Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

I've mostly been covering the traditional roguelikes of late, which are primarily terminal games with roots back to the very origins of computer gaming, to the neglect of the extensive Japanese console branch of the genre. They’ve had commercial roguelikes all over the place, thanks mostly to a little company called ChunSoft, known for the "Mysterious Dungeon," a.k.a. Fushigi no Dungeon, games.

The first game was a licensed game based off of one of the player characters in Dragon Quest IV, and since then it has crossed over with the Final Fantasy, Tower of Druaga, and even Pokemon franchises, as well as a "default" character, Shiren the Wanderer, whose games are usually the best of the series.

As ChunSoft has found inspiration from the roguelikes, so have other Japanese publishers found inspiration from ChunSoft, and so the Mysterious Dungeon games have quite a lot of imitators. Off the top of my head, there's Azure Dreams, Climax Landers (Time Stalkers in the U.S.) and the Ancient Cave segments of later Estopolis/Lufia games. Lufia: The Legend Returns for the GBC makes that the entire game.

Sega made a rather uninspired roguelike in the form of Fatal Labyrinth for the Genesis. The recent Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja is a fairly close example of the type, and the popular homebrew WonderSwan game Dicing Knight has some roguelike aspects as well. Even Parasite Eve has an optional random section in form of the Chrysler Building.

Mysterious Lineage

The chain of inspiration here is important. From playing them, it seems unlikely that the makers of most of those other games have ever heard of Nethack or Angband. Their source of inspiration is clearly the Mysterious Dungeon games. Take note class, for this is how a subgenre gets its start. Their designers invariably mistake the idiosyncrasies in Mysterious Dungeon as essential design aspects, and not knowing about those features it leaves out, an entire field of games has sprung up without wishing, bones, player ghosts, vaults, resistance building or any of the other clever little features the maintainers (or players, in the case of open source games) of traditional roguelikes cooked up from scratch. Not knowing their importance, they usually care little about identifying items, dungeon room shops, traps, or equipment advancement. Some of them don’t even feature grid-based tactical movement.

This isn't to say that none of these games are good, but the best ones continue to be those by ChunSoft, whose designers display in their work a great fondness for Rogue and Nethack. And ChunSoft is not merely acting as a plagiarist; there are some genuinely novel ideas to be found there, additions that the traditional roguelike developers would do well to take notice of, which I'll get around to mentioning... in approximately a month.

"Shiren? That's right, weren't you going to do a column on that?"

jrshiren1.pngMy promises of a column that covers Shiren are old, and unfortunately this is still not the one to do it (but soon folks, I promise). Before covering Shiren, it would be helpful to cover the play metaphor of the games, which originated with the original Torneko no Daibouken, and is so copied by all the other games of this subgenre that its presence is the surest indicator that we're talking about a Japanese roguelike.

What do I mean by a play metaphor? It's something so deeply ingrained in computer gaming that few players spare it a thought. It's in the association of the player's identity, in the depicted game-world, with that of a protagonist character. It's in the translation from the abstract events taking place on-screen to a pretend reality constructed in the player's head. And it's in the nebulous "space between the games," the idea that it is okay for games to feature continuity across play sessions, and to play around with the separation between the real world and the virtual one.

The act of setting up the game world is substantially different for roguelikes, of all types, than other games that can just load environments off disk, but even the initial play requires some setup. A freshly installed copy of Nethack is different from one that’s had a few games played; it’ll probably have some bones laying around, and its score list will have a few entries. It may be easier to be the first to play an installation of Dungeon Crawl than the tenth, as there won’t be any troublesome player ghosts to be encountered.

But traditional roguelikes use these features as curiosities. Japanese roguelikes greatly expand their role, using this idea to construct a meta-game that wraps around the dungeon exploration mode.

The Afterlife Looks Familiar

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When a player begins a game of the original Mysterious Dungeon game, Torneko no Daibouken (Americanized as “Taloon’s Great Adventure”), he is not thrown into the first level of a sprawling dungeon. Nor does he appear in a “town” dungeon level with shops and low-level opponents, or an overworld populated with random encounters and dungeons. His character begins in a field, talking with his wife and son about his dreams of opening a shop.

