Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Anniversary Edition (Review)

To celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Zelda franchise Nintendo decided to do something special. Not only is there are huge live Zelda Symphony orchestra, but Nintendo also decided to dedicate a new Zelda game to the anniversary. This game is an enhanced port of The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords as a downloadable title for Nintendo DSi and 3DS. And it's entirely free. If you got a DSi or a 3DS there's no excuse for not downloading and playing this game right now! However, the game will only be available for a limited time (until February 20th 2012) and in case that you don't own a DSi or a 3DS yet, you might have to consider buying one of these systems in order to get this game before it's gone. This review might help you with this decision. Unlike other reviews about the game, this one will be very thorough. So, beware of potential spoilers.

The Original Four Swords

Four Swords was originally made by Capcom for the GameBoy Advance and came as an addition to the GBA version of A Link to the Past. It was the first multiplayer Zelda game and it introduced Vaati, as well as the concept of the Four Sword to the Zelda series. And when it comes to multiplayer, I'd say that Four Swords still offers the best multiplayer Zelda experience. It's pretty much all about collecting as many Rupees as possible, but while you have to cooperate to beat enemies, overcome obstacles and solve puzzles in many clever ways, you're also competing all the time. The player, who collects the most Rupees, gets a Medal of Courage at the end of the stage. And it's fun to fight each other for who gets the precious gems first. It's this mix of cooperation and competition that makes this multiplayer game really unique.

Unlike all other Zelda games with the exception of the successor Four Swords Adventures this game is divided into individual stages. The original game only got four different stages (not counting the tutorial): the Sea of Trees, the Talus Cave, Death Mountain and Vaati's Palace. That's a forest area, an ice cave, a fire area and a sky dungeon. So, at first glance it might be deceiving that this game doesn't have much to offer. In fact you can go through this game and beat Vaati within an hour. It's that short and most people stopped there, expressing their disappointment about the length of this game. However, the game is far from over when the credits roll, actually it merely started. The stages are randomly generated and offer three different difficulty levels for immensive replay value. The randomization works quite smart, a stage usually consists of three floors, where the final floor is the boss. The other two floors are completely random. You never know, what you will get. Well, it isn't fully random as in Minecraft for example, Capcom made all the environments per hand. But there are many different frames for a setting and one of these frames gets randomly chosen. The frames may also get one randomly selected puzzle room, where you usually earn a key. There are also many different puzzle rooms and countless combinations between frames and the rooms. And there are enough environments to play through the game dozens of times. Additionally the content of treasure chests (with the exception of the keys) is randomized each time. The player count is also taken into consideration and the levels get modified based on how many players there are. So, the large 4x4 blocks only appear during four player mode and so on. The only downside is that the ideas for puzzles and obstacles are somehow limited and it can get repetitive after a while. But it still offers enough variety for you to replay the stages many, many times.

Well, the game also encourages you to beat it at least two more times thanks to two additional playthroughs. To open Vaati's Palace you need to collect the three Silver Keys first. But Vaati's Palace has actually three doors, each of them leading to a different challenge. For the second door you need to collect all three Golden Keys from the normal stages. These require you to get 3000 Rupees instead of just 1000 and the bosses also get harder. And in the final run the Hero Keys demand a staggering amount of 5000 Rupees per stage, which can be challenging. Opening Vaati's Palace with the Hero Keys leads to a 12 floor stage, where the settings can be entirely random and where you face all four bosses from the game in their strongest form. Playing this final stage alone takes at least as long as beating the game for the first time. So, there's a lot to do to keep you and your friends busy for many play sessions.

If you want to know, how this game plays, feels and looks like just play The Minish Cap. Capcom basically recycled everything from Four Swords to make The Minish Cap, the entire engine, graphics, sprites, sound effects, items and even most of the enemies. However, this game has little to no story, you can compare it to the complexity of a Mario game's story, princess gets abducted by bad guy, hero splits up into four copies by using a magical sword, beats the bad guy, end of story. The only NPC interaction in this game happens with fairies inside the tutorial. So, if you're looking for some big epic tale, this game is not for you. It's all about the multiplayer idea and for this it sacrificed some of the things that might be important for you in a Zelda game.

Like in Four Swords Adventures you can only hold one additional item at a time. You start with shields, but you can also find Remote Bombs, the Bow, the Boomerang, the Magnetic Glove from Oracle of Seasons, the Pegasus Boots, the Roc's Cape, the Gnat Hat (the inspiration for the Minish Cap) and the rare, but fun Chain Chomp, inspired by Bow-Wow from Link's Awakening. Each item gets at least one secondary use in the game, for example the Gnat Hat doesn't only let you shrink, it also prevents you from sliding on ice, and all of the items get used equally throughout the game.

