With the recent release of Enter the Gungeon and the impending onslaught of work that comes with University finals, I’ve once again reverted to spending an unjustifiable amount of time playing rogue-lite games. As a subgenre of a subgenre, rogue-lite games are characterized by their combination of modern gaming conventions with the procedurally generated worlds, permadeath, and intricate resource management systems of games in the “roguelike” genre. While it has most directly spawned a cult following of niche RPGs, the 80s original Dungeons and Dragons inspired Rogue has proven to be instrumental in the development of the industry. Released a year before what is commonly considered the seminal RPG of the decade: Sir-Tech Software’s revolutionary first person dungeon crawler Wizardry, Rogue pioneered game mechanics that can still be found today, and inspired countless designers behind works such as Diablo, Minecraft and Torneko no Daib?ken (the Mystery Dungeon series). Over the course of the following decades, games such as Nethack, Moria and Tales of Maj’Eyal continued to uphold and improve the turn-based gameplay, tile-based graphics, brutal difficulty and immersive world building of Rogue. Unfortunately, while these titles are often praised for their complexity and interconnectivity between in-game systems, it is this same quality that inherently prevents them from ever reaching a larger audience of less-seasoned players. Because of this difficulty in attracting new markets, games strictly considered to be rogue-like haven’t been central to the gaming community as a whole. Personally, I feel that many of these core rogue-like games have not aged particularly well (or perhaps I’ve been far too spoiled by recent games) and that the more recent titles they have inspired are either too formulaic or obtuse to enjoy without a ridiculous time investment, but I can appreciate the genre for its initial innovations and its contribution to gaming as a whole.
To more effectively determine what can or cannot be considered a rogue-like, the International Rogue-like Development Conference of 2008 created the “Berlin Interpretation.” It serves as a comprehensive guideline of what the high and low factors of classifying a game’s standing in the rogue-like genre are. It places a high emphasis on maintaining randomly generated worlds, permanent death, and grid based exploration while leaving visual style (mainly ASCII graphics), environment type and the number of characters that players can control open to interpretation. Although there has yet to be a definitive Triple-A game that fits squarely into this description, multiple titles have implemented distinctive rogue-like characteristics while firmly maintaining their individual genre. Whether it be the procedurally generated chalice dungeons of the action/horror RPG Bloodborne, the permadeath-based hardcore mode in the sandbox/survival game Minecraft, or the emphasis on resource/status management in Fallout 4’s survival mode (still in beta), rogue-likes set the foundation for many of the industry’s most common systems.
Furthermore, the rogue-lite genre that these games have inspired has quickly become a goldmine of innovative indie games that combine rogue-like conventions with wildly different genres such as platformers, action-adventures and strategy games. To compensate for their innately limited resources, these indie games use randomly created content to make each experience feel new with each playthrough even if the same assets are simply rearranged to give the illusion of new content. In addition to this, the permadeath and resource management systems commonly found today emphasize the importance of each playthrough, as even a small mistake can completely destroy an entire run. To highlight how these recent titles have utilized roguelike mechanics to create new experiences and develop unique interpretations of existing genres here is a list of my Top 5 favorite rogue-lite games.
Genre: Adventure platformer
Roguelike elements: Permadeath, procedurally generated levels, exploration/discovery, and resource management
Originally released as freeware in 2008, Derek Yu’s Spelunky was one the first games to successfully apply stereotypical rogue-like mechanics to an approachable medium. As a deceptively simple platformer about an explorer’s adventure into the depths of the Earth in search of treasure, Spelunky garnered praise from critics and fans alike. Adding to the collective worship of the game, the developer’s release of the source code created a dedicated modding community that kept the game fresh and assured its popularity for several years. Eventually, the game was remade in HD for the Xbox 360 as a downloadable title in 2012 and ported to the PC and Sony consoles soon after. What’s truly amazing about this game is that it still remains impressive nearly a decade after its initial release. Regardless of when this game is played, it remains as polished and innovative as anything in its wake. Taking major inspiration from both the rogue-likes of the 1980s and 1983’s Spelunker, players are initially tasked with making their way further and further down an elaborate series of mines while collecting treasure, avoiding deadly traps and acquiring new items to assist them on their journey. After several levels, one thing becomes abundantly clear; every single aspect of this game is designed to get you killed. Each treasure is meticulously placed to entice the greedy into danger. That next jump is just close enough to not send the player hurtling to their demise. The player is never given quite enough gold to actually purchase something from the shopkeeper and they think they can get away with stealing it. Every room seems just safe enough to warrant exploring it, only to lure the player to yet another death. And yet, miraculously, these levels were not handcrafted by some game design master – but procedurally generated by a computer.
