Monday, July 1, 2013

Mommy, what's a roguelike? An undereducated feature article

at 1:08 PM
I wanted to do a little feature piece here on roguelikes; they're an interesting niche genre of RPG whose existence is a mystery to some and a secret to all. Then I realized: hm. I'm not the best person to write about them, considering I've never seriously played one. This line of thought was prompted by 30 minutes spent last week with Genesis' Fatal Labyrinth, the first true roguelike I've ever played (and one I was tricked into playing, at that).

"Roguelike" is an odd genre descriptor, as it's actually derived from the very first such game: 1980's Rogue. It's the equivalent of calling platformers Pitfallesques. Rogue was a dungeon-crawling RPG that distinguished itself through non-persistence. Every time the player dies, he is reset to the beginning of the game and the entire dungeon is randomly regenerated, creating essentially an entirely new game. This made for a punishing - but to some players, infinitely replayable - experience. It utilized basic ASCII art (remember, this was 1980), a style which remains popular among roguelikers and has become inextricably linked to the genre.
A single floor of a randomly generated Rogue dungeon
As the name suggests, all proper roguelikes function very similarly to Rogue. The core notion behind what seems like cruel and unusual punishment is that each session of the game is a completely unique adventure, one which you'll only have one shot to complete. Fail, and all trace of that journey is extinguished. Many roguelikes even go one step further than procedurally generated maps, resetting all item and enemy definitions - a red potion that restored health on one play may cause poisoning on the next. This both encourages experimentation and turns it into a game of chance. The games aren't solely about making it to the end; they're also about experiencing this variety of challenge and developing the skills necessary to deal with the unpredictable.

Obscure though pure-blooded roguelikes may be, their influence on mainstream game design can't be denied. Diablo, Dark Souls, and Minecraft are just a few examples of roguelike-likes that owe a debt to Rogue for pioneering risky, rewarding, and random challenge. Games as diverse as Oregon Trail and Spelunky have dipped into the notion of procedurally generated unexpected obstacles, though these days public level creators and active content-generating communities are more popular bottomless pits of new material.
Shiren the Wanderer, one of the few popular Japanese roguelike series
Alas, as aforementioned, roguelikes have never drawn me in. I'm not much of a role-player, so the idea of procedurally generated infinite content appeals to me about as much as procedurally generated infinite banana peels. But I play games with an open mind and I'll be damned if I'm not willing to give roguelikes a real shot. Plenty of styles I once brushed off without a thought now rank among my favorites (fighting games, movies), so maybe something will really grab me. Fatal Labyrinth was pretty basic and I don't know that it has any positive reputation (or reputation whatsoever), so I think I'm going to jump to a more renowned series, Chunsoft's Mystery Dungeon. In the bullpen we've got St!ng's Baroque, Tales of Maj'Eyal, and Rogue itself.

So I'll probably post some updates soon. Until then, let's embark on a journey together, you and I, to play all the roguelikes the world could ever dream of. Until we lose patience and stop having fun.

edit: I wrote this on Friday even though I'm posting it Monday, so the adventure has already begun! I have played the first seven or eight levels of SNES's Mystery Dungeon 2: Shiren the Wanderer like a million times. And I'm beginning to lose patience!

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