In the video game pantheon, the roguelike is practically ancient scripture. The “graphical adventure” style of gameplay was kicked off in 1980 with the seminal Rogue, a dungeon-based RPG renowned for its punitive difficulty and ubiquity—the game could run on just about anything, including ASCII-only terminals where every game object and structure was built from text characters. It didn’t take long for the Japanese to pick up on this burgeoning genre, with developer Chunsoft bringing the PC-centric gameplay to consoles with their Mystery Dungeon series. The Mystery Dungeon name has practically become a genre in and of itself, with variations on big series like Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and even the Pokemon Mystery Dungeons of recent years.
Chunsoft has been applying the rouguelike gameplay to various popular Japanese game properties since the early 90s, but their only original Mystery Dungeon series has been the Shiren one. Shiren the Wanderer has been Chunsoft’s original IP since he first wandered onto consoles in 1995, and he’s still going strong today. He’s also carried the roguelike’s two signature gameplay elements with him: randomized dungeon crawling and an almost insane level of difficulty. A remake of the very first Shiren game was released on the DS a few years ago and is notable for being one of the hardest games on the portable.
But now Shiren is back on a home console, namely the Wii. Atlus just brought the latest Shiren game over to America, and they are emphasizing that Shiren Wii isn’t the same old Mystery Dungeon—in fact they’re distancing it from the roguelike genre entirely, so as not to scare away curious gamers with the genre’s notoriety. Wii games often tout their accessibility as a throwaway feature on the box, something to entice the casual crowd, but in the case of Shiren, Atlus is serious—this game is made for the roguelike novice, for people who don’t want to be jacked in the face with a brick upon exploring a new game genre. Shiren Wii certainly isn’t for the aforementioned casual crowd, but for experienced gamers who have never tried a roguelike, it’s a good place to start.
Roguelikes are notorious for instilling a sense of gut-twisting dread of dying into the people who play them. Their signature dungeons are randomly generated and brimming with a constant supply of ravenous foes, and succumbing to these dungeons characteristically robs you of your entire inventory and every level you’ve gained. Some roguelikes just dump you back at the beginning of the game. Shiren Wii tempers that dread by adding a difficulty system to the game.
On normal mode, your death is penalized with the complete loss of your inventory, and having to restart from your last save. On easy mode, dying only sets you back to your last save; you get to keep all the items you’ve collected. While the hardcores might cry foul at this lessened difficulty, it does make the game much easier to get into for the inexperienced.
That doesn’t mean that Shiren Wii is a pushover—far from it. Longtime roguelike players might not experience the raw terror they’ve come to expect from the DS Shiren, but novice-to-intermediate players will still find a hearty challenge. The game is deceptive in its difficulty; the opening mission is a simple information-gathering session in a peaceful village. Once you’ve ventured onto the main map you can save whenever you want, but once you’re in a dungeon all bets are off. You can only save and suspend play in a dungeon—if you die, there’s no checkpoint to go back to. You can’t even leave the dungeon to regroup unless you find a rare escape scroll item, and these must be rationed for desperate situations.
Even after the first few bosses I was dying on a regular basis. Maybe I’m just not used to this genre, but once I’d breezed through the first handful of training dungeons the game ramped up considerably. The pseudo-turn based combat was simple at first, but then enemies started leveling up on their own, gaining new attacks and swarming me. The game has an absurd number of ways to kill you. You can be cursed, tricked so your weapons do no damage, your attacks can be made predictable so you miss almost every time, your allies can be confused and wander off, and there are a number of creative traps in almost every room. In-dungeon merchants become murderously angry (and lethally dangerous) if you steal from them. You can even starve to death if you don’t pack enough food.
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