Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre. This time - an analysis of an intriguing mid-period console Roguelike, Sega's Fatal Labyrinth.]

Torneko no Daibōken: Fushigi no Dungeon was released in 1993, and kicked off the popular (in Japan) Mystery Dungeon series of console and portable graphical roguelikes. Provided you don't count the Diablo games, they are by far the most popular commercial roguelikes yet made. And judging just from the quality of gameplay, the second game in that series, Shiren the Wanderer, should probably be numbered among the best roguelikes of all, commercial or not.

How did roguelikes become (to some degree) popular over in Japan while they remain a niche in the U.S., land of their birth? Their roots clutch deep in the soil of old-school Dungeons & Dragons, more so than Dragon Quest, presence of Torneko (a.k.a. Taloon) and a bunch of classic monsters notwithstanding. Now D&D did become popular in Japan, so I hear, but it seems to have been even more a faddish thing there. While a number of classic D&D-derived CRPGs (especially Wizardry) continue to sell in Japan, you don't hear much about the prevalence of D&D itself there any more.

fltitle.pngAnyway, some time after Rogue, the original roguelike, was first distributed, someone ported it to Japanese. I know next to nothing about this version of Rogue. It seems to be the lineage traced by the PS2 roguelike "Rogue Hearts Dungeon," billed as a sequel to the orignal game although it seems unlikely they obtained the permission of Toy, Wichmann and Arnold to make it.

That home computer version of Rogue may be the original exposure of Japanese popular culture to the genre, and Mystery Dungeon sparked the drive of popularity and a wave of imitators, each adhering to the concept with varying degrees of fidelity: Azure Dreams, Dragon Quest Monsters, Monstania, Estopolis II/Lufia II, Climax Landers/Time Stalkers, and many others besides, they all owe some debt to these games. But what happened between those two games, Rogue and Mystery Dungeon? Was there nothing at all between them?

It turns out, no. The Sega Genesis roguelike Fatal Labyrinth was first released in 1990, two or three years before the first Mystery Dungeon game was published, and interestingly, unlike that series, it did see release in the United States.

Hey, it's another (adjective) (dangerous complex)!

Wikipedia tells us that Fatal Labyrinth was first released for the Meganet downloadable game service in Japan. A year after it got a ROM cartridge release, and it is a version of that which came to the United States. Perhaps because of its origins as something that had been made to be transferred through phone lines, the game is rather light on graphics, especially compared to the surprisingly lush Shiren games. Still, it's true that roguelikes don't exactly require the best graphics in the world.

Fatal Labyrinth hews closer to Rogue than many other games in the category. It has randomized dungeons, a variety of equipment to find and wear, and a good number of special objects both long-lasting and one-use. It even scrambles the item definitions before the game begins, leaving the player to figure out their uses, although unlike Rogue or Hack once used identification is automatic; there is no question as to an item's purpose after its first use, which in game terms usually means simply that the first of a given type of object tends to be wasted. Notably, Fatal Labyrinth scrambles more item types than does Shiren up until the bonus dungeons, although F.A. offers far fewer item types to discover.

fl1.pngBad items also exist, of both potions and rings. Scrolls of identify also exist, here called "appraise scrolls" in the game, which will ID any one object of any type. In practice this is the only way other than process-of-elimination to avoid using a bad item, but the bad stuff is mostly pretty limited in the damage it does so it doesn't matter much. Bad rings means curses, but unique to this game, cursed rings only last for a few dozen turns and auto-expire, the ring vanishing when it goes. In Rogue, putting on a ring of blindness is one of the worst things you can do because it can't be removed until a scroll of remove curse is found. The curse timer in Fatal Labyrinth generally means that bad items there are generally slight, and test-IDing is common.

Sticking and moving

Fatal Labryinth's play systems are somewhat unique, and are not quite roguelike standard. I will attempt to describe them. It's a strange system, but not without its depths. As one of the few definite roguelikes that actually meddles with Rogue's essential combat and movement system, it is worthy of detailed study.

First, the player's character and the monsters in this game are generally incapable of moving or attacking diagonally. They simply cannot; it doesn't enter into the game. Not even staff-waving or object-throwing can be done on a diagonal. Monsters that are confused may sometimes be spotted moving diagonally, but they also occasionally move two spaces, so it's probably related to that. (It's not clear why confused monsters can move faster.)

fl2.pngSecond, the actions of movement and attacking are not quite the same in terms of game time. Most monsters move slower than they attack, and the player is faster in movement than most monsters. Monsters and the player are pretty much all the same speed when fighting, so up-close combat becomes the traditional blow-for-blow battle most roguelike players are familiar with. But here's a weird thing: nearly all monsters get a "parting shot," similar to 3E D&D's attacks of opportunity, at your back when you take a step out of melee combat. While this is usually free damage for them, this attack also uses up the monster's movement turn, meaning you can open up a one-gap space between yourself and a pursuing enemy for the price of one hit. This opportunity attack only seems to happen if the monster is facing the player; although the player can change facing at will without cost by holding down the B button and pressing the direction pad, monsters can only turn as part of moving or attacking. Another weird point: enemy magic attacks made as parting shots always seem to fail.

