Ever since the first images of 3D Dot Game Heroes started making the internet rounds some months ago, people couldn’t help but notice the game’s similarity to a certain 8-bit classic. The three-dimensional action-adventure title with a pixilated aesthetic was clearly supposed to be a throwback to the earlier years of gaming, but in particular seemed to have a lot in common with The Legend of Zelda. Those calling it a “rip-off”, though, completely missed the point, which was made very clear yesterday during a live demonstration of the upcoming PS3 exclusive. 3D Dot Game Heroes isn’t a clone, though it does take its inspiration from some nostalgia-inducing 8- and 16-bit games of yesteryear. It’s part homage, part parody, and references many old-school games while giving players an original experience.
In 3D Dot Game Heroes, a young adventurer is tasked with finding a sword, traversing seven dungeons across the overworld, and essentially saving the kingdom. Sound familiar? Good, it’s supposed to. The hero wields a sword and a shield, and shortly meets the acquaintance of a (supposedly) helpful fairy. The top-down, 8-bit minimap at the top of the screen looks like it could be a screengrab from The Legend of Zelda, and the score, while lovely, was clearly inspired by some classic MIDI soundtracks. However, the game isn’t a three-dimensional reimagining of one of the most beloved games of all time; it’s a trip down memory lane. If that was all the game had going for it, it wouldn’t be nearly as intriguing, but the fact is 3D Dot Game Heroes appears to be incredibly fun.
Your first quest in 3D Dot Game Heroes will be to choose a character, either by picking one of a couple dozen pre-made heroes or creating your own, pixel by pixel. I watched as Atlus PR guru Aram Jabbari crafted a new character from scratch—a giant smiley face that made different expressions when it walked and fought. While not the most complex protagonist I’ve ever seen, this only took a matter of minutes, and it seemed like those with the time and creative drive would be able to assimilate some truly unique heroes and heroines—or, for that extra retro flair, simply recreate one from a favorite old-school game. While you won’t be able to exchange original characters via the PSN, Aram stated that it would be possible to save your creation to a USB drive and upload it to a hub site, which will allow gamers to download other user-created heroes. Aram did warn that it probably wouldn’t be possible for this hub site to have any characters that bordered on copyright infringement, though, so you won’t find a legion of user-created Links, Marios, and Luigis (though it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to make your own).
Once you have established who your hero will be, the journey begins. In a 2D kingdom that has seemingly lost its appeal, the king declares that two dimensions are out, and 3D is in, making the world come to life in three blocky dimensions. The gameplay consists mainly of melee fighting, with a sword as a primary weapon, though there are a number of secondary weapons, such as (surprise!) a boomerang. What’s interesting about the swordplay in 3D Dot Game Heroes is that the weapon can actually become larger depending on the player’s health, reaching epic and ridiculous proportions as it stretches across the screen. Sword length can also be increased by leveling up the various blades found throughout the game, leading to many suggestive jokes about sword enhancement. There are numerous swords to be found throughout the land, with different powers and abilities; some seemed to be attached to elemental properties, for example. Additionally, the game will ask you to flex your mental muscles from time to time by solving puzzles, such as moving blocks to find a secret passage in a dungeon. This should add some variety to the gameplay, keeping the hacking and slashing from ever growing too repetitive.
3D Dot Game Heroes appears to be fairly straightforward as far as objectives go; there are seven dungeons scattered throughout the kingdom to traverse, with optional side quests to complete for bonuses. Once again, the overworld/dungeon set-up invokes comparisons to the Zelda series, as well as many others, but the gameplay looks fun enough to stand on its own. The wonderful aesthetic adds to the appeal, of course. Just because the world is constructed out of giant pixels doesn’t mean it’s not good-looking; 3D Dot Game Heroes is clearly using the power of the PS3 to create an impressive game that simply could not have been created in any other generation. It’s really beautiful, thus eradicating the notion that throwback games have to be graphically inferior. It’s especially interesting to see the juxtaposition of next-gen effects like shiny bodies of water or use of shadows with blocky buildings and enemies. Many aspects of the game are customizable, from the control scheme to the location of the camera and saturation of colors. You even have the choice of installing the game for shorter load times or simply playing it right away. Those options in addition to the character creator will essentially allow players to experience 3D Dot Game Heroes any way they want to.
From the very start, it’s apparent that 3D Dot Game Heroes has a good sense of humor. One of the harder difficulty settings, named “From Mode” after developers From Software of Demon’s Souls fame, states “Your Heart May Break”. The loading screens are depictions of classic video games recreated with the game’s blocky aesthetic, and we had a fun time guessing which game was being represented as Aram scrolled through a few of the hundred-plus screens. There are some tongue-in-cheek references to not only retro favorites, but From Software’s past titles as well. This is not a game that’s taking itself too seriously, and I like that. The humorous tone suits the game well, and I’m not sure that this homage would work as well without it.
At the presentation yesterday, the journalists present were practically oozing with childlike wonder over 3D Dot Game Heroes. What’s not to like? From Software seems to have combined a nostalgic look back with unique, fun gameplay, and the result is a title that’s full of potential. Add in plenty of replay value thanks to a variety of minigames, side quests, and New Game +, combine that with a $39.99 price tag, and it seems to be a no-brainer. Will 3D Dot Game Heroes actually reach its potential to be one of the standout titles of 2010? I really hope so, because otherwise, From Mode won’t be the only thing about this game to break my heart.
3D Dot Game Heroes will be available on May 11, 2010, exclusively for the PS3.