The formula for a Legend of Zelda game is well known by now. You know not only what you're going to get in a game, but who you're going to get as well. Characters may share a name, signature costume, role in life, and so on, but they're not identical from game to game. Each title is different from the last. Except for all the similarities.
You'd think, then, that The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures would be similarly filled with Links, and Zeldas, and Hyrules, and Hyahs!, and you'd be right. You'd think it would have swords and shields, and puzzles that require the use of an item or two, and you'd be right there as well.
But you'd never guess the form the game would take. Semi co-operative. Four players. Multiple gaming systems working together.
What's going on in Hyrule this time?
In amongst all the text - show don't tell isn't a recognised form of communication in some of these games - we learn that our friend Vaati from The Minish Cap is an evil wind sorcerer. Actually, can I say that Vaati from The Minish Cap is the same Vaati from Four Swords Adventures if it is so common for names to be identical across wildly different (but incredibly similar) Zelda titles?
Long story short, evil guy, heroic child, let's hope that doesn't happen again.
There are two modes we can play in Four Swords Adventures, a multiplayer battle of some sort, or the main attraction, the Hyrulean Adventure, where four players can embark on a semi co-op Zelda adventure.
You'll note, however, that only one player can use a GameCube controller to do, the others resorting to using a Game Boy Advance as a controller. That's an ambitious selling point. To get the best experience of this Zelda title, you need a GameCube, three friends, three or four Game Boy Advances with link cables...
I don't have any of that, so I'm missing out on all the fun, but not all the gameplay.
For once, the story opens in the thick of the action. Princess Zelda meets us in Hyrule Castle under ominous grey clouds, explaining something about a seal and a sorcerer.
Whatever fancy light show these maidens were putting on, it doesn't appear to have gone to plan. A portal is open if I'm following the story correctly, but a dark and shadowy figure - an evil, mirror-world version of ourselves, a Shadow Link, even - appears to have ruined it all, and taken the maidens to dimensions unknown, the princess included.
We do what we always do: Dive in without a moment's hesitation.
Oh, Link. What have you gone and done this time? Now there's four of us, and the sword sealing the big bad guy is no longer sealing him in. As another text dump tells us, it's not even as strong as it once was anymore. Way to go, Link.
We are, at least, told how to return its power, and ultimately save the day.
Our task, then, is simple.
I am emulating Four Swords Adventures, and am therefore not using a Game Boy Advance, and nor are my three imaginary friends. The single-player form of this adventure, therefore, needs to be a bit more user friendly than having four Links running around like idiots on the same screen.
With a press of the Y button, four Links fall into formation, running after each other like any heroic RPG party.
With a press of a button I already forget, you can decide instead to form up into a line or block, ready to adventure however you see fit. It reminds me of one of the first games I owned, Mercenary Force on the Game Boy. Wasn't very good at it, but it allowed you to pick your formation through the sidescrolling levels so that you could maximise your attacking and defensive capabilities.
Four Swords Adventures isn't Mercenary Force, though, but it does allow me to cut grass four times as fast as any other Zelda game.
Well, I wasn't expecting that. Force Gems - the thing we need to power up our swords - are just lying in the grass, like Rupees. In fact, they seem to replace Rupees in this game. I see. I think it's time to start this adventure off properly, then. Links, assemble! Links, cut down this forest!
There wasn't a whole load of Force Gems to be found in the woods, so we do have to start our adventure, and it begins with lessons in teamwork.
Alone, Link has no hope in moving this giant stone slab into the river to form a bridge, but if he could just rope some other muscles in, who knows what they could accomplish?
When you're playing alone, you just to line your Links up and press the R button to get pushing and pulling. When you're playing with friends, you just have to start shouting at everyone else to stop dicking around so that we, as a group, can progress to the next area for you to dick around in.
Sadly, four Links can't do much with one teeny tiny boulder. Strange.
Over our makeshift bridge are a bunch of Octoroks and Shadow Link, taunting us before running away like the little bit-uh, yeah. Running away. We'll catch him later, I guess. How to solve the puzzle of the locked door and the obvious key hidden behind the rocks?
We actually can't lift some of the rocks, so backtrack a little to a cave that appears on our Game Boy Advance screens - or presumably would if we/I were using them. It's a neat touch to be able to go from screen to screen, and I can already imagine the possibilities you could have with different players doing different things based on what they could or couldn't see.
I can see the problems that might come with it as well, not to mention the hassle of trying to get stubborn players to co-operate, but hey, this is new territory for Nintendo. Let's see how they imagined the game would go.
Once we co-operate to press a giant button, we're rewarded with problem-solving boomerangs.
Soon to be replaced with problem-solving fire rods. It appears you can only have one item equipped at any point in time, with whatever you discarded falling into the world to be picked up at a later point, I imagine.
