GameSpite Journal 10 | Mystery Dungeon 2: Shiren the Wanderer

Mystery Dungeon 2: Shiren the Wanderer | Dev.: Chun Soft | Pub: Enix | Genre: Roguelike | Release: Dec. 1995 (JP only)

One of the great mysteries of RPG history, at least in my book, is the question of which happened first: Did Chun Soft rework their Rogue-inspired Dragon Quest spin-off Mystery Dungeon into a standalone series first, or did Heartbeat replace them as the behind-the-scenes force behind the core Dragon Quest games before Mystery Dungeon went solo? My instinct says that one is a response to the other, but the sequentiality of the events would go a long way toward properly giving the Mystery Dungeon franchise (and Shiren the Wanderer in particular) their proper historical context.

Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know the truth. Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii’s most frustrating quirk is his determination to maintain the fiction that everything about the series springs wholly formed from his fertile imagination and that the developers who do all the heavy lifting are completely interchangeable, despite the tremendous differences in style and presentation visible in the work of Chun Soft, Heartbeat, and Level-5 -- so he’ll never say. And Chun Soft will keep mum, too, since Japanese culture is underscored by a deep-seated respect for privacy and discretion. Disputes and schisms are downplayed and swept politely aside.

What isn’t in doubt is that Shiren the Wanderer owes its entire existence to Dragon Quest. It is a sequel to the series’ first spin-off, Torneko’s Big Adventure, in all but name. Where Torneko’s game was populated by familiar critters from the Akira Toriyama bestiary, Shiren is set in a world more directly influenced by medieval Japan. The eponymous hero is a ronin decked out in the stereotypical garb of an itinerant samurai, from the giant straw hat to the tattered rags over his hodgepodge of armor. And while he carries a proper katana as his go-to weapon, Shiren isn’t exactly honor-bound to fight properly; he’s happy to swing a club, chuck rocks, or even wade into combat as a two-handed heretic of the sword.

More germane to the game’s heritage is how, precisely, he goes about using the swords. In true Rogue style, Shiren the Wanderer observes that curious hybrid of turn-based and real-time role-playing established by Rogue, Nethack, Angband, and other similar networked, ASCII-based RPGs. Shiren begins the game at level one and rapidly builds his strength and health through gained experience... but more often than not, the bad guys level faster than he does, and his journey into Table Mountain almost invariably comes to an abrupt end. Maybe he’s simply outmatched by a swarm of tough foes. Maybe a tank-type enemy catches one of its comrades in the splash effect of its gunfire, earning its own level-up and growing far beyond Shiren’s capacity to fight. Maybe the creatures of the swamp drain his strength and leave him to deal with Table Mountain’s most fearsome foes with the physical strength of a limp noodle. Maybe he starves to death. Maybe he’s just unlucky and wanders into a den of ferocious monsters that swarm him. Death is inevitable in Shiren the Wanderer... and when Shiren dies, he ends up back at the start of the game, his strength reduced back to level one.

Shiren isn’t a true child of Rogue, though, because defeat isn’t death. Shiren is always the hero, and perhaps more importantly, the world he travels through reflects his influence. The she-scoundrel who robs Shiren in the early going will become a valuable ally if you forgive her. Helping the local businesses will grant you special perks, like better permanent gear storage and optional dungeons to tackle. This persistence—which is applied to the world, but not to Shiren himself—lends the game a feel that sets it apart from its fellow Rogue-alikes. It’s not precisely a unique feel, though. After all, Shiren is the inflection point from which most Japanese roguelikes are derived.

By Jeremy Parish? | April 26, 2012 | Previous: Tales of Phantasia | Next: Mega Man X3