For long term fans of the genre, the steady bleed of Roguelike mechanics into mainstream gaming has been an achingly slow process. Procedural generation, loot systems, countless overlapping layers of simulation and a cavalier disregard for human life all tried, tested and honed to perfection in ASCII. Filtering in to the wider gaming world over the course of decades. The potential to chop, change and experiment with the guts and DNA of game design, free from worries over production values has always been massive. Even now, when the genre can finally boast mass recognition, the tradition of lo-fi Roguelikes pushing the limits is still strong.
15th March was the closing date of this year’s eleventh annual 7 Day Roguelike Jam and a huge chunk of my gaming time since then has been spent wading through the finished entries in search of prime loot. There’s nothing here with the depth of Nethack or the sprawling scope of Dwarf Fortress, but there is invention and re-invention and some endearingly janky games.
Lobster knights, guard snails, crab mercenaries. This game was made for ASCII visuals and letting your imagination fill in the blanks. It kicks off with a blurb about nefarious crustaceans using a stolen magic jewel to drown your home town and then you’re off to do battle in the briny halls of the lobsterfolk. Chitinous Crooks looks and handles like an old-school roguelike but in reality it’s a very modern take on the genre, stripping away all the RPG elements and leaving you with a limited supply of one use spells. It’s a tense, tactical little game where flight and stealth are frequently more important than reducing your foes to chowder. If you’ve never played a traditional roguelike, ASCII warts and all, this is the perfect game to find your feet.
My initial experience of RobberyRL was a full two minutes trying to type in my character name and accidentally sending the browser window back by pressing backspace. Once I’d overcome this first hurdle, safe in the knowledge that no-one saw me, I was faced with a side on, turn based stealth game. Game balance, presentation and interface are all borderline impenetrable but the novelty of navigating vertical space in a turn based game, scooting along rooftops, hiding in trees and sniffing out hidden passageways was enough to keep me playing. Levels are designed by hand instead of procedurally generated, allowing the player to learn from their mistakes and perfect run-throughs. An ultra lo-fi distant cousin to the Tenchu series.
For my money, the most visually impressive entry this year casts you as a demonic overlord laying waste to an idyllic, chunky 3D landscape. The developer notes mention Dynasty Warriors and army level skirmishing and although the finished game doesn’t live up to the initial concept there’s still a definite sense of the epic. Sweeping across the landscape conquering settlements and destroying hordes of enemies is pure, dumb fun. There isn’t much Rogue in this Roguelike beyond the traditional turn based movement and some very primitive levelling mechanics, instead what you have is the bare bones of something with great potential.
Worth a mention for sheer strangeness, Hellion is an attempt to turn a Space Harrier / Galaxy Force style shooter into a turn based game. The mind breaking task of trying to interpret the positions of flat sprites in 3D space from turn to turn is most of the appeal, with a thin strategic layer of resource management and weapon configuration on top. It’s an odd little game that stretches the edges of the genre more than anything else that came out of this year’s jam.
This is as close as a turn-based game with ASCII visuals can get to being a no-holds-barred action game; Strive has you ploughing through waves of respawning enemies in open arena like environments. It’s surprising how well sniping exploding barrels, well aimed grenade lobs and back peddling with dual wielding shotguns translates into turn based combat. The notes I scribbled down while playing mention Doom, Halo and Warhammer 40K which says it all. The interface and controls are slick and the design philosophy is one of instant gratification above all other concerns. A perfect way to decompress after ploughing through countless other roguelikes.