This classic format still reigns supreme
The roguelike game genre ticks many of the perfect boxes for a video game. If you like role-playing, adventure, monsters, hacking, slashing, and loot, a roguelike is right up your alley. Furthermore, roguelikes are one of the oldest video game genres. There are hundreds of options across the major operating systems.
So, what is a roguelike? And what are the best roguelike games?
What Is a Roguelike Game?
The roguelike genre was born with the game Rogue, back in 1980. You enter a dungeon, where your task is to descend to the bottom level and retrieve the coveted Amulet of Yendor. Once in your possession, you must escape the dungeon, climbing back to the beginning.
Through the Rogue dungeon, you encounter all manner of beasts and monsters, plus heaps of loot and treasure. Rogue has a strong affinity with Dungeons and Dragons, featuring many of the same monsters and weapons using similar leveling attributes.
At the time of release, Rogue was a relative rarity as it uses random level generation for each dungeon attempt. This means each playthrough is slightly different. While random level generation is normal now, in 1980, it was a unique feature.
Rogue had another unique feature, too: permadeath. Once you die in Rogue, it’s game over. There are no lives, no do-overs, no checkpoints. It is brutal, but iconic.
So, games that use a similar style and ethos to Rogue are known as roguelikes.
A roguelike game has several key attributes, the specific definition of which is known as the Berlin Interpretation (as it was created in 2008 at the International Roguelike Development Conference in Berlin). It defines several key principles for roguelike games to follow, including:
- Random Environment Generation: As above, roguelikes must use random world generation to increase replayability.
- Permadeath: When you die, you die. Part of the fun is learning the game.
- Turn-Based: Each command represents a turn. You can take your time to make decisions, as time stops between each move.
- Complexity: A roguelike should have several possible paths to completion, allowing for a range of strategies.
- Exploration: The game should require exploration throughout and relates to the random environment generation.
There are other principles, too, including resource management, tactical challenges, dungeons, and monsters using similar rules to user characters. Plus, the classic ASCII design, although many modern roguelikes embrace easier to understand visual styles.
So, now you know what a roguelike is, what are the best roguelike games?
Rogue is considered a “Major Classic Roguelike,” a groundbreaker and leader in the genre. The second generation of roguelikes are known as the “Major roguelikes,” and Nethack was one of the first of this second wave.
The initial release included numerous quality of life improvements over Rogue. These include options menus, multiple roles for players to choose from (such as a wizard or barbarian), distinct maps areas within the dungeon (that are still randomly generated bar a couple of features), and the introduction of some seriously interesting monsters.
As such, Nethack is one of the most popular and considered by many to be the best roguelike game of all time. It’s completely free and is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux. You’ll also find open-source Nethack ports for iOS and Android, plus internet-hosted versions, too.
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2. Tales of Maj’Eyal
Sticking with the classic roguelikes for a moment, Tales of Maj’Eyal is the fourth iteration of ToME, a third-generation roguelike. ToME introduces even more quality of life improvements. One of the biggest differences is the tileset, which turns the ASCII roguelike world into an easier to understand experience.
ToME ticks all the major roguelike boxes. It’s filled with random battle encounters, incredibly deep dungeons, a brilliant set of almost unique classes, and rich lore for you to uncover.
Better still, ToME is one of the classic roguelikes that has made its way to Steam, with support for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
If you’re using an old PC, many roguelikes are easy to run, requiring little in terms of system resources or expensive hardware. For more tips, check out the best ways to play games smoothly on an old PC.
3. Caves of Qud
Caves of Qud is one of the best roguelike games released in recent years. Although it still uses the traditional ASCII design, the overall user experience is clean and easy enough to learn. I mean, there is a learning curve, but menus are not locked away behind strange key combinations like the very early roguelikes.