To this day, Spelunky’s formula for creating varied and unique environments remains the gold standard for rogue-likes, and rightfully so. At no point in playing this game have I justifiably claimed that my failure was due to the game itself. Yu’s game masterfully walks the fine line between giving the player the freedom to act as they choose and restraining the player with RNG and other limitations, a feat that remains rarely reproduced. In a vein similar to that of Hidetaka Miyazaki (of Dark Souls fame), Yu doesn’t want the game to empower and upgrade its player character, but instead, enable the players to learn the game and improve their performance themselves. Sure a few extra ropes here and a cape there can turn a good run into a great one, but when it really comes down to it, the player’s mechanics are what determines their success. As if this wasn’t enough, the HD remake provides additional content such as co-op, completely new areas to explore and even daily challenge to ensure that players are never too far from their next run. Despite the tacked-on competitive multiplayer and muddied, cartoonish visuals of the remake and even the difficulties of navigating dense areas present in the original (ledge grabbing is particularly iffy), Spelunky set a high bar for the rogue-lites to follow and introduced countless players to revolutionary mechanics.
4) Crypt of the NecroDancer
Genre: Rhythm RPG
Roguelike elements: Permadeath, procedurally generated levels, dungeon-crawling, grid-based, and turn-based gameplay (technically)
One of my biggest omissions of 2015 made me question some of my picks for game of the year when I finally gave it a chance, after its release on the Playstation 4 and Vita. I can’t honestly remember a time where I was so unexpectedly floored by a game as much as I was during my first few hours with Brace Yourself Games’ roguelike, rhythm game hybrid Crypt of the NecroDancer. When I originally heard the premise of an action RPG being set to the beat of a game’s soundtrack my immediate reaction was that it would serve as nothing more than a cheap gimmick that would get old really fast. All actions, whether it be movement, combat or item management, are done in continuous single actions that the player must sync up to the level’s music. With my foot in my mouth, it’s needless to say that it turned out to be something worthy of the rogue-lite title. Oddly enough, it’s the closest thing on this list to a textbook rogue-like in broad terms, while simultaneously being the least conventional in others. It’s a permadeath driven, procedurally-generated, hack’n’slash dungeon crawler at its core, but it is also the only true grid/turn-based game on the list (as both monsters and the player can only carry out actions on specific beats and are locked into individual spaces for the rest of the time).
What I presumed would be an unnatural and irksome system turned out to be one of the most fluid and intuitive control schemes I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. By essentially limiting the controls required to play the game to a mere 4 buttons, Crypt of the NecroDancer is both the most accessible and efficiently designed rogue-lite I’ve ever seen. While these simplifications could naturally lead to the thought that the project was “dumbed- down” in some way, there are actually just as many complex systems present here as any other game in the genre. At any given moment the player could be fending off hoards of bats, mining for hidden treasure, visiting the shopkeeper for new equipment, or facing some of the most imaginative (and hilarious) bosses in recent memory. Each of the games four zones is visually and mechanically distinct, constantly introducing new environmental hazards and tons of unique monsters, each showcasing their own unique traps and combat patterns. In fact, the game’s completely unique rhythm mechanic arguably makes it more complex, due to its audience’s inexperience with the inputs required to play it effectively. Make no mistake, while Crypt of the NecroDancer is incredibly easy to control, this game stays true to its rogue-like roots and provides one of the most punishing rogue-lite experiences ever made. Because of its outlandish premise, the controls can initially feel foreign when compared to modern games. Early players will mis-time actions, forget to continue their beat combo and die repeatedly to simple enemies until they become familiar with the controls and combat, resulting in one of the most satisfying “clicking” moments in gaming. Tying it all together is a wonderfully upbeat and catchy soundtrack by renowned game composer Danny Baranowsky that sets the tone of each level and prepares the player for their oncoming dance of button inputs. To further increase its replay value, multiple characters can be unlocked to radically alter one’s approach to the game and custom music can be added to fight to the beat of the player’s favorite tracks. Although the story is nothing to write home about, Crypt of the NecroDancer’s incredible premise and commitment to the rogue-lite genre makes it one of the freshest experiences of this generation.
