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.]

Here we continue into the second half of a particular long game of Shiren the Wanderer. Part one is available here.

Early in part one I had found one of the best objects in the game, a Far-sight Bracer, which reveals the locations of all items and monsters while it is worn. Few roguelikes offer items like this because such knowledge can be extremely useful in those game. Items are the primary reward for exploration in roguelikes, and knowing where they all are also shows the player when no more are to be found. Monsters are the primary source of danger, and knowing their locations lets the player know where to avoid. And both reveal, indirectly, the locations of rooms and corridors. Even Nethack's Amulet of ESP only works over the whole level if the player is blind.


Many of the monsters later on in Shiren seem quite overpoweringly difficult. Not only do Flame Priests hit hard with a flame attack that the player's shield doesn't help much with, but if a Dragon Herb is used on one it just makes things worse....


These monsters aren't so bad, but they can curse equipped shields. They don't damage shields though, only curse them, and it costs them a turn to curse that they could have used to smack the player around. Curses in Shiren follow the Rogue pattern, they only affect equipment and the only effect is that it makes them impossible to take off, usually, without aid.

So the Norojo isn't a huge threat. But behind it is a Kigni Tribe, and we'll find out more about them in a bit....


Ah, another shop. They can't get that much business this far into the game, can they?


Disposable Shields are interesting items. They have the highest natural defense of any shield in the game, but every time one takes a hit it loses a point of protection strength.

There is a trick regarding these shields and monster meat items, which transform the player into the form of a monster when eaten in a manner similar (again!) to a Nethack feature, player polymorph. While transformed, the player's equipment still affects his stats, but the degrading quality of Disposable Shields doesn't occur. The player gets all that protection for low cost.

The trick is actually a little over-powered since polymorph doesn't actually make the player stronger or weaker in Shiren, it just makes it harder to use items and maybe gives him a special ability or two. I don't use it in this game, however, because the only sure way to acquire monster meat is to use a Staff of Bufoo, and they don't appear naturally in the dungeon until a certain subquest has been completed.


Chrome Scrolls protect the player's current equipment from damage from monsters or traps. There really couldn't have been a better time for me to find one of these, as the drain floors are coming soon....


Shiren doesn't just take good ideas from Nethack, it takes a couple of (in my opinion, of course) bad ones too.

One of the most unbalancing advanced tricks in Nethack is price ID. It's based on the fact that shopkeepers in Nethack know what all the items are even if the player doesn't, and prices them accordingly. A player who knows the going rates for stuff can greatly narrow down the possibilities by simply dropping things in a store and seeing how much he's offered. Rogue-type roguelikes depend on hiding item identities to make things more challenging, and a lot of the balance is geared towards test-identifying, but few people test-ID in Nethack anymore because there are so many ways to identify things.

Nethack does, in more recent versions, attempt to make this less useful.
There's some variability depending on player Charisma (one of the very few things that stat changes), which must be accounted for. Item prices are arranged in tiers, with a variety of objects of each type having the same price, which helps to keep some info hidden. More deviously, a few items are randomly determined to be more expensive than others, and the price differential has been chosen to put items into the next pricing tier, so once in a while an object will get placed outside its normal price zone. Yet, because there are only a small number of bad items in each tier, a lot of the risk of price-IDing goes away once one of those objects is known. The strange thing about all this is that gold in Nethack is nearly worthless these days except as a source of protection. If they had completely randomized prices the result would probably be less unbalancing than leaving price ID in the game.

Shiren's system uses some of Nethack's price tier idea (you don't see it in these screenshots, but during this game I found two different bracers that cost 10,000), but not taken far enough to foil a sufficently-determined player.


Here's a little roguelike secret. In most games, items that enchant, vorpalize, or otherwise improve equipment almost always remove curses in the process.


This is a fairly interesting monster. In ability they're completely ordinary, except for their willingness to purposely slaughter other nearby monsters to improve their own strength!

There are actually several levels of Kigni Tribe, all of which share the same name and appear similar to each other, so it's not always easy to know just how powerful one of these monsters is when encountered.


Once in a while there are levels where lots of things happen. The random number generator had a lot in store for me here on level 12....


It was here that I managed to identify my back-filled pot, and found it was a Todo Pot. That's still not too bad, as these items allow the player to steal easily from shops, as we'll see later.

Far more ominously in this screenshot, take a close look at the dungeon map. Do you see that roughly box-like region with lots of red and blue dots?

Yep, it's a lair, or as it's called here, a Monster House. In Torneko they were troublesome, but Shiren has far trickier monsters than that game, and also far more powerful treasure to find. Monster Houses can even contain "out of depth" monsters, stronger than the average for that floor. They should never be taken lightly.

