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History Lesson: The Mystery Dungeon series and its many spin-offs

By Chris Scullion on Sunday 29th Jun 2014 at 8:00 AM UTC

The Old English poem The Wanderer aptly captures the Shiren The Wanderer experience.

In it, a wanderer (yes) ponders all that is lost to him. "Where is the horse gone? Where is the rider? Where is the giver of treasure?" asks a lonely Anglo Saxon. Similar questions await Shiren players.

Die in Chunsoft's dungeon world and you're stripped of all your wordly possessions. "Where has the sword gone? Where is the armoured hat? Why the hell isn't there a checkpoint system? This is horrible. I hate this game."

Shiren The Wanderer is a Mystery Dungeon game and it's brutal. The two go hand-in-hand. Modern gamers know the genre best from Pokémon instalments, light and fluffy offerings that couldn't be more at odds with the series' roots.

The genre originates in 1993's Torneko no Daibouken: Fushigi no Dungeon, a spin-off of Dragon Quest IV. But this game itself borrowed massively from the roguelike genre, a type of obscure dungeon crawler that has its origins in 1980's Rogue (do you see what they did there?).

Roguelikes and, to a lesser extent, Mystery Dungeons, are about as pure as gaming gets. Featuring randomised dungeon designs, turn-based movement and permanent death, Rogue was one tough cookie.

Shiren creator Seiichiro Nagahata would later explain that "the core of Mystery Dungeon is tension and reasoning". You're placed in an unpredictable landscape full of drastic punishment and claustrophobic movement constraints. You move, monsters move. Yep, sits pretty high on our tense-o-meter.

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Rogue was an abstract extreme. 'Drawn' in ASCII, its dungeons were networks of hashes, dashes and letters signifying monsters and items. Traditionally, roguelike heroes would be represented by '@'. Rudimentary, yes, but still one million times better than Rayman.

With no aesthetic cladding, the purity of the rules could be appreciated. Torneko no Daibouken put a more presentable face on proceedings in 1993, softening the roguelike for mass consumption on the Super Famicom.

For one, its leading man was Torneko, the portly shopkeeper star of Dragon Quest IV's third chapter. There he dreamt of adventuring, here he got to do it.

Designed by Tadashi Fukuzawa, a scenario assistant on the Dragon Quest series, Torneko was a gentler roguelike. Dying no longer reset the whole game, but took your cash and half your items, echoing Dragon Quest's gold-sapping deaths.

The distinctive turn-based movement remained, however, giving Mystery Dungeon a bizarre motion it maintains to this day. You step, monsters step. Hold down the run button and all the inhabitants are forced to mechanically keep up with you - it's like a dungeon in fast-forward.

Shiren designer Nagahata worked on Torneko's game balance. If a blue Slime erased three hours of play, his was the name to lavish expletives upon. Loveable Torneko actually kept Nagahata's mean streak at bay. Describing licensed Mystery Dungeon games, the designer later noted "other titles have their own set world that we cannot change".

"Mystery Dungeon games, Shiren in particular, tend to baffle westerners."

When he developed Shiren, though, he had no ties. "Our team members decide the characters and their specs," he explained. "Shiren is a title where we can fully express what Mystery Dungeon is capable of."

Released in 1995, we sense Fushigi no Dungeon 2: Furai no Shiren ('Fushigi no Dungeon' is the 'Mystery Dungeon' brand) is the game Nagahata always wanted to make.

Death whisks Shiren all the way back to level one (although you can salvage items stored in inventory boxes), dungeon exits are sometimes hidden maliciously and there are no dungeon escape spells.

There's a nice thieving dilemma, too. Being of more dubious moral fibre than Torneko, Shiren can shoplift. Yes, it nets you nice items, but it also earns vicious beatings from angry storeowners. Do you dare risk it?

Mystery Dungeon games, Shiren in particular, tend to baffle westerners. Deliberately awkward, they are uncompromising challenges. But unlike traditionally tough titles - your Contras and Mega Mans - they are not relentlessly, tiresomely mean.

As Nagahata says, Mystery Dungeons need tension to function. If something's not at stake, what motivation is there? With Wii, DS and 3DS versions now available in the west, what better time to see if it will motivate you?

Dungeon keepers

There have been around 25 games in the Mystery Dungeon series to date, the vast majority of which were released in Japan only. Rather than bore you with a list of obscure mobile titles you'll probably never play, we've chosen the most notable entries in the series' history.

Learn these game names off by heart and pretend to people that you're a Mystery Dungeon expert. People will love you, we promise.