Something unique in Four Swords are the temporary collectibles, the Magic Seeds and Rupee Shards. You only keep them during the stage and they are always randomly distributed all over the level. The seeds can be found below grass, pots or rocks, the Rupee Shards can also be gotten from treasure chests. The idea of the Magic Seeds came from the Oracle saga, but in this game they are used to boost your stats. The red Razor Seeds boost your sword attack power, the blue Armor Seeds increase your defense and the Pegasus Seeds make you walk faster. You can collect two of each, but you will lose them if you die. The Rupee Shards are like Pieces of Heart only for Rupees, if one player collects four of them he gets a large golden Rupee worth 500.

Well, that's pretty much everything there is to the original Four Swords. For a little game that was meant to be a simple bonus to A Link to the Past this is pretty impressive. Capcom made their own engine and graphical style for this game, all of which later became popular with The Minish Cap. And the individual stages offer immensive replay value thanks to the randomization. It's a small game that got heavily overlooked due to the fact that you couldn't play it alone. Until now this might have been the most unrecognized game in the series save for the BS-Zeldas. And that makes it the perfect choice to be the base for some Anniversary game.

The Singleplayer

The biggest complaint about the original Four Swords was that you couldn't play this game on your own. You needed at least a second player, who also owns a GameBoy Advance and a copy of the game, and a connection cable. Otherwise you never got to play it and considering the fact that you were also missing out the new content in A Link to the Past that way, this was really disappointing. There were many Zelda-fans, who never got to play the original game or who went through quite some efforts like playing coop with themselves using two GBAs at once or linked emulators.

Luckily GREZZO came up with a solution here. They added a singleplayer, where you play the two player mode on your own by controlling two Links at the same time. It might have been inspired by the singleplayer mode in Four Swords Adventures, but it's actually quite different. You switch between both Links by pressing L or R. The inactive Link stays at the same spot and is invulnerable during the entire time. By pressing X you can summon the second Link to your side with your whistle, he will follow you around and automatically assist you in different actions. The best example would the Hikkuns, red enemies that you have to pull apart from two sides. The moment you start pulling one side, the other Link joins you by pulling the other side. He also assists you to push or lift large blocks, to kill Nokkens (those are enemies that need to be thrown), to light torches, to drive mine carts, to destroy rock walls and to attack Vaati's flowers. That's about it, but it's all you need to get through the various floors.

They also had to dumb down some stuff to get it to work in singleplayer. The most noticeable thing are the eye switches and levers. In multiplayer you have to activate them all at the same time. In singleplayer they now stay activated or retracted for a while, so you can hit or pull them one after another. You don't even have to quickly switch between the two Links, you can just use one and take your time. The timer is that long and it feels weird at first. Together with activating torches those were puzzles, where you had to time yourself with the other players. Coordination is a huge part of the multiplayer and simply not required in singleplayer, which is why some of the puzzles now feel somehow meaningless. Also, in the multiplayer there are certain levels, which were designed to encourage competition. For example there are raceways, where the fastest player gets all the treasures and the other players get locked out. These passages are completely pointless in singleplayer. And there are puzzles, where you need to find a way for all players to get to a certain point. In singleplayer you just use the whistle to summon the second Link and it's done. So, overall playing the game in singleplayer got a lot easier.

Some enemies were also dumbed down. Namely the Bulbuls and the Rupee Wraiths. The Bulbuls are red enemies with large, round, green belly and normally they would just bounce off your sword. The only way to defeat them was attacking them from two sides. Now in singleplayer you can defeat them with only one player, but you need to be really quick and persistent, so they are still quite tough enemies. The way how they changed them works really well. Rupee Wraiths on the other hand now do little to nothing. In multiplayer they make you drop many Rupees for a while. This keeps you busy with recollecting them and the only way to get rid of this annoyance is passing them onto other players. Well, in singleplayer there aren't any other players, so the Rupee Wraiths just disappear after they made you drop three Rupees. You can easily ignore them now. The amount of Rupees might get higher if you run into multiple Rupee Wraiths on the same floor, but usually they won't bother you anymore. Also, the boss Manhandla of the Sea of Trees now doesn't have any multicolored flowers anymore. But the boss is still very tough in singleplayer, so it doesn't really matter.

