Looking Back: Fatal Labyrinth

  • Name: Fatal Labyrinth
  • Also Known As: Shi no Meikyuu: Labyrinth of Death (Japan)
  • Platform: Sega Genesis/Mega Drive
  • Developer: Sega
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Originally Released: November 1990

Full disclosure: I’ve never been a big fan of RPGs, or dungeon-crawlers. Fatal Labyrinth must have done something right, though, because I’ve played quite a bit of it, and I’m not done yet.

Fatal Labyrinth is a 2D RPG where players have to navigate through a dungeon. The goal is to find the staircase in each floor to get to the top of a labyrinth, picking up items and killing enemies along the way. The game ends after players reach the top floor and kill a dragon, in typical RPG style. There are a total of 30 floors to clear – doesn’t sound much, but it’s pretty replayable since everything is randomly generated.

Each floor has an entirely new layout, with items and enemies in new places every time you play. To make things better, rooms and corridors are only visible after the player has explored them, so what looks like a black area could turn out to be a huge room with 20 enemies inside. This element is probably the biggest draw to players to keep playing. If the game was made up of pre-built levels, they might get bored and quit, but this level of procedural generation is quite impressive for the early 90s.

Enemies only move when the player moves, so there is a hint of turn-based combat involved. The combat is all real-time, though, which clashes with the movement system more often than necessary. There are several flaws to the combat that can make the game frustratingly difficult. First of all, the AI will all come at the player at the same time once the player enters the room. If possible, the AI will surround the player, making victory almost impossible. The only fix for this seems to be to constantly move around the room in circles, taking time only to hit enemies once and keep moving. The game’s movement is grid based, so moving while attacking is impossible. This hit-and-run method for attacking multiple enemies at once could potentially work wonders, but unfortunately there is an absurdly large chance that you will miss. It appears that this randomness is universal, and not tied to specific items. The game even has an enemy, the Magician, whose only attack is casting a spell that renders the player useless, and no commands work until the spell wears off. The Magician will do this every few seconds, and every time you press the attack button, he will immediately cast the spell. The only hope to kill him is to attack as soon as the spell wears off, or to hope that your first attack does enough damage to kill him instantly.

Needless to say, combat is very annoying. Imagine being in a small room with 4 Magicians surrounding and constantly stun-locking you. Now imagine this being on the first floor of the game, when you don’t have any items but your starting dagger. Difficulty in videogames is always something worth embracing, but in some cases the difficulty comes from poor design rather than intent.

Let’s return to the things that keep us coming back to play, because so far there seem to be an awful lot of bad game design to push me away. The item pick-ups system is very well done, and in a way yet to be sees in another game. Whenever an item is found and picked up, players cannot see what the item does through the inventory until they use it. After they use it, then the description and stats are revealed through the inventory menu. This is a fantastic idea, because now players are forced to experiment with a variety of items to figure out what they do and how effective they are. The only downside to this system is that what the items do is not randomized. A red potion will do the same thing every time the player finds a red potion, so the mystery of the items only works for the first couple playthroughs until the player knows what everything does. After that point, the system loses its point. After only about 10 floors in a single playthrough, you’ll stop finding new items. The game would highly benefit from having new items and enemies for every floor.

Fatal Labyrinth differentiates itself from other dungeon exploration games with its graphical appeal. The floor has a very dull muted blue and green pattern, but the walls are all a very bright, vibrant red. It is so visually appealing, and when an entire floor is explored the mazes of turns look very impressive. While the graphics are very nice, even for its age, the audio quality is pretty dull and repetitive. It is understandable for a game to have issues like this given the power of the Genesis/Mega Drive, but nevertheless it can become annoying to listen to.

Overall, Fatal Labyrinth has some massive red flags, but the randomization of the game and the wonder of what the player will find in the next room or on the next floor will keep players revisiting the horrors of the Labyrinth.


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