With the impending release of the Zelda franchise’s newest game, Spirit Tracks, I’m left with a feeling of disappointment. No, it’s not because of the lack of a “Zelda Wii” trailer, the cheesy name, the recycled graphics engine, or the train. It’s because it looks like Nintendo has missed the boat, or train, for a promising game opportunity: a Four Swords game for the Nintendo DS.
For a time there were rumors that a Four Swords game was being developed for the DS, and that it was scrapped in favor of Phantom Hourglass. Eiji Aonuma, who has directed and produced several Zelda games, addressed that issue, saying it was only the Four Swords team working on a Zelda game. So why not take the next step? They’ve worked with the Four Swords games, and they’ve worked with the DS, yet it appears that Nintendo will never combine the two together. With Spirit Tracks being released this year, and “Zelda Wii” reportedly under development, the chances of another Zelda game being released for a DS are slipping away, especially given Nintendo’s history of generally releasing two games per system.
So why does the Four Swords saga need another chapter? To put it bluntly, because all three of the previous games failed to reach their full potential.
The first chapter of the story in terms of release date, Four Swords, got off to a bad start right away by not being its own individual game. The game came as a “bonus” game on the cartridge of the A Link to the Past port for the Gameboy Advance. At the time of its release, its canonicity was frequently questioned, and many assumed it wasn’t a “real” game.
Introducing the new gameplay mechanic of controlling four Links was a step in the right direction, as was introducing a new antagonist in the form of Vaati the wind sorcerer. Unfortunately, that was countered by the game’s short length, and the fact that there was no single player mode. The only way to play the game was to get two to four people to all connect their GBAs, which was no easy task.
Four Swords Adventures
Four Swords Adventures for the Gamecube took the moderate success of Four Swords and ran with it. Unlike Four Swords, it was released as an individual game and had both single and multiplayer modes. Because it was a direct sequel, it also confirmed that Four Swords was indeed a “real” Zelda game. The GBA could also be used as a controller for the game, with the gameplay shifting to it when the player enters houses, caves, or other similar places.
However, the game was certainly not without its faults. Though it had longer gameplay and a more complicated plot, both felt somewhat hollow. Since the game featured an overworld map divided into eight levels, each with several stages, it didn’t allow free travel throughout Hyrule. Only small parts of Hyrule could be explored at a time. The game’s overworld map was eerily similar to that of A Link to the Past; a blessing and a curse at the same time. There’s nothing wrong with a little nostalgia, but as the game progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that there’s little new under the sun.
The gameplay is also similar to A Link to the Past to the point of redundancy. Both games require you to travel between Light and Dark Worlds, rescuing Seven Maidens from the clutches of an evil villain, only to discover that the villain is merely a pawn in the grand scheme of Ganon. It’s been said by Aonuma that the game originally had a different, more complex plot. However, Zelda creator and director Shigeru Miyamoto, who Aonuma refers to as “the absolute” on Zelda matters, did not approve of it. Part-way through development, the game’s plot underwent a massive overhaul, and the result was that the game’s new plot left us with a lot of unanswered questions. These issues are addressed in greater detail in my article “The Building Blocks of Twilight Princess”, but include an oddly-functioning Dark World, a Dark Mirror with an unfinished story, and a Dark Tribe whose identity became blurred.
The Minish Cap
The last game in the series to be released, but the first chronologically, The Minish Cap does the service of explaining the origins of Vaati and the Four Sword. Released for the GBA, it is probably the most popular and successful of the three titles.
In The Minish Cap Link does not begin as the familiar “four who are one”. Wielding the Picori Blade, Link travels across Hyrule in search of the Four Elements that he’ll need to fully empower the blade, and save the kingdom. As the game progresses, each upgrade to the Picori Blade gives Link the ability to create one more “clone”. Unlike Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures, splitting into multiple Links is a controllable function, requires specific tiles, and only lasts for a limited amount of time.
The Minish Cap also differs from its predecessors in terms of the overworld map. No more was there a series of levels and stages, but instead, the more traditional open and explorable map. The map contained familiar landmarks, but unlike Four Swords Adventures, was not near-identical to any other map. It had the perfect balance of familiarity and freshness.
There is little negativity to be brought to light about The Minish Cap as it’s truly a quality game. Unfortunately, the element of controlling four Links is not present in the game until it’s almost over, and there’s a complete lack of any sort of multiplayer mode. In that aspect, The Minish Cap is hardly a Four Swords game at all.
Why the DS?
