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Lead developer at Peculiar Games. Who am I kidding!? I'm the ONLY dev there - just trying to make some interesting games in unusual genres and hope people out there enjoy them.

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Not a PC game, but Earthbound is still awesome

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Back in 2006, three things were key in converting me from a lapsed gamer back into an active gamer:

  • long train commutes to work
  • the Nintendo DS Lite
  • the Mother 1+2 GBA re-issue

What the heck is Mother 1+2 you ask? Well Mother is the name of an amazing and quirky classic Japanese RPG series first released for the SNES, then for the GBA. Why am I posting about it? Because today it's out for the Wii U under a name more recognized in the west, Earthbound.

After playing the Mother series, I moved on to the Japanese console roguelike games (Shiren the Wanderer) but I think it was Earthbound that showed me the potential for role-playing games and the importance of whimsy and disregard for following current norms or cliches in the video game industry.

Have a look at the trailer here:

Now if they'd just release a PC version on Desura...

BTW Satoru Iwata (current president & CEO of Nintendo) worked on the game "back in the day" as a programmer and co-producer :)

Let's Play video of The Vial Trial

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I made another Developer Let's Play video - this time going through the bonus dungeon called The Vial Trial.

WARNING: this whole video is a big SPOILER because the unlocking mechanism is supposed to be a surprise. The video is also quite long (21 minutes).

But with that said, have a look here...

Still more Let's Play videos

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FlyingShisno did an extensive run through the starter dungeon in Voyage to Farland. It includes one of the most amazing escapes possible (back from HP=1) at about 1 minute into Part 5 of this 5 part playlist!


The Thatched Hamlet from Voyage to Farland

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Yesterday I posted to the blog with a couple of Dev Let's Play videos from my roguelike game. I originally got the idea from an episode of the RoguelikeRadio podcast.

So this morning I'm continuing with Part 3 of the series.

It starts in The Thatched Hamlet - which is a bit of nostalgia from my time in Japan and interest in their traditional thatched house building techniques. In fact, the name of the starter dungeon in Voyage to Farland is borrowed from Iya Gorge mentioned in that link.

This video today shows some gameplay from there on through Twilight Stream and The Red Forest and I touch on some things I like in video games (especially indie games) like whimsy, easter eggs and deviating from expectations (cliches?) of a genre.

Give it a watch!

Dev Let's Play videos of Voyage to Farland

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The idea came up on a recent RoguelikeRadio episode that developers should make Let's Play videos of their own games. I've actually already done a series highlighting The Path of No Return (the hardcore dungeon) in Voyage to Farland, but there was no commentary and it's all a long spoiler video anyway.

However, I wanted to test out recording video and commentary separately so I threw together a couple of videos today. They aren't super exciting, but it was fun to test out the technology - Hypercam for the video and Audacity for the commentary audio.

Have a look at them here:

Hopefully I'll get a chance soon to make some videos of the harder dungeon floors in the game!

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer

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In a previous blog post, I pointed out that my game Voyage to Farland is heavily influenced by the Japanese console roguelike game Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer and that it's even been called a "Shiren clone" by some in the video game press. While "Shiren clone" is not strictly accurate (Voyage deviates significantly from Shiren in a few key areas), it's close enough to being true that I don't mind the comparison. I prefer to call Voyage an homage to Shiren, even though that sounds a bit hoity-toity.

Never heard of it?

But what if you've never heard of Shiren the Wanderer? It is a little known game after all, with only a couple of official releases outside of Japan: for the Nintendo DS in 2008 and for the Wii in 2010. When many gamers read "Mystery Dungeon" they probably think of the Pokemon games which share some similarities to the Shiren games, but are still quite different.

Being designed for consoles ranging from the SNES to GBA to DS and Wii, the Shiren games have a distilled down control system that works really well with game controllers. This is one of the first things you'll notice when comparing Shiren to western PC keyboard-based roguelike games. All of the Mystery Dungeon games are highly animated with charming 16 bit pixel art, while the Wii release sports some nice 3D art.

