Nintendo has always been a company that tries to think outside the box, for better and for worse. After the successes of their straightforward Gamecube and Gameboy Advance SP, they went in a bold new direction for both their next home console and their next handheld. The Nintendo Wii was an oddball, being the first ever console to utilize motion controls to a significant degree but also losing a lot of credibility in the process, and the Nintendo DS was just what it sounded like; a dual-screen system with a touch screen. In the case of both platforms, there was a huge glut of games that attempted to utilize their given hardware gimmicks in their early stages, before most developers just said screw it and started making straightforward games again. The motion controls of the Wii are now considered mostly negative (although I will argue to my dying breath that the Wiimote and Nunchuk were outstanding for the FPS genre), but both the DS and the graphically-more-powerful 3DS are remembered much more fondly.
In hindsight, I think that boils down the libraries. As someone who loved the Wii, from classics like Super Mario Galaxy to hidden gems like Xenoblade Chronicles, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and The Last Story, I will be the first to admit that the third-party support for it was mostly bad. When developers weren’t making straight-up shovelware (seriously, how many terribly controlling party games does one system need?), they were struggling to implement the motion controls with ambitious but flawed titles like Red Steel 2 (a game that gets by solely for how fun its combat is). There just wasn’t a lot of choice for players who weren’t interested in party games. Both DS systems, though, offered a jaw-dropping amount of variety for players thanks to outstanding third party support. The DS alone was packed with platformers like the outstanding Castlevania games, surprisingly solid first-person shooters like Dementium 2 and Bionicle Heroes (don’t come at me until you’ve actually played it), and more RPGs than anybody could conceivably play in their lifetime.
Renowned publisher Atlus was responsible for many of said RPGs, delivering absolute classics like Radiant Historia and, from what I hear, The World Ends With You, as well as a slew of lesser known but still beloved titles on a fairly regular basis. For the most part, the only experimental aspect of their games was the battle systems. Radiant Historia, for instance, saw players using special moves to group enemies together on 3 by 3 grids. But perhaps their most experimental series is the one grounded the most in the past, and it’s one that arguably utilized Nintendo’s hardware more purposefully than any other game: the Etrian Odyssey series.
The series launched in America in 2007, and it immediately grew a cult following. Taking inspiration from the absolute earliest video game RPGs, it totally streamlined the dungeon crawling element of other RPGs and gave players a stiff challenge. Players had to build their party from the ground up, giving their characters names, classes, and starting stats, and they were thrown into the town of Etria, which is navigated entirely by menus. There’s a shop for recovery items and equipment, a pub where you can pick up side quests, a guild where you can create new characters, and a few other places to go besides the main Yggdrasil Dungeon. Rather than sending players across a vast world filled places to go, Etrian Odyssey instead presented players with one absolutely massive, game- spanning dungeon.
It’s a surprisingly unique twist on the age-old dungeon crawling formula. Few games would be gutsy enough to have the primary focus be placed on one extended dungeon, but if the fact that there are several sequels is anything to go by, Atlus pulled it off. Despite the fact that players literally crawled their way through dungeons from a first-person perspective, with extremely bare-boned graphics and standard turn-based battles, it used a smart gameplay loop to keep players hooked. For one, every character class had an extensive skill tree to use that allowed for a fair bit of flexibility in party building. For another, the game offered a unique twist on exploration that harkened back to those early RPGs again—players had to draw their own map of the dungeon as they explored.
On paper, this idea shouldn’t work, but as I’ve already said, there are five main entries in the series, remakes of the first two games that added proper story modes, two roguelike spinoffs, and even two crossovers with Atlus’s mega-popular Persona franchise that saw players similarly explore a massive dungeon from a first-person perspective using characters from Persona 3, 4, and 5 and using battle mechanics from those games as well. By my count, that’s 11 games in 14 years, which is impressive for any new IP. And while each game definitely offered good party building, I think it’s the map making that’s given it such long legs.
