Mobile games have a PR problem. For countless people, they provide a window into a hobby they would never have really imagined taking up. However, many lifelong fans consider mobile games the very antithesis of what they want from a rapidly changing industry. More often than not mobile games are accused of lacking any kind of real enjoyable experience beyond the Cookie Clicker style dopamine hit of “the numbers only go up.” They are often filled with advertisements for products no one has ever had an interest in (despite being forced to look at it before you can return to your game,) and many features that could help flesh things out are locked behind micro transactions the majority of the time. As someone who has ignored mobile games for the all too common reasons previously listed, I could not be happier to report that Dandy Dungeon has single-handedly changed my mind.
Brought to the mobile market by Yoshiro Kimura, the man behind the kissing simulator Chulip and producer on Little King’s Story, Dandy Dungeon wears its influences on its sleeve from the jump with the title proudly announcing the game as the world’s first romance programming simulator. The titular star, Yamada, is a 36-year-old employee of Empire Games, a mobile video game developer and subsidiary of the Empire Group. However he can’t stand his soul sucking job and would rather work from home, in his underwear, on a game of his very own. Surely there has never been a more relatable set up in a video game.
As it goes, Yamada gets so engrossed with his pet project that he misses consecutive days of work, so much so that his boss, a cartoonishly evil-looking billionaire and owner of the Empire Group, shows up to his apartment and gives him the boot. But Yamada takes this in all in stride, as he had a perfect reason to miss work: he’s fallen in love with his next door neighbor Maria, a plucky young girl, at first sight. Being an awkward but lovable protagonist in a Kimura game, Yamada thinks that the way to Maria’s heart is to program a game featuring him as a brave warrior and her as a beautiful princess. Maybe if he saves the princess in the game she’ll feel the same way he does in real life. Truly Dandy Dungeon lives up to the genre of romance programming.
The story sounds goofy, and it is. Yamada is a ridiculous man and could fall into a trap of coming off as more odd than endearing, but Dandy Dungeon is spared from this faith by expertly written dialogue. I have never seen a mobile game work its comedy chops like Dandy Dungeon. The jokes land and never come off as stale or trite, like so many jokes about game design could. It’s all charm, all the way down. The side characters, which range from Yamada’s equally goofy underclassman from his days at Empire Games to a whole foods saleswoman that moonlights as a dominatrix, all have fantastic dialogue. One of the best parts of Dandy Dungeon is that for every person Yamada meets, he is bound to add them to his game or they’ll inspire him to add a feature from the game based on the interaction. This adds a wonderful degree of personality to Dandy Dungeon, and is another feather in its writing cap. It would not be out of line to say Dandy Dungeon is some of the best comedy writing I’ve seen in a game not just this year, but in a long time.
Gameplay in mobile games can range from addictive to busy work, and sometimes the two are not mutually exclusive. Fortunately, Dandy Dungeon falls into the former and not the latter. You’ll play or “debug” Yamada’s game, piloting a little Dragon Warrior looking Yamda through a series of 5×5 grids that represent dungeon floors while he fights monsters and searches for treasure. While you can get through one grid in no time flat, the idea is to hit every square in one go. Once you touch Yamada, a timer starts and you have to find a route through the floor where you touch every square without breaking your stride. Doing so nets you better loot, and if you miss a square it’ll turn into a fireball and knock off some health at the end of the floor. It sounds simple but it’s a ton of fun to figure out these mini puzzles and it adds something more to Dandy Dungeon as opposed to just blobbing through monsters. As you might have guessed you’ll find new weapons, armor and items as you make your way through Yamada’s game, swapping things out and combining items to seek ever higher numbers and to scoop bonuses from completing item sets. Special mention to the College Student sent made from a turd hat and a Japanese student shirt.
Visually and sonically, Dandy Dungeon plays to its strengths. Big colorful pixel graphics mixed with a simple but effective chiptune soundtrack are just what the doctor ordered. The game is quite easy on the eyes, and the title screen song has been stuck in my head for days. Yamada has silly sound effects and ridiculous ballet poses in spades, and the enemies range from your typical slimes and goblins to almost Mother style absurdity with haunted doors, creepy dollies and toilets rounding out your classic RPG roster. And in no small way, they’re complete with fairly humorous descriptions. The Masamune enemy described as, “he’s about to commit seppuku, don’t let him do it” was my personal favorite.
Dandy Dungeon is a free to play game and while you won’t find any ads except fake ones for demon castles, there are micro transactions. This isn’t as big of a deal as it is in other games because many of the items you can buy in the store you get in-game at a fairly decent rate. The rice balls which bring Yamada back to life if he falls in a dungeon are easily acquired in-game, as are the golden keys that let you into the Golden Pyramid dungeon and item storage expansion kits. There is one item that I would say is necessary, however. Bad news is that Yamada has an energy bar that dictates when you can and can’t enter dungeons, and is a pretty nasty gate on how often you can play if it runs out. Be this as it may, I didn’t run into a problem with this until later on. Every time you level up the bar gets maxed out, and it recharges fairly quickly. The good news is that you can purchase three ducks for $8.49 that negates the bar entirely. While this might seem like a big purchase to some, this was the only purchase I made in the game and I made it after playing a TON of Dandy Dungeon. By the time you get to the point where you need the ducks, if you enjoyed the game as much as I did, $8.49 going right to the developers who made a game I spent more time with than anything on a handheld this year is peanuts.
Dandy Dungeon is a game that changed my mind, which doesn’t happen. I can be a real dog with a bone when it comes to my opinion on things, especially something like mobile games due to my inherent disgust of micro transactions, but Dandy Dungeon did what no other mobile game ever has: gave me a reason to spend that money. You download Dandy Dungeon and then open it and the game takes the wheel. Like most mobile games it’s a fun and quick game I can just pop up on my phone whenever I have some free time. Unlike most mobile games, it let me play it and make an informed decision based on how much I liked the game. I didn’t have to sit through any long, glitchy advertisements or wait for the game to let me play it. Almost like a really good NES game, it just starts. Not just that, but it one ups itself by going above and beyond just being a fun way to waste time. The writing is dynamite, and the way the game presents itself with the pixel art in conjunction with the simple, hooky music goes with the grain of the game in the best kind of way. When Dandy Dungeon asks you to review it, it doesn’t load you into the app store. Instead, Yamada turns to the player and asks if they can rate the game if the player has been enjoying it. Dandy Dungeon is all heart, and a true diamond in the rough on the mobile game market.