No good deed goes unpunished.
The dustier corners of ‘literature’ have their Bulwer-Lytton awards; the less-gifted denizens of Hollywood have the Razzies; even the so-called “adult” film industry has the dubious distinction of The Adult Video Awards (or the ‘Woody’, depending on how much Family Guy you watch). Why shouldn’t gaming delve a little deeper into the arena of the left-handed award? Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer puts me in mind of what I think should be called the ‘Hurlies’—an award given to legitimate, functional games that nevertheless make you want to chuck your handheld platform of choice right into the nearest wall, with extreme prejudice, velocity, and invective.
That being said, why would anybody keep playing the damned thing… as I have, for the past week? Much rests with your old-school proclivities, or lack thereof. That, and your ability to persevere under the dictates of arguably unfair, user-hostile (and in some cases, categorically evil) game mechanics.
The handheld port of a classic SNES dungeon-crawler, Sega’s Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer puts players in the shoes of a classic high-fantasy drifter (and his not-so-classic, high-fantasy, talking-weasel sidekick) in search of fabled gold, and is one of that particularly brutal breed of randomized games known as ‘roguelikes’. Based on the merciless chess-like mechanics of the nigh-antediluvian ASCII adventure game Rogue, these sorts of games offer a randomization of dungeons and items, as well as a more or less move-for-move match of your perambulations with those of any nearby monsters or enemies.
As you take one step in any direction, your foes likewise take a step to close the gap; if you use a ‘turn’ to attack or employ a special item or other bit of inventory, your enemies might move closer to you, strike from a distance with magic bolts or use some nasty special ability. And as we’re dealing with a square grid, even a failure to move exactly diagonally may give a monster in a one-space proximity the chance to sneak in an extra punch, as you tack from West to North. For a turn-based scheme, it feels anxiously like a real-time challenge, and it’s easy to underestimate how soon your distant (or as-yet-unseen) enemies can close the gap, or how much harm they can do to you—until it’s suddenly too late.
And here’s the other prime kicker: If you die in the field, even once, no matter how far into the game you are, you lose all your stats, all your items, and all your progress; it’s back to figurative square one—and literal Level One—for you.
Beyond treading carefully, shrewdly managing your items and occasionally running like smoke n' oakum, there is very little you can do about this seemingly unjust state of affairs. You can always send runners back to certain safe storage areas with the items you most prize / most fear losing / believe you’ll be able to upgrade to your advantage through relentless backtracking, or you can store prized items yourself when you’re in a village. But of course, that means you won’t benefit from said items until the next safe-town between hazardous field-dungeons. Do you really want to risk traversing the next batch of dangerous randomized levels without your badass weapons and enchanted-staff collection? Or to put it the glass-half-empty way: Do you really want to risk losing them in the field to some pickpocketing monstrosity? Do you feel lucky, punk? Do you?
And oy vey, Mystery Dungeon can and will throw every last teeth-grinding, blasphemy-inducing bit of unforeseeable, evil, cackling ill-fortune imaginable in your path as you masochistically make your way forward, re-start after re-start. For every kindly barkeep who spots you some no-strings grub for the road ahead, it seems like there are three scoundrels:
A) Inept, wandering ‘practitioners’ whose attentions—for a seemingly-reasonable price—will knock down your stats or flat-out blind your ass,
B) Lurking, bastard-traps that will bedevil your mind, wound your body, poison your inventory, or suddenly call in a ridiculously powerful swarm of monsters within katana-swipe just when you’re in sight of the level-exit, or
C) Wandering, innocuous-looking creatures that can turn every last one of your inventory items—or if you’re really lucky, your character—into a f*#%ing rice ball.
(Yeah, it sounds funny now; go ahead and mock my warnings, and then play the game—you’ll be laughing ‘til shoyu comes out, my friend.)
With random misfortune this rampant and brutal, you’ll soon be loathe to trust any NPC type you haven’t already met a hundred times—at least if you have any kind of short-term memory. Along the way, characters will ask for your help and trust (including one who is presumably your long-lost brother—to whom a punch in the face is a sign of how much you really care for him). But after you’ve been blinded, swindled, or turned into a rice ball a few times, you may be understandably wary of going out of your way to do good deeds, or indeed do anything but make a beeline for the next level-exit.
Which brings us to what is both the game’s coolest DS-tech utilization and the crowning irony of the whole thing. If you manage to get waxed so far into the game that you’d really rather not start off from level one again, you can send out a “rescue request”—and any other DS owners out there who happen to make use of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection can actually come to your rescue and revive you in the stage at which you croaked. It’s a neat use of the technology and a nice nod toward game Community, but due to the overall brutality of the game and lack of overall incentive, you might be waiting for that rescue for a while. Still, when Fate has caught you with your pants down around a bundle of high-value and carefully leveled items, it’s better than nothing.
All the while, the beguiling spell of this decidedly old-looking, incredibly unforgiving game is based in its old-school roots. The rotten luck of item placement, monster encounters, or level randomization may beat your spirit down early, or you may find yourself surfing the tide of Chaos to your advantage the very first time around. The challenge of the move-for-move, chess-like nature of the game has kept me coming back time and time again despite some unbelievable injustices (Eight Words: Surrounded By Teleported Monsters At The Last Minute), but the very real possibility that better placement (and some hard-learned lessons) might favor me next time around has kept me going.
If you can muster the strength and luck to make it through, there are extra puzzles and side-quests to give this brutal game some legs. Mysterious Dungeon is the anti-Zelda doppleganger, cute and unthreatening in its top-down stylings, but as potentially punishing and old-school as lurking demons come. Once again, the question is begged: Do you feel lucky?