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

(Note: screenshots from the Super Famicom fan-translated version.)

In recognition of the U.S. release, after more than ten years since its Super Famicom origin, of the DS version Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer, our column again focuses on that game.

It's very long this time, and divided into three parts:
Part 1 is an introduction to the game for people who have never played roguelikes before. There have been so many negative reviews of this game, written by people who should really know better, that I think a little consciousness-raising is called for. That's what Part 1 is about.

Part 2 is a guide to first-timers to help ease their first trip through Kobami Vally and Table Mountain.

If this seems like rather a lot, well, it is. I was encouraged to see that it's finally available in local department stores! I hope this means that it's selling better than expected. It seems that there's already a Wii update of Shiren in Japan. That could very well be the coolest cool thing of all... just maybe, if the DS version does well, they might consider localizing that game too?

Well, let's not get our hopes up, shall we?

(This column is focused mostly on new players. If you're an old-hand with the Super Famicom game, here's a list of some of the differences between it and the DS version: Download file. Thanks to Teasel from the NeoGAF forums and Gabikun of GameFAQs for some of the items. Further thanks to Lord Gek for pointing me to Gabikun's list.)

Part 1: Why You Should Play This Game

What is it that reviewers have against Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer?

"Everything about this game is excruciatingly painful to anyone who associates the words “video game” with fun and exciting."

I take serious issue with dismissing the game as "painful." Getting killed in ludicrous ways is part of the fun.

"However, due to the turn-based nature of the game, the entire experience feels stop-and-go. Attacking enemies is a quick, no frills affair with only the minimal amount of animations. Granted, this is a port of a Super Nintendo game, but even other SNES RPGs managed to have a little more pizzazz. When we bust out a Lightning Staff or breathe fire thanks to Dragon Herb, we certainly wouldn't mind a smidge more style. We just lit some undead soldier on fire after all, give us something to "ooh and ah" over!"

If this guy played an ASCII roguelike it'd probably burn his eyes. And I can't believe he is criticizing a game for being "stop-and-go." I can recognize that he's trying to say something unique, but what does that even mean?

"On the downside, the dungeon generation can be moronic and if Shiren dies, he loses everything - all the items, money, and powers he attained through hours of questing are gone. Games, in general, have gotten easier since this title was originally released on the SNES and this unforgiving style simply won't fly with players raised on newer games."

Re: moronic, realism is less important than being fun, and the layout of the dungeon levels is less important than what they contain. The fact that games have gotten easier is not seen, universally, as a good thing, even among people who only recently started playing. There must be some reason torture games like I Wanna Be The Guy have gained in popularity, and the main quest of Shiren, while hard, is far from torturous.

"All told, there’s not much special to Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer. The game is boring in the early going, and then it becomes scary. Who wants to explore so badly that they’ll die and go back to zero? This could be yet another example of a product that makes much more sense in the region in which it was initially created. And so, I’d suggest Shiren go back to Japan."

The boring early levels are there for fortify the player character for the later levels. Players need to use the treasure found in the first half of the game to survive the second half. This is all by design.

"Imagine if Satan were to create a video game. If he did, he’d probably join forces with Chunsoft to create Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer.
The game is a roguelike dungeon crawler that spews Japanese gaming out of every orifice imaginable.[...]"

(Sega Nerds)

The reviewer misspeaks: roguelikes are really more Cthulhu's bag. "Spewing Japanese gaming" sounds like something I did when I watched a roommate play through Kingdom Hearts. I won't touch upon the "every orifice imaginable" phrasing, except to say that my nightmares feature some pretty funky orifices, and only a few of them show up in Shiren.

With all these reviewers lining up to take shots at the game, you'd almost think it was already out for the Wii....

I can't fault them to some extent, as roguelikes are still kind of obscure. (I hope that @Play will eventually help to alleviate this condition.) But to hear people whose job it is to recommend games for people to play rag on one of my favorites of all time, and I've played a great many, is kind of infuriating. And it looks like I'm not the only one who really likes it, either. So the best thing I can do, as I see it, is present my own view. Here it is.

The first thing you should know about Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer, and something that I wish each of the above reviewers had been told before they wrote their pieces, is that it is a game.

