Pokémon Mystery Dungeon on DS/3DS – Gotta Recruit ‘Em All

When it comes to videogame franchises, there is little doubt that Pokémon is the very best, like no-one ever was. Having grossed $92 billion since 1996 it is not only the highest grossing videogame franchise of all time, but also the highest grossing media franchise of all time.

Most people are introduced to the world of Pokémon through the hugely successful main series games which have been released like clockwork every two years since the franchise’s inception. But unsurprisingly for a franchise of this size, there actually exists a vast array of spin-off Pokémon games which are hugely popular in their own rights. Pokémon Trozei, Pokémon Ranger, Pokémon Rumble, Pokémon Colosseum and of course, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, are all examples of spin-off Pokémon games that were unique and successful enough to justify their very own series’ – like franchises within a franchise. The Pokémon ecosystem wouldn’t be the same without them.

Most of the time, spin-off franchises are condemned to live in the shadow of their main-series forefathers, being appreciated mostly by long-standing fans who had already milked all that they could from the mainline games – think the Wario games, Final Fantasy Tactics, Gwent: the Witcher Card Game, etc. However, very occasionally, there have been instances where what started out as a spin-off game can become so well-designed that it starts to outshine even the original series’ they were inspired by. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon is most definitely one such instance.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games outperform the mainline Pokémon releases by most measurable metrics. They have a well-balanced battle system, better characters, more engaging narratives, greater difficulty, less grind and infinitely more replayability than the main series Pokémon games offered even in the glory days of Pokémon Red and Blue. By all accounts, these are better games – which makes it all the more tragic that they don’t get the recognition they deserve, even now, at a time when more people than ever are talking about Pokémon.

I hope the change that. Here is my Super Mega Series Review of every Pokémon Mystery Dungeon title ever released on the handheld DS and 3DS consoles.

What is Pokémon Mystery Dungeon?

The Pokémon Mystery Dungeon franchise is a spin-off series in the Pokémon franchise where, instead of playing as a trainer battling your Pokemon, you play as the Pokémon themselves. The Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games are set in a world where Pokémon exist, for the most part, independently from humans in their own unique societies across the Pokémon World.

Being able to interact with Pokémon as characters and have full-blown conversations with them totally blew my mind as a kid. Coming from the mainline games in which, let’s be honest, Pokémon are just glorified game dogs, playing a Pokémon game in which Pokémon had actual personalities, feelings, hopes and dreams, was nothing short of revolutionary. It painted Pokémon in an entirely new light. Think about it: they built their own functioning societies, with shops, currency, banks, even a postal service. These creatures are sophisticated! Surely any species intelligent enough to create it’s own economy should NOT be cooped up in tiny spherical prisons and forced to compete in blood sports for our amusement.

Ethics aside, the premise of the franchise is to guide your team – the player Pokémon, your partner Pokémon, and up to two other companion Pokémon – through randomly generated “Mystery Dungeons” by battling your way through enemy Pokémon and finding the stairs on each floor. You can use items like berries, seeds and magical orbs to help you, and your Pokémon will gain experience with each enemy Pokémon your team defeats. If any of the Pokémon on your team are defeated, you are automatically transported out of the dungeon and you will lose most of your items and your money.

In many ways, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon follows the same rules as the mainline Pokémon games. For one, the type match-ups still apply, as do status effects, and each Pokémon’s learnsets and abilities are identical to their main series counterparts, making the transition from the mainline games to the Mystery Dungeon franchise a very natural one for Pokémon fans. However, the gameplay is actually far more complex and far more balanced, especially at end-game, than the mainline series. This is mostly owing to the fact that you have multiple Pokémon able to battle each other simultaneously and move around the battlefield instead of having two Pokémon hash it out in one-on-one, turn-based battles. These games might look innocent enough, but Pokémon Mystery Dungeon post-game dungeons can be seriously challenging and required a greater amount of strategy to overcome than the mainline series would ever demand of you.

