2018-03-13: My delve into Deep Dungeons

As of late I've been pretty heavily into dungeon crawlers, or I guess the proper fully accurate term is "Grid based first person dungeon crawlers". You know the genre: you're dropped in a maze in first person and have to navigate your way around either with the aid of a top-down map, or by drawing your own. The big examples are Apple and MS-DOS titles such as Wizardry and Bard's Tale.

Well, there's a ton of less well-known titles for consoles. The main examples that were known in the US at least were Arcana and Shining in the Darkness (both amazing games by the way and I wholly recommend them). Popular in Japan, and never seen in the western world was the Deep Dungeon series. Over the past month I've been chipping through all four games of the series on my Twitch stream and at this point feel like I've reached the point where I almost have to ramble extensively about them.

First of all, Deep Dungeon was developed by HummingBirdSoft, a Japanese Real Estate company that branched out into video games for some strange reason. They had been developing games for three years when they made Deep Dungeon, but Deep Dungeon was their first game for the Famicom Disk System. Honestly, the game could have easily been a standard Famicom cart and probably would have fared better for it, but alas.

As far as dungeon crawlers go, Deep Dungeon is both very generic and very basic for its first two iterations: you only have one character to worry about and only battle one foe at any given time. 99% of battles involve you mashing A to attack and hoping you outlast your opponent. There's some semblance of a magic system in the form of purchasable items that are not consumed on use and can inflict damage, silence, sleep, etc. At first glance there's really not much here.

Since this is practically a novel, I'll cut each game into its own clicky link.

Upon booting up Deep Dungeon I: Madou Senki, there's quite a lot that renders the series forgettable on top of the very spartan gameplay: dungeons are mazes of monochromatic walls with the occasional door, your chance to hit any given opponent is terrible and you'll often die simply due to droughts of solid blows on monsters, the story is your bland and generic "the princess has been kidnapped, save her!" fare, and then there's the horrible, screeching, ear-piercing music. Seriously, for the entire first three titles of the series, I streamed with the game audio off and other music playing in its stead.

The actual design of the game bakes in several cases of pointless difficulty. Enemies can find you in real time, and often will if you stop moving. Any time you stop to update your map or figure out where to go, you'll likely be forced into a battle. Many enemies in the latter half of the game have hard control abilities like sleep. Since you're alone, being controlled is usually deadly. Death drops you back to the title screen, so that just means progress lost since your last save.

Additionally is the story of the warp cloth. One of the reusable magic items you can purchase from the shop is a cloth that will spirit you back to town when used. What HummingBirdSoft chose to do to balance this ability was give it an approximately 50% chance to warp you into a wall (read: kill you) on use. This is both maddening, and confusing as Deep Dungeon I allows you to save literally anywhere, at any time. The only penalty for saving before using the warp cloth is the wait you are forced to endure as your game state is written to the floppy disk.

So with all these questionable design decisions, what kept me playing Deep Dungeon I? Really, the map and enemy design. What few foes there are are charmingly rendered, and the maps have a certain inspiration to them. As you wander the halls of the eight floor dungeon, you immediately get a feel for what kind of area you're walking around in: the cemetery is a big open area with small mausoleum rooms flanking it, the underground castle is a big tapering courtyard leading to both an open throne room and a series of dungeon cells, the underground river is a spidering labyrinth of waterways and sluices. Considering maps consist exactly of open tile and wall, it's impressive each floor has a unique feel that conveys a specific location. The level design may very well have been the MVP of the original Deep Dungeon team.

Your ability to progress is strongly gated by level. Your equipment is largely moot as, if you progress in the manner I did, you'll pick up the end-game gear on levels 4, 5, and 6 long before you have the money to buy the strongest gear in the shop. As I mapped each dungeon floor to 100% completion before proceeding to the next, I expected to be on par or ahead of the level curve, but was still forced to grind on floors 2, 5, and 7 before I could survive beyond. As a result, I entered the arena for the final battle on floor 8 at level 17 and rather handily defeated the boss in an anticlimactic battle that also consisted of mashing A until the foe died.

