Phantom Hourglass HD Edition – Sailing the 192p Seas

WAHOOOO!! With a well-timed jump over an Octorok spike trap, Phantom Hourglass has landed on the Wii U Virtual Console in Europe and Australia. Unfortunately it has not made its way to America yet, but I’m sure the fog will lift soon. There’s a lot of baddies out on the ocean so you have to plot a course carefully. Let’s get to the point, a DS game on Wii U, what is this madness? Linebeck hid in the corner, he was scared of this new experience. How do two screens work on the TV? Is it functional? Could it be amazing? I’ve just completed the game and yes, it’s pretty fucken playable. I had an absolute blast with the ship’s cannon, ahahahaha. Linebeck told me that joke I swear. The game is pretty good too. This writeup is going to explain how DS games play on Wii U, and why Phantom Hourglass itself is special.

To the SHIP!!

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Wii U gives you 6 different screen options for DS games. Above is the one I ended up using for Phantom Hourglass, with an entire screen simply separated and blown up on each screen. The top screen taking up the TV, with the bottom screen taking up the whole GamePad like a gigantic DS. It felt a bit weird at first, just being able to move the GamePad around as if I was ripping a DS in half. However, I quickly got used to it after getting immersed in the game and there are a lot of benefits. The GamePad is a great touch screen and feels gigantic compared to the DS. It makes dragging Link around easier, and gives you a bigger window for circle rolls. Everything from drawing on the map to boomerang throwing feels more liberating and accommodating. I’ve tried all the displays and here’s a quick rundown.

Phat DS Screen – This is probably the worst, it’s just too small for this game. Same image on the GamePad and Wii U.

Two Screens Stacked Vertically – A bit better, but still not very good for this game. Might be necessary for a game like Yoshi’s Island DS so it’s a nice option.

Top Screen Focus – A good option, but terrible for this game specifically since all the gameplay is on the bottom screen. Luckily we can reverse them!!

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TADA!! This was the second best option in my experience and very well suited to this game. I switched to this view for long boat journeys just to see the vast ocean on the TV. The GamePad touch screen is so huge, that I can rotate the camera there (done by dragging the stylus around) while still looking at the TV. It’s just the right size. You only need the top screen to be small, because it’s a map for most of the game. Whenever you NEED the map, it swaps screens anyway while you draw on it. A really cool feature of both the bottom screen / top screen focus is they have the further option of being right or left handed. All this does is place the screens on different sides. Here’s the final screen option.

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WHOOOOOOAAAA!! WE’RE FALLING OFF!! I told you the Earth was flat!! This is a bit tricky to use in this game unless you’re lying down in bed or something. This also has a left / right handed option, and since the GamePad is like this too, I imagine it’s for touch screen exclusive games like Brain Training. The buttons are just not accessible with the GamePad sideways.

I was happy to learn that DS games come with their original manual in digital form (off-screen camera shot, as you can not post to the Miiverse), much like GBA games. As far as I know, these are the only systems with this feature and it’s nice to just flip through each page and check out the artwork, regardless of whether you need the info. Unfortunately, you can’t play the game WHILE having the manual open like GBA games, but I suppose that makes sense since you always need the touch screen. Another unique quirk is the Nintendo DS “closing” function which is required in a (spoilers) puzzle in this game. The DS closes when you press ZR or simply press the Home button. So anyone asking for help on the Miiverse during this puzzle, will amusingly come back to find it automatically solved. Because of this, there’s a one second delay when going to the HOME menu. It’s not a big deal but it’s different to other systems on the Virtual Console.

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There’s a “smoothing” function for the DS, much like GBA except this one looks like shit. On the right is the blurry filter and I much prefer the wholesome blockiness on the left, the text is clearer and everything just blends in nicely once you play for a while. After getting used to playing this game, I had my mind blown to pieces when booting up Splatoon in 720p. The graphics looked ridiculously life-like, and it’s amazing what you can get used to if you are enjoying the gameplay. It really doesn’t matter to me.

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ALRIGHT! That covers all the DS Virtual Console features. Now I have to talk a bit about Phantom Hourglass’s gameplay because it’s fucken special and DIFFERENT to traditional Zelda, 2D or 3D. Firstly, Link does not move with buttons, you drag him around with the touch screen exclusively. What’s the point of that? Sounds stupid and scary. Well the point is the entire game is designed around the touch screen, and this is what makes it a great DS game. Buttons are only used as shortcuts for menus, as the gameplay demands you always have the stylus out. The touch screen is used cleverly to create new puzzles and item interaction not possible without it. Drawing exact paths for the boomerang with a simple line is fucking awesome, not just for hitting switches but in combat. It’s a lot of fun stunning enemies butts by throwing the boomerang around them. In a 3D Zelda you’d just have to aim at the air and hope for the best. In Phantom Hourglass you can draw a direct path not just towards the enemy, but coming back. Touching the Boomerang icon during battle, and drawing the perfect line in anticipation is pretty exciting and intense. I was surprised to die a few times in combat with standard enemies just trying to get clever, but have no regrets. Movement is overall a bit trickier but it’s really fun.

