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.]

Jeff Lait's POWDER, which name probably stands for something I don't know, is a graphic roguelike originally created as a homebrew Gameboy Advance game. Created as an entry in the 7DRL programming challenge, since its original release it has been steadily updated, and ports have been made available for Windows and Linux using SDL.

Despite its broadened horizons, the game is obviously intended to be a GBA game first; not only are the screen size and graphics the same across all platforms, but there is also the occasional video game in-joke to be found. The game complains, if the player tries moving off the top of the map, that doing so would "break the backlight." (Direct complaints that the original GBA didn't have a backlight to the developer.)

powder1.pngYet it would be a mistake to consider POWDER to be a "mini" roguelike, for it contains roughly the same level of complexity as something like Hacklite. There's a full bestiary of foes with different personalities, strengths and weaknesses, and a wide assortment of objects to find and use. Its dungeons also display a fair bit of charm, with frequent secret rooms, flooded areas, boulder gardens and monster lairs to happen upon.

The necessary simplification to make a roguelike playable on a handheld game system with a control pad and small number of buttons requires a number of control innovations. Like Seven Day Quest, the game uses what is primarily an object-oriented inventory screen, with context menus available, depending on the item, that reveal all the things that can be done with it. This makes the game rather easier to learn than something that gets its control scheme from vi. But unlike most roguelikes, there seems to be no real carrying limit in POWDER; I've filled up almost half the huge inventory screen with no warning about being burdened or such.

powder2.png POWDER breaks from roguelike tradition by disallowing diagonal movement or melee attacks by the player or most monsters, which requires a considerable change in strategy from the usual. It makes fighting in doorways and hallways even more effective since even in cases where monsters may be adjacent with the player on a diagonal, they won't be able to get hits in.

However a few monsters, like grid bugs, are able to attack on the diagonal, making them relatively difficult to escape from. Wands may still be fired on diagonals, and missile weapons may be thrown diagonally, but their usefulness is held in check by the need to extend the player's visual range, such as by fighting in a room or from using torches, to use them optimally.

powder3.png POWDER seems to take the most after the Hack family of roguelike games. It contains floating eyes, grid bugs and cockatrices, and possibly other Hackish monsters besides, and they have abilities more-or-less in line with their counterparts from those games. The "evil" and "holy" attribute of items seems pretty much in line with "cursed" and "blessed" from Nethack, but it seems much more difficult to remove curses than that game, or identify objects for that matter.

One of the weirder features of the game is that, instead of allowing players to start out as one of several classes, upon gaining a level the player is asked which class he would like his next level to "be" of. Each of the options besides "adventurer," which offers generic growth, seems to be tied to a different god, who expects certain behavior out of the player as in Dungeon Crawl. Of special note is the class Wizard, which doesn't seem to show up unless the player has actually practiced his magic a bit.

powder4.pngWhile I have yet to spend a lot of time on POWDER, here is some information I've been able to glean from the early game:

POWDER has a useful tutorial available from the main menu. Unlike as you might expect, it's not given that you'll survive it, but helpful information can indeed be found there.

By far, the most troublesome monster to be found in the early game is the kiwi. The name and image may call to mind shy, flightless birds, but POWDER kiwis are hellish creatures capable of impaling a first-level player on its long beak within two quick hits. I generally try not to engage one in melee unless I can survive 10 points of damage from a single hit, but even that wasn't enough to save me once. Fortunately they seem willing to wander off if they lose sight of the player.

Evil items are a big problem because it's difficult to remove curses. Further, often some or all of the player's starting stuff will be cursed. If your starting item is a long sword or some other relatively strong weapon, it might be worth putting up with the curse just to use the item, for often that'll be the only thing that's wrong with it. Other stuff besides equipment can be "evil" or "holy" too, presumably with effects similar to cursed and blessed stuff in Nethack.

powder5.png The game does have a food requirement, but unlike many roguelikes the player can keep himself sustained pretty much by just eating whatever he kills. So far I have yet to find much to eat that harms the player other than green (poisonous) snakes. Like Nethack, eaten corpses bestow resistances and even special effects, like speed in the case of bats, on the player, but unlike Nethack sometimes there are minor ill effects (fire beetles can grant fire resistance, cold vulnerability or both), and they also seem to expire after some number of turns.

When aiming wands or thrown items, you might note that it's possible, in addition to the eight spots right by the player, to aim two spaces up and two spaces down. This is the game's way of allowing the player to specify the ceiling and the floor as aim spots, but rare is the case where the player would actually want to shoot there.

powder6.pngPOWDER, by Jeff Lait
Available for Game Boy Advance, Windows and Linux.