Fatal Labyrinth (Genesis, 1990)


If only the protagonist looked this cool.


Now that’s more like it.





GENRE: RPG/Rougelike

RELEASE DATE: 11/19/90 – (JP), 04/91 – (US), 1991 – (EU)


Fatal Labyrinth is Sega’s first attempt at a roguelike, the subgenre that began with the legendary computer game, Rogue. Most of the roguelike ingredients are here: 28 randomly generated floors, non-linear exploration, and realtime turn-based combat. There’s also a healthy assortment of randomly generated weapons, armor, and other items to find. The game seems almost too generous with items at first, but as you progress, stronger weapons and armor do not always appear when they should. Since they’re critical to your success in higher levels, not having them randomly generate is a game-breaking affair.


Born to run.


You start off in a Middle Ages-era town where folks inform you that Dragonia Castle has sprung up and blocked out the sun. At first, it seems like all you can do is walk around the town and listen to the townsfolk moan about their lot. Press the ‘Start’ button, however, and you’ll find yourself in the castle with only a knife and your tattered rags to keep you company.


Great story, pops.


Once you’re in the castle, it’s time to explore and fight. At first each floor is completely covered in darkness, but as you walk through hallways and enter rooms, the area lights up. You take on enemies by running into them a la Ys, and hoo boy, are they better at fighting than you. You, a brave, but naive peasant boy, lack any combat skills. The best you can hope for is to get some good strikes in, run away when you’re low on health, then come back and finish the job.


“Have at thee, slime!”


Some ground rules. #1: You need food to survive. Not too much, though, lest you become overencumbered (too fat) and unable to walk. On the flip side, if you fail to eat enough food, your health will decrease at a fantastic speed. #2: Your health increases automatically, but you must walk around to make it increase. Pace in an empty room or hallway if you have to, just don’t stand still. #3: Killing enemies is crucial to leveling up. Yes, combat sucks (more on that later), but if you don’t fight and gain experience, you won’t be prepared for later fights.


You’re in over your head, Billy.


There’s an obscene amount of items just laying on the ground for you to take. Helmets, body armor, and shields take care of your defense. Weapons – which range from swords, spears, shuriken, and axes – boost your attack power. Bows let you attack from a distance. Magic canes either attack or affect enemies in some way, as do scrolls. Most of the potions boost you up in some fashion – although one I drank caused blindness, so they’re not all helpful. Rings supposedly beef up your stats, though I never saw any discernible changes in my armor or attack power. You do have a limited inventory, so if you find yourself carrying twos or threes of any one item, use it or ditch it.


Is he brave or foolish? Methinks we’ll know soon enough…


Where Fatal Labyrinth bogs down is the combat. Landing hits is more a matter of luck than skill, and harder enemies are added at every floor. If you don’t find stronger armor and weapons quickly, enemies will do double-digit damage and you’ll be dead fast, even if you’ve reached a high level. What if the floors simply don’t generate stronger armor and weapons? You’re out of luck. Move forward the best you can until you find some.


Na na na na na na na na, LEADER!


Fatal Labyrinth was originally called Shi no Meikyuu: Labyrinth of Death in Japan. It was first released as an Internet-only game on Sega’s Meganet service, though it later received a commercial cartridge release, as well. There are some differences between the two versions. Shi no Meikyuu places you right in the dungeon without going to the town first. It plays slower than Fatal Labyrinth for some reason. And it also has a wicked title screen that implies your impending death(s).


No need to ask. That is totally your grave.


Fatal Labyrinth initially comes across as a rudimentary roguelike. It’s basic, simple, and enjoyable… until it screws you several times over. In three different playthroughs, the game didn’t provide me with the weapons/armor I needed when I needed them. When you die, you can respawn at every fifth level, but if you’re not given the items you need, so what? I understand that roguelikes aren’t meant to be easy, but are they supposed to be fair? Is part of their appeal the luck involved? I don’t know the answer to those questions, but even if I did, it doesn’t change the fact that the game treated me poorly.


Sorry everyone, I failed. Have fun living in eternal darkness.


In the end, Fatal Labyrinth‘s inability to provide for my poor peasant boy’s most basic of needs left me cold. It’s bad enough he’ll probably die of dysentery before he’s 30. He shouldn’t have to suffer through the interminable mocking of a procedurally generated labyrinth.



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Never played this one, it sounds pretty painful though. I get the feeling I’ve not missed much here.


I understand that roguelikes aren’t meant to be easy, but are they supposed to be fair? Is part of their appeal the luck involved?

No, and yes, respectively! Anyone who plays roguelikes (including console ports like Tower of Doom for Intellivision) expects to have dozens, even hundreds or thousands of failed runs for every one that succeeds. People who chronogame CRPGs, like the CRPG Addict, can vouch for the many, many hours it takes to conquer a roguelike — and while some of that is skill, a lot is luck.

Fatal Labyrinth is extraordinarily forgiving in that department, and I don’t think I had any special luck when I won the game on my second real attempt. I can’t blame anyone for not liking it — the music does get old after a while — but I had a pretty decent time with it (Tower of Doom is better, though).


