If you caught our recent Zelda vs. 3D Dot Game Heroes video feature
, then it should be pretty clear that The Legend of Zelda is the inspiration for 3D Dot's style, structure and appearance. While it's fun to slap a controversial phrase like "Zelda for PlayStation 3" on 3D Dot Game Heroes and call it a day, this isn't really accurate, and it tends to diminish the game's ample charm. Equal parts homage, parody and fan-made sequel, it's obvious that 3D Dot Game Heroes is in debt to, and in love with, gaming's past.
If Zelda comparisons mean nothing to you, then here's 3D Dot Game Heroes in a nutshell: you're a plucky adventurer tasked with stopping an evil bishop from making the world a miserable, monster-filled dystopia. Seven dungeons are spread across a sprawling world map peppered with towns, caves, fairy fountains and other attractions. Not all of the "overworld" is immediately accessible, but the tools you'll find in each of the dungeons will aid in your quest and allow you to reach new places. You'll uncover standard gear of the dungeon-plundering trade such as the item-retrieving boomerang, secret-passage-exposing bombs, a grappling hook to carry you over wide gaps, and dash boots that will carry you quickly to your destination.
To a large number of readers, this may sound all-too-familiar, so let's get something out of the way before we proceed: I've seen fellow Zelda fans react in mixed ways to previews of 3D Dot Game Heroes. While reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, cries of "ripoff" and accusations of unoriginality just couldn't be more misguided -- and they also show a shortsighted view of game history.
Games that take a great foundation and build on it are invariably respected and championed for doing just that. Dragon Warrior begot Final Fantasy, Super Metroid begot Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Guitar Hero begot Rock Band. Celebrated games are often blatant iterations on a previous game. The difference here is that 3D Dot Game Heroes isn't an attempt to one-up a competitor. It wears its heart for Zelda, and other retro games, on its sleeve. It's a love letter to Zelda and the games of yesterday, and it doesn't ever make the mistake of taking itself seriously -- and neither should you.
3D Dot Game Heroes' goofy, often self-referential humor is a major part of its appeal. "Experienced" gamers will not only catch the many allusions to Zelda but also humorous references to Mega Man, Bionic Commando, Final Fantasy and even Demon's Souls. Ironic uses of Engrish, jabs at game development and scatological jokes are all part of 3D Dot Game Heroes' celebration of gaming kitsch and geekdom in general.
Like other contemporary pseudo-retro titles (e.g. Retro Game Challenge and Mega Man 10), 3D Dot Game Heroes combines the awesome style of classic games with the conveniences of modern gaming. Stuff like a save-anytime system, fast travel and a decent translation are things we take for granted. When these elements are applied to retro games it can breathe life into old designs that normally seem outdated or overly frustrating. A great example of this is 3D Dot Game Heroes' combat system. A comically large sword is your primary means of cutting down enemies in 3D Dot, and you can spend your money augmenting a weapon in various ways: You can make it stretch the entire screen, pass through solid objects, shoot beams or add unique attributes based on the sword. There are dozens of "swords" to collect, too, ranging from baseball bats, fish, beam swords and even firearms. You can fashion a massive weapon that can sweep a 180-degree path of death across the entire screen, easily eliminating the toughest foes before they can even react.
But there's a catch: all of your sword's powers -- including its reach -- are rendered ineffective if you don't have full health. If you are missing half a measly apple (the life bar is represented by a row of apples) you'll be wielding a short, underpowered stub. I found that much of my dungeon exploring was spent desperately searching for an item to refill that last bit of health because a stunted sword meant a slow progression to death.
While applying classic solutions works for the first few dungeons -- pushing blocks, killing all
the enemies, pushing the buttons in order -- later dungeons are confusing and crammed with foes. The boss fights aren't exactly creative, but they are never pushovers, and you should plan to always keep your empty bottles filled with life-giving potion.
Intentionally retro or not, there's a distinct lack of direction in 3D Dot Game Heroes. While the next dungeon is always marked as your target on a map, those truly lost will have nowhere to turn. For instance, I somehow missed out on an item in one dungeon and could not figure out why I couldn't enter the next -- the path was blocked in various ways, so there was no logical way to ascertain what I was missing, let alone a helpful hint. After exhaustively searching the map, I finally tracked down my item in the previous dungeon where I shouldn't have been able to miss it. In the most recent entries in the Zelda series, you could never complete a dungeon without finding, and implementing, its unique tool.
Between dungeons, you are free to explore the diverse geography of Dotnia, completing side quests (mainly acting as an item courier for Dotnia's denizens) and seeking out collectibles (Life Shards to extend your health meter and Small Blocks to trade for rare swords). Exploration is a crucial part of any action adventure game, and 3D Dot Game Heroes' inherent silliness didn't get in the way of my curiosity when probing the remote corners of the overworld. If there's one aspect of The Legend of Zelda that 3D Dot nails, it's this.
3D Dot Game Heroes graphical style does a great job of highlighting its mishmash of classical and contemporary features. Graphical tricks like depth of field blur, fake lens flare, shadowing and reflection effects are juxtaposed with the old-school pixel models, making for an irresistibly cool aesthetic. The realistic lighting and fake camera tricks give the game a miniature feel not unlike LittleBigPlanet's shoebox dioramas. There's even some impressive physics and particle effects: When destroyed, each enemy violently explodes into a shower of rolling and bouncing pixels that spray into adjacent screens.
The soundtrack contains catchy 8-bit tunes augmented by synthesized instrumentation. For instance, a campy, warbling theremin makes its way into many of the dungeon tracks. Like even the best vintage game anthems, the looping music can get grating, but unlike classic games, you can actually crank it down a bit when you get frustrated. While voice work would be out of place, the intentionally inadequate sound effects -- mainly garbled thuds and blips yanked from old games -- complement the gameplay nicely.
One fantastic feature of 3D Dot Game Heroes that shouldn't be overlooked is the character creation tool. A simple interface lets you create your own blocky 3D models in several different poses, which are then animated in the game. You are only limited by space in the characters you can create. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no less than two editors – GameSpy's Ryan Scott and IGN's Scott Bromley -- immediately set to work on making convincing Link avatars. My less ambitious, but no less awesome, character was a purple tentacle that threw off slime droplets as it walked. Since you can trade designs by saving them to a USB device, I'm planning on taking the best Link the office has to offer for a spin in my New Game +.
Even if you don't create a character, you can choose from several pages of pre-set designs. Additionally, you can swap out a character design at any time during your game. This can help you solve certain puzzles -- for instance, a female avatar (you must set the sex if you create your own) is able to talk one cave-dwelling character out of a Life Shard, while a male character is shown the door.
Also extending the core game's life a bit are mini-games that can be played in each of the inns and towns scattered around the map. A top-down race and an Arkanoid-style block breaking game take a back seat to Block Defense, a competent "tower defense" strategy game. Like other games of its ilk, you are tasked with placing defensive batteries on a single screen to dispose of a near-constant stream of enemies while also retaining the ability to swat them to death with your sword.
Even excluding these diversions -- you can lose the better part of an evening just designing your character -- you can easily spend 20 hours fully exploring 3D Dot Game Heroes or zip through the seven dungeons in less than half that. My final hour count was in the high 20s, and I was still puzzled over several lose ends at the end of my first playthrough. You can start a New Game + (or "second quest") once you beat the game and your Small Blocks, money and a few other items carry over into the next game.
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