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.]

Last time, we showed some scenes from the SNES Torneko Mysterious Dungeon. The screenshots came from multiple games, but I think they illustrated what the game is like nicely. This time we're going to do the same thing with Shiren the Wanderer, the second Mysterious Dungeon game, and still a high point of the series. But this isn't a pieced-together narrative from multiple games. Everything you are about to see happened in one game, and a long one at that. Think of it as being like Let's Play, but with more death!

Actually, as an experiment I started a new file and started playing from scratch to see how far I could get. I didn't have the benefit of upgraded towns, or the "helpers" you can eventually earn. I didn't have the benefit of Staves of Bufoo, an extremely useful item that not only instakills arbitrary foes but turns it into meat you can gain special powers from. And most importantly, I didn't have the use of the equipment from my cleared game; when you win, you get to keep the things you won with, making the next game much easier if you choose to use them.

For this game, I started over from turn one. I nipped by the cafe in the starting town to pick up my free Big Rice Ball, then went and did the first Fei's Problem (more on those in a later column) and got a very useful Todo Shield +2. Then I started the real game.

For the record, this isn't the first time I've tried doing something like this. Over a decade ago, playing around with the computer game Nethack, I decided to make a website devoted to the game that, using screenshots (laboriously acquired using the Alt-Print Screen key and Microsoft Paint) and Microsoft Publisher (for compositing the images together), would be kind of a visual journey through the Dungeons of Doom.

The result was, I won. It was my first victory at Nethack, too.

While I didn't win this game of Shiren the Wanderer, I did get quite far. The very act of recording one's progress through a game is apt to make one a much more careful player, and thus enable better play than usual.

Anyway, on to the game....


Torneko/Taloon is not actually very hard, the deaths I had last time notwithstanding. But Shiren now, it can be quite a challenge.

It's also a much more interesting game. While both games take inspiration, of course, from Rogue, Shiren also steals a few features from Nethack. Its got sealed rooms like Nethack's vaults, it's got in-dungeon shops that work a lot like Nethack's (down to calling guards after you if you're caught stealing), it's got an analogue for Nethack's pets in the form of the helper characters you can acquire, it has Scrolls of Genocide. It even has Blank Scrolls that you can write (and Genocide is an excellent choice in writing one).

In general, good items are better in Shiren than Torneko/Taloon, and there are a lot more of them, but the monsters and traps are likewise much more challenging and numerous. Shiren also has special levels, like occasional big rooms and set challenges, and other simularities. It is also the first Mysterious Dungeon game to have a boss, the beginning of the series' slide into the increasing RPG normality that dilutes later installments of the series, although this one at least can be taken care of instantly by a suitably ingenious player.


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Here we are at level one. Like in Torneko, you don't begin with anything you didn't obtain in the starter town. Until you complete the main quest, you can get one free Big Rice Ball by talking to the chef in the tavern, and one free miscellaneous object by completing one of Fei's Problems. This time, the item turned out to be a Todo Shield +2, pretty good as far as defense goes, and provides perfect defense against thieves. This is one of the better objects in the game, and getting this is just about the only advantage to starting with an empty file, for it seems that the first Fei's Problem always gives this as the prize.


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The game looks very similar to Torneko on the face of it. There's the same overlay map, the same colored dots, and the same status bar at the top of the screen. The only major difference on the face of it is the graphics. Shiren contains outdoor levels that are sometimes strikingly beautiful. At the very least they mix up the levels a lot more than Torneko's rectangular rooms.


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Found a Katana! Not a bad weapon, although there certainly are better. Unfortunately, the best weapons are named ambiguously to English speakers. In classic roguelikes you can assume that a "two-handed sword" is going to be a very strong weapon, but here you have to guess at how strong a Dokanuki is supposed to be.


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An Identify Scroll, eh? Well I found a bracer some time back (this game's version of rings), let's see what it is....


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Oh my.

