Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

This time out we are going to cover the state of the roguelike genre today, covering as many of the most notable games as we can at one time. I'm restricting this column to a fairly conservative definition of roguelike (I'm not even going to touch upon Mysterious Dungeon here), so surely, this won't take too long. How many can there be?

There are the "big three" games, the ones with their own Usenet groups that still have decent traffic, which are Nethack, Angband and ADOM, and their variants. Then there are up-and-comers Dungeon Crawl and Dwarf Fortress, the older games Larn and Omega, and the lost roguelikes that are finally beginning to emerge from obscurity. These are by no means all of the roguelike games there are to see, but this does include many of the more interesting ones.

There's a lot of ground to cover so let's get started!

nethack-8.gifNethack
Nethack I've mentioned a fair bit in prior columns. It is the most popular roguelike of them all, and has been for some years now. The logic of its world defies belief: a player can take a potion, dip it into a fountain to dilute it into water, then drop it on a co-aligned altar and pray to turn it into holy water. Then he can dip another item into that potion to bless it, or instead dip a pile of other potions of water into it at once to make lots more holy water in a single go. Or, instead of diluting a potion, he could throw it at a monster to attack it with its vapor, mix it with other potions, or dip other items into it. Rumor has it the player can even drink them.

Nethack is an open-source game, and because of this there has arisen a number of outside source forks, or variants, over the years. Most of the time they die out rapidly, such as with Nethack--, or the "Japanized" versions JNethack(do not ask about its new character class) and Nethack Brass, or the insufferably geeky Nethack: The Next Generation, but sometimes they turn out to have staying power. The foremost Nethack variant is Slash'EM, a frightening game that contains many more things than Nethack, which was derived from the earlier variant Slash. There is also a thriving community of Nethack patch authors, some of their work almost counts as variants in themselves, and some of them in the past have had their additions to the game incorporated into the core release by the Devteam, which is about as close to immortality you can get in the roguelike sphere without actually writing one from scratch.

angband-8.gifAngband
Angband has long been Nethack's primary competition, almost like a nemesis. Nethack was derived from Hack, which was originally something of a clone of Rogue, while Angband traces is lineage back through Moria, another early roguelike of only slightly lesser antiquity. While Nethack's focus is on strategic power acquisition, item discovery, and overcoming varied situations (not all of which involve monsters), what Angband is mostly about is killing. It has less game flexibility, but ultimately a deeper tactical game than Nethack. Angband probably has more monsters and individual items than Nethack (and some of its variants definitely do), but they also do not tend to be as interesting. Angband is a much larger game in terms of raw acreage, with its hundred levels each several screens in size, but since it lacks Nethack's tremendous depth of play there is generally less a player can do at any given moment. Angband is understood by many to be less dependent upon spoilers in order to play it well, and indeed its awesome "monster memory" feature allows players to generate their own personal spoilers as they play, taking automatic notes on monster hit points, attacks and resistances that can be kept between games.

While Angband's item discovery is but a shadow of Nethack's, or even Rogue's, it does take one of Rogue's features to heart far more than Nethack does. One of the more heart-stopping occasions in Rogue is when the player stumbles upon a zoo, a single room containing far more than the usual allotment of both monsters and treasure. A good zoo can make a player's game, but is likely to break it first. While Nethack has zoos, and several other themed monster lairs besides, they are nothing like Angband's vaults, large rooms secreted away from the main system of tunnels that contain extremely dangerous monsters and unique foes. Vaults have high probability of containing artifacts, the most potent objects in the game, but challenging the monsters for them is not a matter to be taken lightly.

While Nethack has a handful of variants it is still generally understood that the original is still the "real" game. Meanwhile, some of Angband's variants, called "'Bands" due to their propensity to change the first syllable of their parent game's name, are almost as popular as the original. There are dozens of versions of Angband out there, including versions with Lovecraftian monsters, versions with joke monsters, versions with randomized artifacts, and even versions with an overworld map to explore and multiple dungeons to find on it. The most popular Angband variant as of this writing is Troubles of Middle Earth (aka ToME), which has all of these things and more.

Cats vs Dogs, Joel vs Mike, Nethack vs Angband
The quickest instructive way I can think of to illustrate the differences between these two games is to describe how they handle shops.

In Angband, a shop is a place on the surface level. Although the shop's walls take up a good amount of space on the town map, the contents of that space do not matter to the game. When the player walks into its entryway he is given a menu listing its contents. He can pick objects to buy off of that menu, haggle over prices, and sell stuff he's found in the dungeon. Shops have a limited inventory--never anything truly powerful--but are restocked periodically, so the player can often use them to make up for basic deficiencies in his equipment.

In Nethack, a shop is a room in the dungeon. Like any other room, it has a door and walls. Unlike those other rooms, it has a shopkeeper standing at the door, and the shop's inventory litters most of the floor. Anything on the ground in the shop is considered to belong to the shopkeeper, and if the player picks something up he is told its price. If the player is carrying unpaid objects, the shopkeeper stands in front of the doorway until it is either dropped or paid for. To sell things the player simply drops an item, but the sale price can vary depending on the gold in the merchant's pocket.