Those changes may feel like the game was dumbed down, but there's no real reason to complain about it. Unlike Four Swords Adventures the original Four Swords was never built with singleplayer in mind, this game was never meant to be played alone. So, what GREZZO delivered here is already as good as it gets. Because nothing was cut from the singleplayer. You get to play the entire two player mode expierence on your own, no floors or puzzles or enemies were cut from the singleplayer mode. And this is great.

Well, one thing got cut, the Rupee Fever. In multiplayer you earn double Rupees as long as all players have full health. Using Rupee Fever is the best strategy to get enough Rupees for the Hero Keys and without Rupee Fever it seemed pretty much impossible. Now you have to look for spots where stronger enemies respawn to farm enough Rupees, which can take a while and be quite boring. But this seems to be the only way to get the Hero Keys in singleplayer. On the other hand it might be that the Rupee Fever would have made the singleplayer even easier than it already is, which is why GREZZO removed it. There needs to be some balance for all the advantages that come with the new singleplayer. However, this isn't the only thing that makes collecting Rupees in singleplayer harder: the Rupee Shards became too rare in singleplayer. In fact you rarely will get four pieces. It happened to me many times that I found three Rupee Shards, but no fourth one despite opening every chest and cutting all the grass. This was not my inability to find the last part, there simply wasn't any fourth shard. They are hidden randomly and GREZZO just made them a little bit too rare in singleplayer.

The New Stages

In the GameBoy Advance version you could unlock two new sword techniques, the Sword Beam by getting the Master Sword in A Link to the Past and the Hurricane Spin Attack by solving the new Riddle Quest in the same game. Of course the new version doesn't come with a free copy of A Link to the Past, so GREZZO had to come up with different means of unlocking the sword moves. There would have been many easy ways to include them, but they chose to add two entire new stages to the game, the Realm of Memories and the Hero's Trial.

Unlike the four original stages, the new stages aren't randomized. You only have to beat them once anyway. But like Vaati's Palace they have three different doors. If you beat one door, the next one opens. Each door leads to a different level made of three floors with no bosses. That's 18 new dungeon floors alltogether, which is a lot. This is probably the highest amount of new content that ever got added to a revamped Zelda game. And it will take you a while to get through the new stages.

The Realm of Memories stage is entirely dedicated to the 25th Anniversary, here you walk through familiar areas from past Zelda games. The entire graphics are overlayed with sprites from classic Zeldas and original tunes are played. The first door leads to environments from A Link to the Past, the second to Link's Awakening and the third to the original NES The Legend of Zelda. You get to play the first dungeon from these games and two areas from the overworlds, usually a forest. Especially the Link's Awakening stage is very cool, everything is shown in the classic greenish monochrome GameBoy looks. Though it might look like some fan mod at times and not like some professional Nintendo product, it's still a fun addition and offers a nice feel of nostalgia.

The Hero's Trial on the other hand features dark and twisted versions of the game's original four settings. For example the forest area looks quite wintery now. This stage is meant to be a challenge for Zelda-veterans and it's a hard one, if not the hardest challenge in the Zelda series yet. They key element here are relentless fights against hordes of enemies in the most hazardous environments. The developers really use everything the game had to offer against you. The enemies come in large numbers in the most evil combinations. For example you might run into Ice Wizzrobes to freeze you and Ball & Chain Troopers to smash your frozen bodies. In the GameBoy Advance version of Four Swords you would never run into more than four enemies at once, however, in the Hero's Trial you will be overwhelmed by swarms of enemies. And the enemies of Four Swords can be very, very nasty, especially the bone throwing Stalfos, the Spear Moblins, the Darknuts and the Wizzrobes. They are usually harder to defeat than their counterparts in The Minish Cap, for example Darknuts and Spear Moblins are nearly impossible to attack from the front.

But what makes the whole thing so brutally hard is the very short recovery time in this game. The invincibility window after getting hit is really tiny, even a smaller enemy can easily kill you by simply running into you. And GREZZO really abused this in the Hero's Trial to create some cheap diffculty. You get cornered by lots of enemies, which are hard to fight back, and additionally other enemies will attack you from the distance. Imagine Stalfos and Wizzrobes shooting at you from all sides while Ball & Chain Troopers surround you. You can't dodge all of it and you will die a lot. A LOT. It also likes to use all kinds of traps like pits, ice floors, Blade Traps, air streams, spiked floors and similar to make the fights even harder. And it never ends. The floors are very long, the longest in the entire game, and when you think it couldn't possibly get any harder the game ups the ante. It's cruel, it's cheap, it's relentless, it's exhausting. It's hell in Zelda. If you've beaten the Hero's Trial, you can call yourself a Hero for sure. And if you ever wanted a real challenge in Zelda, then this is for you. (As a nice easter egg the number "25" is hidden throughout the stage several times.)

