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Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer
From: Sega
For: Nintendo DS
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: Everyone (6+)
Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer
Don't let Mystery Dungeon's brightly-colored, superdeformed, non-threatening, Zelda-esque, top-down presentation (on your still-shiny DS) lull you into a false sense of security: This game is an old-school wolf in new-school sheep's clothing, and it is out to kick your ass. The only question is, do you deserve it?
Posted March 13, 2008
Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer looks cute and more than a little Zelda-like, but the similarities start, uh, stopping there. No, not "Zelda-like..." in fact, it's one of a very particular breed of game called a "roguelike"; they're lurking all around you, their upbeat graphical paint hiding their insidious, merciless old-school roots. Based on the almost chess-game mechanics of the old ASCII adventure game, Rogue, these are brutal turn-based knife-fights only barely masquerading as cutesy action RPGs.

Whether they've original characters and settings like this game or they hide behind brand names like Pokemon, "roguelikes" like this one have at least two distinguishing characteristics: They involve ever-randomized dungeons/items, and for every move you take (one map-square in any given direction), the enemies around you take one themselves, either moving in one space closer for the kill, shooting projectiles at you, or doing terrible things to your character or your inventory once they get close enough. If you think that suddenly having your best inventory item turned into a riceball is bad -- it is --, try suddenly having your character turned into a riceball.

Even standing still and using items or spells to attack or heal yourself counts as a "move" and it's easy to misjudge how soon enemies can close the gap, and how much damage they can do to you... until it's suddenly too late; lose your stats, lose all your stuff, and start all over again at level one.

Some of the characters you'll encounter in the randomized environs are there to give you helpful advice, or you may find the kind barkeep who'll spot you some food... or you may find the random, somewhat-perverted weirdo lady who offers to "make you feel special" and then blinds you, or the creepy old man who offers you a relaxing pressure-point massage and instead ends up accidentally knocking down both your health and your strength. Oopsie.

Mystery Dungeon seems to revel in its snarky acknowledgement of its own unforgiving difficulty and cruel twists of fate: One early addition to your party is your self-proclaimed, somewhat dimwitted long-lost brother, who interprets a punch in the face as a sign that, you know, you really care about him after all. What's the rating on this game again?

And yet, despite the nasty surprises, completely random environs and items, and an overall difficulty wherein the only sure way to keep something you don't want to lose is to horde it off in a warehouse, you'll keep playing this game specifically because it's so challenging. Brutal, unforgiving, chaotically cruel at times -- and huck-your-DS-into-the-wall frustrating, sure -- but superbly challenging nonetheless.

Also, one very cool (albeit very singular) Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection bonus: If you get a good way into the game but ultimately get defeated in the field, you do have one option other than slogging your way back from level one: You can send out a Rescue Request to other gamers who, using their Wi-Fi connection, can venture out on a mission to revive you at the point where you bought the farm. Your chances of any kind of timely rescue may be slim (and even those are counting on the good-Samaritan impulses of a Wi-Fi Connector-owning DS owner somewhere out there whom you'll probably never meet), but it's better than nothing ... and it is yet another clever, understated use of the DS's many cool bits of functionality.

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer obliges some daunting backtracking and is all kinds of user-unfriendly besides, but it's a par-for-the-course unfriendly that is inherent in the roguelike scheme. You can't hate it. Once you know what you're getting into, any nasty barbs of fate that befall you are, well, your own fault.

The game also has its own unique, verging on twisted style of humor. It's not for everybody, and may come as a toxic shock to Zelda-mode gamers, but Mystery Dungeon does have a sort of witty, masochistic appeal -- if you're into that sort of thing.
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Bang for your buck:
Good New Purchase 
Good Pre-played 
Great Bargain-bin Buy 

Score:  3.25  (out of 5)