That may seem like an obvious statement, but it's not as simple a declaration as it may first appear. While the G in RPG stands for Game, many are not games in the strictest sense: they care more about storytelling than play, and there is no real way to lose. The definition of game has been only recently expanded to cover the kinds of things most CRPGs are. Some still hold that opinion even now: the kinds of person who turn their nose up at RPGs are probably influenced by those old definitions.

In a Final Fantasy or a Dragon Quest, if your party is wiped out it is not a real failure, for you can always return to your last save. So long as the player doesn't do something grossly stupid, like selling all his equipment and wandering the wilds naked, he's not going to fail at the quest. Meanwhile, Shiren the Wanderer is a game in a more fundamental sense, the sense that you can actually lose at it, and probably will many times before you earn your first win. While it is not real-time, it is still much like a classic arcade game, where games nearly always end by losing. As Dwarf Fortress reminds us, losing can be fun.

But it is still a role-playing game. It and other roguelikes arguably have better claim to that title than other CRPGs. There are games that got inspiration from the earliest incarnations of Dungeons & Dragons, but even now roguelike games, with their "no do-overs" policy, their dependence on player preparation, strategy and volition, and their opportunities for creative play more profound than just hitting the X button repeatedly, feels more like a pen-and-paper RPG session than many Western RPGs, and nearly all other Japanese ones.

The word volition up there isn't used casually, and it gets to the core of what makes roguelikes and traditional CRPGs, which both spring from the same ideas and ancestor games, so different from each other. In traditional games, the player is told, pretty much, exactly what to do and where to go. There may be some subquests, but the focus is on the main story, and there's not a lot the player can do to affect the route he will have to take. Roguelikes require that the player, instead, perceive what his needs are himself, take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves, and make his own way through the dungeon. You cannot play a roguelike passively, letting a story wash over you. You must drive yourself forward and accomplish the game.

Of all roguelike RPGs, Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer may be the best first-time introduction that has yet been created. It is challenging, but not overwhelmingly so once you learn the rules and how to escape from trouble. While new players still tend to die a lot, they can still make some progress in each game that makes later attempts easier, the artwork, animation and writing are entertaining enough that players can have fun even if they die, the controls are much simpler than the every-key-does-something norm of the genre, and there are few "instadeaths" compared to a game like Nethack.

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer is a DS game, but it is based on a Super Famicom game released over ten years ago that was never released outside of Japan. The dungeons are random, but there is a logic to what happens in them. This logic means it is a game in which amazing things can happen: a monster that attacks the player with an explosion might accidentally kill another monster, thus gaining a level, and becoming a far deadlier monster in the process.

Back in 1996, a guy named Alan Kwan wrote up a couple of stories about the game, based on his own playing, and posted them to Usenet. These stories are how I first learned about the game, and they are still excellent introductions. If you really want to know what playing it feels like I cannot recommend them more highly:
Story 1: Dark Owls, Super Tanks and Menbells
Story 2: Theft, Master Chickens, and Staves of Misfortune

I also devoted three columns to the SNES Shiren some months ago, that used lots of screenshots and explanatory captions to describe the game. Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

Some things Shiren the Wanderer is not:

  • It is not impossible. People do win this game. You'll win too if you stick with it, at least the main Table Mountain quest, I guarantee it.
  • It is not mindless. Far from it, it requires far more strategy than nearly any other non-roguelike RPG.
  • It is not badly made. Shiren the Wanderer is really very well-designed. It has the tightest core game system of any top-tier roguelike other than Rogue itself. Nearly every item, even supposedly bad ones, has a purpose. Every monster, even those with tricky attacks and abilities, have strategic ways to make them less dangerous, even harmless.
  • It is not unfair. The great majority of situations have ways out of them. Sometimes, it is true, you may have to make a sacrifice, or the way out is not to have gotten into it to begin with, but there are usually ways to have seen them coming. With good planning and economical use of resources, you can do a lot to ensure you'll have the tools to survive the later half of the game.
  • It is likely not the same as other random dungeon games you may have played. Although nearly all random dungeon games are inspired by roguelikes, many of them neglect important features. Even among roguelikes, Shiren's a bit special. In the taxonomy of the genre, it's closer to being a Hack-like game than a 'Band, but it's really closest to Rogue itself.

