Monday, March 30, 2015

Zelda Four Swords Adventures

There’s a certain trend to how things go around this blog. First, I will write about a game I have played or a game design topic I want to talk about, or so on. Next, I will think of another thing I want to write about, likely concerning a game I’m currently playing or just finished. However, when I consider writing about said subject, I will think: “Hey, I did just do a post, so I don’t have to necessarily write about this other thing this very second. I’m sure I can put it off for just a little bit, but any day now I –“

Then, at least month passes seemingly instantaneously.

Such is this case with this game. If I recall correctly, I beat The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures within a week of Zelda 2, around the same time I did my review of the latter. However, the usual cycle occurred and, though I surely didn’t intend for it, we’re now over a month out. But I’m finally writing this damn thing, so enough introductions! Now allow me to introduce this game.

Four Swords Adventures is a serious oddity in the Legend of Zelda series. A little before the games release in mid-2004, Nintendo had released a new Nintendo Gamecube Game Boy Advanced Cable. This is the actual name of the product, and it did exactly what it claimed to: connected Nintendo’s current handheld gaming system, the Game Boy Advanced, to their current home console, the Nintendo Gamecube. A decent number of games used this feature, but most of the connections using the cable were tacked-on features not very important to the games that used it. There are only a few games where the GBA connection was essential to gameplay, and only two of them are widely and/or fondly remembered. Four Swords Adventures is one of these games. The second one, well...

...the second I’ll talk about some other day.

So why does this all matter? Well, it matters because Four Swords Adventures is designed, from the ground up, to be a multiplayer Zelda game. Very few Zelda games have any sort of multiplayer, and never as the main focus. It’s kind of an odd fit for the series, as typically Zelda games focus on free-form exploration, passive breaks in towns, and dungeons which are half combat and half solving puzzles. You’ll note that apart from combat, none of these things are particularly suited for multiplayer.  So does Four Swords Adventures defy all expectations and make a perfectly seamless blend of multiplayer and single player? Well, I don’t want to spoil the rest of this post for you, but not quite. In fact if we’re being frank, I’d say barely at all. The game isn’t terrible or anything, but...let’s break it down, shall we?

The Legend of Zelda: Accurately Entitled Gameplay Experience

The base of Four Swords Adventures is fairly similar to other games in the Legend of Zelda series. Uncomfortably similar in some respects, but I’ll get to that later on. The point is you play a hero saving the land from nebulous dark evil. You do this by traveling across the land through fields, towns, dungeons and more in a country with hilariously schizophrenic topography.

Guys, I know barren desert and icy snow fields are pretty standard areas for video games, but did you have to put them RIGHT NEXT TO EACH OTHER?

The difference from other games in the series comes from the creatively titled Four Sword. That’s literally what they call it folks. It’s said that this sword sealed away an ancient evil, which is medieval prophecy speak for ‘this sword definitely seals away an ancient evil with 100% certainty why would you ever think otherwise?!’ This is why I felt a bit miffed with the game’s opening, which forces you to walk up and pull out the sword after just telling you this. To be fair, it’s because a shadow version of you is jumping around and you want to kill it because it’s sorta’ irritating and I guess going to get another weapon is out of the question. I’d rag on the story more, but that fits better with a point I’m making later so for now the main thrust is this: The Four Sword releases an evil you have to slay, and also splits the hero into four versions of himself.

If you play with two to four players, you and your friends will each use a Game Boy Advanced as a controller. The big screen will feature all of you, but whenever any of you go into a house, cave, or other smaller, indoor area, the action will switch to the screen of your individual GBA. When you play in single player mode, you will play through the same game controlling four characters. They follow the character you’re controlling, but you can also press a button to control one at a time, and have all four act in formations (horizontal line, vertical line, box, or diamond). This is actually a decent way of allowing people to play through the game single player, and it fixes some of the problems with it...though not all.

Shown here is obviously the single player, because a multiplayer group would never be this organized.

I’ve played the game multiplayer before, and it was reasonably enjoyable. You collect currency in each stage called force gems. In addition to providing you extra lives and requiring a certain amount to beat the stage, in multiplayer players are ranked based on how many gems they collected each stage. This adds a competitive element to things, so multiplayer gameplay is part teamwork and progression and part running ahead, throwing your friends into pits and generally being asses to each other. This, combined with the natural boost to entertainment being with friends provides, makes Four Swords Adventures more enjoyable to play with multiple people.

