There’s a fine line between “rip-off” and “homage.” On one side of the line, you have uninspired, lazily designed games that merely ape game mechanics, concepts, or visuals to cash in on the popularity of successful, original titles. On the other, there are games that affectionately attempt to recapture the experience of a beloved classic while updating and deepening the formula. Initial screenshots and descriptions of 3D Dot Game Heroes had many convinced that the game’s uncanny resemblance to The Legend of Zelda would squarely place it in the former category. Fortunately, 3D Dot’s combination of reverent adherence to Zelda’s gameplay style, old-school challenge level, self-aware sense of humor, and undeniable visual charm keep it from that fate. Some of its old-school tendencies can lead to frustration at times, and it’s unabashedly unoriginal, but it’s plenty likable, loaded with nostalgia, and a surprisingly deep package for $40.
I’m going to assume that anyone reading this review has played the original Zelda before, so in regards to explaining the game’s mechanics, I’ll stick to the salient points; the slight differences. Just like in Zelda, a full life bar means a more powerful sword in 3DDGH. Instead of firing a laser, however, your 3D hero’s sword grows to enormous size, dwarfing the blades found in Final Fantasy VII. Dozens of swords can be collected, ranging from traditional katana blades and broadswords to more bizarre offerings like baseball bats and fish, and each can receive upgrades to its width, length, damage, and other attributes. Of course, these upgrades only apply when your sword is at full size. Once you lose even half a heart an apple of life, your weapon will revert to a puny form, forcing players to fight more cautiously. Swords are a bit more agile than before, and the ability to swing in a wide arc to catch multiple enemies is paramount to success. Other than these updates and a dash ability, the core gameplay is almost identical to early Zelda games, complete with boomerangs, bows, and bombs.
Scattered across the expansive overworld, amidst the maze-like terrain, are towns; full of items, information, and clever nods to countless games, and dungeons, each containing a boss who guards one of the six magic orbs around which the game’s tongue-in-cheek story revolves. Each dungeon also contains a new item that opens up more of the overworld map. It’s a very familiar structure that invokes nostalgia while avoiding feeling outdated by allowing players to save anywhere (except in dungeons) and use sleeping bags to set respawn points. Its old-school style can be a bit frustrating, especially later in the game, when enemies become very difficult in numbers, but the combat, extensive exploration, and multiple side-quests make the challenge worthwhile. Three mini-games are playable, as well; a frustrating Arkanoid clone, a somewhat addictive racing game, and a surprisingly capable tower defense game.
While the main quest clocks in at around 10-12 hours (add another 10-12 to collect every secret item and complete every side quest), the time that can be spent on the game’s character creator is almost infinite. In addition to the dozens of selectable characters included in 3DDGH, players can create an endless array of tiny protagonists using a simple editor and a 16x16x16 space. Existing characters can be modified, or players can start from scratch, creating a standard pose, along with poses for walking, attacking, and celebrating. The process of building a 3 dimensional character from the ground up can be a bit more challenging than some may expect, though, and navigating the feature-thin editor requires patience, but editing the colors and shapes of existing characters is easy and fun.
For a game whose graphics are inspired by, if not stolen from a nearly quarter-century old game, it sure is pretty. The entire world of Dotnia is composed of small, Lego-like square blocks, convincingly creating the look of a 2D, 8-bit world that has suddenly popped in to the third dimension. The simple geometry of the game is beautifully complemented by modern effects like light bloom, self-shading, and particle physics, creating a surreal, often stunning visual presentation that dazzles the eye while evoking memories of two-button controllers and blowing into cartridges. A variety of environments make up the landscape of the world map, and each desert, forest, village, and shore is distinct, yet familiar. It’s a shame that the same can’t be said for the game’s dungeons, which, in addition to being overly challenging at times, are bland and repetitive. A bit more visual diversity in the six underground levels would have gone a long way toward making 3D Dot Game Heroes a nearly flawless visual experience. As it stands, though, it’s still an undeniably beautiful game, and likely the best combination of old-school design and new-school technology ever seen.
In the pursuit of recreating the sense of grandeur and wonder that the early Zelda games invoked years ago, Silicon Studio and From Software paid as much attention to the game’s audio as they did to its visuals, and it shows. Any of the dozens of tracks in the game’s score would be right at home in one of Miyamoto’s classics, and they almost never grow stale despite their repetitive nature. The majestic fantasy score is nicely contrasted by the simplistic sound effects, which sound as if they were pulled straight from a gold NES cartridge.
In its attempt to recreate the experience of the early Zelda games, Atlus has crafted an impressive title in 3D Dot Game Heroes. It’s faithful to its source material, sometimes to a fault, but it also adds enough depth and playablity to make it a worthwhile title in its own right. But 3D Dot Game Heroes doesn’t really exist “in its own right”; it’s a pure homage to one of gaming’s finest eras, and it doesn’t make any excuses about it, nor is it in any way ironic in its appreciation and affection for the Zelda series. Anyone with fond memories of the 8-bit adventures of a plucky young adventurer with little more than a wooden sword and his wits will be well-served by 3D Dot Game Heroes. For those too young to remember the first appearance of Hyrule, 3D Dot does a great job of translating the experience into a form that’s more easily digested by younger gamers. And if you have bad memories of playing Zelda the first time around, there’s something seriously wrong with you.