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The Legend of Zelda and the Curious Case of Four Swords Adventures



The Legend Of Zelda And The Curious Case Of Four Swords Adventures

Bundled together with A Link to the Past’s Game Boy Advance re-release, Four Swords was a game few fans ultimately played. The first multiplayer Zelda, Four Swords demanded players have at least one friend with their own GBA, copy of A Link to the Past, and Link Cable to actually play the ninth canonical installment in the franchise. Although the title’s direct sequel does share similar issues regarding the accessibility of its multiplayer, Four Swords Adventures is arguably the game Four Swords should have always been. In fact, the importance of a strong single-player campaign was stressed by both Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma throughout development. From the very outset, measures were being taken to ensure Four Swords Adventures held actual longevity as a video game. However, this mandate would do little to prevent Four Swords Adventures from developing into one of the oddest entries in the franchise. 

Throwing something of a wrench into things was the fact that Eiji Aonuma had just promoted to series producer, and was overseeing three projects at once: The Wind Waker 2 (eventually Twilight Princess,) The Minish Cap, and Four Swords for Nintendo GameCube (retitled Four Swords Adventures.) With Aonuma ultimately directing Twilight Princess and Capcom’s Hidemaro Fujibayashi reprising his directorial role from the Oracle games for The Minish Cap, Four Swords Adventures was left without an established Zelda director. As Shigeru Miyamoto wanted Four Swords Adventures to implement connectivity with the Game Boy Advance, Toshiaki Suzuki (current producer of the Mario Party franchise) was chosen to direct. Having previously worked on Super Mario Bros. Deluxe, Super Mario Advance, and The Wind Waker’s Tingle Tuner, Suzuki’s experience with the Game Boy line of handhelds made him an ideal director.

Suzuki had also been a self-proclaimed fan of the franchise since its Famicom days, offering the series a fresh pair of eyes. Suzuki even went back to play previous games for inspiration, a fact that bleeds into Four Swords Adventures’ overall design. The art style is The Wind Waker in 2D, a vast majority of assets are either taken from or directly inspired by A Link to the Past, and the story plays on lore otherwise exclusive to games like The Adventure of Link, the original Four Swords, & Ocarina of Time. Toshiaki Suzuki’s interpretation of The Legend of Zelda serves as a love letter to all his favorite aspects of the series, even lifting puzzles from previous titles. As much as Aonuma boasted of what Suzuki’s perspective as a fan could offer, though, this shouldn’t be seen as a badge of honor. Charming as Four Swords Adventures may be, the game’s fan service borders on the derivative. 

Not helping were FSA’s attempts at touching upon virtually every game in the franchise, leading to some of Zelda’s first major continuity errors. Four Swords was explicitly the first game chronologically– predating Ganon– so Four Swords Adventures naturally frames itself as a direct sequel, complete with references to a previous journey for Link. This is all fine enough, but that Ganon appears at all means FSA cannot take place right after the original Four Swords, despite the story clearly acting as if it does.

The Hyrule Historia has since retconned the plot to take place after Twilight Princess, but that raises its own issues: notably the centuries gap between FS and its direct narrative sequel. To say nothing of Link & Zelda’s familial relationship, along with the fact that in-game text acknowledges that Link knows he’ll be unsealing Vaati as he draws the Four Sword from its pedestal, heavily suggesting the events of the first Four Swords have happened recently. 

Gameplay always comes before the story with The Legend of Zelda, but Suzuki’s disregard for continuity was unprecedented. Even the Oracle games, which were otherwise self-contained adventures, featured subtle references to A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening that chronologically set the duology between both titles. Four Swords Adventures’ references aren’t subtle. They’re loud and bombastic to the point of distraction. Ganondorf is a Gerudo thief turned demon king because that’s who he was in Ocarina. Players need to rescue seven Maidens just like they did in A Link to the Past.

This in itself is part of the game’s charm– playing up the idea of a multiplayer Zelda by making use of as many familiar beats as possible– yet it’s at the expense of carving out a clear identity. Four Swords Adventures looks, sounds, and feels like Zelda, but it’s not quite the genuine article. The series doesn’t shy away from bringing back familiar faces or alluding to past events, but always with an internal logic, FSA lacks. 