3) The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
Genre: Action adventure, bullet-hell
Roguelike elements: Permadeath, procedurally generated levels and dungeon-crawling
If Spelunky is seen as a herald of the return of rogue-like mechanics, then Edmund McMillen’s 2011 hit, The Binding of Isaac is essentially the game that brought the rogue-lite genre to the masses. Upon finishing his previous masterpiece Super Meat Boy, McMillen was inspired by the endless replay value found in the procedurally-generated worlds and permadeath systems implemented in Spelunky, to take a larger risk on his next project. During a week-long game-jam with fellow game designer Florian Himsl, the two laid the groundwork for a Legend of Zelda style dungeon crawler that supplanted the simple hack’n’slash combat of the original NES classic with that of a twin stick shooter. With the energetic action of a bullet hell game and the unpredictability of a rogue-like, The Binding of Isaac established the rogue-lite genre as an influential force in the gaming industry. Leaning heavily on the “action” side of the action-adventure genre, the game follows Isaac, a baby whose crazed evangelist mother was ordered by God to kill him, and so escapes into his basement. As he descends into nightmarish depths, he must defeat the boss at the end of each floor, facing off against other monstrosities and collecting items and power-ups along the way.
The player begins each run with nothing but their own tears as bullets, but can find various upgrades to become stronger as the challenges they face become harder. The base tear’s trajectory is affected by both momentum and direction, making it difficult to control and encouraging players to actively explore the dungeons for means of defending themselves. Apart from the standard bomb and key items, the game allows an absurd amount of customization by maintaining three distinct item types at once. Active collectible items such as the Necronomicon can be used to perform various actions by pressing the spacebar and recharge as each room is cleared while passive items called Trinkets mainly provide stat bonuses. Finally, consumables such as Tarot Cards, Pills and Runes can be used by pressing “Q,” and often have less traditional impacts on gameplay such as allowing Isaac to release poisonous farts to damage enemies. Though the player isn’t given straightforward descriptions of these items, many visually alter Isaac or become apparent upon use, indicating what has changed. More importantly, many of these items stack, and can be combined/interact with each other to make one of the most diverse upgrade systems in gaming. Enemies and bosses are equally varied and distinct and although the levels themselves make a slightly smaller impact on the gameplay, no two runs of this game will ever feel the same. Thanks to multiple branching paths, hidden characters, unlockable items and multiple endings, even players who don’t fully appreciate the intricate mechanics have ample reason to replay the game.
To further enable fan’s indulgence in the new era of rogue-lite prominence, indie publisher Nicalis worked with McMillen to release a fully fledged remake in 2014. Entitled The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, the remake both improved on the base games existing content by adding over 150 new items and implementing brand new features that were supposed to be included in the first game such as local co-op and a hard mode. Rebirth was a huge technical improvement over the original game, boasting better frame rates and performance, but was criticized by some for its new pixelated art style. In October of 2015, Nicalis released yet another enormous update called Afterbirth and even plans to create another by the end of 2016. Because of its continued support, nearly limitless replay value and the creation of one of the most mechanically open and enjoyable combat systems ever made, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth stands as a pillar of not only the rogue-like genre but of indie gaming as a whole.
2) Rogue Legacy
Genre: Action platformer
Roguelike elements: Permadeath, procedurally generated levels and hack’n’slash gameplay
Although it doesn’t come in at number one, I’ve spent more time playing Rogue Legacy than any other game on this list. Since its release in June of 2013, I’ve put hundreds of hours into this game across multiple playthroughs, with each one feeling unique from the next. The core concept is simple in theory but allows for endless exploration and replayability in practice. Instead of the standard rogue-like affair of the game waving off your continued deaths and progress in the name of beginning anew, Rogue Legacy revolves around an entire bloodline’s endless siege of a single castle that rearranges itself before each entry. At the beginning of every run, you select one of the three heirs of the character you previously played as to enter the castle once more. All three are randomly generated and have their own characteristics and abilities, with some inheriting certain traits from their ancestor and others exhibiting new ones. With a total of 10 classes, 15 sets of armor/swords and several items and spells, the game appears to have a typical Dungeons and Dragons character frame but has an extra twist. In addition to your character’s customizable equipment, they are born with up to two of thirty-seven possible traits that alter the way they can be played. Some straightforward traits such as dwarfism or gigantism change how you maneuver through levels and approach enemies while others such as homosexuality and clumsiness make smaller, more subtle alterations to your game by changing which statue refills your health and causing certain obstacles to break respectively. Some traits showcase the game’s unique sense of grim humor with visual gags such as near-sightedness, dyslexia, and color-blindness changing the game’s appearance while even more absurd, uncommon traits such as Alzheimers, toy with the player by removing their map.
