One of the games to coincide with the launch of Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance in 2001 was Super Mario Advance. It wasn’t an original title, but rather a port of the SNES version of Super Mario Bros. 2. In 2002, this was followed up with Super Mario Advance 2 and Super Mario Advance 3, which were ports of Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island respectively. During this time, Nintendo announced a port of the SNES-era’s sole entry in their The Legend of Zelda franchise, A Link to the Past. Not unlike how every Super Mario Advance port came bundled with a remake of the arcade classic Mario Bros., A Link to the Past was to also have a bonus game attached to it in the form of Four Swords – the series’ very first multiplayer campaign. Its mixture of cooperative and competitive gameplay proved highly popular among Zelda fans, and had a role in the Game Boy Advance port of A Link to the Past selling more than 1.5 million copies.
As the Game Boy Advance soared in popularity, Nintendo developed a cable that allowed it to hook up to a GameCube controller port, their then-current home console. This accessory had a precedent in the form of the Transfer Pak, which attached to the back of a Nintendo 64 controller. For certain titles, most famously, Pokémon Stadium, players could plug in a Game Boy or Game Boy Color cartridge into the Transfer Pak to access some form of bonus content in the Nintendo 64 game. During the E3 conference of 2003, Nintendo showcased two Zelda games that would make use of this connectivity: Four Swords and Tetra’s Trackers later renamed Navi Trackers. Later in December, Nintendo announced that both games along with a third dubbed Shadow Battle would be together on a single disc entitled Four Swords +. This compilation saw its domestic release in March of 2004.
As Western fans speculated the release of this new game, it was announced that Four Swords and Navi Trackers would be sold as two separate titles with the retail of Shadow Battle being unknown. The decision was quickly changed, and the compilation saw its release in the United States under the name Four Swords Adventures. It wouldn’t see the light of day in Europe until January of the following year. It is speculated that Nintendo’s reason for delaying Four Swords Adventures was so ensure it wouldn’t compete with another Zelda installment being developed around the same time for the Game Boy Advance called The Minish Cap. Did Four Swords Adventures allow its predecessor to truly bloom into a fully realized, standalone title?
Analyzing the Experience
Four Swords Adventures is a compilation consisting of three separate games all developed by the same team: Hyrulean Adventure, Shadow Battle, and Navi Trackers. Hyrulean Adventure is the primary campaign, being a distant sequel to the original Four Swords.
Hyrule is in a state of fear due to many strange occurrences that have happened in recent times. An ominous cloud looms over the land, and Princess Zelda along with her six peers, all shrine maidens possessing mysterious powers, sense the power sealing Vaati, an ancient entity capable of manipulating the winds is weakening. On one particularly stormy night, she summons a young boy named Link to the castle. His job is to protect her and the shine maidens as they open the portal to the sanctuary housing the Four Sword. When they do, a dark figure resembling Link appears from the portal, kidnapping the seven maidens by sealing them into crystals. Link chases after his dark doppelgänger.
On the other side, the dark Link goads him into pulling the Four Sword from its pedestal. Believing it to be the only weapon capable of felling this demon, Link removes the sword. He is then split into four copies of himself and Vaati’s seal is subsequently broken. Before the four Links can react, they are cast away by Vaati’s maelstrom. The four of them awaken to the voice of an owl named Kaepora Gaebora. He informs them of the current situation and what they must do. Shadow Link, as the owl calls him, has spread chaos throughout Hyrule, scorching villages and opening portals to a mirror universe – the Dark World. In order to defeat Shadow Link and Vaati, the four Links must travel Hyrule and rescue the six maidens along with Zelda. Only with their collective power can they reach Vaati’s celestial fortress.
The primary campaign of Four Swords Adventures has the honor of being the first internationally released console installment since A Link to the Past to be played from a top-down perspective. Being a sequel to the original Four Swords, it also differs from any other game in the series by featuring four Links to control instead of one. Unlike Four Swords, all four Links will be present regardless of the number of players. The default method of controlling multiple Links is called the Break Formation wherein one Link leads the rest in a loose line. When there are two or three players, one player can lead a Link not assigned to a specific person or switch to a different one at their discretion.
In single player sessions, you have four different varieties of Battle Formations available to you: Wide, Long, Box, and Cross. The Wide Formation involves the Links forming a horizontal line while the Long Formation has them march single file in vertical one. The Box Formation is a compact 2X2 formation that works well in tight spaces. As all of the Links perform their actions in union, which one of these formations is the best to use depends on the positioning of the enemies. Lastly, the Cross Formation has all four Links face at 90 degree angles back-to-back. This formation is the most efficient when they are completely surrounded by enemies, and also allows the four Links to execute a powerful, combined spin attack.