However, on this most recent playthrough where I actually beat the game, I didn’t play it multiplayer. Even when the game came out, one of its greatest roadblocks was logistical difficulties. You need a Gamecube console, two to four Game Boy Advanced consoles and two to four connector cables, and you all need to meet in person to play together. This is exasperated by the fact that, even as one of the shorter Zelda games, this game is not short enough to easily find time for this. There are 8 worlds, each with 3 stages that take roughly half an hour each. Nowadays, about a decade after any of these consoles were relevant, it’s even more impossible to arrange this.

So let it be known that the rest of my critique will be viewed from the lens of single player. Though not all the games problems would be resolved with multiplayer, you can assume that the game would be more fun on average if you played it multiplayer. And keeping this bit of positivity in mind might be wise, because from here on out things get rough...

Four Times the Hero, Four Times the Filler

The sad truth about Four Swords Adventures is that it’s a game about filler, down to its core. Let’s start with the plot. The evil sealed away by the Four Sword is Vaati, who in this game is just a giant eyeball monster with no motivation or character. He is not the true villain however, as midway through the game starts mentioning that Ganon may be involved. For those who don’t remember, Ganon is the main villain of the Zelda series, and is a giant pig monster with no motivation or character. They don’t even use the human version of him, Ganondorf, who at least has a very basic character to work with beyond ‘evil monster who wants to rule and/or destroy the world’. Also, the characters in-game are surprised when Ganon shows up in spite of the constant, blatant and heavy-handed ‘foreshadowing’, so I guess it’s supposed to be a plot twist.

Stuff like this starts appearing about halfway through the game. If this is foreshadowing, than the shadow is of a giant tower at sunset, adorned with neon lights saying “NOTICE ME!”

To defeat the forces of darkness and yadda yadda, you’ll need to save the seven maidens of Hyrule. You may recognize this as the exact plot of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but without the opening third, the plot twist, and the originality. There are also some subplots that happen while going to rescue these maidens, but they’re not really worth mentioning. Half the time you just have to go through pre-dungeons to get to the actual dungeons the maidens are hidden in. There’s barely anything in terms of lore, and what’s there is almost entirely lifted wholesale from other Zelda games. Characters or races that appear in other Zelda games sometimes make token appearances, deliver bland expository dialogue completely devoid of personality, and then you go through linear levels on one big extended fetch quest.

Now I’m sure some would counter this by mentioning that technically speaking, every Zelda game is an extended fetch quest. Indeed, most games in general are. But most games are better at hiding this. And though it’s the only part I’ve talked about so far, it definitely isn’t just the plot that’s the issue. Part of the problem is that Four Swords Adventures is a linear game in order to accommodate multiplayer. This is unfortunate, as one of the Zelda series’ biggest strengths has been that it isn’t entirely linear. Exploration, side quests, and RPG elements to permanently better your character have always been part of the appeal, and that simply isn’t in this game like it is in others.

You may notice that I keep coming back to the theme of Four Swords Adventures being unoriginal. I keep trying to save this for later, but it really does permeate every aspect of the game. The visuals in the game are overwhelmingly taken directly from A Link to the Past, and of what remains a large portion is just new sprites of characters or races from Zelda games other than A Link to the Past. Sure they’ve been polished a bit here and there, but there’s nothing new. The sounds effects in the game are almost all recognizable as being taken from other Zelda games, mostly Zelda: The Wind Waker. And the music...

I typically talk about the music of games closer to the end, but it’s relevant to the current discussion of recycling. Is it obvious what I’m saying? I’m saying that the music of Four Swords Adventures is recycled. As with most things, this isn’t to say the music is bad. The music they’re ripping off is quite good, it’s just, y’know, ripped off. Also, there isn’t quite enough of it, with lots of music getting re-used over and over. Some tracks are remixed a bit, but none are changed much from their original incarnations. So as nice as these songs are, I can’t credit those to this game. But Four Swords Adventures does have some original tracks, so let’s give them a listen.

Lake Hylia is one of the first pieces you hear in the game, and is more or less entirely original. Credit where it’s due, this is a lovely song, full of feelings of just starting out on a grand adventure. If more songs in the game were like this, I’d be much more enthusiastic about this soundtrack.

The Swamp music is less remarkable to me, but it is to my knowledge one of the few original songs for this game. The first half of it has some nice grim atmosphere, and the second half presents us with some harp arpeggios and horns that give more structure to it. I don’t find it terribly memorable, but it’s listenable enough.

