Imagine if every time you played Legend of Zelda, the dungeons were in different places, the mini-quests changed and even new monsters and weapons appeared. You’d probably be much more apt to replay the game for more than just nostalgic reasons. Personally, I only replay games when so much time has passed that I no longer remember the details.
This is the promise of Roguelikes – a genre of turn-based games that have a lot in common with RPGs. Although they eschew the heavy story elements and everything but the most basic graphics, what they offer in depth of play more than makes up for it. Roguelikes offer infinite replay value can usually be played on almost any machine that can run a terminal and can be very addicting.
The History of Roguelikes
The genre is named after its ancestor, Rogue. A turn-based D&D type ASCII game created back in 1980 for Unix and later ported to just about every imaginable platform including an Atari ST version. Rogue uses nothing but ASCII characters, your character is represented by an @ sign and doors are + walls are _ and |. the Kobold coming at you is a little k. The sword he drops is a /. Its very simple, but actual gameplay is anything but. The premise of Rogue and its variants is descending through a dungeon to retrieve a powerful relic and then climbing back out again. Each time you start a game, you design your character much like many other RPGs and then the randomly generated floors of the dungeon are created and filled with secrets, monsters and treasures.
But its not just the hall ways and rooms that are random. Most roguelikes feature items such as potions and scrolls that have unknown purposes to an adventurer who encounters it for the first time. Drink that potion and you might get more strength, you might get transformed into a blob, hallucinate for several turns or suddenly become invisible. Just because you found that green potions are potions of strength in this adventure, if you die and start over, it doesn’t mean the green potion is still a potion of strength, this time it might be poison.
Which reminds me; death is permanent in most roguelikes, much like in real life. Although you can save your game to pick it up later, if your character dies, he or she is gone. You start a new game in a new randomly generated world. It might seem harsh, but remember, you’ll never have to re-trudge through the same dungeon twice, so, who cares if you start over?
Roguelikes have depth that few games can compete with. To give you a small example, just look at how you can interact with water in NetHack – definitely the most complex of Roguelikes. Some things float, so water doesn’t impact them, you can also evaporate water with fire or freeze it into ice. You can dig a pit next to water and it will spread there or you can dive in and swim around. Some enemies can drown in water. Some types of water have special powers and dipping your weapon into them or drinking them will have positive or negative effects. In Brogue, currents can take items and transport them to other sides of a lake or stream. This is just one small example.
Although roguelikes are steeped deeply in almost three decades of nostalgia at this point, even new players quickly become hooked. Much like reading a book, the simple graphics leave much up to your imagination, which most players find quickly outpaces even the most graphically advanced games. When I come into a room filled with little bush icons and blue shimmering squares in Brogue, and I imagine a more lush and gorgeous underground cave than you’d see in a modern game.
Roguelikes are also not played strictly with the idea of winning them. The game is more about the experience and the funny stories that result from your misadventures. Some of the more complex games like NetHack have taken people years to complete. But each adventure is new and you learn a little more each time. It never feels like trudging through the same dungeon to try to get a little further since its new every time.
In the next few articles, we’re going to look at a few classic roguelikes that are worth playing and some more modern ones. I apologize in advance for your new addiction.