In 1980, Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman created the game Rogue, which would launch a subgenre of role-playing games that continues to have a following to this day. These games, called "roguelikes", have their own complexities and idiosyncrasies, but most rely on a standard foundation that includes procedural generation of items and levels, turn based gameplay and permanent character death. These games would become staples of the home computer until in 1993, when Koichi Nakamura (director of Dragon Quest) would design Torneko no Daiboken: Fushigi no Dungeon, and what is now known as the first title in the long-running Mystery Dungeon series. Nakamura and his company Chunsoft adapted the genre from PCs to consoles and created a new legion of fans in the process.
Between those two events, Sega quietly released a couple of their own titles in the genre and created an anomaly in the timeline...
Fatal Labyrinth begin as Shi no Meikyuu, a title released only through the Sega Meganet service. The Meganet, much like the Sega Channel, allowed players to download games and play others online via the Mega Drive. Because of the state of dial-up internet at the time, most games were approximately 128KB in size. This restriction may have led Sega to develop a roguelike in the first place: a core RPG without all the trappings.
After a brief introduction and controller explanation, the character is thrown into a room armed only with a knife and no armor or items. There are ten different items that can be picked up and used throughout the dungeon. They are weaponry, shields, helmets, armor, rods/canes, potions, scrolls/books, rings, bows, money and food. Weaponry builds up the character's power offensively, while armor, shields and helmets build up defensively. Rods/canes usually affect the enemy, potions usually affect the player, while scrolls do both. Rings can be equipped like armor and provide the player with a lasting status boost. Bows provide the ability for ranged combat. Players won't know what each item does until it is used once; the designation for each item changes with each playthrough.
The necessity of food becomes a double edged sword. Too little and the player will starve which will cause hit points to slowly drain. Too much and the player becomes sluggish and slow to move. A full food meter causes the player to instantly die due to gluttonous overeating (!?).
Players will have to traverse down 30 floors before facing the final boss and obtaining the holy grail. The dungeon layout and locations of the items are randomized each playthrough, which can sometimes lead to the unfortunate situation of being dropped right off the bat into a room with several monsters and little chance of survival. Although skill does provide the ability to get better with each attempt, a good helping of luck doesn't hurt chances, either.
The appeal of Shi no Meikyuu is found in that "just one more" feeling of attempting to top a previous best, to go down farther than before and eke out another floor or two. It can also lead to some extremely frustrating moments, such as being blindsided by an overpowered monster, or the game failing to give you a sword or armor needed to withstand the levels beyond.
Later that year, Sega, perhaps seeing an opportunity to double dip, re-released Shi no Meikyuu in cartridge form and also brought to America as Fatal Labyrinth. The game also underwent a facelift in the process. An introduction has been added where the player can talk with villagers and gain a bit of a backstory, but it doesn't affect the actual gameplay at all. The dungeon tiles are given a more vibrant orange, and the menu and status pages have been separated and cleaned up. Gold is given the ability to provide a better grave for the player upon death. Every fifth floor, the player is given the option to continue from that floor upon dying. Despite being a roguelike, Fatal Labyrinth breaks one of the cardinal rules: the ability to come back after death. Granted, there's enough here that is similar to the genre than disparate, although purists may shake their heads.
Not one to shy away from their history, Sega released Game no Kandume Vol. 1 & 2 for the Mega CD in 1994. They are collections of games that previously appeared on the Meganet system, and Shi no Meikyuu makes an appearance on Vol. 2. However, it is the re-released cartridge version that is playable and not as the game originally appeared on the Meganet. In fact, this version may be seen as inferior, due to the fact that there is rearranged music for the introduction and game over screens, but completely omits all music during the actual game. There is also a version for Windows released through Steam, but it is a straight emulation of the Genesis.