The player being able to move faster than monsters allows a careful player to avoid confrontations. Partly to counter this, most monsters have an ability to attack at a distance. Like the player, they can only do this straight horizontally or vertically. They never seem to use this when the player is moving directly across their vision; they only shoot if he is both lined up and either moving towards, away from, or doing something else. If this seems difficult to understand, well, it's not exactly obvious in play either.

X-ray vision and zig-zag diagonals

fl3.pngThird, monsters have no state of not knowing the player's location. They're either asleep and immobile (which they all are when they start a level) or awake and chasing, and when awake they're always granted knowledge of the player's location.

The game does not check to see if the monster could see the player. They'll all try to move to the player's position even if there's a wall in the way, which causes them to just wait by the wall matching the player's sideways motion. This may seem unfair, but in the game's defense, the player is also capable of seeing monsters that are not in line-of-sight.

Monsters have a strange movement quirk that can be exploited to advantage. When a monster is some distance from the player but not in a straight line, the way the monster will decide to travel to line up with the player seeks to close the greater distance of the two axises it has to choose from. In other words, if a monster is five spaces away east-west, and ten spaces away north-south, it'll always travel down if it's not blocked by a wall or another monster.

Combined with strictly Cartesian movement and ranged attacks, this serves to cause monsters to attempt to not line up with the player until they are in melee range. They'll zig-zag all the way up to him to avoid getting shot. This is strange because it's not really in the monster's best interests. Most monsters have the ability to make their own powerful ranged attacks for only the cost of using its turn, while all the player's distance attacks require expending resources. Rather than line up and shoot at the player, monsters will instead seek to delay lining up as long as possible. I'm not sure why they do this, especially considering monster attacks pass through other enemies harmlessly, so if they all lined up they wouldn't kill each other with friendly fire.

Finding a Delicatessen in the Deadly Monster Tower

fl4.pngA major portion of Rogue's design concerns food, which forces the player to explore to continue to find more, pushing him into deeper areas before he's had time to grind up extra experience levels. Fatal Labyrinth uses Rogue's food setup to a point; unlike the earlier game, food here is consumed the moment it's picked up. A number in the corner of the screen indicates what the player's food level is, which slowly goes down during play.

Food doesn't fill up the player's stomach by a set amount. It adds either 10, 20 or 30 food to the counter randomly. Even if the player gets mostly 10s though he shouldn't want for food too much, it's not extremely rare. More likely, in fact, he'll have trouble with overeating. If the food total gets to over 79 the player will be slowed, only getting one turn in two. This is a considerable problem, enough to make the player pause whenever eating when his current food is above 50, even if the chance of getting put into the slow zone is only one-in-three at that level. Worse, I hear if the player's food level ever goes above 99 he dies from overeating. This is turns out mostly to be an easily-avoidable death so long as the player sees it coming; the only real danger of starving in the game come from drinking a hunger potion, reducing food instantly to 1, but even starving is less deadly than overeating, as running out of food causes not instant death but persistent damage over time.

Most roguelikes feature what we might term "wandering monsters," after the random opponents from classic D&D. In most games, these are handled by randomly adding new monsters into the level out of the player's sight. Fatal Labyrinth does not do this. Mostly during the exploration of a level, only the monsters that existed there upon entry will be there to fight, making it possible to deplete a level of monsters. That, coupled with the monsters' immobility until the player wakes them up by proximity, makes for a more leisurely exploring pace than other roguelikes, at least for a while. After a predetermined number of turns on a level have passed, the game will suddenly revive all the dead monsters back at their start points and wake them all up!

The dungeon bears you no fondness

fl5.pngThere are two kinds of traps in the Labyrinth, both of them impossible to detect until set off, and both operating 100% of the time their space is stepped into. Alarm traps wake up all the monsters, which due to foes' tendency to get stuck behind walls is usually not too bad. Pit traps, however, dump the player back on the previous level, with monsters replenished. The layout of the previous level will be the same as before, but there won't be any items to find. When the player returns to the trap's level the trap will still be there, once again hidden, and the player can very well fall into it again, and again, if he isn't careful.

