A popular sub-genre of role-playing games is the roguelike. A roguelike game is literally: a game that’s like Rogue. Rogue is a very old fantasy RPG; a game to which graphics are merely a collection of letters, numbers and symbols. But in spite of its age, the game’s legacy can still be felt in RPGs released to this very day.
If you’ve played a decent amount of RPGs in the past there’s a good chance you may have experienced such a game or at least one with similar elements. What exactly makes a roguelike game has been a bit difficult to define in the past but the most commonly accepted features include:
- Randomly generated dungeons or levels
- Turn based combat
- Items and collectables that are randomized between games. Such items often feature vague descriptions or have their abilities hidden until they are used or identified through other means.
- Primarily single player
- Permadeath; a concept by where a player must begin a new game if their character dies. Saving a game only suspends a game in progress rather than providing an infinitely recoverable state.
Even on their own, the five bullet points above paint a vivid picture of the kind of game we’re talking about here. This is a game that is generally unforgiving, where one unfortunate mistake or random happening can bring things to an abrupt end.
I think I became enamoured with roguelikes around the time I played two particular games: Fatal Labyrinth for the Sega Mega Drive and its pseudo-sequel Dragon Crystal for the Sega Game Gear; two games which are essentially identical to each other except for a few mild differences.
Using Fatal Labyrinth here as the primary example; you take on the role of a nameless hero who must ascend to the top of a monster-infested tower in order to slay an evil dragon. Aside from a pointless town segment at the start, this is practically all the story the game will offer you. It is a Mega Drive RPG after all…
Fatal Labyrinth has all the hallmarks of a roguelike game, from the random dungeons, ?????? labelled items and of course everyone’s favourite feature; permadeath.
There is a very basic experience/stat system but all-too-often does combat feel like little more than a coin flip. You can never really know if your sword swipe will actually hit or how much health each enemy even has when you attack them. Items that you can collect begin the game with random effects and often the only solution is to simply use them and see what happens; you can be cursed, blinded or even outright killed by such experiments which leads to an absurd amount of frustration.
Now it’s important to mention here that 99% of children like their video games to be easy. Kids don’t give a lick about challenge or prestige or anything like that, they will play at the easiest setting and cheat their assess off in order to win. GameShark cartridges, turbo controllers, you name it; if there’s a shortcut to success then you can be damn sure that kids (and many older gamers too for that matter) will exploit it to the Nth degree.
Fatal Labyrinth is not an easy game. Fatal Labyrinth, like many roguelikes, is an extremely difficult and brutally unforgiving game.
Man, did I absolutely HATE Fatal Labyrinth when I was a kid!
Another thing that kids don’t do is read instruction manuals. Hell, for a second hand game back in the day to actually come with the manual at all could be considered a minor miracle in itself. But for whatever reason I had to learn Fatal Labyrinth myself and I did not enjoy doing so.
Fatal Labyrinth does not go out of its way to help you enjoy the gaming experience. It’s quite common to reach the game over screen within minutes of playing and remember this is an RPG! A genre whose very initials gets you thinking of long, exciting adventures slaying orcs, dragons and meeting petite, scantily-clad wood nymphs with flowing hazel hair, shimmering milky-white skin and cheeky come-to-bed eyes… I was raised on Mega Drive RPGs, does it show?
Seriously though, Fatal Labyrinth is an especially cruel roguelike. Take for example the hunger system; a simple number between 1-100 that denotes how ‘full’ your character is. If the value reaches 0 then you die of starvation, so it’s important to pick up food items whenever you can.
Now, eating a piece of food found in the labyrinth raises your hunger value by a random amount, usually between +10 and +30. If the number goes above 70 then you enter a “stuffed” state where your movement and attack speed is decreased. If the number ever reaches 100…
You can die from eating too much in a game.
I’ve often wondered why the hero goes through with eating the food if he knows it’s going to kill him.
But he eats it regardless.
And then he dies.
From eating too much.
I like to think the whole thing is actually a very subtle comment about human control run amok and how some people can force those under their power to do insane things, like that scene in Conan where the female slave walks off a ledge because evil James Earl Jones told her to.
It’s an odd mechanic where a player comes across a piece of food on the floor and begins weighing up the likelihood of whether eating it will kill him or not. A little number next to the food icon would have easily solved this of course but then I guess this is all part of the point isn’t it? Roguelike games are hard and make few concessions towards your well-being, full stomach or no full stomach.
Another hilarious aspect is surprisingly one that concerns gold coins. In traditional RPGs gold is used to purchase items and equipment from NPC vendors but not so in FL. Gold is used for one thing in this game; to buy you a nicer funeral service when you die.
The only function that gold has here is to give you a better tombstone for when the game eventually kills you.
