Going Full Circle: Revisiting the Pokémon Ranger Trilogy (& Why It Should Return)

Oh hi there! This post is part of Pokémon: Creator’s Catch, a collaboration event created by NekoJonez. In this collaboration, creators from all over have united to cover the Pokémon series for the 25th Anniversary today! You can go to the hub page for this by clicking here, where you can find links to other sites covering various Pokémon games – I encourage you to have a browse and experience a recap of this wonderful series, from mainline games to the multitude of spin-offs; speaking of, my contribution is going to be covering an acclaimed spin-off trilogy that – whilst perhaps resigned to the past – remains fun to this day. Which could it be? Oh, wait, I guess the article name spoiled that, huh… OK, let’s distract you from that anticlimax with the collaboration logo (ooh, shiny):

Round (& Round) We Go

Before we get into going through the series game by game, a brief introduction: Around the end of Generation III, Pokémon was starting to put out even more spin-offs, utilising concepts that were possible through the new touch-screen functionality provided by the jump from Game Boy Advance to DS. For example, you had the inital-touch-screen-destroying Pokémon Dash, and the randomly-generated dungeon crawler Mystery Dungeon, the latter an extremely popular spin-off that went on to multiple sequels and now even a recent Switch re-release. Amidst all this, though, was another game that would apply its own simplistic yet ingenious spin on the Pokémon series – and in my opinion, is one of the few Pokémon side games that manages to effectively maintain the core essence of why the mainline games work so well.

This is Pokémon Ranger, where instead of partaking in battles to capture Pokémon and defeat other trainers, you play as, well, a Pokémon Ranger, whose job it is to look after the nature and wellbeing of the Pokémon world whilst foiling villainous plots that disrupt that. Instead of turn-based battles, the main action of the game is… drawing circles. Sounds silly, eh? Stick with me, because it actually works really well! The games even spawned a movie, several related episodes of the Pokémon anime, and manga adaptations!

Pokémon Ranger

Released 2006

The first game is set in Fiore, a completely new region full of Pokémon from the first 3 generations (Kanto/Johto/Hoenn) populating lush environments. As a fresh-faced Pokémon Ranger (you can choose to be female or male), you learn the ropes early on as the game introduces to a new way of exploring a Pokemon world. Played in top-down third-person amidst beautiful and bright sprite work, you move around freely from area to area. The character models are more realistically proportioned that in many other Pokémon games, and that lends the series a unique look without losing the recognisable pixel style of the series at that time. When you do encounter a Pokémon, there are no turn-based interludes. Instead, you are transported to a scenario where on the lower touch screen, you see the Pokémon roaming around, and then you use your stylus to literally draw circles around the Pokémon as quickly and efficiently as you can until their capture meter reduces to 0. In-game, this is called a Capture Styler, and a Ranger would be lost without it!

Now, it is a bit more complex than that, as you might expect. Drawing consecutive circles around a Pokémon can be disrupted by the Pokémon using various attacks or moving in unpredictable patterns; however, you can also use different tactics on your side, as any Pokémon you have caught and brought with you in your team can use their abilities to slow the opposition progress and make it easier for you to get your circles in (the Pokémon leaves after one use, so be careful!) This is where traditional Pokémon systems such as type advantages play in too, so, say, a Water-type Pokémon would do more to affect a fire Pokémon. Even with these extra layers that add to the depth of the core game mechanic, it is nevertheless still straightforward – but this is meant in a positive way, as it makes Ranger very easy to pick up and understand for all ages.

Outside of battle, your Pokémon can help too. Certain obstacles can only be gotten past with the help of a Pokémon, and various obstacles need different skillsets, so you may often find yourself hunting down one particular Pokémon in order to progress; this is where a lot of the puzzle design originates from, and has that core catch-’em-all aspec ingrained into it,. As a Pokémon Ranger, your position in the community is a lot less individual than in the mainline games; instead of focusing on your own journey, a Ranger acts as a sort of Sheriff for the locals, using their skills and connection to Pokémon to solve disputes, help with problems, and generally be a beacon of the community.

