a review of (Chronicle of) Dungeon Maker(: Hunting Ground)
a videogame developed by global A entertainment
and published by taito and X-SEED games
for the nintendo DS and sony playstation portable handheld gaming systems
text by tim rogers
Global A Entertainment’s first game of any importance, and one of the best Japanese games of 2006, Chronicles of Dungeon Maker (Dungeon Maker: Hunting Ground in its American release) is the chief reason I wish I didn’t loathe the Sony PlayStation Portable. It’s crisp, elegant, crunchy, meaty, deep, and a multitude of other food-like adjectives, wrapped in a tasty videogame shell, piping hot and fresh full of classy, bubbly music that recalls Taito’s illustrious history of making games that refuse to attempt to appeal to everyone at the same time.
Back in 1986, when everyone was entranced with plumbers eating mushrooms, growing to twice their height, stomping turtles, and rescuing princesses, there was Taito, making a splash with a game about soap-bubble-blowing dinosaurs who made a living by killing little wind-up toy-gadgets to get to the next screen, which may or may not have been just “too weird” for some people. Taito’s one-offishness has manifested itself at many points in their history, usually to their inconvenience. They’ve repeatedly made games — like the excellent RPG Estopolis (Lufia) II — which might have been the top of their genre if someone somewhere had just thrown a little extra effort or money at them. At other times, they go and make these games that kind of fit into existing genres, and kind of don’t. They’re a hardcore gamer’s game-maker, and they also sadly prove the obvious: sometimes, being open-minded and risky is not the best way to make a lot of money.
When the Sony PSP came out, most developers took a look at the specification sheet and then called a board meeting to brainstorm a single idea: that is, how to shoehorn a PlayStation 2 game onto that greasy brick, with its ghosty screen and its painful buttons and its low headphone volume and its awful loading times. Taito took a different route, and tried to make a game that took into account certain faults of the PSP — like how most people with hands larger than those of infants can’t touch the shoulder buttons without experiencing Awesome Searing Tendon Pain. Their risky project was called Exit — it was a miraculous little thing that was simultaneously frantic and slow-paced, like watching a high-speed car chase on “COPS” while lightly stoned and blessed with delicious pizza. The game wasn’t, precisely, much of a success, though Square-Enix top-brass producer Akitoshi Kawazu (Action Button Dot Net‘s official pick for “Best Dressed Man in Gaming”) was quoted as telling a meeting room “This is what portable gaming should be. This is the kind of thing I want you to make.”
Eventually, Square-Enix released Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II as “Anniversary Editions” for the PSP, and after that, they broke major ground in the field of originality by releasing a remake of their nine-year old classic Final Fantasy Tactics. Well, hey. Let’s put it this way: if Square-Enix were in the habit of listening to Akitoshi Kawazu — the mastermind of SaGa — the numbers would overtake the graphics in their RPGs, while experience levels ceased to mean anything.
Or: eventually, Square-Enix bought Taito.
Moving right along, after a sequel to Exit (smartly called “Thinking Exit” in Japan, so as to better communicate the game’s simple, common-sense appeal by way of more words), Taito introduced and subsequently plopped out Chronicle of Dungeon Maker, a game that apparently had anime characters’ faces in the dialogue windows (a big “+” for the anime fans out there) and also dealt somehow with dungeon questing, shown in a third-person Zelda-like perspective (a big “-” to those hoping it would be more or less exactly like Wizardry VII Gaiden 2). It fell off the map before it landed on the map. Then Weekly Famitsu, Japan’s most blindly trusted videogame publication (they’re blindly trusted because they get scoops and exclusive screenshots, and are kind of enough to run them in exchange for protection money from game developers) broke some serious convention by having four reviews about it that more or less disagreed. You’ve got to love the non-paid-for Famitsu reviews. It’s so easy to spot them.
Chronicle of Dungeon Maker received a straight flush: 7, 8, 9, 10. On Famitsu‘s “everybody gets out alive” grading scale, that’s like a 1, 2, 3, 4. That’s dynamic stuff. I read the ground-pounding, earth-shattering sixteen-word reviews with shaking curiosity. They all said: the game is fun. Holy lord! I needed to buy this game right away. I let my misty eyes (always tearing up when I’m looking at Famitsu, so engorged is my soul with the thrill of the realization that I LIVE IN JAPAN where they SELL FAMITSU AT THE 7-ELEVEN which totally proves that MY MOM WAS WRONG) drift over to the “10” review, and let them slip into soft focus, like I was looking at one of those magic eye puzzles. The words popped out: if you have an enthusiastic friend, this game will last forever, and you shall never tire of it.
