by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Pok & eacute;mon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time/Darkness & r & Rated Everyone; Nintendo DS & r & 2 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he biggest challenge the Pok & eacute;mon games face is the perception of them as a children's fad situated somewhere between Power Rangers and Harry Potter. Whenever I recommend the series' superb role-playing games to anyone older than 12, I can see them picturing the discount cartoons, boxes of foil-wrapped trading cards and stuffed Pikachus staring helplessly from arcade claw-games. And unfortunately the Pok & eacute;mon Mystery Dungeon games live up to that reputation.

With colors brighter and details more cartoonish than any Pok & eacute;mon product outside of the cartoons themselves, the Mystery Dungeon series presents a lighthearted take on the Pok & eacute;verse. The games cast each player as a single Pok & eacute;mon, thrusting them into the Pok & eacute;mon world. These Pok & eacute;mon go shopping, play games together and form "explorers guilds." Instead of delving deeper into the mindsets of the Pok & eacute;mon, however, this characterization comes across as an attempt to reverse engineer a sophisticated role-playing game for a crowd weaned on the spin-off cartoons.

The matched pair of Darkness and Time have the same story. (Question: How did I become a Pok & eacute;mon? Answer: By playing this game.) But the games' only real drama comes from exploring dungeons. These dungeon crawls are primarily races to the end. No matter how many dungeon floors I explored thoroughly, the only "mystery" I discovered was the word on the game's box. In each dungeon, I just needed to find the stairs leading to either the next level or the ultimate battle.

The adaptation of the Pok & eacute;mon rules also has some flaws. Some of these will annoy connoisseurs. (Why does every Shellos in Darkness/Time have only the "Storm Drain" ability? In the other games they can also have "Sticky Hold.") Others are glaring errors. Several times a creature that was obviously a Psyduck was called another name. But the enchantment really fades the longer players are confined to living the life of a single Pok & eacute;mon. The role-playing games allowed players to form their own teams of critters, delving into each of their evolutions. With only one Pok & eacute;mon to identify with, I started to feel stale and limited, like a spun-out franchise.

THE GOOD: The Mystery Dungeon series preserves the core Pok & eacute;mon battle mechanics, which at this point are a wickedly intricate rock-paper-scissors system of strengths and weaknesses. But the Dungeon games use an overhead perspective, with battles taking place in a chessboard-like grid of space. This has brought some new strategy to the system, with several of the familiar old Pok & eacute;-moves being given extended ranges (for attacking foes at a distance), and multiple Pok & eacute;mon ganging up into cluster brawls that dwarf the role-playing games' skirmishes.

THE BAD: The grid-based combat also introduces a host of problems. Most long-range attack moves can also be used close up, making them overwhelmingly useful catch-all maneuvers, leaving the subtle, standard Pok & eacute;mon tactics to languish. And the companion creatures that accompany players' Pok & eacute;mon are almost impossible to control during battle, often standing aside uselessly when their assistance is needed, or getting caught up in dumb-idea duels when other Pok & eacute;mon are trying to escape.

THE BOTTOM LINE: In trying to refresh a videogame franchise that's already perfect, the Pok & eacute;mon Mystery Dungeon series ends up more cloying than clever.

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