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Soon after, he meets with the king and is told of the Mystery Dungeon, which contains lots of stuff to sell. But the dungeon is a dangerous place, so first the king asks Torneko to retrieve an item from a trial dungeon as a test.

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In he goes….

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He’s in a random level. Ah, there are some monsters! He’s going to try fighting them….

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Oh, he got killed. So it goes.

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But what is this? I thought he was dead! Are those guys throwing out his decaying corpse as part of some monstrous Keep Our Lair Beautiful program?

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No, here’s back at the king again. Does the game not have permadeath? How can it be called a roguelike without that?

It’s because there’s really two games here. There is an outer game that plays like Dragon Quest, what with the narrative and the talking and the storing and the buying, and an inner game that plays like Rogue. Not coincidentally, Torneko no Daibouken is set in the Dragon Quest IV world. The player character never dies in the outer game; in fact, there are no dangers there. It is no accident that it takes place in towns and castles, the player is just as safe from monster attacks there as he is in Generic Fantasytown. From there the player enters the dungeon, in some games just by leaving town, some by finding an entrance somewhere, and the inner, or real, game begins.

Level 3 Town, with population 750 and 40 hit points

The distinction isn’t just for show. When our player finishes the trial dungeon, he’ll find himself in a typical RPG town. The town gets larger as the player saves up money found in the dungeon. Eventually new resources open up to him as he goes which make the dungeon exploration game easier.

jrshiren2.pngHere, town serves as a shell by which the player gains access to the real game. The town’s services function similarly to Nethack’s bones and Crawl’s player ghosts: they are actually an outside-the-game influence. Later Japanese Roguelikes greatly expand on this idea. Shiren has warehouses for item storage, blacksmiths for improving equipment, special quests to complete to gain access to new items and helpers, and eventually bonus dungeons with special rules.

None of these features are necessary to win the game, but they make it a bit easier. A popular sub-subgenre of the Japanese Roguelikes, including games like Azure Dreams and Pokemon Rescue Team, mix the roguelike aspects with a dinobuddy monster-raising simulation. Azure Dreams resets the player’s level to 1 every trip into the tower, but the player’s monsters retain their level and grow ever stronger. These monsters are kept in a stable between trips to the dungeon, which allows the player to keep track of them. In these kinds of games, the outer game’s amenities are not optional, and their maintenance grows to rival the roguelike play in importance. Whether this improves the outer game is a question I will not answer, but I think it is obvious that these aspects cannot help but dilute the inner game, where the focus should lie.

The dual advancement tracks of the Japanese roguelikes, that of the inner game (player experience and equipment) and the outer game (town growth, quest status, saved equipment, monster pets, what have you) gives them a different dynamic than traditional roguelikes. In Rogue, every character starts off from square one. In the Mysterious Dungeon games, the dungeon effectively becomes easier after a while.

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The above chart illustrates the dynamic. Both types of game become easier over time as the player (the actual person playing it, not his character) learns about the game, devises strategy and tactics, learns about the monsters, and figures out what items exist and how to use and identify them. The console roguelikes additionally add quest advancement to the mix, and become easier faster. The eventual result is that most people can finish them after a lot of play, which fits with their developer’s commercial intent. People like to finish the games they buy, but don't like to think they're not good enough to finish them. Roguelikes can be astoundingly difficult to players who don't put a lot of time into them, so the Mysterious Dungeon games are scaled to be hard enough to provide a sense of accomplishment once they're finished, but in such a way that, if the player fails many times, they become subtly easier.

I’m on a tear about the Japanese roguelikes, so the next two columns will focus on them. We’ll cover Torneko no Daibouken in more detail next time, and the column after that, at long last, will cover Shiren the Wanderer... and it will even include hard-won screenshots of the end of that game’s 99-level marathon dungeon! Many Shirens died to bring you this information....