Recently, my son and I were invited to attend a special hands-on preview event at Spike Chunsoft’s headquarters in Tokyo to play the upcoming Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island for Nintendo Switch, which is scheduled for release in Japan on January 25th and in the West on February 27th. We were allowed to play the game for around two hours, and I’ll spoil the result right here in this introduction: I had to be torn away from it when the time was up. I would have played it all day if I could have. But let’s get into some of the nitty-gritty details, shall we?
Regular readers will know that I live in sunny Japan, which is generally a nice place to live apart from the kaiju attacks every Friday. I don’t live in a big city though, so making a trip to Spike Chunsoft’s offices in the highly fashionable Akasaka area of Tokyo required taking a bit of a train ride. Well, a good chance to play some Shiren on my Game Boy as a warm-up. We arrived at the offices a bit early for the event, so we enjoyed some drinks at the nearby Starbucks. Once it was a more reasonable time, we headed up the elevator.
I’ll spare you the rest of the little details, but we soon found ourselves in a room with some other journalists. Also in the room were a number of Spike Chunsoft’s people, including the game’s director Keisuke Sakurai, project manager Hideyuki Shinozaki, and sub-producer Ryo Nishmura. After some introductions, we were allowed to dig in to Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island on the provided Nintendo Switch units. Two hours ought to be plenty of time, right? My son and I were sharing a Switch, and I took the first turn.
The immediately striking thing is that the game is in full 3D. Now, it’s been a pretty long time since the last fully new release in the Shiren series, and that game used 2D visuals. Fortunately, the new graphical style still has all the charm of the usual sprites. Everyone who should be recognizable is, and the familiar enemies are looking great. This new style allows the game to do some fun things with the camera in cut-scenes and such, with one cave scene between dungeons moving the angle behind Shiren to show off a gorgeous aquarium-like view. It’s not going to win any prizes for best graphics on the system or anything, but it looks good and is faithful to the series.
By and large, if you’ve played any Shiren games before, you’ll find this one familiar in the broad strokes. Shiren is doing that thing that is in his name, and stumbles upon people in trouble. He heads into some dungeons accompanied by his faithful pal Koppa to seek adventure and maybe a little fortune along the way. Said dungeons are procedurally generated, because this is a proper Japanese-style roguelike. Layouts, enemies, loot, and more will be different every time you play. There are some things that carry over from run to run, but if you collapse in the dungeon you will lose everything you’re carrying and be dropped back to level 1. You will however remember your experiences and hopefully will be better equipped to handle whatever defeated you next time.
The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island is supposedly more streamlined in some respects when compared to the previous entry in an attempt to get back to the roots of the franchise, but I didn’t see a whole lot of that in my brief time with the game. Shiren is always deceptively simple until you realize all the interesting ways elements can interact, at which point your brain starts clicking pieces together and things get really wild. For example, your standard food item is an onigiri – you know, a riceball. It’s tasty, but it’s even better when it’s roasted. If an enemy sets you on fire, any onigiri you’re carrying might be roasted along with you. Maybe you’ll find an item that allows you to walk in water. That’s handy! But a lot of your stuff will get ruined if you wade around carelessly. And so on.
Anyway, my first turn ended fairly quickly. A pumpkin-headed ghost, one of the regular enemies in the series, passed through some walls and stomped me in a couple of hits. I passed the controller over to my son, who had been studying up by playing the previous Switch release. He noticed one useful new UI feature: you can now equip multiple projectiles to use with button combinations. You don’t have to keep going in and switching between them, making for a far smoother flow. Sadly, my son’s excitement over this new feature would prove to be his undoing. He made it farther than I did, but he happened across an enemy that looked like a big grasshopper. He fired upon it, and it used a bat-like weapon to launch it right back at him, one-shotting him. Whoops!
Dad’s turn! This time I found a really nice sword early on, and that made a big difference. Better still, I soon found an excellent shield. Now we were cooking with gas! With these two items I was able to make excellent progress, making my way through several scenic locations and meeting some interesting characters. At one point things looked like they were about to go pear-shaped when a slime leveled up into a more powerful form. I was in big trouble, but I used an item to confuse it and then made a run for the exit. I made it to the next safe area, and time was up. I had torched ninjas, sliced up those annoying pumpkin-heads, and wiped out entire rooms of enemies with one scroll. In the end, only the firm hand of the Spike Chunsoft reps could stop me.
The wild thing is that judging by the overworld map screen, I had barely scratched the surface. There was a whole lot more game waiting for me, and I’ve no doubt I would have run into a lot more hairy situations soon. The thrill of escaping that kind of thing, the agony of your luck running out, and that desire to pick up again and go a little deeper into the dungeons… that’s what Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island is all about, and I can’t wait to pick up where I left off with it when the game releases on Nintendo Switch in February of next year.