A roguelike is a dungeon crawl through levels ordained by procedural generation. The genre, named after the 1980 dungeon crawler Rogue, has surged in popularity in the past decade even as it's become unrecognizable from its turn-based roots. In a typical roguelike, when you die, you die for good. It's back to the start. In my teens and as a young adult, I couldn't see the appeal. What's the point of constant, near-certain failure? Where's the fun in that? What happened to carefully considered level design? As I grew older—perhaps hardened by debt, jobs, and just general life tragedies—I began to see the draw of the genre.
Take Spelunky, for example. There is one constant to Spelunky: You die a lot. For a game whose systems are so universal—where everything can and will interact with anything—of course things go awry more often than not. The unpredictability is part of the fun. In its new sequel Spelunky 2, that surprise factor is amplified. Setting off a bomb can alert a shotgun-wielding enemy down below, but their desire to kill you can work to your advantage as they accidentally slay other enemies on the same platform. Obviously, it can go wrong too. But such is the Spelunky way.
Spelunky 2 released on Sept. 15 on PlayStation 4. Not long after it, Supergiant's long-in development Hades released too; exiting early access on PC with its 1.0 update and getting a port on Switch. Both feel like a huge turning point for a new era; one paved by Spelunky and other excellent games in the genre.
It represents the culmination of what was started by Spelunky 2's predecessor, which redefined the modern roguelike with run-halting systems that at times felt insurmountable, but were always fascinating challenges. "Unlike fan fiction, where the audience is creating stories based on their favorite worlds, game players are living them [in Spelunky]," the game's creator, Derek Yu, wrote in his autobiographical book (also named Spelunky). "And in the context of these stories, the random number generator is akin to Fate, setting up scenarios that at times seem too incredible to be anything but scripted. No wonder game players are known to send prayers and curses to the 'Random Number God' or 'RNGesus.'"
That, in essence, has always been the promise of the roguelike. With procedural generation, no two levels are alike. With randomized elements, no two "runs" will ever be the same; not the tools you find, nor the enemies you face. In Spelunky, this promise was accelerated to an unfathomable degree—everything interacted with every shopkeeper, every NPC, every enemy. Spelunky 2 introduces more to the fray, in addition to some new alternate paths through runs, but all in all, is very much just more Spelunky.
In the years since Spelunky's premium release on Xbox Live Arcade in the early 2010s, roguelikes, and its more popularized form roguelites (wherein persistent progress by way of weapons, abilities, or other bonuses helps soften the permadeath blow), have become a reigning genre among indie developers. In 2018, Motion Twin's Dead Cells left early access, and met near-universal acclaim. To this day, Dead Cells is my go-to "I need to kill time" game. Thanks to the Switch, I've played it while traveling, while at the laundromat, on my couch while my partner uses the PlayStation 4 for something. In our review, Reviews Editor Mike Williams wrote, "None of its peers feel as good in their moment-to-moment play." To this day, I still believe that to be true.
Which brings me to Hades. Hades, to me, feels like the first truly complete Supergiant game. Its previous games have all offered something special in an area like art direction, narrative, or gameplay, but have faltered in other areas. For instance, Transistor's gameplay was merely passable, while Pyre's slow pace hurt its story's in the long run. All of Supergiant's games do, however, boast distinctive character designs, beautiful soundtracks composed by longtime studio collaborator Darren Korb, and strikingly colorful environments. Hades is no different.
What makes Hades particularly notable is the way that it weaves Supergiant's penchant for storytelling with the roguelite elements we've become accustomed to. It's one of those sorts of game experiences that makes me wonder how it was all pieced together cohesively. Whenever Zagreus, the hero of Hades, dies, he finds himself back at his home. Here, his father Hades will almost always laugh at him as he reenters the corridors. Meanwhile, Hypnos, awaiting near the entrance, always knows precisely what it is Zagreus died from—whether it was from a boss, or my dumbass not dashing away from a trap in a timely manner. The story develops apace even as you die again and again to the same ol' things, slowly developing its relationships while revealing some secrets about its hero. All told, the sheer amount of dialogue in Hades is daunting. I have yet to encounter a repeated line in nearly a dozen-ish hours spent playing runs of varying length so far.
It's a compelling twist to the repetition-driven genre to lean so heavily on story, and it's indicative of how it's evolved over the years. This year's World of Horror, an indie Early Access horror that's heavily inspired by Junji Ito. It's part-deck builder, part-adventure horror, part-roguelike—except the dungeon crawling is really just the adventure navigation. There's also this year's Risk of Rain 2, a 3D co-op roguelike built off its 2D predecessor. Rogue Legacy 2 released last month on Early Access; the roguelite king back to reclaim its throne. The aforementioned Dead Cells expertly blended the roguelike genre with metroidvanias.
Playing through Hades—I've yet to surpass Elysium yet, but I'm confident I'll get there—it's easy to see how it's another step forward not just for Supergiant as a studio, but for the genre overall. Meanwhile, Spelunky 2, in sticking to its roots doesn't feel like a step back, but rather a celebration of what made the classic Spelunky and its console remake cultivate such a dedicated fan base in the first place. Its sequel will undoubtedly harbor the same allegiance, especially once it launches on PC later this month.
It is, perhaps, the golden age for all these games like Rogue. In just a couple weeks time, the annual Roguelike Celebration will forgo its usual San Francisco-held conference for a weekend of digital talks from the likes of developers of Blaseball, Caves of Qud, and many more. The Roguelike Celebration will commence Oct. 3 to Oct. 4. However a purist you are for the term roguelikes compared to the more Rogue-reminiscent friendly term roguelites, it's undeniably an exciting time to enjoy these sorts of games as they twist and turn the genre in refreshing ways.