With everyone going crazy over Skyward Sword, it seems fitting to review another amazing Zelda game! One so amazing that it does not even have The Legend of Zelda in its title! 3D Dot Game Heroes does such a great job mimicking the classic top-down Zelda games that it almost feels odd that the player’s character is not set to Link by default. Dungeons play out just like one would expect from a not-quite-Zelda game, and the various sidequests and NPCs in town all parody other gaming classics. However, despite all of its 8-bit charm and retro game nods, 3DDGH feels strangely empty and railroaded compared to the older Zelda games it tries so hard to impress.
The dungeons in 3DDGH are just like what one would expect from The Legend of Zelda. The player, who is definitely not-Link, runs around the dungeon, hunting for the boss key. In each dungeon, not-Link finds a new weapon to use throughout his journeys, but unlike the newer Zelda games, the boss of each dungeon does not require the player to use the dungeon’s treasure. Instead of the puzzle-like boss fights of newer games, boss battles involve bashing the boss with a sword until he dies. The first two bosses can prove to be somewhat challenging, due to the players low amount of hearts, but as the game progresses and the player gets access to a larger health bar, potions, and magic, the bosses get easier. By the end of the game, it is possible to simply chug potions while slashing the final boss to death.
Sadly, 3DDGH lacks many puzzles throughout the game, unlike its Zelda role-models. There are a few puzzles in the game, such as simple block sliding puzzles and a labyrinthine forest, but the bulk of the gameplay lies in smashing things with a sword, an area which 3DDGH makes some interesting improvements in. Rather than having one or two swords, such as a wooden sword and Master Sword, 3DDGH features a ton of swords, ranging from the stereotypical “hero’s sword” to a giant fish. Each sword can be upgraded to do more damage, have a farther reach, or do various magical effects. The sword upgrade system is tons of fun and lets players have different weapons for all kinds of situations, but in nearly every case, the player needs to be at full health to use the upgraded swords. With even half a hearts worth of damage, all of the strength and size improvements to one’s sword vanish. Yes, it is possible for players to grind up a sword with strength high enough to top bosses in a few swings, so one could argue that requiring a full health bar for all those upgrades to work balances the game out, but that does not make it any less frustrating!
3DDGH features all of the locations one would expect from a Japanese fantasy game. A magical forest, a volcano, a desert, and so on. And with those locations comes a cast of characters all heavily inspired by other popular retro games. Nearly every NPC features some kind of joke our reference about another game, of course, the bulk of the jokes will not be understood by any sane video game fans, since they are almost all Dragon Quest related. Catching a reference or two when chatting with NPCs is always a little funny, but it also makes it extremely hard to differentiate between an NPC who simply exists to spew out jokes and an NPC who is giving the hero information about a sidequest; 3DDGH features a lot of sidequests. Ranging from grabbing an item for a hidden cave, to playing tower defense minigames, to running items back and forth between NPCs, and more, these little fetch quests usually give the hero a heart container or sword, and the best part is that many of them are time sensitive! While it is perfectly possible to beat the game without hunting down every little heart piece and bonus sword, players paranoid about finding everything will definitely need to use a guide.
While, unlike Metroid, Zelda-like games are known for exploration, 3DDGH really drops the ball when it comes time to adventure. The game is always eager to point the player in the right direction, and anytime the player must trek through the world to find a new dungeon, the game is nice enough to put a marker on the player’s map, right where the dungeon entrance is. A few of the dungeons end up being pretty far from towns, but there’s a massive lack of anything interesting between towns and dungeons. Players may find an item shop or fairy fountain along the way, but other than that, the game spends no time trying to entertain the adventurous. It is by no means a game breaker, but keeping the time sensitive sidequests in mind, players might beat themselves up as they scour every inch of the game, paranoid about missing any bit of extra content.
3DDGH still manages to be an enjoyable experience, especially for anyone who has been playing games since the early days of the NES. The dungeons and bosses are all very fun, and they all prove to be a pleasant challenge. The constant retro references always make chatting with NPCs worthwhile, and the whole sidequest issue will only bother perfectionists. Unlike the newer Zelda titles, 3DDGH uses a regular controller! So should one find themselves with broken arms after flailing through a session of Skyward Twilight Sword, 3DDGH is the perfect alternative!