Ehrgeiz1 Look, it's a screenshot! Okay, so I lied about screens being for losers--it's only, um, certain screens that are for losers. This one is made of win.

This is the first entry in a series that will cover dungeon crawlers, old and new. Many people would make the argument that “dungeon crawler” is a vague term and a metric ton of games could arguably fall under that moniker, even the Zelda series or traditional RPGs. Dungeons are, after all, ubiquitous: Most games that take place in a medieval setting have at least one, and usually more like 40. The Playstation classic Parasite Eve even turned the Museum of Natural History in New York into a dungeon, and while that happens to be pretty much the coolest thing that has ever happened, the fact remains that not all games containing dungeons are dungeon-crawlers. So how can you tell whether or not a game might be featured in “Trapped in the Dungeon”? Consult the following list of criteria:
---Does it have a ridiculous quantity of collectible items, not just a lot but an abundance of shiny things to the point where it’s downright obscene?
---Are the dungeons randomly generated, so you can keep fooling yourself into thinking that you’re exploring new environs even when it’s the same damned four rooms every single time?
---Do you have to be a complete masochist to enjoy it?
---Even if you don’t have to be a masochist, does it really, really help a lot?

If you can answer in the affirmative to several of the above, then yes, the game in question is a dungeon crawler. If you can answer in the affirmative to several of the above and the game in question has driven you to the brink of suicide, it’s a roguelike. If you can answer in the affirmative and you’re not suicidal but have started some serious self-mutilation, chances are it’s a roguelike-lite. Are we clear? Onward to Ehrgeiz.

In a nutshell, Ehrgeiz: Quest Mode is a mediocre dungeon crawler hidden in a mediocre fighting game that distinguished itself by featuring characters from a seminal RPG. Released in 1998, responses to the game were mixed: Some relished the chance to simply kick ass with rather nice character models of several Final Fantasy VII characters, some enjoyed the bizarre collection of mini-games, and some lambasted the game for its schizophrenia. While it contained far more variety than most games on the original Playstation and pretty graphics (which mysteriously hold up far better today than many of Square’s other efforts from the same period) it didn’t appear to do anything particularly well. The fighting engine was too shallow to lure fans away from Tekken or any of the other popular fighters of the era, the mini-games were more of a joke than anything else (until you have seen Battle Beach, you have not seen a truly stupid mini-game) and the new Quest Mode added for the console release appeared to be a simple paint-by-numbers dungeon crawler. While the game has remained a minor cult favorite because of its ties to Final Fantasy, at the time it was considered one of Square’s admirable but less than stellar efforts, seemingly destined to fade into bargain bin obscurity.

My first experience with Ehrgeiz was probably similar to that of everyone else who cut their teeth in the realm of RPGs with Final Fantasy VII: I would pick Cloud or Tifa, and then beat the living shit out of Sephiroth in versus mode repeatedly while yelling “This is for what you did to Aeris, you bastard!” I am not proud of this behavior, but girls have been known to do weird things when a new RPG has absolutely blown their minds, so cut me a little slack. Eventually I realized that no amount of Sephiroth abuse would bring Aeris back—and frankly, I’m a Tifa girl at heart anyway—and I grew bored of the fighting game. For a goof, I tried out Quest Mode, and began my love affair with dungeon crawling.

I love few things in gaming as much as a random dungeon with treasure in it. To me, “too much dungeon-crawling” sounds about as logical as “too many fantastic orgasms and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.” I don’t know if it’s due to the female instinct to gather things, instilled in me from humanity’s long twilight as a group of hunter-gatherers, but I love collecting stuff and looking into a dark abyss and knowing that, in all likelihood, there is lots more stuff for me down there. Most other women deal with this need by shopping, and if you could walk into a Banana Republic and beat every other customer to death with a blunt instrument before scoring a tank top I might be tempted to do so as well, but plunking down money for treasure just lacks that certain something. It is not enough for me merely to acquire treasure: I must win it. It was probably something in those formative years.

Before moving on, let’s get this out of the way: You can’t play as the Final Fantasy characters in Quest Mode. I have no idea why Square made this decision, since they already had the character models and animations from the fighting mode, and it takes away from the luster of the game that you can’t beat up some monsters with the beautiful model of Tifa Lockheart (have I mentioned that I’m a fan?), but that’s how it is. To add insult to injury, the occasional Buster Sword or Premium Heart will show up among your loot, implying that these characters have visited the dungeon, but you can’t see them or play them. Thanks a lot, you bastards. The two characters available in Quest Mode, Koji Masuda and Claire Andrews, are nothing special but they get the job done. Claire excels with fast and magical weapons while Koji handles the massive broadswords and axes, but beyond that they have few distinguishing characteristics.

Ehrgeiz2 Koji's jubilation at the vacancy at the local motel proved to be short lived.
Koji: Hey Claire, what do you say we put off going to the dungeon for a bit and, heh, push these twin beds together?
Claire: I'm not tired Koji, let's get back to DUNGEON-CRAWLING!''

