Revenge of
the Nerds

chess pieces stock photo

An In-depth journey on the history of the Roguelike Genre.

When I first saw Hades featured on a Nintendo direct indie showcase, I was admittedly unenthusiastic. The images shown reeked of shovelware. It didn’t strike me as ingenious. I think I spammed the fast-forward icon on the video footage, if I’m being honest. 

Once the game dropped, Reddit communities raved about how we entered the golden age of roguelikes and roguelites. I was half convinced these words had little meaning other than being buzzwords for an ugly game with a low budget trying to pass off as an indie gem.

 “Roguelike, roguelike, roguelike” the gaming community continued to chant – it felt more to me like it was cult-like. 

The word continued to spiral.

When Hades first went on sale, literal hell broke loose. I could swear I had missed out on some elusive meta shift on Reddit. Like I missed out on the trendy new circlejerk, ranting and raving about the new hidden gem that [INSERT NAME]’s wife boyfriend introduced them to. Comment sections were flooded with endless repetitions of:

“I don’t even like roguelites
and I can’t put this game down!” 
“I’d go back in time...
and pay full price for this game if I could!”
“Hades is the only game you’ll need.”

I did what any other rational human being would do. I skipped it. Comments kept sparking up about the game, even after new release hype should have died down a bit. Then the game was nominated for Game of the Year!? I couldn’t look the other way any longer.

So I did what any other rational human being would do…

I bought it…. and played it…

Hades bone hydra screenshot. Multi-headed beast of asphodel.

For hours.

...And hours.

...And hours.

I was utterly terrible at it, too! It probably took me 25 runs just to clear the first boss, and 40 runs to beat her consistently. 

Die, rinse, repeat, start from scratch. The premise of having to escape (literal) hell meshed undeniably well with the ruthless nature of a roguelite. The voice acting kept coming, despite me never making any real progress. The story was fleshed out and continued to unfold with each failed attempt. Every character had a very distinct pattern of speech. Someone took the nerdiest, most mundane folklore of all time – a story of Greek Gods doing nothing but spawning babies all hours of the day – and gave it a truly remarkable breath of life! Suddenly, I was a roguelite junkie. 

Still, if you haven’t played a roguelite, those words don’t necessarily mean anything to you. Even if you have, you may not know. Is it just some word that spawned into the scene recently? Super niche sub-sub-sub genres like “walking sim” or “Musou”. Where do people even come up with these names? Well, you’re in luck. I have a bit of a feel-good special lined up to explain exactly that.

Achilles, hades, supergiant games, roguelike

What defines a Roguelike?

Before diving any further, let’s take a moment to examine the crucial elements that define a roguelike or roguelite. It's a hot topic and is ultimately the equivalent of comparing who can drink their chocolate milk at the school lunch table first. The most recent accepted metric is known as the Berlin interpretation from 2008

(WARNING: Serious gatekeeping vibes are incoming. Stay with me, it’ll be worth it in the end. I promise.)

The “important” stuff:

  1. Maps should be randomly generated room-by-room to make each new experience feel unique.
  2. Permadeath. You die, you lose it. End of story.
  3. Each action is “turn-based” meaning it is the equivalent of a turn of movement for the enemy.
  4. Uniform grid tiles, much like you would see in a turn-based strategy game.
  5. All actions should take place on the same screen. Movement, combat, item usage, etc.
  6. Complex enough to have multiple solutions to anything.
  7. Heavy focus on resource management.
  8. Hack’n’slash core design. No making friends with baddies and using them as shields.
  9. Items should be unidentifiable at the start of every run to add to risk.

The “unimportant but I guess we include it anyway” stuff:

  1. Single-player central to POV.
  2. Monsters get inventories and equipment just like the player. No unfair advantages.
  3. YoU CaN’t Be AbLe tO BeAt iT oN yOuR fIrSt Try!1!
  4. ASCII graphics.
  5. Dungeons only. Long corridors. Rooms to loot.
  6. A user interface that includes hitpoints and status displayed at all times.