So how does it play?

The game balance as well as the item and monster designs are all extremely well thought out and solid. There are no single-use-case items nor weird inside joke tricks you need yet are only available as spoilers on a wiki somewhere. You can learn everything you need to know in the game through dialogue with NPCs and studying the explanations of items you pick up on your adventure.

Indeed, the Shiren games seem uncannily designed to ramp up difficulty as you progress. There's also no room for grinding in the game and multiple player classes are eschewed in favor of multiple devious monsters that can level up themselves and multiple bonus dungeons you unlock as you progress.

Still interested? Here are some links...

John Harris covered the English patched SNES release of Shiren in his @Play column on GameSetWatch, much of which applies to the DS release:

A Journey to Table Mountain, Part 1
A Journey to Table Mountain, Part 2

Give those a read and let me know if Shiren sounds as cool as I feel it is!

The Early Days of Voyage to Farland

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Since Voyage to Farland has been tagged as a “Shiren clone” and I’ve embraced that concept (hey, Shiren is awesome so why not?) I thought I’d write out a few notes about my thinking as I developed the game. It’ll be completely stream-of-consciousness I’m afraid, but here we go.

I really REALLY like Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer. Just check the profile pic1. The game kept me company on countless morning and evening commutes on the KEIO line in Tokyo as I battled monsters in Fey’s Final Puzzle and levelled up the Borg Mamel. On some days after work, I’d board the train and a kid who I taught at the middle school way out past Takao would see me pull the DS from my backpack and I’d give him or her a sheepish grin. Our little secret -- wouldn’t do to have it getting around among the other teachers that Patoriku-sensei was addicted to DS gaming.

Lost Skills

So I was an English teacher who liked Shiren, but an English teacher who used to be a computer programmer (these days they’re called “engineers” apparently), and I wondered all along if I could still do coding.

As I played Shiren, I often found myself wondering how I’d go about implementing certain mechanics in the game if I were the programmer. Take the blue translucent map overlay in Shiren, for instance. A quick look at the DS specs and it seems obvious that the map is a dedicated background layer with alpha blending.

Some months later I bought a DS flashcart to dabble in homebrew programming (honest!) and as winter came in 2007, with the trout fishing season long past, I started to experiment in earnest. The early builds of my “Peculiar Voyage” roguelike game were hilariously simplistic -- a single hard-coded dungeon floor, only one type of monster that had braindead AI. All it knew how to do was approach the badly drawn hero sprite even if it meant walking into a wall each turn. But it was a start.

In later builds, a couple of other monsters were added along with an engine architecture for keeping all their stats, ranged and melee special attacks, level, etc. The AI also improved -- monsters now knew if they were in the same room as the hero, whether they were lined up to inflict a ranged attack and if they weren’t in the same room, they knew how to head for a corridor, always searching for the player.

As the little experiment progressed, I knew early on that I shouldn’t just clone Shiren. Heck, I couldn’t even do that if I wanted to -- the credits for Shiren DS are a long list of developers who worked on the game from designers to programmers to artists, musicians, PR and on. Deviating from Shiren’s mechanics would allow me a bit of creativity and hopefully keep from angering Chunsoft.


One of the aspects of Shiren that I liked as an American was the fact that the background story was anchored in Japanese culture and mythology. I haven’t actually played a lot of western RPGs or dungeon crawlers, but just reading about them gets old pretty quickly. Orcs, mages, and knights are all great, but to me at least, they've become almost cliche.

So I decided early on to not make Voyage to Farland based on western fantasy themes. In fact, being completely naive in the realm of game design, a first sketch of Voyage’s background story was that it would be a Mystery Dungeon style game (roguelike with animated graphics -- yes, with graphics) and it would be called “Peculiar Voyage: Escape from Tokyo”. So naturally, some early monster designs included everyday monsters I encountered as I wandered Tokyo -- Obatarian, for instance, the nickname for “battalions” of middle-aged Japanese women who elbow you out of the way on trains or in crowded pedestrian areas. (Actually, nearly all of the middle-aged Japanese women I met were really kind.)

