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Keep on Rogue-in!

by on February 4, 2014

Ahh, the Humble Bundle. Charity organization, life wasting supergiant… all around, a wonderful development in the indie gaming world.

But the dear Humble Bundle happened to be charitable-r and life-wastier than usual with its most recent publication: The Roguelike Bundle.

Oh boy.

Roguelikes are the new “in” genre for gamedevs these days. They’re akin to one of those health food fads like wheatgrass or quinoa but they have the exact opposite effect on your body. Countless hours are spent with rear in chair, trying to get all the things you need before you die in a horrible unavoidable situation.

In case you still have no idea what I’m talking about, some well-known examples of the genre are The Binding of Isaac, Spelunky and FTL. Played them? No? Well, get to it, folks! Time’s a-wastin’, but not nearly a-wastin’ enough!

Now I bet you’re wondering why we classify these games as roguelikes when nothing seems to tie them together. One’s a sci-fi spaceship game with turn-based(-ish) combat and RPG elements. One’s a top-down Zelda-style beat-em-up, and one’s a platforming exploration game!

Well, there are some rules that govern how roguelikes are made. Why? I’m getting to that. Let’s take these rules with a grain of salt, though, because almost every modern roguelike bends or outright breaks one of them.

1. Levels must be randomized.
Ah, good old procedural generation. Basically, the next time you play this dungeon, it’s not going to be the same. Good! But not enough to be a roguelike.

2. Items must be randomized.

A lot of roguelikes outright ignore this one. If there are magical items (and there should be, because why not), they should have randomized abilities that may even be unstated in the item description. It’s magical! Use it! What do you mean it’s the magical wand of explode-in-my-face?

3. Death must be permanent.

Well, now that you’ve discovered what the magical wand of explode-in-my-face does, it’s time to start over! From a checkpoint? No. From the beginning of the level? Nope. From the beginning of the dungeon? Nuh-uh. The very beginning of the entire game is your starting point, and every time you meet your unfortunate end, you’ll walk through the door and be in dungeon 1, level 1 with nothing but the clothes on your back (and likely not even that). Sound fun yet?

4. They must be turn-based.

‘Nuff said. This doesn’t mean Poke’mon style battles, but it does mean being able to plan your moves out carefully, so if (and when) you die, you really feel like it’s your fault.

So now we know!

But who came up with these rules? What game are roguelikes trying to be like?

Gee. Big surprise, that one.

It basically all started with this game. It used procedurally generated levels made of ASCII characters, lots of random items, enemies, pitfalls and mysteries to grab hold of your attention, and after dying for the umpteenth time, you start getting better… until you run into the next thing you didn’t expect, and die yet again. It’s unforgiving, but it teaches you by killing you (now an approved teaching method in California). Play it here!

Next came a game called Nethack. You can play it here for free if you like. It’s complicated! I won’t get into it, as I don’t have all day to explain. Rogue was complex in its own right, but many gamedevs saw that (and still do see it) as a feature to be expanded upon. This one’s a perfect example. We’ll get to a later one in a bit.

If you’re not digging the super complex ASCII-art based stuff, let’s move on to a slightly more modern version: The Enchanted Cave. This game came out about 3 or 4 years ago, but it’s done in the style of a roguelike that would have been popular around the 90’s. (Please note: the guy went on to develop a mobile version, and as such the graphics, animations, textures, sounds, and everything else have gotten a HUGE update. This is a much shinier game than it used to be, but the soul is the same.) Play it on Kongregate! Or don’t! As an aside: you’ll notice that in this game, there are ways to improve your stats and equipment between runs. This became a heavy feature of roguelikes around the 90’s because they started to become more popular (or vice versa?). People who were less “hardcore” still wanted to progress through the game, so they found ways to make death beneficial outside of the know-how you gained from being mutilated, impaled, incinerated, poisoned, or otherwise exterminated. Thus: stat boosts!

Okay, now we’re getting to modern times (and you still haven’t had to spend any money! Hooray!). Ever heard of Dwarf Fortress?

Oh, yes, it’s a roguelike. If the ASCII art didn’t clue you in, ten minutes playing this game would have. It’s hard. It’s complicated. It LOVES to kill you. Instead of controlling a single hapless adventurer, you are controlling (or trying to control) up to 200 equally hapless dwarves, guiding them in the growth of their kingdom by providing bedrooms, kitchens, dining rooms, wells, workshops, military outposts, trading posts, gardens, pretty fountains, fishing holes, and a zillion other things to keep them (more or less) alive. And when that fails, you must provide them with graveyards. Or they’ll haunt you. Download it here. Don’t forget to get the Lazy Newb Pack.

If you play one game from this multitude, I recommend DF. It took me three tries installing and playing, uninstalling and repeating, to get into it. It takes time to learn, and it can be frustrating. But once you really get into this game, you’ll understand how unbelievable it is that such a gaming treasure is free. There’s a reason the developer calls it “his life’s work.”

We’re almost through! I promise! Don’t you feel educated?

As we get into the modern era, you get a lot of the roguelike elements tossed by the wayside, and these quasi-rogue-like-ish games have been dubbed “roguelite” games. The Enchanted Cave would probably be one. But others? Games like Diablo have procedurally generated levels and treasure (and can have permadeath, too). Rogue Legacy can sometimes let you play the same level twice, but is otherwise roguelike quality. The Binding of Isaac doesn’t have procedural items. Spelunky doesn’t really even HAVE items. FTL is just plain different. These are all “roguelite” games, but they’re the modern offspring of a great concept, and they’ve taken the world by storm.

Of all the games I just mentioned, only Spelunky is free. But… try the others. They’re all fantastic. Rogue Legacy will dominate your life and make you laugh. The Binding of Isaac will make you cringe and scream profanity at your screen. Diablo is… well… it’s Diablo. And FTL is a game that I kick myself constantly for not having bought earlier. They’re all great, and if you feel like investing, you’ll get a great feel for what roguelikes are all about. And you’ll get a feel for why they’ve been more addictive than crack since 1980.

I hope you’ve all learned something today. And I hope I haven’t just inspired you to start skipping your real classes. Happy gaming!

~AG

P.S. As always, don’t forget to like, comment and subscribe!

4 Comments
  1. Cool, great post. I never knew anything about the history of the roguelike genre – it just seemed to spring up on its own a few years ago (in my head at least). Recently I had my first proper exposure to the genre with a game called Baroque, on the Saturn. There was a remake on PS2 and Wii which is better known, mainly because the original was a Japan-only release. The language barrier is tricky but doesn’t make TOO great a difference – pick ups from enemies have random effects, negative or positive, but the game doesn’t tell you what they do until you either try one, either on yourself or on an enemy.

    The one core “feature” of a roguelike its missing is the permanent death one, it has its own version. The game only lets you save properly after you have conquered the central tower – you can save mid-tower but its a one-time use save only. It then respawns you with none of your items, your character goes back to level one etc. But this time the tower is bigger and more demanding. Again you can’t save until you beat the new tower. And so on. It is a bloody tricky game, but I enjoy it.

    Anyway, perhaps one day I’ll try the modern takes on the genre, Ideally they would have a good balance between maddeningly frustrating and being tricky to master and overcome.

  2. Very Comprehensive post! Was very interesting to read also learned a lot about this game genres.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Like, Roguelikes, man! | Another Gamer's Blog
  2. Baroque (Saturn) mini-review | Very Very Gaming

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