A Roguelike Primer: Best In Genre For Neophytes & Veterans Alike


Procedurally generated dungeon crawling seems to get more popular with each passing year, all building on top of a template first featured way at the start of the 80s. Development jams are held to create them en-masse (this year’s 7DRL challenge kicks off this Saturday), and they’re becoming increasingly commercially viable, thanks to accessible graphical entries in the genre, such as Dungeons of Dredmor, and action-hybrids, like The Binding Of Isaac, leading the way. With so many out there, and aimed at such a wide range of player-bases, it’s hard to know where to start, or even what you’re looking for.

“The roguelike is a sub-genre of role-playing video games, characterized by level randomization, permanent death, and turn-based movement. Most roguelikes feature ASCII graphics, with newer games increasingly offering tile-based graphics. Games are typically dungeon crawls, with many monsters, items and environmental features. Computer roguelikes usually employ the majority of the keyboard to facilitate interaction with items and the environment. The name of the genre comes from the 1980 game Rogue.” – Wikipedia

Well, brave adventurer, you’ve come to the right place. You won’t find the Amulet of Yendor or the Orb of Zot here, but something far more valuable – a basic guide to the best roguelikes for beginners, experts and those looking for something a little different. Be warned, though; just because a game is more friendly to newcomers doesn’t mean that it’s easy – while it might be simpler to learn the ropes, even the most casual of roguelikes will claim many lives before you see the victory screen.

Beginner-Friendly Crawling

Brogue (Also available in semi-graphical flavour) - [Free]

Where better to begin an exploration into the genre with a game that bills itself as a modernized update of the original Rogue? While keeping the chunky, self-imposed limits of ASCII (although the graphical version adds some small sprites to help complete the image), it’s a remarkably visually intuitive game. Playable entirely with the mouse, Brogue keeps you fully informed of what each and every action will do via helpful tool-tips. While unidentified potions, scrolls and gear provide some element of mystery, you’ll always be in a good position to make every key decision.

There are no classes here, no complex skill synergies, and character progression is focused simply around getting physically stronger. While your character may seem like a simplified constant, the dungeon itself is the star of the show in Brogue, with the upper reaches of the abyss being as much natural caverns thick with overgrowth as man/monster-made structure. Underground rivers will sweep away items that fall into them, caverns full of greenery can be burnt out with incendiary tools and spells, and swamps generate potentially explosive gas easily set off by an errant spark. Deep chasms crossed with rope-bridges might seem lethal, but they can double as emergency escape routes to lower floors in a pinch, too.

There’s even a good range of puzzles and traps mixed into the randomly generated environment, although these lean more towards Indiana Jones-esque signposted hazards, daring you to take risks in search of magical rewards, rather than the more traditional genre solution of murderous floor-tiles. Even the enemy AI is remarkably intelligent, with animals turning tail after a couple of solid hits, and spell-casting foes pressuring you from a distance only to scurry for cover while calling for help if you try closing in. It’s a challenging game, but much like the original Rogue, it’s very accessible, with intuition playing more of a part than arcane and obscure knowledge of gameplay mechanics.

Dungeons Of Dredmor[Commercial]

Gaslamp Games’ Dungeons of Dredmor stands out amongst beginner-friendly roguelikes by being both deeply weird and surprisingly accessible. A consistently goofy sense of humor and good cartoony art carry the concept of being a vegan Viking vampire, communist necroeconomist tinkerer, clockwork knight hippie lawyer or any combination of the above as you stomp through the lair of the lich-king Dredmor, kicking over all his statues, selling his loot and transmuting everything that’s not nailed down into Lutefisk.

There’s a strong focus on picking dungeons clean in Dredmor, with food items acting less as essential life-blood and more as regular passive healing equipment. You’re encouraged to pick up everything you find, craft what you can and sell the rest. Or just turn it into Lutefisk – whatever works for you. This leads to a more methodical, slower pace of play. Less stressful, but possibly not quite as exciting.

Multiple difficulty settings and the option to eschew traditional perma-death mechanics in favour of saving game once per dungeon floor make this one a fairly easy game to learn and play. The tradeoff is that the skills you learn in Dredmor really don’t apply to many other games in the genre – so offbeat are the gameplay mechanics and skill system at play here that the transference value on any tricks you pick up here is low. Still, it’s a good, solid romp, and Steam integration has brought a lot of moddability to the game.

Doom: The Roguelike (aka DoomRL)[Free]

It’s initially surprising just how well the classic retro-FPS gameplay of Doom translates into turn-based tactics in DoomRL. Just about every single gameplay element, weapon, location and enemy type is represented, along with some new features and content added in recent builds. The setup is exactly the same – you start outside the UAC facility on Mars, equipped with nothing but a pistol and a handfull of rounds, and are tasked with descending into the structure, and through several distinct episodes of conflict, eventually making your way to hell itself to stop an interdimensional invasion.

Supporting the simple, but intuitive gameplay (dodge, shoot, conserve ammo, hoard health packs, etc) is some rather clever use of sound and music lifted direct from Doom itself, letting you use audio cues to detect enemies and opening doors before you see them. More recent builds of the game even have full graphics courtesy of Spelunky developer Derek Yu, and each build further refines the mouse interface, bringing the game closer and closer to playing like a top-down arena shooter played in turn-based fashion.

