Back in 2001 there was a war. One between two titans of children’s entertainment, both trying to outdo one another. This was, of course, the war between Digimon and Pokémon. Okay, let’s be honest, it was less of a war and more of Bandai desperately trying to keep up with Pokémon huge success. And right in the middle of this war was me, happily enjoying both franchises simultaneously, because even back then I knew that brand loyalty was dumb.
Spawned from the Tamagotchi-like virtual pets, Namco decided to make a game to compete with the likes of Pokémon Red/Blue/Green, which gave us a game I was both fascinated and flummoxed by; Digimon World. To this day, have such fond memories of the game, and going back to it always felt like something I needed to do sooner or later. Would it be something I’d end up regretting?
Coming out in PAL territories in 2001 on the original PlayStation, the game follows a kid protagonist who is apparently great at looking after Tamagotchi. He is sucked into his virtual pet, and thus the digital world, by its inhabitants in the hopes of saving them from some unknown threat. While there is an overarching plot to the game, for the most part, the player is left to their own devices. Most of the game involves exploring the island and working to recruit Digimon to rejoin the city.
As the player defeats and recruits more Digimon, they gain access to more resources thanks to the new arrivals opening shops and services to make progression easier. By the time the player makes it to the game’s end, the main plot has since been forgotten. As you’ve been wrapping yourself up in the little stories that individual Digimon require you to complete in order to recruit them. What I’m trying to say is that the story isn’t the thing that draws you in.
The thing that always fascinated me as a kid was the game’s central mechanics and game play style. The premise seems to be taking the basic idea behind caring for the rougher and tougher, boy’s version of a Tamagotchi; A Digimon. And extrapolate that out into a physical space as much as possible. Thus you start with this small, newborn monster and have to feed it, ensure it takes its dumps in the toilet and let it know when it’s time to sleep. But then you also need to train it, to make it grow and keep it strong. Because this Digimon partner is your primary means of exploring the island and recruiting new city inhabitants, mainly through battle.
And the battles are cool, they’re mostly a hands off affair with your Digimon using its attacks at random and the player occasionally throwing healing items or calling for the finisher when its ready. It’s as the game procresses, and your Digimon’s intelligence stat raises that you have more options availible to you, such as when to defend, get distance or even which specific attck to use to better manage your MP.
It seems pretty basic when you break it down, but what always hooked me was the potential and mystery of what my Digimon could evolve into. Depending on your starting egg and a whole slew of other requirements, including combat stats, weight and number of “care mistakes”, you could end up with pretty much anything as your partner. Waiting for things to evolve was my favourite thing about the game, hoping I could get something cool like one of the popular characters from the cartoon, when in reality I’d always end up with slugs or living turds (not even joking).
When you finally feel confident that your Digimon partner is strong enough, that’s when you explore deeper into the island and progress the game. The wrinkle in this system comes when your Digimon hits a certain age, eventually all Digimon will die of old age, if you haven’t killed them from losing too many battles that is. This means you must pick a new egg and start the whole process again.
Back then, I never realised how much of a chore this ends up being. What used to feel like a new opportunity, full of possibilities becomes a tedious grind. You’re essentially trapped in the city for a few days as you build up your young Digimon up to a condition it’s able to fight reliably again. It feels a slow process and not one the developers balanced very well in my opinion.
In theory, raising strong Digimon should create a snowball effect. When your strong partner “fades away”, it passes a portion of its stats onto the next generation. But only as much as your tamer level allows, the problem is, unless you start very strongly and get a fully evolved Digimon right out of the gate, reaching that level can feel like much more of a slog when raising subsequent Digimon. It feels like starting from square one again, rather than a gradual build up, only this time without the constant activity of recruitment to keep you busy as you need to have a much stronger Digimon now to pick up where you left off when the previous one died.
Further levels of frustrations are added with how obscured everything is in game. There are a ton of items, most of which have very vague descriptions that don’t actually spell out the full extent of their usefulness. Not only that, the factors that dictate what form your young Digimon will grow into are far finer margins than they should be in a game where they don’t give you any of that information at all.
As it turns out, getting different Digimon partners is a more laborious and precise task than first appears. I’ve ended up playing this game with a number of web tabs open with different guides and spreadsheets detailing the requirements and uses for things in the game, because otherwise I feel like I’d be wandering blindly. Playing like this, You feel like you’ve got a strong Rookie Digimon, only to realise your great stats weren’t exactly what the game wanted and you end up getting one of the “bad” Champion level partners.
While the mystery and sense of unknown seemed exciting as a kid, I didn’t value my time as much back then. Playing it now, it feels frustrating. You end up spending so much time just grinding in the gym trying to raise stats enough to get an ultimate level partner before it just dies of old age anyway and the things entire lifespan was wasted just trying to evolve it.
Game sessions will often devolve into endless days of the same tedious tasks, trying to get a MetalGreymon only for it to not happen and start the process over. The problem comes that the further you get into the game, the stronger your partner is going to need to be, meaning when they die you need to spend a lot more time around town trying to get them back to that level, and not out and actually interacting with the world. Every Digimon’s lifespan becomes a race against time, and the deeper into the game you get the more grind it becomes.
The actual parts of the game where you’re exploring, recruiting new Digimon to the city and winning battles is a lot of fun, but unless you go in with an intensive plan, the more you end up playing, the thinner that content of the game ends up being.
Digimon World is a deeply flawed game that I have an incredible nostalgic fondess for. It’s a concept I still love and wish it had been executed better. But it doesn’t feel like it values its player’s time and would have benefitted from having far more information on hand within the game itself. Not only that, its progression mechanics to make advancing generations of Digimon more powerful felt poorly implemented, if it exists in the game at all.
Normally, that’s where this post would end, on a bittersweet note about how a game I loved growing up just made me sad when going back to it. This particular story does have a happy ending though. Digimon World wasn’t forgotten by fans or developers alike, and early last year we got a throwback to the original game that people like me had been wanting since the early noughties.
Digimon World: Next Order was Digimon World done properly; adding in-depth growth charts, a player progression system that made raising stronger Digimon much easier the further into the game you got. It gave you an indication of how strong opponents were going to be before fighting them and gave far better stats from battles themselves. It also added a second Digimon and the ability to fuse them, meaning they didn’t just make up for the faults with the first game, but built on it by adding new mechanics.
I grew out of Digimon as a franchise a long time ago, but this style of game still really intrigues me, and its why that I got so much out of Next Order when I played it last year. And if anything, going back to the original Digimon World has reminded me how good the followup is and that I might want to go back to it rather than continuing to play the PS1 game. So something good came out of all of this.