A sleeping Riolu from Pokémon, a blue–furred canine creature, huddled on a straw bed in a warm cafe with a pained look on its face.

Bad Dreams

Without this review devolving into tears, laughs, sorrow, heartwarmth, twenty hours of grinding what amounts to essentially the same level with hardly any changes in gameplay beyond seeing which Pokémon will either beat your shit in with a frankly absurd expediency or be knocked out with a frankly absurd expediency and then half–heartedly beg to join your team in an effort to not phase out of existence, and saying “fuck Dusknoir”, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky is one of the greatest games I have ever played.

If I was making an arbitrary top 5 list under the vain assumption I can recommend games to people based on what I like and not on what they would like, the first four would be Undertale to throw off any idea that I have any credibility whatsoever, and the last one would be Explorers of Sky, in this list that I so often toy with in my mind and yet never come to any definite conclusions about because listing subjective art in an objective format is a recipe for disaster.

I know of multiple games that lack in solid gameplay that have been highly recommended over the years, such as Earthbound, Killer7, most walking simulators (excuse me — environmental sims), and most RPGs. The people who recommend these games, as defined in my four categories of criticism, are hippies who couldn’t give a toss about gameplay so long as it gives them something shiny to look at. But I am a producer, and especially so a pragmatist. I am extremely wary of anything a hippie recommends to me.

Hippies and asses

The producer part of me understands that games don’t have to be fun so long as they provide an experience worth playing, a bit like a visual novel, or the Beginner’s Guide, which is more of an environmental sim than an actual game. Traditionally they were always fun, but then traditionally they are seen as something you give to your kids to get them to shut up. I feel we have matured past the infantile definition of games as cut–and–dry dopamine–inducing fun, and have grown into a definition that includes the whole spectrum of interactive art — a pair of words I feel pretentious saying, though they are a reasonable definition of video games.

But the pragmatic part of me would really like to kick some ass, which is why whenever I play something like Killer7 or Earthbound which consists mostly of people talking about uninteresting things with no clear story in mind, I give up after two hours because it was clear that the game wasn’t interested in me being involved with it. That may not seem fair, but I remind you that two hours can fit in six episodes of Cowboy Bebop, and if a game can’t entice me within six episodes of Cowboy Bebop, there’s not a chance in Hell it can entice me after all 26.

I have a simple conjecture for how long I put up with a game. It has been demonstrably proven that Cowboy Bebop, at an episode length of 22 minutes, kicks ass. The amount of ass that Cowboy Bebop kicks over time is cumulative, meaning that six episodes of Cowboy Bebop kicks six times as much ass than one episode. If a game fails to kick as much ass as one episode of Cowboy Bebop in the same amount of time it takes for Cowboy Bebop to kick ass six times, then the chances of the game kicking two times as much ass by the end of Cowboy Bebop’s first season is very slim.

In scientific circles, this is known as the Bebop–Asskicking Probability Theorem.

Every single artist, and every single producer of art, knows that the audience’s attention is something that has to be earned, and therefore has to spend as much effort as they possibly can putting as much shock, awe, interest, and quality into the very first thing the audience sees when they first indulge in their work. For digital art, this is the entire work itself. For a series, the first episode. For movies, the first fifteen minutes. For video games, the first hour.

There is no excuse whatsoever for a video game to put no effort into its start when that is the only thing that will entice the player to keep on playing. If an artist has no audience, then the art does not exist; plain and simple. The same for movies and television shows. If they fail to impress me within the time it takes to watch an episode of Cowboy Bebop, which kicks ass, then there is no reason for me to keep watching. They have twenty–two minutes of my undivided attention which they may impress me with, the same twenty–two minutes that Cowboy Bebop uses to kick ass, and to not make any positive impact during that time shows an utter contempt for the audience that is certain to permeate throughout the entire experience.

Also if you don’t like Cowboy Bebop, just replace it with Nichijou, or something.

To the dungeon with ye

In an effort not to make this article go on longer than it needs be, because though I understand that the more I write the more knowledge I impart to you, I also understand there is such a thing as writing to the point where nobody will read your work, I will give some questions to Explorers of Sky that will help you understand what I find so appealing in this series.

