The 2008 review revue, part one

I have a lot of things happening at work right now, and my personal life is also rather busy. And then I’ll be more or less off the grid for a week of Christmas break. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I default to a week or two of lame and predictable blogging here. Yes, I’m going to write about the games of 2008, just like every other hack on the planet. Sorry! But this isn’t some grand and sweeping best of the year proclamation; instead, I’m going to look at some of the games I’ve reviewed for work and second-guess myself. Of course, I took a break from reviewing a few months ago, so don’t expect to see much of the fall rush. Think of this as a retrospective on the first half of 2008.

Let’s begin near the beginning with one of the year’s best and most underappreciated games.

Shiren the Wanderer | Sega | DS | RPG/Roguelike
I gave it: B+ | In retrospect, this was: Too low.

Shiren is the sort of game that, by nature, can’t seem to get a break. That’s because its nature is one of daunting, codified challenge. The roguelike is a sadly misunderstood niche, and while a few good people (like GameSetWatch’s John Harris) are fighting the good fight by promoting roguelike awareness, the fact is that most gamers — especially those with a console heritage — mistake roguelikes for standard RPGs and are infuriated when they don’t work like your typical role-playing adventure. But they don’t! And that’s the point. A roguelike is entirely about the journey, unlike most RPGs which are about the destination and the tedious grinding necessary to get there. Roguelikes break the level-up mentality; while stat boosts are necessary, a good roguelike prevents you from spending too much time killing monsters for experience, either with hunger (forcing you to seek food at all times lest you starve) or by simply forcing you out of the current dungeon level by more aggressive means. Roguelikes start you out at zero for each journey and challenge you to reach the end with only what you can find. It’s basically RPG as arcade game: each playthrough is self-contained, designed to be challenging and not necessarily to be conquered. The point isn’t winning so much as learning all the ins and outs and improving your previous performance. Roguelikes can be difficult, often near-impossible, but thoughtful planning and cautious play will eventually see a persistent adventurer through to the end.

And Shiren is a damn fine roguelike, although Sega did its best to scare people away before they even played the game. Look at that box art — it’s like a reject from the ’90s. The bad part of the ’90s where publishers were allergic to anime-tinged artwork and insisted on airbrushing large, ugly old men in place of the lithe heroes seen in-game. Don’t be frightened, gamers! Shiren is intimidating, but not for the reasons the box would suggest.

Of course, the Internet being what it is, some people are more concerned about semantic nonsense than actually discussing the game’s merits. “Shiren can’t be a roguelike because you can carry over items from one play to another! And there are persistent changes in the world!” But that’s part of what makes Shiren fun and accessible. It’s insanely difficult and ruthlessly unforgiving, but at the same time it rewards you for repeated play by allowing you to bend certain game elements in your favor. The girl who tricks you in one of your first playthroughs, leading you to stumble blindly into an early deathtrap, eventually comes around and becomes an ally. Help the struggling restauranteur over time and eventually he’ll offer invaluable help before you embark on the deadly final floors of the dungeon. Slowly forge and improve a weapon or shield in storage and after a while it will become an incredibly powerful asset. But of course even this comes with risk: that super-sword might improve your chances in the dungeon, but die with it in your possession and it’s gone forever — all that work flushed away in an instant.

What makes Shiren so addictive is this give-and-take design, the constant drive to go forward even though you’re constantly pushing your character to the brink of defeat. You can’t play Shiren like a typical RPG; hoarding items is folly, because you need to use them to survive, and if you don’t survive you lose them anyway. You can’t count on always finding the gear you need when you need it. You can’t count on the enemies always behaving exactly as you predict, because while they have clearly-defined abilities the game features ample randomization that affects their relationship to the (ever-changing) environment and to the player. And sometimes the game unexpectedly throws you for a loop — not every situation you find yourself in is winnable. That’s where much of the frustration with Shiren comes in, I think, but the point of Shiren isn’t to win every time you play. It’s impossible. Rather, the goal is to learn from your mistakes, learn to anticipate what the monsters will do, learn how your equipment can be used to your advantage. Learn the game, keep trying, and eventually when all your ducks line up, you’ll be able to utilize your good fortune to the fullest. Shiren embodies the premise of an interesting article Gamasutra recently published; like Mega Man 9, Shiren is an experience that focuses on betterment of the player rather than of the player’s in-game avatar.

Unfortunately, most gamers aren’t interested in self-improvement, and Shiren tanked, so we won’t be seeing its (even better) sequels. Personally, I’m just glad Sega was willing to take a chance on publishing this one in the U.S. to begin with — it’s easily one of the most compelling (and brilliantly designed) games to see release this year. Never mind that it was originally released 15 years ago on Super NES; great design is timeless.

