Something that always fascinates me about the games industry is that, no matter how far we evolve and what exciting new ground we cover, we never really cut ourselves off from our roots. Even today, game design makes use of lessons learnt all the way back in the 80s. It makes sense from a design perspective — while games themselves may change and evolve, the essence of "fun" and "what works" remains the same.
Sometimes, this influence is subtle, like the lessons the Gears of War team took from the Miyamoto school of design while designing the game’s boss fights. Other times, it’s more aesthetically obvious, like in games such as No More Heroes or Mega Man 9, both of which go to great lengths to emulate the 16-bit aesthetic and rely on nostalgia as their unique hook (NMH to a lesser extent though).
Silicon Studio’s 3D Dot Game Heroes is the most recent example of this style of design. One look at the trailer will tell you all you need to know. The game is an action-RPG very reminiscent of the 2D Zeldas, right down to the blocky art style, music and even the items — except that it’s in 3D and it looks colourful and gorgeous.
You can look at this in one of two ways: Either it’s trying to be retro in the most unique way possible — shall we say "neo-retro?" — or it’s a blatant Zelda rip-off. But before you decide that you’re leaning more toward the latter, take note that the world of 3D Dot Game Heroes isn’t the way it is without a reason. No, there’s a story. And in addition to its off-the-wall story, the game surprisingly features quite a lot of advancements despite its reliance on nostalgic appeal.
3D Dot Game Heroes takes place in the peaceful two-dimensional kingdom of Dotnia, which was watched over by six sages who protected six different orbs that held the power of God. However, Dotnia’s peace didn’t last very long as it was terrorized by a demon overlord. A hero arose to challenge this demon lord and defeated him, and once word of the demon’s defeat got out, Dotnia became a popular tourist attraction.
Once its popularity died down, the king of Dotnia decided to use the power at his disposal to reshape the kingdom in 3D in order to attract more visitors. However, "something" — they aren’t saying what — went wrong in the transition, and it’s up to you, the new hero, to get the bottom of things.
Like No More Heroes, it seems that 3D Dot Game Heroes will walk the fine line between taking itself seriously and being a self-parody. From Software, who are publishing the game, haven’t said what went wrong with Dotnia in the 2D-to-3D transformation, but there’s plenty of room for both in-jokes and interesting plot-twists. Heck, it could be multiple problems. Have the laws of physics changed since the transformation, for instance? Or did the switch to 3D start using up more of the world’s natural resources? And who’s programming Dotnia’s shaders now that it’s in 3D?
When you really start to think about it, the possibilities are endless. You could end up with a parody that focuses on the difference between 2D and 3D game stereotypes, or the technical differences between the two. Or both. And you have to admit, it does make for a more interesting premise than a lot of what you typically see in RPGs today.
But for every major cliché that it does away with, 3D Dot Game Heroes is very keen on leveraging nostalgia in its favour. The game allows you to play as one of three character classes: a prince, a hero or a scholar. However, there’s also a fourth playable guest character in the form of IREM’s Spelunker. The catch here is that Spelunker — like in his own game — dies if he falls from nearly any height. Talk about retro. But again, 3D Dot Game Heroes makes sure that it isn’t limited by its design and takes things a step further instead of being just another retro-rehash. If you don’t like any of the default characters, you can create your own, complete with customized animation.
I’m not a big fan of retro-revivals like Mega Man 9 but something like 3D Dot Game Heroes that attempts to make the charm of older games relevant to today’s gaming audience is very welcome. We’ll be keeping an eye on it for sure and I hope to God the rest of Japan’s development community is watching this game. In case you missed them before, here are screenshots of the game from our previous coverage.
The good news is, a localization of 3D Dot Game Heroes isn’t out of the question. In fact, it’s more a question of "who" rather than "if" as we have been told multiple publishers seem to have their eyes on it.