by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 18th December, 2018
Roguelike and rogue-lite are two terms used for a plethora of various indie games but what's the difference between the two? Find out here.
Since the Xbox Live Arcade explosion that gave birth to the modern indie game scene we have today developers experimented with various genres that could be used as a basis for small-budget games.
Throughout the years we got walking simulators, a bunch of lite adventures that offered much simpler puzzles instead focusing on the story (these are often called telltale-like adventures); we even got a renaissance of classic brain punishing adventures as well as a Cambrian explosion of 2D platformers. The scene even produced plenty of open-world sandbox games, a genre that was reserved for AAA games ten years ago.
But the most popular indie game genre in the last decade is the one that combines permadeath (yes, you can save progress but once your character dies all your saves are gone and you start from scratch), hack and slash combat, procedurally generated levels, and punishing difficulty.
Most of those games are called roguelikes and rogue-lites, but what exactly is the difference between the two, if any? Well, the difference is huge and you will learn all about it in this piece. But in order to start explaining differences, we have to talk a bit about the game that started the whole genre: Rogue.
While there were a couple of similar games before it, 1984's Rogue is considered as the defining title of the whole roguelike genre. It features ASCII drawn graphics (no polygons, GUI, sprites, or voxels here, just a bunch of textual characters mixed together to create game worlds), permadeath, procedurally generated dungeons, various items player can pick up and equip, tile-based movement mechanics, turn-based movement and combat, as well as dungeon crawler type of experience.
There were no saves except the autosave function so you could exit the game without losing your progress and Rogue did have an ending. While a large percent of roguelike games doesn't have a proper ending in Rogue you had to reach the bottom (final) dungeon, pick up the Amulet of Yendor and then go back the way you came and exit the dungeon, and if and when you finish the endeavor you can say that you've beaten Rogue.
Rogue was punishingly difficult (think Dark Souls on steroids) but the fact that the game had an ending gave players motivation to play on after they got defeated. Rogue became a huge hit since it could be played anywhere because of its simplistic design and extremely small size. College dorms around the world were playing Rogue and the game received numerous clones, most of which offered better visuals and other upgrades over the original.
All games that heavily borrowed design elements from Rogue became known as roguelikes but after the explosion of the indie game scene more and more games started the use the term to describe themselves even though they weren't even near to being true roguelikes.
Every dungeon crawling permadeath game with procedurally generated levels was considered a roguelike but that was far from the truth because roguelike is a standalone genre, and if you incorporate some elements of the genre that doesn't mean your game falls into the same category. For instance, most modern games utilize some forms of RPG elements (leveling system, ability to upgrade equipment and stats, etc.) but that doesn't make every one of those games an RPG.
Because of this sudden influx of permadeath dungeon crawlers, game developers decided to come up with a set of rules that define whether or not a game is a roguelike.
This classification is known as the Berlin Interpretation because the set of rules was agreed upon during the International Roguelike Development Conference 2008 which took place in Berlin.
It consists out of two set of rules which are there to help developers when designing roguelike games and as a tool for recognizing which games are roguelikes and which aren't. Set of high-value factors is more important and each roguelike game has to include most of those in order to be part of the genre.
The secondary set of rules is called low-value factors and games generally need to incorporate just one or two of these to be classified as roguelikes. Below you can find all high and low-value factors along with an explanation for each one.
The game world is randomly generated in a way that increases replayability. Appearance and placement of items is random. Appearance of monsters is fixed, their placement is random. Fixed content (plots or puzzles or vaults) removes randomness.
You are not expected to win the game with your first character. You start over from the first level when you die. (It is possible to save games but the savefile is deleted upon loading.) The random environment makes this enjoyable rather than punishing.
Each command corresponds to a single action/movement. The game is not sensitive to time, you can take your time to choose your action.
The world is represented by a uniform grid of tiles. Monsters (and the player) take up one tile, regardless of size.
Movement, battle and other actions take place in the same mode. Every action should be available at any point of the game. Violations to this are ADOM's overworld or Angband's and Crawl's shops.
The game has enough complexity to allow several solutions to common goals. This is obtained by providing enough item/monster and item/item interactions and is strongly connected to having just one mode.
You have to manage your limited resources (e.g. food, healing potions) and find uses for the resources you receive.
Even though there can be much more to the game, killing lots of monsters is a very important part of a roguelike. The game is player-vs-world: there are no monster/monster relations (like enmities, or diplomacy).