Structurally, Quest Mode is simple: Your characters stumble into a dimension with a small town and a 21-level dungeon, and they enter the dungeon for the sake of finding a mystical artifact. In an amusing attempt at tying Quest Mode in with the rest of Ehrgeiz, the first few screens of the game feature the protagonists traveling through stages from the fighting game on their way to the dungeon. It fools no one, but it’s cute. The story consists of a few lines of spoken dialogue from each PC (Japanese only), and the dialogue of a few town-dwelling NPCs. The four “multiple endings” consist of a paragraph of text each. Clearly, Square did not overtax their writing department with this mode. However, and this is something that is true of most aspects of the game, what at first seems to be meager turns out to be just enough. The lack of story means that you get into the dungeon that much sooner—within the first minute of play—and the NPCs that relay the tiny story are strangely charming. I don’t know if it’s the blacksmith who will only accept booze for his services or the loyal restaurateur who waits patiently for his master chef to finally return from the dungeon after a decade (uh, good luck with that buddy), but the nameless town in Ehrgeiz has more character than many game locations that actually try to be memorable.

The dungeon is split into 7 zones, each with its own graphics and theme music. Incidentally, the music accompanying the first zone in Quest Mode is one of the most pleasant and relaxing themes I have ever heard in a video game. I could hang out on floors 1-3 of the dungeon and chill out listening to the music for hours and be a happy camper—well, I’d be killing tons of monsters too, but same difference. Gameplay-wise, the game is often described as a mini-Diablo: You kill things, level up, collect tons of weapons from defeated monsters and sell the ones you don’t need for extra cash, and try to get just a little further into the dungeon on every excursion. However, while you spend hours in Diablo hunting through piles of inferior and useless gear for a few gems, in Ehrgeiz the gem-to-crap ratio is pretty high. Not until at least halfway through the dungeon do you start to find pricey items that will net you a lot of money at the shop, but a high percentage of the stuff you find is actually worth equipping. Furthermore, since the dungeon is relatively small, you’re constantly getting a little farther and finding an upgrade to your gear, rather than spending long periods of time in similarly leveled areas and finding redundant equipment. To say that this game is better than the Diablo series would be getting carried away, but it does offer a lot of the same enjoyment on a smaller, more manageable scale. Actually I would recommend this game for long-time Diablo II players who love treasure hunting but can’t afford to spend three hours anymore to find a helmet with good mods.

The gameplay is simple fare—bop monsters on the head, take their stuff, fight a lethargic boss every couple of levels, and sell your extras. However, there are two systems that hugely extend the life of the game: A character leveling process that involves feeding your character in order to raise certain stats, and a weapon customization system with surprising depth. Your characters level up by receiving a predetermined amount of experience from combat, however, HOW they level up is up to you; your character’s diet affects what stats are raised per level, and by how much. For example, if you want to take advantage of Claire’s superior magical skills, you should eat lots of vegetables because veggies raise magic attack and defense. Koji, on the other hand, needs red meat and lots of it. On your first playthrough, you’re usually too busy trying to get through the game to micromanage your diet and resort to eating whatever food the dungeon throws at you, but on replays you can take advantage of the food available for purchase in town and really tweak your stats to your liking. This nutrition system was way ahead of it’s time in 1998, and it wasn’t until the recent release of The World Ends With You for DS that I encountered a similar system that was anywhere near as good (although as much as I love it, eating anything in TWEWY takes forever because your characters have the metabolism of a three-toed sloth with a glandular disorder.)

The weapon customization is interesting in that while you have a fair amount of control over what kind of stats your weapon acquires, the whole thing is strangely passive because you pray to God for stat boosts—and I’m not being facetious: You actually pray. Throughout the dungeon are alters where you can pray to a list of 12 gods, each of whom is associated with raising and lowering certain stats. Like the nutrition system, it’s entirely possible to ignore it on the first play through, especially since that while you have to eat, the game will never force you to pray. However, in order to master the game and dominate the dungeon you have to take advantage of the opportunity to build superior weaponry through devout worship of certain gods, and use this in tandem with raising the correct stats nutritionally in order to create a strong character build. Unfortunately, unlike Diablo and other similar games, there are really only three viable builds—Physical, Magical, and Defensive—but it’s still an impressive amount of character customization in a game that at first appears to have none.

One important feature that I have to mention is the fact that you can actually save when you want to, as opposed to Mysterious Dungeon type games that save for you so you can’t pull any monkey business like reloading when you die. The ability to save the game makes it a lot easier of course, however you cannot save at will: saving costs money, and the further you get in the game the more expensive it becomes. This discourages the player from saving more than necessary, and leads to saving at strategic points rather than saving after every battle and generally being a pansy about it. People have complained about the cost of saving in this game, but I vastly prefer it to either a draconian autosave or a ridiculously easy “Tee-Hee, save wherever you want!” system. In fact, I would be happy to see more games implement this middle-of-the-road approach. As Aristotle said, moderation in all things.

I could go on about this game pretty much indefinitely, but by now I’ve probably given it more attention than this game has received in a decade, and this is getting lengthy. One last thing I’ll mention is that everything I’ve written applies to Normal Mode; Hard Mode is a very different beast. In an age when even the most frivolous of games has 47 walkthroughs posted for it on the net, it took me years to actually find someone who had completed this mode and find out what it entailed; as a kid, I had an annoying tendency to die immediately whenever I tried it, so it was a mystery to me. Now, after having devoted several times the amount of hours to this little mode than I ever spent on its parent game, (including building an uber-Claire maxed out on leafy green vegetables and with a weapon blessed six times by Artemis, who could hurl fireballs like nobody’s business), I’m going to try to beat Hard Mode myself. I could be spending my time playing countless other games far more highly regarded than this one, but the truth is I just can’t wait to hear the music on floors 1-3 again. Also, it’s probably time to pray to some evil Gods and see how that works out for me.