Some time back, when I wrote about Pokemon Mystery Dungeon (a distant descendent of this very game), I believe I noted there was an item that told you the location of all monsters and items on the level all the time, and that it was absurdly useful. Well, it is, and it's almost as useful in Shiren the Wanderer, enough that by finding one this early, my chances of winning have gone up considerably.

In Rogue, this ability is only available as an instant effect or as a short-term ability. Nethack characters can only get a limited version of this unless they are blind or are wearing an amulet of ESP. So by including a ring-type item that provides this ability permanently, this is one way that Shiren is easier than those games.

Why is this ability so useful? You'll find out next time, but for now note that this is why the map in all the screenshots to come have all the item and monster locations marked.


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Gamara is watching to see what happens. In both Torneko and Shiren, this is what the game says when a thief monster fails its steal check. And because I'm wearing a Todo Shield, they will always say this.

It is generally the case in roguelikes that thief monsters leave good loot, and Shiren is not an exception. The trade-off is that Todo Shields are relatively weak, but mine's +2 enchantment makes up even for this.


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Life Herbs increase your maximum HP by 5.

Roguelikes that trace their lineage through Hack generally retain the special ability of the healing potions in Rogue. If you drink one when you are at full hit points, you gain maximum HP. Shiren does this too, but it also contains an item that specifically increases maximum hit points.

Note that neither Torneko nor Shiren scramble herb or scroll identifications in the basic game, so finding a Life Scroll is essentially finding five free hit points lying on the dungeon floor. There is no danger from finding a bad item because they're all known at the start. The 99-level super dungeon after the main game, Fei's Final Problem, does scramble them.


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Sorry for the digression, but... look at those graphics! Hard to believe this is randomly generated, isn't it? We've come a long way from Torneko's plain stone rectangles! Not that there aren't a lot of those in Shiren the Wanderer as well, but for now let's enjoy the sights while we can.


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I'm in the second town, located after level 4, and in the guaranteed shop there. Unlike towns in Nethack or ADOM, Shiren's towns are perfectly safe unless the player does something to piss someone off.

Let's take a look at this shop for a second. There's a single door, a shopkeeper standing by it, a bunch of things on the floor.... Yep, if this isn't enough to convince you that the Shiren guys played a lot of Nethack then you're a lost cause. Only Nethack, and games directly inspired by Nethack, do shops this way.

There are a lot of advantages to doing this. To buy or sell something, one just picks it up or drops it, then talks to the shopkeeper. It makes theft not the business of a die roll but a logic puzzle: how do I get the stuff out the door when the shopkeeper blocks the way when I pick something up, and how do I survive the guards that appear when I make it out?

There's also a couple of other people in this shop. The guy to Shiren's right is one of the helper characters who may join in the journey if their requirements are met. This is my first play on this file and it takes several games to finish his storyline, so he won't be coming along this time. (I don't like him anyway.)


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Another thing some towns have is a smithy who'll improve your weapon by one plus for a fee.

One possible strategy for building a nice weapon is to play through to the third town, having the weapon improved as the two smithies to be found along the way, then use whatever means can be found to have the weapon sent back to the warehouse in the first town, where the player can pick it up at the start of his next game. He can then take it through again and get it improved two more levels, and repeat.

In practice this is risky however, since there are some tough levels in the early game, and there's always the chance a means of sending the weapon back won't be found in time.


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FIELD RAIDER

It would be wrong to assume Shiren is just a copy of Nethack; there are plenty of cool new things to amaze and confound players! Field Raiders are one such thing. A Field Raider, when he's not concentrating on beating you to a pulp, has a second mission in life: to roam the dungeon finding all items and turning them into weeds.

What is a weed good for? Not much! If you eat one it's got pitiful worth as food, and that's it. It's best to not carelessly drop things on levels Field Raiders appear on! As time passes on the level Field Raiders will eventually get to all the treasure, so it's a good idea to loot these levels quickly... just one reason that Far-sight Bracer will come in handy.


