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.