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 month, impressions of the Japan-only Mystery Dungeon game Fushigi no Dungeon: Furai no Shiren Gaiden: Jokenji Asuka Kenzan!]

There are quite a few Mystery Dungeon games, but they can generally be divided into two categories, being the licensed ones, and the unlicensed ones. While there are more licensed games, and in fact the first game in the series starred Torneko/Taloon from Dragon Quest IV, the more interesting ones from a roguelike enthusiast's perspective are the unlicensed games, which for whatever reason tend to have more challenging gameplay, harder consequences for losing, and are just more fun in all ways.

asukatitle.JPGThe unlicensed Mystery Dungeon games are also called the Shiren games, after the starring character, a wanderer in a straw hat with a talking weasel named Kappa and a distinctive striped cape.

Off the top of my head, and I am open to correction on this,I believe there to be nine games in this series: one for the Super Famicom, two for the Gameboy, one starring a younger Shiren and Kappa for the N64 (which I like to call Jim Henson's Dungeon Babies), one for the Sega Dreamcast, one for Windows, one for the Wii, and two DS remakes, of the SNES and first Game Boy games.

Of them all, only one has been officially released in the U.S., the first DS remake. Atlus, I would think in order to make up for the lackluster Izuna games, plans on releasing the Wii version. Time will tell if they do their usual sterling localization job or decide the game needs "fixing" in some way.

But this is off the subject, which is the Dreamcast game. This is essentially a roguelike with 3D models for all the monsters. And some of the artwork is among the best seen in the series. Of course, our focus is more on the gameplay than the visuals, so I leave it to the screenshots (taken off an actual television!) to show off the look of the game. It actually doesn't star Shiren at all, but a young woman named Asuka. Despite being unable to read Japanese I've been playing this game for a couple of days, with the aid of the handful of item translation FAQs available on GameFAQs:

asuka1.JPG
Monsters

The "main" quest of Jokenji Asuka Kenzan is quite similar to the Table Mountain quest of Mystery Dungeon SNES, right down to using much of the same music. Some of the monsters of that game return for this one: I've seen Rice Changers, Bowboys, Gazes, Polygons, Pumpkorepkin and Curse Girls all make return appearances along with their promoted forms. I've also seen a monster that looks like one of those damn Ghost Radishes, although they have so far not thrown any herbs at me. Additionally, Tiger Uhos, Chintalas and what I assume are the new type of Tengu that can copy enemy appearances also show up. These are monsters that appeared in Mystery Dungeon DS, though since that game was produced after this Dreamcast variation, they are actually holdovers from it instead of the other way around.

asuka2.JPGMany new monsters show up that originate in no other Shiren Mystery Dungeon game, at least that I've played. (There are four such games to my knowledge.) These games are made or broken by their monster designs; one of the failures of Success' Izuna's series is the number of monsters it has that are essentially just attack fodder. Asuka's game doesn't disappoint in this department. Among the new foes are:
- A monster that has the "strange spell" of the Fog Hermits from Mystery Dungeon DS, but only usable at close range and of only a few turns duration. They also appear to have the ability to block arrow attacks!
- A monster that resembles a centaur mixture of Boyboy and the hermit-like creatures, which fires painful silver arrows.
- Slugs that lick Asuka and drain strength. Unlike Leeches, they do not lower maximum strength; this stat damage can be undone with an Antidote Herb.
- Frogs can shoot their tongue in any "straight" direction (orthogonal or diagonal) and draw their target to the space beside them. Sometimes they get a free hit when they do this. These are also able to cross watery areas unimpeded.
asuka3.JPG- Kappa (unrelated to your weasel friend) Imps are one of the most interesting new monsters. They're smart enough to pick up items off the floor and then throw them at Asuka, for large damage as well as potentially causing an item effect for staves, herbs and some scrolls. Oh, and unlike Shiren or Asuka, they don't have to be in a direct line to hit with an item; they toss in an arc like the Piggies in other Shiren games.
- Pelicans seems like boring opponents until you try throwing something at them, which will be caught and stored in its mouth. This actually behaves like a Melding Jar: multiple items thrown at a Pelican combine into a single object with all the individual objects' powers. There is a drawback to this melding ability though, mentioned below....
- There are weird hat-like monsters that roam some of the floors that have a possession attack: if they hit Asuka with it, she moves randomly for a few turns as if she were confused, but allies hit with it turn against her for a short while! The attack works by the monster melding with its victim's shadow; entering a dark area seems to be what causes it to end. Sometimes when struck these creatures sprout a knife and fork, which signals that they're entering attack mode and won't do the possession attack any more.
asuka4.JPG- Dragon Turtles (they look a little like Bowser from the Mario games) periodically switch between being inside and out of their shells. The switch uses up their turn. While in their shell, they automatically counter any melee attacks done to them. (This -doesn't- mean that they don't get to attack you normally as well!)
- Japanese-style snakey Dragons have a distance attack that works like Blowback Staves, doing light damage but pushing the target away across the floor.
- Floating jellyfish monsters hit Asuka with a powerful electric attack.
- Ninja are some of the most complex monsters seen to date, and they appear to be part of the story of the game. They tend to approach until they take damage. At that time, they throw a smoke bomb and teleport to a nearby space, sometimes backwards but sometimes behind Asuka, and then they get a free turn! The smoke bomb signals a mode change to throwing stars, usually done immediately due to that free turn. They then seek to keep their distance and continue to throw missile weapons, Bowboy-style.

