3D Dot Game Heroes: More Zelda than Zelda?

An Article by The Missing Link

Living in this thing called “real life” can be somewhat disconcerting sometimes. I mean, looking back to the days of college and high school, I now realize and miss the absolutely obscene amounts of free time I had before I entered the world of adulthood. The days where I could sit and play videogames many hours a week are long past gone, and now I have to all but schedule my videogame time amongst my full-time job (plus overtime), my volunteerism, time with friends, and the handful of other hobbies that I have. I really can’t afford to stay up till 4am (even though I still let it happen from time to time) to play games anymore because, if I do, going to work the next morning will cause the day to go by in a sleepy haze. I mean, I’m 29 years old; I’m not physically able to pull all-nighters with much success anymore.

Too many games; not enough time.

So, I’ve had to adapt pretty heavily. These days, there are good games getting churned out several times a month, a problem made much worse by my ownership of a DS, a Wii, an Xbox 360, and a Playstation 3 (not to mention—finally!—a rather capable PC). I can’t just afford to buy every game that remotely interests me and expect to find the 10 to 40 hours it’ll take to slam through it; I have to be selective now, a fact I realized ever since I discovered at the turn of the year that I had a stack of games that I had purchased but never actually played that was about a dozen high! There are some gems in there too: Assassin’s Creed II, Skies of Arcadia Legends, Valkyria Chronicles, Odin Sphere, among others. But there are also some games in that stack that just haven’t held my interest—Halo 3: ODST and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. And so with these latter games, I had to make the call; I had to let go, stop playing them, and instead play through the games that really called out to me.

But even with those games that I’ve really enjoyed… well, even I can’t afford the time to ruminate on them to my heart’s content. With a resolution to kill off the entire stack of unplayed games by the year’s end, I have to finish a game a month in order to make any real progress because, don’t you know it, new games are still being made—Heavy Rain, Mario Galaxy 2, and White Knight Chronicles. I don’t have the time to go through and do every last mini-game and side-quest. I have to keep my nose to the plot and follow the story through to the very end. In fact, I call myself a “plot bloodhound” now, and it’s a role that I accept perhaps a little too willingly since I absolutely relish a good story.

Some of you are probably wondering where Zelda fits into this article. Don’t worry, I’m getting there. Right about… now. Ish.

I recently picked up a game called 3D Dot Game Heroes for the PS3. Some of you are probably familiar with it. I haven’t been following the Zelda fansites all that much in recent years, but no doubt it’s been discussed on the forums at the least if not on the site itself. Yes, it’s very much a look-alike and play-alike of the original Legend of Zelda; then again, Atlus never really tried to cover up the fact that they were essentially taking the “original Zelda formula” and running with it. (It’s probably as close to the original game without risking copyright infringement, honestly!) You’re a hero trying to rescue the princess from an evil dark lord that was sealed away centuries ago (in a 2D land, no less), and you have to go through several dungeons (each with maps, new items, and boss keys) in order to obtain the six orbs which will allow you to tackle the dark lord or whatever. I haven’t finished the game, but that’s the general gist.

Zelda, I don't think we're in Hyrule anymore. Or are we?

I picked up this game primarily because, well, it looked like a hilarious parody of Zelda. And if a game is able to make fun of itself well enough to extract laughter out of me, well, that’s just icing on the cake. (And from the advertisements of the game, I pretty much figured that the humor content would be through the roof. If you haven’t seen them yet, you really should.) And so, I figured I would this game would be a shoo-in for me to love.

I should make a quick aside before getting to the coup de grâce that the first Zelda game I ever played was A Link to the Past. I never played the original Legend of Zelda until the Zelda Collector’s Edition disc came out on GameCube (and I’ve still yet to put any decent effort to beating Adventure of Link). Having gone through every Zelda game from LttP through WW before getting to LoZ… well, you can imagine my surprise when LoZ failed to really captivate me. Sure, I knew it was a great game and all… for its era. Sure, it was the granddaddy of the adventuring game, the first game to have a rather “open” world. It was revolutionary! …In its time. Yet given my preferences by that point, LoZ seemed to me how someone would view Pong after having played Grand Theft Auto IV: nothing original, nothing that I hadn’t already seen. And, oh yeah, incredibly clunky by today’s standards to boot.

