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The Gateway Guide to Roguelikes

You keep hearing about "roguelikes," but what does that mean, exactly? Are they good? Should you care? We walk you through this burgeoning genre and recommend the best entry points.

Guide by Jeremy Parish, .

If any one style of game gets more play among indie developers than metroidvania-style exploratory platformers, it's the roguelike. Like metroidvania, the roguelike is a venerable game genre that had been very much a niche thing until just recently. And as with metroidvania, "roguelike" is a made-up word that nevertheless inspires debate and snobbery over its definition in equal measure.

So what is a roguelike? In a nutshell, "roguelike" means "a game like Rogue." Simple, right? But what does that mean, exactly? Well, the original Rogue was designed as a sort of networked single-player video game experience, and it introduced a number of fresh ideas and elements to the RPG genre. Many of its inspirations came directly from Dungeons & Dragons, but everything Rogue did was intended to make its world tremendously hostile, thus forcing players to approach their quest with extreme caution. And even then, random elements could conspire to ruin even the most precise player's efforts, sending them back to the very beginning to start all over.

Its daunting, unforgiving nature made it a tough game to take up... but in those early days of gaming, there was nothing else quite like it. And because it was largely targeted toward computer science students, its sheer complexity and difficulty made it a test of skill and intelligence than its intended audience simply couldn't resist. Rogue became an underground phenomenon, sparking countless imitators. Eventually, it even went mainstream, inspiring an entire subgenre. The recent explosion of independently developed games has given the roguelike even more traction, allowing designers to explore the concepts of the format without the need to worry about popular appeal. Which, ironically, has led to some incredibly popular (if not wholly faithful to the tenets of Rogue) results, such as Spelunky.

Long story short, a roguelike generally features the following traits:

  • Random generation: Everything in a roguelike, from dungeon layouts to item locations, is generated afresh with every new game. While certain elements remain consistent from game to game, such as enemy behaviors and where in the dungeon you generally begin to encounter them, everything else changes from session to session. Sometimes, that even includes what things in the dungeon do.
  • Item identification: Because of this randomness, a huge part of many roguelikes comes in determining the nature and purpose of the things you discover in a dungeon. A Blue Potion in one game could give you a strength boost, but in the next game the Blue Potion could be poison. There are many ways to figure things out, but most of them are risky — yeah, you could trying using that mysterious scroll against the bad guys and hope it's a Spell of Genocide, but maybe you'll give your targets a level-up instead. Once you identify something, all items of that type will become permanently known to you... permanent, that is, until you die and everything resets again.
  • Permanent death: This is the big one. A classic roguelike treats death as a permanent affliction. When you die, you lose all your progress — even if you've nearly finished the game. Your character, your accomplishments, your discoveries, the amazing custom gear you've cultivated, the dungeon layout you've mapped: All lost forever, preserved on the network as nothing more than a pile of bones for other adventurers to discover. People talk about Dark Souls as if it's the most brutal game of all time, but that series punishes failure with a gentle slap on the wrist compared to a roguelike.
  • Player-centric turn-based combat: Another big element of roguelikes is the use of turn-based combat with minimal visual clutter — no elaborate menus. Designed for personal computers, roguelikes use most of the keys on the computer keyboard for different commands, creating a no-frills turn-based style in which the player's actions dictate each "round" of combat. Computer-controlled creatures moving in response to those actions, one turn at a time.
  • Stamina decay: Because of the difficulty involved in roguelikes, it might seem tempting to hang out and farm experience points, or to camp out frequently to regenerate health. Stamina decay, in which your character grows hungrier as turns pass and will eventually starve to death, creates a natural barrier to so-called "scumming" — you can only hang out for as long as you have enough food to keep your hero from dying of hunger.
  • ASCII graphics: And for the truly hardcore, a roguelike's world is generated entirely with ASCII characters rather than graphical tiles. This is a stylistic choice, of course, but it originally came from the limited dumb terminal computers that hosted Rogue and its imitators. Even now, major examples of the genre, like Dwarf Fortress, continue to go with ASCII.

Now, let's look at the games themselves, beginning with...

The Originals

The classic roguelikes. Dense, complex, and unforgiving — these same traits make the old games both ridiculously difficult to master and insanely satisfying once conquered.

Rogue
Michael Toy/Glenn Wichman/et al. | PC | 1980
Obviously, this is where it all began. Created in the early 1980s, it became a perennial favorite on college networks due to being free to play, accessible on dumb terminals like you'd find in a college library or computer lab, and madly addicting. Basically, all the traits that define Roguelikes began here, and you can find faithful clones of the game for practically every modern operating system.