The roguelike community tends to nitpick this list. 

Darren Grey led a revolt that’s backed up by a large sum of the fandom. Long story short: No developer should feel the need to hinder their game’s core gameplay loop for the sake of falling into a metric. A ton of games already hailed as pillars to the roguelike genre struggled to meet Berlin Interpretation standards, let alone the future of the genre.

The Berlin Interpretation became a bit of a meme as years have passed. I don’t blame the community for their revolt. Why should a graphic style define a game? I also can’t wrap my head around why they felt it necessary to include the “multiple tries” parameter.  That’s inherent to a run-based game designed to be difficult, no?

Still, I commend the Berlin group for their effort. A group of devoted programming fanatics met at a conference to have fun and enjoy a shared hobby together, similar to what you’d expect from attending a Comic-Con. They attempted to do something productive for the genre. It also sparked the beginning of an annual conference for coders to share ideas among one another.

The problem was that the Berlin Interpretation showed up 30 years late to the party. Their attempt at making a clear roguelike definition was a flop. They were doodling lines on an ambiguous genre that most players had already fondly experienced for a lifetime.

Having said that, some definitive qualities help roguelikes differentiate themselves from the likes of the titanic franchises of turn-based strategy such as Fire Emblem, or action-RPGs such as Diablo.

The Origins of The “Roguelike”

The history of the Roguelike is a rugged mountainous path. The history of the roguelike is still shadowy, and shrouded in mystery. Journalists are still struggling to decide what a Roguelike actually is. 

Our story begins on the set of Animal House. The year was 1978. All of the college frat boys were gathered to wreak havoc and drink their lives away. They were identified as misfits from all of the relentless pranks and frat house politics they actively engaged in. A true captain always goes down with his frat, they say. 

There our hero stood. Buried so deep in the background that he neglected to get a split-second of camera time. He was a social outcast – hanging valiantly from a flagpole by his underpants. 

He told his family one night at the dinner table that computers were the future. Maybe they laughed and said something along the lines of, “Oh honey… we don’t need some machine the size of our house to do basic math problems for us”

It might sound like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. 

These are our gaming forefathers. The kids who spent their nights writing fan-fiction sequels to Lord of the Rings. If they were lucky enough to find a clique of their own, they would spend their weekend evenings playing the second edition of Dungeons and Dragons. 

Pure escapists. 

This is the reason so many early psychological studies on gaming were centralized on social isolation and depression. The kids were looking to heighten immersion in their efforts to escape.

michael toy
Michael Toy, captured presumably under 80's Polaroid-style resolution.

In 1978, two major influences would go on to inspire the game of Rogue. A game simply titled, dnd (in all lowercase, if you’re feeling inclined to search it yourself) and another game titled Colossal Cave Adventure. The former incorporated immersive stat sheets and permadeath, the latter was a simple interactive text-based game. In a sense, Rogue had already existed as Beneath Apple Manor, but the developer wasn’t keen on marketing practices. The software was limited to Apple operating systems. The only way to obtain it was postage from his own house, or finding an individual retailer that he had personally sold the game to.

In 1980 everything changed. A new title, created by Ken Arnold, Jon Lane, Michael Toy and Glen Wichman titled (you guessed it!) Rogue was being distributed across the many universities littered throughout California.

Wichman’s primary design philosophy was to create a game that he could enjoy and be surprised by as a developer – despite dumping hours into creating it. A legacy was born.

Your primary quest was to find the Scroll of Yendor without dying. The game wasn’t much to look at. It was limited to 26 variations of monsters – because there are only 26 letters in the alphabet to feature as their designs. Yeah, you read that right. The game’s graphics were entirely composed of text images. Hashtags as far as the eye could see – comprising long corridors.

The main character (@) was ruthlessly ambushed by Q and Y. The level of depth was unparalleled at the time. In order to know what items you were about to use, you needed to obtain a “scroll of identification”. Death was decidedly permanent. A group of kids began spamming the dinosaur technology of USENET (because we’re predating the world wide web by ten years here, mind you) with methods of backing up save files to exploit the game, and developers changed the source code upon hearing this.

