Before critics and internet sleuths attempted to define the terms of WRPG, JRPG and Roguelike, Shiren the Wanderer
blurred the lines between all three in '95.
Although recent indie hits The Binding of Isaac
give a more familiar comparison for Shiren
's unique structure, they also may dissuade a potential audience who are not fans of those games' lack of story and world-building. Shiren the Wanderer
embraces traits of WRPGs and JRPGs equally: It's as much about choosing your approach to combat as it is about exploring a linear path into an unforgivably brutal and addictive, albeit randomly generated, dungeon.
At the outset, it's hard to tell what elements of the game are randomly generated and which are made consistent by Chunsoft
(developer of Dragon Quest [ドラゴンクエスト]
I - V). You may wonder if the woman who blinds you with a kiss in the woods will always be there or if you will always be given a sword and shield within the first floor. Discovering which elements are consistent between playthroughs and which build upon previous playthroughs gives Shiren
an element of surprise and mystery. It's random in the places where it matters (loot, enemies, level layouts), while giving enough room to experience the epic journey you want from a JRPG -- it's in this respect that a direct comparison to Isaac
is unfitting and explains why I love Shiren
even though I'm not a big fan of the other two.
I never thought I'd give a Mystery Dungeon
game a try because I've never played JRPGs for combat alone, but I never knew one could be as fast, frantic and fun as Shiren
. The ingenious decision to make combat rely on direct button presses, beyond the use of items, makes Shiren
feel like an action game. This is vital since the game is closer to action games in its structure of starting anew, with no items and progress, after losing. Even though I was going through the same themed levels, I always enjoyed playing the game: conserving items I knew would serve me well later, hoping for good luck, and intelligently clearing areas.
While the DS port -- the only US release of the title -- added more enemies, this is just one of many reasons it is inferior to the Super Famicom original. Shiren
is almost on the level of Doom
in terms of genius balance and monster design. Every monster is unique and changes the situation of a room entirely. Soldiers will spawn a specter upon defeat who can possess and level-up another enemy on the map. This can be good if you want XP or it can lead to inevitable death if they had previously leveled-up; now so strong they can one-shot you and end a run. Some enemies will destroy items on the map, others will attack you from afar, and many will give you nasty status ailments. Learning how to intelligently deal with these enemies and how to plan ahead for every foreseeable outcome is where the skill and addiction of Shiren
to Dark Souls
is hard for me to ignore as a fan of both and nowhere is the comparison more true than aesthetics and design philosophy. Like Dark Souls
relies on sound and visuals to create a foreboding atmosphere that builds and settles, only to build again even worse until you are in constant dread of every new room and enemy. When I reached the village above the woods, I wanted to stay there forever and enjoy its calming atmosphere. When I was in the swamp, the ambiance of the monsters and insects made the experience of avoiding deadly creatures all the more unsettling. Few Super Famicom games feature atmosphere as convincing and confident as Shiren the Wanderer
. Unlike Dark Souls
, the interactions with the townspeople provide some big and much-needed laughs.
For as much anguish and stress Shiren
can make me feel at times, it's always a joy to play. Its remarkable balance (I never felt I lost entirely to bad luck, beyond the first floor which can be a crap shoot) and addictive combat sparked an obsession in both this game and its series. Though none I played compare to the original Shiren the Wanderer
(including its direct sequels), they are all fine games that standout from other role-playing games. There are more accessible and more complex games inspired by Rogue
, but none charming, compelling and enjoyable as Shiren the Wanderer