Battery powered dungeons

Pocket Dungeon is as much a succinct description of the contents within as it is a game’s title. You see, even though this game was sold as a PlayStation disc, the portable part of Pocket Dungeon is not a cute minigame to be put aside after five minutes or a clever extension of a traditional title, it is the game — all of it. You pop the disc in Sony’s industry-changing hardware, transfer the data over from the CD to a PocketStation (as with most games made for the tiny device, this takes up all fifteen blocks), and then walk away from the console, the entire game now something you can carry in your hand. If you really must interact with the TV the disc is also capable of copying your PocketStation data over to (and back from) a standard memory card for storage purposes, and any captured monsters registered back in town (on a PocketStation) can be viewed in a basic gallery (on a PlayStation), showing a coloured version of their portable sprite, a larger rendered image, and some further information – but this is as far as interacting with a PlayStation ever goes.

A whole game contained within a mere 128KB may not be the smallest one on this site (I’m going to mention The Lords of Midnight here — and cheekily plug my own C64 text adventure too) but even so, that’s still not a great deal of room to work with. Luckily for Pocket Dungeon the relative simplicity of the PlayStation’s pocketable pal means there’s just not all that much to “spend” the space on: Its small monochrome screen sports a tiny 32 x 32 resolution, in the rare moments the game does produce sound it’s always of the “pleasantly beepy” variety, and the whole grid-based world is assembled from a repeating selection of wall (and often only wall) tiles. 128KB is still only 128KB, but it’s been used economically (there are no voice samples here) on a format able to make the most of every last byte.

In spite of this ever-present restriction, Pocket Dungeon still manages to impress. The pixel art is remarkably clean and characterful throughout and the dungeons themselves visibly stretch much further into the distance than I expected them to, important details still showing up a whopping four spaces away. Doors off to the side and stairs down in the distance are always clear as day, and there’s even a special cracked wall tileset just to add a little variety (it’s possible there are even more tilesets further down — I’d tell you about them if I could survive long enough to reach them). I swiftly forgot anything was “missing” from the game – colour, for example – because there was simply nothing to miss; Pocket Dungeon was always showing me everything I needed to see in as stylish a way as it could.

It even makes the effort to squeeze in a little extra detail from time to time. Your generic warrior’s appearance changes as you level them up, their equipment becoming more fearsome and ornate as they get stronger. Not every door looks the same. One-off images may be encountered in what you assumed was going to be a dead-end passage. There’s a hole in the ground in the graveyard, leading to a strange catacomb where skeletal statues block a door — this entire area’s existence only hinted at by an obtuse and easily missed map mentioning the area on the back of the manual. One time I pulled a chain by a strange stone face in the wall and a slime monster poured out of its mouth and ran off. There’s not a lot, but there’s enough. Hoping the next room reveals something new is not unrealistic here.

There’s a surprising amount of animation too: A horned hero marching up or down dungeon stairs whenever you change floors, the posture of the stick-man hero shown on the health potion screen changing to reflect his current health, a special celebratory screen on level up, little flapping bats around your grave when you die — it all helps to make the game feel alive, to make it feel like you’re interacting with a game rather than shepherding a collection of numbers.

All of this graphical pleasantry transforms a rather basic dungeon crawler into a charming little adventure, and diving into Pocket Dungeon’s hand-crafted (and map-free) labyrinth is an entertaining and “full” experience whether briefly played in a post office queue while out and about or sitting with at home for an hour. The adventure covers about a dozen floors, beginning with a generic underworld and eventually leading to elementally themed mazes, and along the way there are plenty of special items to pick up, things you probably shouldn’t poke but will anyway, and lots of monsters to fight.

These randomly encountered battles are pretty straightforward — attack on your turn, defend on your opponent’s, repeat until one of you dies or you successfully run away (in a one-button RPG with no battle menu this is accomplished by pressing down on the d-pad) — but they also have a quirky real-time element to them too, just to help give them a little extra flavour. This takes the form of a little action bar on the lower half of the screen that erratically rises and falls; the further along to the right it is, the stronger your attack or the more effective your defence. For something so simple, a lot of thought has been put into this feature: The “rhythm” of the bar changes depending on the enemy fought (or perhaps the difficulty of the encounter — it’s not an easy thing to test), and if you take too long you’ll miss completely, forcing you to go with your gut and your reflexes rather than wait forever for the perfect moment.

The real star of the experience though is the special marker that appears somewhere along the bar’s length at the beginning of each go. If you hit this the value of that attack (or defence) is stored and you immediately get another turn, with another new zone marker. This repeats until you miss a marker, and it’s at that point the total is added up and then applied to your attack (if it was your turn) or your defence (if it was the enemy’s), resulting in either a powerful strike for your opponent to try and mitigate or a nigh-impenetrable defence against an incoming blow. This is where tactics — and nerves — come into play. Do you ignore this marker completely and aim for a reliable, but not spectacular, 80 value on the bar, or do you dare to chase those markers and try to go for a 20+60+40 instead… potentially flubbing the whole thing and hitting the monster for an easily blocked 20, or worse still getting wiped out by a chain attack? The risks and the rewards are always obvious, and the game is responsive enough that the final outcome always comes down to your own decisions and skill.

Inevitably not every fight will go your way, and from time to time you’ll get whisked back to the title screen to start all over again from the town at the top. The good news is all of the items you found (such as the compass) or bought (health potions) will still be in your inventory, and you even get to keep your stats too (but not any XP “between” level ups — that’s lost forever). Each repeated floor becomes progressively easier through sheer force of will, and early stumbles in unfamiliar areas become swift dashes to the next floor down.

Pocket Dungeon’s relatively unique status as a true PocketStation only title is both a blessing and a burden. On the one hand this is an ambitious game designed for hardware that would’ve sat around “posh Tamagotchi” technology levels at the time, one so extraordinary it keeps on doing things I had always assumed the not-VMU wasn’t capable of. But on the other it’s also a paid-for commercial product that uses one of the most influential and RPG-laden consoles of all time as a glorified transfer system, making it hard to shake the feeling any money spent on this could’ve gone towards something that was good good, and not “good for what it is“.

Pocket Dungeon isn’t the easiest game to play even if you’re willing and able, but it is a lovely demonstration of all the good PocketStation could do when treated as more than a syphon for mini-minigames. Is that enough? Maybe. With the right mindset — and an ample supply of CR2032’s.

[Thanks to all the Ko-fi supporters who made this article and so many others possible!]

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