Using an art style similar to that of A Link to the Past, one will find the gameplay of this campaign to be very similar. Link’s primary means of defense is a sword that he begins the game with. There is a default sword slash that can be performed by simply pressing the attack button. By holding down the same button and releasing it at the right moment, Link will execute a spin attack, which does slightly more damage. Each Link also carries a shield, and they automatically block projectiles emanating from the direction in which their bearers face.
As an understandable result of being a multiplayer game, there is no inventory screen in the original Four Swords. That aspect remains true for the Hyrulean Adventure campaign. Indeed, the pause menu only exists to allow players to take a break or quit the game. Instead, a Link is only allowed to hold a single item a time. Throughout the game, you will find pedestals on top of which rests an item needed to progress. You acquire it by walking up to it and pressing the action button. If you’re already holding an item, Link simply swaps it with the one he is holding. Each player can decide which item to hold, but if you’re playing alone, all four Links will gain the item at the same time, obviating the need for each one to collect it individually.
Four Swords Adventures was developed around the same time as The Wind Waker, and it shows in the final product. Link can roll forward on the ground by pressing the appropriate button while moving, graphical effects often resemble those of The Wind Waker, and many voice clips have been recycled.
As with Four Swords, Hyrulean Adventure differs from a typical Zelda installment with its overall design. Up until this point, the series became progressively more linear with each installment. Link’s Awakening was the one most responsible for this gradual shift, as its greater emphasis on story compared to the original The Legend of Zelda or A Link to the Past enforced a linear progression that allowed the story to develop. Suddenly, a series that gave its audience a degree of freedom couldn’t stray far from the intended path, though the occasional sidequest did a lot to encourage exploration.
One could say the game design in both Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures takes the direction in which the series was heading to its logical extreme. Rather than being a singular world that gradually opens up the further you progress, the game is divided up into levels. After clearing one, your secondary item is taken away and you start off with the default number of heart containers in the next. In a way, I kind of think of this campaign as a Zelda-themed remake of The Mysterious Murasame Castle, a game also made by Nintendo for the Famicom Disk System. Then again, the goal of each stage is a little more complicated than simply getting to the end. In the stead of the series’ familiar currency are Force Gems. The Links must collect enough of them so the Four Sword can regain its true power. Only then can they destroy the dark barriers at the end of each level.
Force Gems do share a similarity to Rupees in that they can also be used as a form of currency. However, these situations are far and few in between – typically limited to stages that take place in bustling communities. If the players haven’t gathered enough Force Gems, they are sent back to the beginning of the stage to collect more. They will be transported back to the barrier when they have collected the requisite number.
One of the touted features of this game was the ability to link a Game Boy Advance to the GameCube. As the Link you control enters a building or other enclosed area, he along with its interior will appear on your own Game Boy screen. In single-player sessions, you can opt to use the GameCube controller. Any instance in which Link needs to enter a building will have a window representing a Game Boy screen appearing on the television screen. Because more than one Link has their own autonomy in multiplayer sessions, each player needs a Game Boy Advance to play the game.
It’s a little more than a presentation gimmick; in some sections of the game, Shadow Link will appear, periodically creating a giant bomb. The goal of these scenarios is to reach him and strike him down with the sword. In most cases, it’s impossible to reach him right away, necessitating your Link to retreat into the Game Boy Advance where the explosion can’t hurt him. If you’re entertaining thoughts of making him intentionally take a hit to reach Shadow Link faster, forget it. The blast encompasses every square inch of the area depicted on the television screen and getting caught in its radius results in an automatic death. With this setup, you can gauge how much time you have before the bomb detonates by looking at the television screen while hiding in an enclosed area to avoid the ensuing blast.
It also plays a minor role in navigating an alternate dimension. At certain points, you’re given an item called a Moon Pearl. By throwing it onto the ground in indicated spots, it will shatter, opening a portal to the Dark World. Though not nearly as fleshed out as the equivalent realm in A Link to the Past, the Dark World is nonetheless an important location in this game as well. Here, the parallel universe bears more of a resemblance to the Light World. What exploring the Dark World in A Link to the Past entailed is more or less true in this campaign as well. The two worlds, despite resembling each other, are not fully identical. Once again, observing the minute difference between the two dimensions is vital to navigating them. In a clever touch, your Link’s shadow can be seen in the Light World as you guide him through the Dark World. This makes spotting the differences easy, as you can simply look back and forth between the two screens.
