It’s difficult to believe that there was once a time when The Wind Waker’s “Toon Link” style was greeted with something approaching hostility by some fans. Yet time has been kind to this bold, anime-style approach, with the aesthetically similar Zelda adventures The Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks really looking at home on Nintendo’s handheld devices. There’s something about the super-deformed styling of this more diminutive, wide-eyed Link that feels just right for a game that fits in the palm of your hand.
Likewise Tri-Force Heroes, which revives the cooperative gameplay of Four Swords Adventures, the 2004 spin-off for the GameCube. Once again, an established style feels perfect for a portable game, especially with the advent of Wi-Fi allowing for quick, multiplayer adventures just about anywhere you can find a decent connection. You can also play locally with friends, and a download play option means that you only need one copy to get the multiplayer mode up and running.
The plot is pure fluff: it’s set in the kingdom of Hytopia, a place where everyone from Princess Styla to her loyal subjects are weirdly obsessed with flamboyant clothing. Link – and his two doppelgangers, coloured Red and Blue – are called into action when a witch issues a fitting curse: Princess Styla’s lumbered with a tight-fitting, dreary bodystocking which can’t be removed. This curse, at any rate, is the jumping-off point for a string of intimate yet intricately-designed stages (or “Drablands”, as the game calls them) full of puzzles and marauding enemies.
These stages are grouped into themed worlds – leafy Woodlands, fiery, lava-filled Volcano, and so on – and each world has around three or four levels which are further broken down into four stages apiece. This means that Tri-Force Heroes’ level design has a sharp, bite-sized feel, with each stage seldom outstaying its welcome before another’s rushed in to take its place. Nevertheless, the puzzles you’ll encounter in later stages require a surprisingly challenging mix of thought and coordination between players; and when you’re playing with three total strangers over the interwebs, the experience can be both grin-inducing and mildly frustrating – particularly when you consider that your three heroes all share a bank of hearts, which means that if one of you makes an injury-inducing mistake, then each player shares in the pain.
Tri-Force Heroes’ major innovation over Four Swords’ multiplayer is its Totem mechanic. This allows the three players to hop on one another’s shoulders – all the better to shoot enemies or switches that are otherwise too high to reach. Once again, coordination between players is key; in Totem mode, only the bottom-most player can move the column of multi-coloured Links around, while only the top one can fire arrows, throw bombs or perform other attacks. The bottom and middle Links, meanwhile, can throw the Links above them a short distance, which means the Totem can also be used to propel Links to high platforms.
A system of icons gives players a fighting chance of working together efficiently during Tri-Force Heroes’ trickier moments. Prodding the “Totem!” icon on the bottom screen, for example, will indicate to your fellow Links that you’ll have to team up to hit an out-of-reach switch. It’s a fun, clever system, and one that allows players to communicate simple ideas and emotions (irritation at having fallen down a pit for an umpteenth time, say, or joy at having just completed a really tough level) with the stroke of a stylus.
The puzzling and boss fighting’s kept fresh with the addition of unlockable outfits. These are found back at Hytopia, the game’s dinky overworld. Here you’ll Madame Couture’s shop, where rupees and materials found in the main levels (monster guts, palm cones, hytopian silk and so on) can be exchanged for new outfits.
Most of these outfits, when equipped, give Link useful powers for his adventures: Egyptian Pharoah-themed Dunewalker Duds allow Link to march across quicksand, while a Cozy Parka allows him to walk on ice without slipping too much. Other outfits actually raise the challenge level still further – Bear Minimum doubles the amount of damage Link receives from a single blow – while still others are simply fun, such as the Timeless Tunic, which makes all the soundtracks sound like 80s NES chiptunes.
The outfits highlight the sense of humour that runs deep in Tri-Force Heroes’ design. While it doesn’t even try to approach the sheer scale of, say, The Phantom Hourglass or one of the main Zelda console entries, its levity and comic flourishes give it a style and atmosphere all its own.
Sadly, there’s less fun to be found in the single-player mode, which feels like something of an afterthought. Here, you still have to traverse the same levels with a trio of Links, but without other players to assist you, the only way of solving all the puzzles is by repeatedly switching between each character and manually moving them into position. With no AI to guide the other two Links as you roam around, simply getting from place to place becomes a far more time-consuming exercise, while time-sensitive things like boss battles can often tip over that point where they cease to be challenging and start to become knuckle-gnawingly irksome.
Tri-Force Heroes isn’t, therefore, a game you would reach for if you’re after a single-player Zelda opus – but then again, there are already plenty of those to choose from. Nintendo’s latest Zelda game is designed with co-op in mind, and it’s here Tri-Force Heroes really shines. Sure, we experienced a few issues with lag at times, but even these moments of frame-rate juddering didn’t sully what is still a disarming, engaging experience.
Tri-Force Heroes is a self-consciously lightweight entry, but therein lies its appeal; it’s the perfect fit for short, brisk gaming on the move.
The Legend Of Zelda: Tri-Force Heroes is out now for the Nintendo 3DS.