Three dimensional gaming is for chumps.
For the longest time, Nintendo preached GameCube-Game Boy Advance connectivity as the future, but had done little to support its claims. Some publishers used it for downloadable bonus content or as a sneaky way to encourage GBA or GameCube game sales. The lack of games making serious use of the connection often disappointed Nintendo fans’ high expectations. Well, Nintendo has finally come through with what it promised oh so long ago. Four Swords + (releasing as Four Swords Adventures in North America) is a divinely executed title that uses connectivity as a fundamental part of its design.
As I mentioned in my initial impressions of the import, the main game, Hyrule Adventure, is a euphoria of old-school Zelda bliss. Borrowing heavily from A Link to the Past—both in sprite artwork and game design—Hyrule Adventure sends up to four friends on a stage-based quest brimming with the quality action and puzzles gamers have come to expect from a Zelda title. Each of the twenty-four levels is impressively long (averaging around twenty minutes the first time through), and is filled with interactive and varied environments. Hyrule Adventure incorporates a bit of everything from the Zelda universe: power-up items such as the fire wand and boomerang, side-scrolling passageways, intense battles, and even trading sequences! Half of the game takes place on the television, but players will cross over to their Game Boy Advance screen when entering a house, cave, the alternate “dark" world, etc. Secret pathways, harboring optional and vital power-ups, are the game’s staple; players must coordinate to ensure the team is well-equipped. Friends must also collaborate to solve ingenious puzzles that toy with seasoned gamers’ preconceptions of Zelda games. (I don’t want to spoil any surprises.) Each stage also comes with its own boss battle, often inspired by The Wind Waker and other recent Zelda titles. You might even find that some of the rooms change, depending on the number of players…
It may all be fun and games, but Hyrule Adventure isn’t all peace doves and wholesome teamwork! Oh no, just as in many of the stages themselves, there is a dark side to Link’s multiplayer adventure. As more players join in the fun, the game becomes exponentially more competitive. Sure, everyone still has to work together to unlock doors and retrieve important items, but who gets said item? Once the players are familiar with the level, things become really vicious: everyone knows where the good items are, and they must compete for them.
As an experiment in greed, Nintendo has also scattered force power (basically money) throughout each stage. What’s more, the game has the nerve to declare the player with the most force power at the end of a stage the winner. Players will scramble for the goods, often turning the sword on their companions. And while the sword only stuns allies, pain can be inflicted through other means. To compensate, the game offers virtually unlimited lives. However, a downed player drops half of his force power, which the closest Link will undoubtedly pounce upon. A Link is revived after three to eight seconds, depending on just how force-rich he is compared to his brethren. Adding another psychological twist is the voting system at the end of each stage. Using the personal GBA screens as ballots, each player votes on the most amiable comrade and the least cooperative ally. The most popular player is rewarded with more force power before the final tally, while the “jack-ass" is similarly punished.
Four Swords + has an excellent adventure mode, but it is just as good as a party game. Tingle’s eight mini-games, unlocked through the main game with multiplayer, are as good a time-waster as you will find. They aren’t all winners, but the whack-a-mole (complete with Link’s hammer), Cuccos round-up, and tag games give the finest Mario Party games a run for their money.
Then there’s Shadow Battle, which pits up to four Links against each other in a frantic, bloody battle to the death. The rules are simple: whoever is left standing wins. Just as in the main game, the battle mode often makes use of the individual GBA screens for larger arenas and sneakier tactics. Switches in caverns will set off bombs or trap doors on the TV, and dimensional disturbances can provide quick players with a temporary relief from the battleground. While there are only five battle arenas, each one is unique. You want to down-stab a fellow Link in a side-scrolling battle? Fine. You want to play with jets of fire? You can do that too! You want to grab your friend and throw him off a cloud, you say? Be my guest! It’s a shame Nintendo didn’t include options for Shadow Battle, though: an adjustable time limit or an option for multiple lives would have made Shadow Battle all the sweeter.
The Japanese version does include a third mode, Navi’s Trackers, which will not see an international release. Nintendo has excluded it with good reason: it is aimed at a decidedly younger and narrower market, and would do little more than turn some prospective buyers away. While playing Navi’s Trackers once is an interesting experience with amusing voice acting (all in Japanese), it doesn’t fit into the Zelda universe very well and isn’t very fun. It amounts to a scavenger hunt that can go on for way too long, and could only keep a five-year-old Pokémon fan’s attention—though Tetra would probably wind up silenced by a Psyduck reporting news anyway.
If anything can sell gamers (and developers) on handheld-console connectivity, this is it. Ignoring the abandoned Navi’s Trackers, Zelda: Four Swords + is what any Nintendo fan has unknowingly been waiting for. The level of freedom that connectivity provides in this four-player adventure is a breakthrough innovation for console games, and it does so without scarring the single-player experience.