An Introduction to Roguelikes

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An Introduction to Roguelikes

Posted by CJ Wilson

17 Jun, 2021


With the growing popularity of games like Dead Cells, Slay the Spire, and the award-winning Hades, the roguelike genre is front and center in the gaming world. But what are roguelikes, and where did they come from?

in Ars Technica, Richard C. Moss notes the difficulty of defining the this genre before giving the best definition I’ve heard: “Roguelike games have grown in popularity over the 40 years the genre has existed. . . . [R]oguelikes are randomized dungeon crawls with little or no story, where you’re really fighting the dungeon as much as—if not more so than—the monsters inside it in an endlessly repeating struggle to master its layouts and contents and the systems that define its nature before you die and it regenerates anew.”

Other formal attempts have been made to strictly define “roguelike,” such as the famous Berlin Interpretation. Hardline fans sometimes refer to games that somewhat conform to the criteria but deviate from them too much as “rogue-lites” or, clunkily, “roguelike-likes.”

The Berlin interpretation seeks to preserve the purity of roguelikes and keep them connected to their roots. But Wikipedia entries for modern roguelikes like Dead Cells and Hades show that the attempt hasn’t caught on. Although these games don’t fulfill the criteria laid down by the Berlin interpretation for a “proper” roguelike, they’re still listed as roguelikes. The genre has become something like RPGs: broad, encompassing, constantly evolving.

Nevertheless, roguelikes can be divided into two categories: classic and modern. This article explains the place of the modern roguelike in gaming history, then suggests a definition of the genre and recommends several good examples of it.

A Long History

The roguelike genre has its roots in the 1970s and ASCII video games like Adventure and Beneath Apple Manor—text-based games with no image-based graphics. But the genre would not become widely popular until the 1980 game Rogue that gives the genre its name.

Like so many games, these early titles were inspired by Dungeons and Dragons. They were characterized by an ASCII interface using characters like “@” for the player and “D” for a dragon; procedurally generated levels, i.e., levels randomly created by an algorithm and thus different each time the game is played; permanent death (“permadeath”); and turn-based combat.

In the 1980s, these games quickly branched and forked. Many of the offshoots, like Larn and Omega, were popular and still influence gaming. But the two most important successors of Rogue were Moria in 1983 and Hack in 1982. Most classic roguelikes followed in their footsteps. Hack was supplanted by NetHack in 1987 and by Ancient Domains of Mystery in 1994. Moria was supplanted by Angband in 1990.

There is much more to say about these classic roguelikes and their impact on gaming as an art form and as a hobby. I highly recommend Richard C. Moss’s article on the subject at ArsTechnica and David L. Craddock’s book Dungeon Hacks: How NetHack, Angband, and Other Roguelikes Changed the Course of Video Games.

Approaching the Modern Age

The next big step toward the roguelikes of today came in the 1990s with the Japanese Mystery Dungeon games.

As they do now, in the 1990s Japanese players preferred console gaming to playing on their PCs. Roguelikes had become increasingly popular in the West, and many Japanese developers wanted to adapt the genre to the console while making it a more understandable and easier to play. Early attempts failed; Sega’s Fatal Labyrinth and Dragon Crystal, both released in 1990, flopped.

But in 1993, Chunsoft released Torneko’s Great Adventure: Mystery Dungeon, based on their popular Dragon Quest series. The game brought roguelikes to consoles and spawned a new trend in Japanese video games.

One important change that the Mystery Dungeon games made to the roguelike formula was to remove hard permadeath. Instead of having to start the game over from scratch, a dead player was now sent back to the start of the dungeon, and he could use what he had earned in the dungeon on the previous run or could store or recover his equipment. This feature would provide a strong narrative foundation for modern masterpieces like Dead Cells and Dark Souls.

Since Torneko, Chunsoft has released over 25 Mystery Dungeon games, and everyone from Final Fantasy to Pokemon has made a Mystery Dungeon version of their franchise.

