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.Luckily, any roguelike worth its salt has a deep selection of items to aide you in your quest. Diligent inventory management is a big part of the game, and if that sounds tedious to you, well, then you probably wouldn’t enjoy roguelikes to begin with. There are a number of standard RPG quest items: recovery herbs, spell scrolls, swords and shields of varying strengths, a selection of projectile weapons. But Shiren Wii gets creative too. There are healing staffs that characters can wield against each other, playing a game of tag-team HP recovery during a boss battle. There’s a shield shaped like a rice ball that keeps you from getting hungry. Simple stones you find lying on the ground can be hurled at enemies with surprising effect.
Your inventory space is finite, but there are several locations where you can store your items and even your money in a universal bank of sorts. You’ll often find jars of holding as well, allowing you to store excess items for later use. It’s fun to stack these jars one within another until you have a long chain of holding, but you can’t use an item until you’ve removed it from a jar, so it’s better to keep things well organized.
Hand in hand with the inventory system is AI management. Shiren is accompanied by his skilled but liquor-fond uncle, whom he simply calls Sensei, and both heroes are soon joined by a female wanderer-ninja named Asuka. Team AI can be a real headache if not managed well, but luckily Chunsoft knows this well. Shiren Wii gives you the ability to micromanage your team’s actions down to the smallest detail.
You can change the priority of the weapons they use, the kind of tactics they’ll employ in a boss battle, and even disallow actions altogether. This is useful if you don’t want them firing off high grade arrows all the time, or pissing away rare and powerful spell scrolls on common enemies. Overall the teammates were surprisingly helpful, especially in regards to HP recovery; they’ve tossed me a much needed health herb or tipped a healing staff at me on a number of dire occasions.
Shiren Wii has robust gameplay that matches the rest of the series in depth and scope, but it also does a lot for the series’ plot as well. It’s amazing but little has been made of Shiren’s past over the last fifteen years. The Wii entry remedies this by expounding on the large-hat-wearing hero’s backstory, through conversations with his teammates. Most informative is Shiren’s wisecracking ferret Koppa, who offers insights when the stoic protagonist doesn’t feel like talking. The game’s plot isn’t too involved, focusing on Shiren’s quest for a mythical treasure-filled mansion, but the dialogue is clever enough to keep you interested through the game’s 30-plus hour quest. Important scenes are played out in gorgeous pre-rendered cinematics that give the game a suitably epic feel.
The in-game production values aren’t nearly as sweeping or beautiful as the cutscenes, but they get the job done. Animations tend to repeat a little too often but they are smooth and smudge the line between hard turn-based movement and real-time adventuring. The game has a colorful appearance that makes many references to Japanese art and mythology. The overworld locations are markedly better looking than the randomized dungeon tile sets, but even the dungeons have an organic appearance that strays from the utilitarian norm of most roguelikes.
The music is fully orchestral but is mostly Japanese folk influenced. There are some soft strings and a lot of nice woodwind work, but don’t expect the swelling score you’d get in a Final Fantasy. The music is true to the game’s mythical theme, but when you’re grinding your way through a long dungeon the pieces tend to repeat too much. There’s a great deal of text dialogue in the game but no voiceovers—somehow this doesn’t detract from the experience, but adds to the old-school aesthetic.
It may not satisfy the most ardent fans of the roguelike, but Shiren the Wanderer on Wii is an excellent bridge into the genre. It isn’t so hard that it’s unplayable to newcomers, but it offers significant challenge and a massive quest to those who delve into its labyrinthine dungeons. There’s even a wealth of extra features to unlock, including an obligatory hard mode, achievements for creative deaths, and the bonus content from the Japanese version that was download-only in that region. The story is classic JRPG fare, filled with Japanese fable references and style, but has its own sense of humor and a deceptive ship-in-a-bottle scale. Shiren Wii isn’t for everyone, but if you’re patient gamer who has always been curious about this kind of game, there isn’t a better place to start.