Saturday, October 07, 2006


Pokemon Mystery Dungeon

Ah, autumn. It's my favorite time of year. It's traditionally a time of dormancy, for everything to curl up and get ready for a winter snooze. But for me, autumn brings renewal. It's a time for my brain to cool down, to snuggle up with sweatpants and sweatshirts, eat candy apples, watch the leaves turn colors, and enjoy lots of bright, clear days before the sky turns to gray and we all get snowed in. And, inexplicably, my mind turns to thoughts of wandering through underground caverns, slaying monsters, and searching for golden riches. There's something about the feel and the smell of autumn that makes me work up an appetite for a good dungeon crawler.

'Tis the Season

I must have been introduced to Dungeons & Dragons in the fall. A friend of mine showed me the game when I was in middle school and took me through my first adventure. It was brief; the first monster I met handed my ass to me, and I didn't feel much like trying again. Still, something about it stuck with me -- the funny-shaped dice, the miles of charts and graphs and tables and character sheets, it poured like warm water across my geeky brain and seduced me with sinful, dirty thoughts.

I received my own Basic Set shortly thereafter and tried, with no degree of success, to run a game of my own. Still, from time to time, I'd pick up new rule books just to leaf through them, and even today I'll glance through the rules of RPG systems with no intention of ever actually playing them, just enjoying the thought of getting a bunch of nerds around a table and throwing tetrahedrons around.

The major epiphany, of course, was that people were making computer games that mimiced a good dungeon crawl. My first dungeon crawl was, appropriately enough, Moraff's Revenge. Ah, the hours I used to spend in those black and red mazes, carefully plotting my course lest I fall through a trap floor into an area too dangerous for my experience level, hauling out huge troves of precious metals and enchanted weapons. I tried the expanded Moraff's World, but it didn't have that pure simplicity that Revenge had.

There were other games, of course. Hero Quest consumed a lot of my teenage tabletop gaming time. I've dabbled from time to time in Nethack, but found it to be too involved for my tastes. I played Phantasy Star Online for a while, as well as various other real-time dungeon hacks, but I missed the turn-based gameplay and grid-based worlds. I've played some of the Final Fantasy RPGs (and those clearly inspired by it), but they don't quite fill that niche that I'm looking for. And, being a geek, I've programmed countless games myself over the years, some of which I've actually rather enjoyed.

Still, for too long now, I've been looking for something that can give me the feeling I got when I first clicked with Moraff's Revenge.

The Rise and Fall of the Pocket Monsters

I don't watch Japanese culture all that closely, but Pokemon didn't take me by surprise. I knew it was coming.

I had been warned.

Somehow, Nintendo had gotten ahold of my mailing address and deemed it necessary to put a portion of the budget for their enormous marketing blitz toward sending me a promotional video that explained the wonders of Pokemon. I was impressed from the very start. Those were the days of the black and white Game Boy, you see, and new games that promised any degree of depth were few and far between. I have to admit, I was tickled by the idea of a game that was all about catching wild monsters and training them to fight.

I got the red version on launch day and spent the next few weeks engrossed in it, collecting scores and scores of pocket monsters. I appreciated the game partly for its incidental similarities to Earthbound, but mostly because it made me feel like I was in another world, filled with strange and fantastic creatures and a million discoveries waiting to be made. It really did put me in the role of a field researcher, hunting down, categorizing, and recording over a hundred different species. I eventually got the blue version as well, but I never quite managed to catch them all.

After years of weird and sometimes unfathomable spinoffs (Pokemon Snap anyone?), we finally got the true sequel in the Gold and Silver versions. And with a real-time clock, the world of Pokemon became a living, breathing thing like no other game had ever managed to accomplish before. With Kanto and Johto side by side, the game world felt much more complete and "real". The number of things to find and do was just sick. I've reset my red and blue games countless times to play through the adventure again, but I've never reset my Gold version -- I just never felt it was necessary.