Is Explorers of Sky a fun game? That gets a resounding “so–so” from me. While there is some nihilistic fun in trying your damn best to not fuck up a 99–floor dungeon crawl and lose that very valuable scarf you picked up ten hours ago, at the same time it’s one of those games that really benefits from having an emulator at double–speed. There’s no lore to the dungeons like a Rogue clone would give you and combat blends together, so if you’ve seen one dungeon, you’ve seen them all.

Combat itself goes the typical RPG route of four extremely powerful player–characters fighting against a bunch of mooks who may or may not be powerful enough to kick your ass, but the grinding is minimal, and it’s easy enough to pick up some “fuck you” items that make a lot of threats go away. This may sound incredibly easy, but trust me, there are multiple dungeons that will straight up wreck you if you come unprepared, and it’s holding all the items that’s the real challenge.

It’s one of those games where, before you embark, you get into a routine of going to the shops, stopping off at the bank, checking out the quests available, and then stopping off at the café where you get stat boosts out the ass and have an opportunity to make a pizza from yeast and flour. If you do decide to stop at the café, which you will want to if you have any affiliation with your party (which you will quickly come to endear I must add), then make sure to bring the mystical Orb of Hyperspeed, and by which I mean the frame limit remover on your emulator.

You’d think there’d be an option just to take all the ingredients from your inventory and funnel it all into a great big sludge you can do a keg stand off of, but nope. You’re forced to sit through a ten–second cutscene every single time you want to get a stat boost from the café, which gets old faster than your dad and is one of the reasons why I consider giving everybody an emulator absolutely essential for some games, this one included. But no savestates, you sneaky skank.

It is, in essence, a perfectly functional experience with more than enough flexibility that anybody will be challenged but with nothing particularly revolutionary. It does a lot of things right and intuitively but at the same time tests you to see just how much you can enjoy going through the same randomly–generated layouts before you either get your ass kicked or complete the level and move on with improving your virtual army of four different Pokémon who may or may not be lesbians .

A glowing review

So if the gameplay is mediocre, then why do you recommend it?

Because the gameplay is simply one facet of the entire emotional experience that makes up the reason why Pokémon Mystery Dungeon is seen as one of the fondest–remembered spin–off series that has one the most dedicated fanbases that has ever come out of a video game series.

The quality that Explorers of Sky exhibits would be “surprisingly good” if it had just done what Paper Mario did and gave it an alright story combined with the obligatory jokes and gameplay that doesn’t significantly challenge but isn’t exactly a cakewalk either. I like Paper Mario — the original, that is –, but I honestly can’t tell if I like it because of nostalgia goggles, or just because of my fascination with crude Nintendo 64 graphics and midis.

You can rest assured that Explorers of Sky isn’t just surprisingly good. It goes past surprisingly good on the way to the supermarket and never thinks of it again, because the realm of surprisingly good games is reserved for those downloaded on itch.io at 03:00 and shamefully hidden away like they have something to hide. But this game doesn’t. It has absolutely nothing to hide and it knows it. It’s a great game. A very great game. A game that whenever I look back upon, tears come to my eyes and I wonder what type of world I live in to have something this beautiful come into this stupid, stupid industry. And this has absolutely nothing to do with the gameplay itself.

It is, in essence, a visual novel broken up by very long stretches of gameplay, with a story so uncharacteristically mature for a Nintendo game that it makes you wonder if it was a retirement gift from one of their last sane executives, an atmosphere that manages to be both horrifying and innocently cheerful, writing that — while at times idealistic — makes it clear that the writers actually care about the player instead of holding them in contempt, and pixel–art graphics that push the Nintendo DS’s wimpy little screen for all its got, and does it extremely well.

In essence, this game does what Undertale tried, and failed, to do with its world: bring meaning and purpose to even incidental characters, have every environment full of life, and balance the simultaneously tragic with the skin–warming charming. Whereas Undertale had good gameplay, decent characters, and insufferable everything else, this game inverts that by having decent gameplay and extraordinary everything else. If Toby Fox took lessons from Pokémon, he wasn’t paying that much attention, because he missed out on everything that it did right.

That visual novel comparison wasn’t a joke. There’s a lot of reading in this game. A huge amount. But unlike games like Solatorobo, it is rarely redundant and most of the chatter serves a purpose rather than filling up time. The game makes it very obvious when you’re expected to explore and when you’re expected to buckle down and focus on the story, and it’s this segregation that lesser games, like Kingdom Hearts, never get the hang of. It respects you enough to not frustrate you with cutscenes while you’re trying to play the game, and it doesn’t expect you to go to places you’d never look in order to continue the story.