The game requires careful exploration of the dungeon levels and discovery of the usage of unidentified items. This has to be done anew every time the player starts a new game.
The player controls a single character. The game is player-centric, the world is viewed through that one character and that character's death is the end of the game.
Rules that apply to the player apply to monsters as well. They have inventories, equipment, use items, cast spells etc.
You have to learn about the tactics before you can make any significant progress. This process repeats itself, i.e. early game knowledge is not enough to beat the late game. (Due to random environments and permanent death, roguelikes are challenging to new players.)
The game's focus is on providing tactical challenges (as opposed to strategically working on the big picture, or solving puzzles).
The traditional display for roguelikes is to represent the tiled world by ASCII characters.
Roguelikes contain dungeons, such as levels composed of rooms and corridors.
The numbers used to describe the character (hit points, attributes etc.) are deliberately shown.
As you can see there are lots of rules that govern the roguelike genre. As we said, a game doesn't have to include each and every high-level factor to be called a roguelike but a couple of them are mandatory. Aside from permadeath and randomly generated levels combat and movement have to be turn-based and movement has to be tile-based in order for a game can be called roguelike.
Both player and enemies have to take exactly one tile on the level grid. It also has to include a top-down view on the action. And finally, when it comes to the choice of whether a game has a proper, final ending (like the original Rogue has), or no ending at all the general agreement is that games don't have to have proper ending in order to be classified as roguelikes.
Other rules don't have to be strictly followed (especially the ASCII-based visuals one) but even then, there aren't many games that are proper roguelikes.
Some modern examples of the genre include ADOM (Ancient Domains Of Mystery), Dungeons of Dredmor, Haque, and Tangledeep. In fact, the genre is extremely niche with just a handful of games that can be called true roguelikes.
A couple of modern takes on the genre add some kind of meta progression system to the mix (the ability to keep your gold after you die and use it during the next session, or the ability to unlock new equipment and weapons that can be used during future playthroughs) but otherwise they stick to the classic set of rules governing the genre. Most gamers probably didn't even play a true roguelike because they aren't really mainstream, even in the world if indie games.
On the other hand, most games that call themselves roguelikes are in fact rogue-lites. They implement some but not all roguelike elements and usually feature real-time combat, free movement, vendors that sell items, enemies that aren't following the same rules as players (e.g. flying enemies, those that have more HP than the player, enemies that don't feature their own inventories and items, etc.), and other features not found in roguelikes.
Also, a better part of rogue-lite games do not utilize top-down view on the action and are instead 2D platformers with real-time combat and movement.
They are pretty difficult but noticeably easier than true roguelikes and they implement various elements that make them more mainstream and appealing to many gamers who want a permadeath challenge but with modern features that make games more interesting to play such as upgrades, characters progression, stores that sell items, permanent unlocks, real-time combat, and emphasis on fast-paced action.
There's also one major gameplay factor that can be found practically in all rogue-lite games, no matter whether they are pure rogue-lite or titles that mix various genres, and that's some sort of meta progression.
This makes games more enjoyable because players know that, even if they die, they will unlock something that can be used in future play sessions giving them additional motivation to play on again and again. Overall, the existence of meta progression is one of the best parts of rogue-lite games because its implementation gives those games an excellent carrot-on-a stick mechanic that makes players hooked to the game for a long time.
You don' have to rely on git gud being the only factor of progress; you can play the game for unlocking better weapons that will be obtained during the next run or using the current run to pile up gold in order to be able to get better equipment early on after you start over. FTL and Into the Breach have excellent meta progression systems; in FTL players can unlock new starting ships and in Into the Breach new mech teams and pilots can be unlocked, allowing players to utilize new and more efficient strategies that can be implemented by using different ships' and mech groups' abilities.
Further, if a game utilizes some roguelike elements like permadeath and procedurally generated levels and then mixes those with elements from other genres like first-person shooters, turn-based strategies, or RPGs it can also be called rogue-lite even though those games are usually mixed genre titles.
For instance, Darkest Dungeon follows many roguelike rules but it is in its core a turn-based RPG game, so Darkest Dungeon developers call it a rogue-lite RPG. Next, we have the phenomenal Into the Breach, a strategy game that mixes many roguelike elements with turn-based strategy gameplay.