All in all, Deep Dungeon I: Madou Senki was more a mapping puzzle for me than an engaging RPG.

Deep Dungeon II: Yuushi no Monshou is a direct continuation of the story of Deep Dungeon I and is much the same as its predecessor. Once again you have an eight floor dungeon and once again you have a solo hero, solo foes, battles consisting of mashing A, and ear-piercing droning music. The music is better in chapter two of the series, but it's still not good. In fact, that's kind of a motto for Deep Dungeon II: everything has been improved to varying degrees.

Instead of forcing you to walk all the way through eight floors of dungeon every time you return to town, town this time is in the middle of the eight floors, with two four-floor sub-dungeons branching up and down. You are expected to go up first, then down after you've reached floor four. Nothing is stopping you from going down first, but the enemies are powerful and most rewards are locked behind keys or key-like objects you only get by going up.

In this chapter you are also provided stat points to distribute on level-up. These points give you flexibility between Strength, Agility, and Luck. Truthfully the only valid choice is Agility. Anyone who finished Deep Dungeon I probably put most of their points there, in hopes that they don't see a repeat of the abhorrent 50-75% miss rate present therein. This turns you into a god boasting your own 75+% dodge rate, and you'll of course also never miss your own attacks. You'll even dodge spells!

As a result, Deep Dungeon II is the easiest of the four games. You gain level 4 or 5 in the first floor of the dungeon, pump Agility, head up, and never really have a problem to speak of as long as you kill everything you encounter. The game boasts the same end-game gear as the first chapter, and you get it at about the same point, so there's not much in the way of gear progression.

The dungeon layout is the same interesting, somewhat inspired design as the original, except this time in the form of a castle and its catacombs. The castle almost seems to be upside down as you explore it: four inaccessible towers standing obvious in the corners of the map until you reach floor four, at which point you can enter those corners and begin descending back down into the inaccessible corners of the map. It's in these upside down towers that most of the progression items are hidden. Once at the top, you find a pit that leads to a shaft all the way down to the basement where you can begin exploring downward.

Once in basement floor four, you find what you may believe to be the final boss, and it's here that Deep Dungeon II sets itself apart from the original in a real way: there are multiple endings. You can kill this foe, at which point you'll discover the open-ended bad end that allows you to continue the game. Only by finding a hidden item and giving it to this foe does he reveal the location of the true final boss. Still, this is a small additional detail; Deep Dungeon II is pretty much an identically formatted continuation of Deep Dungeon I.

One can really consider Deep Dungeon I and II to be one game spanning two disks. Deep Dungeon III: Yuushi he no Tabi, however, is an entirely different beast. It's the first Deep Dungeon on the Famicom itself, which brings with it a change to the saving system: you can only save in inns in town now, not anywhere.

There a slew of additions to the game: a real magic system, and actual party with multiple classes, multi-foe battles with the enemies arranged on a 3x3 grid with rows that can or cannot be reached by certain attack types, multiple dungeons and multiple towns, and different styles of dungeon. Deep Dungeon III was set to be a sharply superior title than either of its two predecessors. Sadly it's easily the worst.

There's four party member slots and four classes (Hunter, Priest, Wizard, and a Hero class unique to the protagonist) so the natural decision is to run one character of each class. This is probably the most balanced party with the strongest chance of success, though dropping the Hunter for a second Wizard is also compelling. The magic system is bare bones, but is at least present. Priest spells include generic defense buffs, then a small, medium, and large heal. Wizard spells include offensive buffs and damage spells for single target, one row, and everyone. That's about it.