The sailing is fucking epic and I don’t care what anyone thinks about the graphics. Obviously it’s a DS game but it still feels grand. The ship moves “on rails” based on the line you draw and you basically just control the camera, while shooting down any enemies that bother you. This is something that works extra well on Wii U, because the music and visual scope is enhanced, making it more enjoyable to take in the surroundings. The water effect from Wind Waker is almost identically reproduced, and the need to protect your ship creates a big presence of objects around you. The salvage arm is used to bring up treasures, and even this has fun touch screen mechanics. You’ve got to move a slider to make sure the anchor lands, and avoid spikes while bringing up the treasure. The controls are great and I was always excited to bring up treasure, it makes you work for it.

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The Temple of the Ocean King is the main dungeon in the game and probably the biggest unique gimmick. The Hourglass is an item that grants you a set time to explore the dangerous air in this dungeon which “sucks the life out of you”. The temple is set up so you keep going back to it throughout the game, getting deeper and deeper as you fill your Hourglass with more minutes. Phantoms patrol every room and create a real sense of danger, because they can knock you out in one hit and also remove 30 seconds from your Hourglass. It means there’s a bit of waiting around in the Temple’s “safe zones”, but it’s very satisfying to progress through. I greatly enjoy the concept of plotting out a path, then running around like an idiot as the timer goes down.

As you get deeper into the Temple you find FASTER ways to progress as you come back with new items. It’s a dungeon with multiple layers of depth, like a 2D platformer made for both speedrunning and exploration. You can see some of this design almost straight away, thinking “oh hey maybe if I had bombs, I could take a shortcut here next time“. It takes the linear approach of one time dungeons and turns it into a more Metroid mindset of “cool, I can do this now“. I love it because it creates a layer of depth to the design and makes the concept work without feeling repetitive. It’s true that you have to come back and repeat some sections, but you also have more time in the hourglass and more items. It’s different gameplay each time, and something you can only do with this concept. It makes Phantom Hourglass an incredibly unique Zelda game every fan should play. It’s easy to get frustrated at the thought of a time limit, but any Zelda fan should be able to appreciate the creative design of it. If the time overwhelms you, just stand in a safe zone and think about your life.

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The game’s pacing is a huge strength throughout and gives your brain a real creative workout. When you’re not comfortably sailing and exploring, the gameplay is relentlessly interactive. My brain had that super-happy constant “what the hell am I doing next” feeling throughout the entire game and I just loved it. It’s almost non-stop problem solving and I lost track of time quite often in my playthrough. The map and touch screen are used in many different ways, to draw lines, reveal patterns, count objects, plot paths and it really celebrates the fact that it’s a Nintendo DS game. There are also 7 unique dungeons outside the Temple of the Ocean King, and they all have very condensed design with so much to think about in each room. They appear small but the structure is brilliantly linked together and the boss battles are AMAZING. Some of them require multi-management of objects on both screens, with enemy patterns being revealed on a different screen to the player. I think I made some of these more difficult on Wii U by having the screens separated, but in a sick twisted way this was more enjoyable for me. One thing that’s definitely harder with the screens separated, was the shooting gallery mini-game. It felt like Game & Wario or Nintendo Land, as you “pull” the arrow shots from the GamePad to the TV. Much harder but definitely more fun. You can always bring the screen displays together to make it the way it was intended.

If you haven’t played the DS Zelda games, the Wii U is a great way to do it. I couldn’t imagine how this would translate to Wii U, but after trying for myself it all makes sense. There’s just so many options you can’t go wrong. The GamePad is just a bigger bottom screen, and the TV is a good compliment with a giant map and glorious sound output. Both Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks are so cleverly designed, Nintendo should get more credit for this period of Zelda games because it’s so fucking impressive to get two vastly different unique Zelda games on the DS. I honestly wish A Link Between Worlds kept this gameplay style because it makes the handheld games more unique. I haven’t played Spirit Tracks in a while but I remember liking it even more than this, the music is certainly better and it branches out into its own world, outside the Wind Waker theme. I’ll definitely be giving that a playthrough on Wii U at some point.

I absolutely fucking loved revisiting the concepts in Phantom Hourglass, and it was so refreshing to execute all these creative ideas on the GamePad. The only issue I think people might have would be comfort on the GamePad, it’s a big fucking beast of a controller. Sometimes in this game I would hold the GamePad up, so it’s under the TV, directly in my line of sight. If you don’t have giant hands like me, this would get tiring so thought I’d mention that. Most of the time, the GamePad was in my lap and there was no strain whatsoever. The touch screen on the Wii U is so solid that I’m sure there’s a comfortable way for everyone. You can just rest it on a table or desk and poke it, that’s how I played the original DS games. I hope this writeup answered any questions you might have about DS games on the Wii U, and if you haven’t played Phantom Hourglass I highly recommend it. It makes you really appreciate how fucking great the Zelda series is, with so many games that take on vastly different approaches to gameplay and world design. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is an exceptional videogame and a quality Zelda title.

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