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Roguelike is a sub-genre of role-playing video games, characterized by procedural level generation, tile-based graphics and permanent death, and typically based on a high fantasy narrative setting. Roguelikes descend from the 1980 game Rogue, particularly mirroring Rogue's character- or sprite-based graphics, turn-based gameplay that gives the player the time to plan each move, and high fantasy setting. Games which do all of these are said to conform to the "classical" or "Berlin" interpretation of the genre. In more recent years, new variations of roguelikes incorporating other gameplay genres, thematic elements and graphical styles have become popular, and are sometimes called "roguelike-like", "rogue-lite" or "procedural death labyrinths" to reflect the variation from these earlier titles.
Gameplay and design
The family of roguelike games are based on the video game Rogue, programmed for Unix-based systems in 1980. Rogue was loosely based on the fantasy settings of the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons role-playing games, and cast the player as an adventurer exploring a multi-leveled dungeon that was procedurally generated, where the player fought creatures and gained equipment and treasure. With early computers, the dungeon was represented using ASCII characterization, where each character space on the screen represented a tile, and different symbols corresponded to the player, items, monsters, and the dungeons' wall and floors. Rogue is a turn-based game; in a turn-based game, a player executes one action, such as moving or attacking a monster, after which the game updates all the other elements in the game. An example of how Rogue would be presented to the player is shown below. Traditionally, an
@ sign represents the player character, and symbols like periods (
.), hash signs (
#) and dashes
- represent the walls and corridors of the dungeon. Letters of the alphabet represent non-player characters (usually opposing monsters). Some versions of Rogue only made use of capital letters, but present-day roguelikes vary capitalization to supply additional visual cues. A dog, for example, may be represented by the letter
d, and a dragon by a
D. Coloration may signal further distinction between creatures. For example, a Red Dragon might be represented by a red
D and a Blue Dragon by a blue
D, each of differing abilities significant to player strategy. Additional dungeon features are represented by other ASCII (or ANSI) symbols. As graphical systems became popular, the simple ASCII symbols were replaced with tile-based graphics, but the core gameplay remained unchanged.
As the player explores, they gain experience points and increase in level and face more dangerous threats as they proceeded lower in the dungeon. While the player is able to save their game and come back to it later, Rogue featured the concept of permadeath, that upon the death of the player-character, the save file would be wiped out, and the player would be forced to restart the exploration with a new character. The procedurally-generated dungeon would allow for the game to be replayed indefinitely as no dungeon or encounters would be the same.
Classical roguelikes / Berlin Interpretation
Rogue proved successful among computer users at the time, and numerous variations were created. Most of these maintained the same core principles as Rogue, with procedurally generated dungeons, turn-based gameplay, tile-based movement, and permadeath, but often expanded on the depth of gameplay and story and the persistence of the generated dungeon levels.
The gameplay elements characterizing the roguelike genre were explicitly defined at the International Roguelike Development Conference 2008, named the so-called "Berlin Interpretation". Some of the "high value factors" used in this definition include:
- Roguelike games randomly generate dungeon levels, though they may include static levels as well. Generated layouts typically incorporate rooms connected by corridors, some of which may be preset to a degree (e.g., monster lairs or treasuries). Open areas or natural features, like rivers, may also occur.
- The identity of magical items varies across games. Newly discovered objects only offer a vague physical description that is randomized between games, with purposes and capabilities left unstated. For example, a "bubbly" potion might heal wounds one game, then poison the player character in the next. Items are often subject to alteration, acquiring specific traits, such as a curse, or direct player modification.
- The combat system is turn-based instead of real-time. Gameplay is usually step-based, where player actions are performed serially and take a variable measure of in-game time to complete. Game processes (e.g., monster movement and interaction, progressive effects such as poisoning or starvation) advance based on the passage of time dictated by these actions.
