Retro Sensibilities is a weekly feature that examines modern games with decidedly retro sensibilities. Some games will be current-gen reissues that retain an old school flavor, others will be all-new titles that have the perfect mix of elements to quickly transport you back to a more simple time. Call them neo-retro, call them retromazing, call them over-priced jabs at your wallet, whatever you call them, don't miss out on these gems!
In my mind, there are two types of gamers: those that can beat Contra without the Konami Code and those that can't. Those of us in the former group view the rest of you as a bunch of spoon-fed pantywaists who never knew the bitter joy of retro gaming. If you were in any way offended by that previous statement, killsmooth wrote a great post about the desolation of Wii ownership that you should go read. However, if you've been thrown out of an arcade for kicking a Ghosts 'n Goblins cabinet; if you've seen the insides of an NES controller as a result of Turbo Tunnel-induced rage; if you've told your friends to stop whining because you think Mars Matrix is fair, then read on -- Shiren the Wanderer might just be the RPG for you.
Shiren the Wanderer's retro sensibilities are easy to appreciate. After all, the game is a remake of a classic Super Famicom game and one of the most iconic entries in the decades-old Mystery Dungeon series. For those that are unfamiliar, Mystery Dungeon is a series of rougelike games developed by Chunsoft, the original developers of the Dragon Quest series, that typically stars characters from a variety of gaming franchises -- most notably Pokemon and Final Fantasy. In fact, the Shiren series of games are the only Mystery Dungeon games to feature original characters.
As a roguelike, Shiren the Wanderer features the randomized dungeon crawling, turn-based play, and character development made popular by the original Rogue and featured in modern Mystery Dungeon games like Pokemon Mystery Dungeon and Chocobo's Dungeon. Those familiar with the PlayStation cult-hit Azure Dreams will also quickly recognize Shiren's influence. Where the comparisons between Shiren and other console dungeon crawlers end, however, is with Shiren's sheer difficulty and adherence to the Rogue formula.
The gameplay in Shiren is as follows:
You are a samurai in feudal Japan on a quest to reach the Land of the Golden Condor. In order to reach said land and it's bountiful treasure (which we will assume is something more substantial than a gilded vulture), you must traverse numerous dungeons with only intermittent rests in small, mercantile villages to recover. Gameplay operates in a turn-based fashion. Every time the player completes an action (walk, eat, attack, pick up an item, or equip) every other enemy and NPC takes a moment to complete an action. Thankfully, the player does not have to take a significant amount of time watching each individual action and, to further prevent slow down, health is recovered as you walk. The food in the game is used solely to reduce hunger, which works similarly to "stamina" in the more recent Metal Gear games. However, if you consume the flesh of a fallen monster, you will also gain the creature's abilities.
That said, the real meat of the game lies in learning how to effectively use items and navigate dungeons without dying. I cannot stress this final point enough. If you die in Shiren, you are sent back to the beginning of the game, stripped of your items, and all of your stats are reset. That's right, this is GAME OVER in the truest sense of the word.
Is Shiren frustrating? As hell. But, the developers have incorporated a few elements into the game to ease your suffering. First, each village allows the player to place certain items in storage, which are retrievable in future playthroughs. While this sounds like a great benefit, it's important to remember that you can't simultaneously store and use an item. So, while it may be helpful to have that souped-up katana on a future playthrough to further upgrade, it may also be more beneficial for you to continue your journey with it in hand.
Beyond item storage, an additional feature was added to the DS version of Shiren that drastically softens the blow of the player's untimely death: you can be rescued. Using a local wireless connection or Nintendo Wi-Fi, a player may opt to "rescue" a fallen comrade. The rescuing player must start a game and play through to the location of the fallen player in order to complete a rescue. Upon completion, the rescuing player is given a random item and the rescued player is brought back to life with his inventory intact, the current dungeon level clear, and the ability to send a "thank you" note -- complete with a gift, if desired. As cool as this sounds, your chances of actually having someone come to your rescue are slim. Furthermore, the feature can only be used three times before you are considered beyond saving. Despite this, the rescue mechanic is one of the more interesting and innovative uses of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection that I have seen.
Overall, the real joy of Shiren will only be appreciated by a select few. While the endearing characters and retromazing graphics have a decidedly broad appeal, this game is designed for the hardcore. Carefully considering the random dungeons and items, the seasoned Shiren player improves his game by learning how to interact with enemies and items. The age-old RPG tactic of hoarding items is useless here, as your inventory is limited and levels are full of single use items that you must use to survive. The ideal Shiren player is one that learns how to combo items together and develops new strategies against seemingly insurmountable threats. In this regard, Shiren plays more like Contra or Galaga than any modern RPG.
Shiren is brutal, unforgiving, and absolutely relentless. It hearkens back to a time when gamers would spends days trying to master a level, only to face more difficult challenges as the game progressed. Week after week of toil would eventually culminate in an underwhelming and poorly translated "congraturaions!" screen and the player would head off to the store to search for the next challenge. God damn I missed those days.