I went out wanderin’

You should pick up Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer this week. Not just because it’s GameSpite’s game of the week. Not just because it’s this month’s Fun Club RPG selection. Not just because I gave it a great score in my review. Although those things certainly help.

No, you should pick it up because it’s one of the best RPGs available on DS — and easily its finest roguelike.

Of course, you may not like roguelikes. You may think they’re too limited, or too random, or too hard. But I say this is not so. Sure, they’re all those things, in a way… but Shiren manages to turn those elements into selling points, or to simply subvert them. The action seems basic on the surface — move, and the enemies move with you, and you hit them until they die — but you absolutely cannot beat the game by simply striking foes. You need to use missiles, scrolls, wands and other items (usually in combination with one another or with special abilities like transforming into enemies), or else you’ll never get anywhere. The dungeons, items and enemies are random, yes, but always laid out in a varied but consistent (and eventually predictable) fashion. And it’s hard, but it’s a good kind of hard.

I was amused to see some message board comments that expressed shock, shock I say, that I like a hard game. B-b-but Ultimate Ghosts ‘N Goblins! But no, I love challenging games… when they’re challenging for the right reasons. UGnG was definitely not. But Shiren is a different story — though it’s true that some of the difficulty comes from random factors, and it is possible to find yourself in an unwinnable situation. But you never once feel like you’ve been screwed over by the game. When you die in Shiren, it’s your own fault: you didn’t play it right, you could have avoided failure. But no. You blew it.

Maybe you got carried away chasing down, say, the ghost of an Evil Soldier (even though it’s only worth a piffling 4 exp.) and followed it around the screen until it reached one of those rice breather guys and turned it into a Rice Boss, who promptly transformed you into a giant, defenseless onigiri and pummeled you to death. Or maybe you forgot that a tank’s shell has a blast radius. Or maybe you left all your food in a warehouse and starved. Or maybe you were hoarding your goods and let an enemy overwhelm you because you were too stingy to read a Blastwave Scroll. Whatever; there are dozens of ways to die in Shiren, but no matter what kills you, the fact remains it’s not because of lousy controls or sloppy level design. It’s because you didn’t play smartly.

What makes Shiren so enjoyable are the persistent elements. Shiren himself is perpetually dying and being sent back to the beginning of the game without the weapons and experience points accumulated over the course of his failed venture, but the world around him retains the effects of his exploits. The characters you rescue will show up from time to time as optional companions, the warehouses you unlock will store goods, the sidequests you complete will make new items available to you. I compared the game in my review to Super Mario Bros. (in that when you die you have to start from scratch, but each subsequent effort is a little easier for your experience) but this is not really true, because Mario can’t store power-ups between worlds, and the Mushroom Retainers never tag along with him. On the Retronauts we recorded today (early, for next week) I compared the game to a reverse Groundhog Day where the main character relives the same day over and over while the world around him slowly changes. This is, I think, more accurate… though even then doesn’t quite cut to the heart of Shiren, because it doesn’t take into account the fact that you, the gamer, are slowly learning from your failures.

You’ll probably want to store up goods in the warehouses for “serious” runs, but with smart playing and a bit of luck that’s not strictly necessary. I normally complete games before reviewing them, but with Shiren I haven’t quite finished the main quest — to date the furthest floor I’ve reached is in the mid-20s (out of 30 total). And for that run, I started pretty much naked, taking nothing into the dungeon but a rice ball. But I lucked out a bit and happened upon an armband that gave me experience for simply walking, and then I stumbled across a fairly powerful katana that let me slice my way through the absolutely vicious swamp section with a series of one-hit kills (thus preventing me from being poisoned or having my gear corrupted). In the end, I lost through poor energy management — I died of starvation after running out of food. And I ran out of food because midway through the quest I decided to backtrack five floors to rescue a lost little girl… which rescue attempt I bungled anyway. See? My own stupid fault.

But hey, don’t take my word for it. Check out John Harris’ definitive @Play columns at GameSetWatch, which beautifully break down the Super NES version of the game in a three-part series. [ One | Two | Three] I’ve been champing at the bit to play Shiren ever since I read those columns… and happily, it hasn’t disappointed.