NetHack
The Dev Team | PC | 1987
Considered by many to be the ultimate roguelike, NetHack is notable for its sheer inclusiveness. The rule of thumb in NetHack is "the Dev Team thought of everything," and with its huge array of character classes and monsters, you can perform a shocking number of complex maneuvers... like using the corpse of a basilisk to stone an enemy, but only if you use gloves to keep the basilisk from stoning you. One of the most intricate and challenge video games ever made.

ADOM
Thomas Biskup | PC etc. | 1994
The creators of ADOM (Ancient Dungeons of Mysteries) sought to create a hybrid of Rogue and more classic RPGs, which means that unlike other classic roguelikes, ADOM features numerous side quests, multiple separate areas to explore, and even an overarching plot. But it still plays like a roguelike, meaning the process of completing those tasks is a doozy.

Angband
Angband Development Team | PC etc. | 1990
Named for the evil fortress in The Silmarillion, Angband draws heavily on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien for its bestiary and inventory. A vast and sprawling adventure in which, true to its origins, months of effort can be undone in a single turn.

Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup
DCSS Devteam | PC etc. | 2006
Of all the classic roguelikes, Stone Soup is by far the best entry point for the newcomer. Not only does it offer visuals more advanced than pure ASCII, it's also designed to be carefully balanced to feel fair and accessible to new players — probably a reflection of its vintage. As the youngest of the popular PC roguelikes, it was constructed in an era in which friendliness to players had become a concern for game makers.

The Mystery Dungeon Games

If the classic PC roguelike seems too intimidating, it's worth considering taking the lighter approach of a console outing. The best console roguelikes all belong to the same family: Chunsoft's (now Spike Chunsoft) Mystery Dungeon series, which began as a Dragon Quest spinoff and took on a life of its own.

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon
Chunsoft | Nintendo | GBA/DS/3DS | 2005-2013
As you might expect, this is literally baby's first roguelike. Lacking any difficulty at all until the post-game, the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games demonstrate that danger is what makes roguelikes interesting. But boring as they may be, they make effective training wheels for the genre's rules.

Etrian Mystery Dungeon
Spike Chunsoft (with Atlus) | Atlus | 3DS | 2015
This is more like it. The newly released Etrian Mystery Dungeon adapts the classes and concepts of Atlus' Etrian Odyssey series into an inventive hybrid between two different styles of dungeon crawler. It breaks a lot of roguelike rules, but it's interesting... and challenging, too.

Chocobo Mystery Dungeon
Chunsoft/h.a.n.d. | Square/Square Enix | PS1/Wii | 1997-2007
For those who prefer their crossovers a little more mainstream, Chocobo Mystery Dungeon incorporates familiar elements of Final Fantasy without being as toothless as Pokémon Mystery Dungeon. And it's the cutest take on Final Fantasy, too.

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer
Chunsoft | Sega, Atlus | Super NES/Wii/DS/PSP/Dreamcast | 1995-2015
The "true" Mystery Dungeon games are still the best. The Shiren titles are deep, complex, and packed with secrets — the high-water mark for console roguelikes. If you want to see what all the fuss is about, the Game Center CX/Retro Game Master episode (available in the U.S. on the Retro Game Master DVD) featuring the original Shiren is a great introduction!

Distant relations

These games break a lot of roguelike rules, but they still draw on Rogue's concepts. By combining roguelike mechanics with other genres, they make the notion of randomization and permadeath more accessible. Consider these your training wheels.

Spelunky
Derek Yu | Mossmouth | PC/Xbox 360/PS3/PS4/Vita | 2007-2014
The king of roguelike-inspired games, Spelunky brilliantly combines the genre with the crazy hardcore design of Tim Martin's PC classic Spelunker. You control a little man (or woman, or dog) making his way into randomly generated caverns in search of treasure. It's evil and abusive, but incredibly addicting.

The Binding of Isaac
Edmund McMillan | Nicalis | PC/PS4/Vita | 2011-2015
Imagine The Legend of Zelda meets a bullet-hell shooter. Now add in gross-out visuals and the randomization and general cruelty of roguelikes and you have a strange but intoxicating creation that tests your reflexes, your wits, and your luck all at the same time.

Rogue Legacy
Cellar Door Games | PC/PS4/Vita/Xbox One/PS3 | 2012-2014
This randomly generated Castlevania-inspired platformer will kill you over and over again, but that's OK because when you die your hero or heroine's children will take up the battle, carrying forward your family's legacy and genetic traits.

F.T.L.: Faster Than Light
Subset Games | PC etc. | 2012
More of a real-time strategy game than a roguelike, FTL nevertheless makes use of many of the genre's concepts, from the random layouts of the galaxy to the unpredictable nature of the ships you meet to the possibility of a total wipeout that sends you back to the start.

Dungeon of the Endless
Amplitude Studios | PC | 2014
And here we see the roguelike meet a tower defense game, sending players into a series of seemingly endless corridors in search of great to repair their ship and let them escape back into space. Along the way, you can manipulate ancient machines and arrange power conduits to help even the odds and set the environments in your favor.

