What is a Roguelike? The Beginner's Guide

These types of games are getting more popular, but just what are they?

You've probably seen the term "roguelike" been thrown around a lot, and you may be confused. That's because it is a confusing term, one that has become muddied over time. But you can venture to learn what it is, and enjoy a genre of games that you might not have understood before.

What Is a Roguelike?

That's a good question, and one with a complicated answer because the definition of it has become very muddied. However, the core of what a roguelike should be is that the game features levels that are procedurally generated. Your character suffers from "permadeath" – meaning that they should have to start over from some predetermined starting point fresh. Essentially, a roguelike should force you to learn its systems through the cost of failure is steep.

The name itself comes from Rogue, one of the defining classics of the genre, that inspired later games such as NetHack. NetHack has been around for decades and is still in active development. Thanks to it being open-source, ports exist for numerous computer platforms including Android.

Roguelikes in a Rocketcat game
Rocketcat Games

What Do Traditionalists Think?

There is no set definition, but some roguelike enthusiasts set out to create some guidelines. The Berlin Interpretation of a roguelike was defined at the International Roguelike Development Conference in 2008. This defines a number of high value and low-level factors that go into a roguelike game. Namely, the permadeath aspects and random environment generation are two of the key factors that go into what a roguelike is. But you'll also find features such as games being turn-based and grid-based, or even featuring worlds that are represented with ASCII characters.

Mind you, there are some people who disagree on the importance of these factors, or how they factor into the definition of a roguelike. But these factors are at least somewhat definitive of what a traditional roguelike should be.

So, Many Roguelikes Aren't Roguelikes?

At least not by the Berlin interpretation. When you hear the term roguelike, you could get anything from a top-down ASCII art dungeon crawler to a bullet hell dual-stick shooter.

Why Is It so Complicated?

Well, games started popping up in the late 2000s and early 2010s that took inspiration from roguelikes without necessarily using the conventions of the genre. Some eschew the whole "start from nothing" aspect that roguelikes often have, giving players permanent progression to start out and work toward.

In particular, several of these roguelike variant games became financial successes. Spelunky might prove to be the most influential roguelike-inspired game because it introduced many of the conventions of roguelikes into a challenging platformer game. Its intense difficulty wound up making the game a real accomplishment for those who could beat it – and those who could consistently do well-earned renown in the speedrunning communities. Its daily mode also inspired several other games to utilize similar functionalities.

A couple of other games that deserve mention include FTL, which worked spectacularly as a game that players could sit back and enjoy for hours on end while traveling through space. Also, the hardcore mode of Diablo, which gave players one life, introduced many of the elements of roguelikes to players in a format more familiar to them than what a traditional roguelike would be.

What Are Roguelike-Inspired Games Called?

Well, while even the Berlin Interpretation is flexible on what is and is not a roguelike – some games are more roguelike than others – the terminology for these roguelike offshoots is often convoluted. The term "roguelite" is occasionally used for games that have elements like permadeath and procedural generation but few of the other high-value or low-value roguelike elements. However, this neologism isn't always used. You'll often see the phrase roguelike-inspired, but using this continuously can become tedious. Sometimes just saying that a game is a roguelike as an adjective – such as a "roguelike dual-stick shooter " – is good enough to convey the meaning of what players can expect from a game at its core. Sometimes these terms are misused, but there are at least good starting points for those wondering in short form what a game that uses the term can be.

How Do I Get Into the Genre?

First off, know that roguelikes are almost uniformly difficult as a genre. They're built around giving players challenging systems that have to be mastered – and mistakes will be punished. You have to give roguelikes a fair shot before diving in.

This list of best Android roguelikes still stands as a great list of games, but one not on the list might be a fantastic entry point: Sproggiwood. This is what happens when veteran developers obsessed with roguelikes (their game Caves of Qud in early access on Steam is incredibly deep) make a game that's accessible to entry-level players. With town-building elements and different worlds you can start from, this is a great choice for those looking to give roguelikes a shot for themselves. After that, the games on the best roguelikes list, and even some more unconventional action-roguelikes like Downwell are well worth playing.

Should I Play the Original Rogue?

You certainly can – we recommend NetHack as a good starting point – but do note that these classics, early 1980s roguelikes, are inordinately difficult. This is for two reasons: one, games have gotten a lot easier and more accessible since the days of Rogue. Diving right into Rogue would be like trying to play Dragonforce's Through the Fire and Flames on Expert from Guitar Hero 3 the first time you pick up the plastic guitar controller. You have to work your way up because you're not from that culture of gaming. Play, understand and get competent at several other roguelikes first, then go into NetHack.

What you may be impressed by is just how deep the original roguelikes can be, if you can get past the simplistic graphics and steep learning curve. It's a game that's deeper and more complex than even many modern games with huge worlds and gorgeous visuals. There is uncompromising freedom, but with it comes loads of challenges to thrive. 

And that's why the genre thrives to this day – even if it's become way different from its origins, the roguelike genre in all its permutations offers great rewards to players intrigued by what these games can offer. They will test you, but the satisfaction can be immense.

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