With other players, could one of you carry the boomerang, another the fire rod? Can you do it in single-player, and I just missed it? Not sure, but let's burn some things.
It isn't long before I find that Force Gems are eeeeeeverywhere, in varying denominations, all hidden behind anything from blades of grass to co-operative puzzles. A button that requires four Links to stand on it at the same time, a patch of grass that absolutely ignites if you even threaten to launch a fireball at it... the confetti-like nature of these gems just makes you go 'whey!' at a job well done, before you then rush to fight over them all with your fellow players.
Because you must fight over them, right? That's the nature of semi co-operation. Team up when you need to, and diverge and do your own thing when that matters more. Sadly, I can only imagine what chaos a four-player Four Swords Adventures looks like.
That doesn't mean I can't have a good time, though, and I soon come across a guy who tells me I can split apart my Links and control them one at a time - useful for solving puzzles that require buttons to be pressed in places where our formations can't reach.
I suppose it does interrupt the flow of the game just a little, cycling through Links, moving them one by one, but it's a problem only a single player faces. I've not come across anything time-based, so fumbling with the controls hasn't been an urgent issue thus far, but it does make me wish I could experience Four Swords Adventures a little more as it was intended.
We wrap around the area and return to a bridge we swam under earlier. I must say, Hyrule is looking as lovely as it usually does, even if there were a few places where I wasn't sure where I could go (falling into the water to make progress, usually).
You shouldn't marvel at the graphics with a literal army heading your way, though. Links, form up!
Now that was fun. It got a little hectic when our formations broke, and we had to choose how best to fight. That formation menu does pause the game, thankfully, but if you're holding the wrong buttons, you can end up selecting a formation you don't want, rather than cycle through the list to one you do.
In the end, these minor quibbles and scratches to our health bar resulted in an awful lot of Force Gems to run into, like a dog diving into a pile of leaves. The result was that we strengthened our swords, ready to progress to the next level.
The adventure is broken into levels, rather than taking place on a giant, four-player Zelda map, which allows you to focus on the tasks ahead, and gives the developers a chance to theme areas together, and keep us entertained along the way.
I don't actually want to spoil too much of Four Swords Adventures, even though it's hard to play it as intended, and I'm only touching the first two levels. Maybe it's a subconscious effort to not use all the Internet in these troubling times. Why post 130odd screenshots when I can pick the best, iunno, 7?
Yeah, more than seven, I know. But look at all the stuff we got up to in just one level: Block pushing puzzles that require specific Links, secret rooms full of so many pots, lonely ghosts telling us how to pick up and throw our buddies (because you know how well that's going to go down with more than one player), a billion bats for you to try out your new bow on...
The sheer amount of stuff you can get up to just makes Four Swords Adventures such a joy. It is a party game, for friends (and frenemies) to have a great time in, while working towards a story that, I assume, appeals to Zelda fans like all the others.
To remind us that it's not just a silly little multiplayer game, the level ends with a fight against Shadow Link. Links, back to back!
At one point, Shadow Link takes on the form of one of our own. Again, I can only imagine how this was supposed to work to create confusion in the ranks, but when you're a solo player with your Links in a line, this little trick just doesn't work.
And that's really the only frustration there is to grumble about. Playing it as intended requires a fair bit of effort, and the additions made to help solo players get through the game just don't give it that sense of exciting chaos, friendly competition, and endless chains of Links throwing Links into bottomless pits.
But the actual game, single-player or not, is well worth a play. I'm surprised that the Zelda series was chosen for a title like this, and not Mario, but perhaps it just wouldn't work with the plumber and his buddies as well as it would for Link and his clones.
I can't say that I feel a whole load of a story taking place. We're just travelling from level to level, collecting shiny triangles along the way. I guess there will be some cutscenes and boss fights to make sense of it all, but until then, I can't exactly recommend playing Four Swords Adventures for the plot.
That would leave playing it for the gameplay, and that is an easy recommendation, no matter how many players you can bring together. It will provide more entertainment with more people - that's just the nature of semi co-op gaming - but it can still offer challenges and smiles when playing alone.
All the usual Zelda puzzles seem present, but the inclusion of multiple heroes mixes them up in new ways. Instead of relying on inanimate objects or pieces of equipment, you have to rely on your buddies. That's easy enough when you're in control of them all, but when you're not, well, that's Four Swords Adventures as it was meant to be played.
In the days where everyone has a phone and connectivity via the Internet is a given, it's perhaps surprising that we don't see more of these types of games, with other console/handheld combinations, or with just a bunch of mobiles and tablets. Maybe I'm just not looking hard enough.
A manga adaptation had each Link portray different characteristics, which would naturally result in arguments between them, explaining how co-operation isn't always smooth.
The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures, developed by Nintendo EAD, first released in 2004.
Version played: GameCube, 2004, via emulation.