And notice how many more townsfolk show up to your grave when you die rich instead of poor? 16-bit social commentary at its finest if you ask me.
I would revisit Fatal Labyrinth years later and it was then that I finally started to see how the game could be enjoyed. Because of the threat of permanently dying, every decision matters in a game like this, so it’s easier to become invested in what’s going on. Do you approach the stationary robot at the back of the room to get at that axe you can see lying on the floor? Or do you retreat? Unwilling to lose hours of gameplay after taking a robotic laser to the face…
I also discovered how important it was to clear every floor of the tower before moving onto the next; thus maximizing my XP gains to make future floors easier to handle. Despite the incredibly basic graphics and presentation I came to see FL in a different light and no longer thought of it as quite a terrible game as I once had. I still hate it though. Those armoured slug enemies that dissolve your weapons are enough to move any man to tears.
Roguelikes seem like very strange games then, games that sound like they would be near impossible to enjoy at first glance. But here is where I come to the crucial point in all of this: a lot of people; myself included, really enjoy them.
The decisions that you make in these games feel more meaningful. The threat of permadeath or XP loss or whatever system it is will invest you in what’s going on more than if you could simply reload your save game and start over. This is something I mentioned in my Skyrim retrospective; traditional RPGs can sometimes (not all the time) fail to truly excite you because of the lack of consequence. In fact if I just had to sum up what’s good about roguelikes in a single word it may just be that: consequence. These games often make me feel that my decisions matter- a very important factor of RPGs that some titles sadly lack these days.
Due to their niche appeal, roguelikes spent the last decade in relative anonymity; the genre falling out of popularity quite drastically as the millennium dawned.
Time Stalkers (known as Climax Landers in Japan) is a roguelike JRPG for the Sega Dreamcast. I remember that critical reception for the game was overwhelmingly negative at the time of its release with one magazine claiming it “played in a way that made an evening watching fish fingers defrost sound interesting.” I always thought that this was a rather unfair assessment considering the game is not actually that bad at all. What drew particular criticism was how players lost all of their experience points upon completing a dungeon. But this is a rather cunning feature if you think about it. Every new level requires you to start over; to experience that feeling of making a fresh start and not simply reusing that one AoE attack every single battle and then moving on. No, every battle is important and every XP point is a vital commodity.
But you can always look at it the other way too because really, why care about experience points? There should be more to an RPG than just levelling up and that is something I think Time Stalkers understood better than most. All roguelikes demand a certain commitment from the player and this game was no different. Was it perfect? Hell no. But it certainly wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be at the time.
Roguelikes hit a rough spot in the affections of the gaming public to the extent that I hadn’t even recognized the separate genre until a few years ago; they tended to be that niche.
But things took a different turn in the 2010s where a sudden flurry of quality new roguelikes succeeded in revitalizing the genre for a modern audience. The single most important of which was Dark Souls.
An especially difficult but rewarding game, Dark Souls makes player death a major part of its learning experience. Rather than being permanent, death comes fast and frequent; but with the intention of teaching how to be a better player. I think Dark Souls is the perfect antidote to all those unexciting RPGs that are knocking around these days.
Clearly many others thought so too as Dark Souls went on to become a major success spawning a sequel and several expansions.
FTL: Faster Than Light would be the next big roguelike hit. Not a triple-A title in the same vein of Dark Souls, FTL made its way to market via kickstarter but it still garnered glowing reviews from just about everyone who played it and with good reason too as the game is amazing fun.
Although the overly random nature of FTL irks me somewhat, I still have a soft spot for this space-faring roguelike. Getting your federation ship to the final sector of the galaxy is a hellishly difficult challenge with many pleasant and equally unpleasant surprises to be had along the way.
But talking about tough roguelikes just wouldn’t be complete without a special mention for Spelunky – one of the hardest games I have ever played. (I feel another list coming on…)
Spelunky hides its difficulty behind cute and cartoony graphic design but you’ll soon come to see this for the facade it is as Spelunky’s daunting task of reaching the final level of the temple will have even the most patient gamer pulling their hair out.
I think it’s rather telling that Steam has a dedicated roguelike category in its store; the genre seems to have entered a renaissance of sorts and it’s nice to know that more players can experience for themselves the unique brand of pain and suffering that this genre seems to do so very well.
Not that I’m bitter or anything…
I’m very interested to see where these unique games can go in the next five years. FTL’s superb blending of genres has proven that roguelikes don’t have to be confined to the dungeons anymore and I for one would be very interested to see if the developers could expand their concepts for a sequel somewhere down the line.
But for now though I have been inspired to return to that game that got me started. I’m going to dig out my Fatal Labyrinth cartridge and do something that I should have done years ago; Game Genie that sucker into oblivion and outright cheat my way to the end.
It’s great to feel like a kid again.