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 - a look at Square Enix's chocobo-starring, Rogue-ish Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon for Nintendo's Wii.]

We looked at Shiren the Wanderer for the Wii a little while ago. Interestingly, that is only one of three roguelike or quasi-roguelike games for the system. The other two are Baroque, which we'll be looking at shortly (so everyone in the comments can be patient a little while longer) and Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon.

cdchocobo.jpgChocobo's Dungeon is a sorta-sequel to Chocobo's Mystery Dungeon, a Playstation roguelike originally developed by Chunsoft, the Mystery Dungeon people who also made the Torneko games and Shiren the Wanderer. Chunsoft has made many roguelikes and quasi-roguelikes licensed to other companies using their properties.

This is what brought us the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games, which are breathtakingly boring but still, among their audience, remarkably popular. Chocobo's Mystery Dungeon was a similar kind of thing. While the Chocobo's Dungeon games have been developed by Square (and later instalments by h.a.n.d.), the first two at least were supervised by the president of Chunsoft, so at least some know-how is behind them.

It is interesting, sometimes, to note the ways in which people get roguelikes wrong. Sometimes this happens when the developers don't really understand what makes roguelike design work, and sometimes it happens when developers think they know better, that they can fix the things that turn some people off of the game.

And when people try to do this, they should at least be given the benefit of the doubt. For all the ways in which they work, roguelikes are not perfect. If someone thinks they improve upon them then, by all means, they should try! So it is really a shame when their attempts all look so similar to each other: removing permadeath, making the monsters nothing more than bags of damage, hit points and the occasional special attack, and splitting up the game up between an easy main dungeon and a bunch of much harder sub-dungeons with special rules.

Chocobo's Dungeon for Wii replaces the @-sign with the Final Fantasy games' ubiquitous yellow ostrich. They thrown in the (tired-looking by now) Job System for some gameplay variety, and so we get to see what amounts to a chicken dressed up in various Final Fantasy class costumes. These are not made available until a short way into the game. They are more references to past Final Fantasy games than actual fantasy archetypes, building on its history, so they're interesting mostly to fans of the series. Of course your character is a chocobo, so that much should be obvious anyway.

cdmoodle1.jpgScenario, or DEATH TO MOOGLES

I'd like to take a moment to note that never, never before have I been so indignant when faced with a video game story. I have played through many JRPGs in the past, and have over time become rather annoyed by the various excesses of the genre. But although we don't get the bikini-bunny-women of recent games, we do get a rather dopey story that involves a bell in a town ringing that causes people to lose their memory. I did not get far enough into the game to answer the question of why they don't just tear it down.

Reader, there are doubtless secrets in the story that shock and astound, but I have not seen many of the answers to them. I saw a cutscene in which an egg lands from the sky, and inside it is a baby already in diapers, and people somehow know his name is Rafallelo or some such, and he can turn into light and enter people's brains. Our hero chicken must then also leap into those brains, which for some reason are all roguelike dungeons, and find the mystical jigsaw piece and the kid at the same time to restore that person's memory, and that was about the time that I ceased to care about any of it. It wasn't far in that the moment one of those humanoid slabs of flesh-colored clay opened its fool mouth that I'd smack the Plus button like Whack-A-Mole.

To h.a.n.d's credit, nearly all these cutscenes are skippable. To their detriment the most annoying ones of all, the dungeon boss monologues at the end of chapters, are not. And if you die to a boss, when you get back up to them again you have to sit through the same ominous spiel again in its entirety. Right after a minute-long unskippable cutscene is a bad time to suddenly remember your game is supposed to be hard, h.a.n.d.

cdmoogle2.jpgIt is getting off the subject, but I need to express how surprised I was by the amount of energy I was able to field in the cause of hating moogles. People who have played earlier Final Fantasy games will probably remember moogles as inoffensive fuzzy white things with pink wings and a deely-bop antenna. A species of mascot creature who helps out once in a while. Their moment in the sun was in Final Fantasy VI, where one of them made it in as full party member. Judging by this game, it seems since then they have developed a dismaying “wacky” personality.

