Saturday, March 15, 2008

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer - Made it to level 20

Rogue is one of the most venerable of computer games. Created back when computers (mainframes) didn't have any graphical capabilities, it relied entirely on the ascii character set to display its dungeon-crawling adventure. But the use of pure ascii text isn't necessarily what defines Rogue as a game. No, what is more important are the three main characteristics of the dungeons it generates: 1) They are randomly created every time. Their layout is never the same twice, nor are the monsters or items that populate them though you can generally count on the fact that tougher monsters and better items occur in lower dungeons. 2) Items found in the dungeons are not immediately identified. Weapons and armor are obvious in their application, but any curses or blessings they may have are not known. Wands and potions give less information - all you have from them is a descriptor such as brass or murky and their function can only be determined by magically identifying them or taking a risk and trying them out. 3) When you are dead, you are dead. You can save your game, but once you resume it your save is gone so you cannot go back to an old save. Once you die, you must begin again at the top floor of the dungeon at level one and with no items.

As brutal as this sounds, Rogue has spawned many imitators over the years (called roguelikes, naturally). Quite a few have been released for consoles and Shiren the Wanderer for the Japanese Super Famicon (SNES) is generally considered the best. It was recently re-released for the Nintendo DS and I snapped it up quickly.

I am totally digging this game. It is hard for me to describe it better than Jeremy Parish did in his review and blog post follow-up.

I've played several roguelikes in my time (mostly Nethack) and so far this is my favorite. The big problem I have with Nethack is one of its selling points - there is so much going on. Too much for me to wrap my head around and remember all the item interactions and resistances and monster traits, etc. Shiren, still has all the trappings of a roguelike, but it seems tractable to me. There are only eight different types of items and they each only have about eight different types within them so it all seems managable. Unlike in Nethack, I feel like I am actually making progress and learning what to do as I go.

That's really the key with roguelikes. The more you play them, the more you learn and master the mechanics. Parish made the analogy to Super Mario Bros. in that you refine your basic gameplay skills each time you play and each time you get a little further. Of course, here you can't memorize the level layout, but that's okay. You learn how to deal with each type of enemy, and when to use the right pots, wands, and herbs.

I also love the innovations this game adds to the roguelike genre. While your character starts anew each time he dies, the world is affected by his actions. You can cause new shops and rooms to open and new items to appear in the game by undertaking different actions. You can even help others and have them join you as companions.

I don't know if it is the cute graphics, the beautiful music, the deep but not overwhelming variety of objects and monsters, or a combination of all of them but this game has had me hooked since I picked it up a week and a half ago. I keep wanting to play thinking that next time I can finally make it to the golden condor at the top of Table Mountain.

1 comment:

Dan said...


I have been looking for a review that directly compared Shiren to NetHack and you have done so nicely.

I am a NetHacker from waaaay back and while it is currently my favorite RogueLike I have high hopes that Shiren will fill my thirst for the play-style.

(I am a Mac user and don't use my PC much, unfortunately NetHack for the Mac, it's interface, is lacking in my opinion...)

Thanks again!

- Dan