Where Ranger is similar to the mainline games, though, is that each game revolves around an opposing team or group and their certain villainous plan that needs a-foilin’. For the first game, this is the Go-Rock Squad (led by musical group the Go-Rock Quads. I am not joking), who employ various methods to take advantage of Styler technology for capturing Pokémon permanently against their will and gaining control over Fiore, including a new “Superstyler”. Naturally, this isn’t good, so as the Ranger your job is to mess with their plans and keep the region safe. The story is quite cookie-cutter stuff for the first game in this sense, with not much motivation beyond the opposition wanting control of the region. However, the mixture of plotlines woven in where you help other citizens and Pokémon keeps it fun, as does the level of challenge. In the first game you must keep your consecutive circles going to finish a Pokémon capture, and by the end of the game and the final fights, this is extremely tough stuff – the final fight of the story will test your circle skills! That isn’t quite the end, though, as one of the most-known appeals of Ranger was how there was an extra mission that ended with you acquiring a Manaphy Egg that could be sent over to the upcoming Diamond/Pearl. At this time it was the only way to gain legit access to Manaphy, so was a key selling point!

Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia

Released 2008

After the first game was successful, selling multiple million units, The Pokémon Company went ahead with another Pokémon Ranger game. One of the main selling points for this game is that it was released after Diamond/Pearl/Platinum, so the new region of Almia included a whole extra generation of Pokémon. As well as this, there were several key changes to the gameplay that effectively streamlined and improved player experience. definitely lowering some barriers to entry difficulty-wise. One of these was removing the need for your captures to be consecutive circles; you could bring your stylus off the screen to avoid attacks and then start again without being reset to the start (though the capture metre would reduce over time when you were not circling). Pokémon help in-battle, too, was expanded, and the player could choose which would be their partner Pokémon from an increased selection after being tied to Plusle/Minun in the first Ranger game.

One key extra is the addition of a larger array of side quests that would not directly tie into the main story. I found these extremely fun, as they would be everyday tasks such as clearing paths and retrieving items for villagers that required a challenging but not overly-taxing knowledge and traversal of the region. They have a relaxing vibe to them whilst still being satisfying and contributing to your continuous level-up of your stats and styler level, and if you really get into the completionist mood, then you can attempt to catch every Pokémon to complete your database. If you REALLY wanna go the whole way, how about a full database with every Pokémon caught at S-Rank?

Outside of the quality of life improvements, the core appeal remained, with a linear but intriguing story that is a raising of the bar from the first game. Team Dim Sun (yep, that’s the name) are messing with Almia with the end goal of literally blocking out the sun (get it? Team Dim Sun? Sigh) which is, um, not good. Compared to the first game, there is more motivation to the main villains, as the central antagonist is the result of meddling with a Shadow Crystal defended by Darkrai, activating influencing effects. In that way, there is a conflict of empathising with how people are not necessarily in full control of themselves, but also disagreeing with where their paths have led them. It’s definitely more layered than some other Pokémon stories out there, and holds your attention well as well as tying into a theme of not intruding on natural order.

As with the first game, there were bonus missions, and a lot more in this one, too. Once again you can gain one-time access to Manaphy by completing a mission and then connecting to the core games, and there is also missions for a Riolu Egg and cover star Darkrai; the latter was exciting due to how limited legit access to Darkrai was until then. As with the first game, there was great appeal in these extra missions and the extra incentive they gave the player to buy the Ranger games, but don’t think that they overshadowed the actual games. Indeed, Shadows of Almia may even be the best of the Pokémon Ranger games, due to the amount of gameplay refinements, a more layered story, and plenty of longevity from the new side quests.

Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs

Released 2010

So, now, we sadly get to the last of the Pokémon Ranger trilogy. I say sadly not because the game was bad, but because it is still the most recent release in the series, with seemingly little prospect of another on the horizon due to the focus on the dual-screen DS set-up. For Guardian Signs, a dilemma arose for the developers, because there was not yet a new Generation to take new Pokémon from (Black & White were not out yet). So, you still had the same set of the first 4 generations; to combat this, a brand new gameplay mechanic was introduced (which is in the name of the game): Guardian Signs. Now, you could draw various shapes – not just circles! – on your touch screen to call certain Pokémon to your side. For example, you could call Latias/Latios to engage in the vibrant new flying sections in the skies over new region Oblivia (which has an Alola vibe with multiple islands connected by bridges), or perhaps one of the Legendary Dogs Entei/Raikou/Suicine for speedier movement.