So imagine my surprise when I wake up to find 3D Dot Game Heroes failing to captivate my interest. I quickly grew frustrated by the sheer difficulty of the game—not quite as difficult as the original game or perhaps Mega Man 9, but still up there! (Some of the bosses take more than forty hits to kill!) I quickly got bored tracking down the extremely flimsy plot while trekking from one dungeon to another. I quickly grew to dislike the shallow, one-sentence NPCs who populated the games various towns. In fact, I almost talked myself into ejecting the Blu-ray disc out of the PS3, putting it back in its case, and then leaving it on the shelf forever.

But then I discovered something that I had missed the entire time. Whilst sniffing out the proper path that would take me from the Aqua Temple to the Flame Temple (Dungeons #4 and #5 respectively), I noticed that there were two directions to take once I arrived at Death Mountain the mountains at the northern part of the map. One was so obviously the right way to the Flame Temple, but on a whim, I decided to go the other direction instead. The map makes it inherently clear that the final dungeon, the dark lord’s lair or whatever, was just a few screens to the west of where I was, and so I figured, well, might as well fill in the map and see what this dark, evil tower looked like, but I wasn’t expecting much else. In fact, I dreaded that it would be a worthless effort.

Except it wasn’t. The path I chose turned out to be a dead end.

Well, not just a dead end. There were hidden secrets out the wazoo in that direction. Most notably, I discovered a piece of heart life shard and the upgrade to the Hookshot wire shot.

Suddenly, I had discovered that, by leaving the direct path that I thought the game was trying to make me go, I found myself having discovered some really great secrets and having powered up my character quite a bit! And best of all, these secrets exist all over the map if you’re willing to put in the time to look for them.

Again, you’re wondering what this has to do with Zelda. It’s well past time to get into that, so let’s dig in: Twilight Princess. I will admit that, when I first played it, I thought that it was a great game, one of Nintendo’s best Zelda games, in fact. It had a pretty good story, at least one that entertained me and never once broke my suspension of disbelief until well after I had finished it. The dungeons were fairly clever and interesting, and there were some truly awesome moments spread out throughout the game. I was just about ready for a while to call it my favorite of the series over Link to the Past for some time (though I ended up recalling that thought months later).

However, now that I’ve rediscovered what a joy it is to not necessarily be a bloodhound to the plot, I can’t help but wonder if I was a bit overly generous to TP. Given my penchant for story, TP was the game for me. TP grabs the player by the wrist and drags them (kicking and screaming if it must!) from plot point to plot point without letting them explore the entire world straight off the bat. You’re not allowed to go anywhere the game doesn’t yet want you. It is perhaps as bad as I’ve heard Final Fantasy XIII is in linearity; you press forward and the A button for the first 20 hours or so. But nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed TP while I was playing it.

Hold forward, press A a bunch.

Yet there had always been those who had complained about the game’s linearity, and now I finally get all of the complaints. With 3D Dot Game Heroes so fresh in my mind, I realize that TP has absolutely no sense of exploration. In fact, when it came to exploration, all you really had were a few (and very optional) caves sparsely scattered over the overworld and a small number of collection quests to go through, all of which I either grew bored of, resorted to GameFAQs to complete, or flat out abandoned them. I was playing Zelda, but I wasn’t exploring Zelda; I wasn’t accomplishing Zelda. I was merely playing it.

And really, Spirit Tracks was the same old story too, perhaps worse, really. For me, there really wasn’t any exploration at all in that game to speak of other than the dungeon trolling. The mini-games were extremely lackluster, and I didn’t think that there would be a transportation mechanism that would make sailing extremely long distances in Wind Waker seem like an absolute pleasure.

I have to admit that, over the past few years, I’ve had something of a break-up with Nintendo. Don’t get me wrong; I still do appreciate their best games quite readily. Super Mario Galaxy was an absolute delight, Super Paper Mario was a great experience, and I loved Hotel Dusk: Room 215. And I’m looking forward to Mario Galaxy 2 (which is in a UPS van on its way), Metroid: Other M, Golden Sun DS, and yes, the next Zelda game (which should be revealed in earnest at E3). But Nintendo is just a friend now, not my exclusive lover. Sure, they’re great to hang out with and have dinner with, but the intimacy and deep conversation just hasn’t been there the past few years, and eventually we go our separate ways, and the other consoles were and are quite eager to court me.

But Zelda remains a fandom that I can never put down, and this is why I’m hoping that whatever Zelda game they present at E3 adds a little bit of the magic back into my video game love life. I don’t just want to play Zelda. I want to experience it, to relish it, to be able to find so much to do with the game that I don’t want to put the game down after the month’s worth of play in which I will be forced to allot it.

Here’s hoping.