30 thoughts on “The 2008 review revue, part one

  1. Like I said, this isn’t really a best-of, it’s a second look at games that made an impression on me, good or bad. That Shiren happens to be one of the best games I’ve played in a long age is just gravy.

  2. This is on my “when I have time” list… I definitely want to give it a shot – but DQ4/The World Ends With You are eating up my time right now.

    It does have some seriously ugly art… for a company that gets a game like Valkyria Chronicles SO SO right… Sega got this one wrong.

  3. Its interesting. Everything people seem to love about Roguelikes is why I can’t stand them.
    I want to hoard my stuff. I don’t want to lose levels and stuff if I die. I don’t want to replay things to get it right. (Anything further than a 15 minute setback to me is criminal for the most part. Even back during the abusive Commodore 64 RPG days I quickly learned to get around these sorts of death situations. Backup character disks, not putting the game disk in the drive..)

    I can see why others would like that level of challenge, but to me, deaths in most Roguelikes are more random bad luck than because I did something wrong. Losing all that playtime because I ended up in a randomly made room with a ton of monsters that paralyze me before I can even react isn’t something that sits very well with me.

    I quit playing the quasi Roguelike Evolution 2 because of this. Spent 2 hours or more in the dungeon. Get a ton of random negative status effects. Healer killed from an instakill type attack. I start booking it down 10+ dungeon levels, avoiding all combat. I jump down a pit to get to a lower level faster. It drops me on an enemy fight. They give them surprise round. They use stun effects on my characters. I die. 2 hours WASTED.

    It didn’t make me say “Oh well, bad luck! Maybe I shoulda had an escape item on me, let’s try it again!” It made me stop playing.

    YMMV, but I don’t like having to replay things due to bad luck.

    Though I guess if the local Wally World drops Shiren to a 10 dollar game I will give it a shot. Maybe one of these days a Roguelike will actually help me to “get” them.

  4. Shiren is the Kobayashi Maru of gaming. Winning is not the point; you will die. How you deal in the face of death is more important.

  5. I found Shiren frustrating and eventually gave up, but I’m hoping to go back to it once I finish off all the games from the fall rush (particularly Persona 4). I do think it’s an interesting game, but I think I may need to try Pokemon Mystery Dungeon or something a bit more before I dive back into Shiren.
    I appreciate the design of the game, but I’m still not sure if that type of game is for me.
    Also on a side note. You say you rated the game too low at a B +. That got me to thinking. Do you think the average 1UP reader would enjoy this game to the level of B+ or higher? (but that gets into the whole, rating for yourself Vs. Rating for your audience thing)

  6. Shiren was my introduction to roguelikes, and I completely fell in love with it. I never did make it to the end, but some of my favorite crazy “emergent” gaming moments came from that little cart. Anyone who’s interested should dig up the Fun Club thread and read through it – it was a blast trading stories about our grisly, hilarious deaths.

    Jeremy, is there really no chance of the sequels making it over here? That’s awful news. Maybe I’ll check out one of the Izuna games…although it’ll never be the same.

  7. There is a bin of bargain games at the best buy near me filled with copies of this game new for 14.99. I asked for it as both a stocking stuffer for Christmas and as a means to kill time on my plane trip to Europe. Such a well reviewed game needs to be liberated from such an awful fate.

  8. Rufus: what, exactly, are you replaying? You can’t be replaying the dungeon, because with a new game it’s completely different. You’re replaying to restore your progress? Your ‘progress’ means nothing. Levels mean nothing. You’re replaying to make up for the two hours you lost? You didn’t lose them. They were valuable. The situations you found yourself in the first time, where you traded blows and lost some HP, you know how to deal with properly, and efficiently. *That* is the progression in roguelikes – they don’t do a good job of communicating it, which is why it’s a bit of a shame that more roguelikes don’t come with a persistent bestiary or something that says “the point is to explore the possibility space, not to get as far as you can”.

  9. Yes. Please see the Gamasutra link I threw in there for more thoughts on the concept of internalized personal progress in video games vs. in-game landmarks. Of course, part of Shiren’s appeal is that it combines the two through the permanent changes that affect the environment over the course of your adventures. You get better, and the game becomes friendlier, so that your 20th trip into the dungeon is far more fruitful than your first.

  10. The funny thing is, I was in the middle of yet another Final Puzzle run when I came across this posting. Despite having conquered Final Puzzle twice already, I keep coming back to it because it’s just that fun — even if, in most of these runs, I end up defeated within the first fifteen floors.

    With the main game, I think there’s one primary thing that most reviewers failed to mention or even recognize, one that I feel would have improved average scores significantly: though you do lose all your experience, equipment, and other inventory when you fall — most of it is pretty easily gained back. Gaining levels in this game is a much quicker affair than in a standard RPG, and it’s a fairly frequent occurrence to come across powerful, or at least quite serviceable, items and equipment. It’s possible to conquer the main quest by doing an On-Site Procurement run, starting off with little more than your own smarts and the free Big Riceball from town, if you even need the latter.