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KIMEN-MUSHA and GHOST MUSHA

Another of the monsters that appears around this part of the game are the samurai-like Kimen-Musha. As far as monsters go they're fairly uninteresting, right up to the moment they're killed, for three turns later they reappear, coming back to life as Ghost Musha, and then the trouble begins.

First, I must explain about one of Shiren the Wanderer's coolest, and deadliest, features. Nearly all the monster types exist, not as individual species, but as ranks in a monster hierarchy. Torneko had monsters that could gain experience levels, but this happened but rarely. In Shiren the Wanderer, a monster that gains a level doesn't become numerically stronger, it promotes into a monster of the next higher rank.

Nethack has something like this; a monster that drinks a potion of Gain Level can promote to another form (so a hill orc can become an orc captain), but that's relatively uncommon. In Shiren, any time a monster kills anything, it promotes. For the most part monsters are trying to kill you, not each other, and when you die it doesn't matter what happens next. But sometimes monsters kill each other by accident, or kill one of your allies, and for most species even one promotion's difference is enough to produce a deadly opponent.

There are other ways for monsters to promote too, and that's where Ghost Musha come in. They don't attack the player, but run and find other monsters. When found, they "possess" it, which in game terms means the monster promotes. The only way to prevent this to exit the level or kill the ghost first. Ghost Musha only have four hit points, but they constantly try to flee, weapon do only hit for one point of damage, and they frequently teleport before they can be killed.


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It's a pot! Many items in Shiren have analogues from Rogue and Nethack, but pots are the game's great innovation. Nothing like pots exists in anything other than the Mysterious Dungeon games, and other roguelikes could do well to copy them for a change.

Pots are a kind of random container. Like herbs, scrolls and bracers, there are lots of kinds of pots, and each has some effect upon the items put into it. For example, the Strengthening Pot increases the plus of equipment placed inside. But there are also bad pots; the Bottomless Pot destroys items put into it. Like the other kinds of items, the uses of pots can be figured out through deduction or the use of an Identify Scroll.

Most pots store items inside, but don't allow you to remove them easily. To get the contents, Shiren must throw the pot against a wall, causing it to shatter and spill its contents onto the dungeon floor, and all pots have limited uses.

There are also a few special types. Holding Pots have no special effect, but you can put stuff in and take stuff out freely, and so are a way around the 20 space inventory limit. Back Pots don't hold items, but if "pushed," heal the player.


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The first step towards figuring out a pot's use is to look in. Pots never come with items hidden inside, but some pots say "Back" if you peer into them, which could mean it's a super-nice Back pot. This one says Nothing's Inside, so I know it's not that kind.


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Hmm, a Ghost Musha got to another of his Musha friends and promoted it into a Hannya-Musha. Not only are they much more fearsome than Kimen-Musha, but if it gets promoted again it'll make a Shogun, which could easily wipe me out.


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Fortunately I have a Dragon Herb, this game's version of Torneko's Blaze Herbs, to take care of it quickly. The defeated opponent is still a Musha though, so it'll leave another ghost. Time to head for the next level perhaps....


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I found another kind of pot, and looking inside this one shows it to contain Backs. If it's a Back Pot I'm in luck, but if it really is one of those I don't want to waste any of its healings. Let's save it for later.


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PEETAN

A Ghost Musha on this level found a Peetan, turning it into a Fleeing Peetan....


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...and then another found it, promoting it into a Flying Peetan. This is actually probably the best monster in the area the ghosts could have possessed. Peetans are pacifistic and never attack the player, choosing instead to run away. They're good at running, for they are double-speed monsters, but if I do manage to slay one it's not bad experience, and they always leave food behind.


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MINION OF DEATH

That egg-like thing in the screenshot is a Peetan by the way, but of more interest is the cloaked, scythe-wielding monster in front of it, a Minion of Death.

These undead beasties pack a mean punch for this phase of the game, and they move at double-speed. They don't fight at double-speed, which is good, but their movement rate means I can't just flee from it; it'll use its free move to catch up to me, then strike immediately. Escaping one require magical means, so it's usually best to kill it if possible. If one gets promoted via Ghost Musha, the resulting monster gets two moves and attacks, so I should slay it before that can happen.