If I hadn't been wearing a Far-sight Bracer, I probably would have stumbled upon it by accident.


Next on the list of things scavanged from Nethack: a digging item, the pickaxe.

There are other roguelikes with digging too, but Shiren also contains vaults, rooms disconnected from the normal level structure, to find by digging. How does one find these rooms without digging every square? Oh, if only I had some item equipped that revealed the location of everything on the level....


Yet another another shop again.


Another pot with backs inside. Since we know what the Todo Pot is now, this one's probably the healing type I talked about last time, good.


Okay, here's how to steal with a Todo Pot. Move the store's inventory around so that the stuff you want to steal is directly in front of the door. Then stand outside in the doorway and "push" the pot. A Thieftodo monster will pop out and run forward in a straight line, grab the first item it finds, then return it to the pot and vanish. The item ends up in the pot in place of the "back," and the shopkeeper doesn't notice the object's missing!

Some items are so expensive that, in a normal game, this is the only reasonable way to get them from a shop.


Remember, with most pots, you must throw it against a wall and break it to get its contents.


The Swap Staff trades your position with the monster hit. This may seem like a minor thing, but it actually can have surprising applications. We'll get to those in a bit.


Related to the Swap Staff is the Blowback Staff, which pushes a monster backwards until it hits something. It inflicts very minor damage in the process, but again, pushing has interesting uses.


So then, what did I do with that Monster House?

Why, I left it the hell alone! Sometimes it's best not to take chances. Tackling monster houses is something best done when you've got a good stock of nifty magical aids at the ready to deal with them for you or help you escape if things start to get pear-shaped. Without some of those, it's often best to leave them alone if at all possible.


These levels are where Old Man Tanks start appearing naturally.


Shiren also contains a type of monster that's a natural digger. Soldier Ants in Nethack are extremely mean monsters relative to the level they appear at, but in Shiren, while not quite harmless, they aren't too difficult either. They mostly ignore the player in fact, concentrating on digging new corridors in a partly random fashion.


Monsters you hit with a Paindividing Staff take whatever damage they inflict on you. That'll prove to be quite useful soon.


I've not shown you guys too many traps so far, but these levels are the ones where they get to be a problem. Mine traps take off half your remaining hit points. There's another kind that takes off all but one hit point! Both also destroy adjacent items on the ground. Mines hardly ever kill the player, but can make him easy pickings for the monsters.


These traps are harmless in themselves, but pepper the whole rest of the level with random traps! Some of those traps, themselves, can be trap-making traps, so stepping


It was here that the little girl who was following me around finally got whacked, promoting an Old Man Tank into a Stubborn Tank. Stubborn is the next-to-last tank level, just below Obstinate Tank. Attempting to close and kill one of these in melee is suicide, so the best thing to do is run. In that, the Far-sight Bracer once again proves its worth.


Tanks only shoot at Shiren if he's visible to them. If he finds Shiren, and he's in direct line with him, it'll be nearly instant death. But with the Far-sight Bracer, I can see what his red dot is doing, and not take the passages that lead to it.


It also helps in getting him off my trail, but I'll explain more about that later, when I get to the Minotaur levels....


Escaped to the next level. Whew!


But Old Tanks still appear, and are a great danger. Their shots even ignore armor! In these levels, it's never a good idea to go around with less than 20 hit points because of them.


Another shop. This can't be profitable for him.


Reflex Shields are okay in defense, but they have a special ability: monsters who try to hit in melee have a much greater chance of missing than usual.

The thing about the special abilities of weapons and armor is that, while there are a good number of these abilities, they're generally mutually exclusive. I can wear a Reflex Shield, with its increased chance of monster's wiffing, or I can wear a Dragon Shield for protection from dragon breath, or I can wear a Todo Shield to guard my stuff from thieves.

There is a subquest, however, that adds Synthesis Pots to the game. With one of those, the special functions of equipment items can be merged, to produce a super-item. In conjunction with the smithies and warehouses, this could potentially produce very powerful item that bestow huge bonuses to the player. When the player gets to the super dungeon in fact, he basically must do this to have a chance of surviving, and take advantage of many other tricks too.


Ah, this Dotanuki is a very good weapon. Actually, I probably should have bought this one, but then I wasn't sure if my Nagamaki was better. (According to a commenter last time, it isn't.)


Invincible Herbs are awesome items that make the player complete impervious to damage for ten moves. Nice things to have when facing, say, the final boss.


Slumber Scrolls put all monsters in the room to sleep... but what its description doesn't reveal is that they wake up after a few turns, and they'll be double speed. This fact plays a substantial role in my character's downfall.


A naturally-occuring Genocide Scroll. But it costs 50,000! Maybe I should have saved a use of that Todo Pot for later?