Importantly, the trap level will have all its items randomly restocked, regardless of the number that had been collected before. Since the monster revival counter resets upon changing levels that's not an effective check against building up items, and food is included in the replenished so generally the player won't starve if he chooses to take advantage of this quirk. It's quite an abusable trick, sometimes without the player even intending to: if he stumbles into a pit trap accidentally, who is going to tell him not to take advantage of the restored items in order to make up for the wasted time?

Oddly, it seems that the dungeon levels, instead of being randomly generated from a blank grid, are instead drawn from a bank of pre-made levels. Monsters and items are scattered around each floor as the player enters, but traps look like they may be set features, which makes the game subtly easier each time its played and trap locations are learned.

Overall, Fatal Labyrinth isn't really a bad game, but it's fairly long for its limited number of dungeon settings. There isn't much sense of the game changing during its 30 lengthy levels. A level of rogue can be over in a couple of minutes, while a level of Fatal Labyrinth often takes ten or more, assuming the player doesn't get sent back to do it again by one of those damn pit traps. It's not really up to the level of Shiren, but it's not really bad. Give it a shot, in any case.


Appendix: On the monsters and items in the game

Some of the more troublesome monsters you may find here:

Bats (depicted as an eyeball with wings) move semi-randomly, and are among the fast-moving opponents.

Worms are pillbug-like creatures that like attacking from a distance. Be careful of level 2 worms, colored green! It doesn't seem to happen often, but their shots can destroy armor! Fortunately there is plenty laying around to replace it with.

Snails are slow and never leave rooms, but are difficult to score damage against.

Magicians are very dangerous monsters who can cast sleep and confusions spells. If you're facing just one it's generally not so bad, but if other monsters are in the fight it becomes vital to either get away from the magician without getting affected or use some of your inventory resources to make the situation more reasonable.

Slimes are generally pretty basic, but the third level slime, the blue ones, are able to multiply once awake. This can be a good source of experience, but it can also make a level into an unplayable mess.

Ice Bars have a pretty strong distance attack, making it desirable to close with them and kill them quickly.

Robots are one of the first really tricky monsters, with long-ranged attacks and the capability to do a g ood amount of damage per turn. Fortunately, they generally don't wake up unless you attack them first.

Medusas appear fairly late in the game. Not only can they blind you with a gaze, they can drain your maximum hit points. Take note particularly of that second thing, for there is no cure for that loss and the game's message isn't very useful in figuring out what has happened to your character. In any case, handle Medusas with care.

fl6.pngSome of the items you may find along the way. Most names are accurate but a few I have yet to see in-game; I've identified those by effect:

Canes, unlike wands in most roguelikes, have only one charge each. Most of them are distance weapons:
Blizzard: does some damage. Seems to do more if the opponent doesn't resist cold.
Lightning: similar, but for electricity.
Fire: similar, but for fire.
Hypnosis: put one foe to sleep. Even monsters you'd think would be immune to this, such as robots, can be send to dreamland fairly easily with one of these.
Kamikaze: blows one monster off the board, apparently in exchange for some damage.
Anti-Magic: Affects every monster currently on the level, sealing their magic powers and (maybe) some special abilities.
Wooden: Worthless.

It's kind of surprising how few types of potions there are:
Power Up: grants a permanent +1 to attack strength
Heal: Refills a lot of hit points. There may be an even more powerful version, although if there is I was unable to determine its name.
Dancing/Confusion: I'm still not sure of the name of this one. A bad item, this causes you to move and attack in random directions. With careful use of the B button to fix your location, you can still determine which direction to shoot canes and arrows, and throw things. This doesn't last too long.
Blinder (bad, causes game not to retain map of level and reduces vision to 1 space around, lasts a short while)
Hunger (beware of this one, it sets your food level to 1 -- good reason not to try out potions unless there's extra food around)
Curse Removal (in a potion?)
Quicken (grants double speed until the end of the floor)