Part 2: For New Players

Some tips for players going through Table Mountain for the first time:

The beginning of roguelike wisdom is in recognizing critical moments. A critical moment is a turn in which, if you don't do something important, you may die before you get your next turn. For example, if you're next to an enemy who has just hit you for 20 damage, and you have less than 20 HP left, that is a critical moment because you may die if it gets another attack. If you swing and try to kill the monster, you might either not do enough to finish it or miss, in which case if he doesn't miss you may take 20 HP of damage. Even if you know you could kill the enemy with one blow nine times out of ten, you should not take that chance unless you can certainly kill it or have no alternative. There are lots of monsters but only one Shiren, so over the course of the adventure luck tends to favor the enemy.

That is a simple example, but there are so many special monster abilities that it can sometimes be difficult to recognize danger. Most critical moments in this game are caused by damage done by monsters. One of the most reliable responses to a critical moment caused by damage is to push a Chiropractic Jar, which fills up your hit points. These jars are common and can be used multiple times each, make healing easy if you have a spare turn, and you can't heal yourself if you're dead. If in doubt, heal.

If you often find yourself running out of food, consider trying these things:

  • There is a free Big Riceball available from talking to a guy across the counter in the tavern in Canyon Village. After adventuring some and finishing some subquests, you can eventually get free free fill-ups in Mountaintop Town.
  • Sometimes completing one of Fay's Puzzles is worth a free riceball.
  • There are ways to get a little extra fullness without eating a riceball. Herbs and meat give you 5% and 10% fullness, respectively.
  • The longer you wait before eating a Big Riceball, the more use you get out of it. In a sense, every percentage point a source of fullness will take you over maximum is wasted food. It's usually best to wait until you're actually starving before eating it.
  • Riceballs are harmed by Rotten Traps unless they're in some container. With a little searching, quite suitable containers are not hard to come across and identify.
  • While finding riceballs in the dungeon is random, there are monsters in the game that make food, and monsters are less random than items. Making effective use of them is tricky, but not hard with a little thought.
  • There are two guaranteed shops in the game that often have riceballs in them.
  • Staying at an inn fills up your hunger meter. If you're approaching a town with an inn in it, you should probably not eat a riceball, but wait until town. New to the DS game, you can leave these towns and return to them to regenerate their stock.
  • Don't wander around too much. You get hungry as turns pass, and walking around is how most turns are wasted. Don't take the long way around a dungeon level if you can help it, don't waste too much time healing up, don't run from fights more than you have to, and don't spend a lot of time leveling up.
  • Some monsters make you hungrier as a special attack. Deal with them quickly to save your stomach.
  • Finally, if you're really out of food, you can still make do for a few turns. Running out of fullness doesn't mean you die instantly, you just are unable to heal naturally and lose one HP a turn until you eat. If you have reliable means of healing, you can keep going for a short while. If you're getting near the end but your food stores are depleted, a sprint to the stairs can be effective. I've won a game while in starvation mode.

If you've got an extra stuff, use excess resources first. Dragon Herbs are one of the more useful items, able to destroy most single monsters in one turn, but if you have several of them they should be an early recourse in a tricky situation.

If your inventory is full and you really want to pick up another item you might have to make a hard decision as to what to take with you and what to leave behind. One option is, instead of just dropping something, think if something you're carrying can be usefully used up first. Of special note is when you're carrying Medicinal Herbs, Restoration Herbs and Chiropractic Jars. Chiropractic Jars are the best healing items in the game: they fill all your hitpoints instead of 100 at most, and they can each be used multiple times. If you have several Chiropractic Jars you're probably set as far as healing goes. In this case, if you're suffering from full pockets, consider eating the Medicinal Herbs and Restoration Herbs when you're at full hitpoints. This both frees up inventory space and increases your maximum hit points by a small amount. Of courfse, if you haven't found any Chiropractic Jars you'll need those herbs for healing.

