It’s been a long time since 2007 – 16 years, in fact. It’s the same year Halo 3 came out, and Bungie announced it was parting ways with Xbox to go independent. Call of Duty 4 came out too. Most importantly for us Nintendo fans, Super Mario Galaxy came out. It may not be a truly banner year for videogames, but there were some absolute stars.
What also happened was Atlus, the famed developer of Shin Megami Tensei and Persona, released a strange game called Etrian Odyssey. Now, strange not because of wacky monsters or storylines, but mostly because of how old-fashioned it is, and how it sits in the Atlus catalog as a whole.
In many ways, Etrian Odyssey has more in common with the first Megami Tensei, Digital Devil Story, than Shin Megami Tensei does, its evolution in the 16-bit era. It’s a game that looks back at the genre and fiddles and refines, making something that can fit and function on the DS yet be incredibly deep at the same time.
Etrian Odyssey is a dungeon-crawling RPG in the vein of Wizardry or Might & Magic. The former came out in 1981, the latter in 1986. If you haven’t got a nice big calculator to hand, let me tell you that’s over 20 years before the release of Etrian Odyssey. So, how, when looking so far back in the past, can Etrian Odyssey be so damn good?
Well, first off, old games were good and still are, so that helps. But also, Etrian Odyssey is a tightly tuned, finely fiddled, and carefully crafted DRPG clearly created by true experts of the genre. It’s an exceptional series of videogames. And that’s still the case today, and loudly.
Jumping back into the first Etrian Odyssey in the Switch collection feels slick. The art is crisp, the menus simple, and the music gorgeous. Everything outside of dungeon crawling looks and feels nice. Job one: done.
The game wastes no time, too. You’re an adventurer in a town, looking to do some adventuring. There’s an inn to rest in, a questmaster to grab missions from, and a place to build up your adventuring squad. Instead of hiring unique characters, you create and name them all yourself.
So, first job is to build that squad. You can choose different classes, give them unique names (like my Trouser and Thromby), and fill their inventories with various weapons and armor from the various shopkeepers. It’s homely and speedy – there’s no overlong cutscene for exposition or endless tutorials. You start when you start, as it were.
All three games work this quickly, and none of them waste too much time with a story. There is a story, but it’s broad framing for the whole point of this game: diving into dungeons, exploring and drawing a map, and finding random events and secrets along the way.
Crawling through dungeons, however, is where Etrian Odyssey originally made great use of the DS’s duel screen. You have your point-of-view on the top screen and a map on the bottom screen. To get over this hurdle, Etrian Odyssey has these two elements next to each other on Switch.
So, on the left is the view of the dungeon, which you move through one block at a time in any of four directions. On the right is the map, which you slowly reveal by exploring the dungeon. This arrangement works just fine, and you can minimize the map and get a big-screen view of the world with the click of a button. It’s not as good as the DS in terms of spatial arrangement, but it doesn’t really matter, either.
Another element of Etrian Odyssey that made great use of the DS is the map, which you fill in with different icons for points of interest and lines to denote walls. Doing this with a stylus is easy. Doing this on the Switch is again, good enough, though not as perfect a fit as the original.
You can use the touchscreen to add map elements, and it feels very intuitive, especially if you have a stylus to hand (though I don’t think there are many folks out there like that). When you’re in docked mode, however, you obviously don’t have access to the touchscreen.
To get around this, you can hold down ZR and move the drawing cursor to draw in sections of the map. It’s not as slick, but good enough. And that sort of tells the story of Etrian Odyssey’s Switch implementation. It was never going to be as smooth as the DS version, but the way the team has got around the Switch’s limitations feels about as good as possible. I’m no UI whizz, but I can’t imagine doing it in a better way.
So, Etrian Odyssey comes to Switch in the best way possible, which is good. Looks good, feels good enough, and everything is endlessly playable. But why should you revisit these games? Or, maybe more pertinently, should you give them a go if you’ve never played them before? Well, the answer to both questions is yes. You definitely should.
Reading reviews from the time may lead you to believe that it’s the sort of game made for people who are already fans of the genre, but that sells Etrian Odyssey’s simplicity really short. The series is very difficult, yes, but its mechanical clarity makes it something very easy to work out and get better at.
Now, it’s a bit rich for me to say this, as someone who already likes these sorts of games. But Etrian Odyssey taught a whole new generation to enjoy this ancient genre. I didn’t like these games until Etrian Odyssey. It’s an education; and a worthwhile one at that.
All that said, there’s one primary issue. Just like any prescribed education, it comes at a price. No, not the nine grand a year I dropped on university, but still a high price all things considered. While the collection includes three games full of dozens of hours of playtime each, it costs $79.99 (£71.99). That’s a lot of money for games over a decade old.
You can pick up one of the three for only $39.99 (£35.99), which is a little easier to swallow. And in reality, one may be enough for you. But, even though the price of these games doesn’t diminish how great they are, it does make it a harder proposition. It’s a worthwhile education either way, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection Switch review
The Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection translates these DS classics to the Nintendo Switch in fine fashion. Occasional fiddliness aside, there’s not much more we could’ve asked for with this port. Except maybe, a more reasonable price…