And last year's Slay the Spire uses many roguelike elements but it is in its essence a card game where cards represent your entire offensive and defensive arsenal during combat.
And finally, there are plenty of games that can be considered proper rogue-lites, incorporating just a few elements found in other genres. Everspace is a rogue-lite in space with the only difference between it and classic 2D Rogue-lite games being the fact that Everspace plays like a space shooter where you have your ship and have to survive while shooting your way through increasingly harder, procedurally generated star systems (which are basically dungeon levels, only this time in full 3D and set in space).
Dead Cells is a fast-paced action rogue-lite that borrows some elements from Metroidvania genre, and Spelunky is a rogue-lite platformer. The Binding of Isaac is a rogue-lite that utilizes real-time combat and movement and is pretty close to being called a roguelike. Rogue Legacy is another example of a game that could've been called a roguelike if not for the 2D platformer gameplay and real-time combat and movement. And the recent Hades also is a rogue-lite that incorporates meta-progression and swaps turn-based combat for fast-paced real-time battles.
If not for these two the game could be called roguelike because it is punishingly difficult, it offers a true dungeon crawling experience, it uses top-down view on the action, and it incorporates almost all High-Value Factors found in Berlin Classification. These are pure rogue-lite games that incorporate lots of design and gameplay rules found in Berlin Classification but omit some defining roguelike features.
So there you have it; most games with permadeath and procedurally generated levels are indeed rogue-lites. Those titles can mix different genres, can use full 3D graphics, are allowed to use different camera views (first person, third person, top-down, etc.), are allowed to have vendors and upgrade shops dotted across levels and lots of other features that aren't found in true roguelike games.
The three rules a game has to follow in order to be called a rogue-lite are: procedurally generated levels, permadeath where the save is deleted as soon as your character dies (or where you have to start over from your starting base located at the beginning of the game), and the existence of meta progression or even permanent progression (your character keeps all of their upgrades after they die).
Many games utilize a mix of the two - you have temporary upgrades that disappear when you die but the game also has permanent upgrades like unlocking new starting weapons, or vehicles (like in FTL), unlocking new playing characters, etc.
Another important part of almost every rogue-lite is a proper ending. In other words, most games can be beaten, but this isn't mandatory. Some rogue-lite titles feature a never-ending cycle of levels with the only goal being beating your high score.
And as the final part of this extensive explanation of differences between roguelikes and rogue-lites we prepared a list containing best roguelikes you can find and play. There aren't many roguelike games around and the truly great ones are extremely rare. So, if you want a true roguelike experience without fancy additions like real-time combat, RPG elements, extravagant visuals (well, some of the games found below and quite pretty), or all kinds of permanent unlocks find and play games listed below.
The granddaddy of the entire genre. There were a couple of games that played like Rogue before it but this one was responsible for gamers falling in love with the genre. It isn't pretty, it is hard as hell and it probably won't attract many gamers but all of you who want a genuine, old-school roguelike experience should try Rogue.
The game is addictive as hell and it has the X-factor that separates good from great games. The gameplay is slow-paced, monsters are super hard to beat and each dungeon hides many dangers. There are various items to pick up and the game has a proper ending, which is a great source of motivation to continue playing after each death. A timeless gem.
This is a modernized version of Rogue that can be played completely free. The game utilizes classic ASCII-based visual style but introduces colors and a couple of extra upgrades that make it more palatable to modern gamers such as sound, more pleasant UI design, bigger dungeons, more varied enemies, and more. The game has the same ending as Rogue - you have to reach final dungeon, take the amulet and then reach the surface.
Haque is a modern roguelike that utilizes fairly simple pixel art visual style making the game prettier than those ASCII-based adventures but everything else is a pure roguelike. The game simplifies the classic formula by removing leveling system, survival mechanics (hunger and thirst), and inventory weight but it keeps the gameplay a turn-based test for both brains and nerves.
Players choose from one of the three predetermined characters each with their own set of equipment, items, skills, and traits and then they have to reach the final Boss by battling your way through three increasingly difficult levels. The game is punishing but fair, it has shops where you can buy new items, weapons can be upgraded, and the exploration is key to beating the final boss because you'll need those upgraded weapons and armor if you want to survive the final fight.
The game features excellent narrative and it implements a CRT emulation that makes Haque looking like it is played on an old, cathode ray monitor. An excellent roguelike title that provides subtle improvements to visuals, while keeping gameplay true to the original Rogue formula.