Other monsters borrowed heavily from my own interest in ghost stories and obscure horror films in a strange mix of Western and Japanese mythology. There was the Yuki Onna, the ghostly woman that lulls mountain people to sleep so that they freeze to death. She eventually became the GrayLady, a historical American ghost. But in the code, the #define for the monster is still YUKIONNA.

And there was Nosferatu, because standard vampires are boring, let’s face it, and Murnau’s silent film is not. There was also the Aka-oni, the name of a favorite watering hole in Tokyo but also the demon you cast out on the Japanese holiday, Setsubun. I’d made a goofy demon mask on a stick for the English classes and this creature made its way directly into the game as the Oni family of monsters -- animated demon masks on sticks that hop around the dungeon and “double smack” the hero when they attack.

Since all of those monsters hit pretty hard, I further borrowed a Shiren mechanic by classifying them as “undead” and made them susceptible to high damage when hit with medicinal herbs: the Absinthe-inspired Wormwood, and its little brother, Mugwort.

A Classless (video game) Society

One feature that many western roguelikes have that Voyage doesn’t is the ability to choose different player classes.

I’ll be honest -- I’m not convinced of having different classes in a roguelike. I don’t dislike them, I just don’t see the need. And after playing Shiren for years, I know that it’s not necessary in making a good roguelike game.

Both as a developer and an eventual player, I’d rather spend my time making interesting items, new monster classes and additional themed dungeons. I like that in Shiren everyone starts out the same. Every player has the same tools at hand (determined by the RNG). When I play Diablo II, a brilliant game in its own, I’m always wondering in the back of my mind how this run would go if I’d chosen a different class.

So Voyage doesn’t have classes. It has items instead2, with a fairly deep level of interaction among those items and the game’s monsters. Everyone starts out the same, as the stoic homeless wanderer “Hero”3 and your progress in the game depends on your patience, your reading of the riddle-like item explanations in the game and your perseverance.

Oh, and knowing when to fight and when to run!

Death Does Not Exist

But failure doesn’t actually mean death. This is another point I've borrowed (read: copied) from Shiren. :) Your character never really dies.

I won’t give away this aspect of the game’s story -- whether the Hero can start all over through reincarnation, or fantasy, or each run just being a dream. But it's never really death. Instead, the Hero is simply “vanquished”, falls to the floor and is somehow transported back to the oddly named “Wilderness Village”4 with the lonely child who always wants to play rock-paper-scissors and a few talking stones plopped down near entrances to buildings and caves.

Another thing I knew early on was that I wanted to make a hard game. Shiren is very hard, especially the later dungeons. There’s nothing wrong with a hard video game. Life isn’t easy. Everybody isn’t a winner.

Well actually that last platitude doesn’t apply, everybody WILL win Shiren if they have the patience and are willing to give it another go. The same goes for Voyage. In fact, the boss fight at the end of the first “Iya Gorge” dungeon is laughably easy if you’ve been paying attention.

Oh, and as an aside, I don’t recommend capturing the final boss monster in a Vial. Trust me on that one.

A Final Hint

Well, this is getting long-winded, so I’ll stop for now. There’s plenty more I could write down if there’s interest, but I’ve taken enough of your time for today. Give the game a try if you enjoy Mystery Dungeon style roguelike games. And give the fishing girl in the “Thatched Hamlet” an oatmeal cookie along the way. Trust me on THAT one, too.

