In the hubbub, hype and over-excitement of E3 2011, some gamers would have been particularly delighted by a DSiWare announcement from Nintendo: while that seems unlikely, it does reflect the dedication of fans and their love for the Zelda series. After a relatively short wait, the much anticipated The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Anniversary Edition is now available for free download on the DSi or 3DS.
This Four Swords anniversary edition is a remake of the title that was included with the Game Boy Advance version of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past: it was an additional multi-player only game that utilised the GBA link cable and played with the same 2D top-down perspective as the main game on the cart. It must be clarified that this new edition is not a simple port, but a new version with additional stages and a single-player mode. The developer given the task was Grezzo, that brought us The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, and this is another example of a remake constructed with loving care, attention to detail and quality craftsmanship.
In terms of the storyline of this particular entry in the canon, an evil wind mage called Vaati escapes his seal in the legendary ‘Four Sword’. Naturally his first action is to kidnap Zelda with the purpose of marrying her, and once again Link is tasked with rescuing the Princess. It’s standard fare except for the twist that Link, in order to complete his mission, utilises the power of the sword to separate himself into four parts. It’s a fun little storyline but ultimately inconsequential, with the plot acting as a means to set up the main gameplay mechanic of a team of Links working together.
The campaign itself is relatively short, clocking in at around two-three hours to work through the four main stages – as well as a very thorough training area – with each stage including three levels. Each stage has a specific theme, whether it’s woodland, icy terrain or the ever-present Death Mountain, and you’ll see each area more than once. This is a title that requires you to play-through on multiple occasions, on each occasion gathering rupees to gain a different coloured key. Unlike other Zelda titles, the focus is on accumulating as many rupees as possible, with each play-through demanding bigger treasure hauls from more challenging versions of the stages. Beating the game first-time around also unlocks the ‘Realm of Memories’, exclusive to this anniversary edition and including three new stages based on previous releases in the series. We won’t spoil which areas from which games are reproduced, but fans of the series are likely to be swept away by nostalgia.
It’s likely that most will spend a lot of time on the single player story mode. Rather than the full contingent of four heroes, the single player mode sets you on your journey with two characters. While it may seem, in principle at least, daunting to control multiple characters, the implementation of level design and controls makes it feel intuitive and natural. In terms of the controls, there is the standard movement with the D-Pad, while all four face buttons are used for your sword, equipped item and actions such as opening chests and pulling blocks.
The X button is particularly important, however, as it is used to summon your other Link with a shrill whistle. While the two Links move together by default, it is possible to select one or the other with either of the shoulder buttons. Taking into account that each Link only carries one item, which includes series favourites such as the bow, boomerang and bombs, it becomes a tactical process to decide which item to equip to your characters. Throw in the ability for one Link to throw another over pits, and you have a set of puzzles designed to make you manage your items, switch characters and, at the right moment, summon the other Link with a whistle. It’s actually possible to get yourself stuck permanently, though most will avoid this, forcing you to restart that section of the stage. Considering each level is 10 minutes or under, this isn’t typically a major problem.
This tactical play, combined with the classic 2D Zelda sword-fighting mechanics, offers an engaging and enjoyable experience most of the time. While most stages have been redesigned and tweaked to suit a single player, there are occasional moments, particularly boss fights, when colour-coded attacks or actions are needed from each character and the gameplay mechanics feel a little cumbersome and awkward. It doesn’t happen often, but when these imbalanced sections occur they may frustrate less patient gamers. Aside from these moments the difficulty is actually quite low, with healing fairies in bountiful supply. Purists of the series only need to work through the second and third batch of campaign levels, however, to come up against a stiffer challenge.
Considering that the single player is an enjoyable experience on the whole, it should be no surprise that the multiplayer component is a blast: this, after all, is how this title is supposed to be played. Using local wireless from within the title, it’s a simple process of each player selecting their profile – of which you have three in total – and choosing the multiplayer option. One player sets up a session and the other joins, with the whole process being quick and seamless. It’s local only with no online play, but considering that this title is free until 20th February 2012, it would be petty to complain. In our experience online wouldn’t work sufficiently anyway, as communicating with the other players quickly is necessary and adds to the fun, so local play is a perfect fit.
We completed a playthrough of the game in around three hours in multiplayer, with one player using a DSi and the other using a 3DS. In terms of the performance of the game, it was excellent overall. On a couple of occasions there was a brief moment of lag that quickly passed, while the music between the devices would occasionally go out of sync. That aside, it was smooth running, and it's clear that the levels work best in the multiplayer format. Not only were some stages slightly different and, in some ways, more engaging, but those frustrating boss fights from the single player were easier to defeat. This is, simply, the best way to enjoy this title.
The overall presentation of this title is highly polished, with menus and a user interface that fits perfectly with the vibe of the GBA original. These are classic 2D Zelda graphics, with bright pixel animations and environments for retro gamers to croon over. The new Realm of Memories stages are a particular delight, with some stylistic touches that reflect Grezzo’s respect for the source material. The sound is excellent, with blasts of classic bit-tune Zelda music that are wonderful to hear.
Not only has Nintendo provided a free Zelda title to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the series, but it’s a game that has hours of replay value and a multiplayer component that is a joy to play. The occasional touch of lag or out of sync music don’t distract too much from the experience. The single player is also an accomplishment of thoughtful design, with just a few points where the balance of play doesn’t quite suit the mechanics. Overall, however, this is a terrific new version of the Four Swords adventure, lovingly crafted and full of content: if you haven’t already done so, download it now.