Interestingly, DoomRL offers a wide range of difficulty settings, with the easiest being a comparatively casual stroll through hell, where victory can be achieved just by exercising a modicum of common sense. On the highest settings, victory borders on impossibility and requires abusing every quirk in the AI that you can. There’s even a complex achievement system to top it all off, giving you alternative goals and playstyles to aim for if you tire of the regular run-and-gun approach. The game is still in active development and is frequently being added to.

Intermediate Dungoneering

Tales of Maj’Eyal (aka TOME)[Free]

Winner of the Roguelike Of The Year award two years running, and with good reason. TOME is a sprawling, massive game that draws as much from traditional CRPGs as the roguelike genre. Fully graphical with its own well-realized setting, how you begin TOME can vary wildly depending on your character class and race. Starting with an introductory adventure to set the scene (a pair of Dwarves escape an orc-infested undercity, a ranger hunts a notorious troll, an alchemist investigates a magically corrupted land, and so on), you eventually exit into an enormous overworld full of towns, dungeons, wandering NPC parties and more.

While the general structure of the game is set in stone, the individual locations are randomly generated every time you play, and replay value is increased further through a complex system of content unlocks. Finding certain characters and completing certain side-quests will open up new races and classes to play with, each with their own unique story content and locations. While the initially playable classes are fairly standard fare, you can end up adventuring as a skeletal necromancer, a psychic pilgrim or a warden of time itself. There’s even new playmodes to find, such as a traditional endless dungeon, an arena survival challenge and some other surprises.

While there’s an enormous amount to find and learn about TOME, it’s also a surprisingly accessible game. There’s a fully fleshed-out tutorial, variable difficulty settings, extra lives and more. The skill system is also particularly noteworthy – rather than use potions, food, mana and other consumable resources, powers and spells all have their own cooldowns, meaning that in each fight you’ll usually have access to your full range of tools in any given encounter, making the order you apply them in and how you manage the battlefield all the more important. Real tactics and a battle-plan are more important in TOME than any single piece of gear. And to top all this off, the game is fully moddable.

Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup[Free]

Proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks, Dungeon Crawl was first released as a purely ASCII game back in 1997. After its original creator handed the source code off to the fanbase, it resumed active development and hasn’t stopped since. Once considered quite inaccessible, this more traditional dungeon crawler now boasts an in-depth tutorial, an intelligent ‘training’ mode that offers advice to new players as they encounter new situations, multiple playmodes outside of the regular quest for gold and glory (including a Tower Defense scenario, among other things) and tops it off with functional tile graphics and a mouse-friendly UI.

One of the core design focuses of Dungeon Crawl is that no meta-knowledge should ever be required for success. While it’s certainly helpful to know where certain dungeon strata begin and end, and what treasures can be found in what side-branches, you can usually make do with just the in-game help and documentation. Setting the game apart from the crowd is a very fleshed out religion system, which can vastly change your playstyle. A righteous paladin will gain divine favor for slaying demons, but stabbing fleeing creatures in the back will put distance between them and their deity. Only the strangest of players will choose to worship Xom, capricious god of chaos, but there’s fun to be had as he casually mutates, warps, confuses and bamboozles you for his own amusement.

There’s plenty of classes and races to play as, although the game itself will warn you if a certain combination is unlikely to survive. Some are considered easier than others, while some are doomed almost from the get-go. Outside of initial choices, survival in Dungeon Crawl hinges on how well you can leverage the resources you find. While the game will often throw surprise high-level encounters and mini-bosses your way, you’re usually given a fair chance to escape and search for another route. Scrolls of teleport and blink are your lifeblood, and if you’re in good favor with your god, you can pray for direct assistance in combat. Oddly enough, the new open inventory panel in the mouse UI gives you a far better idea of your resources at any given time, highlighting just how good interface design can improve gameplay, even in a turn-based game.

Nethack (Also available with extra isometric graphics) - [Free]

Nethack is one of the great old ones of the genre – first released in 1987 (based on the earlier Hack from ’85) and updated right up to modern day in the form of the isometric Vulture’s Eye, pictured above. What might seem at first glance to be a simple, straightforward dungeon crawl in the vein of the original Rogue quickly reveals itself to be an arcane and endlessly complex maze of self-referential logic and obscure gameplay mechanics. Not that you’d know any of this at first. Simple swords and sorcery trappings are subverted when you bump into Grid Bugs lifted straight from Tron. In addition to the regular barbarian, knight and wizard classes, you’ve got more obscure types, such as the Archaeologist (equipped with bull-whip and fedora, naturally) and the Tourist (who has a credit card and a flash camera), and plenty more besides.