Here's the scrolls:
Chaos: Confuses all monsters, although all this really means is they move randomly only if they're not attacking you. Unlike the way confusion affects the player, monsters can still direct their melee attacks. Note that this scroll affects even monsters that have not yet appeared on the level. It lasts until the player leaves the floor.
Search: Items in unrevealed territory show up in the black. A common scroll, but not really very useful.
Rust Proof: Protects your equipment from rust, I suppose. I've yet to see a rust effect in-game. It's possible it's talking about the item-destruction attack of green worms. No indication of which items are protected is given, and neither does it state when the effect ends. I assume it lasts until the end of the floor.
Strength Up: Oddly, it says "Your armor has been strengthened." What it means is your defense has been permanently improved permanently by a small amount. Your armor is untouched, and although the game does support item plusses, this doesn't change them.
Teleport: Sends you elsewhere, immediately and randomly, on the current level. A very rare scroll.
Appraise: That should say identify. It works on any one item you're carrying although most of them are easy enough to determine. These scrolls tend to be rather feast-or-famine in this game, sometimes you find lots of them and sometimes you don't find any. If you find one, it's probably best used on a potion.
Strengthen weapon: I don't know the real name for this scroll. It's very rare, and it increases the attack value on a weapon by one. While the weapon's name isn't changed to something like "Long Sword +1," the item's description is modified to reflect the change. This is actually not very useful: the game's upgrade cycle, a symptom of the level-based generation of equipment, means you'll probably end up changing your weapons as you go along, as the difference between weapon tiers is far greater than a single point.
Curse Removal: Removes any curse (confusion, blindness, heal prevention) that is upon you, from any source. I believe it even works against monster attack effects, although this is untested.

Rings:
Power Up: Increases your attack strength by a small number. Probably the best ring in the early game, later on the relative increases from level gains and equipment come to dwarf the bonus provided by this ring. Is it my imagination, or do different rings provide different bonuses?
Armor: Increases your defense by a small amount. Tends to be used less in the mid-game for the same reasons as Power Up.
Blizzard: Provides no obvious effect, but it seems likely that it lends some defense from cold-based element attacks.
Flame: As "Blizzard," but for fire attacks.
Lightning: As with electrical attacks.
Heal: Doubles HP regeneration speed, a good advantage. If you're playing competently, then a single monster will almost never have the power to kill your character. It's multiple opponents acting at once, or a monster attacking you when you're low on health, that's the problem. But waiting around to heal, tapping that 'A' button, wastes food (which is not usually a big problem) and increases the chance of the monsters regenerating (which could be troublesome). Both situations are made easier if you're getting your periodic HP restorations twice as often. This items doesn't seem to increase your hunger.
Food: I'm not exactly sure, but I believe this reduces hunger. Given the penalties for overeating, it is possible this ring has a different effect.
Blinder: Limits your sight to one space around you, and also causes your character to forget the map. Cursed, but only lasts for a short while.
Curse: Cursed, obviously. This prevents natural healing, but lasts only a short time.

Other notes

fl7.pngThere are effectively two kinds of secret doors. The first is simply normal passages down or right of rooms. Passages along those walls don't get revealed until you stand right next to them. There are also "explicit" secret passages, which must be faced and the 'A' button pressed to reveal. Only the one spot immediately faced is searched, which makes scanning a wall for passages a bit more of a chore than in Rogue, in which a search covers all eight adjacent spaces.

Level 10 appears to always be a big room. The best way I've found to tackle it is to run in large loop around the room avoiding monsters until they separate into the bats and everything else. Then take out the bats, then take out the other things. If you have a scroll of chaos (confuses all monsters) then this is an excellent time to use it.

Here is a list of ranks bestowed on the player as he gains levels. As a jolly game, see if you can unscramble them into the order the game confers them in: Beginner, Valet, Ranger, Leader, "Battleman," Soldier, Warrior, Fighter, Swordsman, Trooper, Knight, Veteran, Master. (Answer: They're already in order. Yes, Leader < Soldier. Yes, "Battleman" isn't the highest rank possible.)

It appears to me, but I have yet to really prove, that Fatal Labyrinth's levels are not actually randomly generated, but just pulled from a bank of pre-made levels. This actually doesn't affect the game as much as you might think, although it does make it a bit easier once you know where the secret doors and traps are. (And before you judge it on this point, I also have reason to believe Shiren the Wanderer does the same thing with some of its outdoor levels.)

Weapons and armor are kind of boring in Fatal Labyrinth. They're mostly generated according to the dungeon level, and all items of the same class look identical. Rarely a piece of equipment will be generated out-of-dept, but because there's no way to look at an item without picking it up, it means to find the one-in-twenty long sword in among the short swords, the player must pick up the other sword swords, one at a time, to find it, which gets tiring to say the least.

While the weapons are split up into power tiers like 90% of JRPGs, there is some variety between them than just an ascending ladder of power. There are five main classes of items: axes, swords, spears, shuriken abd bows. Axes have much greater power than swords of the same tier, but in exchange for hitting much less often. Spears are the opposite, weaker attack power but much better hit chances. Shuriken and bows are both missile weapons. Shuriken can be thrown at enemies and don't have to be wielded, but are relatively uncommon. Bows are more-frequently found, but must be equipped to fire, which means wearing no other weapon -or- shield.

EDIT: Half a paragraph was somehow missing from the secret door notes. It's been fixed.