Once again, Akira Himekawa, pen name for the two women who write and draw The Legend of Zelda manga, crafts a much needed retelling of one of Nintendo’s beloved stories. Himekawa’s newest Legendary Edition, Four Swords, provides a 400 page retelling of Link’s entire adventure from the video game of the same name.
Some creative liberties are taken with the story, but a majority of the main plot is there. As is the case for all of Himekawa’s Legend of Zelda manga, the largest difference between her book and the video game source material is Link’s ability to vocally contribute in conversations. Giving the green, red, blue, and violet Links (aptly named Green, Red, Blue, and Vio) actual voices helps give the four vastly different personalities. This adds some much needed humor and character development to a story that previously featured a pretty bland set of protagonists, ultimately providing a story with some soul. However, this does not prevent the book from making the same narrative mistakes as The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords video game, which had a rushed ending and crafted a set of bland antagonists.
One Hero, Many Sides
For those unfamiliar, Four Swords is another retelling of Ganon, Zelda, and Link’s legend, taking place after the events of The Minish Cap. After Vaati, an evil wind spirit, returns to kidnap Princess Zelda, wreck havoc on Hyrule, and plunge the kingdom into darkness, the young knight Link must claim the power of the ancient Four Sword to save her. Holding the sword splits Link into four separate Links, each a copy of the same hero.
That’s about all the characterization that the game creates, as Link splitting into four was merely a device to create four-player co-op. However, the manga goes a step further and has Link split into five, with his shadow (known as Shadow Link or Shadow for short), taking on a life of its own. In the video game continuity, Shadow Link does not appear until Four Swords’ sequel, Four Swords Adventures, as a recurring enemy. Here in the manga, he’s been retconned into a much more important role as the second-in-command to Vaati, and given his own aspirations and agendas.
The manga gives personality to each of the five Links. Green is Link’s courage and pride, Red is Link’s child-like wonder and affinity for magic, Blue is Link’s aggression and strong sword wielding ability, and Vio is Link’s sarcasm and his cunning when it comes to solving the puzzles in dungeons. Shadow is perhaps the most interesting of the five Links, possessing all of Link’s doubts, fears, and subconscious desires that he’s too afraid to voice out loud.
The reader gets to read a few pages of how Link acted prior to the start of the main adventure and his split. Link is prideful, bullheaded, and arrogant enough to think that he’s smarter than everyone else. He also refuses help from anyone (even his own father). When he’s scolded, he acts childish and hides behind the graces of Princess Zelda. He has just enough natural talent to skate by on, but it is clear that he would crumble before a talented opponent. When Link does pick up the Four Sword, every part of him is confronted with the aspects of his personality that rub others the wrong way. It is pretty cool to see Green learn to rely on others, Red learn to stand by his actions, Blue learn to carefully consider a problem, and Vio learn that he will not always be the smartest guy in the room, and then realize that this is not four separate characters learning to overcome their faults, but one knight maturing into a hero.
If anything, I wish that the manga had spent a bit more time with Shadow. As the immediate underling to Vaati, he is the main antagonist throughout most of the story. However, several times throughout the book, the reader sees that, as a Link, Shadow possesses some of Link’s heroic qualities. Shadow’s futile struggle is inspired by his desire to be anything more than the dark shade that has always followed Link in his heroic wake. He is not necessarily evil, he just knows that the easiest way to strike his own path is to choose the one that is opposite of the four heroes. He desperately wants to be seen by others and accepted, but no one remembers a person’s own shadow.
Unfortunately, a lot of this development is shoved into the end of the manga. By the time Shadow has become a sympathetic villain, he is on his way out of the story. I would have liked to see a hint or two to his true nature much earlier on. Throughout most of the manga, Shadow is evil just to be evil. Aside from seeing Link laugh like a disturbed maniac, it makes for a pretty dull villain.