Fan-made concept art showing that others would like to see Four Swords brought to the DS
It’d be a shame to let the Four Swords saga’s gameplay deviations to go to waste because of missed opportunities, and the Nintendo DS is the perfect antidote to that problem. A fresh start with a new system, new graphics, and a new arsenal of features and capabilities would allow the Four Swords series to build on its previous elements and concepts; to reach its full potential.
Controls: Single and Multiplayer
The first way that the DS could improve the series is the controls, for both single and multi-player modes.
Four Swords Adventures’ single player mode offered the ability to toggle between four different formations; a luxury in battle, and a necessity for solving certain puzzles. The DS could utilize the second screen as quick access to the formations. By displaying the various formations on the second screen, they could be changed easily with a quick tap of the stylus or press of a button, depending on which screen was serving as the primary screen and which was the secondary.
The stylus adds another unique opportunity as well: customizable formations. The Minish Cap let the player utilize tiles in the room to make the four Links take on different formations, and the stylus could take that element one step further. With the game paused, the player could access a “Formation Grid” screen. Using a grid of tiles, five by five for example, the player could draw up new formations by simply marking four spots in the grid. This new formation could then be named by the player, and stored with the four basic ones, allowing the player to assemble the four Links in that pattern at will.
Then there’s the microphone. Phantom Hourglass let the player use the microphone for various things, like shouting to get Astrid’s attention and blowing out torches. Four Swords DS could utilize the microphone as part of the controls system. Too lazy to move that stylus on over and click a formation? Just say its name! Four Swords Adventures allowed the player to freeze the other Links in place temporarily while only one was used, chosen by toggling through them by pressing buttons. The microphone could be used for this too, as the player would just have to say the color tunic of the Link that needed to be used.
The DS is perfect for the multi-player mode as well. With formation selection no longer a concern, players would be free to use the stylus to control their individual Links, just as in Phantom Hourglass. There could even be an option to switch back and forth between controlling with the directional pad or the stylus.
None of the three current Four Swords titles have a wireless mode; another place where the DS could enhance the gaming experience. A big complaint of the previous games, and especially the original Four Swords which lacked any kind of single player mode, is the difficulty of getting enough people together to play a multi-player game. With the DS, you could link up with people around the world and play a multiplayer game. Four Swords could even be re-introduced to the Zelda series as a port to the DS on the same cartridge as the new game. Adding a single-player mode with the DS control enhancements mentioned earlier, and a wireless multiplayer mode, Four Swords would surely get a better reception the second time around.
A New Item System
An unfortunate re-occurrence in the Four Swords saga is the lack of creativity in the use of items and weapons. The original Four Swords had a very limited weapon system. Instead of the usual inventory subscreen for holding multiple items, each player could only have one item at a time. The various items were mostly found on pedestals throughout the levels, and if a player wished to pick up a new one, he had to discard the previous one. Each Link was able to choose one item to hold or discard whenever a new pedestal was found.
When Four Swords Adventures came out, instead of bringing back the inventory subscreen, items were given even more limitations. Not only was each player restricted to holding one item, but in single player, all four of the Links always have the same item. When an item is chosen at a pedestal, all four Links discard their previous item and take up the new one.
One item? You can do better, Nintendo
The Minish Cap features a decent-sized arsenal of items to choose from, but only when the “real” Link is by himself can they be used. When split into two or more Links, items simply cannot be used. It’s almost embarrassing how the Zelda franchise has let the item opportunities presented by having four Links go to waste.
The DS would be the ideal system for utilizing items in a Four Swords game. By allowing the player to collect a full arsenal, as in The Minish Cap, and use items when split in four, as in Four Swords Adventures, there are endless possibilities. The second screen would serve as a means of quickly arming the four Links with whatever items the player sees fit. It could feature the typical item screen, but with the four Links pictured off to the side, allowing players to use the stylus or buttons to select an item, and then select which of the four Links is to carry it. No more of the generic system where only one item can be wielded at a time. Multiplayer mode, of course, would only allow the player to arm the Link that he or she is controlling.
With this new system of item use, gameplay and creativity of puzzles would improve vastly. Puzzles could be made which, to be solved, require Links wielding different items to cooperate. For example, a torch inaccessible because of an obstacle would require one Link to use a fire rod or lantern, while another Link throws his boomerang through the fire, around the obstacle, and to the torch.
It doesn’t stop with just adding complexity to puzzles though. This new item system would prove very useful in battle situations, as the four Links could cooperate to do massive damage to enemies. The Super Nintendo game Chrono Trigger, which was recently ported to the DS, featured attacks called “dual techniques” and “triple techniques”. These techniques combined the powers of two or three members to make a new attack; a concept that a new Four Swords game would be wise to incorporate.