Meanwhile, the Western market was also moving away from the turn-based combat and ASCII graphics associated with older roguelikes. The 1996 game Diablo is the best example of the change. Although fans joust over whether Diablo qualifies as a roguelike, the permadeath and procedurally generated dungeons speak volumes, and the creators have stated that older roguelikes influenced its design.

Modern Roguelikes

The next big movement came in the mid-2000s. Like many of the best things in modern gaming, it came from the indie world.

As game development became more accessible, roguelike traits were folded into indie titles. Early examples include the Infinite Space series—Strange Adventures in 2002 and Weird Worlds in 2005—which featured randomly generated worlds and permanent death. As influential as they were, they were only a seed.

In 2008, the seed flowered in Derek Yu’s Spelunky, which combined the deep gameplay of roguelikes with the pick-up-and-play nature of platformers. The result was a fan favorite that sends players to explore randomly generated caves and forces them to think on their feet.

Developers kicked in the dungeon door of the modern roguelike genre at the beginning of the 2010s. The Binding of Isaac was released in 2011. Rogue Legacy and FTL: Faster than Light were released in 2012. Isaac’s Edmund McMillen, Rogue Legacy’s Kenny and Teddy Lee, and FTL’s Justin Ma and Matthew Davis all cited Spelunky as a major inspiration, and Ma and Davis also mentioned the influence of Weird Worlds.

Isaac, Rogue Legacy, and FTL were commercial and critical hits that boosted the popularity of both indie development andmodern roguelikes. Some developers and critics viewed these three as a direct response to the cookie-cutter and risk-averse design that had become prevalent in AAA games.

In some ways, roguelikes simplified  development . The ability to randomly generate levels and encounters gave indie developers a way to do a lot with a little. They could use randomly generated content to focus on crafting a core design that would be fun to play over and over again. And since they could do it without the money and massive content supporting AAA releases, they were liberated from the oversight of investors who might have skewed their vision for the sake of accommodating the supposed requirements of the market.

Within a decade, roguelikes became a huge genre with hugely popular titles like Dead Cells and Enter the Gungeon. Games like Hades have pushed the genre into the storytelling world. No doubt many indie developers are dreaming up new roguelikes even as we speak, and Steam is probably flooded with them. 

What Are Modern Roguelikes Like?

So that’s the history that led to modern roguelikes. In the 1980s,  classic roguelikes—ASCII-based games featuring procedural generation and permadeath like Rogue—led to Japanese Mystery Dungeon games in the 1990s. Then, in the mid-2000’s, Spelunky inspired FTL, The Binding of Isaac, and Rogue Legacy, inspiring the next evolution of roguelikes.

Three characteristics seem to be essential to the modern roguelike:

  1. Procedurally generated levels, encounters, enemies, or characters.
  2. The ability to use gameplay elements in a variety of ways to deal with what the game throws at you.
  3. Soft or hard permadeath. You must start at the beginning when you die, but perhaps with some of the rewards earned during your previous run, permitting a sense of constant progression.

These three features characterize everything from Dead Cells and Hades to Spelunky, but do not characterize a game like Dark Souls, which one may decline to call a roguelike without controversy.

Now that you know the story so far, let me recommend a few roguelikes so that you can give these games a try if you wish.

If you aren’t into twitch reflexes or want to hang out in space, play FTL: Faster than Light.

If you want a phenomenal story, play Hades.

If you want humor and stellar combat, play Dead Cells.

If you want to be Indiana Jones, play Spelunky.

If you want to shoot guns, play Enter the Gungeon.

If you want to be a badass wizard, play Wizard of Legend.

Give them a whirl, and enjoy!


About Author

CJ Wilson

CJ Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist specializing in game writing, journalism, and non-profit work. His writing expertise includes gaming, law, nature/environmental writing, literature, and travel. As a novelist, he specializes in character-focused fantasy and sci-fi.

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