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Nintendo turned failed matchmaking into my best online moment in years

Picture the scene. It's mid-October and the cold rain is hammering down on my window-pane, while I huddle under a blanket in a cold flat, a bit like that kid in The NeverEnding Story. I may, or may not have been upended into a dumpster by some mean kids. If I had, I wouldn't want to talk about it anyway (sob). Anyway, I was suitably unaware that I was about to have the best online experience I've had in years… even though I wouldn't even get as far as playing the game itself.

At this juncture, The legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes (opens in new tab) wasn't out in shops yet, but I was playing pre-release code, unlocking some later levels to catch up with our reviewer for some more multiplayer fun. So the chances of me connecting with someone - anyone - were remarkably slim. We're talking fellow game journos and Amazon's luckiest early-birds. Naturally, that didn't fill me with confidence for a good game.

Why? Because Tri Force Heroes does not let you play two-player. It's either solo (which, to be frank, sucks), or 3P team co-op. Consequently, if you're looking for people to play with online, you can't leave the lobby until you have a full team of colour-coded Links.

The first pleasant surprise was that the lobby is an actual, virtual lobby. Yes, I did just say 'actual virtual', because it is. It's a big, 3D room in which you meet people, before heading out into the game proper. It's got stone walls and a sense of grandeur – far, far better than the usual 'screen with a list on it'.

The second pleasant surprise was that I'd barely started searching for players when another Link appeared. You can only communicate through emotes, so there he was, emoting at me and enthusiastically shaking his pom poms. If I'd thought about it more, I might have questioned all my life decisions that led me to this point, but at the time, I was pleased to see him.

No sooner had we exchanged emotive pleasantries, than the other Link appeared to go crazy. He galloped on the spot before charging headfirst into the wall. I hadn't spoken to the NPC at the gate, who hints about such secrets, so I wondered what on Earth was happening. But then a ball fell from the ceiling. A magical ball. This 'other' Link hit the ball with his sword and it rose gracefully into the air as beautiful music started to play. Keeping it in the air like a condom at a music festival is totally possible, so we took turns. I swung too late and it hit the floor, returning to silence and spawning a few rupees as it disappeared. Awww.

So this time I ran into the wall. Same thing. This time, the Lost Woods music from Ocarina of Time started playing - one of the best tunes in all of gaming. But on only the third bounce I dropped it. The other Link emoted 'Noooo!' and I had to agree. I couldn't believe I'd dropped it. Doofus.

So we went on like this for a few minutes, playing together, doing our best not to (quite literally) drop the ball. Then he hoisted me onto his shoulders and ran around the room. We explored the diminutive perimeter and smashed the few pots that lay there. We did get the Lost Woods theme again, and kept it alive a bit longer. Satisfying. And then? The other Link shrugged, then threw a thumbs up.

At that moment, I was confused, so I don't even know if I thumbs-upped back. We'd exhausted the pastimes Nintendo had bestowed upon us and it was clear that nobody else was joining our party. It was time to go. He spoke to the online lobby master and vanished, leaving me alone in the room. I waited briefly, but nobody else showed, so then I went back to single-player.

Maybe it was the anonymity of the encounter, or the childlike fun of keeping a ball in the air. Maybe it was the medley of classic Zelda music coming from the ball, or even just the simple surprise of finding there was something to do other than wait. But this was truly a beautiful, joyful encounter. One of those moments of magic that games can sometimes give you.

It made me think of other games. How F1 2015 searches for players in the background while you carry on playing single-player (inevitably to be interrupted when it finds someone), or CoD lets you fiddle with your 'Pick 10' perks. Most games these days offer something to do while you wait to connect, but of course Nintendo managed to turn the very process of waiting into one of the most memorable gaming moments I've had in quite some time. I'm pretty sure this is what some people most people felt when they played Journey (opens in new tab).

Only the difference is that, instead of completing a carefully-designed adventure with a fellow human being, what I actually experienced in Tri Force Heroes was a multiplayer lobby that didn't accrue enough players to actually play the game. It's a tale of failure, then. And yet it has stayed with me as one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in gaming.

Justin was a GamesRadar staffer for 10 years but is now a freelancer, musician and videographer. He's big on retro, Sega and racing games (especially retro Sega racing games) and currently also writes for Play Magazine,, PC Gamer and TopTenReviews, as well as running his own YouTube channel. Having learned to love all platforms equally after Sega left the hardware industry (sniff), his favourite games include Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams, Zelda BotW, Sea of Thieves, Sega Rally Championship and Treasure Island Dizzy.