Revisiting 3D Dot Game Heroes

Before it made Bravely Default, out now on the Nintendo 3DS, Silicon Studio made the fabulous 3D Dot Game Heroes. Ryan takes a look back...

Think back to the games of 2010, and you may immediately  come up with deservedly acclaimed titles like Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2 or Alan Wake. If you’re a Nintendo fan, you may fondly recall the magnificent Super Mario Galaxy 2. It’s also just possible that you have happy memories of Silicon Studios’ joy-filled action adventure, 3D Dot Game Heroes.

A relatively low-key success when compared to 2010’s bigger releases, PS3-exclusive 3D Dot Game Heroes was nevertheless one of the most charming little games of the year – a retro-themed fantasy romp which freely heaped elements from classic adventure titles into its basket, while coming up with more than a few ideas of its own.

From the moment 3D Dot Game Heroes starts, the first thing that jumps out is its unique visual style: everything, from its squat little characters to its sprawling game map, is made from dozens of tiny cubes. Bearing in mind that Game Heroes was being developed before the release of such indie hits as Minecraft and Fez – the game’s initial release was in 2009 in its native Japan – it’s a look that is both unusual and disarming. 

Even now, the aesthetic packs a visual punch; the use of depth-of-field and blur makes it feel as though you’re peering down into a miniature world, or taking control of a stop-motion animated Saturday morning children’s show. The use of tiny cubes (or voxels) to create Game Heroes’ world isn’t just a visual gimmick, either – it ties in perfectly both with its retro-inspired gameplay and storyline.

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In his less-than-infinite wisdom, the king of Dotnia Kingdom has decided that, to encourage more tourism to his remote and verdant land, it should make the jump from flat, 2D sprites to 3D polygons. But in springing up into the third dimension, an ancient evil has been unleashed, and the Dark King Onyx has made off with six mystical orbs and hidden them around the kingdom. Naturally, only one hero can retrieve all the orbs and defeat the Dark King, which is where the player steps in, thumbs primed.

From its light fantasy story to its weapons, Game Heroes clearly takes a huge amount of inspiration from The Legend Of Zelda and other 8-bit Nintendo-era action adventures, but Silicon Studios takes this inspiration in the spirit of nostalgia and affection rather than cold-hearted cynicism. With the Zelda series becoming ever more complex (the following year’s Skyward Sword pushing the Wii to the limit with its lavish graphics), it’s refreshing and somehow touching to see a modern game reprise the pared-back simplicity of the 1986 original. 

The old-meets-new atmosphere is matched with Silicon Studio’s own mischievous sense of humour. The diminutive, anonymous hero at the adventure’s centre holds a magical sword which, as long as players keep their energy at maximum, grows to absurd size, allowing enemies to be struck at huge distances. The inherently suggestive sight of a tiny character with an (ahem) huge sword is an amusing one, but also gives the game an engrossing sense of momentum – with every step of the overworld littered with various spiders, skeletons and zombies intent on killing you, the search for a precious, energy-giving apple to keep the sword at its maximum length and girth becomes almost constant.

That the sword shrinks greatly in size after a single hit also results in frustration, and like publisher From Software’s hugely popular Demon’s Souls, Game Heroes can be incredibly harsh and unforgiving at times. On occasion, the frustration is compounded by some small yet niggling design problems (being push-scrolled into an unseen enemy, for example, is a rare but annoying incident), but for the most part, that harshness is also joined by an adventure that rewards your perseverance and practise.

Like Zelda, Game Heroes’ expansive overworld contains a series of temples, each containing puzzles, traps, and a deadly boss who guards one of those precious orbs. It’s familiar, even archaic stuff, but once again, the studio’s humour and flair for design makes these adventure game trappings feel fresh and engaging. An aggressive giant wasp gives way to a colossal killer octopus which spouts jets of deadly black ink, which  in turn gives way to fire-breathing dragon that fills half the screen. 

Long and challenging, these battles test players’ old-school reactions and timing to the limit, while also containing enough personality and charm to separate them from the similarly unforgiving bosses in The Legend Of Zelda. That same charm and attractive design can readily be seen throughout 3D Dot Game Heroes, from the adorable loading screens, which reference the box art of old 80s videogames, to the wealth of hidden mini-games you could discover, such as a blisteringly fast tower defence game to a fantasy-themed homage to Breakout.

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Then there’s the remarkably full-featured character editor, which allows players to create their own protagonist with literally no limitations on its look or shape, other than that it has to be constructed from a few dozen little cubes. Want to drive around Dotnia as a little car? Or maybe face off against the various bosses as Shy Guy from Super Mario Bros 2? No problem. Even now, a quick search of YouTube will bring up videos of players’ custom characters – we’ve even provided one below:

It’s playful ideas like these that make 3D Dot Game Heroes more than just another action adventure, and Silicon Studio bring the same skills to Bravely Default, out now on the Nintendo 3DS. Coupled with artwork of the supremely talented Akihiko Yoshida, Bravely Default again showcases Silicon Studio’s ability to create an exquisite fantasy world in miniature, and the game’s been so well received all over the world, that a sequel is already in the works from the same team.

Bravely Default is a more sophisticated, expansive piece of work than 3D Dot Game Heroes, and it’s not hard to see why it’s received such acclaim so far. But 3D Dot Game Heroes is an adorable little game in its own right, and an example of how its makers can craft something refreshing and delightful from a time-worn genre.

Bravely Default is available now exclusively for the Nintendo 3DS.

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