A Force Gem in the Rough

Four Swords Adventures is, in a word, bizarre (in the best of ways). Each underrated Zelda game has its own set of anomalies that make it stand out from the rest of the series and Four Swords Adventures is no exception. Its increasing inaccessibility to players only adds to this mystique — and most emulations can’t replicate the experience of playing it on a fuzzy, old TV, clutching a chunky GameCube controller or Game Boy Advance. Four Swords Adventures’ eccentricities make it the series’ most precious hidden gem.

Supernatural Elements: 

Hands down my favorite elements of this beloved game are the spooky ones. For such a cheery, goofy game, Four Swords Adventures is shockingly intermingled with the occult. While there will be more on the Village of the Blue Maiden below, for now I’ll say that it’s rather haunting — a town harboring magic-wielding mages, where children and an entire house can vanish into thin air. That stage marks the return of Moon Pearls from A Link to the Past, which open elusive gates to the Dark World that only the wielder of the Four Sword can see. This stage in Eastern Hyrule is accompanied by a disquieting tune that embodies a town in fearful upheaval — a far cry from the bright theme the Village of the Blue Maiden is best known for.

On the subject of mages, magic is prominently featured in this game and often used for evil. I mean, it’s Vaati’s whole modus operandi. These mages are upstart witches who support Vaati, and knowing he has the willing support of these strange characters ups the stakes. These are not just mindless Moblins; they are denizens of Hyrule who would revel in Link’s defeat and thrive in the anarchy to follow. 

What’s more, reminders of the consequences of defeat are sprinkled across the land — ghosts. Not white amorphous shapes, but full-bodied apparitions of old men and fallen soldiers. The old men appear as fading spirits, a look of despair on their faces. They seem as though they have many regrets or simply can’t accept that their lives have come to an end. Regardless, it’s clear they feel they have unfinished business but there seems no hope they’ll ever finish it. For the most part, they either give the Links advice or say something strange or funny, so they’ve always stuck out to me as real oddities in the game that sort of defy explanation (but that’s what makes them so transfixing). 

More explicit are the ghosts of the four Knights of Hyrule. Standing between the Links and the Realm of the Heavens (go figure) are Big Dark Stalfos who were once Hyrule’s greatest protectors. They tragically lost their lives as a result of their courage and loyalty, and players are faced with incredibly melancholy, poignant moments when each knight whose spirit is freed entrusts the Links to carry on his task. It is crushing that these dedicated soldiers were cursed to do the bidding of the very monster who threatened their kingdom and took their lives — the ultimate adding of insult to injury. Each knight is associated with the color of one of the Links, serving as yet another subtle reminder of just how perilous a mission the Links are on. 

These phantasmagorical elements add a layer of somber sincerity to a generally silly game and have allowed me to reflect on my own mortality, values, and the concept of legacy over the years, whether or not I knew in my younger days quite how to express that. In this sense, I feel the game helped shape my capacity for empathy on top of being a way to make joyful memories and connect with my Player Two.

It’s Not All Doom and Gloom, There’s Charm Around Every Corner:

While its supernatural elements certainly help to set Four Swords Adventures apart in the emotional sense, it is also one of a kind due to its charming set of quirks. Nothing exemplifies this more than Force Gems. This game was the first to introduce Force Gems not only as currency, but as a way to fully power up the Four Sword and encourage friendly competition among players (with Force Gem totals being one of the criteria for ranking the Links at the end of each level). After boss battles, Force Gems rain down across the landscape and players can just go crazy snatching them all up. 

But beware! If you take your time, Tingle will steal your big gems without giving it a second thought. Tingle appearing in this game and being Force Gem hungry is another delightful feature of the title and fits with his ordinarily rupee-obsessed persona. 

Tingle isn’t the only comedic accompaniment to the Force Gems, there are also Force Soldiers (anthropomorphic Force Gems wielding swords and shields) and Force Likes (Like Likes with little Force Gem angler-traps that suck out your Force Gems rather than your health). There are too many zany characters, enemies, and minigames throughout the title to name, but Cheep Cheeps, Chain Chomps, Terrorpin Hockey, high-speed horse racing, and Hammer Tag give just a taste of the fun packed into this darling little game. 

New Friends We May Never See Again: 

Four Swords Adventures is chock full of memorable NPCs, some of which factor very little into the story and others that do in a big way. One of my favorites is an unnamed character in the Village of the Blue Maiden, the pretty blonde wearing a full pink getup with a wide brimmed sunhat. She is so cute and stands out due to her colorful outfit and slow walk (her only game function, as it allows you to sneak past her when she is nudged out of an obstructing line of concerned citizens). 