The dual-screen setup of Nintendo’s handheld allowed Atlus to put the proper explorative gameplay on the top screen and the map on the bottom. As players move, they can fill in the walls of the labyrinth and add icons marking important or dangerous spots. When you first start on a new floor of a dungeon, absolutely nothing is filled in. It’s just a big old blank grid. A floor might take several trips to complete, especially in the early game where your party is fairly weak. The series is known for providing a fairly stiff challenge, meaning that it feels like danger is around every corner. From a story perspective, you’re exploring the dungeon because few have ever returned and whatever town you happen to be in (it varies by game) wants to regain its economic footing by attracting new adventurers. And the map system only drives that theme of exploring uncharted depths home. By the time you reach the end of a floor, you’ve likely discovered shortcuts, placed icons all over indicating item spawn spots and dangerous mini-bosses called FOE’s and found an ideal course through the floor. Suddenly, what was once an intimidating, almost scary challenge feels like a cakewalk, and it’s all because you mapped it out as best you could.
It really does lend the series an air of going on a terrifying adventure. I’ll admit that I’ve only played the fourth game, Legends of the Titan, and the remake of the first game, The Millennium Girl, and ironically, each of them approached dungeon crawling in a different way. But the one constant is that no matter how long a trip to the labyrinth might have lasted—be it minutes or several hours—I always went back to town confident that I had made even a minuscule amount of progress even if it was just the discovery of a new shortcut on the floor that I was currently exploring. It is the perfect cherry on top of the already great party customization. The series is largely iterative rather than innovative, with each one offering broadly the same type of experience as the last, but refinements pop up in each new entry. In IV, players could subclass their party members, meaning you could mix and match skills to your heart’s content and create some wicked hybrid setups.
IV did also bring the most significant shakeup to the formula in the form of airship exploration. In the third entry, players could explore an ocean, although it was largely inconsequential. In IV, instead of one massive dungeon, players could find main and mini-dungeons in each new area of the overworld, which came complete with its own map to fill in. I loved this approach, as it gave more variety to locations and allowed for some breathing room between intense dungeon crawls. As mentioned above, the customization was fantastic too, and all of these elements have combined to make the fourth game a personal favorite. The remake of the first game instead refines the rougher elements of the initial entry, providing a whole host of quality of life updates and giving players a choice to play traditionally, with built-from-scratch characters, or follow a slightly more structured story mode with premade characters who had surprisingly charming personalities in a traditional narrative that doesn’t do anything new but manages to engage anyways thanks to generally good writing. While I enjoyed IV’s more open-ended approach more, I still had a great time with The Millennium Girl.
The reason that this series has gotten away without changing all that much is that it excels at delivering a niche experience. There was actually another attempt to cash in on this first-person exploration RPG in the form of 2009’s The Dark Spire, but despite a striking visual style, it’s largely gone forgotten. Atlus nailed the formula down early on, and by the time the 3DS rolled around, they had more or less perfected it by refining each new entry just a little bit more. You simply couldn’t find a similar experience that combined old school gameplay with new school quality of life updates that was as good as Etrian Odyssey. It’s because of the touch screen that the games rarely feel too drawn out or that they’re wasting your time. Adding to the map took no time at all thanks to the handy UI allowed by Nintendo’s ambitious handheld. It was precise and snappy, which helped keep the pace up.
This all leads me to the whole point of this article: I don’t know how the series could possibly continue. Last February saw the release of Etrian Odyssey Nexus, which served as a swan song for the series on Nintendo’s handheld. It had more classes than ever before, more dungeons, more everything that fans love about the series. As of the time of this writing, Atlus has kept quiet on what will happen with the series going forward. It clearly has a strong following in Japan and overseas, as most of the titles have received an official localization, but pulling off the map drawing system on one of the current consoles would be extremely difficult, if not downright impossible. I could have seen it working for the WiiU; the TV could have been used to explore while the Gamepad could have been used to draw in your map and keep track of where you are. On Switch, it would be much trickier to pull off. Short of just filling in a mini-map in the corner of the screen automatically, I can’t really think of a way to keep the same effective pacing the handheld entries had on a system without two screens. Sure, you could do it, but it will likely be far clunkier and more imprecise.
