Over the years, Nintendo’s kind of soured me on the idea of playing Zelda any way but solo. Not that there’s ever been a bad multiplayer Zelda; it’s just that the odds have always been stacked against players when it comes to actually getting a game up and running with friends. Four Swords on GBA was reasonable enough for its time, requiring a game link cable and a copy of the game per GBA-equipped player. But then Nintendo got weird. Four Swords Adventures, the fantastic GameCube sequel, was a four-player game on a console with four controller ports… but in order to actually play it with friends, you again had to have access to a Game Boy Advance system and link cable for each player that wanted in on the chaos, because GameCube controllers weren’t supported outside of single-player mode. Four Swords Anniversary Edition, the free, downloadable 3DS update to the GBA original, had the potential to be the best of the bunch, strictly by virtue of modern wireless technology and the fact that everyone has a 3DS… but then Nintendo decided to limit its availability to two very brief windows of time, so if you or your friends didn’t download when it was on the eShop, you were SOL.
All of this might seem like meaningless filler, but the point is: Nintendo’s already made a few great multiplayer Zelda games, but has been consistently and inexplicably determined to keep most of us from being able to actually play them with friends. With The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes, the company had a real opportunity to overcome its previous transgressions and deliver a multiplayer Zelda for the ages, and at first glance, the game does the trick. By employing the engine from 2013’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Nintendo’s delivered another gorgeous top-down Zelda that plays like a 60FPS dream (at least, that’s the idea… more on that in a minute.) By giving each hero a single pool of hearts and a shared rupee wallet, the company has put a strong emphasis on teamwork, encouraging casual players who were put-off by the antagonistic nature of Four Swords’ competitive metagame to dive in and trust that their fellow heroes wouldn’t toss them off too many ledges or blow them up “on accident.” And with its focus on customization and loot runs–the whole point of the game is to acquire raw, semi-random materials with which to build an increasingly cute (and often outlandish) collection of outfits for your hero to wear–this is the first, and so far only Zelda game that can be enjoyed fully no matter how many times you revisit its fairly limited set of stages. It’s a fun, lighthearted, inclusive take on a series not known for taking chances, and in all of this, it passes with flying colors. Best of all, You don’t even have to own the game to get in on the fun: a nearly fully-featured multiplayer experience can be enjoyed by three players with only a single cart or eShop download (you won’t get to use your post-play rewards if you don’t have your own copy, but if you ever get one, everything you’ve earned will be there when you boot up the game for the first time.) Given all this, what could possibly go wrong?
A great many things, unfortunately. To start with, anyone looking to share in the fun with their significant other, roommate, best friend or other constant companion is going to be disappointed, because there’s no 2-player mode. That’s right: despite a solo mode that allows a single player to pass Link’s “soul” to-and-fro among three different bodies, there’s absolutely no way to play multiplayer with just one other person. I can tell you Nintendo’s reasoning for this without even having to ask–they want an even experience for each player. That’s a pleasant gesture, but it’s also terrible business: by limiting the frequency with which players can engage in local multiplayer, Nintendo’s instantly limited the long-term appeal of the game. And that’s a real shame, because Tri Force Heroes shines brightest in the company of others.
Playing a local game of Tri Force Heroes with other Zelda experts feels like the video game equivalent of achieving Zen. It’s testament to the enduring design sensibilities of this series that even when you have the opportunity to talk through a devious puzzle or taxing boss battle with one another, you don’t always have to, because everyone seems to just get it. But being able to communicate is critical when playing with Zelda novices. Things such as distance, height, angle of attack–these things might be second nature to those of us who’ve grown up with Link, but they’re not something that a fledgling hero (or someone who’s only playing because you needed a third) is going to understand intuitively. This can lead to occasional moments of frustration, but it also provides opportunities for patience, understanding, and generosity. That’s precisely what’s so special about local multiplayer, and what’s so baffling about Nintendo’s decision to limit it in such an obviously artificial manner.
