When I wrote about Onion Games’ wonderful operatic bullet hell BLACK BIRD, I referred to their fourth wall-demolishing mobile dungeon-crawling puzzle-RPG Dandy Dungeon: Legend of Brave Yamada as “now sadly defunct.” And indeed it was, at the time: discontinued and delisted, to the infinite sadness of its devotees and of those who, like me, had only just begun to become devoted before the game disappeared. But now Brave Yamada has risen again, in the form of a comprehensive rerelease for Switch, and this vastly weird, weirdly vast game has another chance to confuse and delight and compel and charm.
If you’re familiar with Onion-in-Chief Yoshirō Kimura’s previous designs, then you know to expect a simple, thoughtful genre piece that is simultaneously a goddamn magnum opus. Million Onion Hotel is a top-down puzzle game that is also a hallucination on the vastness of existence. BLACK BIRD is a vertical shooter that is also an elaborate class-conscious revenge epic. Bob Chipman once said that Stephen King gives a “b-movie premise” a “War and Peace execution.” That’s how Yoshirō Kimura treats game genres.
Accordingly, Dandy Dungeon is about love and labor and the worth of human creativity, and it explores those themes in about the silliest, grindiest, least portentous way possible.
Each level is a dungeon or tower, broken up into floors. You traverse the floor by drawing a single unbroken line from an entrance door to an exit door, with this sometimes being complicated by walls, or water, or traps and monsters. As you move along that line, minimalist dungeoneering ensues: Bump into a treasure chest or some gold, and you’ll pick it up. Bump into a monster and you’ll keep bumping into it for as many auto-advancing turns as it takes for you to kill it (or for it to kill you).
So it’s the usual push/pull and risk/reward of game dungeons: deciding whether the loot is worth the danger of getting it, managing your inventory space and your cooldowns, avoiding unwinnable fights, not avoiding so many fights that you have to face even worse ones without having leveled. But it’s also a satisfying spacial puzzle game, and one played under pressure: Take too long to draw the line, and you start losing HP every second; miss any blank squares with your line, and you’ll lose some HP for each one. Sometimes you’re thriving. Often you’re just scraping by.
Dandy Dungeon does all the things that you would expect with this setup. The dungeons get tougher. The loot gets shinier. Sooner or later you’ll probably need to stall your forward momentum and grind for gear or the materials to upgrade it.
But two things differentiate that process, here. First, it’s fast. The game is meaty in terms of its number of levels and its variety of equipment—but a given dungeon, and even a given laborious loot enhancement, can be a single-sitting affair. This takes some of the sting out of runs unblessed by the Powers That RNG. It also makes the grind feel less like a means of prolonging the game and more like a perverse sugar rush. More, more, more!
Secondly, and even more importantly, the narrative attached this action is nuts. It’s hung on a story that’s loose in tone, but wherein every plot thread pays off. It’s smart in its approach, but not the least bit afraid of being dumb as hell moment-to-moment.
Yamada is a programmer, middle-aged and single. He hates his job. He dreams of staying home and throwing himself at his own game idea, which is of course the game I’ve been describing, with its clever line puzzles and its puckish loot loops. The slow unfurling of new gameplay elements is framed as Yamada implementing new features in an underwear-clad, Saiyan-haried burst of productivity. The ramping up of difficulty level-to-level is framed as Yamada trying to “channel this suck,” which is to say the details of his frequently discouraging life, “into videogame!!” The music is vocalized in a way that suggests Yamada is humming to himself as he works, and also that, in his head, the humming becomes a choir of angels.
In this frame story, Yamada never leaves his apartment. People stop by, but they never coax him out, nor do they even really try. Yet Yamada’s life as fanciful, quasi-hikikomori indie game developer is hard to separate from his real (or “real,” or “”””real””””) life. As he defeats bosses patterned after the executives at his employer, lo and behold, the real-world villains’ real-world divisions turn out to be corrupt or dysfunctional, and they collapse accordingly. Events in town inspire Yamada to create new levels, and by beating those levels he—you—can apparently change the course of those events.
And then there’s Maria. Early in the game, Yamada meets a new, much younger, caricaturishly sweet neighbor, Maria, and falls immediately and irretrievably in love with her. He programs her into the game as a princess for The Hero (who looks a whole lot like him, of course) to rescue again and again, and a device on his desk quantifies just how much Maria loves him, ticking up with each major in-game-within-a-game triumph.
And this works. You reliably get word of fallen bosses gone to seed, drinking at an unseen local bar—and just as reliably, Maria stops by and warms to Yamada, bit by bit. This is, frankly, creepy, and the game is well aware of the line it’s walking. But there’s no indication that Maria’s will is being circumvented, exactly, nor that she ever disliked Yamada. She simply didn’t know him, and then she came to know him, and eventually love him, in an entirely surreal way.
Dandy Dungeon is after all a power fantasy, and an uncommonly open-hearted one at that.