There is one here who appears in various guises as the story progresses, all of them with names like “(something) Hero X,” where (something) is variously replaced with Dungeon, Romance, Merchant, or some other thing. He does so in a super-hero costume, appearing suddenly in a ball of light as if this lunatic creature-person somehow had command over time and space. I was reminded of Yog-Sothoth. Hideously, this character provides most of the play instruction in the game, and loathsomely, he has been granted full voice-acting. It is impossible to listen to more than three seconds of his inexplicably enthusiastic speech without feeling a profound sense of shame. Shame for the voice actor, really an innocent victim in this. Shame for yourself experiencing this at an age older than six. And shame for the entire blighted human race for producing this wretched character.

cdplay1.jpgGameplay: Bawk bawk bawk

This is yet another in a long series of degraded console roguelikes. By which I mean, it is divided into a “main” quest which is extremely boring and offers little challenge except maybe against bosses, and a variety of special sub-dungeons which may have significant challenge, but exist either to provide some small advantage in the main quest or are unavailable until after the insomnia-curing main game has been completed, when most players have had enough. To someone who cut his teeth on Rogue and Nethack, these games aren't just ennui-inducing, they're actually insulting. It is so careful to introduce players to roguelike concepts that halfway in they're still introducing things. Keep in mind, this is the third “main” Chocobo's Dungeon game. A count on Wikipedia suggests that it is either thirteen or fourteen Fushigi no Dungeon games came before it. How many players in Japan still need to go through twenty hours of lengthy, deadly-boring warmup dungeons before the action gets good?

(Anyway, the way to introduce new players to roguelikes is not to make the game easier, it is to lessen the sting from losing; make it easy to start a new game, keep it interesting from the first turn to the last, don't make the player sit through a lot of scenes or make a lot of character decisions, adjust the game universe subtly so something of the old games remains in the world, and so on. Shiren for the Super Famicom and DS gets all these things right, but few other console roguelikes do.)

So the gameplay, most of it at least, is pretty banal. It does has unknown armor ("saddles"), weapons ("talons") and accessories ("collars"), but most of the types there are seem to be pretty boring, or at least they are during the length of the game I was able to stomach playing. It is another of those games where the player's character never really suffers a setback. Levels persist unless a special dungeon has a level cap (which temporarily lowers his level to meet it), and dying lets you keep whatever you had equipped at the time of defeat. For those who need it repeated (for I've certainly said it enough): roguelikes cause the protagonist to lose stuff when he's killed because he's dead. The game is over; the next time you visit the dungeon it's a new game! (Isn't that what “game over” is supposed to mean?)

Japanese roguelikes that seek to tie to the game to a strong scenario cheat their way around this, but the closer they adhere to the roguelike ideal the better the game tends to work. Removing that allows the player to advance without real risk, and in RPGs that always means grind. The original Shiren the Wanderer is the best example of the breed by far, but even it has way too much grinding after a successful run or two. Chocobo's Dungeon, and Japanese roguelikes that take after it, extend the grind throughout the game.

cdplay2.jpgThere are two competing emulation goals towards which video games are pulled: movies and games. Movies seek to provide a surrogate experience; games encourage the player to test and develop skill. CRPGs straddle the line uncomfortably, and many aren't sure which they want to be. Traditional Roguelikes state with certainty that being a game is better than a movie. Japanese roguelikes generally are not so certain in their aim, and for that most of them suffer.

You dress up a chicken as a wizard at your peril

cdplay3.jpgThese are all fairly significant problems, but perhaps the greatest offense Chocobo's Dungeon commits is more obscure. Let us remember that the origins of the form come from games that were intended as a kind of DM-less Dungeons & Dragons simulation. That is the term of note: simulation. While the fantasy basis might seem to make such a thing ludicrous, in fact D&D, and roguelikes, were intended to simulate the kind of action in a certain breed of pulp fantasy adventure story, hard-bitten tales where danger is nearly constant and magic is at least as perilous as it is wondrous.

Most recent RPGs have lost sight of this, but Japanese RPGs became divorced from this basic theme especially rapidly, without a strong pseudo-realistic basis, grew prone to extravagant flights of whimsy. I am ordinarily a great fan of whimsy, and it certainly has a place in roguelike gaming, but when your protagonist is made a chicken for no reason other than the need to slot a licensed character into the game, well, it is difficult for me to take it seriously. Excellent gameplay can make me forgive a lot of things (like plumbers flying through outer space to save a princess from a turtle-dragon), but the design of Chocobo's Dungeon is only average at best.

[Screenshots courtesy of Joystiq, and Crispy Gamer.]