It’s also worth pointing out that Suzuki serving as director flies in the face of what Miyamoto intended for the GameCube’s Four Swords sequel. In spite of emphasizing the single-player campaign early in development, Suzuki’s skills were better suited for FSA’s multiplayer component. While totally optional for Hyrulean Adventure (the single-player mode), making use of the game’s GBA connectivity is the only way to access the two exclusive multiplayer modes: Shadow Battle and Navi Trackers. The main story only ever uses the GBA as part of its aesthetic when playing alone, inferring little of the actual puzzle design. The very reason Suzuki was hired as director plays against Shigeru Miyamoto’s original M.O. Even with Four Swords Adventures striving to offer a deeper single-player experience, it did so independent of the series’ traditional gameplay loop– the end result being a confused game that only resembles the franchise on a surface level. 

Further complicating matters was the game’s overall structure. Miyamoto specifically envisioned the player going on a journey they could come back to after long stretches of time, unlike earlier Zeldas which were grand adventures that demanded the player’s time and attention. Four Swords Adventures is broken up into eight levels, all divided into three stages each. Levels more or less function like Worlds in Super Mario Bros., serving as a setting for the next set of stages while grounding them in a theme. In practice, Hyrulean Adventure feels like playing a non-stop dungeon, albeit without the same magnitude as a typical Temple. A lack of permanent progression outright prevents the highs of finding a new dungeon item or simply completing a Heart Piece. Unlike other entries in the franchise, FSA’s stages are self-contained affairs through & through– there aren’t even unlockable skills like in the first Four Swords

No permanent progress means Hearts always reset to four in-between stages, equipment is only ever temporary, and the Four Sword needs to be repeatedly upgraded. This makes sense considering how FSA is designed, but it also means there’s no in-game incentive to return to previous stages– something even Four Swords accounted for through the Key system. Lives as a concept aren’t new to Zelda, but Four Swords Adventures’ level-based structure signals their return. Rather than healing Link to full health, Fairies are now stored away to auto-revive players upon death. Considering how many Fairies Hyrulean Adventure throws at the player, there ends up being little consequence to the Lives system. There’s also no penalty for death other than losing a Fairy, to begin with. It’s all certainly convenient, but Lives are too abundant & ancillary to play a meaningful role in single player. 

For what it’s worth, the core mechanics are actually quite tight. Link’s been split into four multicolored heroes yet again, but players now control all four Links at once. With Green Link in the lead, his counterparts follow right behind in single fashion. Green Link will normally act alone while the others passively wait in the background, but calling the Links into formation gives full in-sync control of the party. The formation system is Four Swords Adventures’ main gimmick and arguably the gameplay feature that works best. By using the C-Stick, players can instantaneously rearrange their Links for puzzles or combat. Up on the C-Stick boxes the Links together, Left locks them into a diamond formation, and Down forms a vertical single file line while Right forms a horizontal line. 

Controlling all four Links at once tends to be the highlight of most stages. A formation lets every Link to attack in-sync, making enemy encounters more chaotic while allowing for slight variations on familiar set pieces. Most puzzles are based on how well you can use formations. Switch puzzles involve all four Links, and are usually framed around obstacles players have to overcome multiple times. Block puzzles require the strength of multiple Links, giving them some variety. You’ll often need to hit multiple targets simultaneously with all four Links to open a door. Four Swords Adventures does play to its own unique strengths where it counts and it isn’t as if the game doesn’t make its own mechanical contributions to 2D Zelda

Swordplay on a whole has seen an enormous upgrade coming off the Oracle duology and the first Four Swords. The Four Sword itself plays a key role in each stage as players continuously need to find 2000 Force Gems (FSA’s rupee equivalent) in order to power up their blade. Once upgraded, the Four Sword can be charged twice over into a whirling Spin Attack and shoot beams while at full health. The actual combat is surprisingly sophisticated, making use of directional inputs and combos often missing from the 2D games. Link will do an impromptu spin attack if players attack right after rolling, and can lunge into enemies with his four if you press the analog stick in the direction you’re attacking in. Even the auto-spin attack– normally a 3D Zelda exclusive– makes an appearance if you rotate the analog stick while attacking. 

