Monday, March 11, 2013

3D Dot Game Heroes (From Software/Atlus 2009/2010)

As I mentioned in my introduction, I've grown up with videogames my whole life. We had an Atari 2600, an Odyssey 2, and a rotating door of old computers including a Commodor 64 and an early Tandy PC. There were always games around, but my ongoing love affair with gaming didn't really begin until I got my first Nintendo Entertainment System. The NES single-handedly took gaming from being a fading fad of the late 70s and turned it into an entertainment powerhouse that has done nothing but grow in the decades since. Regardless of what your platform of choice is these days, if you play videogames, you owe Nintendo a thank you card.

Part of the magic of the NES games was that you weren't playing in one screen, you weren't just scrolling in one direction, for the first time you could go wherever you wanted, and get lost exploring new worlds. Ok, Adventure and Pitfall II for the Atari 2600 were doing this long before, but it wasn't until the NES era that this was really polished into a mainstream pop culture phenomenon. One of the earliest games to really take advantage of this was The Legend of Zelda. If you're familiar with the later games of the series, it may surprise you how different the original felt. It had its own kind of magic, partially due to the charm of trying to reach so far beyond its primitive capabilities. Later 8-bit JRPGs such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest (or Dragon Warrior depending on where you lived), and of coarse the Ultima series, would take that formula and add in depth story telling and a world of unique characters to get to know.

As years went by and hardware improved and game design advanced, these types of games changed drastically, and improved in many ways unthinkable back in the 80s. Still, the old 8-bit adventures had a certain charm that was lost in the modern era. That was, until the release of 3D Dot Game Heroes.

3D Dot Game Heroes is an unashamed love letter to all that is wonderful about the late 80s and early 90s adventure RPGs I grew up with. When I first heard about it, I saw a screen shot and its 3D sprite art style instantly brought back memories. While there are more retro styled sprite games out right now than you can shake a nun-chuck at, this game took what was old, and made it new. Imagine if all of those pixelated sprites were actually highly accurate representations of 3D objects. This is what those objects would look like.

But, it's not just a case of a new game trying to look old. These 3D pixels are rendered in the most realistic style possible, making use of depth of field, lens flare, bloom effect, reflection mapping, realistic lighting and shadows, and just about every other technique you can think of to make these the most photorealistic looking sprite art creatures ever. Even so, the characters animate as if they were still sprites. The average NPC snaps between two poses just like the old two frame idle animations. The nostalgia is so thick that you can almost smell it. Even the music is a well balanced blend of NES style FM synthesis and SNES style sample playback.

For the most part, the gameplay borrows heavily from the original Legend of Zelda and similar games such as the Neutopia series. You primarily swing or stab in one of four directions with your sword which becomes comically oversized when your health is full. Dungeons are navigated one screen at a time as you struggle to collect X number of whatsits or whatever in order to stop a great evil and save the land. Familiar auxiliary items are collected throughout your quest including bombs, a boomerang, and a bow and arrow. The game also borrows from A Link to the Past with multi-level dungeons and what might as well be a hookshot.

The plethora of NPCs and towns could be right out of the classic JRPGs, including some blatant references such as the infamous Dragon Quest Poof Poof Girl. The towns are varied in appearance, offering the typical array from prosperous villages to desert camps to fishing towns. The NPCs hint at backstories, but their short canned dialog doesn't offer much detail, which of coarse is part of the retro charm. There are a few fetch/trading style side quests, and some great mini-games including a tower defense game and a breakout style game. There's also the expected shops for new weapons and items, and sometimes sword upgrades.

It's what's outside the towns that really brings this world to life. Treacherous deserts, forests, swamps, mountains, and the obligatory haunted graveyard provide an endless supply of obstacles that stand between you and your next dungeon. The world map is as blocky and repetitive as you would expect given the influences, but in a deliberate way that still manages to hold its charm while providing some inventive puzzles to slow down your progress.

Also slowing down your progress, pretty much everything! It's no secret that games have gotten much less challenging in the past couple of decades, and this one makes up for it. If you've never played a classic game before, this might be the most difficult game that you've ever played. You will die dozens of times as you slowly master the puzzles of each dungeon and face its boss. In classic fashion, the final dungeon has you facing off against all of the previous bosses in order, each one more difficult than before. There are a lot of frustrating sections in this game that will have you screaming and cursing at your console. I came close to rage quitting on more than one occasion, but something about it just kept drawing me back in. Don't take this as a negative though, the difficulty level makes each victory all the more satisfying. Completing this game left me with a well earned sense of accomplishment that I haven't gotten from a game in a quite a while.

What it really comes down to is that this game isn't for everybody, and isn't trying to be for everybody. If you like this game, you'll really like this game. Everybody else might just be left wondering what the point of it is. There are still plenty of secrets left to uncover in this world, but I think I'll wait for the day when PS3 games hit emulators with quick save before diving in again.

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