Though the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games are described as roguelikes, in actuality, they belong to a sub-genre of the roguelike family, aptly named “Mystery Dungeon” games. Mystery Dungeon games are distinguishable from regular roguelikes in that:

  • they are turn-based, playing out similarly to a game of chess, where enemies cannot act until the player acts
  • they feature randomly generated dungeons and enemies

Some very famous franchises have dabbled in the Mystery Dungeon sub-genre, including Torneko’s Great Adventure from the Dragon Quest franchise, which was the first Mystery Dungeon game ever released back in 1993, and Chocobo’s Mysterious Dungeon from the Final Fantasy franchise released in 1997.

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Blue and Red Rescue Team – the one that started it all

The Pokémon Mystery Dungeon franchise was born with the release of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Blue and Red Rescue teams for the Game Boy and Nintendo DS consoles in late 2005/early 2006.

As you might expect from a game developed in the mid-2000s, the script-writing wouldn’t win any awards, the characters are uninspiring at best, but the plot itself features some interesting twists and turns and it clips along at a good pace. The story is centred on the player Pokémon and their partner Pokémon forming a “rescue team” together in an effort to help the Pokémon that have been affected by the recent rise in natural disasters and unravel the mysteries behind why these natural disasters are occurring. It can be completed within 6-7 hours, making it one of the shortest main stories in the franchise. However, in true Pokémon Mystery Dungeon fashion, the end is only the beginning – Pokémon Blue and Red Rescue team has 1.5 times as many post-game dungeons to explore and bosses to defeat as there are in the main game, offering easily 100 hours of content on the whole. The hardest post-game dungeon has 99 floors to grind through!

A lot of the standards for how Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games would play were established with this game – the combat system, the storage system, the job system and most of the items you can use in dungeons haven’t changed for the entire of the franchise’s 15 year lifetime, which makes it an ideal place to start for people looking to to break into the franchise.

Revisiting Blue and Red Rescue team after having played through the later entries in the franchise made me realise that it’s simplicity is its greatest strength. Its stripped back, no-frills design make it easy to pick-up and play, and unlike in future entries, mystery dungeon exploration remains the core focus of the game until the very end – that it is to say 90% of your play time will be spent in a mystery dungeon, which is where the game performs at its best.

However, there are some features and mechanics that benefitted greatly from the quality of life changes made in later entries. For example, the roster of Pokémon available to recruit is bare-bones to say the least – and you are required to spend large sums of gold on purchasing the right “Friend Area” for each Pokémon you want to recruit. This is a huge waste of time, so you’d almost be better not bothering – thankfully recruiting lots of extra Pokémon is entirely optional and sticking with a small SWAT team is a valid option. The money would be better spent on items and TMs anyway.

When all is said and done, though they may lack the scope and complexity gamers have come to expect from videogames in the modern day, Pokémon Blue and Red Rescue team are the true ‘classics,’ representing the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon gameplay in its most pure, unadulterated form – perfect for those who want to experience Pokemon Mystery Dungeon’s humble beginnings, or for old skool Pokemon fans who want to transport themselves back to the days of Generation 3, when Pokemon was about battling and there was nothing more to it.

Whether simplicity is something you appreciate or not, even after 15 years these games still look and sound great. The dungeon designs are fun and colourful, and the funky, chip-tune soundtrack might be one of the game’s greatest assets, particularly the dungeon themes which are so catchy I find myself whistling them absent-mindedly 10 years after I finished playing the game. That’s got to count for something.

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time, Darkness and Sky – the halcyon days

As much as we all loved Pokémon Blue and Red Rescue team, little did we know, Chunsoft hadn’t even reached it’s final form. Only 2 years after the release of Blue and Red Rescue Team, the clouds parted and from the heavens descended Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time and Darkness.

You might think I’m being hyperbolic, but Explorers of Time and Darkness really was an upgrade from Blue and Red Rescue team in every measure, and is still unofficially acknowledged to be the best the franchise has to offer.

