Version tested: PlayStation 3
Equal parts homage, pastiche and straight rip-off, 3D Dot Game Heroes takes a decades-old game concept - the original Legend of Zelda, to be precise, though there are more subtle nods to numerous other NES-generation classics - and reimagines its pixel art in gorgeous 3D. It's a naked, nostalgia-soaked appeal to a lost generation of Japanese gamers in their mid-thirties, a generation that has fond, fuzzy memories of the 8-bit looks, music and simplicity that 3D Dot Game Heroes carries off very well.
It's astonishingly beautiful, and that's not pure nostalgia talking (I'm too young, for a start). Seriously, just look at it. Everything is constructed from tiny 3D pixel cubes. Monsters and plants disintegrate back into them when hit with a sword, exploding in a shower of little pieces sent careening across the screen. Water-effect cubes glimmer in the light and little 3D pixel people do their two-frame animations in their pixel houses.
The music, meanwhile, is joyful, ear-infesting chiptune that's about four or five notes away from the Zelda overworld theme. Sound effects are straight from the NES. But there's enough love in the game's look and feel to make it effortlessly likeable. It's more than a hollow facsimile.
It doesn't take long to realise that developer Silicon Studio has left the decades-old gameplay under the hood practically untouched as well. When you open your first chest in your first dungeon and find a boomerang, it's difficult to suppress a smile, but by the time you get to the third or fourth dungeon and find bombs, a hookshot and a fire wand, the joke starts to wear a little thin.
3D Dot Game Heroes doesn't embellish or ironise its gameplay inspiration in the same way as its looks and sound, which makes it difficult to tell exactly what the game is shooting for. Beautiful as it is, it lacks inventive spark, and doesn't display the consistent self-awareness that would elevate it from accomplished homage to creative satire.
Most people will care more about whether it's fun than about how aware it is of its own irony, though, and it certainly is fun. Simplicity is all - one button sends your sword shooting out in front of you, another uses your current item or magic.
You wander a sizeable overworld with one of several pre-fabricated pixel heroes (or you can create your own - more on that later), hitting monsters until they disintegrate, blowing up walls to discover caves and making your way to six different dungeons, where you solve block puzzles and defeat bosses in order to reunite six magic orbs and save the world. Every dungeon contains an item that lets you explore more of the map. Sound familiar?
It does add its own spin to the combat, giving you a sword you can swing in a full circle with the analogue stick and upgrade at blacksmiths for extra reach, width or power. Swords are hidden all over the game with out-of-the-way merchants, in caves or dungeons or in little secret nooks of the map.
There's far more to the kingdom of Dotnia than it first seems; you're free to wander around at will from the beginning, and exploration always yields rewards. Villages hide side-quests, sub-stories and even tower-defence mini-games. There's nothing to guide you towards secret shields, swords and life segments except your own curiosity, and you often come across something exciting for your efforts.
3D Dot also has a terrifyingly full-featured character editor that lets you create anything you could possibly imagine out of little pixel squares, too. I'll admit to being too frightened by the requisite attention to detail to make one myself, but there's already a little set of cute alternatives (a zombie! A car!) available as DLC. There's sure to be a flood of copyright-infringing creations as soon as publisher From makes it possible to download characters from its website.
Speaking of DLC, there was a New Year update that instantly made the game vastly more playable by adding a hard-disk install and halving the four-second load times between practically every screen. It still spends a bit too much time loading (clearly the visual style is more hardware-intensive than it looks), but all the load screens are cute recreations of Japanese NES game boxes, so it's at least easy on the eyes.
If you're going to rip off Zelda, you have to either pretend that's not what you're doing at all through clever subterfuge, or do it very, very well, like Okami. 3D Dot manages neither, but it avoids the problem altogether by being so blatantly obvious about its inspiration that it's impossible to begrudge it.
The dungeon design could be better - it's good, but repetitive and unnecessarily punishing, and though it's in keeping with the retro feel, it would be nice if there were any difference at all in their interior design. Played an hour or so at a time, 3D Dot is charming, but any longer and the retro shtick begins to grate.
Atlus is bringing 3D Dot Game Heroes to the US in May, and the translation is going to be absolutely crucial to how it's viewed. A generous helping of humour could save it from itself - if it makes enough jokes about its own inspirations, it'll come across as clever rather than just derivative.
The Japanese script has occasional flashes of humour and flippancy - one spell, for instance, used to reveal hidden embossed patterns on flat surfaces, is called Parallax Map - but at other times it comes across as confusingly earnest, and it's patronisingly obvious about hints. Admittedly, it can be hard to pick up on subtleties in your fourth language, but a sharp, openly self-referential script would make the game feel more intelligent.
3D Dot Game Heroes is a one-trick pony, but it does its one trick very well. Anyone with any nostalgic affection for the era of its inspiration - or for classic Zelda - will find it hard to resist. You could see it either as a loving tribute or a complete rip-off, but even if it is a rip-off, it's a very likeable one. If it were a bit more imaginative and a bit funnier, a bit more openly satirical, it might be brilliant. It's a comfortable and visually stunning trip down memory lane rather than anything more ambitious.
7 / 10
3D Dot Game Heroes is out now in Japan, and you don't need brilliant Japanese to play it - much of the game is self-explanatory. However, a US version is due out later this year.