By Matthew . February 23, 2010 . 3:12pm
I have yet to determine the exact nature of this sudden "retro game revival" craze (the Famicom’s 20th birthday was some time ago), but there is no denying it’s increasing momentum. While there have been a fair share of 2D remakes, Bionic Commando Rearmed for example, games like the upcoming Mega Man 10 prove that retro redux need not look modern. Along the lines of 3D Dot Game Heroes, a Zelda clone that deliberately looks old and new at the same time, comes Nippon Ichi’s newest release, Classic Dungeon.
The first thing you notice upon starting Classic Dungeon is that it looks… classic. The graphics, while vibrant and fresh, are undeniably pixilated. It actually looks a bit like Mother 3. Everything is cute and full of life, despite being of limited graphical composition. I found the look to be quite inviting and fitting for the game though admittedly it looks better on a 3000-series PSP than the PSPGo, possibly because of the latter’s limited screen size.
The most pressing fear I had with Classic Dungeon was it’s glaring similarities to random dungeon games (Mysterious Dungeon) which I unfortunately dislike. I can’t stand having to constantly worry about food rations less I perish, at the core it’s really all about luck as sometimes you just won’t get any. I don’t like how progress is totally lost if you die and the lack of direction and balance. Yes these are the origin of RPGs with Rogue and all its many incarnations but I didn’t grow up on that unfortunately. It was with great pleasure that I found Classic Dungeon to be similar, and yet quite different.
Each character (both the pre-set ones and the ones you can create) gain experience and develop. These status increases are permanent, as is equipment. If you die in a dungeon at Level 4, you will still be at Level 4 when you return. This works because instead of the game consisting of one large dungeon, it consists of many different “themed” dungeons, each with their own set of floors. The catch is that you can only challenge one floor at a time. New floors and dungeons unlock as you clear current ones and thus there is no issue of having to restart at Floor 1 on Level 1 with no equipment. The goal is to select a dungeon, kill the boss monster to unlock the exit portal, and then return to town to prepare for the next dungeon.
The game has a surprisingly detailed character growth system. Picture something akin to a sphere grid wherein your player character is at the center, and there are offshoots to other sphere nodes stemming from your PC. In order to activate these nodes, you need to place other PCs in the adjacent “main spheres” and then activate the individual status spheres with various artifacts found in the dungeons such as gems or bricks. Doing so allows you to gain status upgrades, as well as have access to the HP for these interlinked characters. In dungeons, you can thus have up to five life bars, four possible for the other PCs and one for the mail character you control. Likewise, when you recover life, all of the characters recover.
Recovering life is, in and of itself, quite interesting in that to do so without the use of magic. You must step on recovery tiles located in the dungeons. You may step on these tiles a set number of times before they vanish, thus allowing for multiple healings. In addition, there are also trap tiles that, when pressed, trigger gas or arrows that will shoot out from the walls and damage anything in their path. Player characters and persecutors can be hit by traps and thus used to your advantage if there are a number of monsters in their path. Other tiles boost speed, though usually in the presence of said trap tiles, but insuring you will trigger some of them. As the dungeons progress in difficulty, the trap tiles become more and more transparent thus making them harder to spot, especially when covered with the game’s various environmental details such as puddles, shrubs, ice, and fire. Stepping on elemental tiles also hinder your progress, but in a different way. Shrubs and puddles, for example, will slow you down, whereas fire will literally set your character on fire and thus you must either find a puddle to out or wait for the effects to wear off at the expense of your HP. The best way to avoid unwanted traps and tiles is to jump over them, yet another feature not present in the Mysterious Dungeon series.
Instead of simply using the attack button to initiate the same attacks endlessly, Classic Dungeon offers a combo-based system where repeated hits combo into more powerful attacks. A jab might only inflict a small amount of damage, but the end string in a combo can strike a mighty blow against the diverse number of monsters that inhabit the game’s world. The damage you inflict has the interesting twist of being calculated to the decimal. Literally. You might do 12.17 points of damage, for example, or be healed for 15.92.
Unlike the Mysterious Dungeon series, enemies do not move in accordance with your movements. If you stay put then you had better watch out. Enemies that notice your presence, indicated by an "!" above their head, and will immediately attack. Running is also handled much more realistically, opposed to the "fast forward" type nature of the more popular dungeon crawler lot. As a tradeoff, your defense is halved while running. You can also defend with your shield thus doubling your defense at the expense of attacking. There are also special attacks that you can learn and use in battle, each with their own unique feature.
There are many other elements which I haven’t spoke of (the multitude of equipment types, for example, which change the in-game appearance of your characters) but I can’t spoil all the fun for you!
The game’s music is catchy, though unfortunately some of the tracks and sound effects are a bit on the annoying side (one black cat comes to mind). In a fit of madness (genius?) the sound team opted to include both a modern "real" soundtrack and a retro one. The result is fantastic, and since you can change the music quality on-the-fly, it means that you are always able to hear both old and new as you explore and adventure. This was quite interesting for me as with games like Ys I&II Chronicles, the retro score was there because it existed beforehand. Classic Dungeon is a new game though, and the chip tunes music was actually a new creation. The addition made me recall the 7th Dragon OST, which contained the actual game score and a retro score. I really hope more composers opt for this duality in the future.
Classic Dungeon is a wonderful new game for the PSP, one which might appeal to a larger audience than at first glance. Despite the simplistic premise the game has a lot of depth to it, features lively characters, has catchy music, and provides enough challenge to ensure many hours of gameplay from even seasoned veterans. It is not without its share of faults (hit detection and control for the most part) however the good far outweighs the bad.