Digimon are the champions.
Growing up in the 90’s, one of the biggest fads to seize the youth was the monster trainer genre. Be it anime, video game or virtual pet, it was a huge phenomenon. Obviously Pokemon was, and remains, the biggest franchise to arise of this era. You also had things like Monster Rancher, itself a very unique take on the genre, what with the fantastic use it put the Playstation’s disc drive to and a really, really good (IMO) anime adaptation to boot. There was even an almost sub-trend with collectible robots and such as seen exemplified with stuff like Medabots. But the biggest rival to Pokemon was without question, Digimon: Digital Monsters.
Originating as a virtual pet, basically the “boy” counterpart to the already fairly gender neutral Tamagaotchi, Digimon first arrived on the scene in June of 1997. It, much like many others, would go on to be a multimedia machine with everything from games to anime, manga, radio shows, toys and even several theatrical films. And while, as I mentioned, there would be an anime inspired by the virtual pet, the game we are looking at today is one that takes its inspiration from the virtual pet itself and having very little in common with Digimon as we know it today.
Digimon World released for the original Playstation in Japan in 1999 and a year later stateside. In it you take on the role of a young boy obsessed with the popular digital pet key-chain, having been sucked into the device and the world of Digimon. You learn that the once populous city is now just a small town, its residents having lost their memories and fled into the wild. It’s your job to find them and convince them to return to town while learning what is causing the phenomenon and stopping it.
You won’t be doing this alone however as you are joined by your very own partner Digimon that you must train and raise to battle the various wild Digimon that inhabit the land. This is where the game really differentiates itself from both its competition and the anime that would follow.
While the anime more or less presented Digimon as having single evolutionary chains similar to Pokemon, in the virtual pet and most of the video game adaptations they actually have vast, branching evolutionary lines. Which Digimon your partner digivolved into was determined by a combination of factors, everything from stats to how well you cared for them, weight, battles, etc.
It was a somewhat obtuse system and the game really doesn’t hold your hand when it comes to raising your Digimon, something that was quite off putting to most and greatly mitigated in future titles. Your Digimon would grow old, die and be reborn, just like the virtual pet. It’s actually a part of the game that I personally really enjoyed and in conjunction with the structure is ultimately why it’s my favorite game in the series.
When playing you would have to divide up your time between training your Digimon, battling wild Digimon and learning new moves, exploring the land of File Island, and recruiting new Digimon to come back to town and help build and expand it. Many simply required you beat them in battle, others had more obscure quest lines that could take place over several in-game days if not longer. The feeling of growing this little town you start the game in into a more fleshed out city with everything from a hospital to an arena added a great sense of progression to the game and it was really satisfying to see things shape up.
I’d be remiss to not mention the music and sound design. It can come across a bit harsh these days, but this is a big part of the nostalgia factor to me the game has and I absolutely adore it. From the catchy earworm that is the File City day theme to the beautiful music of the Ice Sanctuary, the game is full of memorable tracks that I still find myself randomly humming along to myself. There’s also a really special charm to the sounds of your Digimon pattering along or stomping as they get bigger and the various noises they make.
There’s plenty of content, tons of Digimon to recruit, a plethora of evolutionary lines to complete, a bunch of trading cards to collect, even a bit of post-game content with an extra final boss.
Digimon World is a challenging game, a lot of the difficulty comes from its obtuse nature, harsh and secret digivolution requirements that often resulted in players with literal shit partners. I never beat the game as a kid. I put hours and hours into it, it’s far and away my favorite game on the original Playstation, but I just could never finish it. It wasn’t until I was an adult over a decade later that I finally pulled it off through a combination of just knowing more of what I was doing and being a better gamer, it was incredibly satisfying to finally do it.
Digimon World continued for several games after its original release and none of them were anything like the first and I just didn’t care for them at all, it wasn’t what I wanted out of my Digimon games. And while I would go on to really enjoy the very Shin Megami Tensei-esque “Digimon Story: Cybersleuth” RPG, I was completely stoked when a proper return to the original Digimon World formular would finally be making its way stateside (there had been a sort of remake of the first game released some years prior but it was a Japanese exclusive), and not only did it feature many mechanics and concepts used in the first game, it was a direct sequel.
Digimon World: Next 0rder released in an already jam-packed year of high quality titles. 2017 saw the release of the Nintendo Switch and several incredibly high profile games including the critically lauded Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. It also saw the release of other games on my top 10 including The Surge and The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth +. 2017 was an amazing year for games and Digimon World: Next 0rder had some steep competition. It certainly did deliver on everything I had hoped it would and found an easy spot on my top 10 games for the year.
However, while having a modernized take on a classic formula I loved was a childhood dream come true, I did ultimately end up enjoying it less than I did the first. It was a slower game and much more restricted by a greater focus on its overarching plot. This was its biggest drawback as it lost a lot of the freedom I loved from the original. It’s a hard and grindy game, to the point that you never really want to be walking around with anything less than a champion level partner and even then you don’t want to go far beyond the starting area without at least an ultimate.
They simplified and streamlined a lot of aspects, which is both a good and bad thing as it’s a nice convenience feature but part of the appeal of the original to me was that sorta random, obtuse nature it had, I dunno. I loved a lot of what they did expand, the story was interesting, there was a bigger cast, having two partner digimon ended up being a pretty neat gimmick, the city really expands into a full fledged city rather than the two screen town of the first game. Combat is better and more involved. It did a lot right, but as I said, that lack of freedom really does hurt it and while it does play heavily into the nostalgia (OMG the remixes and remasters of the original soundtrack made my heart sing), there was a rough charm the first game had that’s obviously missing here.
Hope you all enjoyed this little look back on a very nostalgic piece of my childhood. Digimon World isn’t a game for everyone and I honestly think most interested in it may be better served playing the more modern Next 0rder as it is certainly a more accessible take on the concept. But if you can put up with some obscure and obtuse mechanics and the general rough around the edges nature of a game quite a few years on in age, see about picking up or otherwise experiencing the original. There’s some great content up on Youtube, from Let’s Plays (I highly recommend MeowingKittens’s LP of it) to speedruns (while his times have since been beaten, I found sparsie’s runs to be incredibly entertaining and informative).