I Finally Beat Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs and Gosh I Love Pokémon Ranger

I'm the kind of girl who likes Pokémon spin-offs more than the main games. Don't get me wrong, the generations I've played have been some of my all-time favorite experiences: I put 350 hours into Pokémon Diamond, working towards finishing the National Dex (I was 18 off in the end, thanks to an inability to get anything from Johto) and constantly re-battling the Elite 4 for fun. I'm really looking forward to Pokémon Sword (for one reason only) and I just finished trying out a fan-game, Pokémon Insurgence, which was really solid.

That Pichu can play a dang ukulele.
That Pichu can play a dang ukulele.

But at the end of the day, the Pokémon experiences that I've revisited time and time again have been the offshoots. The weird games that were RPGs in some ways but not the exact catch-em-all that the money-makers are. The big ones for me are easily the first couple of Mystery Dungeon titles; Blue Rescue Team and Explorers of Time formed so much of my early emotional reactions to games as a medium. Blue Rescue Team was heartbreaking to me as a 12 year-old, and the second entry in the series further wrecked me. I've even thought several times about getting a copy of PokéPark for Wii to see what the heck that is.

I could talk a lot about the different spin-offs, but I wanna focus on one specific series within those spin-offs: Ranger.

Pokémon Ranger is a really different kind of game from other Pokémon titles. There are RPG mechanics, but the only thing that levels up is your styler. Pokémon are treated as weaker/stronger than others, but they do not have levels. In fact you don't even catch them; you 'capture' them, which in a way kinda sounds more insidious than it actually is. Capturing involves the player drawing circles around the Pokémon which wanders and attacks on the bottom screen. Completing a circle helps convey feelings of friendship towards the Pokémon, and upon capture it elects to help you either capture other Pokemon or clear targets out in the field, and then it heads back to its native habitat.

Rangers are a weird organization, because they aren't cops; those exist already. They're more like...a catch-all set of do-gooders who do whatever the population of a region requires them to do. Put out a forest fire? They've got it covered. Help an elderly couple solve an argument? They'll be there with bells on. Take on an evil organization trying to build an army of evil Pokémon? Rangers do that before breakfast. There are Area Rangers that are situated in towns, and Top Rangers who roam around their region (or potentially the world) to perform acts for the benefit of people and Pokémon.

There are three Ranger games, and all three came out on the Nintendo DS: the original Pokémon Ranger, Shadows of Almia, and Guardian Signs.

Ranger is easily the worst game in the sub-series. While the two latter games have completed loops fill in a capture bar, Ranger requires the player to complete a set number of loops without lifting the stylus or having the line break. It was very tedious, especially when some of the final bosses required 40+ loops. If you have any interest in checking these games out, I would suggest skipping this one.

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Shadows of Almia is my favorite entry. It introduced Generation 4 Pokémon to Ranger, my favorite group of the series. The aforementioned change to the capture bar was very welcome, and the overall story is generally solid: It's a Pokemon game so it's not this grandiose, really dark tale, but it's still competent enough.

So, after loving Shadows of Almia back in 2010 or so and 100%ing it multiple times, it's a wonder it took me nearly a decade to get to Guardian Signs. On face, what I saw of the final installment in the series always looked off-putting; it focused again on the legendary dogs (easily some of my least favorite legendary Pokémon), you were forced to have a specific partner Pokemon instead of the diverse choices in Almia, and the enemy team was called "Pokémon Pinchers."

I forget how I got on this kick, but I glanced at the Wii U Virtual Console listings, and seeing the list of DS games included Guardian Signs was a great surprise, since all those games are now quite expensive, and I was in the mood for more Ranger.

Guardian Signs is really interesting because of where it places you as a Ranger, and the ways it shakes up what you can do. The past two titles had you just starting out, but the player character of this game is a seasoned Ranger, potentially a Top one considering they do technically move between regions and run all around the place. The game lets you skip some tutorials; it feels like this is a game meant for people who played Almia and are here for one last ride. Additionally, you get to use the titular Guardian Signs to summon Pokémon like Entei and Latias at any time to help you clear obstacles.

In previous Ranger games, Pokémon assists came in the form of a one-time move that would help the player capture a Pokémon. In Guardian Signs all of the player's party Pokémon have assists that are on a timer; as long as the Pokémon isn't hit by an attack, their move can be used again. It was really surprising to me at first, and then it helps feed into the narrative of you being more experienced and better at building bonds with Pokémon than past titles. I like this change on principle, but it was implemented awkwardly; activating an assist immediately puts the Pokémon on the field, and they don't always send their attacks towards whatever you're trying to capture. More than once I sent something out only to be frustrated at its ineffectiveness.

Puzzles in Ranger are extremely simple and require the player to capture certain Pokémon to perform a "Target Clear," which can involve destroying a boulder, putting out a fire, or some other task that removes an obstacle to progress. Guardian Signs goes beyond the previous games and lets you utilize several Pokémon at once. It's a small thing that goes a long way. All of this comes together to make you feel like more of a *Ranger* than ever before, albeit with a worse execution.

The story of Guardian Signs is an odd one. The ideas here are neat and the stakes get really high towards the end, but it feels like a step-down from Almia for most of the ride. The whole thing feels like it could have been a DLC campaign for Almia, until the last hour-and-a-half when things ratchet up to 'fate of the world' stakes are put into play. There are some returning characters that are a welcome presence, but their role feels too minimal in the grand scheme of things, and I was left a bit disappointed by how the whole thing shook out.

Guardian Signs introduces a co-op multiplayer mode, which you access from the main story. A couple of times near the beginning, Celebi sends you back in time and tries to recruit you to help with trouble in the past: Once the game is all "Hey this is the co-op mode! Go here when you wanna engage with it!" you can ignore it, and it's really strange that it's never acknowledged as part of the main plot. There are allusions to a past conflict that I assume is what you engage with in that multiplayer, but it's still awkward and I really wish it was just part of the main story.

While it has its missteps, as a sequel it is admirable. The most apt comparison I can make is the Ace Attorney series; each game progressively starts a bit harder I find, and the *tutorial* cases of each game get better and more elaborate. They still are accessible to newcomers, but ramping things up right off the bat really helps me get into a sequel, especially when I've just played the predecessor. More recent Pokémon spin-offs, like mobile offerings, the Rumble games, and Quest, have done very little for me to be honest, but I'm hopeful that the Switch will perhaps get something that fills the void that's been left behind.

It's been nine years this week since Guardian Signs released, so I think it's safe to say that Ranger as a series has been shelved. It is understandable; I don't know anyone else who's played these games, even among my friends who are die-hard fans of the Mystery Dungeon games. In some ways, I'm OK with this: the transition to 3DS might not have been great, and the series would certainly not work as well on a system that doesn't have a stylus. At the same time, I would play a new one in heartbeat right now; I love Pokémon as a world, and seeing it from an angle that isn't "time to beat the League again" is refreshing each time.

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