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Summit Town is the third town of the game out of five, and is home to the most involved side quests, but we're not here for the tour.


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Summit Town doesn't get a shop until one of its side quests has been completed, which won't be for many games, but it does have a smithy.


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It also has a warehouse, a place where items left remain between trips. I've got a good amount of junk lying around my pocket, so I might as well drop some of it off to pave the way for later runs. It is the nature of roguelikes that items in abundance one game will be hard to come by the next, so this way I can help to dull the sharp edges of the random number generator.


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SKELETON MAGE

Back in the dungeon, here is one of the more interesting enemies to be found in the game. Skeleton Mages come with a magical ranged attack. The effect is random, usually bad, but one of the possible results speeds the player up for a fair number of turns. It's nothing that can be relied upon, but it is not unknown for a dire situation to suddenly turn survivable because of one of those capricious zaps.


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Here's one of those side quests I've mentioned about. Sometimes a little girl shows up in these levels asking to be taken back to her family. If the player agrees she becomes an ally, which is not all that different from Nethack's pets, but this one doesn't attack enemies. She's stronger than she looks, but not really all that survivable. While the monsters frequently won't attack her unless they have to to get to me, if they do attack and kill her they'll get promoted and probably have me for dessert. But it is nice to have what amounts to a mobile wall following me around.


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Ah, a Holding Pot! Good thing to, my pockets were getting a bit cramped.


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A Nagamaki... is this better than my +2 Katana? I think I remember that it is, but not tremendously so. I switch to it in a little bit.


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Why shopkeepers set up in the dungeon I don't know. They must have picked up that strategy from Mr. Asidonhopo's Money-Making Seminar. ("You will become rich within 40,000 turns or double your zorkmids back!")


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Dungeon shops are an important source of items, actually. Rare goods appear in them much more often than in the main dungeon, and sometimes they stock very nice things indeed, like this Battle Counter shield....


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...or, they might have mimic-like Ndubas. ("I'm not sure why Mr. Asidonhopo said I needed to have disguised monsters among my inventory, but he's the one with the fortune in gold pieces.")


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The pot he has in stock also contains backs! To my recollection, there are only two back-containing pots in the game, so one of them must be that potent source of healing, a Back Pot. It isn't very expensive either, so lucky for me!


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The Heaven Scroll is the game's analogue for Torneko's Bikill Scroll, and Rogue's scroll of enchant weapon. This one will go towards boosting my Nagamaki.


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Another Todo Shield. Given the rising crime rate in the dungeon I think the shopkeeper should be wearing this instead of selling it.


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Yes it's okay, let me pass!


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A blank scroll is one of Shiren the Wanderer's most prized finds. In Nethack you need a magic marker to write scrolls, here you just need the paper! Can you guess what this one's going to become?


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I knew you could. Actually you can write any eight letters onto the scroll, but only certain combinations will work. They are helpfully listed in the Info text for each scroll. By the way, dessgeega notes that the scribe function was one of the most troublesome things to implement for the patch authors, since it meant they had more work to do than just translate text strings....


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The "Todo" in the Todo Shield stands for Thieftodo, one of those annoying item stealers I mentioned before. Of course, with that shield they are unable to even touch me, and they become essentially free items if I can catch and kill them.


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This was a bit of a worrisome moment, a promoted Minion of Death a single space away could mean a rapid demise, but the girl is stronger than you'd think. She takes that 14 points of damage like a trooper. Remember: a level one Shiren only has 15 hit points.


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Sometimes a defeated Skeleton Mage leaves his staff behind, but they aren't really that useful since the same flaw that sometimes hastes Shiren will sometimes work in favor of your monstrous opponents.


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DARK OWL
These are fun opponents. They aren't difficult to kill, but as long as they're alive the room is dark. By the way, notice how I can see that Peetan in the corner, behind the message window? That's because of my Far-sight Bracer. It doesn't just affect the map, it also reveals enemies in dark areas if they're close enough to be on-screen.


