This month’s release of Darkest Dungeon is just the latest example of a recent surge in popularity of what was once considered a niche genre, roguelikes. Indeed, if you were to browse the list of most popular new releases or top sellers on Steam, you would be hard-pressed not to find one or more games in this genre, or several that draw inspiration from and borrow core mechanics from games like Darkest Dungeon. These games, with titles such as Rogue’s Tale, Rogue Legacy, and Roguelands share more than naming conventions. They are all examples of a fascinating trend in gaming. So, let’s get geared up and delve into the dungeons of gaming history to explore the mysteries behind why roguelikes are so hot right now.
What Is a Roguelike?
There is a great deal of debate on roguelike fan communities such as RogueBasin, r/roguelikes, and our own Wikia communities about what exactly qualifies a game as a roguelike versus a rogue-lite — those games that possess some, but not all, of the characteristics to fit the strict definition of a true roguelike. However, these are some of the key gameplay mechanics shared by nearly all roguelikes and rogue-lites:
- Permadeath: Once your character dies, you lose your progress. Typically severe limitations on game saves prevent you from undoing your mistakes.
- Procedural generation: Levels, enemies, and power-up locations are generated by a predetermined algorithm and set of rules, and are randomly generated each time you play. This randomness is actually a key selling point of roguelikes, as it results in a completely different gameplay experience every play session. You will need to think and react to whatever new challenges the game creates, resulting in a ton of replayability
- Scarcity and resource management: A hallmark of roguelikes is the abundance of enemies and traps, while healing items, upgrades, and power-ups exist in short supply. Players need to manage their resources in order to make it through the levels, while considering what they might want to save for future challenges.
There are other characteristics that are common to most true roguelikes, but are not necessarily required for a game to be considered a rogue-lite. Things such as character progression, a fantasy narrative and setting (most likely a dungeon), turn-based combat (usually of the hack-and-slash variety), randomized item effects (will this potion heal me or poison me?), and character- or sprite-based graphics are things you would expect to see when playing these games.
A Brief History of Roguelikes
The earliest examples of the roguelike genre can be traced back to the late ’70s and early ’80s, and the name is derived from the 1980 hit Rogue. Rogue and similar games of the time were heavily influenced by Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games that were also surging in popularity at the time. These new digital games incorporated tabletop roleplaying tropes such as wizards, dungeons full of monsters and treasure, and turn-based movement and combat.
Early roguelikes utilized a simplistic graphical style incorporating ASCII or ANSI characters, which was practical in that it used very little system memory, and was easy for players to understand once they learned the nomenclature. For example, treasure was represented with a “$” and the player character was often represented by an “@” to tell you where you were “at.” Programmer humor. Ugh.
While computer technology increased at an exponential rate throughout the ’80s and ’90s, roguelikes remained remarkably unchanged in that time. Games like NetHack, Moria, and Ancient Domains of Mystery carried the torch for a dedicated, but relatively small following compared to those of the big console or PC releases of the time. However, the influence of roguelikes can be seen in games like the Diablo series and — as discussed in my interview earlier this month — XCOM 2, which include randomly generated levels and loot.
The Re-emergence of Roguelikes and Evolution Into Rogue-lites
Roguelikes began to see a re-emergence in the mid to late 2000s, which coincided with the rise of the indie game scene. Indie developers no doubt recognized the opportunity to use procedural generation and permadeath as a way to add replayability and value to games developed on limited budgets. These developers cherry-picked the elements they liked from roguelikes, and combined them with their unique art styles, storytelling, and indie sensibilities to form what is now known as the rogue-lite subgenre.
Another possible explanation for the resurrection of the genre is the mobile gaming boom of the last few years. Roguelikes are perfectly suited to the mobile platform due to their simplified art aesthetic, straightforward controls, short play sessions, and replayability.
Perhaps no one game is more responsible for growing the rogue-lite subgenre than Spelunky, the 2008 platformer that incorporated permadeath, exploration, and procedurally generated levels to masterful effect. The game inspired other platformer-roguelike hybrids such as Risk of Rain and Rogue Legacy.
The influence of Spelunky and its roguelike predecessors crept into other genres as well, and titles such as FTL: Faster Than Light, The Binding of Isaac, Don’t Starve and Tower of Guns show that roguelike elements can compliment strategy, action-RPG, open-world survival, and FPS gameplay systems to create unique, memorable experiences worth replaying over and over again.
These days you will find roguelikes or variations thereof on every platform, with just about any gameplay or graphical style imaginable. Whether you are more into traditional roguelike experiences such as Darkest Dungeon, or prefer to mix it up a bit with games such as the rhythm-based Crypt of the Necrodancer, the top-down shooter Nuclear Throne, the vertical-scrolling platformer Downwell, or the tactical-stealth hybrid Invisible, Inc. there is no scarcity in the choices available to you. The only inventory management you’ll have to worry about is managing your Steam library.
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