The song you hear upon freeing the maidens also appears to be a Four Swords original. It’s short and fairly simple, but it’s pretty and does actually carry a decently memorable tune, s points to the soundtrack for this.

Again, I stress there’s nothing really wrong with the music in this game, but the above 3 songs are about half the original music in the game, and the most memorable at that. And not being memorable is quite possibly the greatest sin of Four Swords Adventures. But we’re not quite done yet. I know that there are some people out there who don’t care about any of this. They’ll note that one of the most important things in Zelda games has not been their story or setting, not their music or sounds, and not even their visuals. Personally, I’d say all those things are still fairly important. But I do agree that there’s one thing that seems at least slightly more important to Zelda as a series than these things. The most important thing about Zelda games are their gameplay. I’ve touched on it a bit already, but let’s visit that more in-depth before we wrap up.

Four Swords? More Like Four Bored! Ha! Like Four Times as Bored! Wait, I Already Used That Joke in the Last Section Header. What About, Like, Poor Swords? That Probably Works Better Than Four Bored, Yeah? Alright, I Think I’ll Go With Something Like That. Wait a Minute, is This All Going Into the Actual -

So we’ve established that, for better or worse, Four Swords Adventures has an unoriginal story, an unoriginal setting, unoriginal visuals, unoriginal sound effects, and unoriginal music. But we haven’t talked much about the gameplay, so how does it fare? Well as it turns out the gameplay of Four Swords mostly unoriginal. So what, does that mean we’re done here? Can you all close your browser windows and go back to composing thank you letters talking about how great I am? I’m afraid not (yet), because there’s an important detail left unsaid. For all its lack of originality, the gameplay is the best thing about Four Swords Adventures. And that gameplay is fun.

See, this is the problem with comparing a game to some of the greatest I’ve ever played. Four Swords Adventures may be especially fun messing around with friends, but even playing single player I still had a good time. The established Zelda gameplay is still there. You can still enjoy the simplistic but rewarding run-and-slash combat. You can still enjoy exploring for hidden areas and secret stashes sprinkled throughout the levels. You can still enjoy solving a bunch of different puzzles, a few of which are actually unique to this game. You can enjoy the variety of the levels in general, which take you to all sorts of interesting locales. You can enjoy the responsive controls, the colorful visuals, the pleasant sounds and the overall level of polish you’d expect from a Zelda game. You can enjoy a lot of things, and I have no problem with anyone who enjoyed playing this game. But this is a critique, so ultimately I have to say that past my enjoyment...some things started to wear.

This ‘ducking inside to avoid bombs’ thing is an interesting new twist the first time you see it. You’ll see it about a dozen more times before the game is over.

There are a number of mechanics, like the above timed bombs, that the game uses over and over. It particularly loves combat, and every stage will have several sections where you fight bosses, mini-bosses or hordes of enemies. Some of these exact combat sections will be repeated over and over and over across the entire game, to the point that what little novelty they had wears out its welcome by the end. A fair number of times the game also forces you to do some rather tedious fetch questing. Sometimes it’s just that you have to backtrack to get an item you need, because unlike in the other games you can only carry one at a time (this problem would probably be better in multiplayer). Other times there’s just not much too a section other than footwork, like grabbing pots to put out fires, herding a horde of hidden thieves into a single pen, or some other form of ferrying things around. These and other little nitpicks niggle at the game, wearing it down with imperfections.

But you know what? I could’ve looked past all that. As much as I enjoy them, I would never say other Zelda games don’t have flaws. Almost all of them have at least some portion of the game that’s annoying, frustrating or bland. But there’s no getting past the point that those games had originality. Though this may make it sound worse than it is, I don’t feel Four Swords Adventures has a soul of its own. It lacks identity, falling back on the comfortable and safe, from the sights to the sounds to the generic evil monster behind it.

Also, I’m not entirely sure the artist who drew this knew how wings work.

If it seems like I haven’t been mentioning many specific moments from the game, that’s because I don’t remember many. In other Zelda games I recall big open worlds of adventure to explore as I pleased. I recall people and places that, though perhaps not groundbreaking, were never quite like anything I’d seen before. I recall unique new mechanics I could twist my head around and wonderful music that forever anchored these games in a tiny, treasured part of my memory. Four Swords Adventures doesn’t feel to me like a game people had a huge passion for, a game they felt they had to make. It feels like a game made to sell me a cable, and also because the idea of four-player Zelda sounded pretty nifty. And it was nifty! I enjoyed my time with this game, because it is a good game. I just think it’s a shame it couldn’t reach higher than that.

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