All the way back in 2011 I first experienced Edmund McMillen’s The Binding of Issac, an ambitious Rogue-like inspired by The Legend of Zelda and Edmund’s own Catholic upbringing. Issac initially awarded me nothing but lavish amounts of frustration.
The game released in the same month as Dark Souls (2011), before challenging games had a large mainstream appeal. At the age of 12 the hardest thing I had experienced was the occasional expedition to Halo’s Legendary difficulty, I consistently avoided that trauma like Capcom avoids Megaman.
Given time I learnt to love the game for its intricacies. learning where secret rooms could be, the best way to beat a boss and discovering the ample number of unlockable items that added depth which I had previously not experienced. The reward for getting past Issac’s hurdles was a rush of excitement and adrenaline, which is addictive apparently since I still play the bloody thing seven years later.
Here’s the thing, I never liked top-down action adventure games. I always wished I could experience the world from the character’s perspective, not the perspective of some stray bird just lounging around with nothing better to do than to watch a boy in a swanky tunic breaking jars.
What I loved was gameplay mechanics such as perma-death and randomly generated levels, which were key features of the rogue-like genre. Why was Issac the first time I’d experienced this style of game? Where did they go? Why were they back?
Rogue-likes started with several procedurally generated dungeon crawlers, although the genre gets its namesake from Rogue (1980) developed for the PC. Rogue had the player adventure through a deadly dungeon to find a mysterious amulet at its darkest depths.
Rogue was hugely successful and led to a myriad of games which made use of randomly generated levels and a high fantasy setting. Games directly inspired by Rogue were developed continuously and shared amongst fans of the genre on PC.
However, these styles of Rogue-likes fell in popularity when PCs became more powerful and able to run more graphically intensive games. Despite the Rogue-likes’ fall in popularity, several beloved games implemented features from the genre.
Developers such as David Brevik (Diablo) and Koichi Nakamura (Mystery Dungeon) said that their games were inspired by Rogue, as their series made use of the features Rogue pioneered to add additional difficulty and optional challenge. For example Pokémon Mystery Dungeon uses randomly generated dungeons so that players could see different Pokémon on repeated runs, while Diablo had a hardcore mode for skilled players which used perma-death.
So, Rogue-likes died and passed on its mechanics to other games, until 2005 where indie games such as Weird Worlds: Returns to Infinite Space brought Rogue-likes back to the modern PC market where they’ve remained ever since.
This explains why I had no clue what Rogue-likes were, even if I had a PC I was seven and would likely cry my eyes out at the hard-as-Ron Jeremy experience these developers were creating. These games were revived for an older audience who wished for the unforgiving difficulty found in a genre long absent.
Modern Rogue-likes fuse the gameplay of old dungeon crawlers with current graphics, made possible by newer PCs. However, these new adaptations of the genre also mix the traditional Rogue-like gameplay with elements from other genres like a tasty video game cocktail.
For example, Devolver Digital’s Enter the Gungeon (2016) makes use of shoot ‘em up gameplay to create a skill based Rogue-like filled to bursting with dozens of guns and items. By smashing challenging mechanics from traditional Rogue-likes with interesting parts of other games, developers are like mechanics attaching cool cars with turbo powered engines.
The cool thing about creating these hybrid games is that the metaphorical well is nowhere near empty. Perhaps we could get a parkour runner with randomly generated rooftops, running from enemies who try to stop you from escaping a city. Or maybe a cooking game where putting in the wrong ingredients in randomly generated recipes result in gruesome death, as well as your kitchen and all your food being stolen by blokes high on primary school glue sticks.
Rogue-likes’ phoenix style rebirth gives hope for other dead genres to be reincorporated into the modern gaming industry. While flight sims are mostly absent (with Ace Combat being a stellar exception), why not try mixing it up a little? I would pay big bucks for a high intensity racing game where players must fly as fast as they can through increasingly treacherous airspaces.
It’s nice to see genres like this find new appeal in the modern video game industry, exposing young players to old experiences allows for increased innovation and all around good feels. I’m happy to wait and see what new changes Rogue-likes can undertake, and remain contently frustrated while doing so.