asukaally.JPGAllies, Identification and Melding

Asuka also has allies like Shiren has, and after activating them in an event (the first such is a between-level area) they randomly appear along the way. The two allies I've found so far, it must be said, are both monsters, of the Frog and Imp classes already mentioned. I've not noticed the Imp throwing items They also differ from Shiren's allies in that they gain experience along with Asuka, and furthermore their level seems to persist between plays, although that could be just my imagination at this point. They seem to be slightly more durable than Shiren's allies, but they're still prone to being killed by monsters, and when this happens the monster who landed the blow gets a promotion, just like in the other Mystery Dungeon games.

One way the main game is easier than in Shiren is that all items are identified in the main game. To put this into perspective:
- Rogue, the baseline game due simply to the fact that it was the original, has four classes of random items that can be identified through description (potions, scrolls, rings and wands) and also weapons and armor with unknown properties that must be identified through other means.
- Nethack has this, and adds amulets, several random armor types and a few other miscellaneous items. It also provides additional means of identification, especially the trick known as "price ID," and is so large that the majority of items will appear in each game, so to a knowledgeable player its identification game is a bit easier than Rogue's.
asukainvent.JPG- Shiren SNES had random bracers and staves, and unknown weapons and shields, in the normal game, and also unknown herbs and scrolls in the challenge Final Puzzle dungeon. It supports price ID as in Nethack, but its only really of value in Final Puzzle (where it can be quite useful).
- Shiren DS also had such unknown items, but it identified everything the player is carrying whenever a non-dungeon area is entered. Further, items in the starting warehouse are always identified. Both of these rules are suspended in its version of Final Puzzle. Price ID is the same as in Shiren SNES.
- Fushigi no Dungeon: Furai no Shiren Gaiden: Jokenji Asuka Kenzan!, or just Shiren DC, or Asuka for short, has all items completely identified in the main game. Correspondingly there are no "bad" items in that dungeon. I hear that there is at least one dungeon later on that supports unID'd stuff. Presumably price ID will work there, but shops behave quite differently in Asuka's game, as I discuss below.

Like Shirens SNES and DS, it's possible to use Melding Pots/Jars to combine the properties of weapons, or shields, into a single piece of super-equipment. In the Mystery Dungeon games, these properties are called marks. A skilful, not to mention persistent, player can eventually pool nearly every good weapon mark in the game into one item, and the same can be done with shields. Asuka supports Melding Jars too, and even supports a monster, the pelicans, that provide the same kind of function. However, equipment in Asuka is limited in the number of marks it can bear. These are represented in the item's description text as a row of circles, with kanji replacing some of them depending on which marks have been acquired. Remember: in the Mystery Dungeon games, the rustproof ability that protects an item from losing pluses is considered a mark. Blacksmiths in towns have the ability to remove marks from an item.


asukashop.JPGStanding water, menu shops

In dungeons, in addition to the normal river and stone terrains, there is also standing water. I don't know what purpose standing water has; it's possible that it is a genuine innovation in roguelike design, or it could be a fairly silly little thing; both kinds of improvements are sometimes found in the Mystery Dungeon series.

A fairly big difference between Asuka and the earlier Shiren games is the abandonment of room shops. The existence of room shops are an extremely telling thing for the RPG historian to note because, really, no game did shops like this until the roguelike game Hack hit the scene. Most developers present the player with a list of choices of things to trade when it comes time to buy and sell things. This system I call menu shops.

