What are Roguelikes?
Long-time readers may know I have a special spot in the shriveled remains of my heart for the roguelike genre. Hell, half of the reviews I write are either on roguelikes of RPGs. Looking back, however, I may not have given them as much credit as they deserve. It takes a lot to beat other genres and be labelled as “the best”, and here’s a brief overview as to why.
Roguelikes are games that stem from the classic mechanics of the “first” game of the genre called Rogue. I say “first” because there were technically other games in the genre before it, but the name ‘SwordofFargoalLike’ doesn’t really roll off the proverbial tongue, now does it? Rogue‘s unique selling point, other than looking like someone accidentally spilled liquid Gygax onto the Matrix, was to provide an infinitely diverse world with infinitely divers options, items, and enemies to encounter. It did this through procedural generation (similar to the thing that Minecraft still manages to bugger up, somehow) and permadeath.
The procedural generation meant that you’d never see the exact same layout twice, and the permadeath meant you’d probably never get far enough through a run for the first thing to ever come into play. Rogue was about learning from both prior playthroughs and the world you’re currently delving into. To put it into perspective, let’s look at one of the newest genre crazes: Survival Games.
I won’t bang on about this genre too much (if you want to hear my opinions on them, head over to my other shit), but the ultimate problem with Survival games is that once you know how to survive one playthrough, you can essentially survive through all the playthroughs. It eventually comes down to begging the Random Number Generator for pity. Look at Minecraft: “spawn in, grab tree, grab coal, grab 26 iron, done”.
Roguelikes fix this problem by mixing up the very items you can find. Certain newer titles, like Vagante, pick this idea up and start running with it, almost to a fault. Potions of varying color can have vastly different effects than they had during previous playthroughs. That blue potion you found last time gave you the ability to negate fall damage for a bit, but this time it could make your innards become your outtards.
Now, to be fair, certain Survival games do pretty well at incorporating the roguelike feel. Don’t Starve is much more survival than roguelike, but what keeps it firmly planted with one asscheek in the Rogue soup is the permadeath. Don’t Starve is a game about knowing when you need to pack it in and when you need to face the agony of starting back from square one.
Between these two elements rests the basis for all the other aspects of the genre, and without them, you can’t have a true roguelike.
The lite variant of this genre maintains the incredibly easy naming convention. Similar to the Jonestown massacre, Roguelites are fairly easy to understand and it only takes one attempt to develop a taste for it. Roguelites mix the genre up by removing some of the permadeath aspects. I’ve talked about Rogue Legacy before (it was my first game review for crying out loud), and it stands to be mentioned again here. The game so artfully combines a random castle to plunder, while providing a sense of progression through unlockable equipment and upgrades.
Roguelikes vs. Other Genres
The biggest reason roguelikes beat other genres is that most other genres lack replayability. Sure, you can play League of Legends or Overwatch and have a grand old time, but people still buy Spelunky and FTL: Faster Than Light to this day. The reason is because you’re working towards an endgame with roguelikes. You constantly practice and strive to complete more and more outrageous tasks. FTL is the type of game where you’re not going to beat the final boss for a long time, and when you do, it feels all the more rewarding for having done so. You were given the shitty odds, and you managed to overcome them. Spelunky does the same thing, where you can rush through the game and die hundreds of times. It’s when you slow down your pace that you begin to learn how best to utilize your surroundings. I’ve seen people attempting incredible feats in Spelunky that can’t be matched by any other type of game (just look up Eggplant Run, you’ll find a few videos).
Even RPGs, the kings of “play it your way”, can’t really compare to the genre in terms of fluidity. You can put down a roguelike, come back to it in a day or two, and pick up right where you left off. RPGs have a huge problem with taking far too long to complete, whereas roguelikes have an arcade machine quality that keeps you hooked. Every run only lasts a few hours at most, and that’s being generous for most games of the genre. Even roguelites, where the playthroughs can last an upwards of eight or more hours (again, depending on the game), the individual runs aren’t particularly long, which let’s you keep building your skills even in a busy world. I know I can’t devote four hours to playing Skyrim every day, and I still haven’t played through most of Witcher 3, and I still view that as “Best RPG of Ever”.
Even competitively, speedrunners absolutely adore roguelikes. You have a random chance factor, a set of simple controls/mechanics, and a very fast turnover rate for playthroughs. Don’t like speedrunning? Look at Crawl, a couch-coop game that makes enemies out of your friends. One human player is being harassed by up to three of their friends. The person who kills the human becomes the next human, and it’s an incredible party game for those who want to spice up game night.
Finally, there’s that game. The game people always go on about. The one game that probably helped bring the genre back from the dead (interestingly enough, given the subject matter). Again, like the Jonestown massacre, God must’ve really wanted Binding of Isaac to be a hit if this much work was put into it. I won’t lie, I never quite got into the aesthetic of the game, but I quickly forced one of the “friends” I have to write this about the game:
I deeply enjoy the aesthetic of the game and the mechanics are cool and I’m really edgy so it’s totes the game for me lololol. Also, help me I’m trapped here against my will and he’s breaking the door down with an axe oh my g-
Since he played it for about five hundred hours, I figured he knew what he was talking about. Given the number of rereleases this game shits out, I can only assume it’s still one of the greatest examples in the genre of being “so weird it’s an immediate success”.
Rogue managed to inspire the best mechanics at the perfect time. Now, almost forty years of solid evolution in gaming has graced us with the two genres that will lead us into the future of gaming.
Will RPGs still exist? Of course.
Will Shooters still give America a reason to play competitively? Only if South Korea gets assimilated.
Will Strategy games continue to outsell them even though most strategy games have lost the spirit of the genre? I don’t even know.
But one thing is for sure: Rogue has inspired the best types of games out there, and I look forward to seeing more.