Retro(spective) 5-Mega Man X

If Capcom is looking for a way to reinvigorate their now-dormant Mega Man franchise, might I suggest a return trip to the world of Mega Man X? Released in 1993, Mega Man X is the embodiment of the over-the-top, extreme nature of nineties entertainment. Mega Man X was tougher, edgier, and more action-packed than any of the previous NES or Game Boy installments. Unlike many similar reboots of the time, Mega Man X was more than just a cosmetic upgrade; it was a bona fide evolution of the NES series’ play control and game design.

When Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune began developing Mega Man X, his intention was to create a game that could rival the popularity of the RPGs of the day. Inafune felt that the use of experience points and level/class specific attacks in these RPGs were making the original Mega Man series seem dated. Thus, he and his team set out to use the SNES’s increased horsepower to update Mega Man for this new, burgeoning audience.

To that end, did you know that not only was Mega Man’s ally Zero intended to be playable in Mega Man X, but was also supposed to be the star? Inafune asserts that he wanted to break from the “nice guy” mold that Mega Man had been wedged into, and nearly pitched the design for Zero as his new look. Needless to say, Inafune had a strong instinct that both fans and management might not take to such a shift. Instead, he let fellow designer Hayato Kaji create and submit his more traditionally-themed version of Mega Man. Once Inafune’s bosses said yes to Kaji’s Mega Man, he knew it would be easy to slip Zero in as the “sub character”, which he did. This micro-drama actually ended up benefiting all of us, as both characters are totally awesome.

All this talk of design wouldn’t mean a thing if the game didn’t play well, and luckily Mega Man X does. The basics of Mega Man remained for the X series; along with the 2D shooting/platforming, you start off with eight Mavericks (think Robot Masters) that you can tackle in the order of your choosing. With each subsequent boss you defeat, their weaponry is assimilated into your armory. Inafune and company were cognizant enough to realize that though Mega Man was in need of a jolt of adrenaline to stay relevant, the core mechanics of the series were sound. If Inafune’s crew were smart in retaining the basic structure and combat of the original games, then their additions were downright brilliant.

The graphics in Mega Man X are bottled electricity. The sprites are detailed, vivid, and in some cases, huge. As impressive as the NES Mega Man games were, the X series took everything to a new level. Many of the enemies tower over Mega Man or simply dwarf him in girth. The SNES made it easy for Inafune’s team to take their excellent character and environment designs and realize them more accurately than ever before. What I enjoy in particular about Mega Man X is that some of the environment is actually destructible. Crafts and enemies can be destroyed and crash through the floor, revealing new paths to items and powerups. Along with some destroyable objects and structures, you could also completely alter a level’s look (and parts of the environment) by beating a boss from another stage. For instance, beating Chill Penguin will freeze Flame Mammoth’s factory and remove the magma hazards. It’s touches like this in X’s world that made it feel like more than a simple backdrop and actually helped to further the gameplay. Plus, this more varied geography inspired the team to give Mega Man a new ability, a handy wall-kick that would let him scale sheer surfaces and increased the scope of exploration.

Part of Inafune’s plan to make the series seem more advanced was to implement a secondary upgrade system for Mega Man’s armor. His entire body can be overhauled, which allows him to break blocks with his head, reduce the damage he takes, and most importantly, speed dash across the ground (this move replaced Mega Man’s sliding ability). This final (well, first,  if you’re playing the game right) upgrade is invaluable, as it literally transforms the game experience. As opposed to Mega Man’s usual trot, you can zip and fly through stages delivering an onslaught of destruction unlike anything in the previous titles. It was an ingenious decision on the design team’s part and dramatically improved the flow of combat. I love the NES-style games, but the speed infused into the series with Mega Man X was a true breath of fresh air.

For all the bluster and shoulder pads the nineties brought to our comic books and videogame characters, Mega Man X was a necessary evolution of the series that helped keep it relevant for many years. While a great deal of the quality dipped once the series transitioned to the PS2, overall the entire X series is worth playing, and more importantly, worth revisiting. I love the look of the Playstation games, but I’d be hugely in favor of Capcom bringing us X9 with SNES-style graphics and play control. Mimic the soundtrack of this game and make Boba Fett-esque villain Vile a bigger part of the action, and Mega Man will be back in business.

