What Are Roguelike and Roguelite Video Games?

You might have noticed the roguelike video game genre growing in popularity. But like a lot of genres, roguelikes can be difficult to define clearly, especially when they mix with a lot of other gameplay styles. This is why spin-off categories like “roguelite” exist.

We’ll walk through roguelike games to help you understand their key elements and how they differ from their roguelite companions.

What Are Roguelikes?

The title of “roguelike” comes from the game that pioneered this type of gameplay: Rogue, released for various early computers starting in 1980. Rogue is a turn-based dungeon crawler game where you have to fight your way through levels of a dungeon, picking up items and defeating enemies along the way.

Rogue uses simple ASCII graphics to represent everything, including enemies and rooms. This was an easy way to represent a game world on the text-only terminals of the time. In addition, the game features procedural generation, making every playthrough unique and preventing players from memorizing the game’s layout.

Rogue featured these and other specific design choices, partly due to the technical limitations of the time, that became a blueprint for future games it inspired. Those games are called roguelikes.

What Defines a Roguelike?

In 2008, the International Roguelike Development Conference was held in Berlin. There, developers and players worked to come up with a proper definition for roguelikes. This set of standards is now called the Berlin Interpretation, and while it’s not perfect, it’s a good baseline for figuring out how roguelike a game is.

The following are the most important factors of roguelikes according to the Berlin Interpretation:

  • Random environment generation: Roguelikes feature different room layouts with randomized placements for enemies and items each time you play. This is usually done with procedural generation, not total randomness, to avoid unwinnable situations.
  • Permanent death: Permadeath means when you die, you lose all progress and must start over from the beginning. You don’t carry any progress over across runs.
  • Turn-based movement on a grid: There is no real-time element in roguelikes; time usually advances when you take a step or another action. This allows you to take your time and consider your actions in advance. Also, roguelikes feature a grid of tiles instead of free movement.
  • Non-modal gameplay: In roguelikes, all actions take place on the same screen. There are no special screens for battles, cutscenes, or similar.
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  • Complexity, with limited resources: The game must allow for several solutions to problems, such as letting you beak down a door if you don’t have the key to it. Roguelikes also require you to wisely utilize limited items like healing potions, so you can’t survive forever with cheap strategies.
  • A focus on killing monsters: Leaning on the early definition of “hack and slash” games, roguelikes feature battling enemies as a key element. There are no peaceful options.
  • An emphasis on exploration and discovery: As one example, the effects of certain magical items could change in every run, requiring the player to figure out what a “twisted potion” does each time.

The Berlin Interpretation also includes some less-important criteria, like the player only controlling a single character, monsters playing by the same rules as the player, using ASCII characters for the game’s visuals, and displaying numbers to visualize player stats.

A game doesn’t need all these factors to be a roguelike, and just because it has a few, it’s not necessarily a roguelike. But in a world where an increasing amount of games use the “roguelike” moniker, it helps to have some criteria to compare them to.

The conference also stated that canon roguelike games are ADOM, Angband, Linley’s Dungeon Crawl, NetHack, and Rogue.

The Rise of Roguelike-Likes

If you’ve played any modern games labeled as roguelikes, they likely didn’t conform to some or most of the above points. During the rise of indie games in the late 2000s and early 2010s, several developers created titles that had roguelike-inspired gameplay, but didn’t conform to all the standards.

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One of the earliest popular examples is Spelunky, originally released in 2008. Spelunky took a lot of roguelike traits, like permanent death, discovery, and procedural generation, and put them into a 2D platformer. In the following years, The Binding of Isaac and FTL achieved similar success by combining roguelike elements with action-adventure and real-time strategy gameplay, respectively.

Despite having many of the key aspects, none of these games are true roguelikes, since they don’t feature turn-based gameplay with movement on a grid. As a result, people starting calling games in this style “roguelike-like” or “roguelite,” to designate that they incorporated most roguelike elements but used a gameplay style other than a turn-based dungeon-crawler.

While some use roguelike-like and roguelite interchangeably, there are technically small distinctions between them. Roguelike-like titles, despite not being dungeon crawlers, still lack any permanent progression between runs. However, roguelites allow you to work on macro-level goals by carrying over some items and progression after each attempt.

Understanding Roguelites

Hades, released in 2020 to much acclaim, is a great illustration of a roguelite. The game revolves around trying to escape from the underworld as the son of Hades.

The order of the rooms, your rewards for clearing each room, and power-ups offered by the Olympian gods are random in every attempt. When you die, you lose your power-ups and money, then must start over from the beginning.

However, a few types of collectible resources persist between deaths. You use them to unlock permanent upgrades and increase your chance of success. This means that in addition to increasing your mechanical skill on each attempt, you’re always working towards getting stronger, too.

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The game also makes the formula more appealing to newcomers by adding conversations and story beats in the game’s hub after each death. Hades only meets a few of the Berlin Interpretation’s standards, but it’s a great game because it makes roguelike elements more accessible and enjoyable.

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Before Hades, other roguelite games brought roguelike-style gameplay to different genres. Examples include Slay the Spire, a roguelite deck-building game, and Crypt of the Necrodancer, which incorporates rhythm elements into a roguelike.

Roguelike Definitions Are Fuzzy

As we’ve seen, defining a roguelike, and even a game inspired by a roguelike, can be tricky.

These terms have become blurred in everyday usage. When most people say “roguelike,” they don’t mean a turn-based dungeon-crawler like the original Rogue. They’re probably referring to a game that has randomized levels and permanent death, like Spelunky. Similarly, while we’ve laid out a distinction between roguelike-like and roguelite, they often refer to the same types of games in real usage.

Some people disagree with the Berlin Interpretation of roguelikes, arguing that it’s ridiculous to expect all “true” roguelikes to feature ASCII graphics when we don’t hold other genres to these archaic standards. This has some truth to it; after Doom released in 1993, games in that style were called “Doom clones” for some time. We now call this genre a first-person shooter, and don’t expect all of them to play exactly like Doom did.

If you’re interested in a roguelike game, it’s wise to look into exactly how it uses the roguelike elements. It might lean heavily into being a “true” roguelike, or just borrow a few elements and put a new spin on them.

Roguelikes: Punishing but Exciting

Now you know the historical context for roguelike games and how roguelite games have advanced the criteria they set. People enjoy roguelike and roguelite games for their deep mechanics, gameplay that refreshes on each run, and sense of growing stronger.

If the idea of losing progress every time sounds unappealing, try a more forgiving roguelite to ease yourself into the genre. And don’t forget there are other forms of RPGs that share some roguelike elements, like turn-based combat.

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