At its most basic level, Nethack is a relatively accessible game, but you’ll find yourself hitting a brick wall soon enough. The solution to most of the strange and seemingly arbitrary difficulty spikes in the game is through accruing increasingly layered meta-knowledge of the game. No matter how sound your strategy, there’s almost no chance of victory until you learn the quirks of enemy type, and some utterly obscure systems. At no point in the documentation will you find that using an edged weapon to engrave ‘Elbereth’ into the dungeon floor will create a safe zone that no monster can attack you in, but you’ll almost certainly need to rely on this at some point. You can eventually discover this fact for yourself by talking to the right NPCs often enough in the right situations, but how would you even know to do that?

Still, as strange as the structure of Nethack is, the reliance on meta-knowledge about the game structure means that it has a lot of depth and replay value, and a decent amount of strategy past the slightly murderous opening phases. While it’s possible to die on the very first turn (a memorable playthrough ended immediately as my brave knight attempted to mount his war-pony, slipped, fell and broke his neck), the very best players can win 8 times out of 10. It’s widely regarded that Nethack has been overtaken by more contemporary designs (the core version hasn’t been updated in many years), but it’s still worth a play if you’re looking for something more traditional and with an edge of the absurd.

Expert Adventuring

Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead - [Free]

At last, we arrive at our inevitable, obligatory zombie game, although to be fair, Cataclysm is more of a general all-purpose modern supernatural apocalypse simulator. As in all of the apocalypses. Simultaneously. Zombies roam the streets, cthulhoid horrors devour their cultists, the robots rise up to destroy mankind and the triffids are in full bloom – and that’s just on a Monday. While you start out as a fairly ordinary human being with ordinary needs in Cataclysm, you can eventually grow beyond worrying about individual limb-damage and diseases and rise up as a true post-apocalyptic hero.

A successful run will see you becoming a master gunslinger, a kung-fu demigod, a stomping military cyborg or a MacGyver wannabe able to rig up whatever gear you need, wherever, whenever. An unlucky run will see you stumbling through broken windows and slashing yourself to ribbons, zombies pursuing the trail of blood you leave, or hallucinating wildly after eating strange mushrooms, only to fall into a nest of surly giant bees. Many attempts at survival will end hilariously, with plans to imitate Mad Max scuppered by drink driving, or attempts to secure a house going horribly wrong when a gas leak happens and you end up barricaded inside of a towering inferno.

The down-side is that Cataclysm is horrifically complex to play. The in-depth simulation aspects highlight the very best of the genre, while the cramped ASCII interface really accentuates the worst. The game is still in very heavy development after the original developer gave up (the code is reputedly a tangled, eldritch mess), and while the community have taken over development duties, things progress slowly. Still, if you’re a fan of the genre and don’t mind ASCII and clunky keyboard-only interfaces, there’s a ton to like here. Cataclysm is very compelling, oft-comedic stuff once you have the hang of things – it just has a learning curve like a brick wall.

Ancient Domains Of Mystery (aka ADOM)[Free]

Okay, so the run-down here is that this game hates you and you’re never going to beat it, so if that’s your goal, you might as well just give up now. ADOM is what happens when Nethack and Skynet have a baby that decides it’s had quite enough of humanity and wants to make us regret our meaty existence. Create a character from a variety of race and class options, then marvel as it proves woefully inadequate for the many, many horrific challenges the game will place in front of you. Be amazed at the many and varied skill options available, none of which will save you when the game demands your excruciatingly painful death.

ADOM’s interesting in theory because it’s closer to a traditional RPG than many other roguelikes. There’s a vast overworld, for instance, with towns to visit, dungeons to explore and quests to solve. There’s even a fair amount of non-combat content, such as a fairly interesting gardening simulator based on Conway’s Game of Life. The problem is that in order to enjoy any of this content, you’ll need to have a character that survives more than five minutes. While the class options are many and interesting, ranging from your standard warrior to a psionic monk, this is still much more difficult than it sounds. Even in the beginning of the game, you’ll face death from even the most meager monsters, and as you go on, you’ll find that things get progressively worse until you run across a dungeon where literally everything is on fire and you will burn to death in seconds without the monsters having to touch you. It’s not even the final dungeon. This is that kind of game.

Let’s put it this way. There is a way to get a “good” ending in ADOM. Without spoiling too much, it revolves around having a single randomly generated item (one of the game’s rarest) before a certain point in the game (which you’re not told about in advance), so you can help a particular character (there is no indication whatsoever that this is possible, and unless you help them in exactly the right way things go wrong and you have to start over). And even if you do this, there’s a pretty good chance the game will just decide to screw you and kill you anyway. Welcome to ADOM.

Iter Vehemens ad Necem (aka IVAN)[Free]

IVAN is a cruel joke, and you are the punchline again and again. If you thought that ADOM was too casual and relaxing, this might be the game for you, although I’d recommend you check yourself into the nearest mental institution first. Living up to its title (A Violent Road To Death in Latin), IVAN casts you not as a glory-seeking adventurer, but a hapless everyman working on a banana plantation, sent on a quest to deliver a message and return with your limbs intact. Sure, there’s further adventures to go on and greater treasures to covet, but there’s a good chance you’ll never see any of them because your adventure ended five minutes later when a badger chewed your legs off.

