Why play 3D Dot Game Heroes instead of warming up your NES or downloading the original Zelda on Wii’s virtual console? First of all, despite the 8-bit look of the graphics, there’s real, visible effort that went into to making the world and people in Dotina. It’s pretty funny to see the developer, From Software, using the power of the PS3 to make what’s essentially an NES game, while Nintendo pushes the underpowered Wii with all its might just to have the newest Zelda games keep up with current-gen productions.
Above: When you look this close you can see all the work on display
Also, don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the gameplay; as familiar as it is, it brings a lot of welcome additions. In case you don’t recall, the original Zelda wasn’t very clear on what you needed to do and where you needed to go. That opaqueness was part of the fun and is quaint now, but thankfully, 3D Dot takes it a little easier on players of today. There’s a much clearer map, and the NPCs give much better directions, as they aren’t hampered by message-size limits and shoddy translations. Plus, very early on, you have access to a warping item that can easily move you from town to town and cuts down on what would otherwise be a lot of boring backtracking.
There’s also a great leveling system for your primary weapon, a ginormous extending sword. The blacksmith can increase its damage, length and width (among other things) for a fee. But you’ll find a lot of other swords later on, and each one has only so much potential for growth, so be careful not to spend all your money on your starter sword. The only real problem with the sword leveling is that the power-ups are only available when you’re at full health; take even half an apple of damage (apples replace hearts in 3D Dot) and your sword is back to normal size. The difference that makes is huge, especially in later dungeons where health-replenishing drops are infrequent, and oftentimes, if we took damage real early in a monster pit, it was faster to just commit suicide and start over with full health rather than waste potions or keep going with our weakened sword.
Above: Girth and length - a dangerous combo
Even with all these changes, 3D Dot can get nearly as unforgiving as the classic it’s based on. Die in a dungeon, and you go back to its beginning, though at least you get to keep the progress you made before death. And woe be to those who don’t stock up on healing potions before diving in; if you run out, you’re left with the tough decision of either toughing out the dungeon with a powered-down sword or warping to the nearest town, buying potions and walking all the way back to the dungeon.
Playing to the crowd
That’s perhaps the biggest difference between this and the original Zelda: 3D Dot Game Heroes is pretty self-aware, and knows what audience it’s directed at. The game is filled with winks, nods and references to classic NES games aside from Zelda. We could fill a whole feature listing them (now there’s an idea), but let’s just say that the Dragon Quest/Warrior references alone in this game were everywhere, and always got a chuckle from the DQ-fanboy reviewer.
Above: Could you tell this was the Dragon Warrior box art? Congrats, you're nerdy enough to play this game
There are tons of jokes scattered around, both visually and through dialogue, and these come so fast and frequently that if you miss one, another will be coming soon enough. And fortunately, the localization team for publisher Atlus knows their stuff when it comes to classic lines from NES titles of yore. Whether it’s “a secret to everyone,” or “dangerous to go alone,” lots of care was taken on our side of the pacific to translate the retro flavor for the US player.
But just like the rest of the game, what you get out of these references is determined by how much love you feel for classic games. If you’re a huge NES fanboy and know the path through the Lost Woods like the back of your hand, then this game is perfect for you. Conversely, if you have no nostalgia or respect for old games, all the clever jokes will be lost on you, and 3D Dot will only come off as a kind-of-fun game that is needlessly archaic.