This game’s available from a variety of services nowadays, but the closest to the true experience can be found on the Wii’s Virtual Console (bonus points if you play it with an original Classic Controller and not the Pro!). You can also hunt down a copy of the Mega Man X Collection on GameCube/PS2/XBox if you want to play the whole series. The PSP remake is a solid version of the game, but for people who are new to X, try the SNES version, first. No matter what, make sure you play Mega Man X!

One more thing; did you know that you can make Mega Man do Ryu’s hadouken in this game? It’s true! Once you’ve beaten all the bosses and collected all powerups/items, return to Armored Armadillo’s stage and proceed until you reach the point where you ride the spiked rail car that leads you to the boss’s entrance. Jump off the cart at the height of it’s flight and wall-kick until you reach the top of the cliff over the boss door’s entrance. Collect the large energy capsule there, then throw yourself to your death in the pit below. Repeat this process five times, and on the last one you will meet Dr. Light, who grants you the ability to perform the hadouken when at full power! HADOUKEN!!

Released 1993. Developed and published by Capcom.

Mega Man X is available on the SNES. It is also available on Wii Virtual Console/GameCube/PS2/XBox/Mobile/PC. PSP and Game Boy Color remakes also available.

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DuckTales Remastered Fosters Hope for Licensed Games of Yore

One of the best SNES brawlers was Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time. A port of the arcade game, there was one major difference with the SNES version; it was better. The main reason for the SNES Turtles‘ superiority was its beefier combat, but the extra stages and characters didn’t hurt, either. 21 years later, Turtles in Time remains a constant in articles about under-appreciated games of yesterday. Yet, despite the abundance of posthumous praise the game receives, there’s one major hurdle preventing Turtles in Time from making an encore; licensing.

The Ninja Turtles weren’t owned by Konami, just like Batman didn’t belong to Sunsoft and Aladdin didn’t belong to Capcom. Licensing agreements have yielded many excellent games over the years, but as time passes and rights go away, those titles ultimately end up in limbo. We see spurts of resurgence here and there, like when some of Capcom’s Disney games were re-released on the Game Boy Advance, or the GameCube Turtles games that featured ports of the arcade games. Sadly, these examples are few and erratic, and have left me with little hope for much more over the years. At least, that’s how I felt until WayForward and Capcom announced DuckTales Remastered.

Remastered is a HD remake of the legendary NES game. Capcom has an entire catalog of quality, licensed Disney games under its cap that haven’t seen the light of day in years. Systems like the NES, SNES, and SEGA Genesis were home to some of those wonderful titles, but sadly they continue to languish over the years as memories and nothing more. Luckily, with the effort being made by Capcom and Disney to return a classic title like DuckTales to the marketplace, there’s a chance that more licensed games will find their way back to players.

Services like Nintendo’s Virtual Console, Sony’s PSN, and Microsoft’s XBox LIVE have been around for years now and are the perfect venue for getting classic licensed games back into the hands of consumers. Sony, for their part, has made the effort to offer a small selection of older licensed titles, but what’s there is limited and not nearly enough. For many gamers, titles like Mickey’s Magical Quest or X-Men hold as special a place in their memories as Zelda or Metroid. While I wouldn’t suggest that those titles are of equal quality or importance, I do believe that their significance to gamers of generations past makes them worth revisiting.

I’d really love to see a concentrated effort made by the developers and license holders of these old games to get them re-released in some fashion. Part of the history of gaming is and continues to come from licenses from all forms of media; just look at the Arkham games. As a part of gaming’s past, licensed games deserve the same preservation and recognition as games like Crash Bandicoot, Banjo Kazooie, and Super Mario, all of which are available from their respective downloadable services. While certainly a niche market, the audience for these titles is considerable and deserves to be satiated. Here’s hoping DuckTales is a smash hit so that other classic licensed games can make a comeback, too.

Retro(spective) 4-EarthBound

In light of last week’s abrupt re-release, I thought I’d dust off EarthBound a bit for the uninitiated. Released in 1995 here in the US, EarthBound is actually the second game in the series Mother (as it’s called in Japan) and is the passion-project of Shigesato Itoi and Nintendo President Satoru Iwata. Itoi is madly famous in Japan for a variety of things, ranging from writing to videogame development to his daily blog (you might have even seen him as a judge on the original Japanese Iron Chef TV series). EarthBounds pedigree of creators is right up there with classic titles like Chrono Trigger. HAL Laboratory, Ape, and Nintendo united to bring a real masterpiece to the table, but unfortunately it would take many years before the game could truly be appreciated.