Every part of your body in IVAN has its own individual stats, and is severable. A spell might convert your right leg into steel, leaving you barely able to drag yourself along the dungeon floor, but at least that’s one ankle that isn’t vulnerable to being bitten off. Oh, and fighting zombies is just a joy-and-a-half – one unlucky hit and there’s a good chance you’ll contract crazy cartoon leprosy, with your limbs just dropping off on a whim, leaving you helplessly flailing around in a growing pool of your own blood and vomit.  The whole thing adds up to a game of twisted, dark comedy – a discarded banana peel can be deadlier to your health than any monster.

All that said, IVAN is remarkably fun and compelling to play. As you really don’t assume that you’re going to survive for more than a few minutes each playthrough, victories become surprising and satisfying events. Stumbling upon a piece of remarkably powerful equipment is simultaneously a moment of grand elation and rising terror, as you know that the game is watching you and judging. Each piece of gear you find increases the threat the game considers you to be, and it steps up its attempts to murder you appropriately, and a run that was going surprisingly well can be ended in a (literal) flash as you round a corner, only to find yourself face to face with a Veteran Dwarf Suicide Bomber. How he became a veteran in the first place is the first question to mind – the second is where all your limbs have gone.

Genre Blending

Faster Than Light (aka FTL)[Commercial]

Have you noticed something? There’s been an awful lot of crawling through dungeons, and if I may say so, it’s time for a break from those stuffy and dank interiors. If you’re looking for a breath of fresh air, then, but are being stubborn with your genre choice and want to remain within the treacherous dwellings of the roguelike, then consider giving FTL a ruddy good blast. You’ll find no fantastical creatures to battle nor potions to concoct and consume. This roguelike will sanitize those old-fashioned tropes with a space setting and all the trimmings you’d expect that to come with. Saying that, there’s plenty of familiar systems in place that will keep you chewing on exotic alien warships and laser beam upgrades for many, many hours.

In the grand scope of roguelikes, FTL is a highly accessible space-flavored romp that requires only the most minuscule of interface inductions. Once you know what flashing button does what, you’ll be good to head straight on in to the deepest and darkest depths of space, and will probably hold your own for a fair amount of the journey too. Don’t get too cocky, though; FTL soon ramps up the difficulty in order to make up for its fairly short length from the starting point to its end. Your task is to guide your spaceship and its crew to the safety of the distant Federation fleet after intercepting a data packet from a rebel fleet which causes them to pursue you. You’re given a choice of routes to travel that contain different types of friend and foe. As you do this, you’ll have the option to answer distress signals (which are often ambushes), visit shops for upgrades and repairs (which are also ambushes – ed.), as well as fight a number of enemy ships that have their own motivations for attacking you.

FTL is played from an overhead view. Primarily, this is a space sector map that presents a number of events that you can travel between before moving on to the next sector and closer to safety. When an event triggers a battle, you’ll then zoom into an overhead view of your ship, where you’ll have to manage your crew in real time as you receive fire and dish it out too. Taking damage will mean that your crew will need to leave their stations and extinguish fires and fix vital systems – things can turn sour very quickly once your shields are down.

The Binding Of Isaac[Commercial]

Roguelikes may reduce us to tears quite often, but instead of just wasting those precious droplets by crying them out into absorbent materials, Isaac uses them to battle against the creeps he stumbles across in the basement. The poor little bugger was forced down there after his own mother attempted to murder him in order to please the object of her prayers – God. So, Isaac’s quest is to travel through the expansive under-dwellings of the house and emerge on the other side powerful enough to defeat his murderous mother.

As far as roguelikes go, this is another highly accessible one that retains elements like permanent death and randomly generated rooms to travel through. Loot is also a huge part of The Binding of Isaac, as the luck of what you come across often determines how well your current run will fare. Being a twin-stick shooter, there’s also a degree of dexterity that comes into play, more so than strategy or even blind luck, most of the time. Problem is, the single screen rooms that you battle the grotesque creations of Edmund McMillen in are usually very cramped, so dodging isn’t something you can usually rely on. Instead, your special items and buffers that you can attempt to seek out during each playthrough will be your biggest ally. And the range and creativity of each of these is often a delightful part of the whole experience. Teleportation cards, third eyes, mom’s lipstick, helpful apparitions; each of these are items that can be used to improve your chances of survival. You’ll also unlock more playable characters eventually, and these all come with their own advantages and disadvantages, depending on your playstyle and relationship with handicapped runs.

Before descending to the next level of this excrement-festered dirt pile, you’ll have to face a boss and, naturally, the order they appear in is entirely random. Over time you’ll learn how to deal with each one effectively, but it’s usually good, if risky, practice to explore all of the rooms on your current level before locking yourself in with the potentially formidable foe on the other side of the deathly looking door. Doing so, you might find a Sin version of Isaac that has a chance of giving you a helpful buffer, or maybe a shop where you can spend the coins you’ll find as you progress. If you want to trade for harder stuff, then some boss battle victories will unlock the devil’s shop, where you can trade precious life hearts for more powerful gear. The Binding of Isaac keeps you compelled with its dexterous gameplay and huge number of unlockables. It’s a good break from more harrowing roguelike experiences out there.


