Thursday, January 27, 2011

Game Review: 3D Dot Game Heroes

In the Olden Days for which our society spends so much time yearning, you were often dumped into a game with little to no explanation on how it worked or what you were supposed to do. Climb this structure and save a pixelated girl from a barrel-tossing monkey. Eat these dots until there aren't anymore, and then repeat ad infinitum. Run to the right until you get to the castle.

Absent are the layers of tricks that games have learned to make you think you're doing something other than pushing buttons while staring at a flashing screen. Nowadays you can't sign up for a digitized grand adventure without also signing up for tomes of middling writing and cutscenes long enough to put Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings special edition DVDs to shame.

Silicon Studio's 3D Dot Game Heroes remembers those days well, and it hearkens back to them with a vengeance. Equal parts The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Quest, 3D Dot brings that old-game feel to a new adventure, and it does it in a way that pays homage without feeling derivative. Well, not entirely derivative.

The gameplay isn't so much influenced by the original Zelda game so much as borrowed or, perhaps, stolen. You're a hero, and your quest is to rid the land of evil. You find and explore dungeons, each of which contains plenty of locked doors, secret passages, trick walls, and special items that you'll use only to beat that dungeon and possibly gain entry to the next. It's a textbook adventure game, and anyone who spent their childhood with an NES will immediately be overcome by that warm, fuzzy, overabundant drug we call 80s nostalgia.

3D Dot's shameless aping of Zelda games is rendered acceptable in part because none of the subsequent Zelda games have been quite like the original NES release that started it all - it was rough, but this lent it a sense of mystery and expansiveness that its sequels could never quite match. You could literally wander the entire world map with no barriers beyond a lack of skill or resourcefulness - it was a game that dumped you in the middle of nowhere with no direction and told you to embark on your quest.

Later Zeldas led you around with more breadcrumbs and gave you a bunch of maps and sidequests, and the formula these games had developed by 1998's Ocarina of Time is the one they still use to this day. This has made for a line of very successful but very samey adventures that I haven't exactly kept up with.

My point is, with its open world and its antiquated sensibilities, 3D Dot Game Heroes scratched an itch I forgot that I had. It does make some concessions to modern gaming (you can save anywhere, you usually have at least some idea of where the game wants you to go next, and the whole enterprise is rendered in intentionally dated but often pretty 3D graphics), but technically speaking there's absolutely nothing being done here that couldn't have been done fifteen years ago.

The game is made even more satisfying by the fact that it is keenly self-aware, with a sharp sense of humor that mocks the very games it strives to emulate. It mocks storylines and plot devices from individual Dragon Quest games. It makes fun of weird Zelda phrases like "it's a secret to everybody." It makes fun of the shopkeepers in NES games who were always screaming at you to buy their overprices wares. If you've ever noticed a trope in an adventure game or RPG, it's a sure bet that's it's hidden here somewhere, tucked away under a layer or two of irony.

With most of these retro game mechanics, however, comes a bunch of retro game pains. You're going to spend a ton of time wandering from one end of the often-samey world map to the other searching for one particular cave or NPC. If you don't speak with all of the generic NPCs and listen to the often senseless words that tumble from their mouths, you might miss an important piece of advice about what you're supposed to be doing next. If you don't like backtracking and exploring and combing almost every corner of every map screen for secrets, well, you might as well pack it up and pop Call of Duty back into your PS3 - this one's really not for you.

There's not a lot else to say - 3D Dot Game Heroes can be explained mostly by comparing it to its source material. Whether or not you enjoy this game is probably dependent on your feelings about said source material - if you cut your teeth on pixelated graphics and understated presentation, you'll probably like it a lot. If you started gaming in the age of guns viewed in the first-person perspective and massive, glittery explosions driven by a Michael Bay-esque tale of terrorists plotting attacks on American soil, well, you may not be into it so much. For fans of the faux-retro movement in gaming, it's a must-have.