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What is a Roguelike? An Introduction

Do you find yourself smiling and nodding, unsure of what to say when your friends talk about roguelike games?

We get it. The subgenre can be confusing and it’s not always clear what defines a roguelike game.

In this article, we’ll explore its origins, what ingredients make a roguelike game, and how you can start playing the best games in the genre.

Grab your sword and let’s go!

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The Origin Of Roguelikes

To fully understand the roguelike genre, we have to travel all the way back to the 1980s. To the game that started it all; Rogue, an RPG created by Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman.

In Rogue, you played a knight who explored dungeons with one simple aim – to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor.

To find the amulet, you had to battle many monsters, level up your knight, and avoid traps. But here’s the kicker: this dungeon crawler was never the same twice.

This was the first game of its kind to procedurally generate levels – meaning that each time you died, you wouldn’t start back at the beginning of the same level. You’d face a new adventure each time – and that was part of what made Rogue so addictive.

What Is A Roguelike?

So, exactly what is a roguelike? Since that first taste of randomly generated levels, a system to level up your character’s skills, and the threat of permadeath, other developers have tried to capture those elements in their own games.

Roguelike games are heavily inspired by Rogue, with similar elements that made the original game so unique. Hack, NetHack, and Angband were popular spins on the genre during the 80s and 90s.

Mostly indie devs have explored this genre, with popular titles such as Dead Cells, Darkest Dungeon, and The Binding of Isaac in more recent years.

In the decades since Rogue, the genre has certainly expanded and become more experimental. Yet the key ingredients of a roguelike remain pretty much the same.

In 2008, at the International Roguelike Development Conference in Berlin, devs settled on a true definition of what makes a roguelike game. Coined the ‘Berlin Interpretation’, roguelike games should have a few basic components to truly belong to the genre.

Let’s explore some of these features in more depth.

Character-centric

All roguelike games have something in common: you control a single character throughout the game. Instead of journeying through levels with a party or group of players, or not controlling a character at all (like puzzle games), you’re usually responsible for a single character whom the story revolves around.

This ties briefly into another important aspect of roguelike games – resource management.

In most roguelikes, you’ll have an inventory where you store found items, weapons, money, and food to help your character progress.

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The further you explore, the more tired your character can become, meaning to keep them healthy you need to feed them food and potions. If you’re hurt in battle, first aid items and potions will replenish your stats.

Caring for your character in this way adds another addicting layer to the single-player format of the game. Gameplay begins to matter more, influencing your decisions as you explore deeper into the levels.

Turn-Based

Many video games feature action-packed fight scenes, where it’s up to you to dodge, parry, and hit your enemies in real-time.

However, in roguelike games, combat is turn-based.

You have as much time as you need to decide your moves, with each step determining how your enemy responds.

The creators of Rogue were Dungeons and Dragons fans, so this combat style ended up being a mainstay in the roguelike genre.

It’s not limited to the typical ‘hack and slash’ style of battle. For example, in Slay the Spire, cards with different values are how you choose your moves and advance in the game.

Procedural Content

A huge factor in any roguelike game is the procedurally generated levels throughout the game. It’s what makes these games so replayable.

In contrast to games where the levels are always the same, you can play a roguelike dozens of times in a row and reveal a new level every time.

To make life a bit easier, games often have safe areas like shops that remain the same. So if you need to stock up on supplies or get advice from an NPC, you’re not totally lost and pulling your hair out.

Permanent Consequences

What makes you either love the genre – or hate it – are permanent consequences. They’re probably one of the more infuriating aspects of roguelike games.

Permanent consequences can’t be undone with a reload of your saved data. That makes every decision count. Even death, as many roguelikes feature permadeath as standard.

Your choices affect how the game plays out, encouraging you to think carefully about your strategy. What’s even more exciting about this thoughtful planning element is how it works with the procedural content, creating an unpredictable path to your end goal.

Roguelike vs Roguelite: Does It Really Matter?

If you’ve heard the terms roguelike and roguelite thrown around and you’re not sure of the differences, it’s understandable why you might be confused.

Even among die-hard fans of the genre, there are debates about what makes a true roguelike game (even with the Berlin Interpretation).

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We’ve covered what makes a game roguelike, mainly that it has to feature these factors:

  • Character-focused
  • Permanent consequences
  • Procedurally-generated levels
  • Turn-based combat

But we haven’t yet discussed what happens when a game doesn’t quite cover all these bases.

Enter roguelite games.

With more experimental and creative ways to explore this genre, games have certainly stretched the meaning of ‘roguelike’ to encompass different kinds of gameplay. Now you can find shooters, first-person, and even rhythm elements to roguelike games.

Many games don’t include all of the ‘traditional’ roguelike elements at all, borrowing one or two. These games would be considered ‘roguelite’ games.

Roguelites typically have simpler gameplay, designed to complete more quickly than a roguelike.

You won’t be able to save your progressions once you die in a roguelike, for example, but it’s common in roguelite games to make it easier to play.

So, does it matter that the two sub-genres have distinct differences?

Not really! Gamers use the phrases interchangeably and the genre continues to grow in fun and innovative ways, so devs will carry on pushing the boundaries, whatever we choose to label them as.

How Do I Get Into the Genre?

Hopefully, you now know more about roguelike games and perhaps want to try your hand at some.

Where do you start?

You don’t necessarily need to start with the game that started it all – unless you’re a big fan of ASCII or text-based adventures.

The roguelike genre is diverse, including many different concepts.

Want to dip your toes into the genre with a simpler, more accessible game? Try your hand at a roguelite game. Spelunky is a great 2D platformer to start with as it’s simple to grasp yet extremely hard to put down.

Prefer to dive right into a more complex roguelike? Darkest Dungeon provides all the strategy-building and tactical combat you could want from the genre.

How about something totally different? Crypt of the Necrodancer fuses roguelike elements with a rhythm game, all with stunning retro-inspired graphics. Plus, the soundtrack is awesome.

Armed with all this new roguelike knowledge, we hope you’re ready to try out some games in the roguelike genre. Now all you have to do is start exploring!