Modern games like FTL and Spelunky have brought the roguelike to the attention of many more people. If you’re curious about the genre’s heritage, here are six classic roguelikes you can enjoy for free.
Dying and then having to play the same dungeons over and over wouldn't be much fun, so the game randomly generates levels, meaning you'll never see the same place twice. Items are randomised too: potions are colour-coded, for example, but what each colour means will change every time the player dies. Whereas a pink potion might have healed you last game, this time round it might teleport you into the midst of a monster lair, or turn you blind. Never has pressing 'Q' (for 'Quaff', of course) produced such a manic thrill.
Despite its age, Rogue is still perfectly playable. Watching that black screen slowly fill up as you explore the dungeon is deeply satisfying, and you soon start seeing the letters as what they represent, conjuring up spectacles to match Los Santos’ vistas with just liberal application of the alphabet and the imagination. I've audibly gasped on wandering into a room packed with Ls and Os. Then I’ve died, and then immediately pressed restart.
But most of all, it's just much bigger, with hundred of monsters and more commands than your keyboard can really handle. It also grows the vocabulary of Rogue by introducing a host of new nouns and verbs, making the language of the game more difficult to learn. It also exponentially widens the number of things the player can do in a way that just wouldn't be possible in a more graphically complex game.
Obviously, this means plenty more ways to die. So, drinking from a fountain could summon a genie who'll grant you a wish. Or, more likely, it could cause the water to explode into snakes, or spawn a water nymph who'll seduce the armour off your back and disappear into the night. Video games!
Zangband’s scale is frankly terrifying – the final boss is 100 floors down, and games can last weeks before a slip-up turns you suddenly, unexpectedly, irreversibly dead – but this is counterbalanced by the relative transparency of its submenus.
At first glance, these small windows make it look like your computer has pop-up diarrhoea, but you'll come to realise that they contain valuable information about character, inventory and enemies. Zangband strips back the roguelike experience a little to focus on hacking, slashing and looting, leaving you to focus on important decisions like when to abandon a dungeon and head back to the surface's shops to spend your hard-earned cash, before returning to a freshly generated sets of levels.
DoomRL, however, is more focused on lowering that barrier, by mashing it up with the dumb fun of its namesake. Made in just nine days (plus 11 years of updates), the game strips back a lot of the genre in the name of accessibility. It foregoes randomised items, and can be played using just the mouse.
DoomRL is a good gateway drug, placing the genre's basic concepts and some of the controls in a recognisable shooter setting. It might not be as huge or varied as other examples, but it opened up the idea of splicing elements of classical roguelikes with other genres - an idea that’s really taken off lately. Plus, it uses the same monster screams, dramatic explosions and pumped-up rock soundtrack as the original Doom. I dare you not to smile.
Dwarf Fortress, 2006
Each dwarf has their own job, attributes and personality, all the way down to preferred alcoholic beverage and tendency to anger. If their needs aren't met, or life in the fortress gets too stressful, all hell can break loose. You're probably familiar with the names of the seven dwarves, but this game introduces you to some of their cousins: Berserk, Suicidal, and Prone to Homicidal Tantrums.
The game's learning curve isn't just steep, it's a sheer climb. Learning to play even competently takes hours – but to understand why someone would bother, you need onlyread players' accounts of their games online. Dwarf Fortress has inspired diaries, films, comics and even spoken word pieces, each a rousing tale of heroism or, more likely, a tragedy culminating in death and defeat.
It's literally impossible to win Dwarf Fortress. Games only end one way, it's just a question of when and how. But as the game's dedicated community, which has supported its decade-long development with donations, would remind you: “Losing is fun”.
As in all the best roguelikes, every death is a lesson to be learned. Shoplifting leads to a messy end at the hands of an angry shopkeeper; grabbing the gold idol without an escape plan gets you squashed under a boulder; dropping down from a ledge without looking will land you in a spike pit or piranha pool.
By getting rid of character creation, levelling up and complex controls, the game manages to distil the roguelike down to its core essence: a thrill not dissimilar to gambling. At their heart, all these games are about weighing up risk and reward, assessing your ability to grab that one last item against the probability that doing so will spell your demise.
Spelunky created the roguelike-like, or roguelite, a sub-genre which has rapidly filled out with indie games like The Binding of Isaac, FTL and Desktop Dungeons, each taking a different genre and adding the same two core components of permadeath and random levels. Roguelikes have a rich history and, by opening the genre up to a more mainstream audience, Spelunky has ensured they'll have an equally interesting future. Roguelikes, it seems, will never die – but you will. Over and over and over.