Mirth and mayhem: two words easily associated with the best game in Nintendo's post-E3 show, and two we'd never think of using prior to playing.
Much as we enjoy the Zelda series, we were sceptical come the announcement of Tri-Force Heroes during the company's E3 Direct video. With its adoption of A Link Between World's graphical style and a formula already attempted in Four Swords, it seemed a lazy cash-in. A cheap stop gap, much like Metroid Prime: Federation Force while we waited for a new, proper Zelda title.
Yet in a room rammed with quirky takes on well-known franchises, this cooperative dungeon crawler proved inventive. A fresh twist on established mechanics, its surprising difficulty welcome. We were hooked, as were others. Laughs and groans from the twin demo stands, each containing a trio of 3DS units, continually drowned out the noisy air-con units over the course of the afternoon.
There's more different than familiar with this new Zelda entry. The building blocks are familiar: overhead camera, multiple puzzle-heavy rooms that make up a dungeon. Key differences: three Links with one health bar and Magic Meter between them on the top screen, multiple emoticons on the bottom screen. Three special weapons per dungeon, one per character and choice of who gets which fought over at dungeon's start. A multitude of perk-heavy outfits to be chosen before the stage begins.
Yes, stages. The selectable stage menu - offering five different dungeons of varying difficulty - is only demo placeholder, but it's unknown if there'll be any sprawling overworld to explore in the full game, but the gameplay would suggest otherwise. Mechanics hinge on puzzle solving and quick swordwork, both of which are staples of Zelda's dungeon sections. We work together with two other players to progress through different rooms and make it to the level's end boss. Your chosen attire gives you an extra perk, like a stronger charged sword attack, or a larger radius for your bombs.
As with Zeldas past, dungeon solutions are tailored to specific items, and using them in unison. What weapons you'll have access to are listed beside each dungeon, and appear in the first room you drop into. The pedestal each is placed on is supposed to evoke a sense of grandeur, but we're too busy elbowing other Links out of the way as we squabble to pick our favourite tool to give the moment any reverence.
We pick the two hardest crawls, a classic style Zelda dungeon and a challenging exploration inside the heart of a volcano. Fights for weapons aside, cooperation is critical to reach each labyrinth's end. Simultaneous strikes of switches, timed arrow strikes, three-way paths clearing blockages on which require juggling bombs between your trio...familiarity with Zelda traps and thus spotting a solution is one thing, coordinating strategies is another. Rather than a shortcut button to swop items you're having to rely on fellow adventurers to use their chosen goods at the right time.
The two rows of emoticons are Nintendo's way of creating a simple internationally-understandable series of signs. Tap and they pop on the top screen, repeating the tap ‘inflates' the speech bubble, inflating faster the quicker you hit them. Simple but brilliant fun when you see all three Links shake celebratory pom-poms together, but alongside the emotional representations you've contextual prompts to point out the need to toss bombs or use items, your location on screen pointing out the ‘where' actions need to happen. As item use also drains the shared Magic Meter, timing is important.
Emoticons actually prove quicker in assimilating necessary actions than chatting tactics if you're playing in the same room, chatter reserved for apologies ("sorry I accidentally swotted you into the lava matey") and expletives (" you tossed me into the lava, you complete bastard"). There's a weird competitive edge as you try and be first to work out trap solutions and direct your comrades. The sedate "look/think/action" of single player Zelda titles has been binned for solving on the move.
But it makes for energetic play. Having to run onto a trio of lava rocks to strike three switches before the platforms disintegrate. Dropping a bomb in front of a distant window so another player can use a Gust Jar and launch the explosive at an emerging ogre. One player moving a floating platform with their Gust Jar, while another perches on the third's shoulders to shoot an arrow at a higher platform's switch. Pushing two Links across a wide gap with the Gust Jar, then one using their boomerang to grab and drag the third over to the other side.
For a game that bizarrely drops Link's dodge-roll for reasons unknown, the pace is a lot quicker than in other titles. Part of this is due to dungeon design, as puzzles and traps come in quick succession. You're never more than a few steps away from a bridge that needs lowered or platform filled with fiends. At times the totem mechanic, grabbing and stacking players atop each other, needs performed swiftly (and the new verticality of dungeons gives you the best reason since Mario 3D Land to whack that 3D slider right up).
We see it best used with a classic boss given a new twist. The multi-parted Moldorm still has its weak spot on the end of its tail, but it'll chase whoever hit it last, and after a few strikes, it'll start unfurling with its tail raised higher and higher, requiring you to stack and strike with the top player's sword.
It's here that our demo ends, our limited retries coming to an end before we manage to land the fatal blow, our trio's coordination proved lacking (and one slight flaw with character respawns having us reappear directly by or on the monster after we've taken an unwanted dip off the side of the octagon, stripping hearts off our dwindling supply).
We came off the demo on a real high, and if the final version can generate that same thrill (and we can convince two 3DS-owning friends to cash in) this Zelda side-title could be the most engaging multiplayer experience on the handheld since Mario Kart 7.