As the one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, Pokémon has naturally branched out past its RPG roots over the 20+ years it’s been around. While the main series games have generally stuck to past traditions, the various side games under the series’ belt have been refreshing changes of pace for fans and, in some cases, have allowed people previously uninterested in the franchise to enjoy it for the first time. While some of these spin-offs inevitably fall into obscurity, others become so successful that they go on to spawn an entire side series of their own. Today, we’ll be looking at the first game in the most beloved and prolific side series in the franchise: Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Red & Blue Rescue Team.
Developed by Chunsoft and released on November 17, 2005, this roguelike sees you and your team of Pokémon adventuring through procedurally generated dungeons with the goal of rescuing fellow Pokémon in danger. Despite the simple premise, these games manage to keep themselves engaging due to their amazing soundtrack and interesting story, as well as the presence of iconic main series mechanics and features. With over 300 recruitable Pokémon, the player will have reason to keep exploring hours after the credits roll. Every game in the PMD series takes place in a world filled with only Pokémon, which allows its towns and settlements to take on their own unique flair that’s completely separate from the main series.
Rescue Team begins with the player waking up in an open field with no memory of who they are only to realize that they’ve transformed into a Pokémon that the game chose for you through a quiz before the start of the game. After meeting their partner (whose species is chosen by the player) and agreeing to help them save a Caterpie, the two form a Rescue Team with the hopes of helping as much Pokémon as possible. While the partner is fairly one-dimensional, the player’s journey to discover what has happened to them forms the center of the game’s plot. Even though it doesn’t have many twists or memorable side characters, Rescue Team’s narrative manages to keep players engaged through the introduction of allies, enemies, and everything in between as the player steadily uncovers the mystery behind their transformation.
Despite the questions to be solved in the main story, the plot has admittedly aged badly in comparison to most other PMD games. Characters and their motivations tend to feel too vague, the endgame threat isn’t built up enough to feel rewarding once beaten, and the dialogue can feel very artificial at times. These problems prevent Rescue Team from being as memorable as later installments in the series, since more often than not, the story of a PMD game is what’s remembered most fondly about the game. However, as the first entry in the series, Rescue Team does a fine enough job at laying the groundwork for what a PMD is meant to be with its themes of mystery, hope, and sacrifice.
For better or for worse, the gameplay in Rescue Team follows a similar formula to the story. While it is deep and occasionally difficult, its lack of polish in many areas makes it tedious to explore more often than not. As a roguelike, Rescue Team has you progressing through dungeons by defeating enemy Pokémon and avoiding obstacles like traps and hunger itself. While having such straightforward and simple gameplay might get repetitive for certain players, the game’s difficulty curve will ensure that the dungeon crawling never gets mindlessly easy. In fact, some sections of the game can get so hard they stop the player from progressing at all. For example, at one point you’ll go up against a certain Legendary Pokémon after you had just gone through four dungeons and defeated two other Legendaries. While you’re allowed to heal in between these confrontations, the game does not allow you to use your other team members for this fight or even buy new items, making it a grueling battle that can bring unprepared players to a grinding halt. Once this fight is over, the rest of the main game starts to feel so much easier that it results in the difficulty curve feeling inconsistent.
Outside of difficulty, Rescue Team still ends up feeling like most of its features are undercooked. Such mechanics include IQ Skills, certain benefits your team members can receive by eating rare items, Friend Areas, empty homes for your teams that you have to buy in order to recruit them in the first place, and even Evolution, through it needlessly restricting you from evolving team members unless they go to a certain area without any teammates. Since these features were all either improved or outright removed in later Mystery Dungeon installments, Rescue Team ends up feeling sloppy when compared to them.
While age hasn’t done Rescue Team much favors, one aspect it continues to excel at is its presentation. Rescue Team manages to make the most out of its mid-2000s sprite art with detailed character sprites and backgrounds. Other aspects that visually hold up include the character windows that pop up during dialogue to show a character’s mood, the home the player gets that corresponds to their Pokémon species, and the unique animations given to every single attack a Pokémon can do. Little details like these, while improved in later installments, still give Rescue Team a certain charm that helps immerse you in the Pokémon world.
Finally, there’s my personal favorite part about Rescue Team: the soundtrack. As the original installment in a series beloved for its music, Rescue Team naturally introduces a diverse lineup of music that have become some fans’ favorite tracks in the entire Pokémon franchise. Such famous themes to debut in Rescue Team include Great Canyon, Sky Tower, Run Away, Mt. Thunder, and Mt. Blaze, just to name a few. However, the soundtrack is one of few aspects of the game where there’s a significant difference between the two versions. Due to Red Rescue Team being a GBA game and Blue Rescue Team a DS one, the two naturally have different soundfonts. The hardware differences cause the two soundtracks to sound significantly different, and in my opinion, results in Red Rescue Team sounding significantly worse than its counterpart. While playing Red, it often felt like the game was struggling to play the exact same music as Blue, as if the soundtrack was designed with the DS in mind, but had to be slapped onto a GBA last minute. Fortunately, this doesn’t ruin the soundtrack as a whole since Blue’s music still sounds just fine.
Overall, Rescue Team is a solid opening to the PMD series that successfully established the series’ formula, which would be used to even greater effect in future installments. While the game is held back by being the pioneering entry in its series, it was a fantastic game for its time and continues to be a charming adventure that is worth a shot for any Pokémon fan. As a successful spin-off with tons of room for improvement, the only direction the PMD series could go was up, and that’s exactly what they did…
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