The second game that features in Four Swords Adventures is Shadow Battle. It is a multiplayer game wherein you and your friends take control of a different Shadow Link – each color coded depending on the player’s number. The goal of this game is straightforward enough – be the last Link standing. To this end, you can employ any number of tactics to ensure your victory. As you fight, orbs containing items appear. They can be secondary weapons, a Cucco, or a carrot with which one can summon a horse. Cuccos go on a berserk rampage sweeping the entire screen when sufficiently provoked and on a horse, the player is invincible for a brief duration. There are a few options one can use to liven up the proceedings such as having Vaati appear should the time expire. Once he makes his appearance, he will throw giant bombs onto the screen, eliminating any onscreen player when it explodes.
Finally, the third game is the Japan-exclusive Navi Trackers. Though intended as a standalone game, it was released alongside Hyrulean Adventure and Shadow Battle in the Four Swords + compilation. Regardless, it too is a multiplayer affair that also uses a combination of the television screen and a Game Boy Advance to function. The difference is that the entirety of the action takes place on the Game Boy Advance. The goal is to search for the members of Tetra’s pirate gang, all of whom originally debuted in The Wind Waker. The television displays a map of the area and Tetra narrates the game as new developments arise. Interestingly, Tetra and her crew are fully voice acted. Players can also enter their gender and name as well, though they play as one of the four Links regardless. In fact, the players’ names are announced at certain points. A localized version was demonstrated at E3 with English voice acting, but the complexity of implementing such a feature in multiple languages likely played a role in Nintendo’s decision to omit it internationally.
Shadow Battle and Navi Trackers are exactly what multiplayer minigames should be in relation to the main campaign. They use the same basic rules as Hyrulean Adventure, but in new, creative permutations. While Hyrulean Adventure is a unique blend of cooperative and competitive gameplay, Shadow Battle and Navi Trackers focus entirely on the latter. Despite this, they go about upholding the competitive spirit in distinct ways. While Shadow Battle is the Zelda equivalent of a fighting game, Navi Trackers has its players place a greater emphasis on brains rather than brawns.
With those minigames out of the way, all that is left for me to parse is the primary campaign. If it’s one thing that can be appreciated about it regardless of whether you’re playing alone or with friends, the developers did a reasonably good job translating the overall feel of a Zelda game into a more linear experience. Indeed, if The Legend of Zelda originally debuted in the arcades before Nintendo decided to change the gameplay for home console ports, graphical capabilities notwithstanding, I believe the hypothetical game would offer something very similar to Hyrulean Adventure. In that regard, the campaign could also be construed as Nintendo’s own take on Atari’s 1985 arcade game Gauntlet. The two tiles even share a parallel in how the players are made to fight hordes of enemies at once. The primary difference is that this campaign is decidedly more competitive. Although the players work together to fell powerful enemies, the number of Force Gems each one collected is tallied upon a stage’s conclusion. Whoever has the most gems at the end of the stage is declared the winner.
As the winner is being determined, players can vote on the player worthy of the titles Hero of Light and Hero of Darkness. The Hero of Light is a title bestowed upon the player considered the most helpful while the Hero of Darkness is the label the one deemed the most destructive gets saddled with. The voting process is one that allows each player to conceal their own Game Boy Advance, making their decisions private. This is especially important, as the Hero of Light receives bonus points while the Hero of Darkness loses them.
The greatest strength of Hyrulean Adventure is that it’s much more fleshed out than the original Four Swords. Four Swords came across as a minigame compared to the cartridge’s main selling point – being a portable version of the greatest 2D Zelda installment at the time. In something of an ironic twist, Shadow Battle and Navi Trackers now come across as minigames compared to Hyrulean Adventure. It’s not just that it obviates the other two games in terms of importance, however. I feel that making an entire fully fledged campaign out of what originally amounted to an elaborate bonus feature was one of the best things Nintendo could have done to keep their franchise innovative.
Hyrulean Adventure is notable in how many of its stages conclude with a boss fight. Though none of them are quite as memorable as the boss encounters in any of the 3D games or A Link to the Past, I give this team credit for creativity. Rarely does it feel as though they outright recycled encounters from previous games. The few times they did, that you have three teammates at your side at any given time means you will need to employ vastly different tactics this time around. They along with the overall design enforce the cooperative nature of this campaign.
