So the term “roguelike” has been around for a while and it seems that the genre has had a resurgence recently with the advent of easily accessible indie games using the model. The term also seems to have a broader definition than the one I thought it had.

I was under the impression that “roguelike” applied to games that were RPGs with randomly generated dungeons that sometimes fucked you in the face with unfair gameplay. Like Nethack. That never really appealed to me all that much. The Wikipedia article on the topic mentions a few other quantifiers like permadeath (when you die you start over), unidentified items (you need to use an item to know what it does) and turn based gameplay.

The genre never really appealed to me since for the most part, the reason that I played an RPG was for the story and the random nature of roguelike games meant multiple attempts at a playthrough and almost invariably meant not much in the way of storytelling. I’m just not a big enough fan of turn based combat to want to do it over and over again trying to figure randomly generated nuances out. As a result I never considered myself a fan of the genre.


The little blue balls he’s throwing are his tears. I’m not joking.

It was the turn base gameplay thing that sort of prevented me from immediately realizing that two of the games I’m playing a bunch of recently were roguelike. So maybe they’re roguelike-like? But that sounds stupid, let’s never say that again. The games I’m playing are Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and Rogue Legacy. Both of which bring different elements to the roguelike genre and instantly stand apart from my initial understanding of the genre because they’re not turn based and while both have RPG elements, both use real time action based gameplay. Binding of Isaac employs a top-down action dungeon crawl that is very similar to 8 and 16 bit Zelda dungeons where the action takes place in real time and Rogue Legacy is a side-scrolling action platformer where you level up to gain more powerful spells and damaging attacks. Now that I think of it, also like an 8 bit Zelda game (Zelda II: The Adventure of Link).

Binding of Isaac has the whole unidentified items thing in spades, you have no idea what basically anything will do until you get it (and there’s so many things to pick up that I’ve barely seen duplicates in multiple playthroughs). Consumable items might hurt you or buff you, upgrades might be cursed, change the way you attack, add a familiar or any number of other effects, buffing items may or may not be helping you. The whole thing just makes you even more uncomfortable in an already uncomfortable game. You are either a baby or maybe a fetus who is trying to avoid being killed by your mom because God told her to kill you. So you do what any baby/fetus would do, you go into a creepy basement under your house that is populated with poop, flies and demons. It’s a weird game guys. Add to that a bunch of mechanics that are never explained (you can make deals with the devil, travel through spiked doors that damage you, give coins to a collection box that you can’t easily retrieve, etc., all of which is never explained in any fashion).

Rogue Legacy doesn’t have so much in terms of random item drops, but does randomly generate your starting character. The core of the game basically involves delving into a randomly generated castle that plays out as an action platformer and getting enough gold to upgrade your town after you die. You pick from 3 randomly generated heirs who have randomly assigned classes, spells and abilities.  Your heir inherits the gold you accumulated in your last run and buys upgrades to classes, weapons and other gameplay abilities that become accessible in your town.  Then you try again. What I like about this is that it adds a cumulative feeling to the whole thing. Even a crappy run might get you enough gold to buy an upgrade so it almost never feels like you’re completely wasting your time on a failed run (unless you fuck up really badly and don’t get enough to buy a single upgrade).

Lots of the stuff on the screen will kill you.

Lots of the stuff on the screen will kill you.

So why do I get so much enjoyment out of these two games? I think they tap into this nostalgic feeling of what video games were like to me as a kid. This is a feeling that goes beyond the 16 bit graphics and feel of the two games in question and gets into the “unknown” of what a new video game was to an elementary school kid.

When I was a kid, video games didn’t have tutorials built into them. You plugged a game into your console and you were playing it. There was no lengthy “this is how to jump” section at the beginning. Add to that that on the budget of a ten year old you were often renting games for the weekend. You know where the instruction booklets are for a rental video game? They’re in the garbage at someone else’s house. Getting an instruction booklet with a rental video game was a pretty rare occurrence.  Also, if you didn’t like a game there was approximately a 0% chance of getting one of your parents to take you back to the video store for another one. You were pretty much stuck with this game for the weekend, whether you figured it out or not.

Both Binding of Isaac and Rogue Legacy tap into that feeling for me. It takes several starts and fairly quick deaths before you even really “get” what the game is even going for. This is way different from lots of AAA big-budget titles where the tutorial basically holds your hand easily an hour of play time. As much as I love the Far Cry series, I can honestly say that most of the time when I die in the first few hours of a Far Cry game it’s because I jumped off of something I shouldn’t have. With these two games dying happens all the time. Based on the randomly generated dungeons/castles sometimes the game will just throw you into a setting where the difficulty is set to insanity without any warning. A big part of these games is figuring stuff out, and with so much of these games being generated randomly it really mitigates how much you can even look up on the internet even if you wanted to (and you shouldn’t want to). Binding of Isaac takes a page from other roguelikes in that it randomly matches consumable items with effects, so even if you’re scouring the internet there’s still no way to know what effect you’re going to get when you consume the item.

It’s all great fun.

So, couple straight to the point 16 bit style gameplay with some randomly generated elements and you end up successfully feeling like a kid playing a game you randomly rented when you were 10 years old. If that’s not a feeling you want to relive than maybe you weren’t playing video games when you were 10 years old. Or you just never fell in love.

Also these games are cheap. Rogue Legacy is 17$ on Playstation Store and Steam (and currently free to Playstation Plus Subscribers) and Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is 15$ on the same platforms (you could save some money and buy the original Binding of Isaac and the Wrath of the Lamb expansions on Steam, but it seems that Rebirth is the definitive edition). So hey, even if you were 10 years old again you could probably afford these games.

Binding of Isaac Gif Source (Original copyright holder: Edmund McMillen, Nicalis)
Rogue Legacy Image from Steam.

Keith does all sorts of things here on, he works with the other founders on 9to5 (illustrated), co-hosts our two podcasts: The 9to5 Entertainment System and Go Plug Yourself and blogs here as The Perspicacious Geek.