ESRB Rating: E
Release Date: 6/7/04
Four Swords was a grand ambition that created a uniquely fun social environment and foreshadowed DS wireless connectivity. Sadly, the charmingly retro graphics, bitterly competitive gameplay, and clever use of hardware peripherals were completely overshadowed by technical kludge and ridiculous expense.
Quick–how many cooperative multiplayer games can you list? Now how many competitive? Yeah, I did better with the second one too. Doesn’t it seem odd that there’s so little cooperation in video games?
Maybe they’re hard to design. Cooperative games need all the balance of a competitive game, but they also need at least as much content as a single-player game. Perhaps it’s tricky to get four people in the same room at the same time, and it seems like a waste to make a game that will never be played. Maybe designers think that gamers are disenfranchised basement dwellers who need the emotional crutch of simulated dominance (see: Xbox Live Achievements).
Whatever the reason, if cooperative games are uncommon, then the number of games that mix cooperation with competition is vanishingly small; with the rarest treat being one that does it well. That’s why it’s such a shame that almost nobody will ever play Zelda: Four Swords Adventures.
In its heart, Four Swords is a multiplayer take on the SNES classic, Link to the Past. Series protagonist Link gets hold of a weapon that splits him into four color-coded doppelgangers. Up to four players can guide the quartet of Links through the exploration of Hyrule, frequent melee combat, and the kinds of puzzles that often involve crates, switches, and series trademark tools like the boomerang, bombs, and Pegasus boots.
The heart of the cooperative play is in the puzzles. Many of the game’s obstacles are color-coded for the necessary player, and others just require multiple inputs to solve (simultaneous switch-flipping, really heavy rocks, etc.). Most are disappointingly simple-minded, but a few require clever tool interactions that would be impossible alone. Puzzles vary somewhat depending on the number of active players, and the richest puzzle gameplay happens with four players.
Cooperation also colors the game’s combat, and it’s not unusual to be confronted by thirty or more enemies at once. While familiar enemies act the same as ever, overwhelming numbers really change the flow of the action, making it more energetic and involving. Occasional boss battles exploit the color-coding mechanic, so whether battling the masses or dueling individuals, there’s always something to keep everyone busy.
The supportive social structure also makes this a good game to mix gamers of different backgrounds. Casual and neophyte gamers, for example, can rely on more experienced gamers to provide scaffolding when confronted with some of the more arcane conventions of the hobby. The mandatory character of group participation means that shy or slower gamers won’t be left in the dust. It’s a gateway game; don’t be afraid to use it.
The game fulfils its competitive multiplayer requirement by scoring player performance at the end of each level. The game tracks each player’s kills, deaths, health, and Force Gems (cash flow), and combines them to place the winner’s likeness on the map in tribute to that Link’s enduring glory. Three and four players also have an opportunity for a secret vote on which Link was most helpful and which was a jerk, with a considerable bump in scoring for each.
The game diverges from standard multiplayer in its control scheme, requiring that each player connect a GameBoy Advance to the GameCube. The GameBoy is no mere input device, however. Whenever Link enters a house, cave, or other subordinate area to the game’s main map, Link leaves the TV screen and hops down the cable to the GBA screen.
This grants privacy. It’s a weird concept in multiplayer that wasn’t inspired by Tom Clancy, but stealth cinches the humdrum puzzles, familiar combat, and quirky scoring into a Machiavellian social nightmare that’s just too fun to escape.
Consider the following: you’ve just entered a house with four treasure chests and a big switch that requires two other Links to pull. Do you call everyone in so the chests can be dished out equitably? Well, maybe you could profit more by talking your way through looting two chests and only calling for two helpers. Or do you just loot everything and then call everyone, feigning outrage about the jerk Link who emptied the room?
The puzzle (a switch) didn’t take any thought to solve, but it puts you in a position where you have to decide just how and to what degree you want to screw over your friends. Voting, privacy, cooperative puzzles, and a competitive reward all combine into a sort of morality system. Only unlike in Fable, the system works in Four Swords because your ethics affect real people.
One Is The Loneliest Number
To its credit, the game scales to any number of players up to four. As the number of players falls, so to does the size of the larger brawls and the complexity of the puzzles. There are still four Links to control, but you can drag any unoccupied Links along behind you, with a selectable marching formations that ease the puzzle solving and combat.