The most obvious improvements are to the graphics and sound. The colour palette was softened to make it easier on the eyes, the environments are more detailed and the animation quality is smoother. The digitised instruments used in the soundtrack are clearer and of a noticeably higher quality, with themes that are every bit the earworms Blue and Red Rescue Team’s were.

The second biggest improvement is in the storytelling. Compared to Blue and Red Rescue Team, these games’ storytelling is much more ambitious and engaging, featuring time travel, mystical powers, exploration, 180° plot twists and an inevitable apocalypse. In this game, the player and their partner join a guild of “exploration teams” called Wigglytuff’s Guild – time is mysteriously stopping across the land and it’s up to the Guild to find out why. There’s a lot more to get your teeth into here; these games introduce a broad array of well-written side characters with more established personalities and important roles to play in the story. Explorers of Time and Darkness manage to combine both greater breadth AND greater depth into it’s character-building and storytelling, making for a wholly better experience.

The developers of Explorers of Time and Darkness clearly learned some valuable lessons from the previous game and implemented a variety of quality of life features to streamline some of the more stilted, frustrating elements of Blue and Red Rescue team. The Friend Area system is gone, meaning Pokémon can be recruited from dungeons without needing to meet any prerequisites. Once you’ve recruited a Pokémon, you now have the option to send them straight back to the Guild instead of needing to lead them all the way through the dungeon safely. You can edit your party line-up using the Chimeco bell in the Guild hub instead of having to visit a Friend Area every time you want to bring a party member along to a dungeon. These sound like inconsequential changes but collectively they’re enough to transform the recruitment system from a waste of effort into something truly worthwhile.

The final and most important improvement lies in the small but impactful improvements made to the gameplay. Whereas Blue and Red Rescue team had you choose from a limited selection of rescue, delivery and escort missions (and we all know how much people love escort missions), Explorers of Time and Darkness give the job system some much needed variety by adding completely new types of jobs. The diversification of the job system is easily the greatest enhancement the franchise made to date; my favourite new feature is the bounty board, where you can accept bounties on particularly strong Pokémon who you must hunt down in a dungeon and defeat – sometimes they’ll try to escape from you, others will face you head on in a fight, but in either case it’s much more exciting than schlepping through 15 floors of a dungeon to find a berry someone dropped.

The Pokémon Mystery Dungeon franchise continues the long-standing tradition of releasing multiple editions of what is essentially the same game. Explorers of Sky is to Explorers of Time and Explorers of Darkness what Pokémon Platinum is to Pokémon Diamond and Pokémon Pearl – that is to say that Explorers of Time and Darkness are the original versions of the game with very slight variations between them, whilst Explorers of Sky is the latest, most complete version with some additional content and a variety of new features. I would always recommend playing Explorers of Sky, but unsurprisingly, it fetches a much higher price.

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity – the black sheep

4 years passed since the release of Explorers of Sky before Pokémon Mystery Dungeon made the long-anticipated leap to the third dimension with the release of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity on the 3DS. Unfortunately, it received a very critical reception – and it’s easy to see why. Gates to Infinity was where the franchise went somewhat off track. Every successful franchise eventually tries to branch out into something new, which is sometimes the perfect way to breathe new life into a dying franchise or genre. In the case of Gates to Infinity, however, it was a swing and a miss.

The first problem with Gates to Infinity is ironically the thing that fans were most excited for – Mystery Dungeon’s transition into 3D. I’m not sure why, but something about Pokémon Mystery Dungeon feels like it was made to be played in 2D. Whilst the backgrounds and character models are undeniably more detailed than in previous games, the switch to 3D graphics was jarring and doesn’t seem to fit very well with the Mystery Dungeon aesthetic. In order to accommodate the 3D, the camera angle was switched from a top-down angle to more of a high-neutral angle which I found suited dungeon-exploration poorly – the walls of the dungeon keep getting in the way of seeing everything on screen, and the distances you can see have been reduced to only a few tiles in either direction, making it harder to navigate.