- Most are single-player games. On multi-user systems, leaderboards are often shared between players. Some roguelikes allow traces of former player characters to appear in later game sessions in the form of ghosts or grave markings. Some games such as NetHack even have the player's former characters reappear as enemies within the dungeon. Multi-player derivatives such as TomeNET, MAngband, and Crossfire do exist and are playable online.
- Roguelikes traditionally implement permadeath. Once a character dies, the player must begin a new game. A "save game" feature will only provide suspension of gameplay and not a limitlessly recoverable state; the stored session is deleted upon resumption or character death. Players can circumvent this by backing up stored game data ("save scumming"), an act that is usually considered cheating.
Though there are many variations within the roguelike genre, there are generally two broader classes of classic roguelikes that branched out from Rogue.
- One branch of Rogue developed the game towards the fantasy setting of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, with Moria (1983) based on the complex underground maze featured within Tolkien's fiction. Levels were not persistent; when the player left the level and then tried to return, a new procedurally-generated level would be made; the goal would be to descend to the deepest depths and kill the most powerful monster in the game. Variations on Moria would lead to Angband (1990) (another Middle Earth location), which featured larger levels and more variation in player attributes, equipment, and monsters, and often featured a town level where the player could buy and sell equipment before returning to delve. At least fifty known variations on Angband exist, but maintain the concept of non-persistent dungeon levels and lacking any deeper story.
- The other branch bore out in Hack (1982), where dungeon levels would contain more specialized rooms, such as vaults and stores, and where the player was to seek out the "Amulet of Yendor". The game retained the high fantasy setting but expanded out from the Middle Earth lore. Levels would remain persistent once generated, allowing players to revisit these special rooms. Hack would eventually lead to Nethack (1987), an expansion of Hack but bringing together numerous influences from other cultural works, including those that would otherwise be anachronistic in the dungeon setting. Nethack and its variants would typically feature some fixed story and specific gameplay goals in order to fully complete the game, often necessitated by revisiting the previously explored levels.
Roguelike-likes and procedural death labyrinths
With computers and video game consoles capable of more advanced graphics and gameplay, numerous games have emerged that are loosely based on the classic roguelike design but diverge in one or more features. Many of these games use the concepts of procedural-generated maps and permadeath, while moving away from tile-based movement and turn-based gameplay, often using another gameplay genre such as action games or platformers. As such, the term "roguelike" has been used to describe games that possess one or more of the features of the Berlin Interpretation though not necessarily all of the features. The term "roguelike-like" or "rogue-lite" has been used to distinguish these games that possess some, but not all, of the Berlin Interpretation features from those that exactly meet the Berlin roguelike definition. The phrase "procedural death labyrinth" has also been applied to such games, as they retain the notion of permadeath and random level generation but lack the other high-value factors normally associated with roguelike games.
Rogue itself derives from concepts from early games, including Adventure (1975), Dungeon (1975), DND/Telengard (1976), Beneath Apple Manor (1978), and several written for the PLATO system, such as the multi-user games dnd (1975) and Moria (1975). DND, dnd, Beneath Apple Manor, and Moria all used limited graphics. Moria offered a primitive first-person, three-dimensional view, while DND and dnd presented a top-down map view similar to Rogue. Dungeon had not only a top-down map view, but line of sight code and a textual display, and Beneath Apple Manor had the former two features as well.
Roguelike games tend to be obscure. However, more recently, other genres have adapted concepts found in the Berlin Interpretation of roguelike games, drawing new attention to the roguelike approach. Action role-playing games such as Blizzard's hugely successful Diablo can be considered types of roguelikes, due to their similar premise: players slash their way (in real time) through increasingly difficult monsters and obtain treasure while traversing deeper into randomly generated dungeons to complete quests. Salon.com's Wagner James Au attested that, when he visited their offices, "Blizzard's designers readily acknowledged their debt to Nethack and other Roguelikes". Moreover, the permanent death feature of the roguelike is retained in both Diablo 2 and Diablo 3's hardcore modes, as well as Runic Games' Torchlight and Torchlight 2 and Grinding Gear Games' Path of Exile.