Upon choosing and equipping a class, players enter a newly-generated castle that is divided into 4 distinct but interconnected areas. In traditional rogue-like fashion, the goal is to fight through hordes of enemies to defeat the boss of each section while collecting as much gold as possible. Contrasting games in this genre, however, gold can be used to permanently upgrade character stats, unlock or upgrade new classes and open up shops at the end of each run. While a game trying to be a rogue-like would be criticized for allowing external rewards outside of each play session, Rogue Legacy simply adapts the replay value found in the genre to be embraced as an extremely satisfying system of progression. By clearly creating both small and large monetary goals, the game assures the player that they will be rewarded if they survive even marginally longer than their previous attempt, as well as encouraging them to improve by teasing them with the possibility of more expensive purchases. This fosters players to learn the game’s mechanics while simultaneously assuring them that their time will not be wasted should they fail. Because of its endearing humor, rewarding upgrading mechanics, and deep customization, Rogue Legacy is a perfect example of how a game can modernize the conventions that inspired it.
1) FTL: Faster Than Light
Genre: Strategy space simulator
Roguelike elements: Permadeath, procedurally generated levels, turn-based (when chosen), and resource management
Before I even started writing this, I knew I couldn’t put any other game at the top of this list. If I was to pick the most influential rogue-lite, I would have to give credit to Spelunky for revitalizing the mechanics it passed on to modern developers. Judging these games by the amount of time I spent with them, I would be assumed to prefer Rogue Legacy over any of these. Objectively, I think The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is what can most accurately be named the “best” rogue-lite and I think Crypt of the Necrodancer is far and away the most unique. But If I were to have to pick the game that left the largest impression on me, as I am doing, I can say without a doubt that FTL: Faster Than Light is my favorite rogue-lite game ever made. Narrowly beating out Hotline Miami and Journey for my pick of the best game of 2012, FTL managed to reignite my enthusiasm for the industry after a particularly rough summer (not to mention a total drought of games) distracted me from almost every form of art and entertainment possible. Even setting personal attachments aside, FTL is still an absolute masterpiece from almost every conceivable angle. What separates this game from every other sci-fi epic and rogue-like, for me, is not the sole complexity of any single aspect of the game, but what it accomplishes as a whole. While it does feature polished rogue-like mechanics, incredibly in-depth spaceship management, satisfyingly difficult and varied combat options, an intriguing world and clever writing individually upon dissection, the true achievement of this game is its seamless integration of all these aspects into short, powerful playthrough.
The basic premise of the game is that the player is given total command of a single spaceship, supervising every system from engine to weapons and all of its crew members. They are tasked with outrunning advancing rebel forces for eight procedurally generated sectors of space (comprised of smaller branching levels) before reaching the headquarters of the Galactic Federation and facing off against the rebel flagship. Initially, players are forced to use the most basic ship in order for the game to ease them into its intimidating assortment of mechanics. By asking the player to unlock all ten ships, and their various premade layouts and crews, FTL encourages experimentation and learning without a fear of failure. After enough playthroughs, the player is given the autonomy to choose from an assortment of cloaked stealth ships, fortress-like drone defense ships, ruthless warships and much, much more. Small touches such as the ability to name your ship and crew members to go a long way in determining your immersion in the game, as every playthrough will feature a cast of your choosing. The different races and ships all have their own strengths and weaknesses allowing a large variety of customization and strategy, as many roguelikes do. Where this game differs, however, is its extensive and cohesive world behind each item, place, and species. While many modern rogue-lites prioritize their gameplay over their narrative, both are given equal attention and polish here. Aside from the intense space combat throughout the game, there are numerous text-based quests, dialogue trees and speech options that all result in fresh experiences. On their journey, players will buy and sell parts and supplies just to get buy, struggle with difficult moral choice beyond the simple “good and evil” binary and be forced to make sacrifices in hope of reaching the final boss. The game’s dialogue, instructions, and descriptions are minimal, but well written and even humorous at times, a rare feat for any game, let alone an independently made rogue-lite.
For the entire duration of the game, the player is responsible for each victory, defeat and everything in-between. On any given run the player can be fighting in life or death space battles, micro-managing the use of an innocent ship’s scrap metal, embarking on ludicrous quests for ancient crystal ships, strategically evacuating the oxygen from sections of their ship on fire, attempting to diplomatically resolve conflicts, defending their engine room from boarding insect warriors or simply exploring an empty pocket of the galaxy to make repairs. Sometimes these can all happen in one playthrough; sometimes the player will defeat the rebel flagship against all odds and other times the player will simply be faced with an impassable force and die alone in the vacuum of space.
While some only see games as systems to be exploited or mere obstacles to overcome, this game’s developers prove that they can be so much more. By carefully tying all of its multilayered gameplay elements to grounded stories and real world choices, FTL creates a fully realized interactive narrative in the span of roughly forty minutes. If this is a sign of the heights our medium can reach, FTL: Faster Than Light may one day be as revered as the classic roguelikes that inspired it. I can think of no higher praise for a rogue-lite game than that.