What was once a clearly defined construct in the generally more pedantic and fastidious PC gaming sphere, the Roguelike has undergone some semantic changes since its original days as an ASCII-based series of dungeon crawlers from different aspiring coders and designers, who found the script-dependent yet graphically untaxing format conducive to learning the ropes of their chosen specialization in the larger field of game development. Taking Snider favorite Slaves of Armok II: Dwarf Fortress, an example which is perhaps about as far from the hard Roguelike model as some of the games I'm about to go into, was created by Tarn "Toady" Adams as a simple means to test some in-depth Dwarven city-building coding with the ASCII characters essentially filling in as "programmer graphics" - deliberately poor graphical approximations to be used as a substitute to test the code during the development process. That it took off before the game was completed and became something of a cult favorite in the meantime was probably a serendipitous turn for the developers of Dwarf Fortress, which is still in its Alpha build as of this blog.
So initially the Roguelike was simply any game that fulfilled three requisites: It needed A) procedurally-generated dungeons, B) primitive ASCII based characters and C) to impose a harsh rule of "permanent" loss of character if they happened to die in action. These days the definition has expanded somewhat to include any game that fulfils any of the above three conditions, though specifically the first and third. Builds of NetHack with better graphical capabilities (though still lacking in terms of modern RPGs) and the many Mystery Dungeon games have made the second rule a little more lax in the meantime, though I'd imagine purists still insist on playing the primitive models for the sake of accuracy.
The three games I want to discuss are ones I've been playing to some extent this week that stretch the limits of the Roguelike designation with how they've expanded the core conceit in various ways while honoring the same tenets that make Roguelikes such an intense form of RPG. As always, feel free to voice your own opinions on the games covered and other examples you can think of.
The Binding of Isaac
I've played a considerable amount of The Binding of Isaac since it came out, as I had greatly enjoyed Edmund McMillen's previous work with Super Meat Boy and seeing what appeared to be a rather macabre sense of black humor behind the story of a young boy attempting to elude his evangelical and quite insane mother sealed the deal. This week, thanks to the Steam sales, I finally folded and purchased its recent DLC expansion Wrath of the Lamb. I've get to get too far into the bonus material, but I'm well back into the groove that this game demands you align with if you intend to complete it.
The Binding of Isaac, for those not in the know, is an action game where you control a young boy who is able to project his tears as a ranged weapon through a series of procedurally generated square rooms that purposefully evoke the dungeons of the original Legend of Zelda game. Each room requires that you eliminate every enemy within before the exits open and you're free to explore in any direction available. Though the primary goal at any given moment is to track down the boss of that floor, defeat it and then descend to another, more difficult floor of the dungeon, further exploration can often net various bonuses such as cash (used to purchase items), bombs (used to clear the way to items and occasionally secret rooms), keys (unlock areas of importance) and hearts (health, which is occasionally found in a "spirit" form that temporarily boosts your maximum). Finding powerful active-use items and passive stat-boosters are necessary for survival in the lower floors, though visiting too many rooms full of enemies can often wear down your HP and patience. Like any good Roguelike, it's a balancing act of risk vs. reward and death - as it often is in Roguelikes - is both frequent and final.
The procedural generation and permadeath aspects are enough to convince some Roguelike aficionados that this game does indeed belong to that sub-genre, though the gameplay is a far cry from the deliberate, turn-based strategic gameplay of the core Roguelikes that inspired it. It's about as much of an RPG as Zelda itself is, which is to say just barely.
Spelunky, like The Binding of Isaac, is an action game in Roguelike clothing. As with McMillen's and Himsl's Zelda-based dungeon crawl, Spelunky requires quick reflexes and some degree of action game ability, in this case some proficiency with platformer games. Spelunky has the player assume some sort of Indiana Jones ersatz explorer that has come across a set of ruins that randomly rearrange itself each time you enter them (the game actually deigns to provide an explanation for this randomization as some manner of an ancient curse). Unlike Binding of Isaac and perhaps closer to the original Roguelikes, this is not a game to be rushing through at great speed. Doing so will likely kill you before you've even left the first chamber.
The Indiana Jones tomb-exploration genre is nothing new, even in this deliberately old-school 2D platformer form. The recent WiiWare/PC remake of La-Mulana for example has an equally fedora-prone hero in a inexplicably harsh trap-lousy tomb that deliberately evokes MSX games Legacy of the Wizard and Maze of Galious. There's also Spelunky's clear inspiration Spelunker, from which it borrows the name. Spelunky stands out by having a workable procedural generation aspect behind each of its levels, with certain tools (bombs and ropes specifically, which are available in limited amounts) needed in case the generated level has too many blocked passages or fatal big drops between the player and the exit.
