What'cha gonna do when the hero of destiny runs wild on you?
I felt so hardcore buying 3D Dot Game Heroes. I walked into two different Gamestops, on three different occasions, asking for this title, and none of the store clerks ever heard of the name. My e-penis became quite erect at the prospect of buying a title so niche, so leet, so underground that even the full-time staff of a games store never heard of it. It was like I was sticking it to the man in supporting 3D Dot Game Heroes, despite being published by a big company (Atlus) on a console controlled by a bigger company (Sony). And sure, striving for the status of “hardcore gamer” is a fool’s goal, not too far removed from striving to shut yourself out from the outside world. But for a few fleeting moments and $45 out of my wallet, I got to tell the mainstream game industry to take their God of Wars and Halos and Legend of Zeldas and stick it up their asses.
Maybe a poor choice of words. 3D Dot Game Heroes is very much a direct clone of the original Zelda. To be precise, the gameplay is 90% the NES Zelda, borrowing 9% of ideas from Zelda 2 and A Link to the Past, and 1% random jokes from many, many games. The plot, for example, mocks Zelda in its simplicity; an evil wizard wants to take over the kingdom and you the hero must deny him by way of fetching 6 magical orbs. The “hero” of course is a voiceless, characterless, personality-less drone who just does the right thing because people tell him to. A generic “hero of destiny”.
The fact that you can, at any given point, change who the “hero” is practically disses the notion of Link to me. The concept of “Link” is little more than a consistently-reoccurring appearance (guy in green garb with a shield and sword) and no notable traits and motivations besides “he is the chosen one.” In 3D Dot Game Heroes, you can choose from such “heroes” as knights, wizards, businessmen, mechs, animals, athletes and the cast of Tenchu. All of which can serve as templates in the hero editor that lets you create your own main character, complete with all six of his or her frames of animation. A few extra options in the editor, like the option to copy and paste specific segments, would’ve been nice. But the editor is versatile enough that you could recreate classic 8-bit characters, unusual pixel-monsters or otherwise. I was quite content saving the kingdom with a mighty 8-bit Hulk Hogan.
If the box art and the many, many, many trailers weren’t enough of an indicator, this game is all about presenting fugly pixilated sprites from the NES in the third dimension. The running joke of the game is that one day, the king decided to make the entire three-dimensional, and his will be done! It’s one of those strange gags that you can’t help but smile at; the king with mastery over time and space itself but helpless against the forces of evil. There are sly references, as the game makes constant nudges towards other titles: ranging from Metal Gear and Final Fantasy to the odd recent rib on Super Mario Sunshine and From Software’s own Demon’s Souls. But I feel like just making references doesn’t quite cut it. There’s the feeling that I was missing half the jokes due to half of my NES collection consisting of Ninja Turtles games. And besides, merely referring to an event in Zelda doesn’t quite cut it. Running into the “mumble mumble” monster or a guy who charged me money for blowing up his cave wall entrance is on the same level of witless humour as the Ghostbusters Video Game’s “hey, Slimer is in the hotel sliming Venkman again!” And that level of referential humour grows wearisome after awhile. There are even several rooms where you run into programmers making programming jokes; and that was the point where I realized From Software was not making a game for the masses, but rather to amuse themselves. I guess they deserve something to regain sanity after concocting Demon’s Souls from the darkest reaches of their hearts, but still.
For better or for worse, this game is the Legend of Zelda on the NES revived. It’s got about as much differentiation from that game as the New Super Mario Bros games do from the Old Super Mario Bros games. You walk across a wide open landscape, sword swiping enemies that include such archetypes as the goblin, the centaur, the mummy and the…coral reef. Even the bosses include such mainstays as the giant octopus and the giant stone statue. 3D Dot Game Heroes is certainly a unique reminder of how strange so many aspects of 8-bit games can be when taken out of context. You’ll later pick up such trademark Zelda toys as the boomerang, the bow and arrow and the hook-shot, and you may begin to wonder when this game stops pretending to be a rom-hack of Zelda and becomes an original Playstation 3 title (that moment never happens, by the way.) Actually, scratch that. 3D Dot Game Heroes has an accessible world map, old Zelda doesn’t. On that merit alone, this game’s better.
The other discerning trait about 3D Dot Game Heroes is that there are two real difficulty settings, which flop-flop during the game, based on your health meter. In the ultimate diss of Final Fantasy games, RPGs and Japanese fantasy in general (well, fantasy in more ways than one) your character can have an abnormally-large, screen-filling sword. This massive phallic attack decimates everything on the screen, rendering all of your other items impotent in their usefulness. You can go on side quests to get better swords, and receive varying enhancements from the blacksmith. Even mighty bosses easily fail to measure up if you wield a mighty enough tool. But your penis extension attack only exists if you have full health, and to not have such restores you to a standard, limp sword attack, and with it the mercy of the perilous dungeons and enemies. The later levels in particular can be quite challenging to the unprepared.
And preparation does become a necessity. You know how most boss fights in any game from the last 15 years will coincidentally leave endlessly-regenerating crates or pots filled with whatever ammunition you need to defeat your present adversary? 3D Dot Game Heroes is not that kind of game. Today’s age of self-regenerating health and forcing the character to carry whatever item is needed in a specific situation will leave modern day players frustrated and begging for someone to hold their hand. One must purchase candles and lamps, for example, from stores in order to navigate dark rooms in the dungeon without tripping into the conveniently-placed bottomless pit. One specific dungeon requires frequent use of magic abilities…and throws in an enemy capable of draining all but a single half-bar of health in magic in a single blow. Yes, really. A magical, evil, nefarious, evil, dangerous, very evil coral reef enemy.
Come to think of it, 3D Dot Game Heroes has successfully confused me in that I can’t tell if its flaws were bad game design or intentional jokes on other bad games. There’s a mandatory fetch quest that, while petty and short, still exists for no viable reason. But I can’t help but feel guilted into thinking it exists as a rib on fetch quests and not to lengthen the game an extra 5 minutes. The game crashed on me once, and I may or may not remember one of the in-game “programmers” referring to such a specific bug. That same specific dungeon I mentioned earlier (with the Coral Reef of Mortality) must be progressed and backtracked in a specific order to press the right switches and advance further… with no checkpoint until right before the boss battle. I can’t tell if most of these faults were meant to be jokes about bad game design in other 8-bit games or not, but they’re not quite excusable regardless. And like old Zelda, you may find yourself calling the Nintendo Hot Line (well, in 2010, they call it Gamefaqs) to figure out how to solve some of the more obscure puzzles.
On that same token, the game is just challenging enough that finishing it made my e-penis rise once again. For the first time since…well Demon’s Souls but the first time in years (in a world where Demon’s Souls never existed. A world with a slightly lowered suicide rate) I felt a great sense of accomplishment in finishing a game. Part of me feels inclined to celebrate, perhaps through buying a new game. Which involves trading in 3D Dot Game Heroes.
If you really, really want an experience that closely resembles the original Zelda, you will find exactly what you are looking for with 3D Dot Game Heroes…and nothing else. Being that you get all of the strengths and flaws of 8-bit gaming, this indeed becomes a case of be careful what you wish for.
Finally, who really was jonsing for nostalgia over the original Zelda? Between how readily available the NES Zelda is (Virtual Console or otherwise), how every Zelda game released features nostalgic throwbacks to the Zelda game before it, and how countless internet websites have make one meme and remark after another about Zelda games, this is not an appetite that needs satisfying. Being that 3D Dot Game Heroes isn’t attempting to be anything more than the Legend of Zelda Redux, and it achieves appropriately, here is a score that reflects the fact.
3 ½ stars