I have a confession: I like The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. I really do. Sure, everything about the game is more simple than its console counterpart — crunched 3D graphics, a gimmicky reliance on touch controls, ridiculously basic puzzle and dungeon design — but that was perfect for a seven-year old who sucked at videogames. I adored sailing around the overworld with Linebeck as my snarky first-mate, clawing up treasures deep from the ocean blue. Where some saw the Temple of the Ocean King as a repetitive slog, I viewed my many returns as proof of a slow but steady conquest towards the demonic Bellum at its core.
My affection for the game exists squarely within the minority; people often view Phantom Hourglass and its 2009 sequel Spirit Tracks as the black sheep within the franchise. To many, they are experiences limited by their hardware and elementary design that ask the player to do the same tasks over and over and over again ad nauseum. Stare at the faults long enough, though, and you lose sight of the bigger picture: Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks were the testing grounds for some of the things that make Breath of the Wild so special.
When Breath of the Wild released in 2017, it was (rightfully) acclaimed for many aspects, but for our purposes, let’s focus on three areas: the menacing central nature of Hyrule Castle, the increased customization options, and the development of the character of Zelda.
Almost everywhere in Breath of the Wild provides a vantage point to stare at Hyrule Castle, with the ominous shroud of Calamity Ganon serving as a constant reminder of the danger you must (eventually) face. Its presence is suffocating, anxiously poking and prodding you to stop collecting Korok seeds and get your ass in gear to save the suffering Princess Zelda. In many ways, The Tower of Spirits from Spirit Tracks is a test run of this design, as it sits smack-dab in the middle of the game’s Hyrule and is accessible from each of the five realms. It’s not uncommon to catch a glimpse of the deconstructed Tower, its many pieces circling the base wanting to be reunited.
By centralizing Hyrule Castle and the Tower of Gods, the developers are easily able to ratchet up tension and remind players at any moment where their final destination lay. The Tower of Spirits may not be the blueprint for this type of move — something similar was done with Castle Town in Twilight Princess — but it easily could have served as a trial run.
While adventuring toward your final destination, the Zelda series has never been known to allow much freedom to the player, specifically on the design of their characters. Whether or not you name the character Link, he always wears a green tunic and always fights with a sword; any other clothing or weapons exist for hyper specific situations. Breath of the Wild threw traditional garb and weaponry out the window in favor of unique clothing sets and breakable weapons that prompted players to constantly tweak their outfit and arsenal to suit their various needs. While both Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks stuck to the traditional formula in terms of Link, they were the proving ground for cosmetic changes thanks to their discoverable Ship Parts and Train Cars.
Exactly what they sound like, Ship Parts and Train Cars change the overall look of your particular vehicle. The designs are often goofy, uniting various parts of the vehicle into a thematic aesthetic; my favorites are the Dignified Ship and Sweet Train respectively. No main series entry before or in the decade between games even attempted this level of player choice. So while the DS customizations are purely cosmetic, containing none of the status effects or statistics of the armor or weapons from Breath of the Wild, it’s still hard to not look from one to the other and see a straight line connecting them.
Even stronger, though, is how all three games handle Princess Zelda, or their lack thereof in Phantom Hourglass’s case. Tetra — who appears briefly in Phantom Hourglass — was Nintendo’s first attempt to develop the character of Zelda, who generally existed as a damsel in distress with minimal actual interaction with Link. She had snark, spunk, and scurvy, a far cry from the prim and proper Princess seen last in Ocarina of Time. Still, it’s hard to say that Zelda had any of this personality or pizzazz, since Tetra loses most of her affectations when she transforms into the Princess. The Princess herself was an empty shell, waiting to be filled in with spirit. You see where I’m going with this, right?
For the first time ever, Zelda accompanies Link through the journey of Spirit Tracks, although not in corporeal form. Having lost her body, Zelda is a spirit, a very angry and silly spirit who’s more concerned with what the villain will do with her body than how it will destroy Hyrule. She’s constantly at your side, chiming in with advice when desired and possessing Phantoms to help solve puzzles or fight in combat. She’s endearingly naive — happy to face off against ancient threats while scared to death by a mouse. This incarnation of Zelda grows with the player, coming out at the end a changed person who truly cares about Link and wants to be a better ruler for her people.
Spirit Tracks, and, to a lesser extent, Phantom Hourglass before it, flipped the script on Zelda being a moody leader burdened by destiny. This Zelda sets the groundwork for Skyward Sword, whose childhood friend/crush remains my favorite portrayal to date. Both of these are predecessors to Breath of the Wild’s Zelda, the genius warrior who wants to be among her people and thoughtfully prepares for Ganon’s inevitable return, the most fleshed out and active Zelda to date.
15 years after Phantom Hourglass initially released, it’s high time that we stop treating these games as radioactive waste and view them for the fun, child-friendly adventures that they truly are. These games are lighthearted romps that capture the magic of trying to continually develop new experiences for their players. They’re adventures full of ridiculously charming characters (#LinebeckLegion), innovative gameplay that admittedly may not always work, and experimental design. Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks might not do everything perfectly, but they take big swings that set the foundation for future entries within the series to build off of. And they certainly deserve a lot more respect for that alone.
Mik Deitz is a freelance writer and former Paste intern. They inhale stories in videogames, films, TV and books, and have never finished God of War (2018). Yell at or compliment them on Twitter @dietdeitz.