Edge cases

And finally, there are a few notable Rogue-inspired games that stray a bit further from the genre but still manage to scratch the same itch as a great roguelike.

The Diablo series
Blizzard | PC/PS1/PS3/PS4/Xbox 360/Xbox One | 1997-2014
With its randomly generated dungeons, Diablo was heavily influenced by Rogue. Playing in Hardcore mode opens up the possibility of permanent death, bringing it even closer to its roots... though still decidedly its own thing, what with the whole multiplayer element.

Dark Souls series
From Software | Bandai Namco | PS3/PS4/Xbox 360/Xbox One/PC | 2012-2015
While it lacks permanent death and randomization, instead focusing wholly on learning the world and performing consistently, Dark Souls carries with it the same ominous atmosphere, tension, and danger as a roguelike. Even though it lacks permanent death, dying nevertheless carries consequences — and greater consequences than simply going back to the last save point. Its play mechanics have been designed specifically to create anxiety and force players to learn the rules of the game world.

Perhaps you could say Dark Souls is the roguelike of action games.

ToeJam & Earl
TJ&E Productions | Sega | Genesis | 1991
A funky cooperative action game lacking any real combat, ToeJam & Earl for Sega Genesis nevertheless featured the same randomization and item ID elements as a classic roguelike, introducing those concepts to an entire generation of hip-hop loving console fanatics.

Dwarf Fortress
Bay 12 Games | PC etc. | 2006-2015
And finally, we come to one of the most complicated games ever made. Dwarf Fortress is like a roguelike combined with Civilization mixed with SimCity, placing you in charge of a small city of dwarves under siege by countless threats. Once you've mastered the intricacies of ADOM and Angband, why not step up to a real challenge?

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Comments 25

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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #1 SigurdVolsung 3 years ago
    Great article Jeremy. It both educates and also possibly inspires others to get into the sub-genre as well. I've only played about half of these games, but they are some very good suggestions.
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  • Avatar for MonkeyDSomething #2 MonkeyDSomething 3 years ago
    @kazriko I was also going to mention Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. When I first heard the term "roguelike" a few years ago, the first thing that came to mind was that RPG I was too afraid to play, and probably still am.
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  • Avatar for ronaldaugust28 #3 ronaldaugust28 3 years ago
    I've always been a stickler for Azure Dreams. That's the one I consistently go back to over the years. I'd love to play it on my Vita
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #4 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    @kazriko This wasn't meant to be a comprehensive list, more like a primer, but thanks for the suggestions. I considered including ZHP and its recent sequels but I kinda feel like NIS games aren't really for newcomers anymore...
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #5 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    Thanks for not using those trigger-avoiding words like "rogue-like-like" and "rogue-lite". I feel every time someone kvetches over that, an angel gets their wings. :D

    Also adding: Dungeons of Dredmor, another good "training wheels" Roguelike from Gaslamp Games with an absolutely KILLER OST from Matthew Steele:

    @Kazriko

    Yes indeed! And, if I may, it's better at handling inheritance than Rogue Legacy.
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  • Avatar for jeremyparish #6 jeremyparish 3 years ago
    @kazriko I didn't think Azure Dreams and its weird DS sequel were all that great, but I see a few nods for it here... so I guess it has its fans, eh?
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  • Avatar for touchofkiel #7 touchofkiel 3 years ago
    For a modern game that's more accessible than most "real" roguelikes, I recommend Sorcery Saga for the Vita. Even though I loathe fan service-y anime stuff that publishers like Aksys release, this game is fairly inoffensive in that regard. It features the usual stuff that makes people shy away from roguelikes - the randomness, the reset-upon-death, etc. - but it also seems somewhat easier than, say, Shiren or any number of PC roguelikes (and not nearly as complex as ZHP/Guided Fate Paradox).

    Or you could just stick with Chocobo's Dungeon, which I think is the best example of a balance between mainstream and hardcore.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #8 Monkey-Tamer 3 years ago
    Persona 3?
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  • Avatar for TernBird #9 TernBird 3 years ago
    @Monkey-Tamer Good suggestion! There are a lot of Roguelike elements to P3, such as the stamina (spend too much time in Tartarus and you'll get tired, randomized dungeons), but on the other hand the rest of the game plays like your average turn-based JRPG.
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  • Avatar for Granbar #10 Granbar 3 years ago
    @SatelliteOfLove Came here to post Dungeons of Dredmor. To me it's the perfect introduction to a more standard PC roguelike. Such a good game, and as you say, a cool soundtrack.
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  • Avatar for Toelkki #11 Toelkki 3 years ago
    Mentioning the (existence of) Berlin definition for roguelikes and the term "roguelite" would've also been appreciated, even if an angel wouldn't have gained their wings. The term is pretty frequently used so it could've been mentioned in a primer like this.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #12 link6616 3 years ago
    @Granbar Personally, I find Dreadmore too up front complex for a good intro. Which is a shame because I do like it conceptually.
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  • Avatar for NinjaMic #13 NinjaMic 3 years ago
    No matter how burnt out I am or how hard it is to get into something really meaty, I can play a great roguelike/lite and just go with it. There's something freeing about knowing it doesn't really matter if you accomplish anything.