Thanks to my job at a Large Japanese Videogame Corporation, I was able to walk over to the secretary and say something that sounded urgent: I need a copy of this game on my desk before lunch tomorrow. Investigating a potential problem, is all. PR stuff. “Yes, sir!” (She didn’t actually say that.)
What glory the game ended up being. I’ve played it more or less an hour a week for nine months. It has never gotten old.
The story goes like this: there’s a town in a fantasy world. It’s being overrun with monsters. You are an apprentice dungeon-maker (yeah, like that‘s a real job!) who shows up in town with a plan: build a dungeon for all the monsters to go and play in. This will, of course, keep the monsters away from the town. The dungeon-maker must have some kind of weird little sympathy for the monsters, you might think — he realizes that all they want is a place of their own to cavort, something with homey decorations, chairs, and such. Well, when you actually play the game, and you discover that the dungeon-maker goes into the dungeon and mercilessly slaughters the monsters, it starts to make more sense. Kill the monsters, take their treasures, use the money to buy provisions in town, repeat, repeat. Buy building supplies at the construction shop, buy weapons and armor at the warrior shop, sell your miscellaneous monster droppings at the market in town square. Not in that order — preferably, you’ll sell the monster droppings (jewels and the like) first, and then spend your money. Go to the food market to buy food supplies, go home, make yourself dinner, and go to bed. The new day in the dungeon begins.
When you head back into the dungeon the next day, your character is stronger — each meal you prepare (from a list of recipes) will increase one or more of your statistics — and is carrying more building materials. Build hallways or rooms, plant a fountain or a luxurious bedroom set to attract bigger monsters the next day. Save up enough money, and you can plant a treasure chest room. When you go into the dungeon the next day, the treasure chest room door will be locked. One of the monsters in the dungeon has the key. Find him and kill him to gain access to the treasure chest room and empty the treasure chests. Sell the treasure in town a couple of days in a row, and the chest room has paid for itself. Build enough of a dungeon to earn the right to buy a boss room; place it wherever you like. Beat the boss to earn the elevator key to the next floor. Now, build the next floor.
You can build up to twenty floors, though just because you’ve moved on to floor two doesn’t mean you’re done with floor one. Not by a long shot — you can always buy new wood kits to spruce up the hallways — change those bare wood frames into luxurious mansion walls if you’re willing to spend enough hours — which ends up attracting higher-level monsters. Break down walls and add swerving, confusing paths away from the central dungeon elevator; put a treasure room as far from the boss room as possible, so as to drive any hypothetical intruders mad: they’ll see the treasure room door, and they’ll need the treasure enough to trudge around looking for the key until their health is chipped so low they can’t in their right mind challenge the boss.
If you’re playing the game all alone, this is compelling as few games ever can be. You might start to forget where things are in your own dungeon, after you’ve built five rounded-out floors or so. Things might start to surprise you. This game, then, presents a rare opportunity to the average Jotaro Tanaka: learn how Bill Gates feels when he takes a wrong turn and, “Hey, I didn’t know there was a jacuzzi in here.”
This game is ingenious as a single-player brass-polishing exercise, to be sure, and it does for the collectathon-itis of recent game design (Castlevania of late, et al) what Edward Norton’s performance as a fake **** / master thief in “The Score” did for Hollywood’s Academy-Award-nominated ****s: that is to say, it exposes the painful simplicity in the most poetic fashion. Why are you collecting things in Dungeon Maker, some out-of-the-loop someone might ask. And you’ll answer, “To make the dungeon bigger”. That’s one thing Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow can’t provide — nothing you do can make the game bigger; nothing you do can make you own Dracula’s castle.
Ideally, though, you’re not going to be playing alone. In most excellent fashion, this game includes a dungeon-trading feature. Once your friend (or foe) trades dungeons with you, his (or her) dungeon appears outside your town map. It’s marked as “Ancient Ruins”, most cleverly. Ah-ha. You can explore your friend’s dungeon as deeply as you’ve built your own dungeon. If your dungeon is ten floors, and your friend’s is twelve, you can only progress to floor ten. Progress to floor twelve of your own dungeon, and you can progress to floor twelve of your friend’s. Keep in touch with your friend, via your preferred method of voice or text communication (cellular phone, for example), to let him know how you’re enjoying his dungeon. He’ll tell you he’s smoothed out some spots, and even added another floor, and you’ll say, hey, I should download that from you sometime.