    Now yeah, the game isn’t perfect: you can’t quite do an OSP run for the tougher half of the post-game dungeons, meaning some level of equipment-grinding may be necessary, especially when doing rescues. And storage micromanagement all-around can become pretty tedious.

    Both those concerns pretty much disappeared when I unlocked the Final Puzzle in this game. With storage and any sort of pre-grinding stripped away, the game turns into a true roguelike: just Shiren at level 1 with nothing but food, stepping into a dungeon full of increasingly-difficult enemies and an array of unidentified items, not all of them beneficial. But many of those items are quite useful and normally rare elsewhere — as is the equipment Shiren comes across.

    And it’s fun to just keep going in, wondering what sorts of great equipment I’m going to acquire, and escaping dangerous situations by just a hair — or, many times not, and laughing about how close I was to escaping, or how utterly stupid my defeat was.

    In the way that I’m dealt a quick random hand that I’m expected to play — and in how often I play the dungeon in my free time — I have to say, the Final Puzzle in Shiren has become to me what Solitaire might be to millions of other people.

    I’ve gone on way long enough here for a comment; but Parish, I just wanted to give another hearty thanks for recommending this game. This game totally would’ve flown under my radar had not you & the rest of Talking Time pushed it — and even having paid full price for it, I can definitely say I’ve gotten, and continue to get, more than my money’s worth from it.

  11. I saw Shiren on sale at Best Buy for like $15 and I still didn’t buy it. Yes, I am a bad person. Yes, you’re right to be thankful that the likes of me don’t post on the forums anymore.

  12. I just can’t get into them either. I perfectly understand what they are about, but no thanks. I couldn’t enjoy any of Shiren’s features. If I’m expected to repeat dungeons over and over again, at least make them pretty. Or give me more animation. Or make the battles deep and fun. But no, even though I have lots of warm feelings for SNES graphics and sounds, that’s not enough (well, the music was ok).
    Surely lots of people get confused and reject roguelikes as flawed RPGs, but there’s a lot of us that simply dislike them. That’s also a reason for why they tank.

  13. Hmmm…I’m intrigued. I’d played a good 10-15 hours of Etrian Odyssey, but gave up in frustration. I think I get it now. I’ve got $15 in Best Buy gift certs burning a hole in my pocket…I think I know where they’ll get spent.

  14. Oh man, I remember kicking off the death parade in the Fun Club this spring, such a good time! I should stop resting on my laurels and try the post game dungeons. I pretty much gave up after suffering through ten floors of the Tainted Path

  15. I recently picked Shiren back up. I haven’t beaten the main game yet, but I will one of these days, dagnabit! I enjoy balancing spending money and items to beef up my mastersword and armorward while keeping enough stuff to keep the current run feasible. Also, watching the world improve bit by bit with each run helps keep me from getting too depressed when I die over and over.

  16. Or make the battles deep and fun.
    shiren has a lot of deeps and that what makes it so fun,most items there aren’t used to kill enemy but just to make your escape easier,some enemies can also be used to your help,one of them is a bomb that reduce you to critical health but in turn kills the other enemies that are surrounding him… just to make another example in the sequel in one of the bonus dungeons enemies kill you in one hit and it’s made so that you use your resource to dodge them instead of fighting them

    personaly the first time i played the game i had the same complaint of everyone but as the more time i spent on it,the more i started to understand it and now it’s like my favorite game ever… don’t think of playing shiren like a rpg,think of it like pacman… a game in shiren can be finished in less than a hour if you know what you are doing… it’s a really sad affair that atlus doesn’t have any problem of bringing sequel of bad roguelikes

  17. Give Warg a cigar as he has completely caught the essence of this game and why I had to play the Japanese sequel even though I don’t really understand a lick of Japanese. For me, while all of the various challenges the main story and a few of the post story dungeons are entertaining, it is REALLY all about that Final Puzzle (in the sequel they call it something like “End of the Abyss” according to my cheesy web translator). You start off naked, level 1, and everything in this 99 level dungeon starts unidentified. If this weren’t nasty enough this is where the game finally introduces a bunch of nasty items (no point is allowing them earlier since if you knew what it was you’d simply avoid it). I still suck horribly and have never gotten that far even in the English Shiren DS 1 version of this dungeon, but I’ve happily spent hundreds of hours trying.

  18. Unfortunately, most gamers aren’t interested in self-improvement

    Well, no. I play games to relax and have fun. If I’m going to spend time and effort to improve myself, I’d like it to be in a field less frivolous than dungeon crawlers. I don’t mind some challenge in games, but starting over from the beginning every time you die? That just doesn’t sound fun at all.