Screenshot for your viewing pleasure. WARNING: These graphics might crash some mobile devices.

Students And Computer Programmers Alike Were Touched By Rogue.

The ability to participate in such an intense role-playing experience from the comfort of your own computer was sublime. Programmers around the globe were begging for the source code (again, on USENET) so they could expand and enhance the game. The developers didn’t budge, and thus the Roguelike was born.

This history book goes on to say that two major titles were born of this, both created from scratch with the source code eventually made available to the public. The first was Moria, a similar game; but, thematic to the stories of J.R.R. Tolkien. From that, Angband was born. Angband boasted the best Lord of the Rings experience on PC. Although, I’d like to set focus on the other game that emerged.

In 1982, a game titled Hack jumped into the mix. The title was a play on words: the game had an emphasis on hacking at opponents and had a wide appeal to our nation’s first generation of hackers. The reason I want to emphasize this title over the other is because it was created by four high school students as a class project. This game was not monetized, or created for broad appeal.

Hack was a passion project from four kids who openly adored the game of Rogue, but needed to create it from scratch. The result was something superior with more options and more immersion. Once they aced the living daylights out of their school project, Jay Fenalson posted the source code to the net with a message explicitly along the lines of, “Yeah. y’all can do whatever you want with this”

Thousands of miles away, a Dutch man read this and probably spit his morning coffee out across his computer screen – elegant as the fountain sitting in front of the famed Las Vegas Bellagio (also ten years in the making). The Dutch mathematician and professor, Andries Brouwer, went on to create different character classes: a tourist, an archeologist, a caveman, a knight, a wizard, or a fighter. He added more monsters and traps. He added a giant eel that split into two if hit from the center. He added a hellhound. He added features based on the phases of the moon, like added luck and increased damage from dogs on a full moon. He added the pickaxe and the can opener. The role-playing aspects were quite immersive for a game displayed entirely in text. The game went on to become NetHack and undergo the same course as Moria.

Roguelikes Were Decidedly More Engaging Than Traditional Tabletop Role-Playing.

In 1989, Castle of the Winds broke the genre into the graphical world with tile-based images, backed by a story of a destroyed farm and murdered godparents. This title received a community backlash because it featured a save and restore function, significantly hampering the risk and reward system that had become commonplace in the genre. 

The pivot to tile-based graphics made an impact; however, and Moria’s successor Angband followed suit in 1990.

A few curious developers launched console roguelikes onto the Sega scene but these were were commercial failures. The games were too simplistic. They lacked core decision making mechanics that players appreciated most about roguelikes. The fact of the matter was that the Sega couldn’t compare to the powerhouse of a PC.

Castle of the winds, roguelike flop
PC powerhouse title: Castle of the Winds - 1989

The Giant Rat Bites You!
[HP: 4/16]
[Mana: 6/6]
Chunsoft Enters into The Fray.

Chunsoft had a reputation. Chunsoft was founded by Koichi Nakamura, who worked with Enix on the widely acclaimed Dragon Quest series. Chunsoft housed a whopping 5 developers. In 1993, they dropped their own console roguelike. A “Mystery Dungeon” spin-off based in the Dragon Quest universe known in America as Taloon’s Great Adventure. They pivoted the shopkeeper to the main role. His dream was to raid a mystery dungeon and sell better wares in his humble little shop. 

The angle was to simplify the game’s core elements to appeal to a wider audience. The dungeons were still procedurally generated, but they also had incorporated a difficulty curve. Permadeath was deflated to becoming a loss of equipment and level, while the outside town flourished with each run. 

So, as the story goes, Taloon discovered the Box of Happiness in his adventures and opened the chest to release a pretty song for the town to hear, right?

No. The underground audience of developers still found the game to be too shallow, and it was watered down in difficulty.

