Above: 'Digimon World: Next Order' screenshot courtesy of Bandai Namco Entertainment.
"Digimon, Digital Monsters, Digimon are the champions." That's likely the first thing you remember, when asked to turn your mind to Bandai's monster brand. But while it certainly was a corker of an opening theme tune—the 1990s was truly a blessed time for TV title songs—and accompanied an anime show that became hugely popular, Digimon couldn't step free of the shadow of Pokémon. Even at the height of Digimon's fame, at the turn of the millennium, many regarded it as a rip-off of Pikachu and pals.
Today, Pokémon remains the dominant force when it comes to all things both monstrous and collectible. But the Digimon franchise has undergone its own evolution—no pun intended—in recent years, a progression that few appear to have noticed. And nowhere is that clearer than in the video gaming market.
Back in 2000, Digimon World for the PlayStation journeyed west, earning itself a place in the hearts of many kids enamored with the virtual pets and the busily growing franchise surrounding them. Its world was full of things to do and weird places to explore; every playthrough was different; it looked great for the time; and the music is still incredible to this day. But in spite of everything it had going for it, Digimon World was, mechanically, a mess.
And so something of a precedent was set. Sequels did nothing to build on World's potential, instead flitting between genres—a rougelike here, an action-RPG there—while never delivering a definitive Digimon experience. Enforced grinding, poorly implemented systems, too much backtracking: these were bad games, riddled with poor design choices.
Sales floundered, budgets were cut and, eventually, Digimon games stopped being exported from their Japanese homeland. I hate to say it, but the series got what it deserved.
But everyone loves an underdog story, right? And in the years since, Digimon became less of a Pokémon competitor and more of a cult concern for a small audience of faithful followers, its games slowly but surely improved. Today, there is a handful available for contemporary or still readily available platforms that truly warrant your attention, regardless of your affection for the series they support. These are games that reinforce what true fans realized at the start: Digimon was completely different from Pokémon, whatever our parents said.
In 2012, Bandai Namco finally released a spiritual successor to the original World. Titled Digimon World: ReDigitize, the game first arrived on Sony's PSP, and a year later on Nintendo's 3DS. Determined western fans, rightly excited at the prospect of a good Digimon game, began a campaign called Operation Decode, which aimed to get the game localized—similar to the successful Operation Rainfall regarding Xenoblade Chronicles and other cult JRPGs.
Although ReDigitize itself never made it outside of Japan, the campaign was successful enough to encourage Bandai Namco to produce English translations of 2015's Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth (for Vita and PS4) and the recent Digimon World: Next Order, which hit North America and Europe in January 2017. And you know what? They're genuinely pretty great RPGs.
Next Order is a second spiritual successor to the original World, while Cyber Sleuth is a simpler, story driven RPG that takes a lot more from the Persona series than it does Pokémon. Neither is much like the other, but the separate sub-series branding should help to differentiate the two for interested parties—and to establish foundations in each direction, for future improvement on their relative formulas.
That a game got localized because of a fan petition, and then sold enough for the publisher to also translate the follow-up is pretty incredible.
It definitely looks like the developers have got the right mindset. Cyber Sleuth's producer, Kazumasa Habu, stated in a promotional video of early 2016 that "our aim was to please adults," and it shows. I don't just mean that from a nostalgia perspective, although the obtainable Digimon and their character models are straight from the anime series, but also in the gameplay balance. We want to collect our favorite monsters, but we don't want to grind endlessly or deal with invisible stats and random number generators to get them.
Speaking of being "adult," Pokémon fans who love the darker side of that series—you know, the ones who talk about creepypastas or play ROM hacks with "mature" (word used loosely) plotlines—might want to give Cyber Sleuth a go. It may be Persona-lite in some respects, but the game has quests that deal with stalking and sex dolls among other things, and a peppering of swear words (that "Teen" ESRB rating is earned) that prove this isn't your kid-friendly monster franchise anymore.
On the other hand, if you're someone who loves Pokémon Amie/Refresh and wishes the walking mechanic from HeartGold/SoulSilver would come back, you should check out Next Order. Like World, this game takes the "virtual pet" concept to its logical extreme—by which I definitely mean your partner taking a dump on the floor two feet away from the toilet.
Okay, Cyber Sleuth and Next Order didn't exactly set the charts alight (the latter did debut at number two in Japan behind, what else, Pokken Tournament). But the fact a game that got localized because of a fan petition and then sold enough for the publisher to also translate the follow-up is pretty incredible. And while neither game is a groundbreaking critical smash, they are easy to recommend and comprise solid first installments for even better sequels.
You might argue that, versus Pokémon's profile, Digimon's comeback is modest at best. But where Pokémon Go received criticism for its rollout, and Sun and Moon ultimately refined already established qualities to new levels of excellence, the Digimon games have as good as reinvented themselves. The franchise may never return to its former glory in the mainstream media or the public consciousness, but as long as the games carry on improving, I will (digital) champion them all the way.