Let's be clear upfront: 3D Dot Game Heroes is never less than delightful, and frequently more than merely charming. It's really good fun to play. Rush through it in a headlong blur of exploration, simple combat, dungeon-crawling and item management, and you'll probably be left with a sleepy grin on your face, as if you've pummelled your insides with peanut butter and marshmallow crème for a fortnight while listening to a Neil Diamond mixtape.
Slow down and think about what you're doing, however, and things become a little more problematic. I like this game, from the several hours of it I've played and all the other things I've subsequently read on the web, but there's no getting around the fact that it crosses a line few other titles have ventured past.
It all comes down to inspirations, really. Or maybe that should be borrowing, or theft, or homage if you've been watching a lot of black and white films recently. Almost all games pinch things, of course. We tend to judge them by how well they embellish those lifts: what they bring of their own, and how they make things new again - or if it looks like they're just scrabbling to cover their tracks.
3D Dot Game Heroes is a bit trickier to get your head round, however. It sells itself on the things it's taken, and it wouldn't dream of hiding what it's been up to. It's robbed the bank, then, but it's not trying to make a getaway. What's it really doing?
Maybe it's happy to trot along as a game about games - or rather, a game about one very specific series. Silicon Studio is so open with its raiding of the Legend of Zelda - it's taken a world, a structure, specific animations and, a few notes aside, entire melodies - that it can be hard to know how to respond. It's certainly not trying to pass Nintendo's ideas off as its own: perhaps it just loves the same games you do - the 8- and 16-bit Zeldas in particular - and it's found a way to bring everyone a bit more of them.
And that way is, as the name suggests, three dimensions. It's a shift the game has a lot of innocent fun with. Single pixels become plastic cubes that shatter under the blow of a sword, chunky castles spring out of the flat ground in the adorable opening crawl, and townsfolk complain that their houses are so much more difficult to clean now that they have a z axis, or a y axis… or whatever stupid axis it is. Help.
Despite the unusual perspective on an 8-bit world, however, this faux-voxel delight never shies away from the familiar. In fact, it dunks you into it every five seconds or so, dropping you outside a castle where your first mission is to go leave a magical sword in the woods for a future age when heroes will need it, and then sending you back out again, almost immediately, to pluck it up once more when darkness falls across the land.
The sense of living within the empty spaces of Link's life is palpable. Even in the first few hours you'll pass beckoning mouths of caves, stumpy brown signposts, wriggling clumps of grass and squat little bushes as you plod around. Being hit by an enemy will knock you diagonally back in a way that feels exactly right, and even the brisk clatter as you extend your shield to block them seems to have rung out from your own memory. Swinging a sword is as basic, and as brilliant, as it is in Zelda, even if you can upgrade things a bit over time and enjoy a flashy over-sized effect. There are tweaks, then, but they're tiny and mostly aesthetic.
Again: it's lots of fun, but if you're in the wrong kind of mood this will probably be disquieting. Everywhere you look the game is willing to show you things someone else dreamt up: dungeons with those distinct rows of pillars turning rooms into mini-mazes, castles with the familiar runways of carpet spread over stone floors.
People present you with gifts, which you hold aloft with a half-familiar heroic trill, and almost every enemy, every location, every individual sound cue has a clear precedent. The metagame quickly becomes spot the reference and - if you're playing with spectators of a certain age - pinning it down correctly before anyone else does is a pretty good kind of social multiplayer for the terminally boring (I loved it).
How far does the onslaught of the familiar go? Further than you might expect. The first section of the game has a kind of tutorial, albeit a knowing one, threaded into it, and it's telling how entirely unnecessary it is. Your childhood was the tutorial for this game: you may be exploring a brand new kingdom, but the bulk of the early adventure at least is pure finger memory.
It sounds joyless if you put it like that, perhaps, but there's a simple if slightly unearned magic to be found in a return to these recognisable spaces, jazzed up somewhat by that effortless transition into three dimensions.
Everything's colourful and cute, enemies explode in tangible blasts of little cubes, and there's a real sense of genuine physicality to the world, brought on by depth-of-field blurring and some pleasantly jerky animation that calls to mind stop-motion techniques.
And you can thank progress for the fact that you can play through the adventure, should you wish to, as a pixellated Michael Jackson, or Barack Obama, or even Peter Molyneux if you think you can capture that enigmatic smile, via a frankly brilliant character editor that also allows you to construct very simple animations.
But there's a problem with riffing on the classics, even if you're doing it as openly, as guilelessly, as this: Zelda may have inspired 3D Dot Game Heroes, but, judging by the first few hours, 3D Dot Game Heroes struggles to be as inspired as Zelda. The first dungeon is a little too drab: move blocks, hit switches, bust up skeletons and - in a moment I genuinely don't know how I feel about - collect a boomerang, and the boss is serviceable rather than memorable.
These things are traditions that even Zelda itself is starting to choke on a little, and here the intricate deviousness of the most workmanlike of Hyrule's own temples is missing. That's a punishingly high standard to hold Silicon's designers to, obviously - but they're the ones inviting the comparison.
Reviewing the Japanese version, Keza MacDonald said that a knowing script would probably help things along if the game came to the UK, which it now is doing this May. It's a delicate balance, however: a script that's too knowing could turn 3D Dot Game Heroes into the RPG equivalent of one of those wretched LOLcats saying "I Can Haz Mastersord?"
The translation seems to be a goodie, thankfully: its understated wit is never too arch or too smug, but always manages to acknowledge that the game takes place in a bottled universe, and that the bottle bobs about on tides drawn this way and that by little more than nostalgia.
The announcement of "Life Up Get!" when you collect an extra piece of health is about as far as things slide towards the realms of the painfully trendy, and for most of the time the game prefers to mirror the tone of the original Zeldas - and throw in more than a few nods to other series too - rather than deconstruct the earlier titles or shatter them into memes.
It's likely that the game's air of innocence will see it through for most players: this is a fan or a groupie more than a thief, when you get down to motivation, and the fact that it's getting a worldwide release must indicate that Nintendo tacitly approves.
At times, however, that means 3D Dot Game Heroes gives way to that special kind of awkwardness you only get when watching a very good cover act: there's great technique and enthusiasm on display, but the brilliance of the mimicry can leave you feeling further removed from the genuine article than you were at the start. With so much talent, why are they playing somebody else's songs?
For the first few hours at least, this is a loving rerun of Zelda rather than a particularly artful re-imagining, and Silicon Studio adds little on the creative side beyond the new perspective and the editor. Without anything to call its own, it looks to be a pleasure, but a slightly guilty one. Chances are that you will love it; chances are that it will just about earn that love.
3D Dot Game Heroes is due out for PS3 on 14th May.