The idea behind The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes, a new multiplayer game for Nintendo 3DS in which a trio of Links team up to solve puzzles, dates back to 2009.
Tri Force Heroes game director Hiromasa Shikata was working on another game in the Zelda series, Spirit Tracks, at the time as a planner, and the option — as Zelda herself — to posses Phantoms in that Nintendo DS game served as future inspiration.
"I remember talking about it during the development of A Link Between Worlds," Shikata told Polygon during an interview at E3. "[We] had wanted to do more multiplayer Zelda ... and in [Spirit Tracks] there's a portion where you control the Phantoms. That element really intrigued me and brought out the idea that I wanted to try multiplayer as well.
"We really got started on it during development of A Link Between Worlds, that feeling of wanting to explore more multiplayer. It was sort of revitalized and came out of hibernation for me while I was working on A Link Between Worlds."
In Tri Force Heroes, three players, each controlling their own version of Link, can don special outfits and employ familiar weapons and items to explore dungeons cooperatively. In a level of Tri Force Heroes that I played at E3, I used a magic rod that blasted a gust of wind, which helped blow my teammates across a gap. One of those fellow Links then threw his boomerang at me to help lift my Link over the gap where I rejoined the group. Another Link had a bow and arrow, and as a trio, we could all fire our weapons at a group of switches. Team work!
Players can also stand on each other's shoulders, stacking Links in a totem to reach new heights, tossing each other around and atop ledges.
In another level, we worked together to push and pull a sequence of blocks, dodging columns of flame along the way. We also played the Zelda equivalent of dodgeball against a group of Hinox — Zelda's version of a cyclops — throwing bombs back and forth, trying not to blow ourselves up.
It's not just which items you choose that determine how you play Tri Force Heroes; your choice of outfit is important too. Link can wear special gear like a cat suit, loungewear, samurai armor, a bomb suit and more. When I played, I chose the Legendary Dress, Zelda's iconic pink attire. The dress granted my Link extra hearts. Since hearts are shared between players, the dress' powers can be crucial to survival.
Tri Force Heroes' outfits are central to the plot of the game, Shikata said. Link's involvement in the story comes about thanks to a kingdom obsessed with fashion. There's a princess in need of rescue and a king in need of heroes to help find her. That's where Link comes into play.
Outfits are more than just a mechanic and plot device. They also reflect a sense of accomplishment, Shikata said, as a player's available wardrobe will reflect their progress in the game. Players craft their outfits from materials they find by clearing dungeons, turning Tri Force Heroes into something of a loot-based grind.
"It's a cooperative game, but you may see a little competition," Shikata said, as players will have to hunt down treasure chests filled with materials that spawn after they complete a course.
Dressing up with specially powered suits is typically the domain of Mario. Link has worn masks and special gear that give him abilities in the past, but the outfit mechanic is something relatively fresh for a Zelda game. That Link can dress up as the princess he's regularly tasked with saving is something of a surprise, but Shikata had good reasons for letting Link borrow from Zelda's wardrobe.
"We consulted with folks here in the U.S. and in Japan, and asked ‘Do we think we're going too much of a negative reaction by having Link wear a dress?'" Shikata said, explaining that the consensus was no, a cross-dressing Link wouldn't be a problem. "For us as developers, the more variation we have, and that we can provide to players, the better for everyone."
Shikata hopes that letting Link wear a dress will lure in a wider range of players.
"While there are a lot of aspects of Tri Force Heroes that will appeal to young boys," he said, "we did think that by including outfits like the Legendary Dress that we would broaden that appeal to some of our younger female gamers as well."
Shikata said that Tri Force Heroes will include a larger number of outfits, but wouldn't specify how many.
"To get everything, that's going to take some time," he said. Some outfit materials will only be available as part of the game's colosseum, a competitive multiplayer mode in Tri Force Heroes.
The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes can be played cooperatively with two other players, but it can also be played solo. (There's no two-player option.) Players will run the same courses and challenges in single-player mode that they'll face in multiplayer, but they'll have a pair of Doppels — paper dolls — that they can control to solve puzzles.
"With single-player, it's a different experience than with two other players," Shikata said. "There are more puzzle elements, as you're not relying on someone else to help you control what to do."
Single-player can be more difficult than playing in local or online multiplayer, but some players seem to prefer it, Shikata said.
When I played the game with other members of the media, solving Tri Force Heroes' puzzles required a great deal of communication, both verbally and by pointing at each other's screens in an attempt to divine a solution. The game doesn't support voice chat online, which will likely lead to some struggles. What the game does have are eight emotes and actions on the 3DS touchscreen that players can use to attempt to communicate without words. Shikata believes the game's limited communication will suffice — and it might even make the game more enjoyable, he said.
"We could have implemented a more detailed or robust communication system," Shikata said. "However, when you do that, I've seen many cases where you have a veteran player who really knows the game and they're paired up with someone new and they'll just say ‘Go here, do this, do that.' They're going to spoil the experience for the new gamer.
"We do have the eight emotion placards [and] we experimented with more and less. But when we tried that out online we found that to be sort of a sweet spot for us. There was some irritation but when you were able to use these to convey what you wanted, it's such a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. We think it works really well."
Shikata said the experiences of playing local co-op or online feel distinct, and that players should try out both.
"I think we've created two super fun experiences that are very different from each other," he said. "Even if you do have the ability to play with other friends, I want to encourage people to try online play."
The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is coming to Nintendo 3DS this fall.