The Shrine Maidens are also a highlight for me. I was used to Sages, old men typically in 2D Zelda games, but here were a handful of powerful, luminous ladies protecting Hyrule. I always got the sense Princess Zelda was close with them, like they would have girls’ nights, so I felt a real sense of urgency to reunite the besties. Frankly, it was thrilling to save them just to see each one again. 

And lest we forget, the Zuna are a friendly, desert-dwelling race that resemble cacti in the Desert of Doubt level of this game. Four Swords Adventures was the first Zelda game I ever played (along with my twin brother), and the Zuna have stuck in my brain ever since for being such a mysterious, never-to-be-seen-again bunch. We get the sense in this title that they come from an established community that likely has a rich history, and I would love to see them appear in another Zelda game if only to get more information about them. As is, it’s mostly their “cactus people” design and total abandonment by the franchise that makes them so noteworthy.

As for playable characters, there are four! We obviously get to play as the Green, Red, Blue, and Purple Links again in this game, and they are all somehow dripping with personality. Set apart merely by their outfit colors and the pitch of their voices, players can project unique personalities onto them — just as a player can project him, her, or themself onto the singular Link in most Zelda games. In a way, playing Four Swords Adventures is like playing with dolls; your mind is free to invent backstories, banter, and a drama between the Links as you play (or, maybe that was just me, huh?).

Bewitching Big Bads:

It should come as no surprise to most Zelda fans that good ‘ol Vaati is the main villain in Four Swords Adventures. There has always been something special about Vaati — while we get his backstory in The Minish Cap, he is relegated to just three Zelda titles, which to me makes him a blip and an underdog in the franchise (just how Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was Walt Disney’s original cartoon star, but for after being, sold spent decades existing only in a limited set of cartoons) — he’s elusive, a villain with potential, cut down in his prime. There is a sad magic to a character that feels unattainable like this, almost like lost media. That’s Vaati. While Ganon does have a rather obligatory appearance in the game as the literal final boss, Vaati was the one calling the shot until then. And while he has fallen out of favor with Nintendo, Vaati lives rent free in my heart.

Vaati is accompanied of course by his minions, the Shadow Links. Not to be confused with Dark Link, Shadow Links have attitude and they dog the four Links throughout their adventure. There is something funny about having four Links fight even more Links, and since Shadow Links tended to be pretty quick fights, they were a good confidence booster after running into trouble with puzzles and the like. Once I took down Shadow, I always felt ready to take on any other boss that crossed my path. And he seems to be a fan favorite, popping up in a handful of Zelda games since!

There Are Levels to This:

Last, but not least, the gameplay in Four Swords Adventures is unique. Of course, it was the first standalone main series multiplayer Zelda title, and it improved upon the original Four Swords by leaps and bounds (if you ask me). First of all, the game unfolds via levels, each containing a handful of stages. This is rare for Zelda games, which usually take place on sprawling continuous maps. As touched on above, each stage pushes the story along and is its own lived-in world with memorable characters and moments. The stages are packed with puzzles, combat, and typically end in full temples with boss battles. 

While an unorthodox approach for the series, it works well given the “local color” imbued into each level. The Village of the Blue Maiden is the prime (and perfect) example, where we get to know the woes of a whole community whose children have disappeared as we correct the chaos Vaati caused and lift a dreadful storm. It all ends with triumphant sunshine and the entire town seeing the Links off, wishing them well on our journey. It’s lovely, and I’m glad it’s the best-known location in the game (even if just for its great theme music) because it deserves the recognition.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the multiplayer of it all. The combat and puzzles take full advantage of the four Links at the game’s disposal, and the marvel is that it is just as satisfying to play solo as it is with other people (I can’t say the same for Four Swords or Tri Force Heroes). On top of the main story, there are the Shadow Battle multiplayer battle modes that are a real hoot — it’s fun to be mischievous even if, like me, you tend to end up one of the Links who falls flat on his face. And I’ll always cherish the days I spent squinting at my GBA or SP whenever Link popped into a cave in Four Swords Adventures. It felt like he jumped between consoles and certainly kept me immersed. 

This Game is Special, So Let’s Celebrate It!

Happy 20th birthday, Four Swords Adventures. You shine as bright as ever.

I hope this love letter brings this game to more people’s attention, and I hope Nintendo chooses to re-release it in some form so that more players can make lasting memories playing this kooky diamond in the rough with their loved ones and closest friends like I did. 

If you have played Four Swords Adventures, feel free to share your favorite offbeat moments or joyful memories of it below!

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