Room shops, on the other hand, are a special room that is overseen by a shopkeeper. Various items scattered around the room are the store's inventory. To make a purchase, the player picks up the item from the floor and takes it to the shopkeeper at the entrance, who then asks for the money for it. If the player wants to sell something, he drops the object in the room then speaks with the shopkeeper for payment. The player isn't allowed to leave the room while carrying unpaid inventory, but most roguelike games that implement room shops support sneaky ways of getting away without paying. Most (but not all) of these usually make the shopkeeper angry and send him, a powerful opponent, running through the level in order to clean the player's clock. He also tends to call out guards that can also kill him or slow him down. But this provides for the ability to steal, which is a high-risk, but also high-reward, game tactic.

asuka5.JPGDoing shops in this way isn't what you might call an obvious solution to the problem of implementing game commerce, and they require a lot of programming support as well, so if a game features room shops it's indicative that somewhere along the line a developer has had experience with Hack or Nethack. (Aside: Someone should look into the use of quasi-room shops in The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening and Landstalker. It's not a sure thing that this feature in those games were inspired by Hack, but it does seem a little suspicious. Especially Link's Awakening, which also provides for player theft in a similar fashion!)

Far more about the Mystery Dungeon games suggests Nethack than just room shops, but they are a particularly telling feature, and they add a lot of depth to the game. So it's unfortunate that, in the parts of the game I've seen so far at least, they seem MIA in Asuka. The shopkeepers in towns all offer their wares via a menu. Prices seem to reflect those in the other Mystery Dungeon games, but the procedure of sales is done in a completely different way. This would seem to make theft impossible. It also means that the store's inventory is effectively far larger; if a shopkeeper is selling riceballs, Asuka can buy as many of that item as she has the desire, money and inventory space for, which a canny player can take advantage of to make hunger far less of a problem than in other Mystery Dungeon games.

The absense of room shops may seem like a minor thing to a roguelike newcomer, but it makes a profound difference in the strategy options open to the player, and it ensures that the player has much greater access to several important items, so it actually changes the flavor of the game considerably.

asukablacksmith.JPGBracelets, blacksmiths, items and dungeons

Shiren, and Asuka, supports one type of random affect-granting item, called variously Armbands, Bracers or Bracelets depending on which game you're playing and/or translation you're using. In prior games Shiren could wear one of these items at a time. Asuke, on the other hand, can wear two. And some of them have frankly incredible effects, such as disabling hunger! The catch, and of course there's a catch, is that bracelets take damage as the player is hit by enemies, and eventually shatter! Bracelets can be repaired by paying a blacksmith.

Blacksmiths, by the way, can also improve shields now in addition to weapons.

There seems to be a greater variety of interesting special item in the game. In addition to Shiren's weapons for example, there's now a shield that doubles as a sword, taking up both equipment slots while it is employed. It seems that there is now a way to sear riceballs in order to make them immune to rotting traps, although I haven't encountered it yet. There are a number of weird-looking items for sale in a special shop in the second town; I have no clue what they do, as the translation FAQs I was using do not seem to mention them.

Perhaps the greatest feature of Asuka's game is one that, unfortunately, I was unable to experience, and probably won't be able to for some time. That is the several special dungeons of the game. Where Shiren SNES had three such dungeons, and the DS game adds two more, Asuka has eight in all. According to some forum posts I found somewhere, seven of them are made available at the end of the "main" game, and serve effectively as a second part of the primary quest. The last dungeon is another version of the challenge dungeon, with all unknown items and all the monsters. According to those posts all these dungeons, after first completion, can be played to 50 or 99 levels, basically making all of the dungeons into their own version of Final Puzzle.


asuka6.JPGI'm still trying to get a hold of a personal copy of this game, and it's quite rare even in Japan. The cheapest eBay copy I see, used, runs for $60. Until I can obtain the game for myself it seems unlikely that I'm going to be able to penetrate far into its mysteries. Even then, playing it in Japanese, while possible, is decidedly a pain, and unlike the Japan-only DS sequel there seems to be no work being done into making a translation patch for it. Another Shiren game that it'd be interesting to try sometime is the N64 version, but I don't even have a translation FAQ for that. Ah well, maybe in time....

One disturbing thing about this game, which applies to many other game sequels in my opinion, is the sense that it's the same game as before but just remixed, and not with an eye for how the new features work together. New things were added, like many new monsters and items, but some of the cooler previous things removed, like many other monsters and room shops. There is really doesn't seem to be a reason all these things could not have been included in one game, except perhaps so that later they can make a game that does include it all. Jokenji Asuka Kenzan is not really hugely different from the previous Shiren games, except maybe in the expanded bonus dungeons, so perhaps the remixing of the feature list was a way to try to make the game seem more distinct from the previous games.

asukathirdtown.JPGAside: if I had included the entire name of the game in the title, your title bar would read

COLUMN: @Play: Fushigi no Dungeon: Furai no Shiren Gaiden: Jokenji Asuka Kenzan!

including four colons, a commercial-at sign, and an exclamation point. Something about that deeply offends my English major sensibilities.