And the story is undeniably the strongest part of the experience, because for a Pokémon game to tell any story beyond “catch those damn porkmans” is enough to take notice, especially given the strong performances of the Pokémon manga. Playing this game and looking back on the history of Pokémon as a whole, one gets the feeling this is the story the writers have always wanted to tell when they realised just how horrifying this world full of incredibly strong animals, is. What it isn’t is a brilliantly subversive morally–questionable deconstruction of the entire Pokémon universe. What it is, however, is your typical “two plucky partners save the world” story done really, really well.

You are not pumped and dumped through setpieces with no expectation that you will care about them, serving no purpose but to be filler for the gameplay. Whenever this game introduces an area, it expects you to care about it. To take your time and get to know everybody within. You spend the vast majority of the game sleeping in the very same spot, and the other part sleeping in unfamiliar territory. As you travel through the game, living in but a small part of it, you begin to understand with creeping horror that a medium which you previously considered a construction of cynical façades can actually take the time to make you attached to 256×192 images. It’s revelations like that which can breed artists outright.

It is a game where you meet a good deal of characters and are expected to get to know about each and every one of them, because you will be stuck with them for a very long time. In particular, this is one of those few games that manage to create a believable relationship between you and an NPC — a partner you can actually trust, rather than a burden you are stuck with. For a gamer to break past the wall of cynicism that every player has built up due to years of barely–functioning games that act solely as games, it’s amazing how something as simple as this can change somebody’s perspective on how games should be built.

You will be endeared with the characters you are stuck with and have a raging hate for those you’re suppose to. When it’s depressing, it really is, and when it’s cheery, it is really cheery. Sometimes the game will suckerpunch you with a hard twist, and though I usually see “twists” as a manipulative form of storytelling, equivalent of saying “bet you weren’t expecting that, dumbass!”, I was able to forgive the ones in this game because there was absolutely no expectation of them. In essence, fuck Dusknoir.

And sometimes the game will punch you straight in the eyelids. There was one particular side mission involving Igglybuff and his friends playing in an idyllic town, before meeting a curious stranger who he believed to be a sinister monster. They go adventuring together. They find meaningless treasures but have a lot of fun, as his parents are understandably worried. Of course, he isn’t a monster. But it’s at the end of the story, and at the start of what was going to be their big exploration, do we find he will be arrested anyway. Not because he’s a predator, but because being an explorer wasn’t being honest with Igglybuff.

That story got to me. It really did. It wasn’t because I found Igglybuff and pals cute, and the story wasn’t laying on melodrama, so I wasn’t being blatantly manipulated. It was because learning the truth about a lie you were so happy believing in is, to put it lightly, really, really hard. The hardest part about growing up is getting past the idealism you had as a child and seeing the world for what it is, and just having to accept that. Friends turn to memories, and all you’re left with is the obligation to move on.

I wouldn’t have ever expected such a lesson from a Nintendo game. To think they have the potential to tell stories like these, and yet they’re spending their time on Super Mario Run.

The end

Rarely do I have any intelligent thing to say about a game I like before I simply talk about it for a while. I guess the idealistic part of me just wants you to feel as good as I do talking about it. But then, I am a pragmatist. If it was as simple as telling people what to feel, then we would be very easily misled, and as a result it is very hard for many people to feel a good deal of things.

You don’t have to believe my opinion of this game. I already believe myself, and it brought me more good than it ever did bad. It is not to say I’d rather be ignorantly happy than to be miserably correct, but that given most things are subjective, and I have been pleasantly surprised more than I have been disappointed in new experiences, I can only show you a cocktail and request you to drink. Or if you’re a horse, lead you to the nearest puddle.

A lot of people fell in love with this game, and as I have yet to become a literal frog, you can count me in with that. I’d like to thank Blitzdrachin (artist's page NSFW) for rendering the perfect amount of melodrama and idealism that the game represents; a microcosm of its beauty.

Don’t ever tell me gaming is a waste of time. I’d have nothing to say to you.

Date: 2017–03–20. Size: 8,901 bytes. Colours: 16.

Upscaled Dimensions: 666×519. Original Dimensions: 222×173.