Monday, April 21, 2008


I'm Still Doing This?

Well, it's been another year. It wasn't a great one for the old blog, I'm afraid -- between my workload and my financial situation, I find that I just don't have the time and money to spend on my hobby that I once did, which makes it difficult to work up the enthusiasm that I need to get my blog on. Two of the past twelve months have no entries at all. This is unacceptable.

I was thinking about calling it quits, but then Shiren the Wanderer came along and reminded me why I have this blog -- because I need an outlet for my opinions when I do happen to have one.

I have a lot left unwritten. I want to review Wario Ware: Smooth Moves and Super Smash Brothers Brawl. I want to do an article about what I want the Wii to do. I want to react more as things happen in the gaming news.

So we'll see where I stand on 4/21/2009.


Thursday, April 10, 2008


Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer

Once upon a time, I picked up Pokemon Mystery Dungeon on a whim, and by a stroke of luck, I LOVED IT. So when it was announced that Shiren the Wanderer would be localized in the United States, my initial reaction was, "Why do I need two games that will create an endless supply of dungeons to explore?"

Still, being a Mystery Dungeon game got me interested in it, and many fans of the genre have been remarkably vocal proponents for this game in particular, and I thought it might be cool to see what a Mystery Dungeon game looks like with a more traditional RPG setting. And when it became clear that nobody really loved this game, that sealed the deal, because I do have such a long-standing love of misunderstood underdogs. Also, I figured that the only way I'd ever get a chance to play this game is to buy it now or find it on eBay for $80 ten years from now.

A few things kept me from taking the jump immediately. First, the game is set in Feudal Japan, which isn't exactly my cup of tea. Second, you play as one set character, Shiren the Wanderer, with the possibility of recruiting any of three set characters into your party. To me, the lack of hands-on character development is sort of antithetic to the dungeon crawling genre. Third, the main quest takes place in a single dungeon that runs thirty levels deep. If you die, you lose all of your possessions, money, and experience, and start over at level 1 at the beginning of the game. To a person expecting an experience something like Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, it's hard to imagine a game with that description having anything that resembles depth or, you know, progression.

My every fear was misfounded. Shiren the Wanderer reveals Pokemon Mystery Dungeon for the child's plaything that it really is. Everyone who has kept this game high on a pedestal is right -- this is a marvelous, marvelous game.

A Dungeon Adventure

You play Shiren the Wanderer, an adventurer who is on a quest to find El Dorado. Folks say it's at the top of Table Mountain, but of course, no one has ever made it to the top. The only way to find out for sure is to hack your way through 30 levels of monsters and mazes.

The game will look instantly familiar to anyone who's played the Pokemon Mystery Dungeons -- the automatic mapping, the control scheme, the turn-based "no appreciable distinction between exploration and combat" system that makes the game feel like a giant tactical board game -- but dig any distance beneath the surface and you'll see just how different this adventure is.

For one, the structure of the game is completely different. Yes, the game is set up as one long dungeon, but you'll pass through a number of very distinct locations as you progress, and every couple levels you'll come to a town. So it's more like a series of two- or three-level minidungeons, with a couple towns in between to act as safe harbors.

The next thing you'll notice is that the game is absolutely busting with personality. Very little of it feels like standard RPG stuff. First of all, there's the monsters. The majority of them come equipped with special abilities, and surprisingly few of these are "attacks for much more damage than usual". For example, a Rice Changer might decide to breathe on you, which will turn one of your items into a Rice Ball. Handy if you're low on food, but infuriating if you lose a valuable magic scroll because of it. Another enemy that gives me the creeps is an undead soldier which, when killed, will turn into a spirit and try to find another monster. If you don't kill it again, it will possess the second monster and level it up into something much more dangerous. Every level has its own bestiary, and making it out alive will require you to carefully plot your strategy.

Then there's the traps. If you're especially cautious, you can fake attack a square before stepping on it to see if it's trapped or not, but if you step on a trap, you'll suffer some sort of consequence. Maybe you'll be lucky and all you'll do is take damage. Usually something nastier will happen. A spray of water might make your metal equipment rust. A teleporter might warp you to the far side of the current level. A rock might trip you and make you drop a bunch of items on the ground. Or, my favorite, you might get hit with a faceful of "dream gas" that will cause all sorts of hallucinations -- enemies look like beautiful women, items look like flowers, etc.

And, finally, there's the loot that you find laying around everywhere. There's the standard stuff -- money, weapons, shields, healing items, that sort of thing -- but there are also magic spells (contained in staves, scrolls, and bracelets) and jars. Some of the spells are damage-oriented, but many of the useful ones aren't. One of the more useful staves will simply blast an opponent back into the first wall or enemy it reaches. It takes minimal damage, but it helps to keep you out of melee combat when you're facing a lot of monsters in an open room. The jars are rather cool in that most of them allow you to put items in, which can have any number of different effects. A Jar of Holding simply saves space in your inventory, allowing you to put things in and take them out as you wish. A Melding Jar will combine the items you insert into a new item that shares their properties. And a Hiding Jar will actually trap monsters inside of it when you throw it at them. A lot of the fun of the game is finding an item you've never seen before and experimenting to see what it can do.

