3D Dot Game Heroes is like an NES Zelda doppelgänger on psychotropic drugs. Just look at it for God’s sake. It’s also the most honest and accurate Zelda clone I’ve ever known to exist. The developers don’t even pretend that they might have thought up the gameplay elements themselves, and that sets 3DDGH apart from shameless Zelda rip-offs. The game is a throwback to gaming’s beloved past, replete with references to ancient games and playfully pixilated graphics. At its heart, it’s an imitation of The Legend of Zelda and it certainly is flattery. When the imitation is less successful as a video game than its twin, however, I am less likely to embrace the lack of originality. 3DDGH has its merits: a cute concept, exploration, and a graphical style worth seeing in action. In the end, however, it just doesn’t have enough verve to make it as great as the games it celebrates.
3DDGH might as well not have a story. It would have taken the same amount of energy to decide not to have one than to include the collect-the-six-orbs-to-defeat-the-Evil-One story it does have. It’s humorously hackneyed, but it could have been done better, with a cheesy plot twist or two. I expected better dialogue as well. Clever, energetic dialogue could have brought the story to life. Of course, an homage like this wouldn’t be complete without a host of references. New games like Final Fantasy VII get some attention as well as old ones, and there’s even a Demon’s Souls reference. Long-time gamers will undoubtedly appreciate this content enormously; younger gamers might not even catch all the references. I certainly didn’t. I understood the allusions to The Legend of Zelda though. You can’t miss them.
I’m not going to explain the gameplay mechanics of 3DDGH. It’s a Zelda clone with screen-by-screen dungeons, tools like the boomerang and hookshot double, and extra life containers to collect. It’s all here and in nearly the same form as in years past, but there are a few additions. The Hero now has access to magic spells, mostly useful in specific situations such as during the penultimate boss fight. The Hero also has a blade that makes the Buster sword look like a puny dagger. If 3DDGH will be remembered for anything, it’s the swords that can swipe across an entire screen, killing every visible enemy. These blades are as cool and fun to use as they are to watch, and can be upgraded in strength as well as length and width.
In order to take full advantage of the massive reach of a sword, however, the Hero must have full life. Lose even half an apple (apples instead of hearts indicate HP), and the sword loses its awful power and much of its size. The game probably would have been far too easy without this limitation; at full life, the Hero is significantly more powerful. But that makes losing an apple or two by accident mercilessly punishing. There absolutely will be moments when some questionable collision detection, unseen pit, or otherwise unavoidable terror swipes away just half an apple, leaving the Hero with a comparatively flaccid weapon. This can be crushingly discouraging, especially in some of the later dungeons where a big sword is an irreplaceable boon.
As the game progresses, dungeons become more complex and potentially frustrating. None of the dungeons are particularly creative or impressive, with puzzle types liberally repeated and similar bosses in each. Some rooms are even identical in layout if not enemy configuration. This is particularly true in the final dungeon, a conglomerate of each of the first six temples wherein the Hero must fight a hastened version of each boss for the second time. Laziness. Dungeons are fun when progress is continuous. The combat is entertaining and generally works well, although the control isn’t the tightest. Fighting in the confined quarters of a dungeon isn’t as easy as combat on the overworld, but I suppose that’s natural. Dungeons are frustrating when progress is impeded by a forgotten key in a rejected corner of the map. The map was copied from Zelda, but not the compass.
The overworld, Dotnia itself, is more consistently fun to traverse. With plenty of treasure chests and oubliettes to discover, Dotnia is entertaining to explore. Combat is best on the overworld, where sword swipes won’t be interrupted by walls, and just walking and taking in the sights can be enjoyable. It’s also much easier here to hold onto those apples, granting access to the giant blade and a wealth of fun. To explore the farthest reaches of Dotnia, the Hero must use tools like the flame rod or bombs. Unfortunately, since those tools are often not required to beat the dungeons they are contained in, the player can miss one entirely, reach a dead-end, and not know what to do next. Exploring Dotnia never quite achieves the quality of a Zelda title, partly because the world just isn’t that compelling. There is no sense of mystery or curiosity, which is an essential ingredient in engaging exploration. Since nearly everything has been done before, the player knows that likely nothing extraordinary or surprising awaits beyond the next screen.
3DDGH includes a number of diversions to extend one’s stay in Dotnia if the 10 to 15 required to beat the game aren’t enough. There are numerous side quests, mostly FedEx missions from town to town. A fast-travel item removes the legwork that might have otherwise discouraged the completion of these quests. Most of these quests are time sensitive, however, appearing only between two temples. Without any indication of this, players are left to discover this on their own. Even the most thorough player is likely to miss something without a walkthrough. It’s a silly design decision and makes the already repetitive side quests less enticing. Fortunately, there are some great mini-games thrown in, a character editor, a bestiary, and other distractions that make Dotnia a more delightful place to be.
One of 3DDGH’s highlights is its unique LEGO brick/pixel nightmare graphical style. Everything in the game is comprised of bricks, which look like very large pixels, as if the game is in an extremely low resolution. In reality, the resolution is excellent. The resulting effect is both beguiling and enchanting. In addition, the game features some impressive visual details like reflections and exaggerated sunlight when exiting dungeons or caves as the Hero’s eyes adjust to the sudden exposure to bright light. Enemies burst apart when killed, scattering their constituent blocks across the landscape. There is also an effect that causes distant areas to go out of focus on the overworld, but I found it more obtrusive than anything.
In keeping with the retro approach, the game’s soundtrack is appropriately 8-bit. While not quite identical to an NES game, the music features plenty of tinny melodies and funky synth effects. Just like most 8-bit music, however, each track is extremely short, resulting in incessant loops. Combined with the shrill sound of many tracks, this can be a little much after a while. There are few tracks worth listening to outside of the game (I can think of at least one I adored), but they’re best during play, where they’re likely to augment the nostalgia.
3DDGH doesn’t do anything terribly wrong, but it doesn’t do anything incredibly right either. It’s enjoyable, fun, and neat as a tribute to the past, but isn’t without its flaws and hiccups. Fortunately, the game never overstays its welcome, and that alone makes it worth a recommendation to anyone who enjoyed The Legend of Zelda or other NES classics. Like most parodies, however, it feels a bit hollow as character development, plot, and originality are dumped for the sake of humor. I expected something more charming and likable as well. Perhaps the Flame Temple upset the applecart a few too many times. Ultimately, there are the referenced, and the referencers, and 3D Dot Game Heroes will never be the former. No matter how honest the copy, it’s no match for the real thing.