Here’s what I like best about 3D Dot Game Heroes: the dialogue trees.
Games like Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, and Fallout 3 (not to mention many, many PC games that came before them) turned dialogue into an integral part of the gameplay experience, rather than the mostly superficial, expositional role that it had played previously. Conversational choices made in modern games can have an effect on the entire gameplay experience to follow. If you insult someone, you can lose that character forever; compliment them, and maybe you’re one step closer to starting a family. Dialogue trees in the modern video game can be complex, intricate things, which can increase the stress placed on the player but also improve the sense of immersion evoked by the game. Dialogue isn’t just telling us the story anymore. Now it’s allowing us to participate in it.
That said, the dialogue trees (where they exist) in 3D Dot Game Heroes are structured in one of two ways. Any dialogue tree that appears in the game exists merely to assign a task to the player, a quest that could either be integral to the progression of the plot or a side quest whose reward could be as inconsequential as a little gold or as important as an additional life piece (a “heart container” in the parlance of Zelda).
The dialogue tree leading up to a side quest works as follows:
You either do the quest or you don’t, and the world continues just as it would have had you chosen the other option. Either you’ll get the treasure that it offers or you won’t, but in the end, it doesn’t have anything to do with the plot. It’s a boolean switch connected to nothing but the presence of treasure. If you feel like taking it on, great. If you don’t (and you don’t mind pissing off a sprite for a second), that’s okay too. Life will go on.
Alternately, there’s the sho-shaped “tree” that shows up when discussing the plot-advancing quests with an important non-player character:
Obviously, it’s not much of a tree at all. Since the game cannot move on without the approval of the player, it will not let the player out of the dialogue until the player agrees to do whatever it is that the NPC needs or wants. In one memorable sequence, the king (quite plainly modeled after the king in the original Dragon Warrior) gently admonishes the player for saying “no” to one of his requests, because, after all, that won’t advance the plot. He then offers the yes or no choice to the player again, content to keep offering it until the player finally caves in and selects yes. This is a resolute king it seems, despite his recent tragic circumstances.
The dialogue trees are, of course, one of many aspects of 3D Dot Game Heroes designed explicitly and unapologetically for players who have been there, who grew up with the games that it is paying homage to—because make no mistake, this is an homage, and not a parody. You know it’s an homage because even past all the winks and nods and one liners, it is a deep game that rewards exploration and encourages experimentation. Do you remember the first time that you played The Legend of Zelda? Sure, by this point maybe you’ve memorized the overworld map and you could quickly describe the shapes of the dungeons in a word or two off the top of your head, but the first time that you played? You might have had that crude world map that came in the game box by your side, but apart from going into that first door and grabbing the sword from the old man, you’re on your own. You have three directions in which to travel and no guidance as to which of those directions is going to take you where you need to be. 3D Dot Game Heroes nails this sense of uncertainty, making for an “open world” experience that is in some ways even more pure than that of, say, Grand Theft Auto or Red Faction: Guerrilla.
To be sure, the original Zelda and Link to the Past are the primary inspirations here, both in play style and graphical style. Still, any gamer who owned an NES will appreciate nods to Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear (the original, not that newfangled Solid hooey), and Bionic Commando—the last a touch I appreciated given that the avatar I created in the game’s surprisingly deep character builder was a crudely constructed Ladd Spencer. Of course, many other games that I have either forgotten or missed make appearances as well; surely, a Wiki or FAQ will appear detailing them all, giving us a good reason to run through the game one more time.
Perhaps the only mark against the game is that gamers who didn’t grow up with the classic 8-bit games that 3D Dot Game Heroes is based on may feel alienated, or worse, bored. There is a ton to do, and the map design is incredible, but all of it might feel a little dry to someone who won’t get half the game’s jokes; its asides will feel random and forced if the player has never played, say, Spelunker or Armored Core.
Still, those players are not who 3D Dot Game Heroes was designed for, and one senses that the devs at Silicon couldn’t care less what they think. Those who appreciate the references will revel in a game that seemingly never runs out of things to give the player to do. There’s a surprisingly deep tower defense game embedded in the adventure that could take days to truly master. There’s a Pokémon-style activity that involves capturing all the enemies in the game, rather than killing them. There are infuriating common enemies (though none quite reach the controller-smashing frustration of the shield-eating Like Like) and tremendous bosses. There’s even a New Game+ type of mode. It’s everything a player could want in a Zelda-themed throwback.
If you ever enjoyed a Zelda game before Ocarina of Time, there’s no reason for you to avoid this. At worst, it will feel like a mere imitation of a time gone by. At best, it’s throwback gaming bliss.