So you guys know what a video game is, right?
Well, these things come in genres. My favorite genre is probably strategy, but within this grouping there are also subgenres—one of the greatest of which is the Roguelike.
There is some debate about what exactly makes a game count as a Roguelike, because there are some examples that are right on the cusp; but don’t worry chaps, I’ll define it for you my way and let the world judge. Debaters are gonna debate.
History for the nerds:
You punks reading this who already know what Roguelikes are will smugly state “But I need not read such history, for the genre is eponymous; that is, it was named for the first game of this type, and that game was Rogue.” Smuggery be damned because you’re only half right. While the genre truly was named for Rogue (and a popular game it was) it was not the first.
Behold! Beneath Apple Manor released in 1978 for the Apple II:

Beneath Apple Manor

We do tend to give credit to the game that makes the concept popular, which isn’t always the original, and really if you keep digging you’ll find that even BAM isn’t the first because in some ways earlier games encompassed Roguelike characteristics or were created for obscure platforms. But guys, I said I was laying down the law here, and unless someone can convince me otherwise then I’m officially calling BAM the first Roguelike.
So, blah, blah Roguelike, what the heck is it?
Generally, a Roguelike is defined by some pretty specific stuff, but as for me, I’d call a game roguelike if it met a general feel or enough boxes on a list. It’s best if we make such a list, don’t you think?

  • Randomization: The game will offer dungeons where the maps are different every time you play. This doesn’t have to mean every map is different (special levels, scripted events, and world maps get a free pass) but in general you can’t win by remembering where things are from last time you played. If that weren’t enough, some games randomize items, spells, weapons, and more. By that I mean if you pick up a blue potion, you will have no idea what it does. It could be a potion of “gain an extra limb”, or a potion of “kill you immediately”. Your weapons could be +1, -1, or -30 and cursed.
  • Permadeath: It means business. If the game lets you play again after you die (from where you were) and lets you keep your crap you found in the dungeon then it’s missing a key feature that makes a true Roguelike. Of course, this does not apply to in-game features like amulets of life saving, “bring me back to life” spells, or extra lives earned from doing things. It also does not apply to saving the game, not dying, and then hopping back in the game to win it for the team. I’ve played some games with other features besides the dungeon, so you could still keep playing and re-enter the dungeon after dying inside. This is cool by me too, as long as you don’t get to take anything with you.
  • Turn-based Combat: I don’t think I’ve played a game that I would consider a Roguelike that has real-time combat (okay, so an exception for Diablo II on hardcore or Dark Cloud does apply here), and while I would not call it disqualifying for a game to NOT be turn-based, the turn-based combat can serve to include a game classically into the genre. In addition, I am not opposed to games bucking the trend and still being a total Roguelike. Progress and all.
  • Ascension: Basically the reason for playing. In many games, you start at the top or bottom of a dungeon, and your goal is to either ascend to the top and get out; or descend, grab something, and then make it out to the top again. Other variations apply, like “defeating” various dungeons until you’ve won, or other such variations. Classically, ascension is the word used to describe winning a Roguelike (i.e. I ascended in Nethack).

Those are some classic definitions, so here are some of my own:

  • Tactical Thinking: Roguelikes are truly strategy games, and so in that vein they should force you to think cleverly. If that just means good item decisions and escape techniques, then so be it. If that means leveling up your pets and painstakingly farming enemies until you can take on harder levels then even better. I love those agonizing choices where you have to figure out if you should try that blue potion out of desperation or attack the monster and pray that he doesn’t turn you to stone. When failure really feels this severe it makes your choices all the more important.
  • Phat Loots: While technically not a requirement, games should have lots of STUFF to collect, identify, use or abuse. I mean, if you’re walking around a dungeon with no items then it’s a crappy dungeon and shame on the game developer. Roguelikes should be veritable cornucopias of crap: scrolls of cancellation, potions of acid, helms of greater strength, wizard hats, and possibly cans of Grue meat. Many games limit what you can carry but that’s just fine as long as you can find a lot of stuff.
  • Monsters: Dungeons are loaded with stuff to kill. Kill it, take its stuff/exp/gold/zorkmids etc. and use it to build a better chance to ascend.
  • Dungeon Levels: Can’t ascend if there’s nowhere to go. Even in games where there isn’t a “one main dungeon” you should be able to continue down or up until you’re through a dungeon. Without this, it feels like a “level” instead of a dungeon.
  • Frequent death: You should be dying a lot. All the time. On fire. If you aren’t, the game should be making it really hard for you to win/get awesome stuff, or you’re really, really clever (yeah, right). There should be so many deaths your character has no more identity and is just another pawn in your desperate attempt to conquer.

Now I’m an expert, right? How do I start playing these? 
Oh you want to play one? Awesome! These games can be so rewarding and engaging! But first know this: you will die. A lot. Often. Doesn’t matter. Do not expect to beat a Roguelike in a year, two years, or ever. If you do beat it, gloat and share your ascension (with pics) with all the world because you earned it.
Most of these games take a long time to learn, but of course after you’ve learned a few there are enough features in common that it makes it easier to learn the next one.
A great starting Roguelike would be Dungeons of Dredmor, (which is something you can pick up on Steam for like $5), it will let you die over and over like you’re supposed to, but it’s easy to learn, has a graphical interface (many Roguelikes are in old-school ASCII or have tilesets for graphics), and tons of versatility. Plus lots of stuff named after nerd culture.
If you don’t roll that way and you want to try something stupid, hard, and likely to discourage you with its complexity, might I recommend the classic Nethack? It’s free, requires you to read manuals, has a number of unintuitive commands available, and there are 50 floors + a bunch of non-dungeon floors. It’s grind-heavy, merciless, complicated, and very big. It’s a very good example of the genre, and it’s perfect for nerdy intellectual types who whine that “Myst games are too easy”. Also an excellent choice if you liked Demon’s Souls (i.e. dying all the time).

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5 Responses to “So what the heck is a Roguelike?”

  1. Gatherer Says:

    Link me to these debates.


  2. Tiffany Martin Says:

    Here are some debates, but Roguelikes are a subgenre and have a smaller following than many other game types.

    This is the Berlin Interpretation, it’s a list of standards agreed upon by attendees of the International Roguelike Development Conference. You bet they discussed that.

    I think this is the discussion here (4 years old, though):

    This wiki even has a special category for Major Roguelikes:

    I think a lot of people have opinions on this, and if there’s something about Roguelikes you want to debate go ahead, lol.


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Posted by Cake-Pie
Dated: 7th May 2012
Filled Under: Games