What are Roguelike and Roguelite Games?

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Patrick_Yu
edited May 13 in Gaming

Roguelike and Roguelite games carve out a distinctive niche that refuses to play by the usual rules. Born from the lo-fi ASCII world of Rogue, these games challenge players to embrace the unpredictable, where every dungeon dive or space odyssey is a roll of the dice. Forget hand-holding and expect to die—a lot. But there's beauty in the brutality: every failure is a lesson, every run a fresh start.  

As we dissect what sets Roguelikes and Roguelites apart, we're not just exploring game mechanics; we're delving into a philosophy that champions risk, rewards resilience, and continually redefines what success in gaming looks like. This article will delve into the history, key differences, and evolving landscapes of these genres, so read on to find out!  

History of Roguelike games 

The history of roguelike games begins in the early 1980s, with the release of Rogue, a game that introduced many of the defining characteristics of the genre. Rogue was developed at UC Santa Cruz and later refined at UC Berkeley, offering players an adventure through a dungeon filled with monsters, treasure, and peril, rendered in simple ASCII graphics. The game's most innovative feature was its procedural generation of levels, ensuring that no two playthroughs were the same, a concept that was revolutionary at the time. This unpredictability, combined with permadeath, made Rogue not just a game to be played, but a challenge to be mastered. Following Rogue, several titles like Hack, Moria, and Angband expanded on the formula, introducing their own twists and gradually forming a genre known for its depth, challenge, and replayability. 

The rise of Roguelites 

As the popularity of roguelikes grew, developers began experimenting with blending its core principles with elements from other genres, giving birth to the subgenre known as "roguelites." Roguelites maintain the roguelike tradition of procedural level generation and permadeath but often soften the blow of the latter with permanent upgrades or by allowing some form of progress to be carried over between playthroughs. This evolution broadened the appeal of roguelikes, making them accessible to a wider audience by mitigating some of the genre's more punishing aspects.

Games like Spelunky, The Binding of Isaac, and Dead Cells exemplify this shift, offering a challenging yet less daunting experience. They retain the essence of exploration and discovery that defines roguelikes, while incorporating elements like action, platforming, and even narrative, thus enriching the genre and inviting a new generation of gamers to brave the depths of their unpredictable worlds.  

Roguelikes vs Roguelites, what is the difference? 

The distinction between Roguelikes and Roguelites has sparked much debate among gamers and developers alike. These subgenres, while rooted in the same foundational principles of procedural generation and permadeath, diverge significantly in their approach to gameplay, progression, and player experience. Understanding these differences is not just an exercise in semantics; it's crucial for appreciating the nuances of game design that make each playthrough unique and engaging.  

Roguelikes: 

  • Focus on Individual Runs: Roguelikes prioritize the experience of each separate playthrough rather than an overarching campaign. Games like FTL: Faster Than Light and the original Rogue are built on high variance, offering many different legitimate ways to play and win, with very little carryover between runs. 
  • High Degree of Variance: There's minimal to no progression or advantages carried from one run to the next. Unlockables might exist (like new ships in FTL: Faster Than Light or secrets in Spelunky), but they don't significantly alter the fundamental challenge of subsequent runs. 
  • Procedural Generation and Permadeath: Core elements include challenging gameplay with procedurally generated environments and permanent death, making each playthrough a unique experience that tests players' adaptability and strategy. 

Roguelites: 

  • Established End Goal with Progression: Roguelites are more focused on reaching an end goal across multiple runs, often featuring story elements or less variance in individual runs. There's a significant emphasis on persistent elements that enhance the character's abilities or the game environment in future runs. 
  • Persistent Elements: Key features include unlockables and upgrades that persist between runs, such as new weapons, abilities, or stat improvements, which gradually make the game easier and change how subsequent runs are approached. 
  • Carryover Between Runs: Unlike Roguelikes, Roguelites have carryover effects where actions or achievements in one run benefit future runs. This carryover can be in the form of resources, unlocked abilities, or new gameplay options, creating a sense of progression. 

The distinction matters significantly in game development as it influences design decisions, player experience, and expectations. Roguelikes emphasize replayability through high variance and challenging gameplay where success depends purely on skill and strategy within each isolated run. Roguelites, on the other hand, soften the traditional roguelike formula by introducing elements that ensure progress, making them more accessible and providing a sense of gradual improvement and achievement over time. 