So, What is EarthBound?

EarthBound is a very non-traditional RPG. The game revolves around the character Ness and his adventure to end the threat of the alien Giygas. Ness must locate eight hidden “sanctuaries” in order to merge his power with that of the Earth’s and use it to defeat Giygas before it can enslave the universe. The battle system features turn-based action, but with a twist on the typical trappings. Like some very old-school dungeon crawlers, the battle screen features a static image of your enemy and simple menus displaying your various attacks; your party does not actually appear onscreen. The twist comes in the form ofEarthBound’s “odometer” health counter. Your HP ticks down as you take damage, but it is possible to stop the progression with healing magic/items or the defeat of your enemy before the meter hits zero. Thus, an element of “speed” is present during battles that adds a different factor to consider when planning your attack.

Speaking of attacking, the game is famous for its refusal to conform to traditional RPG conventions. No swords or lances, no potions, but instead baseball bats and yo-yos, hamburgers and fries. Along with its semi-surreal depiction of American culture,EarthBound uses food and items synonymous with what you’d find in a typical suburb, not a castle. The game also lampoons RPG currency using a variation of the typical father-son allowance arrangement, with Ness’s dad depositing cash into a checking account as battles are won. The developers did a great job of finding mundane analogues for shops (drugstores) and inns (hotels) in order to make them fit the world of EarthBound. Think being poisoned sucks? Wait until you have to deal with being homesick!

As far as the structuring of the environment, EarthBound has an interesting interconnected overworld, where the player is able to seamlessly travel between towns as though it were a true, open world. Populating this landscape is a plethora of oddball characters that you will probably never forget. I touched on this a little above, but what is intrinsic to the EarthBoundexperience is the developers’ quirky humor and depiction of what appears to be American culture. There’s a wealth of social commentary in this game that gives a fascinating look into how the Japanese might interpret what our culture is like, at least as a parody or exaggeration. From police officers whose sole purpose are to put up roadblocks, to books about the necessity of having ATM machines in drugstores to facilitate convenience, the game casts us in an interesting light (one I find pretty spot-on, in many ways).

Helping channel the unique spirit of this game is its stunning visual style. In 1995, the world had already been spoiled by Donkey Kong Country, causing many at the time to criticize the game’s graphics as being “ugly”. While today we’re becoming more accustomed to game journalists embracing the diversity of videogame art direction, the mid-nineties was a much less receptive era, where everyone simply wanted bigger and better. There’s an illustrator-like quality to the game’s visuals, crafted by the use of thin outlines and oblique projection to present Ness’s world. I’d be remiss in not pointing out the amazing soundtrack. The variety is mind-boggling, ranging from simple, catchy melodies to haunting, stirring ambient pieces. EarthBound’s presentation was a good 15 years ahead of the curve, boldly choosing a deliberate look and sound that didn’t care about anything other than furthering the vision of its creators.

So what went wrong? A number of things. I believe EarthBound simply showed up at the wrong moment. For one, it was expensive for its time, coming in with a higher price due to its extras and the cost of production/localization. Graphically, it felt “inferior” to what was being put out on the market at the time, which put-off some players. Others simply couldn’t get into the semi-psychedelic feel of the game. As much as I love this title, I will openly admit that it’s a bit… weird. Eerie, even. At times, there’s something subtly discomforting about the look and feel of the game and its NPCs, yet palpable enough to be polarizing. That sounds totally negative, and I don’t mean it to be. What I’m saying is that EarthBound relishes in its weirdness at times, and you will either love or hate that about the game. I think it’s also worth noting the translation, as it plays a big part in how the game is perceived. There are moments where you can just tell that the writers weren’t totally sure how to convert the original Japanese sentiment into English as well as they might have liked. I’m of the opinion that this adds a certain charm to the game that makes it special, but others might disagree. Ultimately, there are a number of things that hampered the game’s success, but I believe we’ve reached a point where we can put all that behind us.