On the subject of the dungeons, whilst I can’t find any concrete evidence for this claim, I am positive that the developers changed the way that Gates to Infinity randomly generates its dungeons. In previous games, dungeons consisted of large rooms connected by short corridors, which worked well as your team could afford to spread out across the room. However in Gates to Infinity, the vast majority of dungeons were nothing more than extremely long corridors with a few tiny rooms. There was rarely ever enough space to come out of single-file, turning the combat from a tactical group battle to a one-on-one slog fest. I can only attribute this to a change in the game’s dungeon generation algorithm. Take a look at the below pictures to see what I mean, with Blue Rescue Team on the left and Gates to Infinity on the right.

It was obvious that dungeon exploration was certainly not Gates to Infinity’s forte – which in itself is a huge problem – but the game’s story also threw somewhat of a curve ball. Previously Mystery Dungeon games used the concept of “rescue teams” and later “exploration teams” as a solid foundation for their story-telling; the fundamental underlying premise of these games was to help Pokémon trapped in mystery dungeons or explore uncharted mystery dungeons, and the actual narrative branched out from those core objectives. In Gates to Infinity, there are no exploration teams, rescue teams or teams of any kind – the story is instead centred around the player and their partner Pokémon building a “Pokémon Paradise” and in an effort to do so, they explore some mystery dungeons to find items and building materials. It seems odd to me for a game with “Mystery Dungeon” in the title to have very little to do with actually exploring mystery dungeons – dungeon exploration is supposed to be the beating heart of the franchise, but here, every 5 minutes of dungeon exploration is offset by 15 minutes of wading through endless dialogue and filler activities.

Technically, building the “Pokémon Paradise” is not the only narrative arch in the game, it is simply the one the player is introduced to first. Later on, it is revealed that the actual premise of the game is to journey to a mysterious, previously uncharted land known as the “Bittercold” – but this is only revealed after a solid 10-12 hours worth of gameplay. Try as I might, I cannot figure out why the designers chose to tell the story in this way. What sense is there in making the player slog through 10 hours of what amounts to busy-work before revealing the actual premise of the game? That only succeeds in making me feel like I’ve wasted 10 hours of my time. Were the writers making the story up as they went along or something?

The building of the “Pokémon Paradise” actually refers to Gates to Infinity’s newest and most original feature that sets it apart from the rest of the franchise – the base-building. Gates to Infinity allows the player to build a variety of utilities using materials gathered from Mystery Dungeons. You can build: specialist shops selling orbs, TMs or berries, dojos to power up certain types of moves, fields for growing items and also stalls for mini-games like a lottery, Beartic Slide and Starmie’s Sunken Treasure which award items daily. You can upgrade these utilities and even change their colour.

Whether or not these base-building features appeal to you is a matter of personal preference – personally I found these features to be the parts of Gates to Infinity I liked the most, even if they aren’t really in keeping with the franchise’s style.

Unfortunately though, aside from the base-building features which I found innovative and interesting, the rest of the game fell far short of the quality fans expect from the franchise. It is clear that the game was intended to add a quirky new twist to the franchise, but in reality, it was one step forward and five steps back, with the majority of the changes made turning out to be half-baked, poorly executed or simply nonsensical. Like many players, I was crushed to find that the designers mis-fired in such a spectacular fashion especially after we were all still riding the highs of Explorers of Sky, but I am sure some people won’t agree with me. This is the only title in the franchise that you can (and perhaps even should) skip.

Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon – a step in the right direction

In 2016, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon returned to the 3DS with the release of Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon. Even though Generation 6 is my all-time favourite generation of Pokémon, I was so disappointed by Gates to Infinity that I decided not to pick up Super Mystery Dungeon upon it’s release – my fragile heart just couldn’t take another disappointing Mystery Dungeon title, especially not one that would soil the good name of my beloved Generation 6. I returned to the game in February this year so I could finally lay my Pokemon Mystery Dungeon journey to rest.