1) The profile pic is a snapshot of my Mamel T-shirt -- the "mamel" being one of the first monsters you encounter in Shiren the Wanderer. I never did get a mamel plushie, though. :(

2) I'm being a bit snarky with that "it has items instead" line. It means the items in the game aren't just junk lying around. Shiren the Wanderer and Voyage to Farland have no junk items. Everything can potentially save your ass. Use a vial to capture and become a monster, but don't let a catapult toss one at you! Put a +4 WoodenShield into a MeldPouch after a +1 TitanShield and get a +5 TitanShield out. Eat Wormwood to restore HP or throw it at that undead Witch over there to instakill her...

3) Gamers worried about the "Damsel in Distress" trope may be interested to know that although your character is referred to as the "Hero", it's actually a girl -- and a pretty tough one at that!

4) The name “Wilderness Village” comes from the fact that I borrowed Daniel Cook’s Wilderness & Village tilesets for the graphics on the starting floor. And the Hero character and Oba monsters are modified from his Planet Cute set. As always, huge thanks to him for his generosity!

Roguelike Item Orthogonality...

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This was originally posted on my Google+ page

In my own roguelike game, Voyage to Farland, I've tried to add more depth to the gameplay to distinguish it from a dungeon crawler & other games that rely on grinding. One example is the Vial item. From the in-game description of it, a Vial is "a cursed vial that when thrown, can capture a monster's soul!"

But you should always remember that in Voyage to Farland, your hero character is just another monster, albeit a cute one whose movements you can control. So normally, you'd throw a Vial at a monster to "capture its soul" or essence. Later, if you drink the essence, you'll turn into the monster until you move to the next dungeon floor or explicitly revert to human form.

There could be several reasons you might want to change into one of the game's monsters -- some monsters have pretty powerful ranged attacks that can be useful, e.g. the Nosferatu's "Evil Eye" attack, the ViperBeetle's "Spin & Toss" attack or the SparkDroid's "Lightning" attack. When you become a monster, you can also take advantage of its inate abilities -- a Ghost can pass through walls freely, and the GrayLady can move at double speed compared to other monsters.

This mechanic in the game is borrowed from Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer's "monster meat" gameplay mechanic and it's interesting enough to merit a dedicated dungeon for learning how to use the item wisely. The specialty dungeon is called The Vial Trial and you can get to it by clearing certain events on the Thatched Hamlet floor.

But the ability to turn into a monster isn't enough in designing a complex roguelike game. For me, item orthogonality is very important -- all "good" items should have some potential disadvantages, and all "bad" items should have some beneficial uses occasionally. It keeps the game interesting and adds yet another layer of replayability to the already compelling gameplay that procedural environment generation brings to a video game.

A Vial is great for throwing, morphing into a monster and then throwing down. Yet there are monsters in the game who delight in picking up stray items and tossing them at the hero. The Catapult family (felines on mobile mini-catapults!?) does just that. If it's standing on a sword, it'll lob it at the hero doing damage. If it's standing on a medicinal herb, it will toss the herb at you, which you'll feel compelled to ingest, maybe saving you from death in a tricky situation. And here's where the subtle twist in item design comes into play -- if the Catapult runs across a vial, it will toss the Vial at the hero. Perhaps the Vial contains the essence of a Wraith (level 3 Ghost). If so, you'll morph into a Wraith and you can pass into a nearby wall and attack any monsters that come near you. Their attacks can't affect you, but yours will do high damage to them! Cool, huh?

But if the Vial was empty when tossed, that's another story... Your essence will be trapped for a few turns and any nearby monsters can approach and pound on you. Just pray that your level was high enough to withstand the onslaught, or it may be YASD (Yet Another Stupid Death) and back to the starting village.

From the Android version of Voyage to Farland

One of the Dwarf Fortress taglines is "Losing is fun!" and most roguelike gurus appreciate that fact. It's part of the draw of these games. They're not for the faint of heart, but for those of us willing to learn from our mistakes and grow from them, roguelike games are extremely rewarding.

So in summary, "Use the Vial, Luke. Use the Vial." Just don't leave one lying around near a Catapult when you're playing Voyage to Farland.