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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Psyche Out

Like every gamer on the internet, I like to flatter myself with the belief that I’m somehow immune to hype. It’s all about the game, not the marketing budget or the buzz. I make my decisions deliberately, doing my research, parsing the reviews, and judging by the gameplay footage what will be my next purchase.

Yeah. And I also keep a pair of fairy wings in my closet that I wear for my night job giving little children quarters in exchange for their lost teeth. I use the teeth to build castles for my wife and children to live in.

Seriously. Right now I have a finished basement with a floor tiled entirely with incisors. But getting enough wisdom teeth to build the bookshelves in the library has been a cast iron bastard.

No, I’m susceptible to hype just like every other person walking the planet, or flying above it. I’m particularly vulnerable to small, viral campaigns that spread largely through word-of-mouth. These sorts of campaigns are designed to appeal to the nerd in me, which likes feeling clever because he’s heard of something that a lot of other people haven’t. Like a ring that makes me invisible, even if I only use it to catch fish.

This is not my best feature. It has led to many wasted dollars in my storied past as a gamer. Too many games that I fell for the hype, bought and then put down after putting in an honest, rigorous effort to like a game that I was, at best, lukewarm on because I desperately wanted the promise of the hype to be true.

Because I went to the trouble to preorder the damn game, and it’s going to be good!

This is almost universal to me: Any game that I care enough to pre-order cannot possibly be good enough to be worth preordering.

But so it came to pass that I pre-ordered and paid full price for 3D Dot Game Heroes on the PS3. As a gamer who started gaming in Atari’s halcyon days, and who came of age in the era of Zelda and Mario, the retro-goodness held some appeal. Especially since I had just finished Darksiders, which was alleged to be as derivative of Zelda as a game could be while still featuring entrails. Hungry for more adventuring and block puzzles, I took a look at the gameplay footage for 3D Dot Game Heroes with lust in my heart. When my wife heard that reviewers the web over were comparing the game favorably to A Link to the Past, she stopped short of demanding we buy the game, but did make a heartfelt appeal that nudged me over the edge.

But this was a quirky Japanese title by Atlas. Finding it in stores could prove problematic. But, wonder of wonders, a Gamestop exists right on my route home from work! I could preorder it and make it a DAY ONE PURCHASE!

And that’s exactly what I did. And it’s forty dollars that I wish I had back.

It’s not so much that 3DDGH is a bad game. It’s just not a particularly good game. My wife, on the other hand, would firmly disagree with that. A Link to the Past is one of her very favorite games of all time. To this very day. In fact, the very first downloadable game we bought on the Wii was A Link to the Past. So her devotion to Link’s third adventure in America is not to be questioned. From her perspective, the fact that anyone would mention 3DDGH and LttP in the same breath, let alone compare the former favorably to the latter, creates a burning rage of the sort that grounds flights out of Europe.

And I don’t just make that analogy because her ancestry is of the Norse persuasion.

To put it another way, She played Link to the Past. Link to the Past was a favorite of hers. 3D Dot Game Heroes is no Link to the Past.

It would be apt to draw comparisons and contrasts between 3DDGH and another game that was compared to Zelda games: Darksiders.

Darksiders was a game that was shamelessly derivative, but it was still its own game. Sure, it was stealing ideas from the Zelda series, but those were gameplay ideas. And it didn’t steal them in a direct, bit-for-bit kind of way, rather it stole the high-level concept and chiseled out something unique.

3D Dot Game Heroes, on the other hand, is not derivative. It’s a carbon copy. Except the carbon is old and has been used to the point where there’s almost no carbon left on it.

It is an old saying that good artists borrow, while great artists steal (Pablo Picasso allegedly said it, though it may have been apocryphal). Atlas seems to have misunderstood the meaning of this old saw. Taking another person’s work and slapping your name on it is not the kind of stealing that the proverbial Great Artist engages in.

When Vigil stole Zelda ideas for Darksiders, they still built their own game. 3D Dot Game Heroes feels like somebody got hold of the developer tools used to make the original Zelda and made a new game. Except they didn’t have the spark that gave Zelda’s game design its kick, so we wind up with a game that kind of looks like a Zelda game if you squint hard enough, but plays more like one of those Zelda knockoffs that couldn’t get Nintendo’s seal of approval and was therefore released by Tengen’s incompetent sister company.

It’s kind of like watching Kermit the Frog today. Steve Whitmire is trying desperately to remind everyone how much they love Jim Henson, but ultimately he doesn’t have the same soul. Kermit ceases to be Kermit, and he becomes just a sock puppet with ping pong eyes. Because Steve Whitmire, though talented, is not Jim Henson, and Kermit was only Kermit because Jim Henson made him Kermit.

The kicker is if they hadn’t struck out to build a game that reminded you of how much you liked Zelda, they could have made a good game. I played through the first three dungeons before giving up on the game, and not once did I feel like Atlas put any effort into making the game interesting in and of itself. Instead of “Oh, they did this kind of puzzle. Cool,” It was “Oh, this puzzle type was so much better done in Zelda. Sigh.”

That about sums up 3DDGH for me: I spent more time sighing than smiling. I don’t finish games like that anymore. Life is too short to spend it being bored by a video game.