In 2020, Nintendo and The Pokemon Company got the fanbase riled up when a new Pokemon Direct was announced. What could it have possibly been about? After all, Pokemon Sword and Shield, the franchise’s marquee new adventures, had just come out in November 2019. Turns out, plans were already in place for DLC expansions. But beyond that, a remake of the original Pokemon Mystery Dungeon was announced. That came before the main event, since it’s kind of obscure, relatively. Many fans won’t care, but they should. Here’s why.
Pokemon is one of those properties you can fit in any space if the creators try hard enough. There are puzzle games, pinball games, card games, and stupid mobile strategy games nobody likes. There are also weird spin-off RPGs, even though the main series is also an RPG. One game sees Pokemon crossed over in the world of Nobunaga’s Ambition. Another game, which is actually a series of its own, takes Pokemon into the randomly-generated depth of the Mystery Dungeon. And boy howdy, do I love these friggin’ games.
What’s a Mystery Dungeon? Put down the shooty-bang war sims for a minute and I’ll tell you. If you know what’s good already, bear with me for a paragraph. Before “roguelikes” and especially “roguelites” really became cool things in the greater gaming space, there was a small movement leading up to the former. Most of this effort was either in the super nerdy scene or from Japan, the country that Really Likes Wizardry. Mystery Dungeon games are simple, turn-based RPGs that see players trying to get through randomly-generated dungeons. Failure boots you out of a dungeon and, in some cases, resets your progress almost entirely.
While popular in Japan, these games didn’t really take off in the west. There were a few attempts that are considered niche cult hits, such as Azure Dreams or Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon 2 for the PlayStation. Even the Digimon series snuck in Mystery Dungeon elements with Digimon World 2 at the height of that series’ popularity over here. But between the progress-wasting fail states, weird isometric turn-based gameplay, and simple combat with tons of random elements, the less hardened gamers of North America struggled. But thanks to Pokemon, here we are.
Pokemon Mystery Dungeon hit the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS just as the former was sunsetting and the latter was coming into its own. It was split into red and blue versions, just like the original Pokemon classics, and featured a few minor differences. That was true Pokemon style, there. Also, instead of punishing players at every opportunity for messing up or… just for fun, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon allowed for stable progress. And not only did you keep your levels and other progress indicators if you died, you could also recruit Pokemon and build little teams. These games took scary, hardcore mechanics, dressed them up in cute Pokemon clothes, and made the genre a modest hit.
Several sequels later, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon seemed to stall out a bit. Roguelikes became cool, and Chunsoft (developer of the actual, branded Mystery Dungeon titles) merged with Spike and seemed to focus more on visual novels and other strange projects. But just as it seemed like the series had gone quiet, now we have Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX coming to the Switch, taking the GBA-based original and blowing it up with HD, 3D visuals and a new art style that makes all the models look (sort of) hand-painted. It isn’t a sequel, but it does feel like there’s only so much Pokemon Mystery Dungeon could do that it hasn’t already. A remake of the original, with new Pokemon options, awesome visuals, and more is the perfect way to gauge current interest, or simply see the series off in style. Either way works for me, as plenty of other options exist, and we don’t need Pokemon to sell unproven genre work anymore.