Dragon Crystal / Dragon Crystal: Tsurani no Meikyu (ドラゴンクリスタル ツラニの迷宮) - Game Gear, Master System, BREW, 3DS Virtual Console (1990) / Dragon Crystal II - BREW (2003)
One month after the release of Shi no Meikyuu in cartridge form, Dragon Crystal was released for the Game Gear. It is unclear whether Dragon Crystal was meant to be a sequel to Fatal Labyrinth or another remake. Nonetheless, it feels like Fatal Labyrinth 2.0. The premise remains the same: the player must battle monsters through 30 floors in order to obtain a holy grail. However, the drab dungeon walls are replaced with bright flowers and colorful Moai heads. A small egg (the titular Dragon) follows the player and grows as the player levels up. Unfortunately, it does not provide any assistance in battle. Gold is no longer used aesthetically, and can now be used to "purchase" continues. Food is no longer considered an overindulgence, and can be rationed out without dying from collecting too much.
Some of the changes were not for the better. Dragon Crystal reuses monster assets and sprites from Fatal Labyrinth but places them in different areas. It may be confusing for the player to face the Magician and Killer Bee as entry-level monsters in Fatal Labyrinth and then go to Dragon Crystal where they don't appear until much later in the game (and much deadlier). Also in Dragon Crystal, the speed has been reduced considerably to a snail's pace. The player can speed up the game by holding down the Start button, but that means to play the game at a decent pace involves keeping one finger glued to the Start button, which can cause some cramped hands on an actual Game Gear.
Sega also brought Dragon Crystal to the Master System soon afterwards, albeit only in Europe and Brazil (the last purveyor of fine Master System products). Again, the game was given a minor facelift. The wall graphics were updated again to include glaciers and chess pieces. Some of the items were renamed or changed. Most importantly, the speed could be toggled between slow and fast by pressing the Pause button. No more cramped hands! On the negative side, the exemplary music from the Game Gear version was replaced with more generic tunes. Why they were changed is not known: the Game Gear shares almost identical sound hardware with the Master System, and the same composer worked on both Game Gear and Master System versions.
Just like Fatal Labyrinth, Dragon Crystal was re-introduced to modern audiences through a release on the 3DS Virtual Console. It is a straight port of the Game Gear cartridge with no additions.
In 2002, before Android and iOS standardized mobile gaming, Sega ran a service in Japan called Sonic Cafe. For 315 yen a month (or roughly $2.78 as of this article's rate), gamers could download and play several games on their cell phones. A year later after Sonic Cafe was introduced, Sega ported Dragon Crystal to the service. This version is largely based on the Game Gear version, however, the biggest difference is that players' games were saved after each floor. Gold was also used as a ranking system, with the most gold hoarded earning top spots. Earn enough and you could also get a Dragon Crystal ringtone! Interestingly enough, Sega wasn't done with the series yet, which leads to...
Dragon Crystal II was released on the Sonic Cafe service shortly after the original, and it aimed to be the definitive version. Not only were the graphics updated from its original 8-bit beginnings, but it also adds the ability for players to face off against each other in an arena setting or work together cooperatively through the dungeon floors. Players could also use the gold that they find in the dungeon to change the appearance of their character. The ranking system was also still in place so players could gauge how they were doing in both the arena and in the dungeons. The main game itself seems to be unchanged from its previous incarnations.
Both Dragon Crystal and Dragon Crystal II were playable through the Sonic Cafe system until the service was shuttered sometime in late 2012. It's a shame that Sega hasn't made any attempt to bring Dragon Crystal II back on any other platform, although it is fitting that the series that started on an online service should end on one as well.
It seems unlikely to think that Sega should revisit Dragon Crystal or Fatal Labyrinth sometime in the near future, although it also seems unlikely to think that the series would still have relevance in our modern 3DS era. Despite its simplicity, there is something satisfying about dungeon crawling and beating personal bests. The pick-up-and-play atmosphere makes it perfect for a handheld or phone. As Sega continues to embrace the mobile gaming platform, perhaps another Dragon Crystal-esque game will arrive sooner than later.