Generally GREZZO's level design is quite bland. The levels are very linear and repetitive. They heavily abuse the big switches that spawn enemies as soon as all players step onto them. You're basically running from one of these switches to the next. There's some platforming here and there, rarely a puzzle, but mostly it's just progressing through the areas on a linear path and fighting lots of enemies. It gets tedious and in the Hero's Trial this kind of level design might kill your last nerves. It also kills all possible replay value. You might replay the Realm of Memories once or twice, but only because of its nostalgic charme, not because of the level design. And the replay value of the Hero's Trial is pretty low, in fact you might never want to play it again in your life as soon as you're done with it. In this way the new stages are the complete opposite of the original four stages, which offer very high reply value and open gameplay.

On the other hand the new stages were fully made with the singleplayer in mind, unlike the rest of the game. At no point the stages will feel dumbed down or weird. In fact playing the new stages in singleplayer might be an advantage. In the Hero's Trial you can abuse switching between the two Links in order to survive. In multiplayer you might die much more often here, because there's no way to safe yourself from being cornered. The new singleplayer mode really gets to shine in the new stages.

Other Changes

Next to the addition of a singleplayer mode and two new stages the DSiWare version underwent a series of other smaller additions and improvements.

Most noticeable are all the new sound effects. GREZZO occasionally changed some sound effects in Ocarina of Time 3D, but here you really get the feeling that there was some overly bored sound designer working on this game. From collecting Rupees, over swinging your sword to using the Pegasus Boots or the Roc's Cape. Many actions sound different in this version. And it's not like they are better or worse than the original sound effects. They are just different for whatever reason.

Since the DSi has two screens, the second screen now is used to display your seeds, Rupee Shards, the map, the current time, the stage's name and the floor number. Originally you could display the map and the collectibles by pressing L, while the floor number was in the upper left corner. The icons for the seeds and shards are quite large, so you can also easily see them while looking at the upper screen. The whistle that summons the second Link in singleplayer can be used to draw attention in multiplayer. And all except the first player can freely chose their color. In singleplayer you can chose the color of the second Link.

The minimal time bonus at the end of a floor now is 50 Rupees per player instead of only one. This is a lot, you basically get a good amount of Rupees for free.

Pots now can be broken with your sword. Originally you had to pick them up and throw them like rocks. Smashing them with your sword is much faster and feels nice, it also got a nice new sound effect. And there's a little easter egg, where something from N64 Zelda games made it into the Anniversary Edition, which was a nice surprise.

A nice addition to the game is the total Rupee score. If you finish a stage, all your Rupees will be added to this score. If the score reaches 30,000 Rupees the Hero's Trial gets unlocked (alternatively you can also collect five Medals of Courage). The score is a nice addition, because now you never play a stage for nothing. If you fail to get a key, the Rupees at least get added to your score. And if you replay a stage just for fun the Rupees also count and you can watch the score growing higher and higher.

Collecting Medals of Courage in multiplayer is now entirely optional. In the original version collecting 10 of them would unlock the Riddle Quest in A Link to the Past, which then would unlock the Hurricane Spin Attack in both games. Now in this version everything can be unlocked in singleplayer, which is a good thing.

No Online, No Download Play

The biggest complaint you hear about the Anniversary Edition is the lack of online multiplayer. However, the game was originally designed for local multiplayer and it wouldn't work well online. Communication is very important, you can't beat the game without cooperating, telling other players what to do and spot on timing. Quitting and griefing are also huge issues, which could turn an online version into a frustrating nightmare. And an online mode is a little bit too much to ask from a free game. The new singleplayer eliminates the need of an online mode anyway, if there's no one around you can play the game on your own now.

Download Play would have been nice, so that you could also use older DS systems. However, you can't save your progress using Download Play, which is probably the reason, why this feature wasn't included.

