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

Rogue was certainly not the first CRPG. Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord probably made it out months ahead. Before then, there were interesting, relatively unknown Dungeons & Dragons-inspired games for the PLATO computer network, and which might get looked at themselves here, eventually. But Rogue's take on the basic concept adapted some aspects of Dungeons & Dragons that usually got ignored by the others. As D&D evolved, in fact, that game itself abandoned the very ideals that Rogue took to heart: discovery, player improvisation, and the amassing of tremendous piles of loot

Rogue was not a niche game at this time. It was one of the most-played games in campus timeshare computer labs, a genuine phenomenon among its audience. Rogue keeps a score list because it was designed to be played in this kind of environment, with lots of people shooting for a spot on the board; later roguelikes lost that sense of competition and community, but kept the score lists anyway. These days, unless the game is played on a public internet server like alt.org, roguelike score lists tend to fill up with the same player. Back in Rogue's heyday however, competition for the top spots could be fierce.

Soon after Rogue's original release, a number of similar games began to make the rounds of these computer labs. They were the original roguelikes, games that took inspiration from Rogue itself more than even Dungeons & Dragons. Some of these games incorporated Rogue's name in its own: XRogue, Ultra Rogue, Advanced Rogue, Super-Rogue.

srogue7.pngHistory of the Early Games

This was still a couple of years before the first modern roguelikes appeared on the scene. The first of those was Moria, a game that takes the same format as Rogue but has a more varied design. (Note: Moria actually seems like it was created contemporary with the early roguelikes, but didn't get released outside its home school for a while.) Hack and Larn, with their own changes to Rogue's core play, came years afterward. We call the newer games roguelikes, but the early games really put emphasis into that word.

That is, they tended to be very difficult, with monsters that got stronger faster than the player could improve. They had a limited number of character classes, if any at all. They had relatively simple dungeons, often plundering Rogue's three-by-three grid generation algorithm. They were generally one-way trips through the dungeon until the player found a goal item. They had dungeons of practically-infinite length, with the choice of winning or going on for higher scores figuring prominently at Amulet-depth.

And they used an item identification system identical to Rogue's, where scrolls of identify were in short supply and most items had to be discovered through trial and error. They most often used Rogue's basic items, with some extras thrown in. The new monsters and items were really what made the game; they were Rogue-with-extra-toppings.

srogue6.pngThese games are sometimes called the lost roguelikes, and the reasons for that are sad ones. This was back in the day before there was such a thing as an open-source movement. Computer programmers had already begun to look at their source code with a proprietary eye. Rogue's own developers, after some public releases (a version of Rogue is still included with some distributions of bsdgames), began guarding against further source exposures, and in fact even produced commercial versions of the game for play on home computer systems; these are the Epyx Rogue releases. What is probably a pirated version of one of these (although it identifies itself as "Public Domain") is what is now known as "PC Rogue," which these days may be the most-played (and hardest) version of the game.

How Games Become Lost

It's important here to note that Rogue may exist in a playable form now only because of those bsdgames releases and commercial games. The early roguelikes were lost because they had closed source and never got a release for home computer systems. Since they were developed solely for play on then-current, now-ancient, flavors of Unix, they couldn't really be played only by folk who owned that increasingly-esoteric flavor of hardware. Even if the source were available, it turns out they were often coded carelessly, relying on bizarre programming tricks like raw memory dumps for save functionality, making it difficult to run it on anything but the system it was made for.

As the years rolled by, it became harder and harder to get together the combination of hardware needed to play them. And if you could get the hardware, you were probably going to use it for some serious purpose, removed from the influence of playful college students.

srogue5.pngSo for a long time these games were simply forgotten. The middle-era games Moria, Larn and Hack arose, each either with public sources or with versions for systems with more longevity. The later-era roguelikes Angband and Nethack sprung from those. Then internet reared up, surprising the hell out of everyone, and roguelike games began to find audiences of players who were long done with college, or had never attended. This is where ADOM and Dungeon Crawl enter the picture. All this while, the lost roguelikes receded further back in memory, remembered by few, mentioned but rarely.

