Why is it that nobody seems to remember my favourite Pokémon game? I’m not talking about Pokémon Go, more than enough people have their hooks in that, and besides – PG is only passably good fun, and no more than that. You heard me.
No, my personal sweethearts of the franchise were the early members of the Pokémon: Mystery Dungeon series, namely because they seemed to tie up a lot of problems that the main games had always been afflicted by. Right from the beginning, the original “Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Blue Rescue Team” focused more on the narrative, featured some legitimate character development and worked on building on top of the established battle mechanics. Not only that, but it did all three rather well.
Because, to geek out completely and paraphrase Mr. Spock: “It’s Pokémon, Jim. But not as we know it.” It seems that at some point in Nintendo HQ, somebody with the brief of “make up a new spin-off series” happened to move into a position where a Pikachu plushie, a copy of XCOM, and a Dungeons and Dragons box were all in their eyeline simultaneously. And before you could say “it’ll never work,” Nintendo Employee #103487 had pencilled down the beginnings of a game that would, at its high points, eclipse the main franchise in quality to a great degree.
The premise to the first game was pretty absurd, but also kind of absorbing, working to earn the “mystery” remit in “Mystery Dungeon” straight off the bat. You are a human, presumably from the brightly-coloured land that the main games take place in, and are turned into a Pokémon whilst being teleported through time and space to another world altogether. A world where the little monsters you’ve spent years catching and enslaving are the only living beings around, having built an odd kind of society that feels like a Japanese interpretation of Sylvanian Families with a bit of Wind In The Willows thrown in, though sadly without the car crashes and catchy songs from the latter. And because you have no idea why any of this is going on, not to mention that your memory is suspiciously patchy when it comes to recollections of your human life, there’s clearly something going on behind the scenes that needs unveiling. Perhaps it has something to do with a recent spate of natural disasters?
Nah. Of course not. I mean, what are the odds of that?
What specific Pokémon you morph into is up to you, and yet completely out of your control, because the game begins by giving you a personality test, then resculpting you into whatever best suits your attitude. Admittedly, the options it picks from are just the starters from the pre-existing games, plus a few select others (so no chance of growing into a Gyarados straight off the bat) but there’s a simple intrigue in finding out your Japanese spirit animal and getting a brand new body to match. I was just happy to find out that my childhood connection to Squirtle wasn’t only because of the kick-ass sunglasses he was always sporting.
So you appear in The Land That Team Rocket Forgot, then to be paired up with another Poképal who asks you to join his adventuring team, because there’s not much else to do when you’re a two-foot tall blue turtle with Jason-Bourne memory loss. Your task is to take a series of mercenary jobs that all involve leaping into randomly generated labyrinths and locating either an item, a friendly NPC, or a specific enemy, one who you’ll have to give a good kicking in the Oran Berries to make him come quietly.
Thus the basic concept for the whole game is laid before us. And the critic smiled, and he saw that it was good, because it really, really is.
Part of it is because of a supporting cast of good and bad characters with clear personalities are orbiting around you, and a few of them even manage to be somewhat nuanced, in a Bambi’s forest sort of way. Sure, nobody’s going to give the subtle complexity of Tony Soprano or Walter White a run for their money, but they are fun to be around, and go through little arcs and moments of growth in times of adversity that never feel overly forced or manipulative. And when compared to the blank-eyed humanoids and two-dimensional archetypes that float through the main games, that’s a real step up in quality.
And of course there’s the ending. Consider this paragraph a minefield of spoilers, so leap ahead if you plan on playing this for the first time, but it really bares discussing… Because I may have cried a bit when I finished this game for the first time. It’s a genuinely tragic finale. Your work in the Pokémon world is done, and you must return to the human world forever, having your mind scrubbed of all your memories and never being permitted to see your friends again. There’s a fairly obvious metaphor for death hanging around this event – your cartoon buddies openly weep as you ascend to the heavens in a shower of golden light, never to remember them or come back at all. So when the divine powers that are recalling you suddenly change their minds, and drop you back to continue playing after the credits with all your buddies again, I was so happy to see it happen that I didn’t even care that it didn’t make any sense whatsoever.
Basically the story isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s so well-intentioned that it’s hard not to feel it growing on you. It’s very earnest, full of wide-eyed heart and charm, the spiritual descendant of older tales like The Famous Five or The Magic Faraway Tree.
But without a mechanics it would just be a Japanese soap opera, or the most graphically minimal walking simulator I’ve seen yet. Thankfully, though the gameplay is a little odd, I found myself rather enamoured by it. It’s the Pokémon combat we know and love, but with a new dimension of gameplay added in – which I mean entirely literally. Because although it’s still turn-based, now you have to pay attention to space and positioning in a grid-based system, navigating enemies and paying attention to whether you’re about to walk into pool of lava that’s completely ruining some Magmar’s Feng Shui.
You have to keep all this in mind whilst battling, too. Some attacks will only hit the square directly ahead, some will keep going forward, and one extremely overpowered technique that Charizard knows will roast everybody in the same room as you. And running isn’t a matter of selecting an option on a drop-down box anymore, no way José. Now you just turn and hightail it out of there, with whatever beastie you pissed off following in hot pursuit.
But it’s not perfect, not by any means. I like that the dungeons are randomly generated, keeping players from getting complacent, but I would’ve liked to have seen the same effort put into the monsters occupying them, because fighting the same four enemies over and over gets old quickly. Yes, there’s hundreds of Pokémon programmed into the game, but you never get more than half a dozen showing up in each dungeon at one time. They might get swapped out for different ones as you head deeper into your own hellish labyrinth, but that doesn’t happen often, and I think an opportunity was missed for a proper rogue-like experience.
Which is strange, because the game gets utterly lethal in the late game stages. Those without the proper training will find themselves having a really rough time in the last act, but it’s the late-game optional dungeons that’ll separate the kiddies from the adults, which manage to be slightly harder than a blindfolded game of Dark Souls played with a DDR dance mat.
It’s hard to stay frustrated about it, though. Between missions you come home to Farthing Wood, sip a Ginseng with your best pal Alakazam, and plan where you’re adventuring next, stockpiling on equipment and finding the best missions available. It’s just honest, uncomplicated fun that ramps up naturally as you push forward, with a simple but compelling plot holding it all together.
But Metacritic tells us that Blue Mystery Dungeon scored almost thirty points behind Pokémon X and Y, so what the hell do I know? I’m clearly just some idiot who likes his characters to be relatable, his mechanics to be challenging and his games to be forward-thinking.
What a fool I am.
The pioneer that is the first in the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon franchise is working its hardest to be accepted by its peers, and manages to succeed on most accounts. Imperfect but ultimately lovable, it reaches excellence enough times to earn a place on the Pokémon pedestal… And also to overshadow the failures of later entries like Gates To Infinity. Bleagh.