Rogue was a game like no other. Developed and released in the early '80s I doubt its creators, Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, and Ken Arnold, suspected that their little project would spawn an entire subgenre of video games. What made Rogue special was its random levels, RPG elements (based on Dungeons and Dragons) and harsh difficulty. When your character died, it was permanently dead. Random levels and perma-death gave the game incredible replayability and sparked many discussions on the best ways to beat the game. These basic tenets, randomization and perma-death, became the foundation for an entire subgenre of video games named after their progenitor. Some of the earliest Rogue-like (or, more often, just “Rogue”) games were basically clones of the original concept, like Nethack (which is my personal favorite Rogue clone), but modern Rogue games come in all shapes and sizes from sci-fi to psychological action. There has been a slew of recent high quality Rogue games, a few of which I want to highlight, namely Faster than Light, The Binding of Isaac, and the recently released Rogue Legacy.
Faster than Light is a sci-fi, ship based Rogue game that was released in late 2012. Instead of picking a class like in Nethack, you pick which ship you want to start with, and that dictates your beginning stats and equipment. After ship creation, you work your way through a randomly generated galaxy populated by randomly generated systems. Within the systems, random events occur that have multiple endings that can play out, usually decided randomly, of course. As you may have guessed, FTL has a lot of random elements, which gives it plenty of replayability. However, the charm of the game is beyond just random chance, it’s in the frantic nature of the game. Your ship is being pursued by an enemy fleet, so if you loiter too long in any system, the enemy will catch you and most likely kill you. If you go too quickly, you can’t spend as much time exploring each system for crew members and gear, so you’ll get in over your head pretty quickly, and the enemies will most likely kill you.
This inevitable death is usually not a gradual decline. Everything seems to be going swimmingly until everything goes wrong at once. In one bad move, suddenly you have three enemies aboard your ship, your life support system is down, and a raging fire is spreading voraciously through your ship. These frenetic moments are what sell the game. All at once, you have to fight off borders, put out fires, heal your crew, and leave someone manning the helm so you can desperately mash the “Jump” button so you can escape. Great fun and a worthy, non-standard Rogue game.
For those of you who have strong mental fortitude, The Binding of Isaac is a great play. With its randomly generated levels and gear progression, it definitely qualifies as a Rogue game, but The Binding of Isaac brings much more to the table than that. It features a dark, psychological story about Isaac’s life and his quest to survive with everyone, even his own Mother, out to kill him. There are other characters to unlock, but the main replayability comes from just how difficult the game is! As you work your way down through the levels until you face Mom, the enemies become more difficult very quickly. Unless you have the skills or the items to keep up, your journey will be short. I must reiterate that this game is not for the faint of heart. Most of the enemies you fight are sobbing children, demons or malformed babies. You use your own tears as a weapon, and horrible things that make your cry more, like dead pets, actually increase your rate of fire. It’s messed up and slightly emotionally scarring, but surprisingly fun for an isometric shooter.
The pinnacle of modern Rogue games is the newest of the three. It is a game about a family of adventurers attempting to conquer a magical castle and bears the title of “Rogue” in its name. This game is Rogue Legacy. Rogue Legacy is self-labeled as a “Rogue Lite” game because not all progress is lost on death.
I love how the system works. Every time you delve into the castle, all of the money you earn will get passed down to your heir, who will have the chance opportunity to spend it on upgrades and new equipment before they head into the castle, earn money, die, and thus the cycle continues. This keeps the game interesting because, even though the castle is randomly generated, you have something to constantly work towards. You can increase all of your stats, buy new classes, and much more. These rewards are fantastic motivation to grab your money and send your heirs into the breach.
The gameplay is satisfying, and it is a solid Metroidvania game in its own right, but the addition of the upgrades, mini-bosses, and story progression makes this game definitely worth playing. And don’t worry about it not being difficult enough, once you beat the game the first time you may begin a "New Game +" where you keep all of your upgrades, but all of the enemies become much more difficult so you can work through the storyline more than once, which is awesome since plowing through monster filled rooms as a Lich King will never get old.
Rogue games have been around almost as long as PC gaming as we know it, and, with these new additions to the genre, it shows no signs of going away. Rogue-like games provide a unique gaming experience where dying and trying again is an integral part of the experience. If you haven’t had an opportunity to experience a Rogue game yet, you could start with some history and pickup Nethack (for free, woo!), or you can pick up one of these newer romps. There are many more games that fit the Rogue game label, but these are a few of my recent favorites. What are your favorite Rogue games?
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