This review first appeared in E136, May 2004.
Every single moment of Four Swords is magically familiar and every single moment is dazzlingly fresh. Put simply, it’s everything you hoped it would be: a rambunctious multiplayer adventure; an utterly absorbing singleplayer epic; a testament to Nintendo’s detailed affection for its own history and a manifesto for how it can ensure its vibrant, inventive future.
The game is so much the thing in Four Swords that it feels almost disloyal to turn away from it to technical considerations, but there’s a lot to explain, all of it elegantly implemented. The main game, Hyrule Adventure, is an entirely new, classically presented 2D Zelda adventure. For one to four players, there are dungeons with dastardly bosses and delicate puzzles and overground sections with disgruntled villagers and infested forests. By no means a cut-down version of its predecessors, the game can be saved at the end of every level. When restarting, you can reselect the number of players, allowing the single and multiplayer experiences to slot in and out of each other. There are always four Links on screen – those not assigned to a controller will tag along after another player, and can be commanded to assume formations.
Multiplayer requires GBAs and link-up cables, and these are worked to their full. Whenever a player enters a cave or a house, their character disappears from the main screen and pops up on the GBA. This allows the other characters to continue their action on the main screen while you explore the nooks and crannies at your leisure. The scaling 2D screen allows characters to wander at will, zooming in and out to accommodate their exploration. When you want to move to the next screen you’ll all need to congregate together – and if someone won’t play ball or needs the bathroom, then just pick their Link up and carry them onto the next screen.
This is the strength of Four Swords: the game trusts you – it trusts you to want to work together, and it trusts you to want to do the messing around.
Throughout the game, team players will compete for rupees, running each other off narrow ledges and setting fire to other Links to get to the treasure first. Any Link who dies drops all their rupees, and other players have a few seconds to grab them before they’re automatically revived. If someone’s picking on you, then pick back. Squash them with your hammer, ping them with your boomerang and fence them in with bombs. Then someone will discover a likely-looking switch and all animosity is forgotten as you tackle the next brain-twister. Many of the puzzles are formation based, requiring co-ordination from team players or the flick of a button in singleplayer to turn the Links you lead into deadly Red Devils. As well as being visually delightful, the spatial thinking they require is a new twist to the canon, and will keep Zelda veterans from becoming too complacent.
All this ingenuity is just the plumbing. Whether being experienced in the competitive, co-operative cackle of multiplay, or the captivating atmosphere of singleplayer, the extraordinary virtues of the game itself remain the same. Foremost is its beauty. The warm maroons and creamy greens of A Link to the Past make a return, but wreathed with The Wind Waker’s curlicues of smoke and flame. The presentation plays with 2D tradition and new-gen capabilities throughout. The blurry sprite effects on the GC screen underscore the feeling that you’ve finally been allowed to take a magnifying glass to the intricacy of the 2D world. In this richly atmospheric world, simply moving about is sheer joy. Tumbling and rolling, executing a rainbow of charge attacks, whirling the fire rod – evolved from its functional past to a rococo flamethrower – around your head, this game milks exuberance from you at every step.
This is the basis on which the continual wonder of Four Swords is built. Every new use of the world on your GBA will delight you, every impossible-seeming puzzle will dissolve into inevitable clarity. Every well-known face and half-remembered tune amplifies the game’s dense atmosphere. Every boss battle, re-imagined to make the most out of the game’s quartet of Links, will amaze you. Every mini-game, made available courtesy of the loopy Tingle, will remind you of happy hours whiled away in Hyrule and Lon-Lon. To explain any of them here would rob potential players of one of those moments of familiar magic and fresh dazzle, and this magazine is no such thief.