Pit traps send the player to another level. Stop and think for a moment. Unlike Torneko (or indeed most roguelikes), Shiren's dungeon doesn't just go down. The mines go down, but Table Mountain, the final section, goes up. Pit Traps take you either to the next level or back a level, depending on where you are.


Crooked Boulder Valley, the next-to-the-last town. There's not much interesting to see unless I manage to get Surara here, which makes a warehouse available.


Onward... the next two levels of the game are special, in that they contain lots of draining monsters. There are foes that can weaken strength, shields and even drain levels here. They're generally not worth the experience for killing them or the loot to be found on these levels, so the faster the stairs are located the better.


They also contain Gyazars, who are kind of the opposite of the Minion of Death foes from the forest earlier on. They're single-speed move, but they get two attacks! Even a single hit from them isn't anything to be sneezed at.


That's why that Back Pot I found is so useful. Eating an Otorogi-so fills up your hit points one time, but a Back Pot fills you up once for each "back" inside it, plus cures strength loss and status ailments.


Even a Back Pot isn't too useful if you get caught in a cycle of having to spend all your moves healing. In Shiren, all moves take the same amount of time, whether it's fighting, moving, reading a scroll, using an herb or pushing a pot. Two hits from a Gyazar is usually enough to put you into the danger zone, but if you spend the next turn healing instead of running he'll get in another two hits!


Buy-time Staves are interesting items. Swing one at a monster and he'll be teleported to the exit and paralyzed. He'll be on top of the exit unless someone is already there so you'll have to fight it eventually, and he'll wake up the moment he takes damage. However, if multiple monsters are hit with this staff on a single floor, they'll appear in a cluster around the exit. Since each one only wakes up when struck, often only the first monster hit with the staff must be fought! The lesson here is, if you've got more than one charge on the staff, to try to use it on a weak monster first.


Ah-ha, the entrance to Table Mountain. It's the last leg! There's still one more town between here and the end, although I don't reach it in this game.


And right off the bad it's bad, bad news. Have a look, a Minotaur AND, visible behind the level name, a Master Chicken, both extremely strong opponents.


Strong enough that measures need to be taken. It is situations like this for which successful players to build up a stock of escapes, items good for getting out of trouble. In this case, using that Invincible Herb would allow me to not only survive, but kill these guys for lots of experience points.


Zero points of damage are the best points of damage.


Master Chickens, if killed in combat, are worth 400 experience points! They're strong fighters though, and it's rare that one actually kills one. Instead, when one gets to low hit points it demotes into a plain old Chicken. Chickens don't fight back, but flee at double-speed and even if cornered and killed are only worth half the experience.


Master Chickens are one of the two toughest opponents in this area. Minotaurs are the other. They're really strong fighters on their own, but randomly (yet far too frequently) they'll get in a critical hit, which does far more damage!

Around here we find another great use for Far-sight Bracers. Once you start to get to levels where most any monster, handled improperly, can kill you, avoiding danger becomes very important.

Many of these monsters can be defeated, with difficulty, one-on-one, but are overpowering in groups, or if the player isn't completely healed at the start. Since the player heals over time, A Far-sight Bracer can help the player stay clear of monsters until he's ready to fight.


Push Staves also help somewhat. The monsters in Shiren don't have any special ability to see over what the player normally has. It may seem like this is a minor thing, but it's a useful fact to know when being chased.

In a corridor, both Shiren and monsters ordinarily can see only the spaces directly adjacent. If a monster is in space right beside Shiren (or the characters in Rogue or Nethack for that matter), and can move as fast as him, then he'll always be able to close the gap, and running won't be very helpful. If the player can get a space away, however, and run into a corridor, then the monster won't be able to see the player!

Yet... how useful is this really? Roguelike monsters are smarter opponents, even from way back in Rogue, than monsters in many more recent RPGs. If a monster loses sight of the player in a corridor he still remembers the direction he saw the player leave from, and since he knows the player probably couldn't have gone elsewhere will continue running down the corridor, following its twists, until it finds the player or a branch in the path.

Once the monster finds a branch however, he can't be so sure of where the player has gone. Which path did the player take? All he can do is guess. In this way, monsters who are following the player from more than one space away can be eluded. But the player's sight is also limited, so he can't be sure the monster has taken the wrong road without going back, and if he picked the right road that'll put the player right back into danger again.

But with other means of determining monster position, such as the Far-sight Bracer, the uncertainty is gone! The player can see which way the monster went, and if he went down the player's corridor, he can continue running, maybe to another branch, continuing to flee until the monster has gone the wrong way.