The other villains in the story are not much stronger. Vaati has no development whatsoever and his entire justification for kidnapping Zelda is so that he can plunge the entire world into darkness. But why? The reader learns that Shadow cannot exist in a world of light (it burns him alive), so it makes sense for why he wants to plunge the world into darkness. If he wants to be seen by others, then he needs to recreate the world in a way that would allow him to exist. However, Vaati never reveals any reason for why he wants to create a world of darkness. The manga follows the original game’s story, copping out and introducing another villain in the final pages as the “mastermind” behind it all. That is simply bad story-telling. The Four Swords manga would have been so much better if it had forsaken its source material and presented Vaati as the main antagonist, with his own compelling reason for transforming Hyrule into a kingdom of darkness. Hell, rewriting Shadow as the main antagonist would have been even better. At least he already had all the compelling characterization in place to craft a good villain.
The Link is in the Details
The manga uses a simplistic art style that reminds me of an old-timey fairytale. The characters and environments are all drawn to be very round, with few edges and angles. It makes everyone and everything appear more child-like. The few exceptions, like Vaati’s monsters, appear out of place with their firm jawlines and rigid appearance. It definitely puts an emphasis on the children, like the Links and Zelda, being the ones that actually belong in this world. This is a story about young heroes saving the day and stripping away that which does not belong.
Although the first few pages are in color, most of the Four Swords manga is in black-and-white. Though I care little for whether or not the manga or graphic novel that I am reading is in color, it quickly became difficult to differentiate between Green, Red, Blue, and Vio. When Link initially splits, all of the Links are mostly drawn the same, with only the slightest of alterations to each of their appearances. About halfway through the book, the problem is rectified when Himekawa begins drawing the eyes and facial expressions of each of the four Links in vastly different styles. Even though each of their bodies look almost exactly alike, it is very clear which Link is which just by looking at their face. I just wish that differentiation could have been made a little sooner. Thankfully, at least Shadow is drawn with a slightly darker tunic, so the reader never mistakes him for one of the other Links when he appears on the page. None of the other characters have any doppelgängers that would lead to a confusing misunderstanding either.
The Voice of a Hero
I have been reading The Legend of Zelda manga for a while now. Himekawa writes each Link with different personalities and backstories that come through in their dialogue and vivid expressions. The more of these books I read, the clearer it becomes that Nintendo should have given up on tradition years ago and just given their hero some actual dialogue.
Four Swords is no exception, telling an infinitely better story than its video game counterpart, with most of that narrative coming through in Link’s dialogue, his thoughts about the past, or his aspirations for the future. It just so happens that because there are five Links this time around, we get five new voices as opposed to the usual addition of one.
I cannot adequately express how much better the Four Swords story is now that the Links can speak. This time around, the Links’ dialogue comes off as more playful and inexperienced in comparison to the Links in the manga adaptations of Ocarina of Time, Oracle of Seasons/Ages, Majora’s Mask, A Link to the Past, The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass, and Twilight Princess. This is very much a young boy who’s heard stories of heroes all his life and thus has always aspired to be one. He just is not one yet, or at least not like the Links we have already read about. The Twilight Princess manga’s sullen, sexy Link with a horrific past that he is trying to escape is still my favorite interpretation of Link, but Four Swords Link is a good fit for the world. The reader starts the manga wondering how this young boy could possibly be the inspiration for the Links we see in later stories, but by the end we see how much he has grown. He still is not the hero he needs to be to inspire future Links, but the reader can see the beginning of what Link will become one day.
That is what I really like about the Legend of Zelda manga. Through dialogue, these books do a much better job at differentiating the many Links from each other. The Links are written as a collection of individual heroes that share the same name, not as a mute knight with a knack for heroics and reincarnation. It is a much better interpretation for the character, and I am happy to see that Four Swords continues the tradition of giving another Link his own identity and aspirations.
The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Legendary Edition takes a video game that did not have much story to begin with, and crafts a gripping narrative of a young boy who must acknowledge his faults, learn to work with others, save a childhood friend, and prevent the return of an ancient darkness. It is unfortunate that the story trips on its own source material and delivers two lackluster villains right at the end as opposed to fleshing out the one decent antagonist the story did have going for it.
However, the dialogue between Green, Blue, Red, and Vio provides some levity and humor that keeps the plot rolling towards the moments of deeper character development. I just wish it had not been so hard to tell the difference between the four heroes whenever they were talking amongst themselves or goofing around. I know that they are all technically the same person, but there were way too many panels in the first 100 pages where I was confused as to which Link was actually speaking!