Does all this turn-based nonsense get you all ferklempt? I know that unless I get a shot of action straight to my veins every hour or so, I start to die of boredom. It’s a tough situation; trust me. Fortunately, if you’re like me, there’s still a roguelike for you! Enter Teleglitch, which is basically DoomRL with more Doom and less RL.

You’re the sole survivor of a horrific teleporter accident that brought along a whole bunch of nasties. Thankfully, you’ve got your wits, some guns and a whole bunch of plastic explosive. Murder dudes while you avoid being murdered; if your guns aren’t enough, slap some of that plastic explosive on the nearest piece of junk and see if it blows up enemies in a new and creative way. Nails in a can full of C4 makes for a fantastic nailbomb; a tube full of explosives works as a bazooka. It’s like you’re a slightly less deranged version of MacGyver. It’s still a roguelike, though, so be prepared to die a lot…though admittedly it’ll often be to your own ridiculous explosive contraptions rather than the enemies.

Teleglitch’s roguelike influences run deep; while you can make all sorts of neat improvised weapons and gear, the actual components you’ll use to make them are scarce. Ammo is at a premium as well. You can certainly make a fancy lead-spewing death machine out of your starter pistol…but you can expect it to last you half a level at best if you try to take on every enemy the game throws at you. Speed, discretion and, inevitably, outright desperation are what Teleglitch is all about. It’s a Roguelike, so chances are you’re going to die – but it’s an action game, so it’ll usually be your own dumb fault.

And The Rest

Dwarf Fortress[Free]

It would be terribly remiss to talk about roguelikes without mentioning the incomprehensibly detailed fantasy world-simulation that is Dwarf Fortress. While typically played as a real-time town management game, the simulation goes deep enough for you to play as an adventurer in an enormous world generated entirely uniquely for your pleasure. Every continent, its geography, history, cultures and cities are procedurally generated. Every monster living in a cave has their own history, their own tales of conquest and victory and their own personal treasures. The simulation goes so deep that your individual internal organs are simulated, and combat is realistically deadly, with blades deflecting off heavy armor and clubs shattering bone. The combat logs are often brutal and quite spectacular to read.

Admittedly, the above image is a bit of a cheat – it’s a screenshot from Stonesense, a fan-made visual interpreter for DF. While there are some basic tiled graphics packs available  the game is fairly infamous for primarily using ASCII graphics and a very keyboard-centric UI. Don’t expect to just jump in and play – there’s not much in the way of included help, but there’s plenty of resources to be found on the official forum and Youtube to get newcomers up to speed. The vast majority of it is focused on the simulation/management gameplay, admittedly. Still, adventurer mode is well worth a spin, if only to experiment with the fascinatingly detailed melee engine. I can’t think of many other games where you can deliberately twist an embedded blade to cause pain, hoping to drive your foe into unconsciousness.

While there’s some debate as to whether the depth of simulation here makes for a good game, the DF project has been successful enough to financially support both the developer and his brother through donations alone. The sheer number of Let’s Plays, illustrated stories and after-action reports the game has generated is undeniable proof that there’s something special to be found here. To understand the appeal of the harsh world of dwarven civilization, you have to look no further than the tale of Matul Remrit. With just a little bit of player intervention and some imagination to fill in the blanks, Dwarf Fortress is capable of generating fantasy epics, if you can get past the looks and learning curve. Still, to paraphrase from The Matrix, you might see code, but all I see now is ‘Elf, Dwarf, Goblin’.

UnReal World RPG[Free]

A commercial release until just recently, UnReal World recently went free to play, although the developer says that donations will help support further development. URW has been kicking around for many years now, and is another survival simulation roguelike, but with a much more realistic focus. Set in vaguely mystical iron-age Finland, your goal is simply to survive each day. You hunt for pelts and meat, you fish, you chop trees and you build houses. It’s a true sandbox, so you can do whatever you please, so long as your character is physically capable of doing so.

Being so thoroughly open-ended, you take from Unreal World whatever you choose to put in. You could play the game as a turn-based Harvest Moon if you so wish, living out of a cabin in the woods and tending to your livestock and crops. You can play as a nomadic hunter, sleeping in hastily assembled shelters and surviving on whatever you can catch each day. Or you can end up like me, giving up on all that civilized malarkey and setting up spike traps near villages in the hope of snaring passing locals or (even better) merchants. Man: The Other, Other White Meat.

The fact that the game lets you go as far as resorting to banditry and cannibalism is impressive, and the game will only continue to grow. While the interface is still very keyboard-oriented, there’s a lot of helpful guidance within the game itself, and while there’s an entire world of crafting systems and knowledge of the land to learn, it’s surprisingly accessible to start out with, so long as you follow the tutorials and stay close enough to civilization to trade and prosper. URW can be a remarkably relaxing game to play, if you let it. Somehow, the ever-present threats of animal attacks and starvation don’t feel quite so serious when you’ve got this much freedom.

Eternal League Of Nefia (aka Elona)[Free]

Within five minutes of starting randomist Japanese experiment Elona, you can walk into town, drink from the local well, find that it’s infected with alien parasites and die as the alien spawn gestates inside you and explodes when it reaches maturity. After respawning, you return to the town to find all the villagers have suffered the same fate, and the town is now infested with horrific aliens.