I explain all this because, as we've seen, Minotaurs are serious opponents. A lucky hit by one of them can take off 60 hit points! It's hard to see in my screenshots, but I did a lot of that kind of monster evasion in this portion of the game. That's why a Push Staff is useful, it can knock a monster back down a hallway and make it easier to escape by going through a fork. If this strategy seems like rather a lot of trouble to go through... well, it is a little tricky. But it beats the monsters that are in 90% of other RPGs, which require little strategy at all.


Paindividing staves are very nice to have in this area. A monster might be able to attack your weak point for massive damage, but at least this way he'll end up taking that damage as well, and while many of these beasties may be able to dish out, they aren't very good at taking it.


Vaults are a Nethack feature that arguably is much more useful in Shiren, which has scarce money, ultra-expensive items and even more dangerous shopkeepers, than Nethack, where players usually find far more money than they'll ever need.

Both games contain provisions to allow players to escape from them if they get sent there accidentally. In Nethack, eventually a vault guard will come in and, in exchange for all the money the player is carrying, will lead him back to the main level through a spontaneously appearing, and disappearing, passage, a highly programmatic solution that seems very Nethackish. Meanwhile Shiren just puts a teleporter in each vault to allow a stuck player to escape.


Just a somewhat stronger Norojo, but these curse weapons too.


Identification by use illustrated, in this case figuring out a Slanted Pot. A Drain Buster is an okay item, but I'm already past the worst stat draining floors and my weapon is proving capable enough to get me through. I don't have much use for yet another weapon, so it's a perfect candidate for test-IDing by throwing it into a pot.

And it turned out to be a good choice! Notice in the second screenshot the item's name is yellow, but in the third it's white? That's because, while it may look the same otherwise, the item is now identified. It's an ID Pot, that identifies anything put into it! Very nice find, this is.


Decoy Staves are a bit of a mixed blessing. Zap one at a monster and it turns into another Shiren, one that, for some reason, the monsters are far more willing to beat up than the player's. The monster zapped is even confused as a bonus! But remember what happens when a monster defeats another monster? That's right, promotion time. Because of this the best use of a Decoy Staff is either to confuse a single monster, or to distract other foes while you run for the exit.


Aaaa, I went down the stairs and arrived in a monster house!

This is where my game ended, but it could be useful to illustrate just what I did and why it didn't work, and what I could have done to have survived. First, notice that the stairs are just two spaces away from me, I can get there with two moves, and from diligently leveling from killing ultra-tough monsters I have 120 hit points.

I could have just run for the stairs and I'd probably have made it, but I was cocky. Not so cocky that I wasn't going to use an item to try to clear this room though....


I read a Slumber Scroll. I remembered that they'd put all the monsters to sleep, but I forgot that the effect was temporary, and that they'd be double-speed when they woke up.


I could have run for the stairs at almost any time. Even so, I got to kill a few monsters before they woke up, like this Super Gaze and Flame Priest 2.


It was while I was fighting a second Flame Priest that they revived.


I had a Confuse Scroll in my inventory though. Now, if I had remembered the drawback of the Slumber Scroll I definitely would have used this first, and saved the Slumber Scroll for an escape. Confuse Scrolls are nice in that each adjacent monster gets a hit in only on one turn in eight, but in a room full of monsters, the chances that one of them will get lucky once in a while is still rather high.


And even worse! Confused monsters are as likely to attack other monsters as the player. More likely in fact, because there are so many more of them here! A Chain Head, already a burly foe, got promoted into a Giga Head, best described as death in roughly humanoid form. Basically, every turn next to it is a one-eighth chance the game ends there, and I don't like trusting that kind of thing to luck.


Time to pull out the big gun, that Genocide Scroll I scribed. I was trying to save it for the big boss at the end of the dungeon, who for all his hit points and raw terror and taking up four dungeon spaces at once can be dispatched forever with a single thrown Genocide Scroll. But if I never get to him I can't use it anyway, so away it goes.

In Nethack, genocide wipes out one species of monster from the game. In Shiren, one family can be genocided at a time, so if I found another scroll and used it, the Chain Head family would be back, but the monsters on the level back when I first used it would still be dead.


These monsters set traps as they go, but they can also hit fairly hard. One of these was the one that got in the last swing.


Got on the score list though....


Third place, in fact. It was my best non-winning game in the end.


That's it. Notice the first save file, by the way. It's got the bird icon signifying a victory over Table Mountain, but it's also got a Mamul icon meaning a win in Fei's Final Problem! We'll talk about that... next time, I think. And don't worry, this is the last ultra-in-depth game explication I intend to do. All I can say about it is, thank god for Image Magick.

In other news, venerable Nethack turned 20 years old a couple weeks back! Hopes that the secretive Devteam would use the occaision to unveil a new version were dashed, however.... C'mon, it's been three and a half years now! Do I have to beg, here?