One of the hint-providing characters in the game offers a tip that makes it sound like all shields make you hungrier but the Armor Ward shield makes you more hungry than usual, and Hide Shields make you less. This is not exactly true. Most Shields don't affect your hunger rate at all. Only the Armor Ward shield makes you more hungry, and the Hide Shield makes you less hungry than even if you had no shield. Without a shield, you lose one fullness point every 10 turns, but with a Hide Shield you lose one every 20.

The walls in dungeons are interesting because, unlike with water, trees or pits, you cannot cut across their corners by moving diagonally, either to move or attack with a weapon. This means, if you're standing in a doorway, usually only one monster can attack you. But a few monsters have attacks that can hit through corners, particularly any monster with a flame attack. While most swords cannot attack across wall corners, the Razor Wind sword can, as well as arrows, staff blasts and thrown items.

In a tight spot, one-use items should be used before wands. Shiren has very limited inventory space, and a wand is potentially several escapes in one slot while a Dragon Herb is only one. There are plenty of exceptions to this though: Dragon Herbs are the most powerful instant damage item, and some scrolls, such as Blastwave, Confusion and Sleep, can affect a whole room.

Blastwave Scrolls become less useful for clearing our Monster Houses later on. In Table Mountain, even reading two such scrolls will probably not clear a Monster House, although it'll probably make it much easier to kill the monsters in melee. A FAQ for the SNES version on GameFAQs claims that reading a Powerup Scroll before reading a Blastwave increases its power. I have yet to confirm this, however. (It also says that reading multiple Powerup Scrolls have a cumulative effect.)

Keep food in Jars of Holding to protect them from Rotten traps.

Most item-destroying enemies cannot destroy your currently-used equipment.
Curse Girls & family can now curse any item. Non-equipment cursed items cannot be used, but can still be thrown.

Don't keep all your food in one jar, so you don't lose access to all your food because of one inopportune curse.

If you really need the contents of a cursed Jar of Holding, you can get your stuff back by throwing it at a wall. The jar will break and your stuff will be released onto the floor. But if you can wait, it's best to use a Scroll of Blessing so you can keep the jar.

The Fowl family of enemies can electrify items. Charged items cannot be used, dropped or thrown, and vanish once off the floor. It's unknown, currently, if there is a way to rescue a charged item before it evaporates. Fowl-class enemies don't seem to be able to affect jars, but this may be inaccurate.

Rice Changers CAN affect jars. Make an effort to kill them before they get into melee range. If you're trapped, you can protect important items by dropping them, for Rice Changers can only transform stuff you're carrying. (Note, however, that Field Raiders also appear on the Rice Changer floors, and they can turn items on the ground into weeds.)

Here's a table of which monsters can affect which items, based on personal observation. I do not claim that it's perfectly accurate, especially for Fowl, but it seems to hold up for me:

Effect Equipment? Jars?
Fowl: Destroy N N
Rice Changer: Transform N Y
Curse Girl: Curse Y Y
Walrus: Steal N Y
Slime: Corrode Y, only N

When you hit a normal-speed enemy with a Wand of Sloth, slowing it down, you have one turn before it gets its next move. If you slowed it because it can kill you in one turn and it's adjacent, the best move to make is to step away from it, so it'll use its next move to catch up. Then you can kill it easily using hit-and-run tactics.

The most common wands, in order from most useful to least, are: Bufu, Paralysis, Postpone, Sloth, Doppelganger, Knockback, Lightning, Switching, and Steadiness. But each has particular instances where they excel: Doppelganger is the only wand that can potentially save you from a whole Monster House, although at the cost of allowing foes to promote. Lightning is good if you have no arrows. Switching is best in opportunistic situations, but can sometimes instantly get you from the middle of a Monster House to the door or staircase. Steadiness is hard to identify, but in the Table Mountain adventure it's usually the wand that doesn't cause anything to happen when swung at a monster.

One of the most frustrating situations in the game is being attacked by a wall-pass monster inside a wall. Monsters that can pass through walls are unique in that, while embedded, they can attack without you being able to hit them back! One of the most deadly later monsters, Death Angel, has double speed, double attacks AND wall-pass! If you're in a corridor and don't have a pickaxe, the only effective way to fight them is to move along the corridor, offering it free attacks, until, in the process of following you, it moves into the passage. Don't skimp on the healing if this happens to you.