With the Game Boy Advance necessarily came a new generation of Pokemon. Somehow, the ball was dropped. Real-time play was missing. The world was shrunk back down to one country. The game got bogged down with a lot of useless, annoying, and undeveloped ideas. The series, I felt, had finally jumped the shark.

No, I'm not interested in the Diamond or Pearl versions. When game developers lose sight of what made their original concept great, they don't easily get it back.

So what happens when a new direction for an aging game series meets the revival of a classic genre that's been all but lost to the ages?

A truly magnificent game. And that's what Pokemon Mystery Dungeon is. (See, took me a while, but I got to the game I'm actually reviewing here.)

Friends in Need

A strong premise makes any game better, and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon -- Red Rescue Team for Game Boy Advance and Blue Rescue Team for DS -- has a doozy. You begin the game as a human being who's been transformed into a Pokemon, and you've lost most of your memories of life as a human. What's more, you find yourself in a world where there's no humans -- just Pokemon living together in unrealistic, idyllic harmony. However, natural disasters are disrupting the balance of the world, and no sooner are you discovered in the woods by another Pokemon (who becomes your inseparable partner for most of the game) than you're recruited to start a Rescue Team. Rescue Teams are bands of Pokemon who team up to save other Pokemon that have been hurt or lost and clobber lots and lots of other Pokemon that have become mean and feral as a result of these natural disasters.

So right off the bat, this game appeals to me on several levels. Yes, I love the idea of being this cute little Mudkip and just cuting the living hell out of everything. But more importantly, the sense of purpose here is terrific. I'm not just a Pokemon -- I'm a Pokemon with a job. And not just any job -- a job I love. I get to wander around mazes, grab cool treasures that are lying around on the ground, and beat the pinecones out of anything that gets near me. It's a much-needed change of pace from previous Pokemon games, with their focus on catching new Pokemon and beating Gym leaders. You can still "catch 'em all" if you really want -- all 386 Pokemon from Red/Blue, Gold/Silver, and Ruby/Saphhire are in the game, and all of them are eligible candidates to join your Rescue Team -- but the real point of the game is all about saving the world one Pokemon at a time.

There's an overall storyline to the game, and plenty of plot-specific events (and to describe them would be to spoil them), but the real value of the game comes from its random missions. The game town has a bulletin board, and different rescue missions are randomly generated and posted to it. Some missions will be delivered to the mailbox outside your house. So if, like me, you're fascinated with the idea of living the life of a Pokemon hero, you'll have an endless supply of missions to attempt -- rescue missions, escort missions, delivery missions, and retrieval missions. What's more, all dungeon floor layouts are randomly generated -- there's always something new waiting to be explored. Forwarding the main story will give you access to new areas with harder opponents, but for the most part, you'll have the freedom to take things as you want to.

And luckily for me, the gameplay behind the premise is just as marvelous.

A Little Bit of Nethack

When I tried to run my Dungeons & Dragons games oh so long ago, I played without miniatures, partly because I couldn't afford the nice ones and partly because it just seemed like too much of a hassle for me. I ran combat more or less like an early Final Fantasy game -- it was assumed that everybody was within striking distance of everybody else, nobody got in each other's way, etc.

But then I made the transition to Hero Quest, and it was like seeing the world for the first time. Planning combat around movement rates and attack ranges gave it such a degree of depth that I began to wonder how I'd managed without it.

Most video game RPGs are a disappointment in that respect. I liked Final Fantasy Tactics Advance until it became clear that the developers loved their gameplay-restricting Law system too much for their own good. My best experience for tactical turn-based combat in an RPG was on the Game Boy Advance version of Dungeons & Dragons: Eye of the Beholder -- excellent for its implementation of D&D movement and combat rules, but disappointing in just about every other way imaginable.

Of course, on the other hand you have RPGs where combat is in real time, or the turn-based combat is hidden under a thick coat of real-time action (as in Neverwinter Nights). While I can applaud developers for making advances in how we play our RPGs, it just doesn't sit quite right with me. Basically, when I get a dungeon crawl, I want a board game, not an action game.

