With the overwhelming success of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Red & Blue Rescue Team, as well as the release of the Pokémon franchise’s fourth Generation, a sequel to the popular dungeon crawler was all but guaranteed. Rescue Team, for as fun and charming as it is, had plenty of problems worth addressing in a sequel, and Chunsoft knew they couldn’t let all this momentum and potential go to waste. As a result, 2007 saw the release of a brand new pair of Mystery Dungeon games: Explorers of Time and Darkness. However, instead of covering those two, it would be best to cover the definitive edition of Explorers, and my personal favorite game of all time: Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky.
Released on April 18, 2009, Explorers once again sees you and your Pokémon team progressing through randomly generated dungeons, with the main difference being the variety of goals each dungeon has you working toward. While you usually only save Pokémon in danger while playing Rescue Team, Explorers has you hunt for treasure, battle outlaws, discover more dungeons, and so much more. Despite resembling Rescue Team both graphically and mechanically, Explorers manages to make a name for itself with its brand new story, features, soundtrack, and Pokémon to recruit. Once again taking place in a world filled with Pokémon exclusively, Explorers expands on what was established in Rescue Team to deliver what many fans of the series consider to be the definitive PMD experience.
Beginning in a very similar fashion to its predecessor, Explorers starts with the player passing out on a beach at dusk with no memory of who they are. Meanwhile, the partner (whose species is once again chosen by the player) attempts to enlist in the nearby explorers’ Guild before their nerves get the better of them, causing them to leave and encounter the player. Once the partner wakes them up, the player discovers that they have transformed into the Pokémon chosen for them by a quiz taken before the start of the game. After the player then helps the partner recover their precious treasure, the two decide to enlist in the Guild together and form an Exploration Team, hoping to discover what caused the player’s transformation. While the story bares a striking resemblance to that of Rescue Team at first, it soon takes a turn when a mysterious thief named Grovyle starts to steal the region’s Time Gears. These mysterious artifacts that are dotted around the region keep time flowing properly in the areas they govern; if a Time Gear is stolen, time completely stops in the vicinity, freezing both the habitats and the Pokémon that live in them. As the story progresses and our heroes attempt to stop Grovyle, the two learn there is much more at stake in their journey full of betrayal, sacrifice, hope (or lack thereof in some cases), and mystery.
As the most beloved part of Explorers, the plot naturally exceeds both its predecessors and successors in terms of complexity, themes, and characters. While said characters are abundant, Explorers succeeds where Rescue Team fails by giving each of them a distinct and memorable personality, setting them apart from everything else in the entire Pokémon franchise. Such characters have naturally gone on to become fan favorites, including the mischievous Celebi, the hilarious, yet powerful Guildmaster Wigglytuff, and the intimidating Grovyle. Explorers of Sky gave these characters even more depth with the introduction of Special Episodes, optional side adventures that expand on the characters’ backstories and answer some questions left by the main adventure. While the story, Special Episodes, and extensive postgame have much more to them than what is covered here, you are better off experiencing the game for yourself since the overall story is too deep to warrant spoiling here.
Explorers’ gameplay, much like the story, ends up feeling like an evolution of its predecessor’s in every way. Various features and mechanics from the previous game are improved and made more accessible, such as the IQ Skills, which are now much easier to obtain and learn about. This added polish can be seen in the difficulty curve as well; where Rescue Team’s difficulty often feels inconsistent and occasionally unfair, Explorers’ feels much more balanced. While challenging battles are still present in Explorers, they now feel like more of a test of your skills rather than a roadblock.
In terms of new features, Explorers and its hub world provide the player with much more to do than in that of Rescue Team. From the Sentry Duty minigame to the Sky-exclusive Spinda Cafe, players may find themselves spending just as much time outside of dungeons as they do inside. In fact, one of the most surprisingly deep features to be found in Explorers, the Exclusive Items, are managed almost entirely outside of dungeons. Exclusive Items are a brand new class of items that, when in the party’s bag, give certain Pokémon specific benefits. Every single Pokémon in the game has their own set of Exclusive Items, and the player has the ability to obtain a certain species’ most rare item by trading other Exclusive Items at Croagunk’s Swap Shop. Despite the lack of attention this item class receives during the main story, it ends up being one of the deepest and most fulfilling pieces of side content in the game.
Another reason for Explorers’ gameplay being so diverse is the inclusion of so many Pokémon. With the introduction of Pokémon originating from the Sinnoh region, Explorers’ lineup goes from a solid 386 to an impressive 492, including every Pokémon in the series up to that point (besides Arceus). This added variety can be seen in the available options for the player and partner’s species as well. While Rescue Team offered a respectable amount with the inclusion of every starter from Generations 1-3 and a few standouts like Cubone and Machop, Explorers goes further with the idea by once again including every starter up to that point and, in Sky’s case, introduces more unique options like Vulpix, Phanpy, Shinx, and the fan favorite Riolu. With so many available Pokémon to choose from, Explorers remains interesting through multiple playthroughs due to the player’s ability to try out so many playable characters.
While Sky’s story and sheer amount of content remain impressive a decade later, the presentation has one glaring flaw that prevents it from being as fondly remembered. Due to the majority of Explorers’ character sprites and assets being pulled directly from Rescue Team, the Pokémon sprites tend to look weak in comparison to those found in other Generation 4 games. Some of the older Pokémon tend to be colored incorrectly as well, such as Charizard, whose overworld sprite is colored red instead of orange. While this problem was present in Rescue Team, it was more excusable there as a result of it being the series’ first installment. The miscolors present in Explorers have no reason to exist given the time Chunsoft had to polish these sprites in between Rescue Team and Explorers’ release, but that’s fortunately the only major issue with the game’s appearance. Everything else from Rescue Team has been improved all around, including the less fuzzy character windows, more distinct backgrounds, and cleaner user interface. The improvements made here are definitely nice to see, but given the importance of the character sprites, those should have taken priority when it came to which aspects of Rescue Team’s presentation were improved.
Last, but not least, is one of the most iconic and recognizable parts of Explorers: the soundtrack. As a sequel to a game where the music was the most standout feature in my opinion, Explorers naturally improves on it in almost every way to allow for a more polished and diverse lineup of music. Some of the most well known and beloved tracks to be found in Explorers include Treasure Town, Time Gear, Through the Sea of Time, Hidden Highland, Temporal Tower, Blizzard Island, and the legendary Dialga’s Fight to the Finish, and that’s not even counting the lineup of music introduced in Sky with its Special Episodes and added dungeons. Even Pokémon fans who haven’t played Explorers have more than likely heard one or two of these at least once, as Explorers has one of the most popular soundtracks in the entire franchise, even when compared to the main series games.
In almost every way, Explorers ends up feeling like the most solid and consistent entry in the entire PMD series. Using Rescue Team as a base, Explorers takes every aspect of its predecessor and polishes them to the best of its abilities, resulting in an experience that has something for nearly everyone. Because of Explorers’ deep and complex story, amazing music, surprisingly engaging gameplay, and hours upon hours of content, the game has managed to stand the test of time and overshadow the original in almost every way. However, despite Explorers’ commercial success, the next entry in the franchise went in a completely different direction. Next time, we’ll find out whether or not that departure was for the best…