Thursday, June 28, 2007

DSCrawling out of the dungeon...

“I went all weekend without playing Pokemon!”

We’re picking up the campsite, getting ready to leave North Country Fair behind for another year, and I fully understand my buddy’s pride, pride detectable behind the sunburn, behind the twigs in the beard, behind the post-mushroom, looked-into-the-abyss glaze in his eyes. There amid the weekend’s flotsam of crushed cans, empty cases, upended lawn chairs, half-collapsed tents and miscellaneous debris, I know how good it feels to come out the other side of this sodden, smoked-up annual hippie/hoser musical bacchanal without having crawled away into the glowing refuge of the DS screen -- because I’ve managed it, too. My body may be hung over, but my game-addicted mind is clear.

It was a near thing, let me tell you.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote of my frustration at being teased by Legend of the Unemployed Ninja into a futile desire for a portable roguelike game – that is, a handheld version of one of the many dungeon-crawling games that follow in the footsteps of the1980 computer game Rogue, which featured totally randomized levels, minimalist text-based “graphics”, unforgiving difficulty and total addictiveness for a certain kind of nerd. The idea that I could get netHack, Angband, Moria or somesuch on my DS seemed like a ridiculous daydream; such a thing could never be commercially viable, would never be published or distributed.

I’d somehow forgotten that commercial viability, publication and distribution have never been issues for the roguelike genre; it’s the nichiest of niches, developed and evolved over the years by legions of obsessed hobbyist/hacker/fans. Of course somebody was going to cobble up a DS roguelike. All I had to do was look for it.

I’ve followed the videogame homebrew scene in a casual, almost osmotic, way throughmy blog-reading, but I’ve never actually downloaded anything. I “upgrade” the firmware of my PlayStation Portable with Sony’s regular anti-piracy – therefore anti-homebrew – updates, and I never bothered with the flash RAM system that’d let me get that action going on my DS... until I discovered DSCrawl, the answer to my longing. One borrowed piracy tool later – buddy wasn’t using it since his machine had been wholly given over to Pokemon – and I was once again down in the crudely yet efficiently depicted dungeons I love so well.

DSCrawl is a port, by a programmer who goes by the handle Sasq, of Linley’s Dungeon Crawl, a roguelike in a fairly conservative tradition. With its 26 player races and a like number of character classes, its 400-something monster types and its dozen-deity pantheon, Crawl is deeper (mathematically if not narratively; roguelikes are infamosly story-light) than any commercial RPG, while still much simpler than what many of Rogue's offspring have developed into. It’s basic: fight your way to the bottom of the dungeon, get the magic thingamabob, and fight your way back up.

I’d thought the lack of a keyboard would pose an insurmountable problem for a portable roguelike. Straightforward as the game’s objectives may be, they’re accomplished through a bewildering array of commands, with nearly every key of a standard keyboard mapped to some function and most doubling up – “d”, for example drops stuff, while “D” dissects slain monsters into gross but (maybe) nutritious slabs of meat. Sasq has put together a control scheme, making intuitive use of all the DS’s shoulder and face buttons as well as a soft keyboard on the touchscreen, that actually feels smoother, more "gamelike", than traditional keyboard controls once you get it ingrained into your hands’ muscle memory.

It might take a while to get to that point, but a while is what I’ve taken. This game, with its constant treadmill of die-retry-die-retry-etc. – “winning” a roguelike is the gaming equivalent of driving a hole-in-one, or bowling a perfect game – got its hooks into me, hard. I must have taken two hundred characters (I usually make myself a Sludge Elf Monk, despite the poor survivability of that race/class combo; I just like weird kung-fu dudes) into the pit over the last couple weeks. I could honestly play it all day, just zoning out, crashing down through the levels on glazed game-zombie autopilot. So when North Country wrapped up with my DS still fully charged in the bottom of my bag, it felt like an accomplishment, a triumph of social ability and will to party over demanding geekdom… or maybe the thought of being in the roguelike headspace while on mushrooms scared me off; I can’t really remember.

Now, consider; it has no commercial slickness, but DSCrawl is pretty much my favorite DS game ever… and I had to go through Nintendo-disapproved greymarket channels to play it. Officially, I shoul dnever have been allowed its enjoyment.

There is hope, though, for these impossibly specialized games. Just yesterday, Nintendo announced their “WiiWare” initiative, a system by which smaller independent developers will be able to create and publish original downloadable games for Wii. Lower development and distribution costs mean more risks can be taken – this is going to be the model for much of the games industry as the cost of mega-blockbusters increases and gaming mainstreams (and niches) itself away from the hardcore. That’s good, and we’ll see some cool games out of it – already indie web sensations (flOw, Line Rider, N, Alien Hominid) are being regularly picked up for consoles and handhelds. In the future, games like Crawl will more often and more easily find their way out of the dungeon and into the light.