Room-affecting scrolls, if not used in a room, work only on the spaces immediately surrounding Shiren. A notable exception to this is the Monster Scroll, which turns a room into a Monster House, complete with loot. If it's read in a corridor, the game will teleport Shiren to a room before it takes effect.

New to the DS version is the ability to go backward through the stairs, to previous levels, up to a point, but items usually aren't generated on the ground on such levels except in shops. But monsters that drop items upon death do still appear and leave loot behind, and if you go back a floor because you fell through a pitfall (which happens on the Table Mountain levels, which go up instead of down), then you WILL find items on that level.

One of the cooler things about the game that people don't suspect at first is that some items have special effects when thrown. Dragon Scrolls, when read, blast in front of Shiren with fire breath, but they also have a similar effect when thrown, and if thrown with a Pitcher's Armband they can affect a whole line of monsters. Bottomless Jars, if thrown and broken, create pitfall traps. Break a Walrus Jar and its walruses become monsters on the current level -- useful because they leave behind loot if killed before they steal from the player. If a Monster Jar is pressed, its monsters jump out and surround the player, but if the jar is thrown and broken the monsters are confused. If you really need to kill an enemy from a distance, you can throw spare weapons and shields. Finally, while the game suggests throwing staves if they are out of charges to get one last effect, it is possible, though rare, that a thrown staff will have no effect.

Three floors in the Table Mountain quest, in particular, are unusually dangerous and should be evacuated as soon as possible. Levels 15 and 16, the marsh right before Table Mountain, are the "drain floors." They have several monsters that can lower your strength, corrode equipment, destroy items and drain levels. The experience you could earn from defeating them, and even the loot you could get, is generally not worth the resources lost in exploring them, so my advice is to head through the exit as soon as you find it.

The other super-dangerous floor is 26, the Ravine of Illusions, a somewhat-open level containing Skull Wraiths. Skull Wraiths are the third level of the Skeleton Mage monster, and have much more dangerous wand effects. They can paralyze, confuse or put you to sleep, turn you into a monster or even a riceball, temporarily seal your inventory, and drain levels, all from a distance. Just being in line with a Skull Wraith is a critical moment: a single unlucky shot can end your game. If you get paralyzed or slept, they may well get the chance to get several more shots off on you before you get another turn. Skull Wraiths are among the most dangerous monsters in the game, and should be neutralized as soon as possible. If you paralyze one, it's recommended that you do NOT wake it up to kill it unless you can finish it immediately.

From 26 on to the end, the game spikes up in difficulty. In addition to Skull Wraiths, Dragons appear on these floors. Sprinting to the stairs is often a good idea.

To handle level 30: the boss monster, Tainted Insect, looks imposing and has a bucket full of hit points, but can be affected in all the ways the other monsters can be. In practice, the Skull Wraiths on this floor are much more threatening. But when the boss is killed, all the other monsters die as well, and the boss won't appear on later runs through Table Mountain.

In roguelike news....

The 7DRL Challenge has finished another competition, and as usual, a number of fascinating ideas have come out of it. In the past it's given us such clever games as DoomRL and ChessRogue. Among the winners this year is Fatherhood, a game without monsters where the player must save his homeland from flooding while tending to his three children; Numbers, a game that drills the player's math skills as he goes; and Tribe, a turnabout roguelike where the player leads a band of goblins against the adventurers that have long persecuted them. And in the tradition of taking a pre-existing video game and making a roguelike out of this, this year has given us MegamanRL....

Uh, Mega Man? What? Why? How?

About a month ago the Nethack community suffered a grievous blow when the largest public Nethack server,, went down, it seemed for good. Public Nethack servers are particularly awesome not just because all the players contribute to a shared high score list, but because people can encounter bones levels from folk they've never met, and it's even set up so that games-in-progress can be watched, and in-game mail be sent to players via Nethack's Mail Daemon monsters. All this via telnet. This is the place that has now hosted two games with scores that came in at the highest integer the game can count to. Welcome back!