This game spans sixteen floors instead of the eight from the first two titles. These sixteen floors are spread across four dungeons, flanked on either side by small explorable towns. Each dungeon has an obvious, explicit theme as well as what I found to be an implicit theme regarding its source of difficulty:

The game utilizes backtracking very effectively, forcing you to return to prior dungeons only once or twice for additional items and plot elements. These trips back also reveal hidden passages to increase the speed at which you move between dungeons and towns, and showcase how much your party has grown since you were last in that dungeon. The path to the final town actually weaves through the Underground, 15 levels after you were last there; it's really neat.

However the game lacks any semblance of balance or difficulty curve. Having 100%ed the map for the Underground and bought all available gear in the first town, I entered the Tower and was immediately flattened. I was forced to grind for a bit to survive and reach the 2nd floor, where I was once again flattened, and this repeated all the way to floor six. The Tower probably represented about two-thirds of my playthrough despite being only 3/8th of the total dungeon floors.

Once I finished the Tower and entered the Cave, however, I was much too strong for anything in the first floor, and was able to proceed all the way to the third floor without so much as a worry, only to start getting instantly flattened again. Once I got strong enough to survive, the fourth floor and the Cave boss were a joke. The Castle, however, began to flatten me yet again. After several more levels of grinding I was able to barely scrape my way through until the final floor, where the difficulty is cranked to 11 in the form of a teleporter maze with a super-powered tier of enemies unique to only this floor.

The problem with survivability here is two-fold: first, if your Hero class party member dies at any time, you instantly game over. Unfortunately your Hero is also the only one capable of wearing the best armor and boasts a significantly larger health pool than any other member, so he's also the only viable choice for the party's tank. An instant death spell cast on the leader can instantly send you back to the load screen.

Second, depending on where you are in the game, one of your classes is fully useless. At the start of the game it's your Wizard. He's weak and can only cast one damage spell that hits one enemy for laughable damage. One hit can kill your Wizard practically through the entire game as he gets literally no armor or health. Around the mid-Tower, your Wizard gains the spell that can damage an entire row of foes and quickly rises in power just as the Hunter falls. With the hero out-damaging the Hunter on single targets and the Wizard nuking entire rows, the Hunter struggles to find a place in the party; though he is an additional MP battery for between-battle heals, having exactly three Priest spells at his disposal. Once you reach the Cave, the Hunter is nigh-useless against the high physical defense of the foes, and your Wizard is critical for spamming hit-all spells in every fight. Sadly your Wizard is no more durable, still falling in a single hit.

Deep Dungeon III is easily the hardest game for these reasons, and easily the worst. What's funny is I played through the game using a translation patch that also added some difficulty tweaks like making success rolls more reliant on stats than RNG, preventing critical misses that not only fail to damage the foe but cost you an additional turn, and made it so Priests cannot fumble a heal. Anyone who makes it possible to fizzle a heal in an RPG is just a sadist, in my opinion. Despite these quality of life improvements, the game is still utterly unfair.

In its defense, at least the warp item doesn't have a 50% chance to kill you any more. Now you can purchase multiples of it, and it has a 50% chance to instead break, and leave you in the dungeon.

That just leaves Deep Dungeon IV: Kuro no Youjutsushi, easily by far the best title in the series (and the only one I left the audio on in my streamed playthrough). If Deep Dungeon III was an entirely different game from the prior titles, Deep Dungeon IV is on an entirely different planet. There's seven towns linking eleven maps that are both above and below ground. Most of the dungeons are bite-sized one-floor affairs that don't wear out their welcome and probably add up to eight full 32x32 dungeon floors, if I had to guess.

Deep Dungeon IV keeps the multi-character party but takes away both stat points and control over your classes. Instead you find two allies through the course of play who are branded as the party Wizard and Priest. The party hero (who can die in this chapter without an instant game over) is a paladin with solid physical capabilities and some curative magic, then you have Caleph the Wizard and Erick the Priest.

Gone also is the 3x3 battle grid. Instead you have a Bard's Tale style system where up to three types of enemies can appear in any number from 1 to 5. Each group is represented as a single sprite but each foe gets a turn in battle. I think it works much better than the clumsy grid system.

