Going Roguelike: The JRPG roots of a growing subgenre

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Roguelikes are experiencing a rise in popularity right now. There’s debate even among diehard fans as to what constitutes a roguelike. The points of agreement are a turn-based battle system, randomly generated dungeons and permanent death. The saves that exist usually only allow a player to save the game and come back. Death is still death, and requires starting a new game. Lovers of the genre refer to reloading saves to get a better result “save scumming,” letting you know just how they feel about it.

The genre name comes from the 1980 dungeon crawler Rogue, an influence on games including the Diablo series. GamerTell’s taking a look at roguelikes including their long history, the games leading the comeback and some of the ideas to come. First, we’ll take a look at the Japanese influence on the subgenre.

As with many RPGs, roguelikes could still be called a niche genre in the West. That’s not the case in Japan, where they have enjoyed more mainstream status for years. Chunsoft’s Mystery Dungeon series helped tremendously in those efforts.  They were a spinoff from the already well-received Dragon Quest series. The Super Nintendo games gained a fair amount of traction outside Japan, especially Shiren The Wanderer. It came to the Super Famicom in 1995, and drew enough accolades to earn GameBoy and Nintendo DS ports. A Shiren sequel made its way to the Wii.

This introduced the best way to get gamers to try an unknown and at times unforgiving genre: familiar characters. Pokemon and Final Fantasy’s lovable Chocobo would get their own roguelikes. They ended up being an introduction to the genre for some Western gamers, due partially to a much more forgiving difficulty level that appealed to younger gamers.

While purists might feel lowering the difficulty level goes against what a roguelike is supposed to be, it has helped the genre catch hold. Some of those gamers raised on Pokemon and Chocobo based dungeon crawlers are now working through the likes of FTL and The Binding of Issac.

Publisher Atlus is well-known for bringing lesser known projects West. It brought Baroque, which originally appeared on the Sega Saturn, to North America for the PlayStation 2 and Wii. Reviews weren’t great, but it still found some fans drawn in by their first experience with randomly generated dungeons. Its punishing difficulty was one of the reasons cited in numerous reviews. GameSpot’s Lark Anderson noted players would need a lot of patience to stick through to the end. That phrase describes most of the games in the genre, truthfully.

But now RPG lovers all over the world have gotten a taste, and millions want a little bit more.  Games such as Dungeons of Dredmor and Spelunky are taking the roguelike to new heights. Other games are still using Rogue and its numerous descendants for inspiration. Diablo III, the PC smash making its long awaited jump to consoles Sept. 3, uses permanent death in its hardcore mode. Though roguelikes are a subgenre based on repeated deaths, they aren’t dying off any time soon.



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