This article was originally published on August 11, 2014.
The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures was a good example of how sometimes less can be more. The game put a laser-like focus on the core concepts of Zelda that made the series so endearing and enduring. Four Swords jettisoned the traditional single-player, open-world adventure trappings fans are all so familiar with and replaced them with arcade-like stages designed for multiplayer and with very specific goals. While that might sound like sacrilege, breaking from tradition is exactly why Four Swords was so wonderful to play.
Four Swords dropped the 3D style that had been featured since Ocarina of Time, and returned to the traditional NES/SNES overhead action of The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past. Unlike every Zelda title before it, however, Four Swords did not allow for the boundless exploration of its predecessors. Four Swords eschewed an open world with interconnected characters, dungeons, and towns, and took the basic essence of those elements and distilled 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 side quests. An entire stage of Four Swords might focus on exploring a town and doing exactly that, but in a more goal-oriented, structured way. The significance of this didn’t seem apparent at first, but became clear during gameplay. Four Swords cut off all the fat and gave players the experiences they loved at rapid fire. The slow burn of completing quests and slowly progressing through a vast Hyrule were exchanged for the joys of instant gratification. Forget crossing a complicated chasm or poking through a web of tunnels to get to a dungeon, Four Swords threw players right in and let them get to the good stuff in short order.
Another key change was the addition of true multiplayer to Zelda. Whether in a party with three other people or playing alone, the titular Four Sword split Link into four copies who waddled along in tandem throughout the game. When played with a group, players depended on each other to work together to defeat foes and solve puzzles. This of course meant a bit of New Super Mario-esque mischief entered the equation, with stages easily turning into a series of attempts to sabotage partners and fight for resources. The exact opposite was also true, with a skilled group able to carve a path of carnage through their enemies.
Single-player, though different from the multiplayer approach, afforded full control of all four Links. This allowed for the ability to arrange the quartet into various formations to tackle both puzzles and enemies. While the competitive/cooperative aspect was lost in single-player, it’s hard to describe how epic it felt controlling four little sword swings as they tore through a few dozen enemies. Both single and multiplayer were immensely satisfying for different reasons, and made the game utterly unique to the series. Joined with a visual style somewhere between A Link to the Past and The Wind Waker, and sporting some epic Zelda tunes, the game was irresistible to anyone who played it.
There’s one other important change that was made to the Zelda formula, and it was a tweak to items collection. While old favorites like the boomerang, bombs, and bow and arrows were still present, they were not items that could be carried between stages. Each stage was tailored with a particular set of items and only allowed players to hold on to one at a time. However, as each Link could have a different item from the other, players were able to elect to stock up on bows and have four deadly archers or equip each Link with a different item for maximum utility. It made tackling each level more strategic and interesting when players had to determine if it was worth having a specific item or not.
Sadly, this particular Zelda title didn’t sell very well, due in part to that fact that 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. Nintendo bundled copies of Four Swords with a single Link Cable, but it didn’t make it any easier for players to connect in big groups. While it was cool to see some of the action shift to the 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. There was also some confusion as to what Four Swords was supposed to be. There was a clear and cohesive plot, but for some, it was unclear if it was a canonical entry or some kind of spin-off.
All the bewilderment combined with weak GameCube sales meant that Four Swords Adventures was one of the least played entries in the Zelda series. Which is such a shame, as the game was stunning, and took full advantage of GameCube’s muscle to deliver a Zelda experience that was a brilliant mixture of old and new Zelda concepts. Though players eventually got another new 2D Zelda game with A Link Between Worlds, this sequel sadly was never able to reach its full potential. With Wii U and 3DS, Nintendo has a couple of consoles that are more than capable of handling a new installment of Four Swords. Here’s hoping the quartet of Links get a chance to shine again.