You can then try to make a safer living as a travelling bard, only to fail at pleasing an audience so badly that one of your hecklers throws a grand piano at you. And god help you if you somehow piss off a random villager who happens to be carrying the LEGENDARY DREAD SWORD RAGNAROK… which SUMMONS AN ARMY OF DRAGONS TO DESTROY THE WORLD!

Oh, even funnier if you accidentally find Ragnarok yourself, but don’t quite know it yet. The effect doesn’t kick in until the item is identified, which can happen spontaneously, just by carrying it around. You’re just casually walking down the streets, and then the UI helpfully informs you that “You’ve identified this weapon!” “LET’S RAGNAROK!” the game declares. Suddenly, the world around you explodes, and a dozen cosmically powerful dragons attack. There’s also Big Daddies and Little Sisters from Bioshock, and this guy appears as an enemy – he thrusts his crotch in your general direction, then explodes. It’s an anarchic parody of the genre, essentially, and an absolute must-play if you’re a genre fan. Elona makes no attempt to make any kind of sense, and is all the better for it.


Fifteen of the best and brightest in the genre, and most of them won’t cost you a penny. While not nearly a comprehensive list of everything worth playing, there’s surely something here for just about everyone, assuming you don’t mind a little bit of a challenge. The rise of the dungeon crawl continues, with the 7-Day Roguelike development contest beginning any moment now. Who knows what this year will bring? At least a couple of the games above started out as 7DRL prototypes, only to grow into the monsters that they are today.

We’ve surely missed a few favourites, and probably stepped on a toe or two with our opinions above, so make sure to have your say in whatever way you see fit. Share your favorites, point out obscure, forgotten gems or just heckle. Just make sure that you’ve picked the right class and have enough potions and scrolls to escape if you have to – our editors are commonly regarded as out-of-level monsters.

[Credit for this article also goes to Cory Galliher for writing about ADOM, Teleglitch and parts of Elona, and Chris Priestman with his bits about FTL and The Binding of Isaac]

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  • http://pocketoid.blogspot.com jackal27

    GREAT article! I love most of these games! I’ve never been a fan of ASCII graphics, but I sure do love me some roguelikes.

    • Dominic Tarason

      These days, ASCII seems to be mostly limited to quick-dev projects like 7DRL entries, because, well, making art is expensive and time-consuming.

      Even old stalwarts like Nethack and Dungeon Crawl are fully graphical now. Brogue may be ASCII for the most part, but it also does it elegantly enough to not feel like it’s limiting. Seriously, you can play the whole thing just with the mouse. It might be slightly quicker to use some keyboard shortcuts, but not massively.

  • solifuge

    “and this guy appears as an enemy”

    knew before clicking it would be the legendary Hard Gay.

    this article is pretty awesome overall; I frickin’ love a good brutal roguelike (and roguelikelike) and there were a few here I hadn;t heard of.

  • http://roguelikedeveloper.blogspot.com.au Andrew Doull

    Great overview. I don’t think ASCII is limited to quick-dev projects as you suggest, but you’ve curated a selection where ASCII is the exception rather than the rule.

    And there’s plenty more you could add that are equally intriguing in their own way: Sil, Caves of Qud, Zaga-33 (will you be doing an article on Brough-likes at some point?), PrincessRL, Viscious Orcs..

    If I’m not mistaken though, only one of the games you’ve highlighted started as a 7DRL (DoomRL).

  • Aaron

    Heh, I remember reading online debates over ASCII vs graphics in roguelikes. Not wanting to take sides myself, those in the pro-ASCII camp would point to the unambiguity of ASCII symbols compared to graphical sprites, along with the ability to create massive amounts of content without having to draw everything. Plus, smooth anti-aliased Bitstream Vera Sans letters can have their own kind of charm.

    Another roguelike to mention is Angband (http://rephial.org/). It’s one of the “big three” along with Nethack and ADoM. Along with its heavy Tolkien theme, Angband is famous for its numerous mods, or variants (http://roguebasin.roguelikedevelopment.org/index.php?title=List_of_Angband_variants).

  • Nyaa

    This is a nice summary, but the games you’ve listed as “freeware” aren’t actually freeware – they’re open source and, in most cases, Free software. There’s a very clear difference, and the roguelike community has, historically, always been a proponent of Free software, therefore it is disrespectful to dub these games “freeware”. If you’d insist on not “confusing” people with all these “technical” terms, I suggest you change “freeware” to simply “Free”.

    • Dominic Tarason

      Bit of an odd semantic point to argue. While I suppose you could read deeper into it if you’re really trying, ‘freeware’ is literally a portmaneau of ‘Free software’, which these games are.

      A lot of them are technically donationware, and I’m totally in favour of throwing a few bucks at the developers if you enjoy them.

      • jackofcrowns

        I applaud you for giving the silly pedantic the bitch slap he deserved.

        • allarm

          Don’t you say!

      • J Rodman

        No, Freeware as a term refers to software that you can have without paying any money. Typically it has copyright reserved and goes back to early days of software copying on fledgeling personal computing systems.