With the game finally out, take it upon yourself to download a copy on the Wii U. Give the game the shot it deserved back in 1995, and maybe we can get Nintendo to localize the GBA version of Mother 1, along with Mother 3, and heck… maybe even release that English translation of the NES version that never saw the light of day!

EarthBound is available on the SNES and via download from the Wii U eShop. Released 1995. Developed by HAL Laboratory, APE, and Nintendo. Published by Nintendo.

Retro(spective) 3-Final Fight 2

Beat ’em ups have become synonymous with low quality, an easy-out genre for developers making movie and TV tie-in games. Slap a familiar face onto a generic brawler and it’s like printing money if you can sucker enough unaware gamers. Capcom’s Final Fight 2, the 1993 sequel to the first Final Fight, is not one of those titles. A 2D side-scroller, Final Fight 2 is what happens when you put some thought into making a beat ’em up. It’s no Chrono Trigger, but if you give the game a chance, you’re in for big characters, great graphics, and solid core gameplay that makes pummeling gang bangers a joy.

To be totally honest, I can understand why many people aren’t big fans of beat ’em ups. Generally, the action is redundant regardless of how many moves and techniques you throw into the mix. Move right, hit punch and/or kick, and repeat for a few hours. As a kid, I was raised on these games, playing everything from Power Rangers to The Tick and loving every repetitive moment. Hey, when you’re five just about any game is cool, but I can honestly say that my game-schooling has fostered a respect for this genre.

Humans live for familiarity, for routine. Pressing the “A” button a couple hundred times is digital comfort food if you get all the intangibles right. It’s what makes the genre of brawlers, as abused as it has been over the years, so enduring. No complex rules or controls, no higher ambitions other than to give you the gratification of performing an enjoyable routine to kill some time after work.  FF2 succeeds on a number of levels to make it a brawler worth your time.

First, the graphics. FF2′s visuals are SNES sprites at their best. Huge characters fill the foreground, with color saturating the backgrounds in showy, detailed renditions of streets, warehouses, and docks. Look hard enough and you’ll even see Street Fighter mainstays like Guile and Chun Li watching the action. Of course, the graphics wouldn’t be half as impressive if the animations couldn’t keep up, and thankfully they do. Watching Mike Haggar, the main character of the series, piledrive and slam enemies around the screen is both electric and hilarious. The action onscreen is never dull and sucks you into the moment.

In terms of gameplay, FF2 is a delightful synthesis of button mashing and tactical combat. The characters (there are three to choose from; Haggar, Maki, and Carlos) each have an excellent set of moves that allow for a variety of ways to pummel your enemies. The worst brawlers limit the player to simple punches and kicks, but FF2 doesn’t dumb down the experience. Different combinations of moves and attacks allow for a nice flow of combat that makes you feel like you’re thinking a bit as opposed to just going through the motions. I’m partial to brawlers where it takes a multitude of hits to bring down an opponent; a barrage as opposed to a single punch. It’s what makes the combat feel more involved and satisfying, because you’re stringing together a couple attacks that finally break the guy you’re beating on. FF2 is the embodiment of that sort of fighting. The graphics and excellent combat system make FF2 a fine specimen of the beat ’em up genre.

Perhaps the best part of FF2 is that you can tackle the game with a friend. While you and a buddy certainly won’t be talking about the story after you’re done (yeah, it’s no BioShock), you will be remembering how epic it was tearing through swaths of street thugs together. Some of the best brawler’s are co-ops, with titles like the arcade Simpsons and X-Men games readily coming to mind. FF2 is ridiculously over the top in a good way and something about sharing the experience just magnifies the whole thing. Alone or not, FF2satisfies. I’d also like to take a quick second to point out that many of the familiar characters from various Capcom fighting games have their origins in this series. Cody, Guy, Haggar, and Maki have all showed up in different games, but got their starts here. Respect!

The game is available on Wii’s Virtual Console service, which you can still access via the Wii U. I’d snag it before it gets pulled from the service for no reason, like a handful of titles have had happen, tragically. Final Fight 2 might not have an eloquent narrative, but it is masterful in executing all the trappings of the beat ’em up genre that make it unique and special. I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoyed Double Dragon: NeonShank, or for those who like watching the cheesy action flicks of the early 90’s. Don’t think Haggar is just some random heavyweight fighter Capcom chose to throw into Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3; go enjoy the series that made him famous.