For a while there, if one searched for "rogue" on the internet, after throwing out the X-Men links, and after reading through Boudewijn Waijers' excellent roguelike homepages (for a time the only real source of information on these games on the internet), one would find a few tantalizing glimpses of the lost games, usually in the form of hint guides or FAQs socked away in the dustiest corners of FTP servers, still informing a vanished audience of enthusiasts about the best ways to conquer the lost dungeons. For a while it looked as if this sad affair would continue forever. Until....

Please Contribute Today To The Save The Umber Hulk Foundation

The Roguelike Restoration Project (currently down, it seems) remembers these old games, and has for a couple of years now attempted to revive them. For all the reasons given above, this quest they have assumed is extremely difficult. Yet they have done, for the most part, an excellent job in hunting down the sources for these games, cleaning them up, and returning them and compiled binaries available to the gaming world. One of the games they've restored is Super-Rogue, a revision of the original game that, at first, doesn't seem to change the original that much at all.

Super-Rogue has the same one-way-dive, then-return quest format that Rogue has. Like Rogue, it uses nine-sector dungeons that aren't terribly challenging to explore. And the monsters get steadily more deadly as the player gets deeper, forcing him to turn to the wide array of random magic items he finds to survive.

In many ways, Super-Rogue is easier than the original game. Its food system is a lot more lenient. Characters get hungry in proportion to the weight of the stuff they're carrying compared to maximum capacity, and as a result, it's easy to build a big food surplus in the early levels when there's not that much stuff to carry. The least useful items to carry extras of, as in most roguelikes, are weapons and armor, which are also the heaviest things. Players will usually hit maximum pack volume before the weight limit, which is also worth a nice cumulative nutrition bonus.

Just before writing this column, I had finished a game of Super-Rogue that got to level 34. When I died, I had nearly a dozen food rations in inventory, and I had gotten up to 17 at one point. Even though I wore rings, which consume extra food, through most of the game, the only time I was in serious danger of starving was when I zapped a staff that turned out to be "of food absorption."

srogue4.pngRogue may have its roots solidly in Dungeons & Dragons, but it notably only took one statistic from that game, Strength Super-Rogue also brings in Dexterity, Wisdom and Constitution, which each seem to function in the traditional, if obscure, ways. The monsters have been adjusted to account for this; many more foes have stat draining attacks than before. Rogue, in fact, only had Giant Ants (or Rattlesnakes depending on the version), poison potions and poison dart traps to drain Strength, but it seems like half the monsters in Super-Rogue can inflict stat damage. The potion of restore strength from Rogue makes its return as a magic item. Although its name is unchanged, it also seems to restore the other stats. And finally, although it takes a great while to do it, it seems that stats regenerate naturally over time.

The Vrock's In The Details

But mostly this is Rogue with a longer dungeon (the Amulet was on level 26 in Rogue), and with new monsters and items. Some highlights:

  • It is the word that makes all Nethack players cringe in fear. I fought exactly one cockatrice during the long game. Whether they have an instant-stone attack as in Hack, or are just another monster, I was unable to determine. Thank god.
  • Other monsters don't have some abilities one might presume given the game's origins in D&D. Xorns cannot travel through walls, and Vampires don't seem to drain anything. Vampires, however, are instantly killed by lit spaces, which they won't enter willingly. This makes wands and scrolls of light extremely helpful deep in the dungeon. You even get experience for vampires that die because of light, whether they're visible to you or not.
  • The first difficult enemy in the dungeon is the imp, who can sometimes slow the player temporarily on a successful hit.
  • Wands of curing heal you, and also cure bad conditions. They are almost essential equipment when Umber Hulks start showing up with their dreaded confusion gaze.
  • Rings of speed carry a plus, and that plus is the number of extra turns you get per round. Were this unchecked, it would certainly make it among the most powerful items in any roguelike. However they increase hunger a bit, and after many turns their plusses drain down to zero. If a +0 ring of speed is put on (not if it drains down to +0 from use), it seems that it becomes cursed.
  • One type of scroll teleports the player back to level 1 of the dungeon; this seems like a good thing. Another scroll "banishes you to the deeper regions," which sent me down to level 15 when the deepest I had seen was 7. I died soon after. The moral: scrolls can be a lot more treacherous here than in Rogue.
  • Rings of illumination permanently light up rooms as you enter them. A lot of the terror of the later levels of Rogue came from not being able to see more than one space in any direction. This makes the game seem a lot more fair, all by itself. (And yes, Vampires hate this item.)

