In a strange twist on the adage “everything old is new again,” the U.S. video game market has been recently beset upon by a weird proliferation of niche RPGs classified by esoteric gamers as “roguelikes” because of these games’ fundamental similarities to the 1980 computer title Rogue. Roguelikes themselves are structurally comparable to “dungeon crawlers” or “dungeon crawls,” games in which players plunge their avatars steadfastly into generally randomized labyrinths to combat monsters, retrieve boundless treasure, and increase the stats of their avatar by gaining experience and, satisfyingly, leveling up. The Diablo, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, and Champions of Norrath games and their sequels exemplify the dungeon crawler subgenre.
Sinister and arcane design choices differentiate these near-hereditary breeds of adventure, however: roguelikes adhere to the draconian principles of their forefathers’ pen-and-paper aesthetic. They impose upon the player typically turn-based battles and deaths that degrade the player’s level to one, no matter how high it had previously been; that purge the player of his or her entire inventory, no matter how many rare staves or cudgels he or she had previously collected; and that return the player to the dungeon’s entrance, no matter the absurd distance previously traveled. Sadistic and taunting, roguelikes dehumanize, oppress, dispirit, emasculate, objectify, segregate, and belittle gamers. Yet an indecipherable chemistry energizes these games and warrants the suffering they unconcernedly dole. It is the raw thrill of hard-fought achievement that propels the player forward past the often-encountered indescribable horrors; bizarrely, in some instances, achievement circumvents the modernity of 1080p and 7.1 and rewards players in ways more genuine than superficiality.
Enter Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer for the Nintendo DS, a remake of a game originally released for the Super Famicom and never outside of Japan. It arrived amongst a cluster of fraternal roguelikes such as Baroque for both the Wii and PS2; Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja; and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness, also on the DS. While kin to the others games listed here, Shiren tops the heap because of its deft balance of charm and abject ruthlessness. While the converse of compelling story-wise, as the player controls Shiren, an explorer in feudal Japan who (misguidedly?) searches for the mythical city of El Dorado atop the quizzically named Table Mountain, gameplay is the draw here, and it is superb.
On a macro scale, Shiren can structurally be outlined as the never-ending palindrome of enter town and prepare, enter dungeon and fight, die, enter town and prepare, enter dungeon and fight. It’s the nuances and variables that govern the wanderer over his punishing existence and elevates the game above formula. Though comprised almost entirely of RPG hallmarks such as monsters, swords, experience, herbs, townsfolk, and hit points, it’s how these standards coalesce with the game’s unique additions like item pots with individual properties and spell scrolls compounded by the deliberate turn-based chess game of limitless creatures versus the lone Shiren that widen the scope of possibility. For example, when traversing one of the game’s randomized dungeons, the player might stumble haphazardly into a nest of 20 or so high-level monsters; as doom seems inevitable, the player first reads a scroll of confusion that renders the monsters stupid before they are able to eviscerate Shiren.
Next, as confidence inspires hubris, the player reads a blastwave scroll meant to damage all creatures in the area. But wait – this scroll is actually a monster in disguise, which, upon use, materializes before Shiren and succeeds in evisceration. Aghast, frustrated, the player can’t help but laugh, dutifully entertained. While vivisection is frequent and loss heavy, loss in Shiren is never absolute, for as the player advances from town to town and meets certain requirements, lasting change (the opening of an item shop here, access to a storehouse there) occurs in these tiny settlements, providing incremental hope.
Perhaps what’s most striking about Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer, in spite of its antiquated genre and its technological baseness, is the gleeful freedom it yields from its combination of conventions. Though The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion might simulate morality of action and Grand Theft Auto IV might reproduce the minutae of city life on DVD and Blu-Ray, Shiren manages to more truly evoke the human experience in its repetition of successes and failures in which each step, though seemingly insignificant, feels earned.
Buy, Buy, Buy!: 85/100
Baroque, Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja, Azure Dreams