Opinion: Why roguelikes have become so popular, despite their barrier to entry

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Modern-day games such as Spelunky, Rogue Legacy and Nuclear Throne have gained a lot of popularity over the last year due in large part to the way these games incorporate aspects of the ‘roguelike’ sub-genre of games.

What’s different about the roguelike?

The genre is typified by the challenge of taking a single attempt at completing a much larger and more expansive objective than might seem possible without relying on saving your game or multiple lives. In other words, permadeath.


– Rogue inspired other games to use permadeath and random dungeon generation

The roguelike finds its roots in the popularisation of Rogue, an ASCII graphics-based dungeon crawler from the 1980s that inspired others like it including NetHack, and while those who immersed themselves in the epic adventures of these games enjoyed them, compared to other games of the time on home consoles and computers, the visuals and interactions of these games was incredibly archaic.

While the overwhelming challenge of the roguelike gave way to more action-based and immediately rewarding games in arcades and at home that didn’t require such a hefty time investment, this style of game certainly wasn’t forgotten and players continued to enjoy NetHack and Rogue spin-offs for decades, with some more modern attempts at the genre emerging in games like Dwarf Fortress as recently as 2006.


– Dwarf Fortress is a recent example of a roguelike directly inspired by Rogue

In the last two years, the roguelike (and the roguelike-like) have risen to popularity due in no small part to the original release of Spelunky in 2008, and the game’s high definition re-release on console and PC in in 2012 and 2013. Spelunky uses all of the classic roguelike tropes, including permadeath and random world generation, and wraps them up in a skill-based platformer with unique items to buy and collect

Spelunky deviates from the punishing challenge of a regular roguelike or roguelike-like by allowing players to reach checkpoints in the game between levels so they don’t have to start all the way from the very beginning when they die, with special items available to you on subsequent attempts if you find them.


– Spelunky has helped make way for the rise of the roguelike in modern-day gaming

The popularity of Spelunky has (arguably) inspired other developers to include roguelike elements in their games, with Rogue Legacy, Don’t Starve, The Binding of Isaac, Nuclear Throne and Desktop Dungeons all gaining acclaim in the last few years thanks to their departure from regular checkpoint-based action RPGs and platformers in favour of a more thoughtful and challenging experience. Most of these games also feature a level of progress permanence, so even if you die you’ll have collected items or money to grow your character.

Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 could also be considered modern-day roguelikes, but while challenging in their own ways, these games allow players much more leeway than this sub-genre typically allows. That being said, the phenomenal popularity surrounding the Souls series is exceptional, in spite of its challenge.


– It may not be a typical roguelike, but the Souls series is still very challenging

Why have players taken to roguelikes, roguelike-likes and roguelike-lite games in recent years? Games that feature an incredible barrier to entry and are, at first blush, punishingly difficult?

In an age of generous regenerating health, overtly protective tutorials and a never-ending deluge of encouragement via Achievements and Trophies, why have games that revel in their strenuous demands on players become so popular?

I believe it has a lot to do with the experiences of older gamers who cut their teeth on old school arcade games, as well as console games from the NES, Master System, Mega-Drive and SNES era, which only ever allowed you a limited number of attempts before forcing you to start again or ask for a credit to continue.

In the last ten years, these selfsame gamers have decried the easing difficulty of games and the tools that modern titles use to ensure you get all the way to the end. These are the people who have been craving more arduous challenges, and have now taken their chance to relive the ‘glory days’ of their gaming careers.


– 2014’s Galak-Z will include roguelike elements, including random world generation, thanks to the popularity of the genre

The spark of Spelunky’s popularity certainly helped, though, while the Demon’s Souls phenomenon paved the way for the popularity of Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2. As the live broadcasting of these games over services like Twitch has become more popular, with games like Nuclear Throne and The Binding of Isaac also benefiting from players showcasing these games as public displays of skill (and fun ways to keep your videos fresh and entertaining), roguelikes have swelled in popularity, too.

While there’s no doubt that the gameplay and design advances seen in modern-day titles have been important, there’s definitely a feeling amongst the general gaming public that their favourite franchises have become too easy which means that running into the challenges of Dark Souls and Spelunky have been very refreshing and welcome changes of pace.

These games offer an experience that engages players from beginning to end with little chance to relax for very long, which is a far cry from modern military shooters and hack-and-slash games that, while fun, don’t require nearly as much attention while playing which has the potential of leading to boredom.

Does more engagement mean more fun? Fans of roguelikes will know the answer to that.

What roguelikes have you enjoyed playing in the past, or do you avoid the genre? Do you agree that challenging games are more fun to play?

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