The Roguelike Renaissance

If you’re a gaming enthusiast, you may have heard the term Roguelike thrown around in the past few months. That’s because the genre (if it can be called that) is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. What’s a Roguelike? It’s a generic term used to loosely define games with characteristics similar to the game Rogue. It’s sort of like how every first person shooter was referred to as a Doom clone in the early days of that genre.

Rogue was a dungeon-crawling adventure game with randomly generated monsters, loot and maps. It was released around 1980. The goal was to get to the bottom of the dungeon in one go—fighting monsters and collecting loot on the way. If you died, you lost everything and had to start over again.

According to Wikipedia, the characteristics that make a Roguelike so much like Rogue includes: level randomization, permanent death, turn-based movement and dungeon crawls. Just as the industry eventually left “Doom clone” behind, I can see it doing the same with Roguelike. Most games carrying that label have ditched the turn-based movement (though a few are keeping it alive), and the dungeons have been replaced with more diverse environments.

Indeed, the only characteristics that tie the games below together are permadeath and randomization. Most of them exist within different genres—twin stick shooter, action, strategy, adventure, etc.

But That Doesn’t Sound Fun.

I imagine a boxed copy of Binding of Isaac with the pull quotes, “Totally random!” and “death is permanent!” on the front would give most buyers pause. Which is why I think most Roguelikes live just outside the spotlight, thriving on download services like Steam. They’re fun games, but you kind of need to experience them first. Box quotes can’t do them justice.

Playing a Roguelike is sort of like playing a sport. You understand the rules and the tools at your disposal, but the way the game will play out is going to be different every time. You can know all there is to know about how to play basketball, but you’ll never have an identical game.

A good Roguelike has a special blend of random luck, a hard set of understandable rules, and enough wiggle room in the gameplay mechanics to let skilled players succeed, even when they’re unlucky. In other words, they’re still fun, even if you’ve been dealt a bad hand.

The random element combined with permanent death ramps up the intensity too. You tend to be a little more careful when you know one wrong move could undo all your hard work. On the other hand, the sting of dying isn’t as harsh when you know that your next play-through could be even better. It’s like gambling without the potential for crippling debt!

I’m On Board. Where Do I Start?

The Rougelike genre is growing and expanding. Developers are using permanent death and randomization as foundations to build interesting experiences across genres. Here are a few, wildly different games, that each offer the same Roguelike fix.

The Binding of Isaac

A twin stick shooter with a crazy Biblically influenced story and grotesque imagery. This came out right around the time my son was born. I remember doing runs at 2 in the morning, rocking the baby in his basinet with my foot, half delirious from lack of sleep. Good times.

Dungeons of Dredmor

The most Rogue-like Rougelike in the list. Dredmor has you crawling through a dungeon one square at a time taking on enemies in turn-based combat.

Spelunky

A platformer with extreme randomization. From what I’ve seen this one can be punishingly difficult. It’s free on PC (with a cool pixel art style) and $15 on Xbox Live.

FTL

Command a starship crew as you explore the galaxy, on the run from the rebels. Move crew members, divert power from your engine to your shields, upgrade your weapons system, and more. It’s like all the exciting scenarios in Star Trek one after the other.

Tokyo Jungle

This mega weird Japanese game has you playing as a variety of animals in post-apocalypse Tokyo. Keep your hunger and energy levels high as you mark your territory, seek out mates and avoid predators. It’s on the edges of being a Roguelike, so it’s a good place to start for newbies.

A bazillion phone games

You know those endless running games popularized by Canabalt? They’ve started bringing in some Roguelike features. They already had the permadeath and randomization, now many of them have loot too (which is, unfortunately, often gated behind micro-transactions). Agent Dash, Jetpack Joyride and Temple Run are great representations of the endless running genre with Roguelike characteristics.  

Some would argue that Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls are Roguelikes, but I’m not sure I would. The environments are the opposite of random (in fact, memorizing them is the key to succeeding), and while you can permanently die, there are ways to recover your loot and progress.

I would like to see Roguelikes enter the third person action genre. Maybe a brawler like God of War with random environments and enemies? Or what about a shooter? Imagine a game with diverse gun loot like Borderlands mixed with the fast-paced randomness of Binding of Isaac.

Roguelikes aren’t for everyone. They’re more “gamey” than most video games. There’s usually not much of a directed narrative, and the permadeath ensures that you’ll have little to show for your time (some Roguelikes do have achievements that measure your progress and reward you with new starting benefits, like a new character, or a permanent starting stat boost). But you’ll build your own stories from your experiences, and you’ll have a good time doing it. If you haven’t tried a Roguelike, check out one of the games mentioned above, they’re cheap, easy to get into, and hard to put down.