Rogue and its successors usually come with fantasy background but Cogmind is something completely different. In this game, you lead a robot through a dark Sci-Fi world. The game looks amazing; it combines simplified pixel art with an ASCII-based visual interface that looks unique and extremely attractive.
It is a dungeon-based experience but with fully destructible environments. And its soundtrack and sound departments are superb, with classic 8-bit music and sounds that take you directly to eighties as soon as the game starts.
Cogmind has progression and character upgrade systems but it doesn't rely on grinding and gaining experience points. The combat and movement are tile and turn-based but the combat encounters are so nicely done you get the feeling the game uses the real-time battle mechanic. The game has an ending; in fact, it has seven unique endings based on your choices, areas explored, and a couple of other factors.
Cogmind is a hardcore roguelike experience tailored for modern times that don't cut corners and follows all roguelike rules to the letter while at the same time providing tons of fun.
This one is a peculiar roguelike that is created in Japan. It first saw light of day on Super Famicom (SNES) and the game quickly gained a cult following. And in 2006 the game received a massive facelift in the form of a total remake that landed on the Nintendo DS where it quickly became a huge hit. The game utilizes the dual screen setup found on the DS but it can be played without problems on emulators because it doesn't use touch features.
ou play as a ronin named Shiren who must battle his way across a multitude of dungeon-like levels ultimately reaching the Land of the Golden Condor where he must free the Golden Condor and slay the final boss who keeps the bird his captive. The game plays like a hardcore roguelike with procedurally generated levels, tile-based movement, turn-based movement and combat, and unforgiving difficulty.
The only difference to the original formula (aside from colorful visuals) is the inclusion of warehouses where players can stash items in order to use them during future runs. While the game faced poor reviews when it originally came out but today it is considered to be one of the best roguelikes ever.
An excellent roguelike that looks pretty and plays like roguelikes of old. The game implements some RPG elements like crafting, improving your character, and upgrading equipment but at its core Dungeons of Dredmor is a true roguelike.
The game also uses modernized UI that's based on using a mouse for navigating through menus, moving, picking up objects and interacting with the environment (one of the roguelike design rules is exclusive use of a keyboard for interacting with the game, but the inclusion of mouse makes this title much better).
You start as a weak nobody that must save the world and defeat powerful evil by finding his way through deadly Dungeons of Dreadmor. Combat is satisfying and the ability to improve your characters and his equipment makes the game quite enjoyable to play. Finally, the the game is brimming with tons of wacky humor which places Dungeons of Dreadmor on the roguelike throne when it comes to silliness and laugh-at-loud moments. Highly recommended.
Legion's Crawl is the latest member of the relatively small roguelike tribe. The game got released this summer and it offers a pseudo-3D roguelike experience. 3D graphics doesn't mean the game isn't following roguelike postulates - Legion's Crawl is a top-down dungeon crawler with turn-based movement and combat, it's only that it looks prettier than all other roguelikes we saw and played.
The game also offers modernized GUI and plenty of interesting character progression paths allowing players to create a unique build each time they start a new run. On top of that Legion's Crawl offers six different characters, each with their own set of game rules. Combine that with 21 skill paths and 100 skills in total and you got a roguelike with a practically unlimited number of strategies players can employ in order to beat the game.
If you want a modernized roguelike experience, at least when it comes to visuals, check out ADOM. The game features beautiful 2D visuals but other than that it is a true roguelike with all classic ingredients but with many upgrades that make the game much more enjoyable than classic members of the genre.
The game is in development since 1994 which allowed it to implement a staggering number of features and content. ADOM implements classic turn-based combat and tile-based movement but it also offers town filled with NPCs where players can take on new quests, refill their inventory, buy new weapons, armor, and other equipment, and simply take some time off from exhausting dungeon crawling.
There are also plenty of different races present in the game along with many different storylines that can be discovered by exploring the huge world of ADOM. The game has a main story with multiple endings and a plethora of game modes for those who want a greater challenge, a never-ending game mode, or an easy mode for those who want to enjoy the story.
ADOM looks good, it plays even better, is brimming with content and could be the ultimate choice for gamers who want to experience the ultimate roguelike game. It even has an option that turns the game visual style into an ASCII-based terminal interface for those who crave for ultimate old-school experience without any compromise.