It sounds patronizing, but the original Mystery Dungeon games were beautiful in a messy sort of way. They were these weird, heartfelt, scrappy, unbalanced, and earnest games that felt like the first fresh idea in Pokemon in a long time. It presented a world free of humans yet filled with humanity; in which Pokemon made their own simple civilization and lived in placid, Winnie the Pooh harmony with each other.
So the announcement of Pokemon Mystery Dungeon Rescue Team DX (an apocalyptically bad title, by the way) is a big deal for me. It's a remake of the first generation of Mystery Dungeon with all-new visuals and a bit more Nintendo polish. I loved the originals—in fact, I consider Blue Rescue Team to be the best Pokemon game ever—so consider me invested. Maybe too invested.
For those of you who don't know, Mystery Dungeon is a Pokemon spin-off in which you play the world's only human, who is turned into a Pokemon as the game starts and sent to a land inhabited exclusively by the little critters. Now trapped in a strange world and a stranger body, it's up to you to work out what’s happened and how it relates to a series of strange natural disasters around the world. The actual plot isn’t complicated in the slightest; the game can barely be bothered to explain half its ideas, including why there are dungeons full of enemies in the first place. It hand-waves something about Pokemon going wild because of the disasters, then quickly shuffles you along in the hope you won't bring it up again.
The actual meat-and-potatoes gameplay is a distant cousin of standard Pokemon combat, similar, yet very different. Like Mew and Mewtwo, or Mimikyu and every nightmare you ever had as a child. It's turn-based battling, yes, but redesigned for grid-tile movement and long-term roguelike exploration. All your missions take place in the titular Mystery Dungeons; procedurally-generated labyrinths which you explore while fighting off other Pokemon, hoarding equipment and completing mission objectives. Between expeditions you come home, stock up on supplies and catch up with your friends, then decide where you're headed next before journeying out into wilderness with a couple of party members at your back.
The original Mystery Dungeon games were famously difficult, to an often frustrating extent, with late-game dungeons that often felt a bit more dependent on luck than skill in a lot of cases. As part of the remake remit, the whole thing has been tinkered with to make it a little easier. Overall, it's a little more balanced and fairer. It’s not perfectly level—any Pokemon with a long-distance, decently-powerful attack is still a legendary in all but name—but it’s a lot better than it was. Most problems get solved straight away by giving all the starters a wide range of moves types, as well as encouraging players to customize themselves and their team more extensively than before. If a boss was proving impossible in the previous release, now you can go back home and swap round TMs, teammates, and tactics until you come up with a winning combo, making the whole endeavor a bit less grind-focused.
Yet even despite all this, Mystery Dungeon still has some real challenges within, encouraging some proper thought about strategy and build. Those of you who were used to Sword and Shield holding your hand like a fussy mother might be a bit taken aback by a game that’ll kill you in a couple of hits if you’re not careful, but those who enjoy a more robust challenge will find something to appreciate in the gameplay. Which is good, because you probably won’t get it from the music.
This was a surprise for me. I remembered the Blue and Red Mystery Dungeon music being really good, and it still is... for a while. Problem is, the game doesn’t have that extensive a soundtrack, and it wasn’t long before I was stuffing a podcast into my ears just for something new to listen to. It’s a shame that the level of love and attention that’s been put into recreating the graphics hasn’t gone into expanding the tune list or making the whole thing sound a bit less shrill. Mystery Dungeon used Migraine! It's horribly effective!
The two areas in which the game really stands out are the visuals, which have all been rebuilt for the Switch, and the characters, which haven't changed at all. I’ll admit I made an involuntary squealing noise when I saw the new watercolor aesthetic at the Nintendo Direct reveal, which makes it look like the whole game was pulled from the pages of a child’s storybook. I didn’t make that early Winnie The Pooh reference lightly; the whole thing feels like it’s planted in the middle ground between the Hundred Acre Wood, Studio Ghibli, and Wind in the Willows.
A big part of that is the story, and that's where we need to make something clear: the gameplay of Mystery Dungeon, when it works, is still only about a B or a B+ at best. It's the story and narrative that make the whole game truly great, an epic of friendship, tragedy, and perseverance through difficult times. The actual mechanics of the plot might be vague nonsense, but the emotional core is Brock-solid, affecting often to the point of tears. Looking back on it now, I can't help but get flavours of Undertale in the way it's written at times.
And yet I can't help but feel here like the money that's gone into rebuilding it might almost be detrimental. A game about being the underdog, about fighting for everything you have, and how thought and intelligence is more important than strength… Well, it all seems a bit strange when filtered through a bigger budget. It's no dealbreaker, not by a long shot, but big cinematic cutscenes of legendary pokemon thundering through the skies? It feels like it's missing the point of what made the originals great. Blue and Red Mystery Dungeon took the increasingly-tired Pokemon formula and gave it a shot in the arm, recontextualizing the mechanics and the world from the ground up while not being afraid to take risks along the way. DX doesn't really have anything like that same level of ambition, content merely to present the same game in a prettier, cleaner package.
DX is definitely a good game, though with a few asterisks added along the way. I do think some of the ramshackle charm of the originals are lost in the pursuit of all this polish, and the game doesn't quite go so far as to reinvent itself, but perhaps that was inevitable with a remake (and especially a Nintendo remake). Yet there’s still this worn, warm heart at the center of it all, one that no amount of shine can obscure. Sometimes it feels like I'm one of the only people who cares about Mystery Dungeon, but after playing it through, all I can say is... how could I not?
Though still imperfect, Mystery Dungeon more than makes up for its stumblings through one of the most sweet-hearted stories in the Pokemon franchise, backed by a solid dungeoneering system and a gorgeous aesthetic. If all Pokemon games were as forward-thinking and adventurous as this one, who knows what the franchise could be by now?