The most obvious improvement comes in Super Mystery Dungeon’s graphics, particularly in the mystery dungeons themselves which are far more detailed and impressive than the barebones dungeon designs of Gates to Infinity. They have also fixed the camera angle, making it much, much easier to see everything onscreen properly, however the short-range visibility is still a problem here.

Super Mystery Dungeon is characterised mostly by it’s rolling back of the changes made in Gates to Infinity and a return to the classic Mystery Dungeon recipe. Thankfully, the dreadful changes to the dungeon generation formula have been fixed, restoring dungeons to their former glory. Some intriguing new features have been added in order to expand on the dungeon-crawling experience. This includes, for the first time in the franchise’s history, a new type of item – wands, which can induce status effects and can be used multiple times – and a powerful group attack called an “alliance.”

Super Mystery Dungeon also introduces Looplets and Emeras, which are essentially bracelets in which special jewels can be fitted to offer bonuses, buffs and abilities. You find these jewels lying around in Mystery Dungeons, and the ones you collect will disappear when you exit the dungeon. This is the first new feature introduced since Red and Blue Rescue Team that has been specifically inspired by the rogue-like genre. Looplets and Emeras function identically to boons in Hades, designed to make each run through a mystery dungeon slightly different from the last. It is interesting to see the Mystery Dungeon franchise finally acknowledge itself as a true member of the roguelike family.

It must be said that the writing in Super Mystery Dungeon is the best the franchise has to offer. There are some genuinely humorous moments throughout the story, which is a welcome change for a franchise with a history of predictable, uninspiring dialogue. Unfortunately, however engaging the dialogue may be, that doesn’t change the fact that there is all together too much of it. The sheer number of cutscenes and long un-skippable segments of dialogue is almost too much to bear – at times I felt like I was watching a movie instead of playing a game. Like Gates to Infinity, Super Mystery Dungeon fails to keep dungeon exploration at the heart of its gameplay, opting instead to treat mystery dungeons more like mini-games offered as a reward for having slogged through an hour of dialogue.

The story itself is undeniably much longer and more complex than any that came before it, but it crawls along at a snails pace; not just because of the overabundance of dialogue, but because it was simply designed that way. The player and their partner Pokémon join the Expedition Society (which serves as a reincarnation of Wigglytuff’s Guild from Explorers of Sky) to try and find out why legendary Pokémon across the land are being turned to stone. An interesting concept, but by the time I joined the Expedition Society, I had already logged 10 hours of gameplay. Making players wade through 10 hours of filler content before they can access the true main story is becoming a worrying trend in the Mystery Dungeon franchise which I hope is nothing more than a short-lived phase.

Overall, Super Mystery Dungeon is certainly a step in the right direction in the journey to rediscover what makes this franchise great. That being said, there is clearly some way to go, and it’s frustrating to see the same mistakes being made over and over again. Unfortunately, despite the positive strides taken here, I can’t recommend Super Mystery Dungeon to new fans of the franchise or long-standing fans either – I wouldn’t want potential fans to get the wrong idea about what Pokémon Mystery Dungeon feels like to play, and veterans of the franchise will just wish they were playing one of the earlier games instead.

Videogames Make Me Happy concludes… that the future of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon is uncertain

Perhaps last year’s release of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX – a remake of Blue Rescue Team – tells us that Spike Chunsoft are just as frustrated as we are with the franchise’s inability to hit the mark reliably. 2021 will likely come and go without so much as a peep regarding the future of the franchise.

I can only hope that the Pokémon company takes the critical backlash from their most recent two releases to mean that there’s a huge audience out there with high expectations for the franchise, not that there is no audience at all – it would be tragic for the franchise to fizzle out and die especially when a wave of Pokémon fever is sweeping the world once again.

In the meantime, it’s time to dust off those DS Lites and take a trip back in time to when Pokémon Mystery Dungeon was the fresh, innovative and endearing franchise it was always destined to be.

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