The interplay between all of the various elements of the game is very robust and enjoyable. Simple elements with diverse behavior combine to create interesting and sometimes surprising situations. The more you play, the more clever you are about how to use the items at your disposal, and the more you begin to appreciate the fact that this game is less about grinding levels and more about applying your wits to various tasks as they randomly develop. And I promise you that it won't be very long before you're feeling especially pleased with yourself because you've just escaped a room full of fire elementals using nothing but a Switching staff.

But the thing you'll notice before that -- like, when you die in the third level -- is that it is brutally difficult.

How Do You Progress?

It's true. When you die, you lose everything you're carrying. All of your money, all of your equipment. You go all the way back to the beginning of the game. And you turn into a pathetic level 1 weakling.

And the thing is, as you play this game, you will die all the damn time.

This idea scares away a lot of potential players, myself included, and it's really a shame because it's really not so bad. In fact, I've come to see it as a fantastic design decision, one that may just cement this game as my favorite adventure game of all time.

You just need to approach it with the proper frame of mind.

When I set out from Canyon Hamlet with nothing in my backpack but a Big Riceball that I got for free from the bar, it's with the cheerful, idiotic confidence that my mission will end in failure. A walrus will steal my last riceball, dooming me to a slow death of starvation, or a purple blob will rust my shield apart, leaving me exposed to repeated rapings from the indigenous anthropomorphic alligators. Or I'll have the simple bad luck to climb a flight of stairs that leads straight to a dreaded MONSTER HOUSE, where roughly ten thousand adorable, vengeful beasts will line up for their turn to smack me like a pinata.

But hey, it's hard to feel bad about failure because, unlike just about every damned mass-market game out there these days, you're not expected to win. If the game were easier, you'd feel like an idiot for failing, but since it's not, just the opposite happens. When failure is a matter of course, every single tiny victory you achieve makes you feel like you're on top of Mount Everest. Maybe you reach the furthest level you ever did. Maybe you completely dominated the monster that killed you last time. Whatever. The more you play, the more you'll realize that the game is filled, top to bottom, with moments that fill you with so much joy, you'll want to throw a pizza party. Suddenly, beating your high score (and yes, the game gives you a score for every adventure you undertake, and saves detailed summaries for your three most successful runs) becomes a valid and rewarding undertaking. It gives you that old-school arcade vibe. Like Pac-Man, you don't play Shiren to win it -- you play to have fun and to watch yourself get better.

Interestingly enough, when you get into the mindframe that your doom is inevitable, you'll start to change your behavior in a way that will make you more successful. If you've convinced yourself that you're not going to survive your current level, you'll find yourself burning through some of your supplies more quickly because hey, you lose them when you die anyway, right? No point saving them for a final boss that you're never going to meet. You'll find yourself killing off more and more monsters this way, which has the happy consequence of getting you more loot, which increases your chances of getting to the next level alive. You'll learn when to fight and when to run as fast as you can for the exit. Your advances will become bolder, your escapes more daring. Before you know it, you'll be good at the game.

And you might discover how clever you can be with the game's storage system. Helpful NPCs and rare jars will transport your gear to one of three well-appointed storage spots, or you can just drop things off as you wish. So you won't necessarily lose everything when you die. One strategy is to take advantage of the Mountain Top town, which features both a blacksmith and a storage facility. Keep a sword in storage, and every time you come into town, pull it out and buy an upgrade from the Blacksmith. After a few repeated runs, you too could be the proud owner of a Katana +20.

And then there's the game's greatest open secret -- dying isn't really starting over. When you revisit towns after you die, you'll find different events, different characters. People will have different things to say. Stories will progress. Something will happen. You never really feel like your actions are a waste of time because the story keeps moving forward.

Now, these are all arguments for why the death system isn't necessarily bad, but few people seem to be willing to stand up and point out why it's obviously good.


I love my Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. Oh yes I do. But it's hard to stay interested once my characters have advanced to a level that allows me to squeeze the life juices out of anything I touch in one or two hits.

I suspect that this will never happen to Shiren. Beginning every adventure with nothing means that the lower levels, though much easier to navigate, will never really be a dull, monotonous trudge. I haven't died at Level 3 since the first time I played it, but there still exists the chance that I could, which keeps the game exciting.

My New Dungeon Crawl

This may just be the finest adventure game that I will ever play, and I'm grateful to have had the chance. This is the first game since Atari's Adventure that gives me such a powerful feeling of freedom. Its robust world model and its randomly generated mazes and situations combine to make this an adventure that really is like no other.

Between publishing this and The Tower SP, it's nice to see that Sega is still doing something worthwhile for the world of video games, because it's sure not making quality Sonic games. This is the first game in months that has impressed me enough to want to write a review for it. And I've played Smash Brothers Brawl, so that's saying something.


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