We’re in A Golden Age Of Roguelikes – And I’m Not Complaining

In other words, I talk a bit about a few of those games because I unfortunately don’t have the money to get every new roguelike.

As a kid, I didn’t have a game console for a long time – and when I had one, it was a Wii, which means that I don’t have fond memories of playing PS2 platformers or Halo 3 unlike so many other people. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t able to play games period. Because I had weird flash games, abandonware, everything the mid-00s internet could throw at me. The best games I could play on the family laptop were flash games, Newgrounds kinda stuff. Violent, often very simple, and low in ambition and budget, they helped set a lot of my taste for games in general – especially my taste for deceptively simple, but extremely challenging games. They also got me used to the idea that game progress wasn’t set in stone – any time there was a hard reset on the family laptop, or my mom was annoyed at how slow it ran and cleared the browser cache, all of my progress would be set to zero. One would expect a young child would get super mad at this, but honestly? I don’t remember ever being that upset by it. Since these games had very hard limits – bandwidth, file size, etc, they by necessity had to be two things: The first option was to make short games, with longer stories broken into multiple games. The second was to make a game that was endless, like how Galaga or Space Invaders is set up – endless, with your only enemy being the scoreboard. I got used to getting really good at the former and making sure to write down my high scores on the latter. This, more than anything else, has shaped my taste in video games the most, to be honest. 

I did have one of these bad boys tho

Because if you know me, then you know that I love roguelikes. I don’t just mean the loosely inspired “roguelite” games like FTL, Diablo, or Risk Of Rain – though I do really love all of those. I mean the classic, old school, tough as nails roguelike. Shiren The Wanderer and Angband are my go-to examples for this subgenre of a subgenre, but both of those, I’m sorry to say, are old. My copy of Shiren on the DS is over 10 years old! Angband is back from the 90’s (though it has new releases to this day)! Has there been any evolution in this genre?

    To which, I’m happy to say that there has been a lot. Since the indie game boom earlier this decade, there has been a lot of development in the roguelike genre in general, but many of those take a more loose inspiration from Rogue – hence the term often used for these games, the “roguelite”. But at the same time, these games have led to an increased interest in the roguelike genre more broadly, leading to what we see now: A golden age of all roguelikes. In our apocalyptic year of 2020, we’ve been seeing roguelike after roguelike hit it big – Risk Of Rain 2, World Of Horror, and One Step From Eden all have been games that I have been seeing – and in the case of Risk Of Rain 2, playing – a lot of. And it isn’t just newcomers to the indie scene that have been part of this roguelite boom, but old indie luminaries too. It isn’t just that Binding Of Isaac is still getting updates, but Derek Yu put out Spelunky 2. Supergiant Games put out probably one of the biggest indie hits of the year with Hades, which has swept the nominations for GOTY. And this rising tide has started lifting up the niche of “classic roguelikes”, as we’ve started to see games like Caves of Qud (a game so good that I had to uninstall it to focus on the rest of my work) getting big. And most importantly for me, there’s finally a Shiren The Wanderer game coming to the west on a game console I own, with Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate getting a release onto Steam and the Nintendo Switch (Ok, sure, Tower Of Fortune was also on the DS. But I can’t find a copy for sale on Ebay, so that doesn’t count).

Screenshot of Risk Of Rain 2

    A perfect example of this new boom is the story of Risk Of Rain and it’s sequel. The original Risk Of Rain is the classic indie game story. Originally a student project at U Wash, it was developed as a kind of experiment in rising game difficulty and making players take tough choices. Released back in 2013, this experiment proved to be extremely good, with tight gameplay and a good amount of variety from game to game without being too random. Playing it back then, it’s complex gameplay and the amount of stuff I had to unlock made it really appealing to me, and I used to just sit on the floor with my laptop, trying once again to master a run to get a new character or item, sinking whole weekends into the game. But as good as Risk Of Rain was, it never seemed to pick up a big audience. 2013 was a huge year for indie games, with instant classics like Papers, Please, The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, and Guacamelee being the tip of the iceberg. It feels like Risk Of Rain was lost in the shuffle there, and faded to the background as being a kind of small cult game, the game that people pick up in a steam sale only to be like “whoa, this is crazy good!”. Looking at the stats on SteamDB, the highest number of players it had at any time was 5,462, back in 2014. The SteamSpy estimate for ownership is around 1 million to 2 million people – a respectable number of sales, but compared to say, Rogue Legacy, which came out the same year and was famously profitable within the first hour of release, well, let’s leave it at that. As good of a game as it was, it wasn’t a smash hit indie darling like it honestly deserved. Which made the announcement of a sequel, Risk Of Rain 2, that much more hype to me. I wasn’t expecting a sequel – and I especially wasn’t expecting it to be a 3d action game going on the same roguelike model. 

    I picked up Risk Of Rain 2 a bit after release, after a friend who had it told me that it was extremely good, and was immediately blown away. One would expect that the jump to 3D would make the main gameplay loop of Risk Of Rain – running through massive, sprawling 2D levels to get items as fast as possible – to be somewhat simplified by the fact that you can make shortcuts through levels in 3D. And to an extent, that is kinda true. But that base loop stayed, and even got a bit better, as you have to keep on your toes to avoid attacks coming from all directions. The 3D design also makes it harder to cheese this aspect of the game – you cannot stand and kill enemies off screen that can’t affect you, and so you are being hounded the whole time from the start of a run. It’s great stuff. The cast of characters this time is a mix of old and new ones, and there are just as many juicy secrets and items that you have to do esoteric stuff to unlock. I haven’t been able to play Risk Of Rain 2 for a few months – I’ve been both away from my main PC, and busy with a job and schoolwork – but I still feel the need to play it, to get more unlocks. It’s just as addictive to me as the first one. 

    In a similar vein, I picked up the more classic roguelike Caves Of Qud, and found it so compelling I had to uninstall it so I could get things done. This isn’t some action game like Risk Of Rain, but a true bones, top down, one turn at a time, rolling dice roguelike. The big pull for this one is the rich setting – while many classic roguelikes proudly have a kind of high fantasy setting, Caves Of Qud has a more science fiction setting, set in a deep future full of mutants, robots, and chrome dungeons where ancient, deadly, artifacts of the before times reside. In other words, stuff that is just as much up my alley as classic roguelikes themselves. This kind of high science fiction setting turns it into an interesting twist on the usual high fantasy settings, by keeping all the monsters, dungeons, and magic artifacts but shifting the setting surrounding those things. A classic roguelike with really good writing isn’t something that I was aware I particularly needed, but now that one exists, I want to do nothing more than just create another pyrokinetic mutant desert nomad. 

And this, I feel, is one of the big reasons why roguelikes are in such a boom right now. The gameplay they have has a kind of loop that makes you want to come back for more – see every secret, optimise every run, get every item. Of course, it isn’t just the games themselves that determine the popularity, but the context they take place in. We’re entering a generation where people didn’t grow up just playing Super Mario Brothers 3, Castlevania, and Final Fantasy 7, but instead Pokemon Mystery Dungeon and those early roguelikes like Spelunky. Game audiences have changed, and that has changed the game making scene as well. One can see a somewhat similar effect with the boom in retro styled shooters as well. Which all means, if my math is right, we’re gonna enter an age of games alternately inspired by the Xbox – Gamecube – PS2 era and the flash game / freeware era of indies. I mean, I can’t wait for that, but I’m happy just looking at the now. And waiting for the Shiren game to come out. 

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