Maybe this is just screaming into the void since Etrian Odyssey always has been and likely always will be an extremely niche series, but it would be extremely bittersweet if it ended where it is now. The problem is that it relies so heavily on the hardware of the Nintendo DS and 3DS that it would be extremely difficult to pull off as effectively with a newer system. One the one hand, we already have a good number of lengthy, challenging, content-packed RPGs to play since there are so many games in the series. On the other, it’s extremely good at what it sets out to do, delivering a unique spin on old ideas, and I think that it would be able to find a home on the Switch, which has become the premiere console for niche gaming in the current generation. Atlus as a company has found success in delivering modestly budgeted, unique RPGs to audiences outside of Japan, and it would bring a tear to my eye to know that one of their best franchises was firmly overdue to gaming hardware not matching its gameplay needs.
A Brief Postgame: Knights in the Nightmare
As a brief little bit of extra content for getting to the end of this rather long article, I’d like to briefly discuss an even more obscure game that was published by Atlus in 2009 and developed by Sting: Knights in the Nightmare. For those who don’t know, Sting actually has a small series of cult hits that are known as Department Heaven. It’s a bunch of extremely experimental handheld RPGs spanning the Gameboy Advance, Nintendo DS, and Playstation Portable. The four games, Riviera: The Promised Land, Yggdra Union, Knights in the Nightmare, and Gungnir, are known for their… unorthodox approaches to gameplay and sharing thematic connections like wars between planes of existence. For instance, Yggdra Union combines turn-based strategy with card battles. But the one I’d like to focus on is the 2009 Nintendo DS title Knights in the Nightmare.
KitN sees players take control of a little gray ball known only as the Wisp. The wisp wanders through a kingdom that’s fallen into the control of hellish, otherworldly forces, and they must use their seemingly infinite power to power up the ghosts of fallen warriors and reclaim the kingdom. The gameplay is wildly unique, combining turn-based strategy RPGs with bullet hell games. Essentially, you have a set number of rounds to clear a given map, and charging up an attack from a given character uses uptime, as does getting hit by enemy attacks, which must be dodged by controlling the Wisp with the stylus. You must keep track of elemental weaknesses of enemies, what kind of units you’re using since each one can only attack in certain directions, and much more, including a “Law/Chaos” system that must be switched up to fit the situation since every unit and enemy attacks differently depending on whether or not you’re in law or chaos.
The story is arguably more complex than the game, with a whole grand mythology at work. Each completed map sees a bit more backstory drip-fed to the player, and the bigger picture of just what the hell is going on and who the Wisp is becomes clearer and clearer the further in you get. But the game is played almost entirely using the touch screen, and while there is an extremely steep learning curve given the gameplay’s unique nature (seriously, completing all the tutorials will likely take you over an hour), once it all clicks, it’s absolutely intense. Balancing and micromanaging your units is immensely satisfying, and implementing a strategy that results in success is as well since it requires you to flex both your brain and your reflexes. The utterly great story is a nice reward for overcoming the challenging gameplay.
The reason I bring this up is that, like Etrian Odyssey, it’s extremely difficult for me to picture this game working on any other system (it was later ported to the PSP, although I don’t know how successful the controls are for the port). It offered players a wickedly creative and singularly unique battle system that has yet to be emulated anywhere else, and it was largely thanks to the hardware of the Nintendo DS. Using the Stylus to control the Wisp feels intuitive and responsive, and the seemingly random elements of the gameplay all click together nicely once you get the hang of it. It all adds up to one of the best games of the first decade of the 2000s, and I say that without exaggeration. Niche? You bet. Great? Absolutely. And I don’t see how it could work on current gaming hardware, aside from maybe a Steam port since the mouse is also a very precise way of controlling certain games.
Look, folks—I love straightforward, traditional games. Give me a good Mario game and chances are I’ll enjoy myself. Give me a classic RPG, and I’ll find something in it to like or appreciate. But every once in awhile it’s nice to see a developer not just think outside the box, but burn said box to ashes and use those ashes to create a nice painting. The Etrian Odyssey series found success by utilizing the potential of Nintendo’s hardware to its fullest extent, and that gave it its own unique identity apart from other old school RPGs. Knights in the Nightmare was even more niche thanks to its odd combination of gameplay styles, but it is one of the greatest handheld RPGs ever made. There’s obviously no shortage of creativity in gaming right now—just look at all the great, unique indie games available to players—but I think the days of seeing hardware utilized for such unique reasons are now behind us. Outside of VR, peripheral/ hardware-based gaming is largely dead, for better and for worse. I have mixed feelings about this, but I am happy I was able to see such creativity from a company known for taking risks.