One more thing; back in the day, Blockbuster got a few games that were exclusive to their stores. One of them was Final Fight: Guy, a version of the first game featuring Guy as the protagonist! Pretty cool, eh?

Final Fight 2 is available on the SNES. It is also available via download for the Wii Virtual Console.

Finding a Place For Mega Man in 2013

It was this past Saturday when my definition of reality crumpled into a quivering heap on the ground. My cousins and I were gathered around their TV watching youtube footage of Grand Theft Auto V‘s gameplay when it happened. As I sat on the couch, the kids were gleefully pointing out how cool GTAV‘s new features were, while I did my best to seem interested. I’m not much of a GTA fan, so after the video ended I snagged the XBox controller and directed us to the E3 reveal video for Smash Bros. Swing and a miss; the kids thought the game looked just “meh”. Still, I figured I had a trump card coming at the end, when the camera pans and you see the silhouette of Mega Man for the first time. I mean, who can resist Mega Man for crying out loud? As it turns out, my young cousins could easily resist, particularly because… they didn’t know who Mega Man even was!

I suppose I can’t blame my cousins for their ignorance of the Blue Bomber, but it’s definitely a sign of how far Capcom has let the ball drop that Mega Man could so dangerously be bordering on the edge of obscurity. We’re talking a franchise that was as stalwart as Assassin’s Creed or Super Mario back in the day, now languishing in the data banks of Capcom’s servers. A flash drive here, a re-release there, but otherwise virtually nothing new has has been seen from the series since 2010’s Mega Man 10. (I’d count Street Fighter X Mega Man, but it’s release was confined to PC gamers alone, leaving out a big chunk of his core audience).

Capcom execs have insisted that something is brewing for Mega Man, but that they aren’t quite ready to make any announcements. Talk of reevaluating the series’ direction and finding the right way to reinvigorate it has been circulating the web for years now, with little sign of any progress. No one wants a rushed, mediocre game, but enough’s enough; when can we play a new Mega Man game?

We all have our favorite titles that come and go, some to never see the light of day again, but Mega Man shouldn’t be one of them. Keiji Inafune’s creation is on par with some of the most influential games in videogame history and it’s very disappointing that Capcom’s current management is doing such a poor job with Mega Man’s legacy. Whatever Capcom has up its sleeve, the time is now to reestablish Mega Man as the marquee franchise it is. The Blue Bomber might not mean much to my cousins now, but if Capcom can make something that adheres to the series’ solid core gameplay they might be able to change that.

The EarthBound Misstep

When Nintendo revealed that EarthBound would finally be coming to the Wii U’s Virtual Console, it was the culmination of years of fan petitioning to see a re-release of the revered title. With a vague 2013 release date established in April’s Nintendo Direct, it was with more than a little surprise that people found EarthBound waiting for purchase and download in the eShop. With zero marketing for the game’s release since that initial announcement, it was incredibly odd to see a title with such enthusiastic fan support to be released so unceremoniously. While the Nintendo Direct Mini on Thursday at least partially made up for the lack of pre-release buzz, Nintendo took the strangeness a step further and is selling the game at $9.99, $2 higher than your average SNES title. While I’m thankful to finally have the game on the Virtual Console, it’s incredibly irksome that Nintendo has taken such an unconventional approach to EarthBound’s return.

What makes Nintendo’s moves here so frustrating is that they look completely arbitrary on the surface. The $2 premium is most likely related to the free, Wii U-optimized strategy guide available on Nintendo’s website, but a person would only know that if they watched the Nintendo Direct Mini. The reality is that your average consumer is just going to see a SNES game that costs more than the others and thus be less inclined to purchase it.

That’s the worst case scenario, of course. $2 is $2, and for the most part people aren’t going to be dissuaded by it. Still, there are some people who will, and with a game as good as EarthBound getting a rare second-chance like this, it seems foolish to create any sort of barriers for no reason. The pricing is further confusing when you consider the fact that Japan’s version of the .30 cent sale featured EarthBound prominently!

