Tetra, but their young friendship is charming. After the mid-point plot-twist the story largely takes a back seat but the fun of the touch gameplay mechanics and the dungeon design makes up for that.
Linebeck’s comical antics add to the game’s overall lighthearted nature, making it potentially the funniest title in the series as well. Zelda titles are known for being darker in tone and more ambitious in scope whereas Phantom Hourglass is compact and simple, yet that allows it to remain fun throughout subsequent replays.
I can admit that at first Phantom Hourglass disappointed me from the Zelda-purist perspective, but the more I play it the more I enjoy and appreciate it. Phantom Hourglass truly is replayable because its puzzles make it a great break from more intense gaming experiences.
It is a simple release from the worries and stresses of life, whereas the core Zelda experiences such as Majora’s Mask, Ocarina of Time or The Wind Waker have much to say of the realities of life’s ups and downs. Phantom Hourglass on the other hand is what it is: pure simple fun like Mario Kart or Kirby’s Epic Yarn.
Phantom Hourglass may not have much relevance for the series but alone it has the power to warm the cockles of the player’s heart. Fans need to stop harshly criticizing it for being a bad Zelda title and take it for the simple fun that it is. Phantom Hourglass is as fun as the series has ever been, because Zelda is not traditionally about fun.
The core Zelda experience is about something much more than the simple amusement and pleasure that Phantom Hourglass provides. That is why it’s true that Spirit Tracks is a much superior Zelda game. It is more challenging in gameplay, more plot-driven as well as being more serious, darker and with some moral substance behind it. Phantom Hourglass isn’t about any of that.
If you’re the type of gamer who sees the simple joy in sailing around as Link in a steamboat instead of questioning whether the usage of steamboats is too steampunk for The Legend of Zelda, then you see Phantom Hourglass for what it is worth. The multiplayer wireless battle is yet another way that the DS title attempts to simply be enjoyable.
This is why when I see and hear people excessively criticizing Phantom Hourglass for being all around bad I can think nothing other than “you monster!” How can you not enjoy what Phantom Hourglass has to offer, just as I wonder how people can criticize Kirby’s Epic Yarn for being too easy, when they’re obviously missing the whole point of the game: simple fun.
Some people like their gaming intense, and each to their own, but Phantom Hourglass provides a charm that anyone can enjoy if they allow themselves to. If fans stop searching Phantom Hourglass for the core Zelda experience that it simply does not provide, perhaps only then will they see the fun they’re missing.
When we want to reflect on the world or the significance of life there is Majora’s Mask. If we desire a challenging gaming experience then there is A Link to the Past. When you want a little bit of innocent fun then I have to recommend Phantom Hourglass.
To keep up to date with all of Dathen’s writing you can follow him on Twitter @dathboc.