For the singleplayer mode, thrilling and fulfilling on its on, is only focus-testing for the miles-apart multiplayer experience. In each day of the game’s internal timer, you are entering and penetrating a dungeon of your design. If you get into a tight spot, you’ll also have to make it out alive. If you can’t make it out of your own dungeon alive, you’re playing the game wrong. No — you’re playing the game impossibly. Because see, for whatever it’s worth, of all the things that are possible in this game, it’s impossible to make your dungeon impossible. Dungeon Maker is the current trend of “user-generated content”, it is the future, where you don’t have to be part of some hidden, shady internet chat community in order to have access to some hilarious user-created first-person shooter maps. It’s a complete package, captured in one UMD.
And when your friend tells you he decided to kind of stop seeing that one girl he was thinking of going out with, and you ask him why, and he says because she introduced him to this guy, at a party, who she used to “kind of go out” with, and he says, “I never knew I was that kind of guy, you know, to just, kind of, flake out like that”, you can nod, and recall how he put all of the treasure chests on floor one of his dungeon as far from the elevator as possible, which only tricks you the first time you try to explore the whole floor, and you can just say, “It kind of makes sense to me, man.”
As something to do on a bus or a train, this game is worth its weight in gold, minus a hundred dollars for every ten seconds of loading time. As an exercise in amateur psychology, it’s priceless. As an answer to our suspicions that there was something almost therapeutic lurking just beyond the shadow of the mouse-bashing in Diablo II, that there was some great possibility embedded in the half-assed casinos and mini-games of classic RPGs, that the “Hidden Base” mini-game of Pokemon really does deserve to be explored in its own game, Dungeon Maker is something of a godsend. Up alongside recent releases like Microsoft’s Shadowrun, which feels so hollow and lonely without a singleplayer mode, Dungeon Maker proves that it can be a good idea for developers to focus a game on one brilliant knife-point, so long as they follow through with vigor.
It may or may not have a couple of tiny control issues, though hey! So did Elevator Action Returns: that shit was floaty, and that’s why we loved it. Yes. I am saying, right here, that Dungeon Maker is up there with Elevator Action Returns: it is rife with charismatic, glory-full floatiness in the swings and hacks of its swords and axes, in the castings of its fire-breathing magic spells. It grips that floatiness like floatiness was the Olympic torch.
The American version of this game, called Dungeon Maker: Hunting Ground, was released on June 19th, 2007 — hey, that’s yesterday! — by X-SEED Games, which is a silly name for a games publisher, though hey, at least the letters make a nice shape. Many critics will gloss over this game with extreme prejudice, so we here at Action Button Dot Net make a conscientious decision to break one of our own unwritten rules (that being the one that states we refuse to rate any PSP game higher than three stars because the PSP blows) and give it four stars for emphasis.
Dungeon Maker is the second of X-SEED Games’ 2007 releases to score four stars from Action Button Dot Net (the first was Wild Arms V) — and it will not be the last (stay tuned for the next one). Lest the reader assume we here have some kind of agreement with X-SEED Games, I will now say some bad things about them: they ruined the box art, which was some of the best box art I’ve ever seen on a Japanese game, and I’m not even kidding (see the official site for a huge picture). Second, the URL for their official site is too long. And third, some of the writing on said official site is pretty hokey: “While it’s important to keep expanding your dungeon, do not forget to take time to improve your attack and defensive capabilities. If you do, you might find yourself in the unenviable position of being turned into mulch by stronger, faster enemies.” See — that’s just kind of hokey. I like this one, too: “be sure to pay attention to the types of items you have equipped as well as talk to some of the people around town.” In some cultures, these kinds of aborted sentence structures are revered as highly as pottery.
Man! Taking the proverbial piss out of a videogame publisher is a lot of fun! It feels like work, it feels like pumping iron! It’s satisfying! Though you know what? It’s not nearly as satisfying as hacking through hundreds of monsters of your own invitation in [Chronicle of]Dungeon Maker[: Hunting Ground], available now for the Sony PSP! Buy it today, or just wait until they release a PSP with a screen that doesn’t ghost like a haunted house. (Warning: this game deals with dark subject matter. As in, the backgrounds are black or dark brown most of the time.)
I believe that’s what we in the games journalism industry call a “conclusion”!
X-SEED Games please please please don’t hate us we were just joking please send us free stuff we promise to give all your games unreasonably high scores really PS release armondyne in english, too, quickly