Agenre Provocateur is a column that explores the best of independent video gaming aimed at those new or returning to the scene.
Last week we had a gander at role-playing games but one aspect not mentioned about the initial efforts is that they were pretty much all rock hard. Given that operating personal computers required insane arcane knowledge, if you were gaming on one it was assumed you were willing to enter the Realms of Hardcoria (new band name..called it). However, all of them were beatable with passwords or save files, making time the only barrier to success. For some this simply wouldn’t do and in 1980 a collaboration between UC Berkeley and Santa Cruz students resulted in a little game called Rogue.
Rogue differed from the norm in several ways, the first being that dungeons were randomly generated rather than pre-designed. The effects of items such as potions were also hidden meaning they would have to be used to find out their potentially negative effects. Last, but most importantly, was perma-death. One life, one mistake, just one more go. The Roguelike genre was born.
The game’s popularity led to several imitators in the years that followed. These were mainly open source meaning anyone could change the original code creating entirely new experiences. This practice continued as this type of game faded from public view, leading to a steady stream of titles that kept the hardcore happy while being mostly ignored by the mainstream.
The first sign of change was 2002’s Strange Adventures in Infinite Space. Showing that Roguelike elements could be combined with a 15-20 minute space adventure, SAIS opened the door for other developers to throw a multitude of ideas into the mix (the developers of FTL, mentioned in my introductory article, cite SAIS as a major influence).
This week, I’ll look at three titles that take these elements and use them in new and interesting ways. While permanent death makes these the hardest games I’ll be recommending, it’s important to remember that dying in these isn’t failure but an opportunity to learn from mistakes. Given time and perseverance Roguelikes can lead to the most entertaining and rewarding experiences in gaming.
Note: While the internet debates what constitutes a proper Roguelike, often referring to games borrowing these elements as Rogue-lites or Roguelike-likes (ugh), I’ll be referring to all of them as plain ol’ Roguelikes for the sake of posterity.
Motivated by Roguelikes and platformers he was playing, designer Derek Yu combined both in this free title (available here) released in 2008. After gaining massive critical acclaim, Microsoft picked it up for a HD remake launched via Xbox Live Arcade in 2012. Assuming the role of the nameless spelunker, you negotiate underground tunnels, gathering treasure and dealing with the threat of enemies, traps and your own stupid hands. The controls are incredibly tight meaning that you never have anyone to blame but yourself for mistakes. Also, despite the innate replay value of random levels, the variety of environments, monsters and secrets is staggering. (Windows/Chrome OS, Xbox 360, PS3, PS4, PS Vita)
Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
From the demented mind of Ed McMillan (Super Meat Boy) comes a fable based on the biblical tale of the same name. Receiving a message from God to kill her son, Isaac escapes to the basement and must fight his way through a series of dungeons, facing unspeakable horrors and becoming powerful enough to face his mother and destroy her. The controls are straightforward with one stick (or set of keys) moving Isaac while the other shoots sad, sad tears towards his enemies.
Although it’s utterly bizarre, Binding of Isaac’s pick up and play nature, heavy symbolism and homages to classic video games all BIND together to make this a welcome addition to anyone’s library. Not for the easily offended. (Windows/Mac/Linux, Xbox One, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U, New 3DS)
Dungeons of Dredmor
Rounding the list off is a more traditional Roguelike with the edges sanded off just enough to be accessible. Featuring a nicer graphical interface than most, Dungeons of Dredmor has it’s tongue firmly wedged in it’s cheek throughout, going so far as offering Communism as a skill when creating your character. The humour continues throughout but don’t let that fool you, this game has teeth and is waiting for you to turn around to sink them right in your wee pink bum.
That’s not to say it isn’t without issues. Menus are messy and the litany of items can make inventory management a chore. Despite all this, I can’t think of a better introduction to experiencing proper Roguelikes without the threat of falling down a bottomless ravine in the first 2 minutes. (Windows/Mac/Linux)
For anyone wanting to dip their toe a bit further, I’d heartily suggest checking out Temple of the Roguelike for a comprehensive database including links to literally hundreds of examples of the genre, many of them free.
- Next time – I’ll be examining games for the thing you’re reading this on. Hopefully it’s a phone or I’ll look a bit silly.