Personal Thoughts

Ever since Four Swords was released for the GameBoy Advance I was obsessed with the game. For one simple reason: it was the only Zelda game that I couldn't play. You needed a second player and there was no one with a GBA around. This year, eight years after the original release, I finally got to play the game, I went both through the original version on the GBA and the new one on the 3DS. So, this was already a pretty big Zelda-year for me and Skyward Sword isn't even out yet. The new singleplayer is an old wish coming true. Thanks to this new addition I can finally play the game whenever I want. I don't need to track down a second player or sprain my hands by using two GBAs at once. Considering that the game was never meant to be played alone, GREZZO did a good job here. Yes, it might feel weird at times and it's nothing but an afterthought, but I can now play this game whenever I want and this is totally awesome. What I really like about playing this game is that it allows short Zelda sessions. If you feel like playing some Zelda, but you don't have the time for a fullblown singleplayer adventure, then this is perfect. You can just pick up this game, play a single dungeon and then turn the game off. And thanks to the random levels you don't know what you will get and you might even run into something new. I've fully beaten both versions of the game, I replayed all the levels just for fun multiple times now and I still get to see new areas. Which is absolutely amazing.

And the fact that this is a downloadable game makes picking it up even easier, because you don't have to switch any discs or cartridges. I just turn on my 3DS and tap the icon. Ever since the introduction of WiiWare I saw the future of 2D Zelda games in download services. What survived on the GameBoy for many years is now a dying breed. Classic 2D Zelda games with nice sprite graphics might be a thing of the past, especially now that the current handheld system is all about 3D. But as small downloadable games 2D Zelda still might have a chance to survive. And the Four Swords Anniversary Edition is the first step in this direction - while it's not an entire new game, it's the first exclusive downloadable Zelda title. It's also the first new 2D Zelda title since The Minish Cap. And I bet that many Zelda fans want more Zelda games like this.

As a longtime Zelda fan and a real veteran of the series I was looking for some good challenge for a long time now. Usually a new Zelda game doesn't offer any challenge at all, you know the drill, you know the tricks, it gets routine. So, naturally I was really looking forward to the Hero's Trial. However, I didn't think it would turn into my personal nightmare. When I first heard about the Hero's Trial I was thinking on the lines of something like the Hero's Caves in the Oracle games. These two dungeons offer some of the best puzzles and challenges in the entire series. And I was looking forward to get a good mix between tough fights and crazy puzzles. But if you're looking for any puzzles in the Hero's Trial, you won't find any. There's some platforming, but usually it's all about cheap traps and getting you killed by tons of enemies. I certainly like the idea of the tough fights, I always enjoyed the dungeon simulator minigame in The Minish Cap or the Cave of Ordeals in Twilight Princess. But in the Hero's Trial I got sick of it. Because of the low invincibility time the fights can be really frustrating and you get totally overrun by all kinds of enemies. It all feels so cheap, it's not the kind of difficulty you would ever expect to appear in a Zelda game. Well, but in the end I certainly can't complain that I wasn't challenged by this. And the frustration came mostly from the fact that I just had to beat this in order to get everything. Now that I've finished the Hero's Trial, it actually starts to get fun somehow, without the pressure I can enjoy the fights much more. It's definitely a great new challenge, something the Zelda series hasn't seen before. Something really hard. Something people talk about. Forget Zelda II, this is the new killer.


Of all the Zelda games that Nintendo could have chosen to be revamped for an Anniversary Edition this was definitely the best choice. With this new version Four Swords went from zero to hero. Thanks to the new singleplayer mode many Zelda fans can now finally experience this game for their first time. The new Realm of Memories stage offers a fun and nostalgic trip through old times, while the Hero's Trial will challenge even the hardest Zelda players. The multiplayer might be the best in the series, but after all this game was designed for multiplayer. And because of that you shouldn't expect a full epic Zelda game here, there's no big story or character interaction, this is a Zelda game reduced to dungeon gameplay. But you can't really complain about anything, because it's for free. You don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Even if they just had dumped the same old game with wireless multiplayer on the DSi it would have been fine, since this doesn't cost you anything. But instead they added an all new singleplayer and new stages, which is pretty impressive for a free game. The only real complaint would be that this only stays available for a limited time. But maybe they will sell it later on the eShop because of "popular demand".

+ intriguing Zelda multiplayer experience
+ great mix of cooperation and competing
+ very high replay value of the four original stages thanks to random floors and multiple playthroughs
+ new singleplayer mode lets you enjoy the game on your own for the first time
+ new stages offer nostalgia and challenge
+ can be enjoyed in between
+ great way of celebrating the Anniversary
+ it's FREE!!
- level design of the new stages is linear and repetitive
- Rupee Shards are too rare in singleplayer
- only available for a limited time

1 comment:

linkin' zelda said...

Why didn't they add wifi (although the not-so-good reason).