3D Dot Game Heroes is an extensive homage to the Legend Of Zelda series, but it serves as more than a tribute. It’s the Zelda game that Shigeru Miyamoto and friends will never make. Nintendo creates primped, manicured experiences, designed from the outset to be masterpieces, often successfully. Still, wouldn’t it also be fun to play a Zelda game that isn’t worried about being a standard-bearer for the sacred order of Link? It is when it’s a silly, energetic celebration of gaming like Heroes.
The setting is the kingdom of Dotnia, which is a jaggy, flat, NES-style land until the king—alarmed by declining tourism revenue—decides that his dominion needs the added allure of a third dimension. Just like that, Dotnia transforms into an enormous building-block diorama. The look is a gorgeous fusion of retro and modern, combining the visual economy of ’80s pixel art with sharp color and depth-of-field effects more characteristic of the PlayStation 3 generation. Loading times are a less-welcome modern touch, though you can minimize them by installing the game on the PS3’s hard drive.
Since Heroes lifts its structure from the original NES’ Legend Of Zelda (with traces of the Super NES sequel A Link To The Past), the game needs more than eye candy to justify its existence. To that end, its real “innovation” is a sense of humor. Gamer in-jokes abound, referencing not just Zelda, but also Final Fantasy, Castlevania, Demon’s Souls, and countless others. The most charming touches are apropos of nothing at all, like the ginormous sword you wield when your life bar is full. There’s a goofy cast of player avatars, too. If you always wanted to know what it’s like to play Zelda as a balding Japanese businessman instead of Link, well, now you have that chance.
The foundation for all this goofiness is a remarkably well-designed, engrossing quest. The puzzles and sword-fights in Dotnia’s seven dungeons—including an enormous final mega-dungeon—provide a sustained challenge, and they almost play second fiddle to Heroes’ copious side missions and hidden bonuses. An entire tower-defense game tucked away in here can occupy hours if you’re so inclined. The uniting thread is the game’s steadfast refusal to take itself seriously. In a medium glutted with old-school series reboots and HD graphical updates, Heroes is the rare remake that honors the past while also saying something new.