So I was nearly turned off by the people who described Mystery Dungeon as being "nearly real-time", and especially the reviews that mentioned how your other party members were completely AI-controlled. That sounds a bit too much like Final Fantasy Adventure, a game that gives me nightmares to this very day for its unsatisfying battle system, stupid AI companions, and a completely unfair puzzle that made me swear off of it part of the way into the game.

Lucky me, I took the plunge anyway. And what I found was what I'd been missing for so many years.

The gameplay immediately reminded me of Nethack. Every level is essentially a giant gameboard, and your party members (identified by a small circle underneath them) and all of the "wild" Pokemon in the game are pawns on that gameboard. Every action you take -- whether it's an attack, using an item, or moving forward one square -- counts as a turn. You take your turn, the AI takes a turn for the rest of your party members, and then every Pokemon on the level gets to take its turn. Exploration and combat are tactical, with no artificial in-game distinctions between the two.

The similarities to Nethack don't end there. All of the money (poke) and items on a level start out lying around on the ground. Walk over something, and you'll pick it up. Wild Pokemon can also pick up items they find around the level, and some of them can use them too. Food is another important gameplay element. You have to bring (or find!) a sufficient supply of food for your dungeon explorations. Every action you take ticks down on your Belly score, and when it hits zero, you start losing hit points until you collapse from hunger.

And, of course, there's the AI party members. In Nethack, you had an animal companion. In Mystery Dungeon, you can have as many as three different pocket monsters following you around on your adventures. While I was a bit apprehensive about a game that wouldn't let me control every member of my party, I found the AI to be satisfactory. (And I can even see it as being a mark in the game's favor -- having to direct every action for all four Pokemon could have gotten cumbersome after a while.) There are scores of options that you can use to tweak your party members' aggressiveness and behavior, and they can be modified at will, even on a turn-by-turn basis if necessary. For example, as I approach a boss battle, I will tell my Charmander companion to Go After Enemies, to only use his special moves, and to ignore Tackle and just concentrate on the fire-type move Ember that the boss is weak against. This can lead to some minor annoyances -- exploring a dungeon and my Charmander starts wandering away because I forgot to tell him to start ignoring enemies again -- but these are just as easily fixed.

Thankfully, the game isn't as complex as Nethack. It's essentially Nethack Lite -- the game for people who like the dungeon crawling gameplay, but just can't be bothered to learn the nuances of the game. All the fun, none of the over-reaching simulation.

A Little Bit of Pokemon

Of course, the main Pokemon series has always been a turn-based RPG, so it's not too much of a stretch to adapt it to this new gameplay paradigm. As in the original series, Pokemon can learn a total of four moves, and you can add to their repetoire either by leveling them up or using a Technical Machine that you find in a dungeon. Elemental type matchups are still a major part of the game -- every Pokemon has an elemental type or two, with strengths and weaknesses against other types. Evolution is still an option, but it doesn't become available until much later in the game.

And each version of the game has 381 different Pokemon wandering around in the wild. By transfering the 5 Pokemon that are unique to either version (you knew they were going to make you do some trading, didn't you?) you can have a complete roster of 386 different types of Pokemon. And every single one of them can be recruited as a member of your team. Yes, even the legendary Pokemon. Yes, even Mew, Celebi, and Jirachi. Go ahead. Just try and catch them all this time around. Recruiting new Pokemon is as simple as defeating them in the wild, but it's not always easy. There are ways to increase your chances of making a good impression on a wild Pokemon that you just beat the snot out of -- a leader with a high level who deals the last blow at short range is one way -- but some of them will be quite elusive indeed. This game is a Pokemon-catcher's dream come true.

