When thinking about the best games from the Legend of Zelda series, many automatically jump straight in at the deep end with the big, home console releases; games such as Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker always seem to make it to the top of peoples' lists. Games often overlooked are those that have appeared on Nintendo's portable consoles such as The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, which has now been released as a Virtual Console title on the Wii U eShop, eight years after its original DS debut. So should this game be forgotten about? Or should we be praising it just as highly?
For those who didn't pick up this game on DS, let's set the scene. The story picks up right where we left off in The Wind Waker. After defeating Ganon, Link and Tetra travel across the Great Sea together until eventually they discover the Ghost Ship. Tetra steps on board to investigate but we immediately hear her scream for help. Link fails to rescue her and is woken from an unconscious state by a fairy named Ciela who found him washed up on an island's shore. Alongside Ciela, an old man called Oshus whom Link meets on this island and (despite his reluctance) a ship owner called Captain Linebeck, Link sets off on a quest to find the Ghost Ship again and save Tetra.
As was the case in The Wind Waker, gameplay is split between on-land, dungeon exploration and sailing across a vast sea. The contrast between these two different styles helps the game to keep flowing along nicely; you can spend as much time as you like travelling across the sea to discover new things but also have the option to stop and run around an island when you feel like doing something else. With travelling ships, unchartered islands and treasure to be discovered there's lots to see and do without even touching the main quest.
Travelling at sea is an unavoidable part of this game. You will often have to travel quite a distance to get from one island to the next – sometimes the game even forces you to go a longer way around in puzzle-based travel – so it is lucky that this is actually really enjoyable. Using the touchscreen to look around you have a 360-degree view of your surroundings, enabling you to take in everything that the cel-shaded graphics have to offer. As the game progresses your sailing experience will evolve – eventually you'll upgrade your ship to have a cannon meaning you can fight enemies whilst at sea. You'll also come across the Cyclone Slate which allows you to warp to various locations by drawing symbols on the touchscreen making travel much quicker.
This same idea is applied to being on land. To walk around you simply use the stylus to touch the direction you want Link to walk in. At first this technique – as opposed to using the D-Pad – may seem a little far-fetched, but once you get used to it it's a natural fit. Fighting enemies is also a stylus-exclusive affair. You can either tap an enemy to make Link jump forwards whilst swinging his sword at them, or you can use various directional strokes to make Link use different attacks. Of course, a Zelda game wouldn't be complete without unlockable items such as bombs, the boomerang and the grappling hook which – as you may have guessed – are also accessible via the touchscreen. The boomerang for example is used by drawing the desired flight path with the stylus. Strangely, only one item can be equipped at a time – without the use of buttons there is a rather limited space for items to be accessible meaning that only a single touchscreen icon is available for them.
The touchscreen can also be used to write yourself notes or draw diagrams on maps. For example – some puzzles may ask you to remember the location of various points on an island. Simply draw them on your map and you'll be fine. Another great use for this is early on in the game when you haven't unlocked particular items yet. You've found a wall that can be blown up but don't have any bombs yet? No problem! Leave yourself a note to come back to it. It's extremely simple but it works really well and creates some rather clever puzzles. This combined with the use of the microphone, which is often used to blow out flames in certain puzzles, shows that Nintendo's legendary EAD team really mastered showcasing the features of the DS with this title – and luckily all of these features are also available with the GamePad.
The dungeons are exactly what you would hope and expect from a Zelda game. The puzzles are great – challenging you to work out how to progress from room to room. Often the dungeon centres around one main idea – usually a particular item which will solve most of the puzzles if you can work out how it needs to be used. A mixture of puzzle solving, enemy battles and exploration is needed to complete each dungeon. Boss fights at the end of these dungeons will typically also require the item that has been the main focus to be used.
Alongside these themed dungeons that are dotted around various islands, there is one dungeon that you will keep returning to called the Temple of the Ocean King – this is arguably where Phantom Hourglass stands up and declares just how special it is. This dungeon contains maps and clues which will help Link in his quest to track down the Ghost Ship. This temple quite literally "sucks the life out of you". When you enter a time limit appears, indicating how long you can last inside the temple before it kills you. Dotted throughout its many floors are safe spots where you can catch your breath and stop the timer from falling. These spots also protect you from Phantoms that walk around the temple. These cannot be defeated, leaving a stealth approach as your only option. The temples' safe spots soon become your best friend so use them wisely.
After your first trek through this dungeon you'll acquire the Phantom Hourglass. From now on, each time you defeat a boss from the game's other dungeons you'll collect more sand to fill up your hourglass. More sand equals more time available to you in the Temple of the Ocean King, allowing you to delve further and further into its depths as you progress through the game. As you unlock more and more items you'll also be able to utilise shortcuts in this temple that weren't available to you beforehand meaning that you don't have to complete every single puzzle in the temple each time you enter. The time limit can make puzzle solving extremely tense – you'll start to get annoyed with yourself if you can't work out what you need to do whilst the time is ticking down. It's nerve-racking, it's a thrill, it's brilliant.
With the game being so focused on touchscreen activity, having the GamePad act as the DS' touchscreen with your TV dedicated to being the top screen is probably the best Virtual Console set up. This allows you to be much more accurate with controlling Link – the other views available make the touchscreen so small that you'll often make mistakes. The one drawback to this however is that it is incredibly easy to get so soaked up in the action on the GamePad that you ignore the TV screen – which sometimes provides you with hints and information that can be easily missed.
The original DS version of this game also had a one-on-one multiplayer Battle mode. This saw one player controlling Link – who must take a Force gem and carry it to his base – whilst another controlled three Phantom Guardians who had to catch him before he managed it. This used either the local multiplayer functionality, Download Play or the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection available at the time but unfortunately these aren't supported on Virtual Console. Whilst it's a shame that this mode can't exist on the Wii U version, it wasn't a major part of the original release and doesn't affect the main story of the game in any way.
Phantom Hourglass has everything you would expect from a Legend of Zelda game and is very much a worthy successor to the critically acclaimed, fan favourite, The Wind Waker. Great use of the touchscreen in every aspect of the game combined with the layout, structure and design typical of the Zelda franchise makes this feel like a familiar yet fresh entry to the series.
Eight years may have now passed since this game's release but it hasn't aged a day. If you missed this title when it was first released this is a wonderful opportunity to experience what is undoubtedly a fantastic adventure.