        Free software is a distinct term, and arises from the back history of shared computers — mainframes and minis, where code was freely exchanged between developers. It gets a clear term around 1990 as Stallman from the culture of source code sharing runs into people from the commercial software world who don’t agree that things should be done this way.

        So the two terms refer to software which are definitely in different camps. Here’s a binary, but you don’t have to pay on one side, and here’s the source code and you can do what you like with it on the other side.

        Just because two terms have similar derivations doesn’t mean they’re equivalent. Language is a tricky thing.

        • R Cook

          You’re creating a distinction that isn’t there.

          Freeware is software which is distributed without cost. It may or may not be Open Source or “free software”. If you want a definition with a suitable pedigree, check the New Hacker’s Dictionary: “Free software, often written by enthusiasts and distributed by users’ groups, or via electronic mail, local bulletin boards, Usenet, or other electronic media.” (plus some detain on the history of the term).

          Free Software is always Freeware, but Freeware is not always Free Software. Freeware is the more general term and there is absolutely nothing wrong with using it.

          • Mantar

            You’re mistaken: Free software isn’t necessarily freeware. It’s quite possible to charge money for Free software — the free is “free of restrictions” not “free of cost.” The one usually leads to the other, but not always.

            For one of many examples, consider the case where a game has an engine covered by the GPL — you’re free to use it, modify it, improve it, fork it, whatever. The game’s non-software portions (the artwork, music, level sets, etc.,), however, are copyrighted and you pay to buy them.
            This game is Free software, but not Freeware.

  • James

    Dissapointed you didnt mention Liberal Crime Squad. Easily my favourite (and one of the best) Roguelikes ever.

    • Dominic Tarason

      It was one of the ones that I had on my personal shortlist, but it was never really that popular, and fills a very specific niche rather than being something broadly recommendable.

      Personally I was tempted to put Incursion in there, but decided not to because of development on it stalling, and it essentially requiring both full roguelike and D20 RPG genre knowledge to stand any chance of survival.

  • Nikita

    Why is there no Spelunky in the list of mixed genre games?
    It was before Bindings of Isaac, FTL. It’s successful. Both it’s free and commercial version are highly playable.

    • Dominic Tarason

      It’s another game that was on the shortlist, but it’s primarily considered a 360 hit these days, and we didn’t want to break the ’3 in each category’ thing we had going, due to the enormousness of the article. Everyone should play it, though, it’s fantastic.

    • Visitor

      Though I’d find it questionable to count games like Spelunky, Teleglitch, Binding of Isaac or FTL as roguelikes. Inspired by the genre? Obviously. But they are as close to being roguelike as stuff like Privateer, Bert Higgins etc. Slapping some feature or two associated with roguelikes (and by no means restricted to them) on the game of any other type doesn’t make that game a roguelike.

  • asdasd

    Something I think’s missing from this list is Alphaman. Post-apocalyptic, day-glo pulp pop culture ephemera stuffed into a blender with Elvis, a roguelike and a surprisingly nuanced berries system (!). There’s really nothing *quite* like it, even though every roguelike under the sun that can be made, has been made, twice.


  • Justin

    Another new roguelike that might be worth looking at is Sword of the Stars: the Pit. I haven’t got very deep into it yet but I’d be interested to see how it stacks up against some of the greats.

    • solifuge

      yeeeeah, that game looks damn good. reminds me of Teleglitch just from looking at it, but I haven’t picked it up yet myself. another hybrid people who enjoyed this article might look into is Steam Marines; it’s interesting in that it focuses on widely deploying a squad of dudes rather than a single character or tightly knit group.

  • ain

    No mention of Spelunky? Please tell me the reason you didn’t include it is because you don’t know about it.

  • Justin

    He did mention why he didn’t have it about three comments above yours ..

  • Random Fellow XIII

    Just giving a little driveby love shoutout to ol’Incursion, arguably one of the best single-player implementations of the d20/D&D style ruleset to ever grace the computer gaming genre. In a long-haul refactoring period (that might be breaking in the next couple of years, cross yer fingers), but the game as is is winnable and lovable, if occasionally still a little crash prone. No other game I’ve played has let me beat a giant crab demon to death with my bare hands while hanging from the ceiling.

    Website: incursion-roguelike.org

  • crazyweasel

    Rogue survivor , a zombie outbreak themed roguelike. Easy to get into and pretty addicting

  • Tolan

    The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has formally defined the term “Free software” in 1986 and requested that people avoid referring to “Free Software” as “freeware”.[4][6] Members of the Free and open source software (FOSS) community believe that “freedom to use” implies that the end user is free to run, study, modify, and distribute the software with minimal restriction.[11] Also the United States Department of Defense stated in an instruction for government employees and government contractors that the term “freeware” should not be used as a synonym for “open source software”.[12]eally freeware isn’t usually used interchangably with free software. See this for example from Wikipedia:

  • Tolan

    Gah sorry. Android ate my preamble to that paste crom Wikipedia. I was saying that generally the two terms arent used interchangably and the paste was meant to provide some examples :)

  • Ben

    “At no point in the documentation will you find that using an edged weapon to engrave ‘Elbereth’ into the dungeon floor will create a safe zone that no monster can attack you in”

    Someone hasn’t read the guidebook that comes packaged with every install..