Players can steal from shops in Nethack, but instead of it being pass/fail based off a roll of virtual dice, what players must do is figure out how to get objects out of the room past the shopkeeper. Most means of doing this will call the Keystone Kops out after the player (I am not kidding about that). It will also make the shopkeeper angry, and they are formidable opponents to all but high-level characters, but ultimately they are still monsters just like any other, and by killing a shopkeeper the player can freely loot the store's inventory and any money the poor guy was carrying. Shops can stock almost any item in the game, but on the other hand there are not many guaranteed shops, and they never restock with goods other than what the player sells to them, so they are less of a fall-back source of basic supplies and more of an additional source of random treasure, albeit one with strings attached.

adom-8.gifADOM
The third major roguelike, ADOM, is a bit of a departure from the others. For one thing, it has no ancestor game. While the lines of Nethack and Angband are known and storied, ADOM was created outright by its author, Thomas Biskup. He was obviously inspired by other roguelikes, but it also has features that are new and unique.

While Nethack and Angband are both open source games, and thus ultimately have no secrets from the eyes of a determined-enough player, ADOM's source is closed. (Thomas Biskup continues to maintain that he will one day produce a commercialized, graphical version of the game, but it has been a while since he first said that.) Because it's closed source there are also no variants of ADOM floating around, a state which has doomed a number of other once-famous roguelikes to obscurity.

ADOM has aspects of Angband in play, but it more obviously takes after Nethack in its features. It has Nethack's variety of environment and monster, but includes Angband's level-dependent item creation, and it has a monster memory. There is also a fair bit more of the traditional RPG in ADOM, as the game has a more overt, percentage-based skill system, a great variety in races and classes, and a good number of quests. Some of ADOM's ideas are quite nifty and inventive (anyone who's played around will cellular automata will recognize the growth pattern of dungeon plants) but there is also a sense of unevenness there, perhaps unavoidably so, due to the game being the product of but one mind. ADOM is also known for having the player undergo periodic mutations as time passes and the effects of chaos prevalent in the world warp his body. Some of the mutations are actually helpful, but some are incredibly harsh. A player who mutates too much will lose the game, giving ADOM a harsh time limit, although the pendulum is a bit further away from the player's neck than in Rogue.

ADOM's quest structure means that players effectively have an itinerary while playing, a set of places they either have to go at certain times/levels or else miss out on meeting/helping/killing various people. Alignment is also very important, in that it can change depending on a player's actions, and it determines which quests he can perform. The game also has a good number of objects that must be collected from its various dungeons in order to win the game (or Really Win the game, or Really REALLY Win the game -- there are multiple tiered "endings"). These may sound like good ideas at first, but they lead to cases where the player does not know what options are available to him, or what he needs to do next, unless he is already spoiled. While ADOM's game world is ultimately not as deep as Nethack, things like this make its players at least as reliant upon spoilers as that game's, yet there are far fewer to be found for ADOM than Nethack, which makes it a difficult game to improve at.

Two other roguelikes that deserve an honorable mention here:

dungeoncrawl-8.gif(Linley's) Dungeon Crawl is a relative newcomer to the field, being "only" eleven years old at this point, and it continues to see development. It seems to stick a smidgen closer to Rogue in its design than the likes of Nethack, but it also has a good number of classes and races to try out. With the pace of ADOM's development slowing as of late, there is a chance that Crawl could soon usurp its spot in the big three. Dungeon Crawl is exceptionally difficult even by roguelike standards, with players hounded by hordes of foes almost from the first turn, so a fair amount of persistence and/or luck seems to be necessary to get a game beyond the first levels.

dwarffortress-8.gifDungeon Crawl is relatively new, but overnight indie gaming success Dwarf Fortress is an infant by comparison. Most of the attention paid to DW focuses (rightfully) on its interesting Fortress Mode, but it also contains an Adventurer Mode that is nominally a roguelike. Games from both modes take place in the same randomly generated world, created on the program's first run, and it's possible to have an adventurer explore a player fortress, and visit kingdoms which fortresses know only through trade and diplomacy. Further, in the event a Fortress game is lost, the map is saved and made available for play in a Reclaim Fortress mode, which also has roguelike similarities. While these modes are interesting, they do not have the varied item discovery play of Rogue and its kin. Some players may not even notice the game has a built-in roguelike, since a saved fortress game in progress bars access to Adventurer Mode for that world, and fortresses can take a long time to play through to conclusion.

Some other games:

Larn* and ULarn make up another roguelike branch that hasn't seen too much development lately. They were notable for having a time limit, a bit of a harder one than Rogue's food requirement. They are also notable for containing seriously powerful weapons, like the appropriately-named Lance of Death. The game Omega is of moderate age for a roguelike, and was the first roguelike to contain a significant "overworld," a landscape outside of the dungeons. The science-fiction game Alphaman appears to be a true roguelike (it has item discovery), and an interesting sense of humor, but I do not know much else about it.

There exists a Usenet group, rec.games.roguelike.misc, that is devoted to miscellaneous roguelikes that do not have their own group. In the days before ADOM got its own listing it was commonly discussed there, and Dungeon Crawl is a frequent source of conversation now. Also discussed there are a number of new roguelikes, many of which having gotten their start as part of the 7-Day Roguelike Project. Some of these games are quite ingenious twists on the roguelike theme, among them ChessRogue (the foes are enemy pieces and after capturing enough of them the player's king gains new types of moves) and Letter Hunt (where the letter monsters actually are letters, and are to be used to spell words).

Finally, but significantly, there are the lost roguelikes, games that were not open sourced during their heyday and were too tied to one or another operating system to be run on modern machines. In particular this includes the major Rogue variants, Super Rogue, UltraRogue, XRogue and Advanced Rogue, which are only now being recovered from obscurity by the noble efforts of the Roguelike Restoration Project.

* Note 1: the DOS download link on this page, and some of the other links, do not work. Note 2: according to this page, the author of Larn passed away some time ago. That's how old roguelikes are as a class of computer game: developer mortality has begun to take its toll.