The indie market is a churning stew. Different ingredients mingle and new ones get dropped in all the time, sometimes overpowering all other flavours. Zombies, crafting, Metroidvania -- they have all had their moments to shine and sometimes even find themselves mixed together in the same pot. Yet, perhaps the most recent ingredient to be dropped into the concoction is the Roguelike. It’s a bit tricky to define, and the term’s current usage is debated, so perhaps the best place to start with explaining it is to tell you about Rogue itself.
Back in the primordial days of computing, a lot of game design was being done by college students learning to program. This is because computers of the time were massive, vacuum-tube filled monstrosities that would take up large rooms. This wouldn’t change until the creation of the microprocessor and the release of the “1977 Trinity” of personal computers, but that’s a different subject entirely.
In the late ‘70s, students were beginning to experiment with programming low-memory games using ASCII graphics. Rogue was interestingly, not the first Roguelike, either. Predating it was 1978’s Beneath the Apple Manor for Apple II and Sword of Fargoal in 1979. Rogue would simply get more exposure because of the existence of ARPANET, an early form of the internet that connected schools and government offices, which allowed it to be distributed into the hands of other budding programmers.
The genre features that would one day be lifted from this venerable game were two core values: permadeath and procedural generation. In the game, you would navigate dungeons, gather weapons and items, and should you fall in combat, it was back to the start of the game. The levels and encounters are all created randomly, meaning each experience was something new.
The idea of the Roguelike sprang from this starting point. Students would find themselves enamored by Rogue’s clever design, and would attempt to replicate all of its mechanics. Since the sourcecode was not readily available, this often mean creating the new games from scratch. The most popular two examples are 1982’s Hack and 1983’s Moria, both of which took the permadeath and procedural generation of Rogue and twisted it with their own flavours.
For years, Roguelikes were largely popular with programmers. Its features didn’t creep into the arcade or console markets for years until the Mystery Dungeon series landed on the Super Famicom in 1993, with Torneko no Daibouken: Fushigi no Dungeon, a spin-off of the Dragon Quest series. It too included both permadeath and randomly created dungeons. The series would eventually make it to North American shores with Chocobo’s Dungeon 2 in 1998 for the Playstation. However, it would remain one of the few Roguelikes to exist on consoles.
In the 2000’s, the indie market would do what it does best and incorporated Roguelike elements into genres that are otherwise unrelated. 2008’s Spelunky is often cited as one of the most influential pioneers of what would become referred to as the Roguelite genre. It took the basic elements of permadeath and randomly generated dungeons, but shifted it to a side-scrolling perspective.
It wouldn’t take long before these mechanics exploded into the spotlight with games like Binding of Isaac, FTL: Faster Than Light, and Rogue Legacy. Each containing a different approach to the formula, but always including permadeath and procedural generation.
However, like everything when it comes to games, the definition of Roguelike and Roguelite would become progressively more murky. Even as early as games like Spelunky, permanence would be added to the permadeath mechanic. As you got further and further into your adventure, you would unlock things that would stay with you as long as your save file remained intact. Especially common is shortcuts that allow you to skip to later stages, so you don’t always have to start at the beginning.
However, the permadeath feature has been twisted in so many ways, it’s rarely considered a requirement anymore to be gifted the term Roguelite. The moniker is commonly attached to any game that contains random elements, such as Mega Cat Studios’ own Bite the Bullet. The world’s first run-and-gun-and-eat, feature a heaping portion of run-and-gun shooter, RPG, and, of course, Roguelite. Dig in!