Delightful dungeon diving

I’ve politely passed on this 3D-constructed and Japanese only N64 exclusive entry in the long-running and reliably excellent Mystery Dungeon series for many years now; I have lots of Shirens and Shiren-likes already spanning goodness knows how many formats, do I really need a copy of the enthusiastically punctuated Fushigi no Dungeon: Fuurai no Shiren 2: Oni Shuurai! Shiren Jou! too? There was only one way to find out!

A cursory glance over the packaging and any screenshots you come across online reveals a game that will be immediately familiar to fans of the series, and before long you’ll be picking up swords, stuffing spare or precious items inside space-saving pots, unfurling powerful spell scrolls at a life-saving moment, and quietly despairing as a trap renders all of your tasty onigiri nigh-useless, leaving poor Shiren hungry. It’s familiar because Chunsoft packed the cart with so many of the same things you’ve already seen before – and it’s familiar because this beautiful little dance of interconnecting items and ideas work so very well together just as it is. Why on Earth would anyone perfect the roguelike formula and then abandon it purely for the sake of doing something different? Why would anyone playing the game want that? And so in that wonderfully Shiren way you’re soon using all of your favourite techniques on the trickier monsters found in deeper stages or on more difficult courses, throwing spare weapons at them from afar or using wands to leave a scorching trail of fire, all in an attempt to keep them from dropping a trap exactly where you hoped to walk or from getting close enough to cast a stat-lowering spell on everyone’s favourite wanderer. Shiren 2 possesses the same beautiful interplay of knowledge, skill, and just a little bit of luck (sometimes bad luck) that makes every game in the series so enthralling, and rather than feel like a retread of something you’ve experienced too many times before it’s instead the gaming equivalent of chocolate ice cream – always the same, and always welcome.

Even if it wasn’t so much fun to play you’d want to explore this stunning world regardless, a place where warm shafts of sunlight pierce verdant forest canopies, where waterfalls lazily tumble over rocky cliff faces and icicles hang from the edges of chilly wooden bridges. Shiren’s own pre-rendered form – a style that could be a bit hit-and-miss back in 2000, and perhaps especially so on Nintendo’s 2D-blurring hardware – is incredibly expressive whether he’s carefully luring a monster into range of his arrows or sitting down for a munch on a tasty restorative. The same can be said for his enemies as well, each one clear, colourful, and crisp: Fishmen may attack with their spears from the rippling waters off the side of the walkable path, pumpkin-headed spirits float towards you over bottomless drops, and spider-monsters have a worrying habit of sliding down threads from above. Considering these are (mostly) randomly generated locations encompassing everything from snowy mountaintops to dark caves Shiren 2 does a fabulous job of feeling like a cohesive place where such beings would naturally lurk rather than a jumble of rooms and corridors.

The point of all this exploration into the great unknown this time around is to build a castle capable of fending off an island’s worth of rowdy demons before finally venturing off to their island in an attempt to tackle the problem at its source (there are several post-island dungeons unlocked afterwards too). As castles don’t build themselves it’s up to you to pick up and keep materials as you play which can then be used – if you have enough of the right sort (you may even find yourself fretting over their quality too – and the inventory space they take up) – to construct it piece by piece. As far as the story goes this is an obvious kindness towards the unfortunate villagers nearby, but it also serves another purpose too: Roguelikes are fond of killing you off and kicking you back to the start with nothing but your warehouse leftovers to your name – in these circumstances a grand castle, even in a partly constructed one, serves as permanent proof of all the hard work you’ve put into the game. Shiren 2 knows you’ve worked hard and you’re trying your best, and it’ll let you look at and walk around this monument to your efforts just about any time you like. It’s so very satisfying to look down on it from the midway point of Shuten mountain or up at the top through a telescope and see your castle transform from nothing more than a mound of earth to recognisable and sturdy structures surrounded by beautiful pink blossoms.

As good as Shiren 2 is – and it really is a heck of a lot of fun – it’s innate and welcome Shiren-ness also makes it a little tough to recommend. It’s only available for Japanese-compatible N64s, meaning English readers will have to resort to a recently-released translation patch and either emulators or Everdrives if they want to play the game to its fullest. We’ve been in this situation many times before (especially on my site), so why bring it up now? The difference is this title, to someone viewing it as an import game, has some stiff competition in the form of a little roguelike called… Shiren the Wanderer. The latest version of the most recent release in the series is available officially worldwide, in English, and for a reasonable price on both Switch and PC. Older titles in the series are also available, again in English, on the Wii and DS – some of the most popular platforms ever created and almost certainly something you’ve already got lying around at home – as well (sadly the English version of the Wii release seems to be something of a collector’s item these days with a resale price to match). If you’ve never played a Shiren game before, or if you loved the DS game and haven’t yet got around to The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate, there’s really no good reason to set your sights on this N64 entry over and above more readily available alternatives (Aquastyle’s Touhou-themed Genso Wanderer series is another excellent alternative, again with an accessible and affordable multi-format English release) – but do make sure you’ve written the name down so you can pick it up once you’re done with all the others.

There’s a definite comfiness to Shiren’s design, and a real pleasure to be had from the often comical scenes that gild his already enjoyably unpredictable adventure. The series is practically the Dragon Quest of roguelikes (appropriate, considering their developer), a cycle of reiteration that promises quality rather than stagnation, where for every one thing that’s been changed there’ll be two exactly as they were before, as charming and thoughtfully executed as ever.

[No Ko-fi support, no article! I’m so grateful to everyone who helps make this site shine!]

2 thoughts on “Delightful dungeon diving

  1. I had no idea until this article that to this day, the second entry is still N64 exclusive. That’s crazy! Chunsoft went through a period of porting all the older games to DS/PSP back in the day and I’m surprised they missed this one out.

    At least the translation patch is now released, may have to check it out.

    As the resident WordPress Vita nut I also have to point out that Shiren 5 is also available on Vita as well as Switch/PC (it was actually available there first!), but do understand the point was about wider availability of platforms which doesn’t apply there so much haha.

    Great read btw!

    Like

    1. The Vita version was my first taste of Shiren 5 too! It’s just – as you say – when I’m talking about availability and ease of access the Vita sadly doesn’t apply :/

      Liked by 1 person

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