RETURN OF THE ROGUELIKE
SPAWNED BY THE GAME THAT NERDS LOVE— ROGUE— AN EXTREMELY HARDCORE AND CULTISH GENRE IS NOW ALMOST MAINSTREAM.
Long after the rest of the videogame world emerged out of their dark, hidden corners and embraced the blinding lights of show business, one kind of game remained reclusive. While shooters, adventures, strategy games and sports games started appearing in book and toy store shelves, mainstream advertising and even Hollywood films during the 1980s and ’90s, there was one genre that remained the preserve of the nerd, the geek, the hardcore.
It was the oddly named Roguelike—a role-playing subgenre in which players braved near-impossible odds to enter endless dangerous dungeons filled with fabulous treasure guarded by vicious beasts and deadly traps. A genre where (gasp!) graphics were less important than gameplay, where difficulty was welcome and n00bs were not. It was the nerd’s own genre—born of the unholy union of Gary Gygax’s legendary Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game and the ultimate geek activity: computer programming. A spoonful of C++, a dash of die-rolling, some stats and numbers to add a little crunch, some monsters here, some heroes there, and some high fantasy sauce to add the flavour—a recipe for hours of entertainment. And thus, Rogue was born.
Rogue was a game in which you entered a dungeon, with the single point objective of recovering the Amulet of Yendor (which ostensibly lay somewhere within its depths) and escaping. This, however, was next to impossible, thanks to slimes, trolls, goblins, bats, dragons and all other man- ner of beasts that lived in said dungeon. Not to mention booby-trapped doors, chests that blew up and other such devious devices of infinite devilry. Then why would you even bother? Because the dungeon was randomly generated and different every time you played. Because it was filled with treasures and loot. Because it was fun to kill things. Because, as you progressed through the dungeon, you constantly grew more powerful, gaining more skills and better weapons. And because the game recorded how well you did—so you had a high score to aspire to beat every time. These four simple design principles worked so well, and Rogue ended up being so much fun that it birthed an entire genre of games that hardcore gamers loved (and still love) to play. Rogue inspired .hack, which in turn inspired the immortal Nethack, and there was no turning back.
In many ways, Nethack remains the consummate Roguelike. It is so complex and challenging that it takes even the most hardcore players years to master it completely. Yet it is so much fun that it offers an amazing experience even for new players. It has no graphics to speak of—everything in the game is represented by some ASCII character (although a program called Falcon’s Eye attempted to give it a rudimentary graphical presentation). The randomness of the dungeons makes sure that no two playthroughs are the same and are usually remarkably different. It’s a thing of unadulterated geekcore beauty; Salon magazine called it one of the greatest experiences in all of gaming, and it is regularly featured in “greatest game of all
time” top lists.
Yet it is completely inaccessible to less hardcore players, such as those who play
Counter-strike or Call of Duty (that felt good!). And the game nerds and geeks who love it were perfectly happy that way; it was their own little secret treasure that nobody else could have.
However, the mainstreaming of the genre was inevitable, really. The core design principles and structure of Roguelike games are so rock-solid that applying them to more accessible games with eye candy and better controls was bound to make for compelling games.
Perhaps the first game that successfully made the transition was Blizzard’s classic hack and slash RPG Diablo. Although nowhere close to the depth and complexity of
Nethack, Diablo featured a near perfect implementation of classic Roguelike design— randomly generated dungeons, interesting character classes, spells and weapons, a superby paced loot and levelup cycle and terrifying enemies that were satisying to kill. This mix made Diablo one of the most successful game titles of all time—and brought the enjoyment of Roguelikes to a mass market.
Mainstream franchises soon caught on to the idea. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon and Chocobo Dungeon were hugely successful Roguelike spin-offs from major RPG franchises
( Pokemon and Final Fantasy respectively). They sold millions of copies and proved the fundamental strength of Roguelike design principles.
More recently, the rise of Indie game development (thanks to the emergence of digital distribution platforms like Steam, Xbox Live and mobile App stores) has seen a surge in Roguelike games available on the market.
The excellent Dungeons of
Dredmor from Gaslamp games is perhaps the closest modern equivalent of Nethack— and has even been called its spiritual sucessor. It features all the classic elements of Nethack— devious difficulty, enormous number of options, interesting enemies and traps, loot—and wraps it up in a humorous style (you can summon a disembodied moustache to fight for you, get killed by flying cutlery, and find coke machines in the depths of the dungeon) that makes for one of the most unique gaming experiences in years.
The addictive and compelling Desktop Dungeons takes the Roguelike formula and gives it a twist: it is made for short, 10-minute play sessions. Perfect for playing at work, or while waiting for your blood-test reports.
And its not just role-playing games that have found the Roguelike formula to be useful. Spelunky, a game in which you play an Indiana Jones type adventurer looking for treasure in caves, is a Roguelike platform game (it reminds me of the old PC platform classic,
Dangerous Dave). The utterly bizarre and wonderful Binding
of Isaac applies Roguelike principles to what is essentially a top-down shooter. It is a game in which you play a small boy on the run from his murderous mother, who needs to kill enemies such as turdcentipedes, disembodied hands and bees. She has to kill them using projectile tears. Don’t ask.
When fundamentally sound design principles meet talented game developers and easy distribution systems, it can mean only one thing— lots of awesome Roguelike games. If you haven’t played a Roguelike before, now is a good time to begin. Just stay away from Nethack— unless you are really brave. Oh, and did I mention Nethack is free? [Signs off with evil laugh].