Pocket Power: Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker

Though today you can stuff stereoscopic 3D and console-quality graphics into your backpack, that once seemed inconceivable. Handhelds have evolved quickly, but we shouldn’t forget the games that made them great in the first place. Though these games lack raw processing muscle, they have a power all their own.

Sometimes it’s okay to not be the most original kid on the block. Taking an existing idea and iterating on it can create some remarkable experiences that might not otherwise be realized. Apple did not make the first smartphone. Google did not make the first search engine. Nickelback would not have a lock on worst current popular band if Creed had not shown the world new ways to suck. With all of these examples, one thing is clear: these folks took an existing idea and made it better, earning the top spot in their respective field. This does not always work, though. The Game Boy title Dragon Warrior Monsters titles failed to set the world alight. This makes a certain amount of sense as people were still in the grasp of a particularly heavy case of Pokéfever. The Dragon Warrior version just came across as noise. Enix kept plugging away, though and by 2007 the fever had lowered to a level where periodic doses of new titles could stave off the effects. It is in this year Square Enix released the fourth installment, Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker, in the U.S. 

The plot may sound familiar. Our intrepid hero wants to join in on a monster scouting tournament that is taking place across multiple islands, but is shut out. The Warden finds him and does grant permission to join in, but only because he fears that there is something dark occurring. He wants a set of eyes on the front line to keep him informed. So, our hero proceeds through the various trainer, I mean “scouting,” trials set before him while putting together the plot. While not too exciting, the story is serviceable. But that’s okay. It is everywhere else that this title comes into its own.

Dragon Quest Monsters 2Battling monsters works how one would expect from a Dragon Quest title. Players are thrown into the typical battle view. Enemy and player creatures take their respective turns, using skills and direct attacks. The protagonist does not also fight, instead he can only issue orders and use items. These battles can be sped up with optional AI settings for the hero creatures, reducing the time needed for to clear through battles. Otherwise, these are zippy affairs when just grinding out monster levels. When it’s time for the game to introduce a challenge, though, it manages to do so. Even with overpowered monsters, it’s possible to get flummoxed by a boss. Strategy is imperative.

Capturing wild monsters is a more streamlined and fun process here than its more popular competition. The creatures are impressed by strength, not having balls in the face. Players will still need to knock down the health of the target to raise their chances. When the odds are in their favor, indicated by a onscreen meter, players can order one of their monsters to “scout” the target. Effectively, this says “Hey, you want in on this?” Having an idea of the chances, along with not having to juggle a finite resource to do the job, makes for a much less frustrating experience. Really, this idea should have been ripped off already by Nintendo’s juggernaut.

Once captured, the player then brings them into battle to level up, raising their stats. After reaching a certain threshold, the creature can then be merged with another to create a whole new monster to take into battle. This is the only way to get the highest ranking monsters to lay waste to the opposition. Each monster is assigned a letter grade from “F’ all the way to “X.” (Don’t worry parents. It’s not that type of game.) Once merged, the parent monsters are lost. Think of it like merging Personas in Atlus’ series.

Dragon Quest Monsters 1The full 3D, cel-shaded graphics also help. While low tech by modern standards, the environments here still look gorgeous on the DS screens. The areas are fun to explore for treasure and rare monsters. Each island has its own look and feel, with new and exciting monsters to subjugate. Of course, the look of the game can not be covered without mentioning Akira Toriyama’s creature designs. All of the classics are here, from the cute little slimes and bats, all the way to that jerk, the blight knight. Despite the excellent creature design found in the Pokemon titles, those found in this cart are more compelling to the gamer raised on Dragon Warrior.

Not even factoring the seemingly endless post-game content, this title offers hundreds of hours of pure fun. Creating new monsters and power leveling them to make even stronger party mates is brings the same addiction that Pokémon does. The more ambitious graphics also give it a more visually interesting look. The annoyances are dialed back to inject potent RPG bliss directly in the cortex. Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker and its sequel come highly recommended. It should be noted that, anecdotally speaking, they can be a bit harder to find in stores. The prevailing theory is that people with a copy tend not to give it up. Strangely, though, when it can be found the price remains reasonable. Used copies can currently be found on Amazon for around twelve dollars. The sequel is a tad cheaper. Either one is a good pick and the stories are self contained. For those who just want to stick with Pokémon, that’s cool. They are fantastic titles that deserve their popularity. It should just be noted that there are titles that have improved upon the formula.