In 1980 a game called Rogue was released that spawned a whole sub-genre of role-playing games, aptly named roguelikes. The dungeon crawling game procedurally generated in-game content, providing infinite replay value by guaranteeing a different game every time. A chess-like turn-based system accompanied the ASCII graphics, and when you died, you really died. Permanently.
And so the roguelike genre was born, bearing characteristics like permanent death, turn-based gameplay and games that rely more on your imagination than pretty graphics. These days there are an immeasurable number of roguelikes, a lot of them free to play, and many blending other genres into their gameplay. I’ve assembled a short list of roguelikes to get you up to speed with what might become your new favourite genre.
You can still download and play the original Rogue from the official website, though there is a couple of reasons you might not want to do that. Rogue is a tough game and assumes a certain level of knowledge and mastery of the control scheme. While seasoned RPG veterans might want to sink their teeth into a text-based challenge, many of today’s casual gamers will not.
Rogue inspired a whole genre of games, with some early examples of clones being Moria and Hack. Moria was released in 1983, and while it bears a Tolkein-esque name, that’s pretty much where it ends. It’s a dungeon crawler where you must descend and defeat the evil Balrog. Standard stuff, except it was the first to feature a town where you could buy weapons, armor and supplies. Hack was an improved version of Rogue, first distributed via newsgroups in December 1984. It added features like a pet dog which followed you around, new classes, items and general polish. Hack introduced food management as well, making the game even more challenging.
Once gamers grew to love the roguelike genre, more and more games were appearing. In the late 80s Omega arrived on the scene, introducing a vast explorable countryside for the first time. Larn is another fondly remembered 1986 game which was the first to feature multiple dungeons connected by a town.
As you can tell, there are a lot more classic roguelikes to explore beyond these early examples. iPhone users can play the original Rogue for free by downloading this app and Android users can enjoy it along with Hack and Moria in the Roguelike Classics app.
Tale of Maj’Eyal (ToME)
Tale of Maj’Eyal, originally “Tales of Middle Earth”, is based on the Angband roguelike and is still very popular today. So popular in fact, that it’s still enjoying updates and has recently been ported to a new engine. It’s by far one of the most accessible roguelikes out there, with an attractive graphical interface, music, and sound-effects all in a simple binary that doesn’t need to be compiled for an obscure UNIX system.
The game also features a user friendly tutorial which will get you up to speed with ToME and the world of roguelikes in general, without breaking too much of a sweat. Each game experience is completely customizable, so if you’re a hardcore Rogue fan you can jump into a nightmare if you really want to.
Also worth mentioning is the online variant TomeNET, also under active development, which takes the ToME formula and puts it online. The game is even more advanced and features day and night cycles, weather, seasons and ready-to-go versions for Windows, Mac and Linux.
The current version of Nethack was released in December 2003 after enjoying almost 15 years of development. Despite a few sparse updates to various binaries, development has seemingly ceased. This is a shame, because Nethack was one of the most popular roguelike games and has appeared on lists like Time’s all-time top 100 video games, which might seem odd if you’ve never heard of it.
Nethack has you fighting your way through the Dungeons of Doom followed by the underworld in order to retrieve an amulet which you must then return to the surface. The game features persistent dungeons (which means a limited number of items and enemies), enemies that can use the same items as you, a cheeky sense of humour and “conducts” which keep track of your actions so you can complete the game using certain criteria (like a no-kill game, for example).
Luckily, there are both iOS and versions that will allow you to enjoy Nethack on your personal device, without having to fiddle with old software on new PCs (though you can do that too).
The original ADOM was first released in 1994 and featured a closed source approach (though the game was always free to play), and an unusually detailed storyline for a roguelike. The game tells its tale through quests, uses persistent dungeons and has multiple endings to the game. It’s not exactly pretty, using an ASCII approach, but it’s a bonafide classic that managed to raise over $90,000 in an IndieGoGo campaign last year.
Both the original and follow-up ADOM II benefit from this. Development has restarted on ADOM and ADOM II, and that means new classes, content, graphical capabilities, less bugs and more frequent updates.
Another trend often seen in the roguelike world is the use of different franchises within the games. This has been true for a lot of Tolkein and fantasy themes, but here we have DoomRL, a roguelike that’s based on and set in id Software’s Doom universe. This is what the hardcore RPG’ers call a coffeebreak roguelike, in that it’s designed to be simple, fast and furious rather than providing a slow and tactical experience.
It’s a fun romp that only has one dungeon to speak of (with 24 floors, and a few secret levels), a limited inventory and a few character traits that speed up game progression. It’s also bathed in blood and bound to resonate well with fans of the franchise.
Love the idea of a roguelike more than you do moving ASCII characters around a screen? Top-down tile-based crawlers not detailed enough for you? Well WazHack takes the notion of a dungeon crawling roguelike, turns it into a 2D platformer and liberally applies graphical appeal. The result is a free to play game for the Web, Windows and Mac that even has a multiplayer element (and costs a measly $4.99 to buy outright).
I’ve been playing WazHack for a week, and it’s a rather approachable roguelike to say the least. The fact that it’s a free download for iOS and Android users means you’ll find it tough to put down even when away from a computer. That’s not to say it won’t chew you up and spit you out, but it does tend to hold your hand a little in the process.
The term rougelike-like refers to a game that takes elements of the genre and fuses them with another, to create not a “pure” turn-based roguelike experience but a blend. There have been a number of successful games taking their cues from the roguelike genre in the last few years, one of the most successful being The Binding of Isaac.
Somewhat of an action-roguelike, The Binding of Isaac uses persistent dungeon-style levels, a permanent death system and all kinds of weapons, armor and items to boost your chances. It’s like a Zelda spin on the genre, and developers Nicalis already have a foot in the door with Sony to bring the upcoming remake The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth to the PS4 and PS Vita.
Another game that takes its cues heavily from the roguelike genre is FTL: Faster Than Light, a game which describes itself as a “spaceship simulation real-time roguelike-like” (try saying that quickly). In it, you must travel the galaxy, fix failing engines, manage your crew and all manner of other techno-babble without succumbing to permanent death. It’s pretty much the closest we’ve got to “Firefly the game” until Firefly Online arrives, and that’s some very high praise indeed.
Even More Roguelikes
When you begin exploring the roguelike genre of games, you will realise two things. The first is the passionate community behind the scene, which continues to play, develop and discuss these games. The second is the treasure trove of titles you have available to you, most of which are free. By far the best place to explore these is RogueBasin, the Roguelike Development wiki which keeps tabs on recent releases and a searchable database of games.
There’s something for everyone in the roguelike scene, and when you find one that clicks, it’s like opening a good book you just can’t put down.
Do you have any favourite roguelikes? Add your thoughts and recommendations to the comments, below!