The formula of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX—a Switch remake that combines the first two Mystery Dungeon games, Blue Rescue Team and Red Rescue Team—is as strangely compelling today as it was when the original games first released, back in 2006. At its heart, the game is a fairly basic dungeon crawler, the kind where you can find yourself grinding for hours without accomplishing much. You play as a human who has mysteriously been turned into a Pokémon, and each dungeon features randomly generated floors, with a mix of items to collect and enemies to fight. You won’t find any puzzles you need to solve, and there is very little strategy outside of picking super effective moves and making sure to heal your party. The remake even has an auto mode, which basically does all the exploration for you—you’ll only need to get involved in picking your team and choosing moves in combat.
It should all be a bit of a snoozefest really, a dull little curiosity that you wouldn’t blink twice at otherwise, but the game finds a way to keep you playing. Every day gives you the chance to explore one dungeon, completing as many missions within as you can before you’re sent home to sleep. Most mornings in the game begin with a new cutscene, introducing you to new Pokémon, each with their own distinct personalities. Gengar is an arrogant and sly character, while Alakazam possesses a commanding air—it’s great. Meanwhile, during the night you’ll sometimes be greeted by a dream, offering small clues to help you unravel the mystery of your character and how you apparently turned from a human into a Pokémon. In fact, the whole game possesses a dreamlike quality, from it’s wonderful pastel art style to the eccentric characters you meet along the way. This daydreamy vibe, combined with the classic principles of recruiting new Pokémon, learning new moves, and evolving, combines to make something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Each time I finish a day and think I’m done, I’m treated to a new cutscene, a new mystery, and I’m back in for “one more go.”
Pokémon can often be the secret sauce for spicing up any game genre. Sprinkle a few cute elementally charged animals into the mix and you’ve already got me more interested than before. More important, though, is that the world of Pokémon has such potential for deep and complex lore that it’s difficult not to be captivated when offered the opportunity to see another side of it. This is why so many of the Pokémon spin-off games end up far better than they have any right to be.
Pokémon Snap, for example, is ostensibly a wildlife photography game—not exactly a hugely popular genre in the world of gaming. I know I wouldn’t be rushing out to buy a game that was purely about snapping pics of 3D modelled animals, especially when I’ve got such easy access to slow motion, 4K, David Attenborough-narrated footage of the animal kingdom. But Pokémon Snap offered players a glimpse into the fictional life of Pokémon in the wild. All we really had before that was some extremely short Pokédex entries: small snippets of information limited in size by the hardware of the Game Boy. What are they doing in the tall grass, when you’re not trying to paralyse them for an easier catch? How do Pokémon interact with each other? Pokémon Snap gave us some answers, and that’s often all a Pokémon fan needs.
Mystery Dungeon tackles this as well, detailing the world of Pokémon as a place where they have lives, run businesses, and form rescue teams together. The main games paint the world of Pokémon with broad strokes, so we look to the spin-off titles to fill in the finer details. Pokémon Ranger takes place on an island with no battles and essentially has you running a wildlife reserve, showing fans that not every corner of the world treats Pokémon in the same way. Pokémon Colosseum introduced us to a land with no wild Pokémon at all, offering a look at a completely different type of ecosystem. And there is a reason that the first live-action Pokémon film was based on the Detective Pikachu game, and not on the core series—the setting of Rhyme City, where Pokémon live and work in harmony with humans, and a central mystery running through the story gave the filmmakers a far more interesting narrative to work with.
After all, mystery has always been at the heart of the monster-battling series. As long as there have been Pokémon games, there have been rumours and unanswered questions, from the infamous Missingno glitch to the quest to find Mew beneath a truck in Vermillion City.
So it is that I keep coming back to the aptly named Mystery Dungeon, a game I’m not even sure I enjoy playing all that much, because it offers an angle on the world of Pokémon that we don’t normally see, and a mystery of a human-turned-Pokémon to solve. Pokémon, as a concept, can make even the most average game more interesting, and any chance to dive further into that world is a compelling reason to give a game a go. This fictional world has such great potential for storytelling, and such a rich selection of creatures, that it can make even dull games shine a little more brightly.