So I've been a fan of roguelikes for over a decade. Starting with Spelunky and the Binding of Isaac, I've likely spent half of my gaming time over the last decade just playing roguelikes.
Before we move on, I'd like to set a definition for "roguelike". The genre broadly describes games that are "like Rogue", with Rogue being an ASCII-based game from 1980. The definition has changed a lot over the years, but yeah. Here's my definition:
Roguelikes are games that prominently feature procedural generation, permadeath and player progression.
Although I'm sure a lot of roguelike purists won't agree with this definition, I'd argue that it's the definition most people are using these days. Consider Steam's list of roguelikes. Essentially none of the top selling roguelikes are "classic roguelikes". Same if you just Google "top roguelikes".
Anyway, this genre is very, very varied. From twin stick shooters, like the Binding of Isaac or Enter the Gungeon, to platformers, like Spelunky, to deck builders, like Slay the Spire. There are roguelike first person shooters, there are roguelike rhythm games. I'm sure if you look enough you'll find a roguelike carting game or fighting game
So, what makes a roguelike, a roguelike? It's not the moment to moment gameplay, that's for sure. The moment to moment gameplay of a game like BPM: BULLETS PER MINUTE couldn't be more different from that of a game like Slay the Spire.
Allow me to introduce Luck be a Landlord. It's a game I stumbled on a couple of days ago. I consider it a distilled roguelike. In my opinion, it has everything that makes a roguelike a roguelike, without much of the gameplay of other roguelikes.
What is Luck be a Landlord? It is essentially a roguelike slot machine. The gameplay consists of essentially 3 things: You spin the slot machine, after every spin you get to choose a symbol to add to the slot machine, and every few spins (if you've got enough money to survive), you get to choose an item that (usually) gives you passive bonuses.
It's worth noting that, unlike normal slot machines, you don't get money for having several of the same symbols in a row. Instead, symbols give you money every spin, as long as they are visible on the slot machine.
Most symbols react to certain specific other symbols, if they happen to be adjacent on the slot machine. So, instead of going for multiple of the same symbol in a row (which usually doesn't actually do anything), you want to be going for synergies between symbols. For example, one of the symbols is a chef, which gives adjacent food symbols 2x their value.
The ultimate goal is to get a lot of synergies between your symbols, as well as with your items. If you get a good synergy going, you'll likely breeze to the end, but if you don't, you don't really have a chance to make it
This game isn't fair. Because you don't know what symbols you'll be offered in the future, you have no idea if the symbols offered to you at the start will be any good. Despite this, I really enjoy it.
It's interesting to think that this simple slot machine setup is so similar to other roguelikes. It has a lot of the same risk/reward systems in place… Which brings me to the ultimate question of this long post: if you're a fan of roguelikes, do you just like gambling?
There really is something so thrilling about picking an item that might pay off later instead of one that will pay off a tiny amount immediately. In many roguelikes, you often get given choices where you can make your life harder in the short term to hopefully make your life easier in the long term. It's about risk management, about knowing when to risk it all or when to walk away. It's about counting your losses when they happen, or celebrating when your risks pay off.
I think, to me, that is a big part of the appeal of roguelikes.
Of course, there is also a lot of joy in mastering the systems of each roguelike. Unlike Luck be a Landlord, most roguelikes have constant skill checks, which are often extremely enjoyable as well. It's not all gambling. However, in every roguelike I've played, a large factor is the risks involved throughout the game. Decisions between going a hard route for more money or an easy route for less money. Decisions about buying health or saving money for upgrades.
What are your thoughts on this? Please let me know
P.S I don't ever gamble in real life. If roguelikes have taught me anything, it's that I suck at gambling. In real life, you can't just restart if your gambles don't pay out.
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