  • https://twitter.com/jeromBD Jerom

    Don’t forget “Infra Arcana” : a really nice roguelike (with ASCII graphics & the same graphic-tileset used by Brogue) with a lovecraft-ian atmosphere.

  • Meepmeep

    What about Desktop Dungeons? Classic roguelike play, made accessible through shorter game time (I’m averaging 10 minutes per dungeon run) and a friendly learning curve

    Bad-ass pixel art too :-)

  • Nezune

    Why do these random “best roguelike” lists never mention transcendence? It’s pretty easy to play for casual gamers and has a lot of depth too. I mean if you’re gonna list something like FTL or Bindings of Isaac as roguelikes then certainly transcendence should count.

    Heres a wiki link for anyone who’s interested, the game could use some love: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcendence_(video_game)

  • Papachabre

    I love DoomRL, but I don’t know if it belongs under the ‘For Beginners’ section. I mean yes it has about as easy of a learning curve as Doom, but it is mercilessly unforgiving. At least for me… Maybe I just suck at RL’s :/

    • http://IndieStatik Dominic Tarason

      Like I said right at the start, just because it’s accessible doesn’t meant that it’s *easy*… but at least DoomRL has difficulty settings, and the lower ones are pretty chill by Roguelike standards.

      • Papachabre

        Oh no I just became one of those types that criticizes an article without reading it fully. My apologies. I take your point and agree with you now – a gamer may want a challenge but may not want to start his RL career with a game as complex as Nethack. DoomRL is fairly casual and easily accessible as far as RL’s go.

        I’ve never actually tried the lowest difficulty of DoomRL. I guess I’m too proud. I shouldn’t be though, seeing as how I can’t beat the game on any other difficulty setting.

  • Pippy

    If you want to play a spellcasting triangle you could do worse than play realtime roguelike Triangle Wizard.

  • erdraug

    Thank you.

  • Wonkyth

    Fantastic article, as usual, featuring fantastic games! :D

    Roguelikes have been getting a lot of attention in the past year or so, which I think is great. I especially love what people have managed to learn from roguelikes for application to other kinds of game, such as you outline in your “Genre Blending” section. Lots of game-design science goin’ on here. ^_^

    While attempting to remember all the different flavours of roguelike that I’ve played over the years, my mind has been drawn to one in particular that I picked up several years ago, played for a month solid (never won) and then it disappeared from my gaming thoughts for some reason.
    The worst part: I can’t recall what it was called! :O
    Perhaps someone here might know what it was called, but I’ll give a description of what I can remember anyways, for your enjoyment. ;)

    It was in some kind of sci-fi setting, although I cant remember any of the bask-story or objectives. I seem to recall it having very basic tiled graphics, although I cant say I trust my recollections of what it looked like.
    ANYWAY moving on to what I DO remember: It had three (or perhaps it was four) kinds of things that you had to collect. One of them was DEFINITELY Oxygen, or something that you would use up every turn, gradually ticking down towards asphyxiation. To get more of this you had to extract it from something… I seem to recall there being bubbles, but I cant say if that’s the case. You definitely extract something from plants/crystals, although I cant be sure if that was oxygen or one of the other things. I think there was some kind of Energy thing, which was required to you your tools, e.g. for combat, scanning, extracting etc. I think there was also some kind of money or research points, that you could to buy and upgrade. I think I recall doing calculations, trying to decide if I could afford to spend [currency] on getting a better extraction tool; While it would mean that I could extract more oxygen from things as I went, that would alos be cash that I couldn’t spend on oxygen, which I was running low on.

    But enough ramblings on that game. It galls me that I cant recall what it’s name was, as I don’t believe I’ve played a roguelike quite like it since…

    • http://www.indiestatik.com Chloi Rad

      Reaping the Dungeon?

      • Wonkyth

        That would be it. :D
        Cheers! ^__^

  • Andrew

    and don’t forget castle of the winds…

  • Britt

    At first I didn’t read the blurb about Dwarf Fortress (because I got lazy towards the end) and initially the picture compelled me to download the game. It wasn’t what the picture advertised, however I am terribly addicted to the game now. I am grateful for this suggestion because I like games like ADOM and those of the like. Thanks, even though you tricked me at first!

  • http://www.cataclysmdda.com The Darkling Wolf

    Awesome to see Cataclysm getting some love here. Most of the downsides raised in the post are being addressed as we go along, making the game a bit more user friendly is always a goal.

  • Visitor

    I cannot honestly say I agree with the structure of the article. For example, while the FTL can be a fun game and it does have a few features available in roguelike genre, it went so far away from the source (roguelike, aka ‘like rogue’) that counting it as one is just another step of counting every hardcore-ish cRPG as one, broading the genre too far. By comparison, Dwarf Fortress, UnReal World or Elona are far more roguelike than FTL will probably ever be.

    I am worried that if indie devs and reviewers will keep on jumping the bandwagon of ‘it’s almost like roguelike (except not really)’ soon the genre name will be a misnomer and completely useless.