Below are spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for the Nintendo DS. Though nothing from the story is spoiled, be warned that a whole temple is.
In my opinion, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is an
amazing game. I’ve been a Zelda fan for a long time, however I had
never played a handheld Zelda before. I expected to be overwhelmed by a
full scale Zelda experience and in turn was pleasantly surprised with a
much more streamlined, to-the-point adventure. This is not, however,
the point of this post. For in this great game there was one thing, one
amazing thing, that I just could not take: the Temple of the Ocean King.
I know it’s not just me, because I am yet to find someone who defends the role that this temple plays in the story. True, it’s not like I roam the streets asking strangers about the issue but I have a feeling that even if I did, I’d have a hard time finding any defenders for the temple. However, for all I hate having to revisit the temple again and again, I can’t help but to admire the amount of design that must have gone into it.
The Ocean King’s Temple’s biggest flaw is that players are forced to revisit it several times, and each of those times with (mostly) the same mission. It is hard to disagree wih the fact that it gets increasingly annoying to have to return to the temple every time the navigation charts start feeling too small. And it gets annoying mostly because first it gets predictable and then it gets repetitive in its predictability. Even though the player gets to explore new areas of the temple every time they return, it still feels like stale exploration. The freshness of the temple is gone right after the first visit ends.
The temple has another great flaw, however, and it is that every time they go inside, a timer starts. If the player is unable to reach their destination in the given amount of time they are sent back to the beginning of the temple and encouraged to try again. This timer increases as the players adventure through the world but it is still an incredible punishment, for if they are not quick or clever enough they must replay a temple that they are probably already replaying for the fourth or fifth time.
These two aspects no doubt cast this temple into the abyss of horrible experiences, but the interesting thing is that if we are able to look for a minute beyond these two flaws we will find a very tight and clever design. This temple may be a punishment to players, but it is a greatly designed one.
Zelda has made an incredible name for itself for many reasons, and one of those is smart and exciting dungeon design. Zelda dungeons, however, are somewhat dispensable: designed to be thrown away after they are beaten for the first time. Also, Zelda temples tend to be greatly centered around the item that is hidden in the temple and players have learned that if they find a boomerang in the temple then they can expect to solve most of the local puzzles and beat the boss by using the boomerang and little else. The Temple of the Ocean King defies all of these principles by nature, since players are required to come back several times.
It makes me extremely curious why the designers chose to create this temple in the first place, since it is evident that they were aware of the flaws mentioned before. What impresses me the most about the design of the temple is that the player progressively obtains items in their adventure that override the temple puzzles. The player then has to solve each puzzle twice, but differently.
The first time they must solve the puzzle itself and the second time they must find the shortcut that enables them to skip the puzzle altogether, buying them precious time. However, these shortcuts are only available once the player has gained access to a particular item and in order to do so they must have already traveled deep enough into the temple to solve said puzzle at least once. The main purpose of shortcuts, however, is to make it possible for the player to clear the temple at all given the more demanding time limits that they face later on.
And not only is the shortcut design clever, but the player actually must use every item gained so far in the game in order to access all shortcuts. By the time the player plays through the temple for the last time, the result is incredible: it is truly the ultimate final dungeon. Players masterfully navigate the dungeon, using every resource available to them to reach the final destination. The time limit forces the player to be smart and efficient, and by the time one reaches the final chamber there is truly a feeling of having mastered the game.
The level design is flawless: the player learns through the temple, evolves with the temple and masters the temple. However, and most importantly, the player hates the temple. Because the mastery comes at the cost of repetition and by the time the player reaches the final destination the noelty has worn off, along with the excitement and the surprise. And without surprise, there can be no fun.
Temple of the Ocean King, you have made me cleverer and you have made me faster. You have made me smarter and you have made me stonger. You have taught me invaluable design lessons. But most importantly, you have made me wish that I never set foot inside you again, because I truly hate you.