Item variety is also on the fresh side in spite of the fact that Link’s kit is composed entirely of returning equipment. Like in the original Four Swords, items follow a pick up and play model where Link can only carry one different piece of equipment at a time other than his sword. All Links use their items when in formation, with several puzzles taking advantage of the mechanic. Although every item will be familiar to fans of the franchise, they’re incorporated in unique ways.

The Fire Rod can be used as a Flamethrower by holding down B, Power Bracelets make Link strong enough to lift up trees, Bombos & Quake Medallions are now single-use items that serve as on-screen nukes, and Fairy Fountains actually level up equipment. Leveled up Pegasus Boots can dash over gaps, a Level 2 Shovel will ring when near treasure and the leveled Fire Rod actually doubles as a Cane of Somaria– creating blocks the player can use on the fly. 

Bold art direction also helps NPCs, enemies, items, and puzzles stand out from one another, making it easy to identify what to do & who to talk to at a glance. Bombable walls are the most subtle they’ve been, featuring small indentations instead of a cracked design more often than not. They don’t yell out at you, but observant players will find them; and while there are traditional bombable walls with clear cracks, they’re usually obscured by fog or other lighting effects. This all sounds good on paper, but most of FSA’s puzzles end up as busy work while the best visual telegraphs go underused. The second to last stage in the game focuses on an ingenious puzzle where players need to hammer the floor in order to make spikes pop up, revealing a path through an otherwise treacherous maze. It’s clever the first time but quickly devolves into tedium as the set-piece is repeated multiple times over. 

Despite every stage being structured like a dungeon– complete with a central gimmick to solve & often a main item to use– there are actual dungeons. Dungeons are hit or miss all the way to the end, either a level’s saving grace or the low point. Most dungeons are based on A Link to the Past and feature quite a lot of close room combat encounters, but the level design fails to make use of Link’s tool kit even at its best. Instead, FSA relies on the same old gimmicks throughout, wearing out its smartest ideas by the time credits roll. Portable Moon Pearls are initially a smart way of incorporating a dual world mechanic within stages, but the mechanic is painfully overused and often in bland ways. Moon Pearls lead to warped versions of whatever area they’ve been triggered in and theoretically add another layer to puzzle solving & exploration, but never reach their full potential. 

Similarly, Shadow Link is a mini-boss who actively antagonizes players throughout the game. His first few appearances are novel, but the fact Shadow Link shows up in virtually every single stage greatly sours his appearances. There’s simply no restraint to how often he appears as a challenge. Where Shadow Link was one of the most memorable boss fights in Zelda II and Ocarina of Time, he’s now pure fodder.

What’s worse is that the final battle against Shadow Link could have been one of FSA’s best moments had his presence not been so abused. All four Links go up against an endless rush of Shadow Links after a hard-fought battle that forces Zelda to intervene. What should be the game’s climax means leaves little impact because you’ve fought Shadow Link dozens upon dozens of times at this point. It’s not tense when the already long fight against Shadow Link doesn’t end. It’s just annoying since we’ve been here before. 

Perhaps the greatest pity to Four Swords Adventures is that it could have been tightened into a strong Zelda game with clearer vision. Suzuki is clearly a fan of the franchise, but this fact is rarely expressed beyond the surface. What’s more, Suzuki’s talents were always better for FSA’s multiplayer modes which made heavy use of the Game Boy Advance. Hyrulean Adventure is certainly better than Four Swords, but with an asterisk. Although Four Swords Adventures has considerably higher highs– especially in regards to pure combat– Hyrulean Adventure is filled with some of the series’ lowest points. A lack of progression, painfully awkward plotting, and repetitive level design hold back a 2D Zelda that deserved better. 

Four Swords Adventures strives to present a better single-player campaign than Four Swords, and while it does succeed on a whole, it does so by stripping away The Legend of Zelda’s best qualities down to their bare essentials. Suzuki’s direction is odd, looking at the franchise from a casual fan’s perspective. FSA is designed to be easily digestible, recognizably Zelda at a glance with little of the series’ nuances– narrative or otherwise. Everything about Hyrulean Adventure feels misguided, but knowing Suzuki’s history with the GBA, along with a passion for multiplayer, does put things into perspective. As a multiplayer game, FSA is a riot from start to finish and arguably the best cooperative game on the GameCube. As a single-player Zelda, however, Four Swords Adventures misses what makes the Legend worth playing, to begin with. 

A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.