Finally, if you should decide to play this game (I do recommend it), here are a few other things that might help:

  • The Z command initiates a general, omni-directional zap of a wand. To direct it in a specific direction, use the P key. I also feel I should warn you that, unlike some other games they've ported, the Roguelike Restoration Project's edition of this game does not support keypad controls. You're stuck with the vi arrangement (hjkl & yubn) for this one.
  • You begin the game with a random weapon and armor here. My level 34 run got so far, in part, because I began it with +2 plate mail. Nothing quite like starting out with the game's best armor!
  • Some later levels take the form of full-screen mazes. Expert 'hackers might quake at the mention of this, as it is widely regarded that Nethack's play gets annoying in the second half of the dungeon, where most levels are mazes, but they only show up once in a while in Super-Rogue.
  • A attraction new to the dungeon, and largely ignored by later roguelikes, is the magic pools that occasionally crop up, about one per eight-or-so dungeon levels. Items can be dipped into them with Shift-D, which seems to increase the plusses on weapons. A given pool can only be dipped into once.
  • This may be the first roguelike game in which monsters actually may decide to run away if wounded in battle. Unlike in some games, here this is actually an effective tactic for them, and they usually resume the attack only if cornered or after they've had time to heal.
  • There is now the occasional shop in the dungeon, represented by a caret. While it may seem at first like a prototype of Nethack's shops (it's a room with stuff on the floor), there seems to be no way to steal. You aren't told what items are before buying them, but upon purchase they are fully identified. Shops only remain open long enough to make a few purchases, and upon leaving the level is regenerated.
  • Healing potions grant extra maximum HP as in Rogue, but you don't have to have maximum HP to take advantage of them. They are awarded whenever the potions are drunk.
  • Sometimes multiple items, especially potions, are found in one "bundle," another presaging of a later feature.
  • As in Hack and some other modern roguelikes, player possessions are identified at the end of the game.
  • Finally.... This probably a bug, although it might be one in the RRP's implementation of the game more than the original. The player gets a healing turn every time any key is pressed. Even illegal keys that don't allow the monsters to get a turn. This means, by pressing some unused key over and over, players can get all their hit points back without danger. I did not take advantage of this in my 34-level game; if I had, I suspect I could have won without trouble.

    srogue3.pngPlaying Super-Rogue Today

    I would ordinarily include a link to the download page of the Roguelike Restoration Project, but they seem to be down at the moment. So I am including my own link to the Super-Rogue binaries, here.
    Download file(~158k)

    Unlike some other of the RRP's products, Super-Rogue on Windows still requires the Unix emulation layer Cygwin to play; make sure to get the Curses libraries in your installation. After installing Cygwin, go under (install drive):cygwinhome(your account name) and unzip the files there. You should then be able to more easily find them from Cygwin's bash prompt.

    As you can probably tell from the screenshots, this is a seriously old-style roguelike. It's all ASCII, it uses no extended characters in its graphics, and it doesn't use color or character attributes. It only supports vi-style keys for movement. Still, from playing it over the past couple of weeks, it seems clear to me that there is more game here than its age might imply. Super-Rogue deserves recognition in the lineage of roguelike gaming. The Roguelike Restoration Project has done us all a great service in making it, and the other lost roguelikes, playable in the 21st century.


    Extra fun for those who have read this far: a USENET post from 1996 in which the creator of Moria talks about writing it and the early history of his game.

    Next time out, in preparation for the release of its sequel, we'll be covering Success/Ninja Studio/Atlus' DS roguelike Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja. You can bet that I'll be spending most of the intervening time scrounging for screenshots.