3D Dot Game Heroes – hands-on

Something happened as soon as we were handed the controller. Without a moment’s hesitation or guidance, we slashed at the nearest patch of grass and picked up the money that popped out, fired our hookshot-esque device at a wooden post to cross over a gap, pushed blocks around to make our way to a cracked wall, and then exploded said wall with a bomb - but not before poking our sword against the wall to hear if the resulting clanking was different.

Somehow, this all seemed a bit familiar.

If you’ve seen ourearlier coverageof 3D Dot Game Heroes, you’ll know it’s a loving homage to some of the industry’s finest 8-bit adventure games, the most lawsuit-baitingly obvious one being The Legend of Zelda.

References to both Zelda and other classic adventure games like Dragon Quest are all over, found not only in gameplay mechanics but also in overworld layout, items, HUD, soundtrack, and even the game’s story and dialogue. The kingdom of Dotnia is under attack from the Dark King, and only the Legendary Hero can stop him by gathering 8 mystical orbs found in the kingdom’s dungeons. Remind you of anything? Plus, nearly everything here is played for laughs. Before we could even quip, “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this,” 3D Dot Game Heroes’ King actually beat us to the punch. Clearly, this game gets us.

3D Dot Game Heroes is already a hit in Japan, but the US version will have exclusive features and new fixes. You’ll be able to choose to install the game to your PS3’s hard drive, which will drastically reduce the game’s load times. You’ll still get access to the loading screen art in a gallery, however, which is great since the loading screen images are brilliant recreations of retro gaming covers and iconography, crafted using 3D Game Heroes’ deliberately blocky graphics.

In the US version, you’ll also get access to a wider variety of pre-made characters to pick as your hero – we chose to play as a gorilla, for instance. Or if you’d rather, you can create your own sprite from scratch, program a few frames of animation, pick from one of three character classes to select his/her/its attributes, and finally share him/her with the world. It’s only a matter of time before we see 8-bit Sackboy fighting the demons of Dotnia, and we’re excited to see what folks come up with beyond the inevitable 8-bit Phallus of Legend.

As far as the gameplay of 3D Dot Game Heroes is concerned, it’s nothing revolutionary, and that’s part of the joke. Expect to upgrade your life by finding “apple containers,” stay at inns to get “poof-poof” massages (A clear shout-out to theDragon Quest games) and take part in some fun optional minigames. We saw the start of a racing minigame and a level of a tower defense-style minigame, the latter of which will be expanded significantly for the US version of the game.

Everything in 3D Dot Game Heroes is beautifully presented using real-time lighting effects that clash wonderfully with the purposefully low-fi animation and art style, and there are a ton of hidden swords to collect, each with its own attributes and often goofy design. We’re slightly bummed that there won’t be a level editor or multiplayer options to pad out the experience. The game’s LEGO-style building mechanic for creating characters seems perfect for laying out puzzles for our friends. But hey, it took Nintendo roughly 15 years to add multiplayer options to Zelda (in the Four Swords Adventure bonus mode to 2002’s Link to the Past on Game Boy Advance), so we guess we can give the game a pass on this one.

Still, for PS3 owners looking to relive their gaming glory days, 3D Dot Game Heroes will be a fantastic nostalgia trip. We came away from our demo feeling equal parts warm and fuzzy, and we really appreciate that despite the nifty graphical upgrades, 3D Dot Game Heroes still feels as tight, engaging, and challenging as the classic titles it was based on. While we’re not sure if the game’s reference-tossing retro schtick will wear thin by hour 10, we see a lot of potential here, especially after developer From Software’s last gameDemon’s Soulsfloored us with its hardcore sensibilities. With luck, 3D Dot Game Heroes could be the PS3’s cult hit of 2010; it’s paying homage to some of the best games around, and it’s doing so with astonishing accuracy.

Feb 2, 2010