The travel system in Deep Dungeon IV is unique, and has the distinction of being the first thing toward which I can attribute that compliment in the Deep Dungeon series. When you exit a town you may choose which field you want to visit; some towns link to other towns and certain fields, other towns link to different fields. This results in a requirement to backtrack through certain fields a few times to get from place to place, but doesn't require you to move through the entire game any time you want to go somewhere new.

On the difficulty matter, Deep Dungeon IV is the only Deep Dungeon to not have battles "find you" in real time. In addition it's the only Deep Dungeon game that didn't see me die to the first encounter I found when I started. The difficulty curve actually rises gradually, keeping the player on their toes but rarely overpowering them outright. That is, presuming you do things in the right order.

The game is open-ended and non-linear. Right from the start you can easily visit five of the game's seven towns. Each town except for the first one gives a quest that is not directly related to the main plot but is not entirely optional either (I believe the final MacGuffin to reveal the way to the end will not open unless all the quests are done, but this is only a hunch). These quests are a far larger source of experience than normal battles, and it's entirely possible to flee from all combat and level up purely on quests, though you'd be a bit weak as a result. Towns six and seven lie in a different direction than the first five, and would require a bit of training to get there safely.

This open-endedness presents a small problem in that you won't really have an idea of where to go, though the game is small enough that walking around the world and talking to everyone is about a thirty minute affair. If you're truly lost, you can just resort to that, and it should only happen once or twice in a playthrough.

One interesting thing about Deep Dungeon IV is the rate at which you find companions. Presuming you follow the natural progression of events, you could go half the game solo, only finding the way to your first companion when you reach the fifth town. Your second companion is locked away in a tower that stands as either the third from last or fourth from last dungeon depending again on order. This isn't really a problem as your hero character is quite self-sufficient for some time. It's only when paralyzing monsters appear that you will be thankful for a second body. Furthermore, by the time you should have Caleph and/or Erick, you will note a sharp increase in difficulty as a hint that hey, maybe you should go back and find them.

Compared to the first three games, Deep Dungeon IV feels vibrant and alive. The monochrome dungeons are gone, replaced with mazes of verdant trees, craggy rocks, and detailed brick passageways. NPCs have things to say and quests to complete; their dialogue changes as you progress through the game. The plot evolves as you solve quests and meet your companions. It's pretty neat stuff after three games of monochrome dungeon with one page of dialogue with a boss every four floors. You'd probably need a notepad to keep track of all the hints and details NPCs give you.

The one black eye Deep Dungeon IV has comes in the form of its final boss. I'm not entirely sure I didn't miss something, but the final boss comes with the ability to cast the strongest offensive spell in the game, and instant death. The former can be stymied with either the Priest or Wizard silence spells, but the latter seems to ignore being silenced. After several attempts that started with my Priest getting killed, I finally lucked out and had Caleph be the fall guy. After one member died to boss seemed uninterested in continuing to cast death, much like Atomos from Final Fantasy V. So in short, after slogging all the way through the final castle, your success or failure is decided by whether or not it's Erick that goes down to instant death. Kind of ended the game on a sour note.

However, Deep Dungeon IV has one of the cooler things I've seen in an outro for a game this old: every quest you finish, whether it's a mandatory quest, a side quest in town, or a secret quest you stumble onto by wandering into a room that happens to contain and angry dragon that attacks you, is showcased for a moment during the credits in a sort of chronicle of your accomplishments. It was a neat topper for a good solid RPG.

In total, all four games took me about 70 hours to complete. If I had to rate them in order, it would go something like IV, II, I, III, with III a significant distance behind the rest and IV a leap ahead as well. All in all they're solid games if you like dungeon crawlers. They're just not anything unique, and can suffer from shallow design and monotony until the fourth iteration.

Next I may try the Bard's Tale series...

tags: deep_dungeons, rpg, game_writeup