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.]

The Fushigi no Dungeon games, the name translating to “Mysterious Dungeon,” are perhaps the greatest commercial success that roguelike games have found in the world. A Japanese series that began as a spin-off of Dragon Quest IV (that’s the one with Torneko, a.k.a. Taloon, the Merchant) the series soon grew past its licensed origins by introducing the character of Shiren the Wanderer, a very Japanese man living in a very Japanese world, and his talking weasel Kappa. Shiren’s fate is to forever wander forward through dungeon levels (and strangely maze-like fields, forests and swamps too), unable to travel backwards on his quest – just like Rogue, once a level is left it can never be returned to on the character’s current life.

Although Shiren is popular in Japan, and the Shiren Fushigi no Dungeon games seem to be the most like-rogue of the bunch, the series (and by association its developer Chun Soft) has been notoriously slutty about the licensed properties it’s tried to mold into rogue-likeness. In addition to DQ4, there have been Chocobo FnD games, a later game featuring Yangus from DQ8, and another with characters from Tower of Druaga.

The Tragedy of the Dungeon

By most accounts the Shiren games seem to be the best, with all-original monsters and items designed from the ground up to be roguelike in quality. But while we’ve gotten many of the above titles in English localizations, we’ve never seen an official translation of any of the Shiren games in the United States, and likely (awfully, terribly, shamefully), we never will. Not only are the games extremely Japanese (just a few examples: the music is all Asian, places are illustrated with a Romantic regard for nature, there are Shogun monsters that leave Japanese-style ghosts, and food rations have become rice balls), but while roguelikes are a genre of games that have always had a tremendous impact on the computer and video game industry, publishers are still wary of copying too closely because of their necessary "permadeath" feature and difficulty.

We’ll be looking at Shiren and his wandering ways eventually (until then you can read fellow GSW columnist Matthew Williamson's excellent take on it), but it happens that we’ve gotten a new spin-off Fushigi no Dungeon game in the US just this past week, so I’m going to talk about that for now.

pmdrt1.jpgIt’s the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: (color) Rescue Team games, for (system), where (color) means either Blue or Red, and (system) is respectively the DS or Gameboy Advance. They are the first FnD games to utilize Nintendo’s incredibly popular Pokemon franchise, featuring all 380 of the monsters from each of the four tiered incarnations of that series.

Gotta Beat the Snot Outta 'Em All

This is a great idea, as roguelikes are made or broken from the variety of their monsters, and if there’s one thing Pokemon has it’s variety. There are Pokemon dragons, Pokemon bugs, Pokemon ghosts, Pokemon robots, Pokemon fairies, Pokemon plant-monsters, and Pokemon cats, dogs, mice, birds, ferrets, foxes, horses, monkeys, weasels, snakes, ducks, fish and cows. And all of these monsters have their movesets from the games more or less intact, which is an amazing feat of design considering that Fushigi no Dungeon games have a very different style of play than the Dragon-Quest-like Pokemon games. Some of the moves are evil in a way that seems very roguelike, and it is amazing that those moves have been transferred mostly intact instead of being diluted in an effort to balance them. Destiny Bond is a move that causes the target to take all the damage the user takes. Spite drains one move of all its uses, potentially a great penalty indeed in a marathon dungeon crawl.

The Fushigi no Dungeon games are also known for having lots of bonus dungeons to explore after beating the main quest, places where special rules are in effect. In this game there turns out to be more theme dungeons than normal ones. Some of those dungeons provide some of the traditional roguelike disadvantages that are otherwise missing in this game, like starting without items, money or prior-gained experience points, and that’s a bit interesting at least.

pmdrt2.jpgBoring Like Snorlax

That’s the positive. Unfortunately, there is plenty of negative here. Worst of all is that the roguelike item ID system, which usually makes an appearance somewhere in the Mysterious Dungeon games, seems to be completely absent here, even in the bonus dungeons. All items appear to be recognized automatically, which removes a tremendous amount of strategy. The game even contains "bad" items that no player would want to use, items that usually exist to provide a risk to ID-by-use, but if he knows what they are on sight why bother? There could still be an unknown item dungeon later on, as while I’ve "beaten the game" I have yet to finish all the extra dungeons. But I’ve been playing the game for a good while now, and as so much of it is, despite the tremendous potential, a fairly boring slog through random mazes, I’m just about to give up looking for it.

Yeah, it’s boring. While I have complaints about the way various game reviewers have treated the game – they show an appalling ignorance about the history of computer games – the biggest thing they find the matter with it is completely accurate: it is so boring. There is almost never a sense of real danger to be had during the main game. Unlike traditional RPGs, roguelike games rely on their difficulty. Players must always feel like they are a mere few turns away from the grave. If the game weren’t hard, there’d be no need to rely on those random, powerful items found lying around to survive. If the player can just smack all his foes into submission then the stuff is not needed, but it is that stuff, the good and bad, that make them awesome.

Adding to the ambient ennui is the game’s unwillingness to properly punish players for dying. Players who run out of hit points are evicted from the dungeon with no money and some of their items, but no experience points are lost at all. It’s like if, in Rogue or Nethack, players got to keep their levels through all the games they ever played. The game’s structure encourages players go through earlier dungeons multiple times, but when the player gets up to level 30 or higher it’s a meaningless formality. If the enemy Pokemon were able to harm the player in permanent ways other than killing him, say by destroying items, then it would at least be a little perilous. But they don’t.

The interesting thing about all this is that Chun Soft, originator and maintainer of the Fushigi no Dungeon series, has proven several times in the past that they get it. They indeed know what it is about roguelike games that makes them work. The first Shiren the Wanderer is a truly interesting game, and the closest thing to a direct successor Rogue has had since Hack. For them to take the formula they have milked successfully so many times and rip the supports out from under it like this can be no accident.

Why did they make the Rescue Team games so easy/boring? The answer is simply, it’s the license’s fault. The core Pokemon games have many surprising design strengths, enough so that they are embraced by many older players, but they are still targeted at fairly young kids. But this is not a kiddie game. Roguelikes require a certain purposefulness of play that twelve-year-olds are unlikely to put up with, but older gamers will probably prove more than a match for the game’s lightweight challenges until the epic final dungeons are unlocked, and few are going to stick with it long enough for that. Even smart young players, the kind who would be willing to devise the kinds of inventive tactics that proper roguelikes support and reward, will find that they succeed at least as often by using the same attacks and moves over and over, just like every other RPG they’ve played, and probably will ever play. In short, Pokemon Mysterious Dungeon is a great idea, executed by people who know what they’re doing, but ultimately destroyed by a failure to respect the player's intelligence.

The same thing, when it comes right down to it, that’s wrong with most of the rest of the video game industry.

The Fushigi no Dungeon games, while quite close to Rogue, fall a little further from the tree to be considered roguelike by some people simply because they have graphics other than ASCII characters. Next time we’ll be looking at a game where the connection is much less obvious: it has fanciful graphics, real-time play, very little that could be called combat, and even an excellent two-player co-op mode! Yet in character it is completely, obviously, marvelously Like Rogue. For its identity (assuming people don’t guess it in the comments), you can either read a helpfull scroll or return in two weeks.

Screenshots scavenged from Nintendo's promotional page for the game.