Sunday, January 10, 2010

Zelda and Multiplayer: Phantom Hourglass

The history of Zelda's multiplayer is a history of failure. By now six games in the series already tried to implement a multiplayer mode, but still the Zelda series isn't known for its multiplayer experience. Let's take a closer look, how multiplayer was incorporated into Zelda and what went wrong.

Fifth part:
Phantom Hourglass

What did we learn so far? First of all, that a Zelda multiplayer mode should come as an addition to a solid Zelda singleplayer game and not as a separate game. We probably don't even need some full blown large scale multiplayer Zelda, a small but fun battle mode could do the job as well. There should be some rewards for playing the multiplayer mode as a motivation, but on the other hand players don't want to miss out something in the singleplayer in case they can't play the multiplayer. And most important, make sure that they can play the multiplayer, an online mode is a necessity for something like Four Swords, because it's hard to find other players in your neighborhood.

And all of that is exactly what the team, which made Four Swords Adventures, thought when they were making Phantom Hourglass. Instead of making simply another Four Swords title for the Nintendo DS, they focused on a new singleplayer adventure. But they added a small Battle Mode as an addition, where you even could win four of the rare golden ship parts for the main game. But you also could get those on your own, in case you weren't able to play the multiplayer. That's perfect, there's motivation, but you don't miss out anything like a secret dungeon just in case. And even the best, the game is playable online and you can battle with other Zelda fans all around the world. A dream!

So, how did they screw it up? The problem is not the overall setup, the problem is, that the multiplayer mode itself isn't too much fun. It's entirely based on the new stealth concepts from Temple of the Ocean King, a dungeon which got mixed reactions from the fan base. I personally thought, that the stealth sections in the game were a nice challenge, but it's not like it's so much fun, that I would want a multiplayer mode based on it.

Well, how does it work? There are only two players in this mode, one is red and one is blue. One player controls three Phantoms by drawing paths on the map and the second player controls a Link, who wears either red or blue and who doesn't have a sword or any other weapons. The players take turns as soon as Link gets hit or the time for the round runs out. Your goal as Link is to collect Force Gems and carry them to your base. There's one base for both players on the map, a red and a blue one, and you can even steal Force Gems from the other base. It's basically a mix between Capture the Flag and Pacman. There are also items like the Pegasus Boots, that make both Link and Phantoms walk faster. It's very strategic and it's not easy to get into it. You have to know the maps like the back of your hand to win a match. The Phantoms has to be placed in strategic positions in order to catch Link. As Link you do, what you've done most of the time in the Temple of the Ocean King, the problem just is, that you can't see the Phantoms all the time, you only see them if you're carrying Force Gems.



The mode isn't too appealing, because it puts the players in different positions. A good multiplayer is always symmetrical. Chess wouldn't be so popular, if one player only has pawns and the second player gets three queens. Which is exactly like the multiplayer of Phantom Hourglass feels like most of the time, one player attacks and one player is always on the run. It's also too strategic, like I said, as a beginner this mode can be a huge turn off. For example one time I couldn't find anyone with my rank, so I had to play vs. anyone and I of course ran into some very experienced player, who "pwnd" me hard. It was humiliating and I stopped playing (against anyone) right after it. Normally Nintendo manages to create a multiplayer like Super Smash Bros. Brawl or Mario Kart Wii, where you can even have a lot of fun as a beginner and where it's fun to play, even if you lose. But not here.

The bright side is, that this mode is playable online. It's the only Zelda multiplayer game so far, that supports online. There are some minor problems with it, sometimes it lags a little bit and some players like to disconnect, when they lose. But there's some sort of punishment for disconnecting often and you always have the option to play against friends, where this shouldn't be a problem at all. So, overall these aren't reasons, why you should remove the online mode from the next game. Next to online, Phantom Hourglass also supports local multiplayer and even Download Play, where you only need one card to play the game. So, it covers all possible multiplayer options for the Nintendo DS.

There's also some kind of an achievements system as a motivation to play the Battle Mode. These achievements are called "Big Plays" and include several tasks like not to dribble the Force Gems or to have a flawless victory. There are 16 of them and each time you collect four of them, you receive one more golden ship part from Eddo's apprentice in the Adventure Mode. Funny thing is, that a lot of people help each other out to get those Big Plays and the golden ship parts. It's cheap, but it somehow brings Zelda fans all over the world together and this is wonderful. And even if you can't play the multiplayer mode, you can still get the golden ship parts somewhere else, so you don't miss out anything unlike in A Link to the Past - Four Swords. As an addition, you also can trade treasures and ship parts online and offline with the help of the Contact Mode in order to complete your collection much faster.

So, overall Nintendo took with Phantom Hourglass some big steps in the right direction. It's a small battle mode as an addition to a new singleplayer adventure. There are rewards for the singleplayer in form of rare items and you can play it online. But the problem is, that the mode itself isn't symmetrical and too complicated for beginners. Something similar to Shadow Battles from Four Swords Adventures would have probably been more appealing.

Last part: Spirit Tracks

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