If Ittle Dew were just a Zelda clone, even the fact that it’s selling for dirt cheap as part of the Be Mine 9 charity bundle wouldn’t make it worth discussing. And I’ll admit, I was as skeptical as you, what with the cutesy hand-drawn art and all the jokey disclaimers on signs as to how even if this was nothing more than a Zelda clone, it was at least going to be a self-aware one. But if I’ve learned anything from Orphan Black, it’s that clones can be unique, and in fact charming doesn’t even begin to explain Ittle Dew: you can play it straight through (it’s about four hours long, depending on your puzzling skills), collecting the Flame Sword, Portal Wand, and Ice Wand from each of the island’s three adventure-filled dungeons before tackling the big, bad, artifact-hording boss at the center of the gigantic castle. In this form, it’s about as close as it gets to classic top-down Zelda, although even here Ittle Dew racks up bonus points for putting all of its secret areas right out in the open, challenging you not to find them but instead daring you to complete them. (The Master Cave’s suite of twelve extra-tough puzzles is a delight and requires you to have mastered the mechanics of each tool.)
But here’s the cool part: you can also “break” your way through, using special tricks and combination powers with your gear to entirely “skip” any one of the three side dungeons. In other words, within the castle, almost all of the puzzles can be completed with any two of the three tools (or have alternate routes and extra-tough shortcuts): it’s just that much harder. You realize pretty quickly how much you’ve been taking the Flame Sword for granted when it comes to finding alternative means of burning things down; the same goes for how useful that Teleport spell was, now that once easily-jumped spike pits now yawn like mile-long chasms, Ittle Dew is designed for speed runs (there’s an achievement for completing the game within fifteen minutes), and like Mirror’s Edge‘s free-run sections, encourages you to experiment in using tricks and shortcuts to shave seconds off your best times. If it’s Zelda, it’s Zelda on crack, Zelda without all the hand-holding that comes from being a first-party, exclusive AAA title on the kid-friendly Nintendo, and it’s refreshing to find indie developers who trust in a gamer’s intuition and ability to figure things out based on the merest suggestion. (This is why Antichamber was so enjoyable, and why The Witness looks so incredible.) Nobody ever tells you that you can reflect your teleport beam off a patch of ice on the wall (or, more complexly, that you can shoot a teleport beam at your ice beam): after eliminating all other possibilities, you just figure it out.
Even the block puzzles, which I normally despise due to the sluggish pushing-and-pulling (as in the otherwise enjoyable MacGuffin’s Curse), are built with speed in mind, so even though there’s no undo action (only a room reset button), there’s no mechanical frustration. You either zip through or fret about being stuck once again. And while you may think you’ve seen block puzzles and their friends (bombs, pressure plates, and reflective mirrors) before, I’m pleased to say that Ittle Dew finds new ways to use many of them, mainly through time-sensitive combination puzzles: for instance, lighting a bomb on fire, but then freezing it so that you can push it over spikes, and then using a teleport block to “catch” it on the other side so that it unfreezes and explodes in the right place. The art may be whimsical, and in retrospect, the puzzles are, too: it takes a certain outside-the-box imagination to solve some of them.
In truth, Ittle Dew is beyond the point of flattering imitation–it’s almost insulting how some of the puzzles in Zelda are put to shame (and that’s with only three tools). It’s not likely to happen, but imagine what magic would happen if Nintendo paired Daniel Remar (who designed the puzzles here) with someone like Ed McMillen (who has already perfected Zelda-like combat in The Binding of Isaac, to say nothing of his own twisted puzzles from The Basement Collection), and let them loose. If imitation leads to inspiration and ultimately to ingenuity, bring on the clones.