This year has been great for games. Burnout Paradise, Grand Theft Auto IV, Patapon, Audiosurf, No More Heroes, Lost Winds and Odin Sphere have all provided me with countless hours of quality entertainment, but one title remains head and shoulders above all others - Shiren the Wanderer on the humble DS.
Yes, a game which is essentially a port of a 13 year old Super Nintendo game, has been glued in my DS for the last four months, providing soaring highs (but mostly crushing lows), as our brave samurai and his pet weasel Koppa, make their way to the mythical Lair of the Golden Condor.
Why is Shiren so special, well, let me begin with a little bit of background. Shiren is a Roguelike, a game with its roots deep in the early days of computer adventures. Rogue appeared back in the Eighties and has since spawned other classics such as Nethack and Angband.
These RPGs feature randomly generated dungeons and use letters, numbers and symbols to represent the on-screen action. They might look primitive by today's high standards, however, many enjoy this type of game and can look beyond their crude and basic presentation and enjoy the rich and rewarding gameplay.
Unlike today's RPGs, death in a Roguelike is permanent. There's no loading a previous save, there's no going back and when you die, you will lose all the items in your inventory. Harsh? Yes. Frustrating? Extremely. Entertaining? Most definitely.
The challenge comes from attempting to get as deep into the dungeon as you can before dying. It's not an impossible task, though. Many adventurers enter a Roguelike and succeed in their quest.
Enter Shiren. This hardy samurai has previously appeared on the Super Nintendo, Game Boy and N64, but none of the titles ever made it to the west...until now.
Shiren slipped into the UK with little fanfare back in March this year. It took me several fruitless journeys before I found the little fella, tucked away as he was, behind a copy of Bratz (Oh, the shame) on the store shelf. Still, he found a good home in the end.
Shiren follows a similar mechanic to the Roguelikes of old - when you die, you get sent back to the starting village, are forced to start again from level 1 and all items and equipment you were carrying are lost forever. It's an incredibly tough little game, and many gamers will be put off after the first hour, but perseverance does pay off.
There are a few inclusions which make your gruelling journey a little easier. The first are the invaluable warehouses, which are dotted throughout towns and villages. Any items stored in one of these handy places is saved for your next run through.
This is incredibly useful as a well-stocked warehouse enables you to travel a little further each time. The second, and perhaps most important feature, is that characters you meet along the way will remember you on your next play through. This leads to new quests and new party members to accompany you on your journey. Because of these inclusions, you feel you are making progress every time you play.
Every new area in Shiren should be approached with trepidation. One false move and it could be curtains. Some monsters you meet along the way simply require brute force to deal with, while others require a bit more cunning. As for those enemies - well, what a weird and wonderful bunch they are - from the Riceball Changer, who changes a random item in your inventory into a riceball (and it's usually something you need) to the pain and suffering of the creature-summoning Menbell, each foe has to be tackled in its own way.
What you must remember when playing Shiren is that the game takes great delight in punishing you in a multitude of different - and amusing - ways.
You'll be robbed, blinded, killed by a variety of deadly traps, stunned, turned into a riceball, you'll fall to your death from a bridge, be beaten up by your own brother, items will rust, food will rot, you'll starve to death, you'll fall into monster houses, be ganged up on, thrown about, blown up by bombs, attacked by artillery, items will be cursed and you'll be floored by magic. Sound like fun?
You will experience hate towards Shiren. You'll switch off your DS in disgust, swearing that you will never play it again, but something pulls you back in. Slowly but surely hate turns to love. The grimaces you experienced when being pecked to death by a Master Hen, turn to grins of joy as you realise the absurdity of your latest death. Never forget that dying in Shiren is all part of the fun.
Once you have completed your quest - and you will, trust me - a wealth of bonus dungeons becomes available, each offering its own unique challenge. There are puzzle quests to undertake, too, with each individual head-scratcher a joy to solve.
Distinctly SNES-like in their appearance, the graphics are clearly nothing special, but they do have a certain charm and those who delighted in the days of glorious looking sprites will be content. The music and sound effects are most enjoyable, though, from trickling streams and howling winds, through to the musical menace of the caves, each new area throws up something atmospheric and new.
My only gripe with Shiren is the state of the UK box art, which is truly awful and pales beside the glorious Japanese artwork.Still, forget about the artwork, and instead embrace the sheer joy of Shiren. You should be able to pick it up fairly cheap now, so go on, take the plunge. You'll be glad you did.