Though there are quite a few compliments I can pay Hyrulean Adventure, there are quite a few things I don’t really like about it. I do think the game’s design succeeds in signposting to players that they need to work together to have any success. There’s a competitive element, yet attempting to sabotage the other players would only prove detrimental to your own success. Though the developers succeeded on that front, it doesn’t prevent the overall design from being quite boring in practice. Areas generally lack the character equivalent areas in any other Zelda game would have. This is because one of the greatest appeals of the series, especially as of Ocarina of Time, is that the environments usually have significance to the backstory. This allowed dungeons to function as both video game levels and as storytelling devices, allowing them to complement each other. In Hyrulean Adventure, the stages lean more heavily towards the former side of that equation, making them bland and forgettable. This becomes more noticeable should you decide to play the game by yourself.
As a consequence, the plot itself feels disjointed – not to the point of indecipherability, but there is a distinct lack of cohesion nonetheless. Characters in the stages themselves generally don’t exist for a higher purpose than to advance the plot when spoken to, and if there is a problem plaguing any of the settlements, you can expect to receive closure by the time you’re ready to destroy the dark barrier. Any exceptions will be resolved in the epilogue.
This flaw also manifests in a minor fetch quest that begins around the halfway point. Upon defeating knights who had been transformed into monsters to serve Vaati, you receive a Royal Jewel from each of them. Like the rest of the plot, it’s not expanded upon particularly well; they’re important for the Links’ quest, and that’s about it. It doesn’t help that there is little foreshadowing to their existence. Astute players might compare the sanctuary’s appearance in Four Swords with that of Hyrulean Adventure, noting there are four empty pedestals where the jewels used to be. Even so, like everything else in the game, the subplot is introduced abruptly and is abandoned once its relevance has ended.
In interviews with Eiji Aonuma, one of the most important figures behind the franchise, he provided some insight as to why the plot turned out the way it did. For this installment, he served a more hands-off role, as he had no involvement in putting the story together. As the director, Toshiaki Suzuki, and his team got close to finishing it, Shigeru Miyamoto stepped in and, as Mr. Aonuma put it, “upended the tea table”. He felt the storyline of a game shouldn’t be something complicated that would only confuse the player, but rather a guideline which provides context for what they need to do. It can be extrapolated from Mr. Aonuma words that these numerous last-minute changes were the primary cause behind the unfocused plot.
Even after having listed all of these flaws, I feel the biggest problem with Hyrulean Adventure is its distinct lack of challenge. Throughout the game, you will find Force Fairies hidden in jars, bushes, and chests. Should your Link run out of health, they will revive him. Though one might assume that the developers would make Force Fairies rare to balance the game out, the reality is the exact opposite. To make matters worse, how many you have on hand is saved between sessions. This means if you and your friends are at all skilled at the game, you will likely reach the maximum of 99 by the end. At that point, none of you have a realistic chance of losing.
Granted, I will admit this flaw mostly applies to single-player sessions. If you’re playing with friends, you’re always competing against the others to determine who the best hero is. An element of challenge is very much present in such situations. On the other hand, in the event that you’re playing alone, this is no longer the case. In the interest of fairness, I will admit a game doesn’t necessarily have to challenge one’s skills as an enthusiast to be good. However, in an action-adventure series such as The Legend of Zelda, having no stakes involved makes for a dull experience wherein you’re just going through the motions until you see the credits roll.
Drawing a Conclusion
I find myself in an unusual spot when it comes to the notion of recommending Four Sword Adventures – especially in its original form. The idea of using a Game Boy Advance as a controller and personal screen for each player was an innovative one. A fatal problem emerged when Nintendo discontinued both consoles. Though getting a console capable of playing GameCube discs isn’t a steep requirement, hoping that the friends you invite each have a Game Boy Advance or you yourself possessing more than one is. Unless your friends are all dedicated collectors, most attempts at starting a multiplayer session would be thwarted before they had a chance to begin.I realize this is an odd assessment because I’m mostly commenting on the hardware required to set up the game than the quality of the campaign itself. This is because when a game is this inordinately difficult to set up properly, the process can end up eclipsing the actual playthrough, which doesn’t speak well for its accessibility.
Even ignoring that issue, Four Swords Adventures is still difficult to recommend. As a one-player game, it lacks almost everything that allowed the Zelda franchise to regularly dominate its peers, having a bland cast of characters, forgettable level design, and an unfocused plot. Multiplayer sessions liven up the experience quite a bit, but even then, it’s not a particularly replayable game. Moreover, for a game that can potentially involve four players from start to finish, it’s somewhat lengthy, meaning you might run into scheduling issues attempting to complete it with friends. At the end of the day, I feel the question of whether or not I recommend this game should be answered on a case-by-case basis. If you already have the resources required to play Four Swords Adventures with friends, I can recommend playing through it at least once. For everyone else, I can assure you that attempting to gather all the materials wouldn’t be worth the hassle.
Final Score: 5/10