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KID TANK
There were a few tough opponents earlier that I neglected to mention. In the big outdoor areas there were the annoying Monster Daikons who sometimes throw herbs that leave the player slowed, and Monster Nigiri Beasts who can turn your possessions into Rice Balls (sometimes an affliction it's good to have). And then there were the Bowyas, archers who can attack from a distance.

Funny thing about Bowyas. When they shoot, they pay no heed to monsters in the line of fire, and so they are by far the monsters most likely to get promoted. Noticing this, the developers gave them far more promotion ranks than any other monster in the game! Most monsters have three forms, but Bowyas have six or seven, each far more deadly than the last. The Kid Tank, pictured here in its natural habitat, is just the second.

Kid Tanks are double-movement monsters, but they still only get one attack, and they have no special vision ability, so the usual way to handle them is to retreat to a corridor where they can only fire when adjacent to you, so at least they can be hit back.

Promoted Kid Tanks quickly ascend the ladder to godhood. The next rank shoots cannonballs every other turn that inflict 20 points of splash damage, and the next rank above that can fire every turn. Monsters are not immune to the cannonball explosions, so promotion is rapid at that point unless measures are taken. The highest rank, Obstinate Tank, is among the deadliest monsters in the whole game, including those that are only generated in the secret super dungeon. But none of these forms is able to see more than one space in darkness, so if you can flee into a corridor escape just may be possible.


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PUMKOREPKIN
Another ghost monster, these guys move randomly sometimes, but that's made up for by their ability to pass through walls. If one is in a wall yet adjacent to you he can attack but you can't hit back!


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A Crisis Scroll is like Shiren's version of a Get Out Of Jail Free card. When you read it, you are completely healed and all adjacent monsters are put to sleep. They also fix many status problems in the process! They are the closest thing in the game to Nethack's universal panacea, the amulet of life saving.


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DEBUTA
This charming orc-like monster has only one special quality. He can throw rocks at the player from a distance, even if he's not in a straight line. The rocks don't hurt much, but the range is surprisingly large and they can wear you down if you don't get up to him and askS0173 him to stop with your sword.


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Ah, a Bigroom Scroll.
Remember what I said before, that Shiren contains the occasional Big Room level? They're not just random. You can make one by reading these items, the result being that all the walls on the level are destroyed. This can be great when cornered, but one should then immediately head for the exit, because with no corridors around to hide in Shiren will get overwhelmed fast.

I hear that, if one is used on a level containing a shop, the result is that the shopkeeper will run to the stairs so he can block them in case you pick up his stuff....


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HEALER RABBIT
Oh, how I hate these bunnies. By themselves they're pretty harmless, but if one finds a strong monster to fixate upon he can make it almost unbeatable, spending his turns on healing him. If one doesn't have a way to kill the rabbit or take out the dangerous monster in one turn it's best to flee.


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Maximum hit points isn't the only malleable statistic in Shiren the Wanderer. Expansion Seeds increase your stomach size by 10%! If you eat a Rice Ball while already full, you'll receive a more modest gullet increase.


That's it for part one. Next time we'll descend deeper and slay gazes, chickens and minotaurs, find out just why that Far-sight Bracer is so useful, and we'll see a sure-fire way to steal from shops. Won't that be fun....

And finally, this is the 25th installment of @Play. I've been going at this for a year now! I haven't quite run out of things to talk about either, we still have the Seven Day Roguelike project to cover, Shiren the Wanderer's "super dungeon" and the hilariously clever way to beat it, the "Fei's Problems" section of that game, probably a handful more Nethack and ADOM columns to go... and lest I forget, I still haven't touched upon the last major roguelike, Angband, nor taken hard looks at the forgotten roguelikes at the Roguelike Restoration Project.

I challenge any of you to say this much about first-person shooters... no wait, scratch that, I'd better not.