Modern games are grey, bloody and angry. Muscle-bound space marines headshot mutants and monsters from behind the best cover system since Gears of War. Everyone swears. Everyone dies. There's even - hush hush - sex.
It wasn't always this way. There was a time - not too long ago - when games were optimistic, bright and breezy. They had charm; a magical quality that cast a spell that enchanted you for hours on end. One of these games was Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda.
Demon's Souls developer FromSoftware aims to rekindle memories of those more innocent, happy-go-lucky days - and The Legend of Zelda - with upcoming PS3 exclusive 3D Dot Game Heroes. It's a game that harkens back to the 8-bit era, with retro graphics and archaic dungeon crawling that's sure to put a smile on every 30-something gamer. And it does it so unashamedly, so proudly, that it's hard not to fall for... wait for it... its charm, whatever your age.
Imagine The Legend of Zelda - the first one, on the NES. Next, render everything in 3D and drop the perspective down. Now here's the important part: DO NOT GET RID OF THE RETRO GRAPHICS. Now you've got 3D Dot Game Heroes: resplendent in high definition but distinctly old school.
The similarities are stark. The hero embarks on a quest to save the world from a dark evil. You move from screen to screen killing monsters with sword swipes. You have a shield. Your health meter is made up of hearts. There are towns to explore and NPCs to talk to. There are inns. There are magic potions. There are dungeons. There are bosses. There's a boomerang. There are switches on the walls that can only be triggered with the boomerang. There are switches on the floor. There are puzzles that involve moving blocks. There's even a bow and arrow. Cutting grass reveals cash. If you place a bomb beside a crack in a wall, the explosion will reveal a cave.
As far as video game homages go, we can't think of any more enthusiastic. Shrines to the green-clad elf boy must adorn the desks of at least a handful of the guys and girls at FromSoftware. Normally, we'd cast such a blatant copycat aside unconsidered. But here, it's the point. 3D Dot Heroes is a parody. It's all about poking fun at the adventure genre. And best of all: it works.
The game's humour and constant reference to itself and the genre it's riffing off is guaranteed gaming goodness. The Dotnia Kingdom, where the game is set, was once a 2D pixelated world, but the king felt sprites were outdated so ordered a switch to 3D. NPCs talk about the move - discussing the relative benefits of 3D over 2D and vice versa. One says you can see so much more in 3D. Fnar.
NPCs also reference past FromSoftware games. There are clever nods to the Armoured Core series (one NPC discusses how to improve the series) and divisive RPG Demon's Souls. The music is all catchy 8-bit beeps and boops. The 105 loading screens (which you can manually turn off if you've installed the game), are wonderful; each one is a slow bow to NES/SNES era box arts.
But in some ways, labelling 3D Dot Game Heroes a Legend of Zelda parody does a disservice to the quality adventure it's shaping up to be. The art style is gorgeous - monsters explode in a shower of pixels, which are all physics based and can be waded through. According to Japanese publisher Atlus there are 20 hours of gameplay to work through. And the almost cumbersome, right-angle-based combat is strangely addictive. The levelling up system, however, stands out. Here, you spend your cash on upgrading your weapons. Take the bog standard sword, for example. There are a limited number of points you can spend upgrading it, making every decision an important one.
With the sword, the obvious first choice is to extend the width and length so that it's easier to kill the many monsters you face (you can upgrade it to the point where your blade, somewhat hilariously, fills the screen). That's fine - the only problem is if you're hit in battle, the sword reverts to its previous, de-upgraded form. It sounds harsh, and in practice it is; 3D Dot Game Heroes is hard. Thankfully, the save system backs you up, and never forces you to replay great swathes of the game.
If you're thinking, 'ugh, this sounds way too retro for me', then know this: a number of modern features have been included that should make the game more palatable to modern tastes. One is the editor, a simple to use tool that allows you to build playable heroes out of pixels as if they were being snapped together out of LEGO. The possibilities really are endless. Following the game's western release we expect to see Final Fantasy characters, Street Fighter characters, Marvel superheroes and even, shock horror, Link himself. The best thing about the editor, though, is that your 8-bit creations aren't confined to a life of solitude on your PS3 hard drive. You can plug a USB stick into your PS3, transfer the teeny weeny file, and then load it up to the internet for the five people who read your blog to comment on.
Ultimately, though, 3D Dot Game Heroes is a game for hardcore gamers who played games back when photorealism, Hollywood-quality voice acting and motion capture-based animations were mere electrical sparks in the minds of today's game designers. It's a virtual wave of nostalgia, one that any Eighties gamer will revel in surfing. This is its greatest appeal, and may well make up for any gameplay deficiencies we'll discover upon closer inspection. Until then, all that's left to do is dust off that Master Sword and rescue Princess Zelda like it's 1987.
3D Dot Game Heroes is due out exclusively on PS3 on May 14.