Still, the first mainstream success of proper roguelike games was in Japan, where the genre is now popular. Its success is due primarily to the Mystery Dungeon series by Chunsoft. The series began as a Super Famicom game called Torneko no Daibōken: Fushigi no Dungeon (lit tran. The Great Adventure of Torneko: Dungeon of Mystery), which is a spin-off of the Dragon Quest series. The finely tuned game balance, as well as the use of easily recognized 2D animated monsters from a well-known franchise drawn by Akira Toriyama, who is the creator of various hit manga and anime such as the Dragon Ball series, led to the game becoming a sleeper hit in 1993—selling in excess of 800,000 copies. The game was also voted the 78th-best game of all time in the Japanese Famitsu magazine.
Subsequently, Chunsoft has developed the Mysterious Dungeon series by relying on well-drawn animated characters and monsters  from easily recognized and well-established franchises. Chunsoft managed to flatten the steep learning curve of roguelike games by introducing multiple dungeons with progressive difficulties, hence delaying the introduction of more punishing aspects of gameplay until later stages (or only after completion of the main plot). In some series, the permanent death feature applied only to the hard mode; this choice has been controversial amongst fans of the older games who prefer more challenging (and arguably more addictive) gameplay. Due to its lower demands on computer hardware, smaller data-size requirement, and the casual nature of gameplay—not to mention infinite replayability—the series has been particularly successful for hand-held consoles and, more recently, mobile phones.
This format resulted in four successful sub-series: the Torneko series based on Dragon Quest, the Chocobo (series) based on Final Fantasy, the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series based on Pokémon, and the Shiren the Wanderer series, which is the only one based on original characters. Two failed series were also created, based on the Gundam and Tower of Druaga franchises. The successful series have become "the staple of the Japanese game market". The first Chocobo game, which had a less-punishing save system for a younger target audience, sold in excess of a million copies  and the first Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games, Blue and Red Rescue Team, sold 3.08 million together, popularizing the core gameplay of roguelikes to a global audience.
The no-save feature of the Torneko and Shiren series has not been universally well received by critics, despite being one of the main features of roguelike games. Worthplaying.com complained that "the worst flaw in any RPG is the lack of a decent save system" and Gaming Age railed that no-save "[goes] against the very foundation of what an RPG should be." Eurogamer, however, accepted that "its sadistic, repetitive nature ....[is] precisely what's appealing about it. The stakes are far higher, making the rewards much sweeter." The latest Mystery Dungeon series to be marketed to the West for console is Shiren the Wanderer 3, for the Wii console, which features 3D-rendered characters. In the West, the game is marketed simply as "Shiren the Wanderer", due to the previous games' obscurity. The game has three difficulty modes: Easy, where half of inventory and all attained levels are saved upon defeat; Normal, where all inventory is lost but attained levels are saved; and Hard, in which all inventory and all levels are lost, and characters are brought back to the entrance of the dungeon to restart as Level 1.
The roguelike genre has also received attention from Independent developers with the release of Strange Adventures in Infinite Space by Digital Eel in 2002, its sequel, Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space in 2005, and more recently, Dungeons of Dredmor by Gaslamp Games in 2011. Alec Meer of Rock, Paper, Shotgun reviewed Dungeons of Dredmor, musing that its success might attract more developers to pursue the genre.
In September 2012 Subset Games released FTL: Faster Than Light, a space simulation that has been likened to roguelike games, though the creators note that the game primarily uses roguelike elements to drive the game's larger narrative. The game was successfully funded by a Kickstarter campaign 7 months earlier. The game mostly received positive reviews, holding average scores of 8/10 on Gamerankings and Metacritic. Leif Johnson's review for IGN stated that FTL "demonstrates that the Roguelike genre still has plenty to offer almost 30 years after its first appearance".
- Angband (video game)
- Chronology of roguelike video games
- Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup
- Caverns of Xaskazien
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