In terms of gameplay, that was the main change; there was not the same level of adjustment that Shadows of Almia supplied. There are a few other small changes, such as the rage system: this takes effect in capture sequences when the opposition Pokémon is provoked into a rage and gets more health and resistance to your capture stylus. It seems as though it is there to add an extra dimension to the capture scenes, but it mainly just makes them last longer rather than actually changing the complexion of the battles. As a contrast, you can now use your ally Pokémon abilities more than once, with them going onto a cooldown after each use. Plus, add in how ally Pokémon deployments now fill up the capture metre on the Pokémon (previously it was just drawing circles that could), and it all makes battles easier but longer, which isn’t a great combo.

Despite being bright, colourful, and packed with stuff to do, Guardian Signs may be the least innovative of the three

Still, don’t get me wrong, the overall game is still fun and has the same charm as the first two, but in contrast to Shadows of Almia, the various changes don’t have a noticeably positive effect. It’s a retread rather than a rediscovery. For me, the way Ranger simultaneously makes you play Pokémon in a new way whilst not asking too much of you is a balance that forms much of the appeal of the experience. Perhaps, even, they purposely leaned into this with Guardian Signs, as even the levelling up is very fast. The first two games hardly had slow upgrade rates for your stylus power levels, but it flies in Guardian Signs to gratifying effect. I am glad to say the inclusion of side quests was another part carried over from Shadows of Almia, and completing them in Guardian Signs is a way to see your progression levels fly!

You may notice I haven’t mentioned the story of Guardian Signs much yet. That is because, well, there is not much to say. Instead of more complex backstories as in Shadows of Almia, the character of Guardian Signs are back to being a bit generic in the form of the Pokémon Pinchers, who use tech to take control of Pokémon against their will. They are actually a group that was disbanded and is attempting to revive lost glory through capturing Legendary Pokémon, which has vibes of Team Rocket in Generation II of the core series, but it is not as well-developed and is all a bit forgettable as a result. The final battle on a flying ship is cool, though! Be aware that story is not where Guardian Signs excels – it is the gameplay where the appeal lies, and with a multiplayer mode too, you can even share that fun with your friends. As with the first two games there were extra missions, this time for Deoxys, Manaphy, Shaymin, and Heatran, so if you were after rare Pokémon to send to your other games, that side continued to be covered too.

Pokémon Ranger 4?

So,. I mentioned how Ranger has not has a new game after Guardian Signs. You may ask why the 3DS could not facilitate one, and sadly, that is because sales slowly declined game by game, even with them adding in more and more incentives with new gameplay mechanics and missions that connected to the core line of Pokémon games. Subsequently, I guess the appeal of a fourth entry was not urgent at The Pokémon Company. Other spin-offs such as mobile game Pokémon GO and also recent Switch games Café Mix and Puzzle Quest seem to be where the focus lies, and now that Switch is the main Nintendo console,. it is tough to see how a Ranger game would even work. The stylus and dual-screen functionality is gone, so how would the drawing-circles core mechanic transfer?

Well, as I hope I have been suggesting throughout this piece, Ranger isn’t just defined by that mechanic. No, instead, it is the inherent sense of creativity and turning Pokémon as a series on its head. Playing as a Ranger gives a completely different vibe to playing as a trainer – your focus isn’t on becoming the best solo trainer, but instead on helping people, and that is just a completely heart-warming vibe that I get sucked into. Therefore, that tone could be carried over but with a new core gameplay mechanic. Perhaps the Joy-Cons become a new specification of capture styler that need simpler motions (such as the flick in Let’s Go Pikachu & Eevee),? As Nintendo Labo and Ring Fit Adventure prove, there is a market out there for weird and wonderful methods of playing games on Switch, so creating a new gameplay mechanic that matches the tone of being a Pokémon Ranger could be integrated to a new game system or peripheral we have not even thought of yet. If Pokémon Ranger shows anything as a series, it is the potential for new ways to play, so I am not ruling out another Ranger game – even if I recognise how unlikely it may be!

Final Thoughts

I hope this piece has served as an enjoyable concise overview of the Ranger series, whether you have never played them and are curious, or came here to bring back nostalgic memories of a brilliant DS spin-off series. The trilogy is a joyful one, full of personable characters and Pokémon (I mean, Ukelele Pichu, come on, that’s amazing). Thank you to NekoJonez for allowing me to participate in this collaboration, and again, I encourage you to go to the Hub page for Pokémon: Creator’s Catch on their blog and read the posts from everyone else for this celebration of a gaming series that has supplied so much joy!

Happy Pokémon Day!

2 thoughts on “Going Full Circle: Revisiting the Pokémon Ranger Trilogy (& Why It Should Return)

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