[5 June 2008]
With colorful pocket monsters splashed on airplanes, theme parks, and Thanksgiving parade balloons, the media juggernaut that is Pokémon continues its worldwide expansion. Video games—where it all began for Pikachu and friends—remain a pivotal part of the Pokémon success story, and the latest arrivals in the Pokémon gaming universe are a pair of dungeon-crawlers: Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness.
Like its big corporate brother Mario, the Pokémon franchise has evolved into a designer label of sorts, with the Pokémon brand liberally applied to all sorts of games that bear little resemblance to the original “catch ‘em all” lite-RPGs. Over the years, Nintendo has managed to successfully leverage Pokémon‘s wide popularity by merging the franchise’s iconic aesthetic with other gameplay systems. Sometimes this has worked very well (Pokémon Puzzle League); other times, not so well (Pokémon Dash).
Explorers of Time and Explorers of Darkness (essentially the same game with only trivial roster differences) continue this series of odd bedfellows by uniting the Pokémon universe with one of the oldest and most brutally difficult game genres, the roguelike. Developed by Chunsoft, makers of the Mystery Dungeon series for over 15 years, these games attempt to apply a bright, sparkly Pokémon coat of paint to a stout and unyielding gameplay mechanic that has frustrated and delighted gamers since the ASCII days of Rogue and Nethack. It is, unfortunately, not a match made in heaven.
Roguelikes appeal to serious gamers because, not in spite of, the unique demands they place on the player. Die in a dungeon and you lose everything, including your level status and hit points, and start from the beginning. Very tough, but very simple. This high degree of difficulty—and the unpredictable nature of randomly generated dungeons—focus the player on strategy and resource management to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Plot, character progression, narrative twists and turns…well, who needs ‘em? In a game like Shiren the Wanderer (also made by Chunsoft), you have plenty to do just staying alive.
The Pokémon universe insists on other things. In Explorers of Time/Darkness, you’re an amnesiac (of course) washed ashore. You must make friends. You must figure out who you are. You must navigate the labyrinthine and utterly unnecessary time-traveling plot to find Rainbow Stoneships and Temporal Towers. You must learn the Dimensional Scream. And you must do all this inside a decidedly Pokémon universe of familiar cuddly monsters. None of this bears on your dungeon exploring—the core gameplay experience—in any meaningful ways. It’s all Pokémon window dressing. Instead of incorporating these elements into the game mechanics and narrative, à la Chrono Trigger, here it’s mostly just stuff to do in between dungeons.
While the Pokémon universe makes its presence felt outside the dungeons, inside it’s business as usual for Chunsoft, unfortunately. Severely limited objects, tilesets, and design features make one dungeon look just like the next, which is a real shame given the drab nature of most roguelike dungeons. While many of the Pokémon touches don’t add up to much in these games, it would have been nice to see a bit of genre evolution in terms of dungeon design, with even a few Pokémon flourishes thrown in. While it may be unfair to expect randomly generated dungeons to approach the kinds of visual variety found in Zelda games, it’s a shame more of the Pokémon aesthetic couldn’t be carried through inside the dungeons.
Playing a roguelike with a safety net need not be all about limitations, however. The game offers an SOS feature which enables the player to send out a help message via Wi-Fi after dying (well, actually fainting…this is Pokémon after all). A rescuer who receives the message can enter the dungeon and save you, protecting your accumulated possessions and money.
But there is a hitch, and it’s a big one. You may only call on friends with whom you have exchanged friend codes. Unlike Shiren the Wanderer, which employs a similar system, but allows anyone with a Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection to respond, Explorers of Time/Darkness effectively nullifies the usefulness of this system for most people. Call me a hermit, but the chances of me registering a roster of potential rescuer friends who also own and play this game is remote at best. Another missed opportunity. I would love the chance to play as a rescuer, and I feel certain this would motivate me to unlock dungeons I might not otherwise attempt, simply to make myself eligible as a rescuer in that location.
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time/Darkness is a game hybrid that fails to assemble anything new or special from its disparate collection of parts. Pokémon fans are likely to find the repetitive dungeon exploring dull and, as the game wears on, increasingly pointless. Fans of roguelike games are likely to find the Pokémon trappings an unwelcome oversimplification of a proven gameplay formula. Neither group need worry, however. Shiren the Wanderer will more than satisfy the devoted dungeon crawlers. And another new Pokémon game is as inevitable as the turning of the earth.