    Never played Shiren, but now that I know what it is, I hope this Shiren game on Vita gets localized even more:

    @ 28 secondsEdited 2 times. Last edited April 2015 by NinjaMic
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  • Avatar for Flashgoodall #14 Flashgoodall 3 years ago
    Used to play Rogue on old DOS based Olivetti PC's during Business Studies lessons at school back in the 80's. It had a feature called the Administrator Key, if you pressed F10 your screen would switch to a blank DOS prompt. Perfect for evading prowling teachers or bosses at work.
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  • Avatar for secularsage #15 secularsage 3 years ago
    It's an incredible stretch to call Dark Souls a roguelike. Pretty much every element of what makes a roguelike like Rogue is missing there. It would be like calling Borderlands a roguelike since it uses randomized gear and enemy attributes - there's a superficial connection in appearance, but it's not the same beast.

    My first roguelike was The Dungeons of Moria, another Tolkien-inspired game. As a kid playing on an old Compaq PC, I was lucky to get three or four levels deep and was often frustrated by its difficulty. As an adult playing on a browser-based emulator, I find the game considerably easier, mainly because I don't feel the impulse to drink every potion, mine every piece of gold or fight every unknown monster.

    One thing about roguelikes that really sets them apart from other games is the sense of freedom they offer. Since pure roguelikes have simple graphics, they often have expansive sets of capabilities. Most 3D action RPGs are heavily distilled down to a limited set of actions due to the need to animate things. (This is one reason Diablo is so much less fun as a CRPG than the games that inspired it - it's distilled down to focus on action at the expense of all else.) Roguelikes often have so many ways to do things that individual player styles can greatly differ.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #16 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    Rogue was one of the first games I ever played. My dad had it on his PC in the early 80s. I was a preschooler, but even then I enjoyed it once I learned to recognise what the symbols meant. Not sure I ever got past the first floor of the dungeon, but it was fun anyway!
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  • Avatar for StevieWhite #17 StevieWhite 3 years ago
    I've been playing Nethack for over 20 years and I have yet to beat it. I still come back to it once or twice a year. It truly is the ultimate roguelike - something weird and unexpected happens nearly every time.
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  • Avatar for pertusaria #18 pertusaria 3 years ago
    Another vote for Dredmor here. For more traditional roguelike fun, I'd suggest Tales of Maj'Eyal, or ToME, although I haven't chipped away at much of it. It's a lot more user-friendly than Nethack without being easy.

    Edit: Link to Pete Davison review here on US Gamer back in 2013: http://www.usgamer.net/articles/infinite-dungeons-infinite-death-tales-of-majeyal-pc-reviewEdited 2 times. Last edited April 2015 by pertusaria
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #19 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    @secularsage No one called Dark Souls a roguelike, though?
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #20 Kadrom 3 years ago
  • Avatar for unoclay #21 unoclay 3 years ago
    This is a really useful article and actually answered questions I'd had about the term and genre.
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  • Avatar for Meho #22 Meho 3 years ago
    @secularsage Yeah, Dark Souls is, in many ways an anti-roguelike: no randomisation, no permadeath ever, under any circumstances, an extreme emphasis on learning enemy placement and general pattern recognition. However, it makes sense to mention it in a primer like this, I feel, as it does share a deeper bond with roguelikes than mere mechanics. The rigorous discipline it demands of the player, the extremely high risk/reward ratio, the need to understand the game's systems at a deeper level in order to progress - I would say these things are shared between the roguelikes and Souls games.
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  • Avatar for Lord-Bob-Bree #23 Lord-Bob-Bree 3 years ago
    For those of you who've played it, how is Torneko: The Last Hope?
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  • Avatar for Thad #24 Thad 3 years ago
    My first was a DOS game I downloaded from a local BBS. It was called Dungeons of the Necromancer's Domain (DND, geddit?). Later I played a more friendly Windows 3.x Roguelike called Castle of the Winds.

    It appears that both of them are available on classicdosgames.com : DND, Castle of the Winds. I expect they're more historical curiosities than anything; you can get any number of more advanced Roguelikes that are easier to run on your system for free.
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  • Avatar for inkybutt #25 inkybutt 3 years ago
    Stone Soup is my favorite game ever.

    Some other notable roguelikes not mentioned here are Brogue, TOME, and DoomRL. Though even that's still just the tip of the iceberg.
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