“But, okay,” you say, “this is 2015, and that’s what we have the Internet for!” Yes, it’s true: the vast majority of today’s players are used to net-based multiplayer. But Internet play in The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is hampered by some pretty significant issues. The worst of these is slowdown. Regardless of whether you’re playing with friends or strangers, near or far, there are moments when the game doesn’t just slow to a crawl–it comes to a complete standstill, and you can do absolutely nothing but wait it out. Perhaps this isn’t a universal issue, but it’s happened so often for me (both before and after launch) that I’ve frequently given up on multiplayer entirely, opting instead to go it alone or simply find a different game to play with my friends. Defeat is not something that a multiplayer game should inspire, yet I haven’t had a single online session of Tri Force Heroes where this issue didn’t occur to some extent.
Tri Force Heroes’ other great shortcoming is how completely inept it is when it comes to online communication between players. The lack of voice chat isn’t a particularly surprising move given how unnecessary it’s proven in Splatoon, but unlike that game–a squad-based third-person shooter that can still be great fun even if your teammates aren’t exactly working together–teamwork is intrinsic to success in Tri Force Heroes. In theory, that cute little set of emoticons splayed out across the bottom screen should take care of all the basics, and it’s true that many essential actions and emotions are present: things like “Item!” or “Totem Time!” are mixed in with icons representing disappointment and bemusement. But there is also an icon depicting Link waving a pair of pompoms in the air, and another showing our hero giving a thumbs up; each icon represents subtly different emotions, but they’re essentially both meant to convey pleasure. With only eight different emoticons, that’s not just a wasted opportunity–it’s a major design oversight. I’ve learned to convey certain desires or feelings by alternating between specific command-based icons and the one for “NOOO!”, but there’s no way to communicate anything as complex as, say, “first, he’ll pick me up, then you pick him up, now I need you to walk over to that ledge over there and stand still while he throws me (but you don’t throw me because I won’t clear the gap!)” The problem is compounded by the shared hearts pool, turning common rookie mistakes like hitting a buzz blob with the sword into moments of monumental frustration as there’s no way to say “dude, seriously, stop that. You’re killing all of us. Use your damn bow.”
But hey, listen: Tri Force Heroes is actually quite fun as a single-player game, even without the traditional overworld or a truly epic quest to complete (the story amounts to “The princess is wearing a unitard. Find her a dress.”) It’s also fairly lengthy: the game’s 32 stages can be completed in roughly 15 hours (my total time to credits was 19 hours with several stages played on repeat as I attempted to craft certain costumes), but a further 96 stages and 35 total costumes to unlock means you’ll be playing far longer than any previous Zelda game if you want to hit that magical 100%. But again, this is a game that was designed for three players, and while I’ve tackled a fair number of challenges, I’m not convinced all of them can be completed alone. Unlike previous multiplayer Zelda games, which adjusted their stage layouts to accommodate different numbers of players, Tri Force Heroes often requires solo adventurers to act nearly as fast as three separate players, despite not allowing you to control all of them at once. Moments like this feel like punishment for lonesome players who don’t want to deal with the game’s poor net optimization, but they also serve as strong evidence that Tri Force Heroes was rushed out the door–likely to capitalize on the fact that the 3DS is still barely hanging on to its crown as the king of dedicated portable gaming. Still, when you get into the groove with Tri Force Heroes in single player, it feels just as good in your hands as A Link Between Worlds, even if it never quite reaches the same heights as that game. If nothing else, the music is as fantastic as always, with nothing but gorgeous new tunes to be heard outside of a fun little music-based Easter Egg found in the multiplayer lobby.
The thing about The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is that it’s a great game buried under too many qualifiers. Local multiplayer is 100% the way to play, and it’s a blast if you can get two friends with 3DSes to agree on a time to get together and play–but that’s a big if for too many of us. Online multiplayer is hampered by network issues and few ways to communicate effectively with other players–especially if those players are strangers and you can’t hop on a group phone call or Skype session. And the single player mode, which offers occasional moments of joy, is ultimately an inelegant solution for those of us who aren’t able to play the game the way it was designed. The 3DS is already the most Zelda-rich platform in Nintendo history–especially if you’re one of the lucky ones with access to Four Swords: Anniversary Edition and the under-loved Minish Cap–and Tri Force Heroes is a fun addition to that lineup. But it never quite hits the mark set by its predecessors. If you don’t have a way to enjoy local multiplayer, you’d be forgiven for giving this one a pass.
Invisible Gamer’s review of The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is based on final review code provided to us by Nintendo. The game was released on October 23rd, 2015.