Rogue like’s are kind of like a game of Minesweeper. Because stuff is random, at some point your going to have to get lucky guessing on items. Because usually they aren’t the same each game. Just like guessing around a number in minesweeper to get a favorable reveal to help complete the game. Of course skill is involved. But I mean if you get favorable reveals or drops, it helps make a good run. Just like getting an instant death potion pretty much ends your run. All about risk reward. Do you really need to drink this mysterious potion now or should you continue on close to death and hope you find a known item, knowing you next battle may be your last.

Anyway, I rented this game when it came out. I had a good two days with it. I had no idea what the randomly generated content was. Even then I suppose I knew I wanted something designed by a person. I had some good runs but never beat it. I did kind of enjoy it though. But nothing worse than having a good dive into the dungeon and getting a bad drop. And you cussing out the game and turning it off. I realized then that maybe these type of games were not for me, though I’m more open to that kind of game now, in a sense , I probrably gained an appreciation of this type of game by persevering through Toe Jam and Earl, another rogue like on the Genesis. And appreciated the risk reward gameplay.

I’m sure someone has written a piece on this before, and this is not an original thought, but rogue’s could be kind of like life. You never know what your gonna get thrown your way, and sometimes you gotta take that risk for a greater reward, and sometimes you have to play it safe, and you never know what the future holds. Me, I prefer games as an escape from the daily grind, not as a cruel way to replicate it.

Or maybe more simply as Forrest Gump said, life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what your gonna get. I think he would have beat Fatal Labrynth.

Scribbling Geek.

I don’t remember this game. The Japanese cover looks intriguing though. Might fare reasonable nowadays as a phone game.


I remember playing a graphical roguelike on Dad’s Mac at about the time this would have been released. I think it was the only one I’ve ever played.

What I remember was the atmosphere and the optimism > despair > defeat cycle that was part of each attempt. For me, the point was never to actually beat it – computer games (as opposed to console games) didn’t often seem beatable to me back then – but rather to experience that cycle. If I’d been serious about beating it I might have liked it less.

As it was it worked in that game, at least, but I suppose they’re not all created equally. I think that one was turn-based, which gave you time to savour each new loot discovery and your inevitable downward spiral. I don’t think I’d have enjoyed a real-time version in the same way, particularly not such an ugly one as Fatal Labyrinth.


I remember playing a graphical roguelike on Dad’s Mac at about the time this would have been released. I think it was the only one I’ve ever played.

Maybe it was The Dungeon Revealed or its earlier shareware iteration, Dungeon of Doom? That one circulated pretty widely among Mac users, I think.


I also wonder if this game is more crushing because it does have more RPG mechanics. You can level up and get better gear, but are still at them whim of luck. They two ideas are kind of opposed. Because you don’t save your leveling between games when you die. And there is no church to resurrect. The enemies are cool though, and I mean you eventually do fight a dragon, or so I’m told. There is Definetly progression and skill involved. I suppose the appeal of not being able to rely on memorization would lead to a greater sense of satisfaction when you win. And does kind of make an infinetly replayable game. As long as you don’t mind getting killed all the time.


I have a soft spot for this one because it is directly related to one of my favorite domestic Game Gear games: Dragon Crystal. DC left such a positive impression on me that I also hunted down the Master System version, an import from the UK. DC is a much more fleshed out version of this game: using some of the same assets, more generous drops, better graphics, and a faster pace all on an 8-bit machine. It is one of the top games we missed out on when the Master System died early in the USA (but at least we got it on the Game Gear).

I remember how heavily this game was featured in early US Genesis ads, and how cool I thought the screenshot was of the fully armored knight going up against the large red dragon. That always intrigued me, but not enough to ever go out and buy the game. I think I would have been frustrated with the randomly generated content, because I had become so used to levels that were specifically laid out and designed. Like Sean, I have more an appreciation for this kind of thing today, because I see the potential and the draw of it much more than when I was a kid. That said, I’ve still never picked this one up, and don’t see myself going out of my way to do so any time soon.


I distinctly remember Fatal Labyrinth from childhood even though I never played it — mostly because every time I saw a screencap of it, I said “It’s a Genesis version of Dragon Crystal.” DC was the fourth GG I owned, and to this day is my favorite GG game, and one of my favorite games of all time. So I always assumed that FL was a graphically superior, more involved version of DC.

I recently loaded FL onto a Genesis emulator on my PSP (only recently realizing I could do such a thing), and let me tell you — I was very disappointed. For a 16 bit game, FL does not look any better than DC — and DC has brighter colors and bigger sprites. The controls are really clunky — on the map is fine, but the menu is much, much easier to negotiate in DC. And the labyrinth looks the same each level, while the changing environments of DC is one of my favorite visual aspects of the game.

But as you say, combat is the biggest flaw. It never seems very balanced. In DC, yes, you will run into some enemies who will outclass you, but typically not on the the first floor. The Magician is an initial enemy in this game, and he puts you to sleep and wails on you, only for you to wake up, get one attack in, and then get put to sleep again. You spend most of your time running away. In DC, you can get surrounded and get in trouble early, but you actually can handle the enemies thrown at you early on, enough to level up and find better gear. That’s another thing — the gear is better in DC, both with the drop rate for the more powerful weapons, as well as effects. Rings are much better in DC for example. (To give FL some credit, I do like the ranged weapons like the bows.)

So I am going to drop FL off of my emulator, and stick with DC. Thanks for the article!

As an aside, I am going over to the Dragon Crystal article next…