['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

To wrap up our discussion of Shiren the Wanderer (here's Part 1 and Part 2), let's have a quick look at one of the more interesting parts of the game, the series of puzzle dungeons called Fei's Problems. In the starting town there is a building that contains a shopkeeper-looking guy called Fei, who's constructed a series of 50 non-random single dungeon levels he wants you to attempt.

Most of these dungeons are arranged so that there's only one way out of the situation presented. Some of them rely on obscure aspects of the game rules. Because of this, they serve as an excellent step-by-step tutorial for learning how to play the game. Only one can be tried on each "life," but they yield helpful items, occasionally very nice ones. The screenshots illustrate the solutions to three early, and very simple, problems, but later on they get quite diabolical. For example: there's one that relies on the fact that, if you're standing on money without having picked it up, it can be accessed using the Floor command and thrown at monsters for high damage!

But as far as deviousness goes the last problem tops it easily....

fp1.pngIn addition to Fei's Problems, there are three "bonus dungeons" in the game, each with subtly different item generation qualities and monsters. The first starts the player out with a Bufoo's Cleaver weapon, which often turns killed monsters into meat, but contains less normal equipment than usual. Monster meat is a fairly powerful item, which lets you both turn yourself into a monster, or turn other monsters into its type. (Facing a Sky Dragon? Just chuck a Mamul Meat at it.) The second bonus dungeon gives the player a Trapper Bracer, which makes him immune to traps but causes monsters to be affected by them.

The last bonus dungeon becomes available after the main quest has been defeated and all 50 of Fei's Problems have been completed. Then, if you go speak with Fei, he'll revealed that his digging has uncovered an unusually large and difficult dungeon. It's a 99-level random dungeon with every monster and item in the game showing up. It also scrambles scroll and herb identities, which in the other dungeons are always known. In short, it's just the challenge that roguelike experts relish. It's Fei's Final Problem!

fp2.pngAs I've said before, I've completed this dungeon. While it can be difficult to get started, however, it's not quite as difficult as escaping with Rogue's Amulet of Yendor. This is because of an interesting little trick that seems to be intentional.

As we've seen, there's an item in the game that raises the player's maximum hit points by 5. There is an item in the final dungeon, the Angel Seed, that raises the player's experience level by 5. There are items that increase stomach capacity, that let pots contain more items or Backs, and even one, the Synthesis Pot, that lets you take base weapons and shields and combine other like-type items with it, adding together not only their plusses but their special qualities.

fp3.pngAnother item in the dungeon is called the Duplication Pot. When an item is put inside, it creates an identical duplicate, which also appears in the pot. When the pot is thrown and broken, thus, the player gets twice what he put in. Imagine what would happen if the player did this with an Angel Seed! Duplication Pots are rare, of course, so this can't be used more than once. Unless....

There's also an item in this dungeon, the Withdraw Scroll, that lets the player, once, remove the stuff from a pot without breaking it. Use it on the Duplication Pot, and you can use it again, making more copies of whatever you want. Of course, Withdraw Scrolls are also rare.

fp4.pngBut just imagine if the player had a Duplication Pot and two Withdraw Scrolls. Then, he took one of those Withdraw Scrolls and put it into the Duplication Pot. If he read the remaining scroll, he could get out of the pot two Withdraw Scrolls. He's gotten the stuff out of the pot without breaking it, and he hasn't lost any items. He could do this again and again and lose nothing except the turns necessarily to perform this little ritual.

This would be just a curosity if the pot was only big enough to hold the Withdraw Scrolls, but it's usually bigger than that. If expanded with other scrolls, the pot can be made big enough to contain up to ten objects. In addition to duplicating Withdraw Scrolls, up to four other items can be duplicated each time.

fp5.pngI take it you see where this is going. The player can duplicate Angel Seeds and, in just a few turns, reach maximum level (70). He can duplicate Life Herbs and reach maximum hit points (250). He can duplicate Expansion Herbs and get to maximum satiation (200%). And best (or worst, depending on your point of view), he can take a +1 weapon and a third Withdraw Scroll, then duplicate them to make two +1 weapons, then use a Synthesis Pot to combine them into a +2 weapon while using the extra Withdraw Scroll to get it out. Repeat over and over to get to +4, then +8, then +16...

The maximum plus a weapon or shield can have is +99, which in D&D is power possessed not even by the gods, but because item special functions can also be added in, the numeric limit doesn't have to be the end. A +99 shield is extremely strong, but how about a rustproof +99 shield which makes half of enemy attacks miss and also defends against item theft, stat draining and dragon fire?

fp6.pngBut here's the thing about the Final Problem. By the time the player reaches around level 70, the only monsters appearing are the strongest in the game. These floors are infested with the top-level Dragon monsters, which in any other context are horribly over-powered. The easiest dragons can breathe fire on the player if he's in a straight line with them. The middle dragons can breathe fire if the player's anywhere in the room. The highest-level Dragons can flame the player anywhere on the floor, regardless of sight,walls, or even knowledge! They breathe, wherever they are, and Shiren is hurt. They breathe, each of them, around one turn in five. Even with the Dragon Shield's fire resistance ability folded in that's enough damage per hit that 250 HP can be depleted in a handful of attacks. But on the other hand, the player can also duplicate healing herbs, undoing that damage in one turn.

This is what the end of Shiren becomes. It is powergaming taken to its ultimate extreme, ruthless exploitation of the system because without it, the player is toast. It is interesting once, but honestly? Once a good duplication engine is going scarcity is destroyed, and the game becomes much less interesting, even with unidentified items. It's probably intentional by the designers (it is "Fei's Final Problem" after all, implying they expect the player to use a trick to succeed), but it's just a trick.

Visual record of the end of Fei's Final Problem (complete with glitchy text resulting from the translation patch authors not having tested this part of the game):

At last we're done, for now at least, with the Mysterious Dungeon games. Word is that the DS Shiren game may actually be coming to the United States, possibly because of the popularity of the Pokemon Rescue Team games. Here's hoping it sticks more to the qualities of the SNES Shiren game, quick, tight roguelike play and not the excesses that later installments have given themselves to.

Speaking of tricks and design flaws, next time out we're back to our more usual beat, with a discussion of the many ways Nethack's rules have been powergamed over the years. Back in two weeks....