When I played the original years ago, I wasn't too impressed with it. I appreciated the concept of turning a Roguelike into a platformer, but I thought the execution was a little off. Far too many instances of the topography becoming untraversable with the limited supply of ropes and bombs only helping as far as their stockpiles persisted. The new one, which I played the XBLA demo of for a good few hours, seems to have fixed these problems and added a lot more to the game, including a pleasingly cartoonish graphical upgrade. Like many Roguelikes, it struck me as a game that would be all too easy to burn out on, especially after a few rage-inducing cheap deaths, but I could begin to see the appeal behind the form with its new polish. It's a game I'll be looking to purchase as soon as it drops in price (though given its already low price tag, I may just wait until my bank account recovers from the Steam sales).
A Valley Without Wind
I was not prepared for A Valley Without Wind. Like Spelunky, it's a 2D action platformer first and foremost, with the RPG aspect a close second. However the scale of this project is immense and it's immediately intimidating to a new player once faced with the incredibly strange plot and the many different gameplay facets this game contains. That said, it does a sterling job of acclimatizing you to the game, with its hour-long tutorial area helpfully easing in every odd rule and concept and giving you an embarrassment of boons to get you started on the right foot. It's odd when you consider how inscrutable much of the game is that you could get to grips with it so fast, but it's far more user-friendly than initial impressions might otherwise indicate.
And inscrutable perhaps is an understatement: A Valley Without Wind takes place in a world that has collapsed utterly. Not just in the general apocalyptic sense of everyone in the present dying of a sudden calamity, but rather that space/time itself has apparently thrown in the towel and annihilated almost everyone who ever has or ever will exist. What survivors are left are huddling within pockets of stability that the raging storms of entropy have not yet touched. Stepping outside these safe havens is literally suicide, as the storms simply tear the reality keeping your person together to the far corners of the continuum, so it's down to the inexplicably immune "Glyphbearers" (the player characters, naturally) to explore the sundered world, find mineral resources to help the survivors keep on keepin' on and defeat the malevolent Lieutenants and Overlords that are prospering in the chaos.
I've always been a big fan of games that deal in anachronisms, such as Gain Ground or Time Stalkers - games that perhaps wouldn't stand out without such a bizarre premise. Initially, you can only choose characters from a futuristic Ice Age the planet suffered at some point in the near future (though there isn't really a "present" any more, the game seems to indicate that the present had been an era not unlike the modern present of the real world. Yeah, it's a little confusing) who have an innate cold resistance and a predilection for energy weapons. As you find survivors from other time eras, you are able to control them when your current Glyphbearer dies, which'll happen a lot.
Gameplay-wise it's very much like Spelunky in that every action area is randomly generated and you have a few tools (like wooden platforms) at your disposal to assist traversal in cases where the generated levels have made certain target areas inaccessible, as well as a plethora of different elemental spells and enchantments to help you fight the enemies that appear. There are so many odd idiosyncrasies that the game will patiently explain in a way that makes them far more logical, such as the odd parent-child mini-map system used for dungeons or the crafting system that allows you to assign necessary ingredients as short-term goals or building structures on the world map to increase the strength of settlements or how the game gets more challenging by unlocking tougher versions of monsters after killing a certain number of instances from the same family. Health recovers only after killing monsters, though mana regenerates almost instantaneously meaning you only ever need enough to cast the active spells you have equipped. There are special missions that unlock vital items, which can vary between simple boss rushes to freefalling down a pit full of floating mines or only killing the enemies in a chamber which don't belong to that time period (whereas killing natives will cause more to spawn) and there's even variants on Missile Command and MOBAs. It's a very odd game all things considered, though nothing about it remains abstruse for long thanks to its superb tutorials.
The very first time I played A Valley Without Wind, I entered a dungeon and kept going further and further down through its strata for several hours until I died. I have no idea what penalties death incurs, since my new character had the same inventory and spells as the old one had the moment he died, but I imagine when I find out I'll be bummed. I'd hesitate to call it a Roguelike because of how different it feels from anything I've ever played, but the procedurally generated dungeons and perma-death would seem to designate it as such. Give the demo a try; it's surprisingly full-featured.
Procedurally Generated Webcomic