"Nintendo's commitment to creative design is clear, but it can be difficult to enjoy when it comes in a form seemingly fathered by the same ruthless pimping that sees Mario crying himself to sleep at nights."
Purists may scoff as Mario's dignity is spread thin over genres and scowl at the paedocidal marketing apparently behind Pokemon, but the Legend of Zelda always makes it easy to be a Nintendo fan. Few would deny that Link has stayed true to his dungeon-cracking, puzzle-solving, mini-gaming roots. His adventures are timeless, with only tenuous links to the generations they enter; surface quirks rather than fundamental overhauls.
Those cartridges weren't gilded - Zelda is always solid gold.
Until now! Because Four Swords Adventures is just asking for trouble.
Not with its hook - four-player Zelda is a concept that even he already on the flight to Kyoto with explosives in his cavities could not snub. Similar kneejerk vendettas might be fuelled by the execution, though, even in the faithful. Like incredulous rhetorical questions waiting to be asked by disgusted fans and smug dicks alike, much of FSA's makeup seems contrary to everything Zelda is adored for.
Carving the one-Hylian-army Link into four colour-coded clones?
Regressing to A Link to the Past-style top-down 2D?
Abandoning the free-flowing adventure for linear levels?
Demanding a Game Boy Advance and GBA-GC cable per player?
They all raise the eyebrows, but none more so that that last one. Nintendo's commitment to creative design is clear, but it can be difficult to enjoy when it comes in a form seemingly fathered by the same ruthless pimping that sees Mario crying himself to sleep at nights.
FSA can be seen as something born of either discipline. Using the GBA screens to track individual players when they leave the main overworld shown on the TV, it's a game that couldn't work and can't be enjoyed without its expensive hardware setup.
The conservative player (and the stubborn loner) is humoured, but in no way rewarded. The game allows you to play the multi-player quest alone, with a controller; even emulating the GBA on the TV whenever you wander into a house or cave, allowing you to control or order the three always-present CPU Links into formations as you like.
Certainly a polite gesture, but one that can't long disguise the fact that the game is designed for the four and not the one. FSA underwhelms you when you play it alone, simply because you can imagine the fun you'd be having with a pal or three to help you, say, cripple that incredible rotating crab's four colour-coded claws. Even the connectivity trickery fails to delight, often because by the time you, say, tediously line up your Links manually to push the in-GBA house over the pit, you can't see the results on the LCD because they're obscured by the tears of despair.
And so, the only way to have fun is to dance to Nintendo's premium tune!
Buy your Game Boys, your cables, your friends (if necessary), some NES Classics while you're there, join the Nintendo Fun Club today, hook it all up, and load your single-player savegame in multi-player mode. Go!
Now, you and yours are playing Four Swords Adventures.
The level-select world map was once just a reminder that you weren't playing a real Zelda. Now, it's filled with convenient promise; driven on by the stirring Fairy Fountain theme remix that backs it, you're now soaring through the 24 lengthy levels in an exuberant blaze of cheeky teamwork (as fostered by the efficient inventory setup that allows one subweapon per player) and uneasy camaraderie (as fostered by the Force Gems).
Force Gems! Good Christ.
To the loner, they're forgettable collectibles, Rupees you can't spend. In multi-player, they're the score: an indisputable mark of your place in the chain, set in stone in your corner of the HUD. They're also everywhere, and proffered by practically everything you do; from downing a monster to pulling a lever to smashing crockery over a buddy's head. Finish the level with more than your friends, and you win nothing other than the proof that you're simply the best human present.
These perfect little triangles are the core of Nintendo's backhanded gaming philanthropy. The entire trick lies with them: at the frequently-crossed line between cooperation and competition; where childhood friends become lifetime enemies; where men stab and shoot and set each other on fire in pursuit of numbers; where allies draw the simplest of tasks out forever so as to be best poised to reach rewards; where heroes are reduced to dogs at the sight of a big green triangle.
A fresh spring of untapped gameplay, one based in human rather than videogame trappings. One that can only work if players are allowed to wander and work alone, to conspire and co-opt as they like, free to roam away from the pack.
One GBA per player.
One LCD hideaway per sneaky, manipulative bastard.
FSA is not to be disliked, because its gameplay justifies its cost.
It's to be liked - and not only for the connectivity. Be a bitter, Luddistic wanker if you like, but FSA is superb even outside its fancy hardware. The multi-player monkeyshines are based upon (or are perhaps the base of, considering all the fresh puzzle mileage wrought from the hardware) a quest that, while not being quite wide enough to keep the solo player's enthusiasm bubbling for more than a level or two at a time, is as fresh and as structurally solid as that of any other Zelda title.
From the stunning engine, you'd be forgiven for thinking a 2D generation or two had slipped past while we were gawping at Ocarina of Time. While it can be difficult getting to grips with a game that takes place on so many different planes and screens - TV, GBA, top-down, side-scrolling - the problem is handled admirably.
Initially by the organic beauty of the leafy glades and spooky dungeons that your four lively Links explore, and by the beautiful images the game creates in the processing gap left by the simple technology - be it simple snowfall over a white-blanketed meadow, or a chaotic rumble with literally hundreds of bustling soldiers, FSA inspires awe at every glance.
And afterwards, by the clever level design the multiple layers allow for. These stages are undeniably more straightforward than the broad dungeons Link usually conquers, but they're also a great deal more intricate; the interplays between the screens and views create puzzles with depth, functionally and literally. Likewise, it's easy to see an older Zelda title struggling to link these planes smoothly, but here they're pleasantly coherent. Being able to carry objects from screen to screen is one thing, but when the GBA enters the equation - when, say, an arrow flies from TV to GBA to TV again in one sharp shot - it's enough to prompt awed gasps from even the most stubborn onlookers.
That's about when the final, fatal affront to your anti-Nintendo sentiment comes; when the connectivity japes meet the hero work, and you find that the solution to a puzzle or boss battle is a genuine first. Try being bitter when you're using your GBA as a personal metal detector; try burning your Miyamoto effigies when you're climbing inside a giant phantom to steer it away from your comrades on the TV; try hating Nintendo when you're trapped in the Dark World of swirling LCD, reduced to a lingering shadow on the main screen.
It's so much easier to just let go and feed the happiness machine.
Four Swords Adventures may not be cheap, and it may not be conventional, but it is a unique pleasure, one quite disconnected from the usual esoteric, artificial comforts offered by videogames. It may be the only game to draw out the bastards inside of its players and turn their acts of evil into pure riotous entertainment, and frankly, that's a gaming conceit worth paying out the arse for.
Staff review by Daniel Forbes (June 01, 2005)
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