While saving Hyrule has traditionally been a one hero job, multiplayer adventures have become a fan-favourite subset of the Legend of Zelda series since Four Swords made its début in 2002, and we were ecstatic to see The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes - an all-new co-op title for three players - revealed in Nintendo's Digital Event at this year's E3. Judging from the impressive queues on the show floor, we weren't alone - Tri Force Heroes is perhaps the most popular 3DS game on show at the Nintendo booth, and we had no trouble assembling a team of three to take on a dungeon in a fantastically fun test drive.
We began our session by voting on a level to play - our team all happened to pick the opening Forest stage, but votes are randomly selected ala Mario Kart 8 if there's any dissent. Destination set, we moved onto the most important decision of all: what to wear. Tri Force Heroes takes a page from the Denpa Men playbook in assigning an important role to your fashion choices; each outfit will grant you different bonuses in-game, in addition to any aesthetic qualities you might otherwise appreciate. There were six ensembles to choose from in our demo, and we went with the Zelda dress - bright, breezy, and conveniently capable of making Heart pick-ups appear more frequently.
Each dungeon in Tri Force Heroes is structured into four main sections, and when we jumped into the Forest stage we started out separated. The first puzzle was to find each other - which we did, after an accidental out-of-bounds from the weakest Link (yours truly) - and then 'Totem up' to reach a floating balloon with the key to the next area. The Totem mechanic plays with the sense of vertical depth brought in in A Link Between Worlds, and fits in very well with the 3DS' stereoscopic sensibilities: by walking up to a fellow Link and pressing 'A', you can hoist them up on your shoulders in a sort of Tri Force totem pole, while a third Link can then come along and carry to make a tower three-heroes high. The top Link in a Totem can interact with off-the-ground elements - whether by sword, bow, or boomerang - and many of the puzzles we've seen in Triforce Heroes so far rely on this three-tiered arrangement of vertical space.
After grabbing the key and stepping on the Triforce-shaped portal leading to the second section of the dungeon, our team was met with some solid hack-and-slash action in a room full of ChuChus. Combat here felt great, both with the classic sword and the bow (assigned to 'Y'), and we made short work of the wriggling mob before moving on.
The third area presented a puzzle, and proved much more challenging. Here we were meant to activate three different switches on high pillars, all of which were guarded by enemies and surrounded by a dark abyss and moving platforms. These switches would snap shut if we got too close, too, so we needed to find a sweet spot in order to hit each one - tricky business in the absence of solid, stationary ground. Hitting all three switches required real coordination: it took a Totem formation with the bottom Link walking and aiming, the top Link firing an arrow at the right time, and the middle Link providing crucial height - less agentive, but no less important. Everyone needed to be on board in order to pull it off, and once we finally managed it - after taking several hits on our shared (!) heart meter - the feeling of accomplishment was wonderful.
That trial behind us, we moved on to the fourth and final area of the Forest, where we were greeted by the dungeon's big villain: an enormous electrified ChuChu. A see-through yellow blob with a red weak spot inside, the boss attacked by sending steady streams of electricity out from four sides - since we were still low on health from our struggles with the previous puzzle, these were a real threat. By this point in the demo, we were coordinating almost automatically, so right away one Link started running around hunting for hearts while the other two went on the offensive. After we'd successfully peppered it with enough arrows, the blob reared up for round two, bringing its weak spot up off the ground with it. This meant we had to Totem up two-high for the next hit, and three-high for the eventual third, which marked the end of both the boss and the dungeon.
As in the puzzle section earlier, bringing down the boss took a lot of teamwork, and though the actions required from each player were fairly basic - move here, carry or be carried, fire - it came together into something special, and was incredibly satisfying.
Of course, strategizing is one thing when you're standing next to your squad, but what happens in Tri Force Heroes' online play, when you won't be able to talk to your team? As it turns out, the noisy E3 show floor simulated the online experience rather nicely, and our team hardly did any talking at all as we worked our way through the Forest. Instead we relied on the touch screen, which lets you instantly broadcast one of eight different messages onto everyone's screen, from "Over here!" and "Throw!" to "Carry me!" and "Thumbs up!", in the form of incredibly appealing icons that look a bit like Link-themed LINE stickers.
Some of the available images help with practical concerns, like the Totem request or Throw suggestion, while others are more for fun. The cheerleading Link quickly became a favourite amongst our squad, for instance, and having all three players spamming it in celebration after beating the boss was surprisingly heartwarming - in an especially nice touch, rapidly tapping this icon animates it, rather than simply resending it. There's definitely room for interpretation in the symbols - I became the least popular Link in the room when I misjudged a teammate's 'Throw me!' request as an invitation to fling them at the boss (they were asking to be let down from a Totem) - but that's absolutely part of the fun.
Along with the stickers, the shared health meter goes a long way towards explicitly encouraging truly cooperative play, and that gives the game a very different feel from Four Swords. Teamwork is truly front and centre, and though it was already great fun in the early stage we played through, things only seem to ramp up from there - we saw later levels where each Link was in charge of different items (boomerangs, bombs, etc.), and we can only imagine the devious dungeon designs still left to come.
Even from our brief time with Tri Force Heroes, it's easy to see why it's been a show floor hit here at E3 - it's classic overhead Zelda combat and puzzle-solving with a feel-good co-op focus and a great sense of style, featuring colourful cosplay and a soon-to-be iconic set of Hyrulian emoji. Even the aesthetic feels like a fresh mix; while at first it looks quite similar to A Link Between Worlds, the Toon Link influence makes a big difference, and there's a love of colour on display that recalls the Game Boy Advance or GameCube Zelda entries. We had a great time teaming up in Tri Force Heroes, and can't wait to explore more in the final version - here's hoping our future teammates can forgive the occasional misguided toss.