Fushigi No Dungeon 2 : Shiren The Wanderer
/ Chunsoft / SNES
I'm not sure exactly when it started, but Japan suddenly got really hot for Roguelike games, appending the name "Mystery Dungeon" or "Mysterious Dungeon" to them to indicate the genre. My guess would be that it started with Torneko's Quest, which starred a merchant from Dragon Quest 4 (called Taloon in the English version) who went into random dungeons in order to hoard treasures to sell at his shop - the cultural capital of the Dragon Quest series over there probably being what propelled the genre to such widespread notice. It's really come back strong on the DS lately, with even Pokemon and Final Fantasy getting into the act and releasing their own Roguelikes.
Shiren is actually the direct follow-up to Torneko's Quest, apparently by the same people and using a very similar engine, but having nothing to do with the Dragon Quest/Warrior games. Instead it's set in a cartoony version of feudal Japan, and you play as some wicker-hatted wanderer on a quest to make it to the top of the legendary Table Mountain (which, of course, is infested with monsters and other unpleasantries).
You start out at the Village Inn (which is actually not just an Inn but a small village). From there you face thirty levels of dungeon in order to get to the top of Table Mountain - punctuated by other little villages and rest stops every six levels or so. The trick is that the dungeon levels in between rest stops are randomly generated. On each grouping of dungeon levels, you tend to face the same types of enemies, but you have no way of knowing ahead of time how many or where they will appear. The layout is also randomly determined, as well as placement and type of items, and hidden traps that have a wide array of effects when stepped on.
Shiren begins the game at level 1 with no equipment whatsoever, and whenever you are killed in the dungeon, you return right back to level 1 at the Village Inn with all your stuff gone. So there is no way to permanently die, but you essentially have to start over from the beginning each time you eat it in the dungeon. There's a tiny bit of continuity between games, however; certain villages have warehouses in which you can store a finite number of items, and these can be picked up on later adventures. There are also three travelling companions that you can find, and once they've joined you they may appear at random somewhere in the dungeon during later adventures to rejoin you.
Compounding the randomness is the fact that the game is brutally difficult and leaves little room for error. Let me tell you about my very first Shiren dungeon experience - not three steps into the first dungeon level, my completely unequipped ass steps on a hidden "Monster Summon Switch" and gets surrounded by four monsters who proceed to gangbang me furiously. I died literally five seconds into the game, in other words.
Shiren is exceptionally tough to get started with and really get into, because it initially just seems so cheap and so loaded against you as to be not even worth your time. The key to playing and enjoying this game is to keep in mind that it was intentionally designed for you to die a number of times before you make it through. Indeed, there are characters, items and side-quests that do not appear until you have gone into the dungeon and been bumped off several times.
I suppose it is theoretically possible to start from the beginning and make it all the way through Table Mountain without dying or taking advantage of the warehouses or other boosts gained from multiple plays. And the game has been out long enough that I'm sure some nutbar has actually pulled it off by now. I actually managed to make it to the 28th floor starting with nothing, but for the last few floors of that I had a totally depleted inventory and was basically just avoiding fights any way I could and running for the staircases to the next level as fast as I could. The monsters in the first ten levels are pretty much a cakewalk, as long as no really cheap randomness occurs, and the monsters in levels ten to twenty are manageable as long as you make clever use of the items that you find along the way. The monsters in the final ten floors, however, are all either ridiculously powerful, have some ability that severely cripples you, or travel in pairs that make them nearly impossible to take down without using some sort of magic item. They're basically designed to force you to bring some seriously upgraded equipment with you in order to get by them; I really can't see any other way to complete the game, except by sheer and total luck in getting easy floors generated.
This is not your typical brute-force RPG where you can just grind away mindlessly; it's partially reliant on blind luck, but it also is a game of skill that requires YOU to learn it's nuances and become better at it in order to win. Inventory management is key, as well as knowing what potential twists the game can throw at you, and having an idea of what monsters you will be facing in each grouping of dungeon floors and packing out accordingly. Ultimately, a really good run in this game is going to come down to random chance of getting certain key items/companions early on, but knowing what you are doing and how to take on particular monsters can get you a long way on surprisingly little.
Honestly, I would have probably totally given up on Shiren on the first day of playing it had it not been for the very appealing presentation and the excellent music. I love Shiren's character design, much of the background art is just lovely, and the random tile generation scheme is fairly advanced making each level look more like a Zelda game than the square grid which it really is underneath. The music is really particularly good; throughout the levels the game continually varies the main melody introduced in the introduction/character select screen, and it's done so creatively that it never gets old (some levels even consist of nothing but ambient noises).
The game is very unforgiving, but it is addictive. The randomized nature of the game gives it a little more replay value than the average RPG, and the quest to top Table Mountain is actually only the first half of the game - once completed, there are three secret dungeons to be unlocked as well as 50 of Fei's Problems to finish up, and there are also character-related side quests throughout the game that can net you new companions and goodies. There's really a rather surprising amount of depth here given the game's simple Roguelike framework. If you're not averse to a stiff challenge and starting over repeatedly doesn't infuriate you too much, you should really give this game a look. It's perhaps the finest work in the Roguelike genre to date.
* Gameplay Video
* Shiren the Robber