Yes, I know it's a multiplayer game. No, I didn't play it with anyone else. I've finished just about every Zelda game out there, so I figured I'd give this one a whirl too, "connectivity" be damned. If you can handle a review written from this perspective, then please read on. If you can't, then please hit the back button on your browser now.
So, Four Swords Adventures.
Usually when a Zelda game hits shelves, it's been highly anticipated and eagerly awaited. Maybe I was asleep at some point, but I didn't remember Four Swords Adventures getting much hype. I saw it on shelves continuously, and found it strange that there was this Zelda game greeted with little fanfare, and sort of ignored—treated like an ugly stepchild, even. I decided it was time to poke around, and after 18 hours, the impression that I'm left with is that it's a real shame that Nintendo didn't put more behind this title.
The single-player story mode's premise is that an evil sorcerer has been released from his prison, and puts the fabled land of Hyrule under a spell of darkness. Series hero Link appears, and wields the legendary Four Sword, splitting himself into blue, red, and purple versions of himself along with the traditional green. With his three clones in tow, Link sets off on an adventure very different than any he's gone on before.
Obviously, this game was a product of Nintendo's desire to push forward their theory of connectivity. Looking back, their idea that players do not want to use the Internet for multiplayer interaction seems a little squirrelly, especially given the fact that in order to make joining multiple Game Boy Advances to GameCubes work, it requires more Nintendo-brand hardware and warm bodies than the average person is able to scrape together at a moment's notice.
Knowing that I would be missing the concept behind the game's creation and going forward anyway, I still found it to be quite good. From the single player perspective, I was interested and engaged with Four Swords Adventures from the first few minutes, and the buzz didn't diminish for the duration of play—a rare feeling these days.
It's a weird game, though. It's kind of like a giant mish-mash of all the various elements that have found their way into Zelda games over the years. There are some characters and special effects taken from Wind Waker, but the overall appearance is taken from A Link to the Past. There's more than a little level design from the various Game Boy titles, and all of it comes together in what first seems like a pile of scraps from the design room, but soon becomes eccentrically charming.
There are many dynamics to account for, but the biggest shift from the norm in Four Swords Adventures is that it was created to be played in small, discrete segments conducive towards short multiplayer sessions. The open-ended feeling of exploration riding Epona in Ocarina or discovery sailing the seas in Wind Waker is utterly gone, replaced with linear chapters and bite-sized chunks of puzzle solving. Is it different? Yes. Is it bad? Besides only being allowed to save at the end of each chapter, not at all.
Along with the small levels, other key pieces of the Zelda formula were modified as well. For example, series hero Link can now only have one item at a time (boomerang, bombs, etc…), so instead of cycling through all my equipment every time I got stuck, I had to be very selective about what I would bring with me. Many puzzles are also oriented towards using teamwork, meaning that all four Links would have to work side-by-side to push heavy objects, or having red Link toss purple Link across a chasm to get to the other side. Keeping track of four Links onscreen was something the series has never attempted before, and it gave the game a very fresh, active feel that I appreciated.
The developers threw a number of other random bits in, like mad chefs cooking up an eclectic buffet. The large, eye-popping melee battles using the GameCube's power to handle large numbers of sprites were a personal favorite, though horseback riding makes a smile-inducing cameo. Dipping into the shadow world also returns, and is a key element.
Interestingly, Four Swords Adventures incorporates different perspectives when presenting each area. For most of the game, things are shown from the overhead perspective, but when entering caves or some interiors, the game goes from the television screen to the Game Boy advance. Here, it sometimes takes on an almost platform-like feeling, going so far as to include jumping and swimming, vaguely reminiscent of old-school Super Mario Brothers. (Was that a Cheep-Cheep back there? I think it was…) I never really knew what was coming up next, and that's not something you can say is true about most Zelda games.
Although I loved commanding my vivid army of Links, I have to admit that I was disappointed in the 16-bit era graphics. At a glance, Four Swords could easily be mistaken for a Super Nintendo title. It's hard to visually go back that far these days, and I really wish that Nintendo had updated the look to make it more beautiful and modern. The gameplay undoubtedly overcomes the nature of the graphics, but it's still a shame that it doesn't look prettier than it does.
Four Swords Adventures is not different enough to completely lose the essence of what Zelda is, but the incredibly broad hodgepodge of puzzles, techniques, and signature elements collide in the crossroads of metagame thinking and traditional design to become something that is both instantly familiar and bizarrely different at the same time. It might have been nice to have three friends who also owned GameBoys, whose schedules coincided with mine, and who lived close enough to physically come over, but even without those things this solo gamer walked away from it having an unconventionally enjoyable experience. Plus, I saved a fortune on pizza and beer, to boot.