Although it is understandable why The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures is often ignored, the clever ways in which it uses its four different Links to uncover unique cooperative puzzles and frantic battles makes its status be rather unfair
There is no mystery to why The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures is an often overlooked installment of the franchise. Published in 2004 for the Nintendo GameCube, it is a quest whose 2-D visuals and top-down perspective make it come off like an ugly duckling, especially because it was born during an era when two-dimensional gaming was out of vogue in home consoles. Furthermore, its setup, which is that of an adventure based around individual levels rather than centered on the huge explorable overworlds the property is famous for, causes it to seem more of a curious little detour than a full-fledged entry to Link’s magnificent canon.
Finally, given it shares the same console with two truly excellent and certainly much bigger The Legend of Zelda games – The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess – that have far more alluring technical proficiency and gameplay twists, a fact that also makes its release date fall dangerously close and right in between the launch of those two games, it is easy to understand why Four Swords Adventures is surprisingly obscure for a title that not only carries one of the industry’s most popular labels, but that also sold quite well upon its release.
Although those three factors do play relatively big roles in the status of Four Swords Adventures, their influence pales in comparison to that of its defining trait: the way it is meant to be played. And that is because Four Swords Adventures was built from the ground up with a multiplayer experience in mind. Its quest stars not one, but four versions of Link, each identified by a unique color, and many of the game’s most spectacular puzzles and combats gravitate around the cooperation between the characters.
That multiplayer nature itself is, however, not what keeps Four Swords Adventures from being more recognized; the problem lies in how that kind of gameplay can be achieved. Because instead of using four GameCube joysticks to allow four friends to sit down and enjoy some The Legend of Zelda multiplayer action, the game takes a much rockier road and demands that – whenever more than one gamer is involved – the Game Boy Advance be used as the controller.
Whether it is seen from a contemporary perspective or from the point of view of the time of its release, that quirk obviously causes a problem, because tackling Four Swords Adventures alongside one to three people requires that the group have access not to just some Game Boy Advance systems, but also to the cables that connect them to the GameCube. That apparently forced requirement, which could understandably be analyzed as an attempt by Nintendo to sell accessories, does have gameplay-related reasons, though.
Most of the time, the four Links will appear on the television screen. If four players are involved, they will be moving individually; if less than four players are taking part in the action, the Links that are not being controlled will just walk behind and follow the steps of one or some of the gamers. In that context, the Game Boy Advance becomes essential because whenever one of the players enters a cave, a house, or falls into a hole that leads away from the main screen, that indoor segment and their version of Link will appear on the handheld’s screen, allowing the action that is happening on the television to roll on seamlessly.
The approach works well, and the game takes advantage of that feature by presenting a handful of puzzles, action segments, and battles that have clever interactions between what is happening on both screens. However, from a practical standpoint, it is arguable that if the company wanted to make the title’s multiplayer more accessible and eliminate the need to find Game Boy Advance systems and a bunch of cables, they could have circumvented those needs.
Case in point, when the game is played as a single-player adventure, with all the Links neatly following the leading green hero and individual control of all versions being achieved by switching between them via the D-pad, it is possible to use the GameCube controller. In that case, sequences that feature interactions between the screens work nevertheless, because the Game Boy Advance is simulated on the television via a pop-up window that emulates it, appearing only when the action shifts to the inside of caves and houses.
There is, consequently, a lot of difficulty involved in tackling Four Swords Adventures in its ideal and most fun state: that is, alongside one or more friends and having to deal with all the hardships of Hyrule through a good deal of cooperation. Fortunately, those who want to do it on their own will be happy to learn that the game works very well as a single-player experience. It is very easy to see that Nintendo never intended the game to stand as an equal beside other The Legend of Zelda games, because the production values of Four Swords Adventures do not quite live up to what one would expect from the franchise: its story seems quickly put together; the writing is merely decent; cutscenes are mostly absent and Link often hears of the deeds of the bad guys through text; and the game’s music, though obviously great, does not find considerable identity due to how it borrows pretty much all remarkable tunes it uses.
The only area marginal to gameplay where Four Swords Adventures truly excels is in its graphics, which combine the visual assets of A Link to the Past with the cartoonish traces of The Wind Waker, therefore giving birth to a very charming 2-D world. Despite those technical irregularities, there is plenty of inventiveness and numerous moments of cleverness in the game, and they achieve a good level of originality thanks to how they stem from the usage of four Links. As such, Four Swords Adventures is a game that deserves to be played, especially by fans of the saga, even if they do it alone.
The game starts when Zelda and six other maidens of Hyrule head to the shrine where the evil sorcerer Vaati has been imprisoned. Given bad events have been happening all around the kingdom, they suspect the seal that keeps him locked has been weakening. Link accompanies the girls, and when they get to their destination, a shadowy clone of the hero emerges. He locks the maidens (including Zelda) inside unbreakable crystals and sends them away to different regions of Hyrule, where evil armies have been emerging.
Trying to stop him, Link gives chase and ends up in the sanctuary where the legendary Four Sword is kept. The hero pulls the sword to fight his dark doppelganger; however, doing so has two side effects. Firstly, Link splits into four versions of himself; secondly, and much more gravely, he inadvertently releases Vaati. With darkness on the loose and the maidens – the only ones capable of sealing it – in the clutches of evil, Link and his colorful friends depart to yet another adventure.
True to its nature as a bit of an oddball amidst the franchise, Four Swords Adventures has a structure more akin to that of a Super Mario game than of a The Legend of Zelda outing. Hyrule is nothing but an overworld map broken into eight regions that the game calls levels, and each level features three courses, amounting to twenty four stages that can be fully cleared within twelve to fifteen hours. That simple linear setup augments the feeling that Four Swords Adventures is a fun loose detour that aims to please in a way that is a bit different from and lighter than the norm.
