In preparation for this review, I looked up the word 'nostalgia' in the dictionary, not because my grasp on the English language was so slender that the meaning eluded me - but because I was hoping it might shed some light on the confusion I had felt as I played 3D Dot Game Heroes. The definition read: a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time - a sound description you might surmise. The thing is, however, I'd never played From Software's quirky PS3 RPG before. Both the place and time were wholly new to me, and yet as I played, intense waves of nostalgia coursed through my veins. It's almost a paradoxical experience; merging the concepts of 'retro' and 'next-gen' to create a game that looks new, but feels old.
This was From Software's intention with the game all along: to create a title laced with nostalgia that pays homage to the heyday of 8-Bit gaming. While numerous games are referenced throughout the adventure, including Mega-Man, Final Fantasy and Castlevania, it's The Legend of Zelda that 3D Dot Game Heroes draws from in appearance, structure and execution. The camera, controls, weapons, items, power-ups and dungeon design are all straight out of one of Link's adventures, giving the game an incredibly familiar feel. Whilst imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, 3D Dot Game Heroes walks a fine line between tasteful tribute and shameless clone, a fact that won't sit well with die-hard Ninty fans. Still, this is precisely the game's charm, and mimicry is vital as a source of entertainment and humour.
I've managed to string together two whole paragraphs without gushing over the game's graphics, which are far and away the most interesting aspect of the game. Before I proceed to wax lyrical about said visuals; some context. The intro begins in 2D, with an 8-Bit town and the familiar animations of sprite-based town folk. The player learns of a great hero, who rid the Kingdom of Dotnia of the troublesome Dark King Onyx (Ganon, for all intensive purposes), trapping him inside an orb where he could no longer cause any harm. Peace might have returned to the Kingdom, but people grew bored and subsequently left in search of better things. Jumping to the conclusion that 2D worlds are no longer as exciting as they used to be, the omnipotent King Dotnia called upon his (completely unexplained) powers over time and space to magic the kingdom into the third dimension.
Basking in the glory of three dimensions, 3D Dot Game Heroes looks suitably at home on the PlayStation 3, yet still manages to maintain a distinctly retro feel. Each and every item in the game, be it a house, shopkeeper, or chicken, is made up of cuboid building blocks. 3D pixels if you will. It might sound primitive in the written form, but seeing the game in action is a joy to behold. Impressive use of shadows, reflections and other neat graphical touches prove just how far visuals have come since the days of the NES. A sight that never gets old is that of a defeated enemy disintegrating into a shower of pixels - much like what would happen if you took a sword to an enemy made entirely out of Lego. Technically speaking, there are far more impressive games out there, but 3D Dot Game Heroes has a visual charm that seasoned gamers will swoon with appreciation over.
Complimenting the unique aesthetic is an effervescent chip-tune soundtrack, which is just as responsible for the nostalgia trip as the visuals. Those with astute ears will notice many similarities in the soundtrack, which is not surprisingly based on those of other games. The title music is a few notes shy of the Final Fantasy title music (known as The Prelude), and Zelda fans will immediately recognise the main Zelda theme as they stroll around the game's overworld. Annoyingly (or not, as was the case with me) the catchy, quick-looping jingles will stay in your head long after you've stopped playing the game - just as they did back in 1987.
There's no denying that 3D Dot Game Heroes panders to the nostalgic needs of the 8-bit gamer with great success, but has From Software added enough to the Zelda formula to make it its own? The short answer is no; if you've played The Legend of Zelda before, you'll know exactly what to expect. In case the use of italics there didn't emphasise things enough, I'll reiterate: 3D Dot Game Heroes is the exact Zelda gameplay from the NES in the late 80s repackaged with shiny new graphics. Of course, this is no bad thing depending on your perspective, but be aware that there is nothing 'next-generation' about the gameplay on offer here.
Before getting stuck into an appropriately generic plot to prevent the revival of the Dark King Onyx, players can choose from an impressive selection of preset character designs. These include ancestors of great heroes, warriors, ninjas, dragons, mages, kings and even an Ex-Soldier (no prizes for guessing the reference here). Not only this, the game features an in depth editor mode, allowing players to create their very own Dot Heroes. Those with enough time and patience can create characters from just about any game they care to conjure up. I created a reasonably impressive Ryu (Breath of Fire style, not Street Fighter), who - if I could ever be bothered - can be shared with other players via USB.
With your hero sorted out, it's off to save the world. An expansive overworld can be explored at your leisure, with plenty of rewards for those that stray from the path of the plot. These include new swords and shields, and life fragments that increase the number of apples (that's hearts to you Zelda fans) on your health bar. Should you tire of aimless exploration, there are six orbs to be rescued, each of which is tucked away in one of six dungeons. Each dungeon has its own theme and boss battle, and - as is the way with Zelda games - introduces a new weapon or item. The first dungeon, the Grass Temple, rewards players with the quintessential boomerang, with bombs, bow and arrows and a grappling hook to look forward to in the dungeons that follow.
Of course it's your sword which you'll be relying on more than anything else, which does offer something slightly different to that of the Zelda norm. As well as being able to swing the blade in a circular motion using the analogue stick, you can find and equip more powerful blades scattered around the overworld. Particularly powerful swords will fill the whole screen with a single jab, but unfortunately, this ability will disappear unless you're sporting a full health bar. For those who think that a screen-filling sword will make the game too easy; thing again. 3D Dot Game Heroes is tough as iron boots in places, but those accustomed to the Zelda formula will relish the challenge.
Fancy visuals and retro role-playing mechanics alone wouldn't make for much of a game, so From Software has lavished a fantastic script upon the title, tying together all the retro-charm with glorious in-jokes and a comical self-referential tone. A complete disregard for the fourth wall supplies plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and hilarious one-liners that will have the geek inside you smiling from ear to ear. A personal favourite of mine came after selecting 'no' when asked to save the world. My apathy was rewarded with the reply; "I understand how you feel Jamin, but that answer doesn't advance the story, you could have guessed that!" Genius.
For those that have grown up with video games, 3D Dot Game Heroes is a celebration of everything that encapsulates the concept of retro. It wraps you up in a blanket of nostalgia and whisks you off to a world that just isn't seen in video games today. Emulating the success of a franchise as significant as Zelda is risky business, but through humour, attention to detail and buckets of charm, 3D Dot Game Heroes just about manages to pull it off. Those who base their critique of the game around the word 'ripoff' have clearly missed the point here, and should take their superficial analysis elsewhere. 3D Dot Game Heroes is a game for gamers; a game for those who love the industry and embrace the geekery that comes with it. If you fall into that category, don't think twice about picking it up.