  19. Yeah, I know it always comes off sounding so pretentious, “Finding your inner strength to overcome…your own weaknesses etc. etc.”

    But how about seeing it more like this. It’s something like a customizable card game with your character’s inventory as your deck and the specific dungeon as your opponent. Can you skillfully use your tools and skills to defeat your opponent? Grinding to build up equipment, and or making scads of runs in lesser dungeons are just the various means to better tune your “deck” with the later dungeons tending to give out “rarer cards” for your deck. While it can feel almost like a game of Chess, with each move having it’s relevant consequences, the dungeon complete with it’s prizes, beasties, and traps has no organizing/over arching “intelligence”…it’s just an environment that, while randomly constructed each go, just follows it’s own fairly predictable behaviors. Much, again, like playing some CCG, you eventually learn the parameters of any of the given dungeons and will gain a better understanding of how to counter it’s various obstacles even if they might come at you slightly differently with each play through. My favorite is still the Final Dungeon which is akin to trying to make a viable deck out of a completely random series of booster packs. While at times the equipment you need will just fall into place, there will be many more runs where you’ll find some crucial aspect missing (great weapon, lots of food, but still no shield even at the 5th level of the dungeon).

  20. I’ll tell you the years most criminally underappreciated game: Smash Brothers Brawl. It has more features than any sane individual could ever want, more fanservice than the most diehard Nintendo fan could tolerate, and smooth gameplay that newcomers and hardcore alike can enjoy.

    Yet look at the lack of year end awards it’s accumulating. Look at the backlash it regularly receives on message boards for not being Melee 2.0, despite being the superior game in most respects. Even in this blog, posts about Smash are always in the context of being a fun little game to mess around with.

    I pretty much expected this, though. I don’t recall Melee winning the major awards, yet it’s still being played to this day.

    Anyway, about Shiren: it’s one of those games that you either love or can’t stand to play. Personally, with dungeon crawlers, I start out with a bang and stop when things become a chore. And after trying three of them and completing none (Pokemon, Shiren, Chocobo), I’m done.

  21. I give Jeremy big props for his initial review as it is one of the best examples I can recall where, while being written by an absolutely slathering fanboy, made an effort to step back and clearly explain that this is not a game for everyone. I still think your “B+” should stand as, while you KNOW it is an “A” title, you had to factor in it’s niche market (i.e. nearly coolest game in the world IF you like this sort of stuff). I didn’t mind the negative reviews in themselves, it was just that most seemed to be written by idiots that didn’t understand the many of the game’s perceived limitations were intentional by design and roguelike tradition, not that the devs were trying to make a “quick buck”. Idiotic statements to the effect of, “They didn’t create believable dungeon layouts and having the character lose his level and items was just a ploy to stretch out a clearly unthought out joke of an RPG.”

  22. you know everytime i have to explain why the game is awesome to the people i just link them to this demo video

    some comment here makes me a little angry… “a field less frivelous than dungeon crawler”? i didn’t know there were genre more noble than other… learning all the knick-knacks in a roguelike is no different than learning the pattern of boxers in punch-out and really guys trust me losing all your items isn’t a bad thing… if you play the game as you should when you die your inventory should consist just of a sword and a shield

  23. I really should write that article I thought of way back when about death in rogue-likes, and how it’s not a bad thing.

    Losing all of your experience and items scares off a lot of people, but in Shiren, those are such easy things to regain. There’s no real grind involved in leveling, and there are always items to be found in the next adventure.

    But at the same time, the threat of death infuses the experience with risk, danger, the thrill of gambling. Why do people play poker? You’re putting something on the line, which in Shiren’s case is mainly your time invested, and the items the random number generator has bestowed upon you. When you die, you usually made a mistake of some kind, learn from it, brush yourself off and play again. When you survive a dangerous section of the game, the excitement is overwhelming. Chris Kohler’s been talking about the ups and downs of dying in games lately and how the new Prince of Persia lacks those ups and downs and is more of a flat experience. Well, no other game has the ups and downs than a rogue-like, and when it’s up, it’s awesome.

  24. Well said, Lakupo!

    There is NOTHING like the sign of relief when you’re down to 1 health, the baddy swings…and misses allowing you to counter with a final killing blow. Also, in the Shiren series, there is nothing that comes close to the thrill of clearing a Monster House in which you were only saved by the 4 extra hps you earned via the level up that occurred in the midst of the fight.

  25. This was the only distraction I allowed time for while studying for the Bar Exam. Needless to say, I had quite a frustrating summer.

    And while I never beat Shiren, I did at least pass the Bar.

  26. At first I thought that last post was some sort of automated spam…but now that I’ve read it I totally get the joke.

    …or do I?

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