Chunsoft may have secured a niche industry and seen a bit of success with Mystery Dungeon spin-off titles. The truth of the matter was that, by 1993, the genre was already outpaced by the likes of Super Mario All-Stars, Star Fox, Mortal Kombat 2, and Street Fighter 2 in the public eye. The gap would only increase with time, and our beloved roguelikes were destined to remain in the shadows.

If commercial success ruins your beloved formula, do you give up?

These devoted developers didn’t. In a roguelike, when your character dies you may lose all of your progress. That doesn’t mean it is time to quit. Instead, you start fresh and fire yourself up for a new run. that’s exactly what these boys did.

ancient domains of mystery, adom back story, roguelike history
Turns out players loved the ASCII graphics.

In 1994, Ancient Domains of Mystery (better known as ADOM) dropped. Our passionate developers ran the opposite direction of Chunsoft and set graphics aside and doubled down on player choices. Zangband became the second adaptation to build off of the success of it’s predecessor.

In 1995, Chunsoft dropped its’ first sequel. Mystery Dungeon 2: Shiren the Wanderer. Linley Henzell looked the other way and dropped Linley’s Dungeon Crawl featuring 20 unique races to choose from, and subclasses to select unique to each race. Alphaman was a fun rendition of Cyberpunk: 2020 featuring a plethora of humorous takes such as featuring Donald Trump as president (Big Oof!). A future of genetic mutations may sound bleak, but it was easily off-set the moment you threw a roll of toilet paper at a dung beetle and the game notified you that it was super effective.

For the most part, Mystery Dungeon titles had annual releases, and our gaming forefathers kept rehashing new and improved versions of Angband or Hack.

In 2005, the most popular mystery dungeon game dropped, using the success of the Pokemon franchise as a stepping stool. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Red and Blue Rescue Team sold a cumulative 5.8 million units. Meanwhile, the heroes of our story were developing a new rendition of Linley’s Dungeon Crawl that would soon be titled: Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. DCSS would be the definitive title to inspire the roguelike spin-off titles that flood the market today.

Damn potion turned me into a tree.
Class selection screen on DCSS

DCSS was easily the game I played most while researching. It features fun sprites, outlandish character classes like a Formicid ant-man who can dig or a Naga with poison spit to lunge at enemies. The keyboard controls are definitely a bit daunting at first glance, especially for someone like you or me who hasn’t spent a lifetime playing these dungeon-crawling roguelikes for a lifetime. I’ll give you a few examples, in case you’re curious.

  • Tab to attack nearest enemy
  • 5 to rest one turn
  • s to wait one turn
  • z to cast spell
  • g to grab item
  • < or > to go up or down a staircase
  • o to “autoexplore”
  • f to “fire or throw”

The amount of depth in this game was unbelievable. I’d been blessed by an ecosystem god named Fedhas who granted me special abilities like walking through bushes. The potions I picked up were unidentified at first glance, and often times hurt me or had negative consequences. Scrolls I picked up were a jumbled assortment of letters until used. I could level up my items and equipment, the list goes on. Of course, roguelikes had already been doing this for decades. Still, I’d consider Pokemon Mystery Dungeon and Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup to be the height of disparity between design philosophies to date.

An Unlikely Roguelite Mash-Up Occurred in 2008.

Spelunky screenshot, little yetis with sad faces, walrus yeti
Spelunky in all of it's heartbreaking glory.

In true roguelike fashion, the creator of Spelunky dropped the source code for his new freeware platformer on Christmas day. The game featured the roguelike genre’s most important key elements: permadeath, and procedurally generated rooms. The crowd went wild. We set down out graphics-intensive games for a moment to relish the 2D simplicity of a well-executed platformer. We honed our skills. Our aim wasn’t only to beat an excruciatingly difficult game but to push the game’s physical boundaries. 

A streamer by the tag of Bananasaurus Rex completed a full run with a fragile little eggplant in his hand, tossed it in the final boss’s face, and unraveled a fated Easter egg just begging to be exploited. The legendary purple-faced boss. It wasn’t even intended to be accomplished solo.