The only bad part, really, is that I can’t decide whether to play Shiren or Etrian Odyssey on my upcoming vacation. Decisions, decisions….

15 thoughts on “I went out wanderin’

  1. I find it extremely fascinating to read about Roguelikes and the great stories people have about their experiences, but I’ve never once felt too compelled to actually put an honest effort into playing any of them.

    I’ve just never been a fan of permanently losing all of my progress. But the Super Mario Bros. comparison has made me rethink this one, along with the fact that it is (theoretically) fairly short. I probably won’t buy it in time for the Fun Club, but the fact that I’m strongly considering buying it at all is surprising.

  2. I have some crazy Shiren stories from playing the SFC version… some I don’t tell because they’d scare off newbies. So I don’t tell them, because I want people to play it!

    I wish Shiren wasn’t coming out the same week as Brawl though, I can’t afford both at the moment. And I’ve been looking forward to both for a while. :(

  3. I don’t mean to disparage either the genre or its fans (and heck, I’ve quite enjoyed some of the more forgiving rogue-likes out there), but man, I don’t even like losing all my progress in Super Mario Bros., much less in an RPG. I get frustrated when I completely lose a half-hour of progress in an action game due to a dumb mistake on my part, “learning experience” be damned. I don’t mind some penalties for dying, but I just have a really hard time forging ahead without some sense of concrete progress.

    That said, having watched some videos of the advanced possibilities in Shiren, it does look like a particularly *awesome* rogue-like, for those who can deal with the basic structure.

    But that’s ok, I still have Revenant Wings to finish…

  4. Loved the original; expect to love the DS version just as much. It makes me sad that so few Mysterious Dungeon games come out in the West–and then when one does, like as not it’s flippin’ Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, which appears to have been designed for five-year-olds.

  5. It basically comes down to this:
    There are games that you play. And then there are games that play you.

  6. Can’t wait to get this! I love roguelikes. It’ll take me a while to get used to seriously ramped-up graphics (read, 16-bit), but I’m sure I’ll manage.

  7. No way! Someone made a console/handheld roguelike that’s actually like Nethack? Only with graphics and an interface? That’s awesome.

    The things that can happen in games like this are amazing. One of my favorite Nethack stories is how you can put on gloves and swing a cockatrice corpse around as a weapon to turn enemies to stone. If you become overencumbered, though, you could fall down the stairs and accidentally stone yourself.

    Emergent design and attention to detail are important in a game like this.

  8. Yes, and they did it… 15 years ago? (This is a port of a Super Famicom game.) I think its proximity to the original Rogue is its greatest asset — the more of these Chunsoft makes, the further they stray from the original design doc.

  9. Roguelikes have always interested me. I think this will be the one I finally check out. Thanks for the ol’ recommendation Parish.

  10. I went from having to beat the boss of floor 20 in etrian odyssey to beating the game in three days. I was just very focused and stopped letting myself get distracted by other tasks. Momentarily forget your quests, don’t worry about your backup guys. Just take your good party and dive!

    As for Shiren, it is one of my new favorite games, and I have been absolutely psyched to play it since that series of articles at @play.

    For those worried about losing your progress, don’t. Each dungeon floor takes 5-10 minutes typically, and the excitement of finding out what will happen to you each new adventure is great.

  11. Hmmm. Well, if it punishes hoarding, then I’m gonna give it a pass – I’m psychologically conditioned to keep EVERYTHING i pick up, which expressed itself best in System Shock 2 and Bioshock by killing 90% of things with a melee weapon.

  12. Yes, it cannot be stressed enough that you must come to grips with the fact that you’re basically not playing roguelikes to beat them. They’re played for teh experience. Maybe, if you’re very, very good, you’ll have the patience to finish Ancient Domains of Mystery or NetHack, but there are some games (IVAN springs to mind immediately) that can provide incredibly frustrating – yet still fun – deaths, over and over again. And again.

  13. Well, as far as Shiren goes, it’s not actually that hard to win if you’re patient and methodical enough. The bonus dungeons, however…yow.

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