One thing that sets Caves of Qud aside is the storyline. Set in a sci-fi retro-futuristic world, you start life as a mutant in a strange land. There is a frankly bonkers range of approaches to the game, nearly 100 different ways to build your character, and the level of depth and detail for each area (although randomly generated) is engrossing and alluring.
Another major difference is the introduction of some forms of diplomacy between factions. While roguelikes usually focus on hack and slash style gameplay, Caves of Qud leaves some space for dialogue and user interaction, which is a welcome change.
Like ToME, Caves of Qud is available on Steam, with support for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
4. The Binding of Isaac and The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth
The Binding of Isaac is an important game in the history of roguelikes. It was one of the first truly modernized roguelike games, bringing the ideas of the roguelike genre to a new generation.
Combining heavy roguelike elements with a top-down RPG shooter style, the Binding of Isaac series illustrates how traditional roguelike themes work inside other genres.
The visual style of The Binding of Isaac series isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It can feel a little grotesque, or just straight-up weird. But there is no denying the depths of the dungeons, the randomly generated enemies, multiple bosses, hundreds of unique items, and amusing power-up attacks.
The Binding of Isaac and its sequels are available on Steam, with support for Windows and macOS.
5. Crypt of the Necrodancer
Talking of combining gaming genres, how about a roguelike rhythm game? That’s exactly what you get with Crypt of the Necrodancer, an award-winning roguelike whose musical soundtrack defines the moves you can make.
The game includes over 40 original tracks for you to listen to and move to as you wind down through the dungeon. Each move you make works with the beats of the track, helping you (and hindering at times!) figure out how to avoid your enemies. When you die, you head back to the lobby to spend your earnings before embarking on another run.
In terms of style and gameplay, it is certainly one of the most original roguelike ideas. It’s easy to see why it scores so highly in reviews and remains highly rated years after its release.
Crypt of the Necrodancer is available on Steam, with support for Windows, macOS, and Linux, as well as the Apple App Store for iOS devices.
6. Slay the Spire
Now, moving away from the traditional roguelike games, you have Slay the Spire, the roguelike deckbuilder.
Slay the Spire combines roguelike elements, such as dungeon crawling, permadeath, unique items, and turn-based combat, with deck building elements, such as drawing and battling cards, powering up items over time, and unique enemies.
Once you beat the game, it resets and increases its difficulty level, unlocking new challenges, bosses, monsters, and user characters. It’s an addictive combination, powering through level after level, slaying monsters, and attempting to find the perfect relics (power-ups) for your character.
Slay the Spire is available on Steam, with support for Windows, macOS, and Linux, as well as the Apple App Store for iOS devices. You’ll also find it as an option in the Xbox PC Game Pass selection.
7. Dungeons of Dreadmor
Dungeons of Dreadmor is a modern-ish roguelike game with pixel graphics. In some ways, Dungeons of Dreadmor spans the ages. It combines a classic approach to roguelikes with difficult gameplay, randomly generated dungeons filled with loot and monsters, and massive replay value, with an incredibly in-depth crafting system and a lot of user freedom.
Like other roguelikes, the graphics style can put people off. But again, once you get past the graphics and into the game itself, you’ll be hooked.
Dungeons of Dreadmor is available on Steam, with support for Windows and macOS.
Which Roguelike Game Will You Play First?
The roguelike genre is extensive. Choosing just a few titles for this list of best Roguelike games is near impossible, and the games that don’t feature are just as good as those that do.
Consider titles such as Brogue (recent update to Rogue), Spelunky, Risk of Rain, Stoneshard, and Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. And that’s without getting into other roguelike titles such as Dwarf Fortress, Into the Breach, Faster Than Light, and Dead Cells.
Traditional roguelike games such as Nethack and ToME are still incredibly popular for their replayability, fantastic lore, and most of all, deeply committed communities. But the new generation of roguelike crossovers that take the best roguelike elements into another genre are also excellent, providing a new wave of roguelike games.
Looking for something a little more challenging for your computer? Check out the best games to push your Nvidia RTX GPU to its limits.