The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords first made its appearance in December 2002 as a small game included with the Game Boy Advance port of the SNES classic The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The game was essentially a multiplayer mini-adventure that required at least two players to embark on, yet it told an original story that was new to the Zelda universe.
Riding off of the popularity of the Oracle games on the Game Boy Color a year or so prior, Capcom returned to work with Nintendo as a developer to craft another unique storyline. Four Swords marks the first appearance of Vaati, the wind sorcerer, a new major antagonist for the franchise, and offered another legendary weapon to the Zelda universe: the aptly-named Four Sword. The game’s backstory talks about how, long ago, an evil sorcerer appeared, wreaked havoc on the kingdom, and kidnapped several young women and imprisoned them in his Wind Palace. When other knights and champions failed to defeat him, a young boy arrived wielding a sword with the power to split his essence into four parts and managed to seal the evil sorcerer with the power of the blade. Many years later, however, the seal of the sword began to weaken and Vaati managed to free himself once again.
Ultimately, the backstory provides a bunch of window dressing, as the actual gameplay doesn’t really feel like it benefits much from the story itself. In the game, two-to-four players participate and go through a series of randomly-generated dungeons, with the ultimate goal being to complete each area as quickly as possible and to gather as many rupees as possible. At the end of each area, a Great Fairy will award different keys and bonuses based on the overall performance of the team as well as grant the player that did the best a Medal of Courage, which can be used to unlock techniques in A Link to the Past.
In many ways, the first iteration of Four Swords feels like a proof-of-concept for The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures that made its way to the GameCube in 2004. Whereas the original game felt more like an add-on than anything else (which it indeed was), everything about the GameCube follow-up feels a lot more fleshed-out and developed. The first game may have felt like an optional mini-game, but the GameCube entry feels more like a traditional Zelda epic.
According to the official timeline placement, Four Swords Adventures is set after the events of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Many years have passed since Vaati’s return and subsequent defeat at the hands of the young hero Link and the legendary Four Sword. Once again, though, the power of the blade begins to wane and the seal keeping Vaati in place is broken. Thankfully, a new hero rises, takes the blade in hand, and sets out on a quest to defeat the evil sorcerer, save Zelda, and return peace to Hyrule.
Unlike the first title, FSA is quite versatile, allowing itself to be enjoyed both as a multiplayer adventure or a single-player quest. In both cases, the game offers some pretty unique challenges to enjoy. For multiplayer, up to four Game Boy Advance systems can be linked with a link cable and used as a controller. When the action switches to an interior location, however, gameplay switches between the TV screen and the screens of the connected GBA systems. While working together is necessary to complete the stages, a competitive spirit is encouraged through the ranking of players upon the completion of each area. Also, various items and power-ups can be found throughout the journey and players will undoubtedly scramble to pick them up before their comrades do. Also, the game allows players to hurt each other, which much like New Super Mario Bros. Wii, can easily lead to a bit of good-spirited infighting!
When played in single-player mode, though, the overall dynamic changes quite a bit. The player must control all four Links as they play, swapping between having them all follow each other around and individually controlling them to solve more complex problems. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of having to position them on certain switches to open a sealed doorway or gate, but other times they will need to pick one up, throw it across a gap, and have that Link explore an area they otherwise would not have been able to get to. The end result here is a different experience from the multiplayer adventure that is certainly worth playing through.
One of the things that I liked a lot about Four Swords Adventures was the overall graphical style as well as the design of the different regions of Hyrule. The game felt like a long-lost sequel to A Link to the Past in more ways than one. The overall art style looked like a higher-res, more detailed version of the 16-bit classic, using assets for that game that retained a bit more of a cel-shaded look to them. Yet, what really drew me into the game and made me want to keep pressing on to see what was next was the various areas that were a major nod to the SNES outing. Hyrule Castle, the Eastern Palace, the Desert Palace, Kakariko Village, and the Lost Woods all felt like remixed versions of their original appearances, offering a sense of nostalgic joy to revisit, not unlike visiting with an old friend. Everything was fresh and new, but it had a strong sense of familiarity to go along with it.
Truthfully, while I was a big fan of Four Swords Adventures on the GameCube, buying it pretty much right when it came out, I didn’t actually manage to play the original Four Swords until I grabbed Four Swords Anniversary Edition during its limited eShop release on the 3DS in 2014. While the new Anniversary Edition had been upgraded to feature a new single-player mode (thus making the game a lot more accessible), I only dabbled in it for a little while but ultimately dismissed it once again as little more than a mini-game. It just didn’t have the same appeal as its bigger brother had on the GameCube.
Nintendo tried to recapture the spirit of these games in 2015 with The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes on the 3DS, and while I really wanted to enjoy that one I just really couldn’t get into it. It had a few things going for it, such as billing itself as a pseudo-sequel to A Link Between Worlds (which was amazing, by the way!) and sharing that game’s graphical style, but ultimately I just found the gameplay to be clunky and derivative. Perhaps that is partially my fault for only attempting the game in single-player mode, but honestly I feel like the fact that the game was a chore in single-player was a major letdown considering how Four Swords Adventures managed to pull off a single-player campaign quite well and have it be a lot of fun.
Still, one of the things that Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures succeeded quite well in is setting the stage for The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap in 2005 on the Game Boy Advance. Minish Cap was a prequel to both games and told the origin story of Vaati, setting itself some years prior to the events of the original Four Swords. Capcom, who had done an excellent job with the Game Boy Color titles put a lot of work into Minish Cap and even today it stands as a very strong entry into Nintendo’s long-running franchise.
All-in-all, its pretty impressive to think that what started out as essentially a bit of a multiplayer mini-game evolved into a mini-series of titles, developed by a third-party no less, that even today stands the test of time. While it is quite possible that Vaati’s role in the franchise has come to a close, I for one would be quite interested to see what more they could do with him as a villain. After all, I like seeing developers think outside of the box, so while Ganon was most certainly centerstage in Zelda: Breath of the Wild, perhaps Nintendo can take a look at another antagonist for whatever it has in store next.
If you’ve never played either of the Zelda: Four Swords games (or even if you have!), I hope this article gave you a taste of what made them really fantastic games (the GameCube one in particular). This article is part of a larger series explores the history of the series and its major entries. Be sure to check out the hub article at NekoJonez’s Arpegi for links to all the great articles and retrospectives on this epic series.
(Image courtesy of ZoeF on DeviantArt)