Best Roguelike/Roguelites games to play

The roguelike and roguelite genres have carved out a significant niche in the gaming world, offering players a unique blend of challenge, replayability, and unpredictability. Below is a curated list of my favorite and some of the best roguelike and roguelite games to play: 

  1. Hades (Roguelite): Hades combines fast-paced action with a compelling narrative, letting players delve into the depths of Greek mythology as Zagreus, the son of Hades, attempting to escape the underworld. Its unique approach to storytelling, where each run reveals more of the plot and character interactions, alongside a rewarding progression system, makes every attempt at escape feel fresh and exciting. It won several awards, including "Best Indie" and "Best Action" at The Game Awards 2020. 
  2. Dead Cells (Roguelite): Dead Cells offers a masterful blend of Metroidvania-style exploration and roguelite mechanics, with tight, responsive combat and a dizzying array of weapons and abilities. The game is lauded for its challenging yet fair gameplay, beautifully designed pixel art, and an ever-evolving castle to explore. It was nominated for "Best Action Game" at The Game Awards 2018. 
  3. Slay the Spire (Roguelite): Merging card game mechanics with roguelite progression, Slay the Spire tasks players with ascending a spire filled with increasingly difficult encounters. Its deep deck-building strategy, vast array of combinable cards, and multiple characters offer a highly replayable experience that's both challenging and rewarding. Though it didn't win at The Game Awards, it received critical acclaim and multiple nominations elsewhere. 
  4. Enter the Gungeon (Roguelite): Enter the Gungeon combines bullet hell shooters with dungeon crawling, where players navigate a series of increasingly difficult floors filled with adorable, gun-themed enemies. The game stands out for its humor, vast arsenal of weapons, and co-op gameplay, making it a chaotic and fun experience that's hard to put down. 
  5. Spelunky 2 (Roguelike): As a sequel to the classic Spelunky, Spelunky 2 enhances everything fans loved about the original—challenging platforming, deep caves to explore, and the thrill of discovering hidden secrets with each run. Its addition of new biomes, characters, and multiplayer modes makes it a vast and endlessly entertaining exploration roguelike. 
  6. Cult of the Lamb (Roguelite): In Cult of the Lamb, you play as a lamb tasked with building a cult in a dark yet whimsical world, blending rogue-like elements with base-building and cult management. This mix offers a refreshing twist on the genre, backed by a distinct art style that sets it apart. Its innovative gameplay earned it the "Best Independent Game" at the Game Awards in 2022, highlighting its creative edge and solid execution. 
  7. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth (Roguelite): With its dark humor and challenging dungeon crawling gameplay, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a deeply engrossing roguelite that offers an immense variety of power-ups, secrets, and enemies. The game's replayability and depth, along with its controversial themes, have cemented its status as a cult classic in the genre. 
  8. FTL: Faster Than Light (Roguelike): FTL: Faster Than Light offers a unique take on the roguelike genre by putting players in command of a spaceship fleeing from an advancing rebel fleet. Its strategic gameplay, involving managing crew, ship systems, and encounters, makes for an intense and rewarding experience. Despite its difficulty, the joy of narrowly escaping disaster or the despair of a critical system failure keeps players coming back for more. 

The future of Roguelike/Roguelite games

The future of Roguelike and Roguelite games seems poised for divergent paths, with Roguelites gradually eclipsing their more traditional Roguelike counterparts in mainstream popularity. This change stems from Roguelites' accessible designs, blending persistent progression with elements from varied genres, thus broadening their appeal. Features like progression systems soften the steep challenge of permadeath, making Roguelites more approachable to a wider audience and allowing for a sense of growth and accomplishment. Additionally, the increased production and success of Roguelites, highlighted by award-winning titles like Hades, underscore their rising prominence.

While Roguelikes will continue to attract a niche audience with their uncompromising difficulty and depth, Roguelites, through their innovative and player-friendly approach, are increasingly becoming a more dominant force in the gaming landscape.

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Patrick Yu is a Senior Project Manager at Level Interactive and has 8 years of experience writing business, legal, lifestyle, gaming, and technology articles. He is a significant contributor to Acer Corner and is currently based in Taipei, Taiwan.

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