A Study in Legends #6 (Phantom Hourglass by Akira Himekawa)

See all past instances of this column here

With the new release, Breath of the Wild, receiving all manner of accolade from the most unexpected of sources, The Legend of Zelda franchise has been revitalised and has never been more in vogue.

For the few who weren’t fortunate enough to grow up in the 90s saturated in video games, The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that is steeped in complex continuity, interweaving between worlds and throughout time. What remains constant, however, is a protagonist named Link that strives to save the titular heroine, Zelda.

Back in 1998, a staggering 19 years ago for those of you who want a reminder of your age, Nintendo commissioned the legendary manga duo Akira Himekawa (with pen names A. Honda and S. Nagano) to adapt their most popular game to date, Ocarina of Time, into a serialised manga. As is discussed in the afterword to the first collected volume, Akira Himekawa jumped at the chance to work on a game that they themselves were hotly anticipating.

Akira Himekawa would soon go on to adapt eight of the games in turn, putting their own little spin on each independent universe, which were released to wild acclaim in Japan and even found some success overseas. Fortunately for those of us who were unlucky enough not to have access to the material at the time of its initial release, Viz Media have been gradually re-releasing collected versions of the material in so-called “Legendary Editions”.

These editions include a limited portion of coloured pages at the beginning of each volume, while also bundling in supplementary material such as accompanying magazine interviews and bonus stories that hint at a world even broader than that seen in the games themselves. This column will cover each of these five collected “Legendary” volumes, analysing their commitment to the original source material and whether or not they can be judged on their own merits.

NOTE: All images in this article should be read from right to left, in the original manga style

Previous "Legendary Edition" volumes have followed one overall story; even though they sometimes contained two separate adventures; this third entry into the series contains two distinct stories. Although they are from the same video game era, they each require their own analysis; if you haven't read the first half yet, you can find that here.

With each successive Zelda manga that I consume, the traits that correlate with a successful adaptation have begun to coalesce. One key quality that continues to rank highest is originality. Himekawa know that direct adaptations are unnecessary, as you can simply play the original game and consume it in its intended format. The most outstanding story so far, A Link to the Past, stood out because it was unafraid to use the foundation of the game’s plot as a springboard for something far greater. Unfortunately, Phantom Hourglass is the series' first major misstep, reaching in so many directions that it never quite attains any.
Each of the previous entries into this column have identified what makes each of the individual stories unique; whether this means a new version of Link, unique perspective on the timeline or another component, there has always been something to point to and say why each was worthy of the adaptation. It’s difficult to say why Akira Himekawa decided to put the effort into adapting this game. Phantom Hourglass is the direct sequel to the hit game The Wind Waker, making the slight step down from Gamecube to the Nintendo DS in 2007. It follows a Link that travels the seas with his pirate companion Tetra (this generation’s version of Princess Zelda), but is swept up into yet another adventure with the cowardly sailor, Linebeck, and the amnesiac fairy, Ciela.

It was a game that relied heavily on the fans of its successor to make the transition between consoles for the continuing story. Its release was met with the now customary success, but is definitely one of the more forgettable in the franchise. One of the main criticisms for the game was its very casual nature; it lacked the bite and the excitement that had previously made the franchise so popular.
This lack of enthusiasm translates immediately into the tone of this story; there is no agency or buoyancy to the story motivating you forwards to the next page. Disregarding the need for an impactful plot, as The Minish Cap was able to do very successfully, it still never manages to be a fun adventure. The only reason driving this adaptation appears to have been a need to capture Link's recent recreational sailing without a consideration as to the need to tell this story.

However, there are a few moments when you begin to get a hint at what Himekawa were reaching for with this half of the volume. Link will occasionally emote to the panel-camera in a fun, fourth-wall breaking way. Due to the inherent cartoonish exaggeration of the cell-shaded aesthetic, it feels like a natural leap for Himekawa to make and the humour lands very neatly. Unfortunately, it doesn’t permeate through enough of the story and only makes you resent the moments where its presence cannot be felt. There is still an inherent magnification of emotion that you would expect from something with this aesthetic, but it never quite feels like enough.

On that same vein, Link's role in Phantom Hourglass is very difficult to pinpoint. Without the strong narrative cohesion that slots the rest of the games into something resembling a timeline, he serves as any other plug and play protagonist in a fantasy story. Even his relationship with Tetra suffers in the adaptation, with Himekawa turning her solely into an overbearing captain, removing any of the nuance to their interactions.
One character that does well in the conversion is Link’s companion, Ciela. She takes the role that was unfortunately discarded by Himekawa in their adaptation of the fairy Navi in Ocarina of Time, serving as Link’s moral compass - his partner in everything but name - and introduces a strong sense of comradery to the adventure. She epitomises why this role is important for this franchise: when the blandness of the protagonist permeates, the companion brings back the conversation.

A brand new character for this instalment that gets significantly fleshed out, as Himekawa are wont to do, is the reluctant scoundrel with a heart-of-gold pirate, Linebeck. Although his primarily function in the plot is the Han Soloiest, the backstory that we see for the first time in this manga gives him an intensely tragic backstory, shining a greater light onto his initial cowardice and ultimately making him a more engaging character. As much as Himekawa do great work with this adaptation, it feels as though the foundational game on which their story was based didn’t provide them with enough material to put their own unique spin on. It is unlikely that you will come away from this feeling cheated, as there is some genuine enjoyment to be gained from this story, but it’s difficult to not feel slightly cheated when each entry preceding it has felt worthwhile. You should buy this volume for the more engaging adaptation of The Minish Cap that fills the first half, allowing you to enjoy this story for what it is: a slightly predictable nautical adventure with unfulfilled potential.