Imagine Chrono Trigger-esque dual techniques in Zelda
If, in a similar fashion to the above picture, two players combined a spin attack and a fire attack, a new and exciting attack would be created. The “flame whirl” is just one of many possible dual techniques that could be created using the numerous combinations of Zelda items. Weapon combinations could truly revolutionize the way Zelda is played.
Utilizing the Second Screen
The uses of the second screen don’t end with just easy weapon and item access. Four Swords DS could utilize the second screen much in the same way that Four Swords Adventures utilized the GBA. When players enter houses, caves, and so on, the second screen would show what was happening on the inside of the new area, while the first screen would still show the main overworld. Freshly Picked: Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland, a spin-off game for the DS, utilized the second screen when people entered some multi-level buildings.
If Tingle can do it, Link can too
With four Links, puzzles could be designed that take place on two different floors at the same time. This function could even be implemented in boss battles, adding a whole new element to the fight.
Phantom Hourglass generally used the second screen as an overworld map. Players could then switch it to being the primary screen, and draw on it. This was used to mark the locations of things, write down important information, and anything else the player wanted to do. This function could be just as useful in a Four Swords game.
With all the different new opportunities and functions that could be featured in a Four Swords games, it simply makes the most sense for the game to be for the DS. Primary screen gameplay need not be disrupted as all the other functions could be toggled through on the secondary screen; something the GBA, Gamecube, and even Wii wouldn’t be able to offer.
So if Nintendo were to go down this road, how would they be able to fit this game into the overall chronology? It would actually be surprisingly easy, as the entire Four Swords saga is fairly open, plot-wise.
While The Minish Cap is widely accepted as the backstory of Four Swords, as it explains the origins of Vaati and the Four Sword itself, the game doesn’t entirely match the description. In the backstory of Four Swords, Vaati is said to have terrorized Hyrule by kidnapping many beautiful girls from their homes. When all hope seemed lost, a young boy carrying little more than a sword appeared. Drawing his sword, he split into four, and sealed Vaati away.
In The Minish Cap, Vaati isn’t on a rampage of kidnapping. Instead, he’s on a quest to find the sacred Light Force. In the game’s ending, he is apparently killed by Link, and not sealed. While in Japanese mythology it’s possible for someone to have their body killed, but their soul only sealed, the stories are still too different to match up. A game could come in between The Minish Cap and Four Swords, properly explaining Vaati’s return, and more closely matching the backstory. However, Miyamoto doesn’t like to confine a game to a specific backstory, as it limits creativity, and thus it’s unlikely to happen.
Another potential placement for a new Four Swords game is after Four Swords Adventures. While The Minish Cap seems to kill Vaati, and yet he still returns, his death in Four Swords Adventures is much more ambiguous. He seems to simply disappear when the final blow is dealt, leading some to believe he’s not dead in the game’s ending. A potential return of Vaati is still possible.
Meanwhile, Ganon served as the true antagonist in the game, hiding behind the scenes while Vaati distracted the Heroes. In the end, Ganon is unable to be killed, and is merely sealed away inside the Four Sword; a prison from which Vaati has escaped. If a minor villain such as Vaati can escape the Four Sword, surely Ganon could as well, creating cause for the sacred blade to again be wielded.
Now, because of vast similarities in plot, geography, and other factors, many believe Four Swords Adventures to come some time before A Link to the Past. The port of A Link to the Past for the GBA featured an extra dungeon inside Ganon’s Dark World where the Four Sword could be found, separated into four pieces. This would link Four Swords Adventures’ ending with A Link to the Past, and erase a necessity for a game to come in between and explain what happened to Ganon. However, it opens up an even more intriguing possibility.
With the separated pieces of the Four Sword recombined in the game’s ending, and the Master Sword said to have been put to sleep forever, there’s no need to assume a new Four Swords game is anywhere near the others chronologically. At any point on the timeline after A Link to the Past, a new villain could arise. Whether the quote about the Master Sword is to be taken literally, it could be destroyed, lost, or simply forgotten about, necessitating the Four Swords’ return.
With the Four Sword recombined, will it make a return?
The passage of time would allow for changes in geography, Hyrulean culture, and a completely new villain. No more recycled plot or carbon-copy landmarks. A brand new start for the Four Sword in a new, but familiar environment would be the perfect scenario.
Whether or not Spirit Tracks turns out to be a success, I will feel like Nintendo has missed a golden opportunity, and I’m sure others will agree. Even from a marketing standpoint, a multiplayer Zelda game done correctly is a great appeal to the “casual gamer” audience that Miyamoto so loves to target, while still appealing to the hardcore fans. We can only hope that the Zelda staff will realize the possibilities at their fingertips before it’s too late.