But in spite of how there is no real overworld exploration, the content of all stages is exactly what one would expect from a The Legend of Zelda game. There are pieces of equipment to be found, puzzles to be solved with the use of those items, minor enemies to be dealt with, bosses to be downed, characters to be met, branching paths that lead to non-linear exploration of the area, and even a handful of dungeons that despite being generally more straightforward than the average The Legend of Zelda maze still carry a great degree of smart satisfying riddles with solutions that are sometimes not so immediate.
Even if it, fortunately, follows the rules that determine what constitutes a The Legend of Zelda game, Four Sword Adventures does take a few nice liberties with the general formula. And although they do not yield results that are entirely positive, they do allow the game to stand out for other reasons in addition to its unique structure and four-player focus.
For starters, finishing a stage is not a matter of simply getting to its end, as the exits of all courses are blocked by energy barriers that can only be broken when the Four Sword is powered up, which is done by collecting 2,000 force gems (colorful triangles that are found in chests, dropped by enemies, or hidden in the scenario). It is an interesting mechanic, but – truth be told – rarely does it come into play, because gamers that employ a little dedication in battling foes and exploring their surroundings will hardly be affected by it, as the force gems are quite abundant and it is common to get to the end of the courses with hundreds of them to spare.
Moreover, Four Swords Adventures also completely resets Link’s inventory as he moves from one stage to another, which means that equipment that is acquired and heart containers that are found are lost. When it comes to the tools the Links use to overcome the obstacles they face, that implementation is thoroughly positive. The fact they walk into all courses with nothing but their swords means that finding where the equipment that is needed to advance is hidden and slowly building up the heroes’ inventory are an integral part of the puzzles and progression of the levels.
Additionally, it means that stages and dungeons alike make excellent use of the items the Links carry, never centering around just one of them and disintegrating into monotony. Contrarily, when it comes to the heart containers, the fact they are more like temporary power-ups and less like permanent collectibles reveals one of Four Swords Adventures’ biggest problems: its lack of extra content.
To those who are able to put their hands on multiple Game Boy Advance systems and connecting cables, the game does carry a neat multiplayer mode called Shadow Battle that can be surprisingly fun and hilariously chaotic. In it, the Links can battle it out on ten different stages where, other than using their swords, they will have to employ pieces of equipment and avoid traps that are present in the main quest.
However, to those that take the single-player route only, there is absolutely nothing to do besides finishing the twenty four stages. Given the force gems are so numerous, Nintendo could have easily implemented a high score system with little rewards or medals that would give gamers a reason to replay the fun courses while trying to find as many gems as possible; similarly, some sort of time trials could have been put in place. Those opportunities, though, go to waste.
That issue of lack of extra meat becomes even more aggravating when the general challenge level of Four Swords Adventures is considered, because at no point in the quest will one feel threatened by what it throws at the screen. It is not that the bosses or enemies do not pose a challenge; they do. The problem is that Four Swords Adventures, perhaps targeting to create a cooperative multiplayer experience with as little stress as possible between the participants, is just way too generous in handing out fairies to the players.
They appear in whopping numbers, being given to the Links for every 1,000 gems the heroes have when getting to the end of the level and also popping up all around Hyrule. Due to that, big battles and moments when one is hanging on by a sliver of health lose a great degree of tension (arguably, all of it), because gamers can safely rest in the knowledge they will be revived immediately after they fall and avoid any sort of light but fair punishment, such as having to start the segment again.
Regardless of those problems, Four Swords Adventures is still quite good. The tools the four Links have to use (such as bombs, boomerangs, bows, lanterns, capes that allow them to jump, fire rods, and boots that let them run forward) are smartly employed all around, unearthing the usually engaging The Legend of Zelda puzzles. The game, however, takes it all one step further when it mixes those traditions with the availability of four heroes.
As a consequence, the highlights of the game and the moments that make playing it worth it due to their uniqueness within the franchise emerge when those currents converge. A few of the puzzles demand cooperation and will have those who play alone switching between Links; some bosses and objects have color-coded features that indicate a specific hero is necessary for interaction; and a handful of situations play around with relationships between the Game Boy Advance screen (be it real or simulated) and the television.
But the most remarkable instances of teamwork come when players have to organize the Links in predetermined formations by pressing the R button and selecting the desired option. The four characters can come together to form horizontal or vertical lines, a cross pattern that has each Link facing a direction, and a tight square. In puzzles, this skill bears fruit in the shape of riddles that demand that the Links use their items simultaneously or come together to pull especially large objects.
In combats, meanwhile, Four Swords Adventures holds various screens on which it will unleash an impossibly numerous horde of enemies upon the characters, effectively forcing them to pack themselves into a specific formation that is better suited for the kind of foe that is at hand. Instances like those, which cannot be found anywhere else and are a blast to play through, ultimately make the game deserve a better status than the one it carries.
Therefore, it is unfortunate that The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures is so frequently overlooked. Unquestionably, the reasons behind that obscure character are perfectly understandable. After all, it is a relatively straightforward and low-key 2-D adventure released on the same console, and right in between, two excellent tridimensional giants of the franchise; and it is a game whose very best state – that is, its multiplayer action – can only be experienced through very complicated means, which involve finding four Game Boy Advance systems and the cables that connect them to the GameCube.
However, below the quest’s simplicity and those marginal complications lies a quest that is still a lot of fun even if tackled as a single-player campaign. It is true some of its production values are a bit lackluster when put under a comparative light alongside other The Legend of Zelda installments; and it is equally clear its gameplay stumbles in a couple of areas. Yet, its surprisingly varied stages and, especially, the way it uses the availability of four different Links to uncover unique cooperative puzzles and frantic battles make The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures very enjoyable.