Demon’s Souls, From Software’s previous game, was my favorite game of last year. It was a game where they demonstrated, accidentally or no, that they get it. They understand how to make a tense, thrilling game where you alternatively felt like a badass and were scared for your life.
3-D Dot Game Heroes, their follow up game, is being described by pretty much every review outlet as a 3-D version of the original Legend of Zelda. That’s the description on the review cheat sheet, and it’s a pretty decent one. But it’s not entirely accurate.
I’m going to throw out a new one: 3-D Dot Game Heroes is a great game, and is Lego Demon’s Souls.
The entire table cracks up, but they think about it for a minute. There are lots of aspects from the original Zelda, and from Link to the Past, that really haven’t moved into the new games. Exploration is minimal, and replaced with go here, Link! It’s an adventure stage! Even dungeons have become streamlined paths of puzzles, rather than being nonlinear. Most importantly, there’s no sense of danger. Sure, you die occasionally, but there’s no difficulty. You die because of squirrelly three dimensional controls, and because you didn’t see someone, not because of anything difficult. You don’t feel badass anymore, either. There’s no modern equivalent to the stars your sword shot in Link to the Past, that made such an awesome noise. That made you feel like a conquering hero.
All these things were gone, and there wasn’t a new, real Zelda game, they decided.
We can fix that! We’re good at these things! the director says, and he knows he’s right. These were kind of the calling cards of Demon’s Souls: big, nonlinear levels filled with secrets, and the thrilling sense of danger. A splash of badass moments. Someone suggests the game look like 3-D pixels, and someone else compares it to the Lego games.
You hit someone and they break apart into pixels! he says. It’ll be fantastic! Everyone agrees, though they think that guy is a bit of a jerk; no one says anything about it because they’re Japanese and that sort of statement is frowned upon. But he’s right: if they pair it with a charming art style, they’ll move a lot more copies, and show that this game is friendlier than Demon’s Souls.
This is the impression I get from the Demon’s Souls room, a hidden cave located very close to the second dungeon. Inside, you find a bunch of developer types sitting around saying, But it wasn’t that hard! I’m no doctor, but I think they’d be kind of upset with the reviews saying, This game is just like Zelda! or this is a comedy game about making fun of memes! or this game is too retro, and shows why we don’t make retro games anymore. I think they intended the game to be funny, but I think a lot of the people playing and reviewing missed the joke in favor of going Hah! I blew up that wall and found an orc who said it’s a secret to everybody and gave me 100 coins! And sure, that’s funny, but that’s not the joke I think they intended to pull.
*ACTUALLY TALKING ABOUT THE GAME NOW. THERE WILL BE NO MORE DISCUSSION OF PEOPLE I DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW*
And while 3-D Dot Game Heroes looks retro, and quacks retro, it’s not a duck. It is, like Demon’s Souls was, a modern execution of retro, an improvement on elements that came before with the addition of modern technology. 3-D Dot Game Heroes takes the blueprint of the original Zelda and builds upon it, creating a game with similar principles but with a modern touch.
The biggest modern touch is the sword. 3-D Dot Game Heroes looked at why we loved the original Zelda (shooting swords at full health!) and Link to the Past (shooting stars at full health!) and decided that, at full health, your sword should be the size of the world. That if you have full health, you should be nigh invincible. There’s more of an emphasis on swords, too. There are over twenty of them. Sure, not a lot of them are worthwhile, and god knows why you’d use some of them when you have something better, but that’s a lot of swords. It’s very much like From looked at the most exciting moments of the classic Zelda’s (the beams, the getting a new, badass sword) and tried to make those experiences as often as possible.
3-D Dot Game Heroes is Zelda, but it is also Demon’s Souls, in that Demon’s Souls is the retro distillation of modern Zelda games. Demon’s Souls cuts the foreplay from Twilight Princess and leaves you with the intense, gripping sex; 3-D Dot Game Heroes, realizing that the two classic Zelda’s didn’t have a whole lot of filler to begin with, just made the sex bigger and better (floating on an Arctic glacier, being watched by a hundred penguins who applaud every orgasm). 3-D Dot Game Heroes takes the fun parts of Zelda and dials them up, and there’s something to be said for that.
Exploration is similar to the old Zelda games, but things are different. Bigger. More dangerous, on the whole. Most importantly, your exploration attempts aren’t always rewarded with rupees or a piece of heart. Sometimes, you bust through a cave wall and the guy inside is peeved beyond belief that you just broke into his house (you cad). Sometimes you find a cave where the developers are hard at work on the game. Other times, they’re just empty. Sure, you’re rewarded tremendously for exploration, but not always, and that not always gives the world life. Exploration is even more like the original Zelda than Link to the Past: there are fewer map-wide barriers for entry (the most common being the hookshotâ€¦err, the Wire Rod), so you can go almost everywhere immediately. I spent hours just wandering the map once I got the trusty hookshot, finding all the phat lewt, and it was some of the most rewarding time I’ve played in a video game.
These are moments like from Demon’s Souls. You’d never see it in Zelda. Big, horrible monster who can kill me in two hits? That’s far too frustrating for the Zelda crowd. 3-D Dot Game Heroes throws him at me, and asks, Do you try to kill him? He probably has nice loot.
I fight him for a while, and he eventually gets me with his spread fireball blast. But you know what? It was the most worthwhile encounter, because there were real dangers. I died, and I was thrown back screens away from my goal. If I’d won, though. If I’d won. It’s situations like that that made Demon’s Souls great, and is the kind of modern day difficulty scaling that makes 3-D Dot Game Heroes great. It’s an encounter you can avoid, so it’s not blocking your progress. It’s just a hazard of exploration.
3-D Dot Game Heroes is a strange bird like that. A beautiful bird, but a strange one. Sure, you’re infinitely powerful at full health, tooling around the map with a sword that can decimate the screen in one go, but one little hit, and you die. Reviewers have harped on this backwards difficulty curve to death. I think it’s brilliant. It wouldn’t make sense for the game to be easier the worse you’re doing. Video games’ difficulty has long been made to make it easy for you to pull off a last second save, a victory on the brink of death, and that takes the fun out of it. Sure, you can kill 10 people in Team Fortress 2 with very little life left, and that’s pretty badass, but it’s not appreciably more difficult. You just managed to shoot the people successfully after a while. In 3-D Dot Game Heroes, that’s not the case. It’s only downhill from max life. You aren’t going to get better. Pulling out a last second victory (like I did over one of the bosses) feels thrilling and fantastic, because you know you did something. You succeeded, where you were supposed to fail.
And that’s what 3-D Dot Game Heroes does: it succeeds, when it was set up to be just another retro homage. Instead of a retro homage, we have a game, like Demon’s Souls, which reminds us that the classics of gaming were good for a reason.