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The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes might test your patience, but that's the point

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The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is a game that wants to test your capabilities as a true hero. This is what the game's director, Hiromasa Shikata, told me when I spoke to both him and series producer Eiji Aonuma earlier this week.

Unlike previous Zelda games where you prove your heroic worth by making your way through long, challenging temples and rescuing the titular Hylian Princess, the ultimate challenge of Tri Force Heroes might be patience. The multiplayer Nintendo 3DS game trades these series staples for a three-person totem pole of Links working together to make it through smaller, four-stage dungeons and taking down bosses, relying only upon a set of emoji-like, Link-faced stickers conveying actions and emotions to communicate with teammates.

This isn't the first time Link has teamed up with doppelgängers to conquer dungeons. Other games in the series, most notably The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures for Nintendo GameCube, featured multiplayer as well. But unlike that four-player campaign, this game requires three players. Although there is a single-player mode, it's truly designed to be played with two other people.

I played through the recent demo, for which Nintendo offered set online multiplayer sessions for over the weekend. To emphasize the importance of playing with others instead of by yourself, the demo only featured the game's three-person mode.

Running through a dungeon with two people I could not communicate with beyond the limited set of communication icons proved challenging, albeit not impossible and ultimately a fun, successful experience. Using the stickers to your advantage and overcoming this challenge is the point, Shikata said.

While voice chat was initially considered, Shikata said the team leaned towards the sticker method to help level the playing field. "We came up with the communication icons," he explained, "[and] as a result we found that people that did not know the dungeons didn't feel as discouraged."

This came through when the developers sat down to test the game themselves. Splitting up into teams, they found that "people who did know [the dungeons] were trying to communicate and it kind of became like a puzzle," he continued. "So when these people who did know the dungeon were trying to communicate what to say, there was an a-ha moment."

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Aonuma agreed, saying that the stickers serve as a "common language" with which "everyone starts out at almost the same place."

The lack of voice chat can mean no accountability for less team-oriented players, however. Aonuma found difficulty himself in getting his anonymous online team members to cooperate during a recent Nintendo-hosted livestream of the game.

"I hope that people can find a way to try to use those communication icons to communicate with other people to perhaps stop doing a certain action," Shikata said when asked if there was concern that having players communicate solely through Link iconography could lead to trouble. These "certain actions" can, and did in both my and Aonuma's experience, include having a rogue teammate sabotage your totem by dropping out or throwing a player off a ledge.

In my run through a few of the game's dungeons, which are selected after players choose an outfit and vote for their choice in the lobby, I found myself devoting more time than I would have liked to setting one troublemaking teammate back on track as we worked toward lifting each other through the level. While it was amusing to watch multicolored Links toss each other around, it halted our progress through the otherwise short level.

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Thankfully, if you find yourself stuck with fellow Links who are keen on throwing you off-course, there are preventative measures in place. "If there are people who are intentionally playing in a disruptive way," said Shikata, "there is a blacklist feature so you never have to play with them again, or you can disconnect and get new members to play with."

I didn't get to test out blacklisting my less desirable companions, but I did experience the frustration of a player dropping out, or worse, losing connection myself. A temperamental wireless connection like mine is not tolerated well by the game, which forces players to restart a dungeon from the beginning if even one player quits. Having three people playing is integral; if you have just one other person joining you, the third Link spot will be occupied by one of those untrustworthy strangers.

This is because building up all three Links into a Hylian totem pole is needed to complete many of the puzzles. Additionally, dungeons hand players their choice between two types of weapons at the start, so pairing off to help the third player with the duplicate weapon is also necessary.

"While creating the dungeons, we focused on the three player multiplayer and the items and the area," Shikata explained, going on to say that he came up with ideas for the dungeons by sticking "Post-Its all over the wall and combining them together to make one course."

Dungeons were intentionally designed to be played in "12 to 15 minutes," as to accommodate flexible parties and the additional struggles faced when trying to tacitly coordinate movements and attacks. "With this multiplayer game, we wanted to think of a limited time because everyone is playing together, so we didn't want someone to disconnect or end a little earlier," Aonuma told me regarding the more restrained number of puzzles to complete during levels.

Stickers are a common language, with everyone starting out from the same place.

Despite difficulties inherent in not always being able to communicate when playing online, Shikata and Aonuma both appreciated the smaller three-person focus in Tri Force Heroes, as opposed to the four-member split of Four Swords Adventures. While they initially wanted to duplicate the set-up of the older game, the totem — the idea for which came from a circus show that Shikata watched, in which three clowns stood on each other's shoulders — left "2 people bored in the middle," the director said. Because of the top-down view of the game, which Aonuma insisted on bringing over from last year's A Link Between Worlds, "the angle made it so that the person on the bottom looked very small."

Most importantly, three people engenders greater camaraderie than four. "Making it three players, everyone stays in proximity to each other," Shikata told me.

You can grab two friends and play through the game now that Tri Force Heroes is available in stores and on the Nintendo eShop. Or maybe you'd rather head online to prove your own hero-worthy patience with less dedicated teammates — or cause some trouble yourself.