The problem is that, as the number of players scale down, so too does the fun. Dropping below three players abolishes the voting mechanic, which takes most of the social dynamic out of the game. When you’re left with the simplest versions of the puzzles and the lightest combat, the game becomes much less engaging.
This brings us to the game’s crippling flaw: the GBA control scheme. While the GBA is an adequate input device and the stealth component really enhances gameplay, enjoying Four Swords requires that you round up four people, GBAs, and connector cables (Which are useful for this game, Crystal Chronicles, and nothing else).
If you’re the only GBA owner you know, then providing the hardware costs about $50 per GBA and $10 per cable, for a total of $180 plus the cost of the game. Furthermore, it’s an old-school Zelda title, so it’s nowhere near as accessible as the comparably targeted and priced Rock Band. Four Swords may well be worth playing if you can align four people and systems together, but many gamers will never even get the chance because the social and technological requirements are so steep.
It’s not like the gameplay is flawless anyway. There’s an enormous potential for clever multiplayer puzzles in Four Swords that goes largely unrealized. Just as an example, you can use the boomerang to drag another player to you, but none of the puzzles ever make use of this new feature. In fact, most of the game’s tools can be used for multiplayer hijinks, but aren’t ever used constructively. There’s a deep and rewarding game in there somewhere, and you can feel its absence every time you lift another heavy rock.
While most of the game’s puzzles are fairly simpleminded, some are infuriatingly obtuse. Lack of feedback and appropriate directions make some of the solutions a matter of guesswork. One level in particular (toward the beginning of the game) has virtually no combat and is just teeming with obscure puzzles, and the tedium may be a deal-breaker for frustrated and bored players.
The combat is a bit unpleasantly random, too. Link’s basic sword attack comes in a variety of jabs, swings, and spins, but controlling which is used at a given moment is haphazard at best. When fighting 30+ enemies, it’s nice to have a reasonable expectation of where your sword will be and why, and Link’s controls just don’t deliver.
Each of these flaws is relatively minor (well, aside from the price tag), and the balance of cooperation with betrayal usually overcomes them. However, these flaws, combined with the fact that Four Swords is a statically scripted game, will make you think twice about hauling it out for a replay.
There’s a multiplayer deathmatch mode as well that solves some of the replay issues and makes use of the multiplayer hijinks missing from the puzzles (it’s fun to drag your friend off a cliff with the boomerang). It’s charming for a few games, but lacks the depth or diversity of levels to really be a keeper.
Retreads and Borrowed Assets
On the story front, Four Swords is another Zelda game. Add one part Link, Gannon, and Zelda, three parts Triforce, one part kidnapping, and a few dashes of holy maidens and knights, and stir until the mixture thickens into a Legend. Then garnish with Tingle.
The graphics are a strange mix of Link to the Past and Wind Waker. Most of the game looks like LttP, presumably to accommodate the GBA’s SNES-quality graphics and create some continuity between the television and the portable’s screen. However, most of the game’s effects (explosions, wind, etc) are lifted directly from the Wind Waker. The rose tint of old and nodds to the new will likely tickle series veterans, but other gamers may find the retro graphics quaint.
The music and sound also stick to the LttP Standard. The music is what you’d expect after squeezing a full orchestra through the SNES sound chip. The score consists mostly of series staples, though there’s a new track now and again to keep things lively. All told, the music isn’t remarkable, but it is classic.
Triforce of Wisdom
If you’re lucky enough to have four GBA-bearing friends, then there’s fun to be had in Four Swords for everyone. Hardcore and Genre gamers will appreciate that old school flavor and the multiplayer riffs on old standards. Casual gamers will enjoy the support structure (assuming your friends aren’t jerks) as well as the voting system that can be used to work on the social shortcomings of hardcore friends. However, unless you were already planning on gifting a bunch of extra hardware to your friends, Four Swords just isn’t good enough on first or subsequent playthroughs to justify the expense. Just spend that time and money lobbying for a DS port instead.
What It Costs: $55
What It’s Worth:
- To The Hardcore: $30 (buy)
- To The Genre Fan: $40 (buy)
- To The Casual: $10 (chip in toward a purchase)
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