And much to my delight, the developers weren't happy to simply copy and paste Pokemon moves from the original series to this game. Many of the moves work slightly differently in this game thanks to the tactical style of battles. Ability-changing moves like Growl usually affect every opposing Pokemon in a room, and a few moves like Flamethrower and Quick Attack can be used from a distance, affecting any Pokemon in your line of sight. You can also opt to take a weak, non-elemental "basic" attack. Unlike the moves a Pokemon learns, you don't need any PP to do a basic attack -- great if you want to save your strongest moves for the bottom of a 99-floor dungeon. With all of the strategic possibilities, I can't imagine going back to the boring old one-on-one system.

A Little Bit of Animal Crossing

With its emphasis on day-to-day life and finding adventure without an overimposing storyline to guide you, you'll find lots of parallels to the appeal of Animal Crossing in this game. The depth to the game is unmatched. I picked up the Official Strategy Guide and took a glance through its whopping 192 pages. The number of hidden events and side quests you can tease out of this game is absolutely sick. The casual player may never find half the stuff that's packed into this game and still be completely happy with the seemingly bottomless wealth of things to find, tasks to complete, and Pokemon to befriend and evolve.

And it gets better. When Animal Crossing debutted on the Gamecube, an online community sprung up around it even though it couldn't be played over the internet. This is because the game let players generate passwords that would let them trade items with other people from around the world.

It's the same thing all over again with Pokemon Mystery Dungeon.

First of all, every mission that you find in your game -- whether it comes in your mailbox or it's posted on the bulletin board in town -- has a password associated with it called "Wonder Mail". You can post this password online and someone else can pick it up and put it in their game to play the exact same mission with the same objectives and reward.

Now that's fine and all, but what's even better is that players from around the world can help each other out in the main quest. If you're defeated in a dungeon, you normally lose all of your money and quite a few of your carried items. To avoid this fate, the game gives you the option to send out an SOS to other rescue teams from around the world. The game gives you a password. You post it to a website where other players meet. Someone else enters that password into their game, and your party shows up in their game, waiting to be rescued. When they rescue you, they send you an A-OK password. You enter it into your game, and presto! You come back to life exactly where you left off, all of your items intact, and all of your party members completely healed. You should, of course, send them a Thank You password to show your appreciation -- you can even send them an item that you have in storage.

This game gives you options out the wazoo -- you can make a connection with other players of the game like never before. Passwords are interchangable between the Blue and Red versions. If you're playing together locally, two DS versions can exchange information wirelessly with no passwords, and two GBA versions can exchange information through a link. A DS and GBA version can link together by sticking them in either end of a DS. It's surprising how little the feature is played up -- perhaps even more than the original Pokemon games, this is a game that encourages players to get together. Cooperatively, not competitively.

A Rant About Video Game Reviewers Disguised as a Section of My Review

So how does the gaming community in general embrace a game that so inspires me to sing its praises?

"A general dungeon run (which is 95% of the game) is about as painfully boring as can be. My Pokemon often ended up with nicknames like 'ThisSucks' or 'Ugh'." -- Planet Gamecube

"This style of gameplay certainly has its following, as ChunSoft has been doing this type of game for years. But its implementation in Pokemon Mystery Dungeon hasn't evolved a whole lot to provide enough variety that'll sustain its extensive storyline." -- IGN

"Lovers of all things Pokémon are bound to be disappointed by Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, as are those looking for a role-playing game to play on their preferred Nintendo handheld." -- Gamespot

"Like most spin-off titles, Mystery Dungeon fails to capture the spirit and replay incentives that made the core products so irresistible to gamers of all ages." -- Gamepro

Yeah, I know. They're entitled to their opinion. I just wish they weren't so wrong.

But hey, that's what I've got Electric Dilintia for. Finally, the record can be set straight as I carve indelibly in stone the proclamation that Pokemon Mystery Dungeon is, in fact, the bee's knees and radical dude. I will probably never need another dungeon crawl, not ever again for as long as I live. Portable and infinitely replayable, just the way I like it. Thanks Chun Soft!


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