What Spelunky had proven to us, as an audience, was that recent games were trying too hard to spoon-feed us entertainment with narration, intensive graphics, and mind-numbingly easy gameplay.

It didn’t end there.

The Binding of Isaac made a splash when it dropped in 2014, featuring a cartoonish Flash game aesthetic. More importantly, in 2017 it made an early appearance on the Nintendo Switch, drawing a very large audience to a “lowly” indie developer on a tight budget. The game generated an insatiable buzz and seemed like a perfect fit for undocked gaming.

The Roguelike Floodgates Were Open For Indie Developers Worldwide.

Indie developers could thrive on a low budget as long as the core gameplay loop felt balanced, rewarding, and addictive. The roguelike genre had evolved into masterpieces such as Slay the Spire, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Enter the Gungeon, Dead Cells, Cadence of Hyrule.

The boundaries of the genre continued to be pushed and pulled. Who cares what those kids said in Berlin in 2008? I don’t. A beautiful concoction had spawned in the aftermath. A new experience at every startup. An unforgiving game style that rewarded a growth of knowledge and decision-based gameplay. Just one more run, a player tells themselves. Infinite replayability. Just one more run. Just. One. More. Run.

The die-hard fans may enjoy these titles, but I can feel a frustration coming from their direction. Steam began getting spammed with games claiming to be roguelikes and because of this, they have to dig pretty deep to find a true, traditional roguelike. The gaming world is now largely aware of the term “roguelike” yet we bicker back and forth about what defines what a roguelike/roguelite is. It’s a bit of a growing pain for the genre. Still, I admire our new take on roguelike-styled indie games and greatly prefer it over our last shot at commercial success. At last, the world is ready.

So, what exactly is Supergiant Games'
hit blockbuster
"Hades" to me?

[I’ll give you a hint. I love it.]

Hypnos, hades, supergiant games, roguelike

What I experienced was a celebration of a hard-fought battle 40 years ago. Social outcasts of a generation long-passed could, at last, rejoice in the impact they had set on the world. Against all odds. The pain they had felt in those sullen years of their lives cannot be taken away. Those years spent developing code and marveling at a computer screen lined with dots and hashtags are gone. Who knows how many frat houses they could have sprawled toilet paper along. Who knows how many games of football they could have won. Does it matter? These men have given birth to a brand new medium of entertainment. They blazed a trail of innovation. 

They didn’t receive any reception for it. Hollywood painted them as overweight. Hollywood gave them freckles and taped up glasses frames. Hollywood gave them homes in their parents’ musty old basements clear into their 40’s. 

[You hear a faint noise in the distance.]

[Level Up!]

Hollywood gave them extravagant supporting roles as hacker sidekicks in robot apocalypse films. They wore their sunglasses at night.

[You fumble across the Scroll of Identification]

[+100 Experience Points]

[Level Up!]

Hollywood gave them lead roles in popular forensics television shows. They walked around the room in lab coats unscathed by the elements.

[Level Up!]

Hollywood gives them a multi-billion dollar live-action Lord of the Rings trilogy. Fandoms arise unashamed of how much they adore Harry Potter, Star Wars, or Marvel.

[Alas! The Amulet of Yendor is yours!]

Social outcasts went on to inspire developers worldwide. Their influence extends to modern RPGs as we know them. Without Moria, there would be no Diablo. There would be no Minecraft. Simply put, the world would not be what it is today had these men been featured on the silver screen in Animal House.

Let the celebration continue. I’ll devour roguelikes and roguelites for years to come. Our men in suits worked diligently – in hopes this day would come. Let this be a lesson to all you visionaries out there. It is no easy task to be ahead of your time. People may laugh, and people may scoff. 

dorky einstein, einstein with tongue out

Nobody hails Nikola Tesla as a tryhard – he’s a genius

Nobody hails Thomas Jefferson as a sweat – he’s a revolutionary.

Nobody hails Oscar Wilde as a gaylord – he’s an artist.

Thank you for reading.