I’ve talked before about Julian Dibbel’s notion that grinding is, in a sense, the fantasy of labor being fair. It’s an arena, albeit a bounded and artificial one, where hard work really does pay off. All that’s really standing between you and the legendary scepter of your dreams is your willingness to put in the work.
In Dandy Dungeon, that idea of unalienated, meritocratic work extends to art-making, and more broadly to labor itself. Yamada finds reality disappointing, and so by the sweat of his brow and the click-clacking of his keyboard, he makes a world he likes better. That becomes his world, and so it becomes the world. It’s pretty fruitless to try and parse what’s “”””really”””” happening in Dandy Dungeon, because it’s all fantastical. Saving a princess from a tower, or having justice win out over bad actors in business, or staying home and making something beautiful and having it immediately matter and get you where you want to be in life —all of these are fantasies, and Dandy Dungeon is a heightened space where they can all come true for a while.
As such, even though Maria is frequently a damsel in distress, Dandy Dungeon mostly avoids treating her like a prize to be won. Maria and Yamada being together is just yet another thing that probably wouldn’t happen in reality but can, to the happiness of all concerned, happen in this weird liminal fantasy space where effort sees results.
And yes, applying this logic of labor and grinding and fairness and payoff to romance is, again, creepy. But to me, the creepiness seemed purposeful. As Onion Games explored in BLACK BIRD as well, there’s no power fantasy that’s altogether free of moral hazard, or of tunnel vision.
Yamada’s ultimate vision of victory is still a little losery.
And as such, Yamada ends up being a more convincing everyman than most. He’s certainly not a straightforwardly aspirational figure, nor is he just a humiliated shmuck. He’s neither, and both—a dreamer whose dreams are at once impossibly ambitious and laughably mundane, utterly righteous and deeply selfish, socially transformative and kinda petty. We’re supposed to get lost in his fantasy, but we’re not supposed to buy into it wholesale, I don’t think.
It’s a rare enough thing for a narrative to quite so successfully have its cake and eat it too.
I should note: There are a few vestiges of Dandy Dungeon’s mobile-game past, most obviously the main action taking place in a vertical slice in the the center of the screen, in the aspect ratio of a smartphone—but also smaller interface quirks, like holding down the A button in order to see details about an item (which would feel perfectly natural as a held tap on a touchscreen, but would ordinarily be mapped to its own button on a controller).
The most ghostly presences from the old format are the in-game items that, in the original version, could be purchased with real money as well as found in-game. Golden Keys (which give you access to a deep, difficult bonus level) are easy enough to come by, but onigiri (which allow you to revive your Hero without losing your run, and your loot with it) not so much. Playing on mobile, their rarity felt like a nudge, albeit a relatively gentle one, toward purchasing extra lives—that old free-to-play mainstay. But bcause there are no microtransactions in the Switch version (which is a good thing in my book, to be clear) we’re left with a highly useful item that simply feels like it’s rarer than it needs to be.
On mobile, onigiri were also the currency used to contract “Poor” NPC adventurers to retrieve you some quick, semi-randomized, occasionally otherwise-unattainable loot. While these characters’ dialogue still refers to (and indeed, cheekily pleads for) those premium rice balls (at least in the build I played before release), sending them out now costs gold (a much more plentiful resource) instead (which, confusing or not, is a good and welcome change).
And gone entirely is an energy meter that used to limit how many dungeon floors you could explore at a throw (another microstransaction mainstay). Its passing will not be mourned.
You can still access the Mamazon.mom storefront, where adorable energy-replenishing ducks could once be bought for cash-money—but in the Switch version, it only appears after the main campaign is over, and at press time, I have not done enough grinding to know what, if anything, the ducks even do anymore.
All in all, Dandy Dungeon has come through its transformation feeling entirely at home, and only slightly haunted by the ghost of formats past.
I’ve been unable to confirm whether all of the “Dandy Dungeon 2” expansion levels from the mobile game are included, or whether they’re coming in a future update, or what’s up. Likewise the strange-even-by-this-game’s-standards “event” levels about, for example, alien abductions that involve Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu in some way. If that stuff is currently in there, then I currently don’t know how to access it. [UPDATE: The folks at Onion Games have confirmed that a free update is indeed forthcoming!]
But what’s definitely there is a mountain of main story levels, a parallel progression of themed “special” levels, and the aforementioned gleeful, feverish fantasia of a tale to go along with them. And loot aplenty. And outfits! Oh my, the outfits, from RPG class staples, to boss armor, to an asparagus-man outfit out of Million Onion Hotel, to the inevitable cat costume. A delight.
If you’ve into Onion Games’ inventive approach to genre, and/or their go-for-broke approach to theme and presentation, then Dandy Dungeon is likely to be something of a singleminded obsession for you for a while, all-consuming in its loops and life-affirming in its goofiness.
You, and Yamada in the game, and The Hero in the game within the game, all grinding away without shame or fear. What a lovely recursive fantasy to spend some time in.