It’s just a bit insulting as a Nintendo fan that EarthBound couldn’t hit the eShop in a normal way. Other games get build-up, marketing, and don’t see premiums attached for no apparent reason. EarthBound has been a game struggling for acceptance and a second chance for years, so why Nintendo felt the need to take this approach is perplexing to me. I have to say, though, that $10 is a heck of a lot better than $200 on ebay and that supporting the re-release of EarthBound is a big deal. Nintendo doesn’t do this sort of thing often, so to help ensure that we hopefully see more of the Mother series, please do go out and download a copy! (I had to pay for two copies on Thursday!).

Retro(spective) 2-The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures

Released 2004; developed and published by Nintendo.

The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures is a good example of how sometimes less can be more. The game put a laser-like focus on the core concepts of Zelda that make the series so endearing and enduring. Four Swords foregoes the traditional single-player, open-world adventure trappings we’re all so familiar with and replaces them with arcade-like stages designed for multiplayer and with very specific goals. While that might sound like sacrilege, what makes this approach so effective is twofold.

First, it’s important to know the gameplay is based on the traditional NES/SNES overhead action of Zelda 1 and 3, but does not allow for the boundless exploration of those titles. What this means for the player is that while Four Swords eschews an open world with interconnected characters, dungeons, and towns, the game structure takes each of those things and distills their best qualities into stages, instead.

For instance, part of the joy of visiting towns in a Zelda game is interacting with the NPCs and taking on sidequests. An entire stage of Four Swords will focus on exploring a town and doing exactly that, but in a more goal-oriented, structured way. The significance of this might not seem apparent at first, but once you start playing you understand; the game is cutting off all the fat and giving you the experiences you love at rapid fire. The slowburn of completing quests and slowly progressing through a vast Hyrule are instead changed to the joys of instant gratification. Forget crossing a complicated chasm or poking through a web of tunnels to get to a dungeon, Four Swords throws you right in and lets you get to the good stuff in short order.

The second key ingredient is the combat. Whether in a party with three other people or playing on your own, the titular Four Sword splits Link into four copies who waddle along in tandem throughout the game. With friends, you’ll depend on each other to work together to defeat foes and solve puzzles. This of course means a bit of New Super Mario Bros. mischief enters the equation, with stages easily turning into a series of attempts to sabotage your partners. The exact opposite is also true, with a skilled group able to carve a path of carnage through your enemies. Single-player, though different from the multiplayer approach, affords you full control of all four Links. This means being able to arrange the quartet into various formations to tackle both puzzles and enemies. While the competitive/cooperative aspect might be gone, it’s hard to describe how epic you’ll feel controlling four little sword swings as they tear through a few dozen enemies. Both control schemes are immensely satisfying for different reasons and make the game utterly unique in the series.

I’d also like to note, there is an interesting quirk to items in this game. While old favorites like the boomerang, bombs, and bow & arrows are still present, they are not items you carry between stages. Each stage is tailored with a particular set of items and only allows you to hold onto one at a time. However, as each Link can have a different item from the other, you can elect to stock up on bows and have four deadly archers or equip each Link with a different item for maximum utility. It makes tackling each level more strategic and interesting when you have to determine if it’s worth having a specific item or not.

Sadly, this particular Zelda title didn’t sell very well, partly because to enjoy the multiplayer meant having three friends, with three Game Boy Advances, and three GBA/GC link cables. Yes, the only way to experience this unique brand of Zelda action required an incredibly tedious method of play. While it was cool to see some of the action shift to your GBA screen (as when entering caves, houses, etc.), to most players it ultimately wasn’t worth the prohibitive nature of such an overly complex setup. I tackled this game single-player predominantly, so I can attest that you will have fun blasting through this one on your own if you can hunt a copy down (no GBA required for single-player!).

One other thing worth mentioning is just how great this game looks and sounds. Aesthetically, Four Swords is a mixture of A Link to the Past and Wind Waker. Factor in the muscle of the GameCube, and the screen is a cornucopia of traditional 2D Zelda sprites and animation, more rich and colorful than ever. A menagerie of classic Zelda tunes helps heighten the experience and draw you in further. Whether or not Nintendo ever takes another swing at a multiplayer Zelda game is anyone’s guess, but considering the Wii U seems like the perfect venue for such a revival helps me sleep better at night. Do yourself a favor and play Four Swords!

The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures is available on the Nintendo GameCube.