If you love to game, and you’ve never played a roguelike, shame on you. You can hardly call yourself a gamer at all.
Born in the era of computing in which games were played on cathode-ray terminals tethered to massive, churning mainframes, Rogue was an attempt to replicate in a single player, ASCII environment the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons on pen and paper. It even recreated the experience of having a capricious, pimply, power-mad Dungeon Master as best as it could with a punishing difficulty level and insane, randomly generated levels. You could die at any time and never see it coming, only roll a new a character.
What makes a roguelike?Randomly-generated levels. Turn-based combat. Permadeath Optional: RPG-like, ASCII graphics
The graphics were rudimentary. In Rogue, you play a lone @ symbol navigating a dungeon comprised of periods and equal signs, fighting a menagerie of monsters represented by the full spectrum of capital and lower-cased typography. Despite all this, though, Rogue is a game that is played to this day. There’s a port of Rogue for every platform under he sun.
And the cherry on top? Rogue has inspired an entire genre of games that are even better than Rogue is! They are called roguelikes, and while they can look and play very differently than Rogue, they all have a core formula in common: randomly generated levels, turn-based gameplay and permadeath — once you die in a roguelike, you start all over again from scratch.
A question that is often asked is why anyone would want to play a game with graphics so crude that they can literally be represented by just a bunch of punctuation marks and gameplay so cruel that you might have to start over from scratch after pouring hours into a game. Why bother with roguelikes?
The answer is scope of imagination. Roguelikes routinely put players in situations that would be downright impossible in other games. In what other genre of game can you choose to play a flying wizard octopus wielding eight rings of power, commanding an army of undead warriors, who worships a snail god as old as the universe itself, which in turn gives you the power to turn back time? The best roguelikes not only let you play any kind of character you can possibly imagine, they let you use a variety of tactics to achieve your ends that other types of games simply can’t match… and the truth of the matter is that when gameplay is satisfying and infinitely variable, beating a game ceases to be the reward mechanism. Playing it is the main thing that matters. Roguelikes aren’t designed to be played until they are beaten; they are designed to be played until you die.
Roguelikes aren’t designed to be played until they are beaten; they are designed to be played until you die.
Roguelikes are one of the most infinitely rewarding and replayable genres of games you can play, and in the last few years, they have experienced an incredible renaissance… not just in popularity, but in creativity as well.
Here are the finest roguelikes you can find on the Mac and iOS platforms. We’re ranking them according to accessibility and how easy they are to get into, so if you’ve never played a roguelike before, just try the first one we list on your platform of choice and wait for the addiction to set in!
Roguelikes on Mac
- Dungeons of Dredmor
- Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup
Dungeons of Dredmor
Most roguelikes faithfully adhere to the idea that every object, enemy or player in the game should be representable by a single alphanumeric character, so that the game can be played in ASCII mode. This goes back all the way to the roots of Rogue, and it’s actually strength of the genre: because there’s no graphical overhead to creating an object in a roguelike short of picking an ASCII character to represent it, developers can implement new monsters, items or radically new gameplay ideas extremely easily. Even when roguelikes do have graphics, they tend to just be static images of monsters and items “tiled” over the corresponding ASCII character.
What Sets It Apart:Fully animated. Great sense of humor. Weird and wonderful skills.
What makes Dungeons of Dredmor different is that it’s a roguelike game with actual production values. In a traditional roguelike, when you hit an enemy with your sword, you just bump into him with it. In Dredmor, you can actually see your character swinging a blade When you drink a potion in most roguelikes, you just get a message telling you that you quaffed it. In Dredmor, you can see your character pop the top off a vial and glug it down.
It’s this visual aspect that makes Dredmor probably the most immediately accessible roguelike for the Mac. It’s also a fantastically funny game, a roguelike with a goofy sense of humor. You won’t find many other roguelikes with skills like “Communism” or “Emomancy.” An extra feature to recommend it to new players? Permadeath is optional, meaning you won’t necessarily lose all of your progress in the game when you die.
How’s this for a game idea? You play a lone space marine on Mars, fighting bio-mechanical demons from hell and exploding them into a gib-spray potpourri of meaty chunks using a panoply of futuristic military hardware.
What Sets It Apart:First person shooting in RPG form. Based on id software’s Doom series. Fight off demons from hell on Mars.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s the rough plot of id software’s first person shooter masterpiece, Doom, which hails all the way back to 1993. And it’s also the plot of DoomRL, which isn’t just one of the best roguelikes out there, but which has also been called “the greatest Doom spin-off ever.”
The great thing about DoomRL is, if you’ve ever played a first person shooter, it’s all familiar. While DoomRL has all the hallmarks of roguelikes, like randomly generated levels, permadeath, turn-based combat and an RPG-like leveling system,the gameplay is pure Doom: the same Doom enemies and weapons, the same Doom setting, even the same music and sprites. If you know how to play Doom, you know how to play this… except it’s strategic instead of frenetic, and the levels are different every time.
DoomRL is free to download here.
One of the aspects of the original Rogue that has been lost as the roguelike genre iterates upon its formula is the inherent simplicity of the gameplay. There’s no bones about it: while roguelikes have become more accessible thanks to new trends like attractive graphics, helpful tutorials and UI features like auto-explore, they’ve also tended to get more complicated through the addition of multiple race and class combinations, gods to worship, different stats and skills to keep track of, with a mess of inscrutable gameplay logic seemingly proscribed at random by a thousand unseen generations of sadomasochistic beardos slathered all over the top of the hot ASCII mess.
What Sets It Apart:Beautifully stylized ASCII graphics. Surprisingly deep environmental effects. Roguelike gaming, stripped to its essence.
For a long time, this fact tended to make modern roguelikes a lot harder for a newcomer to infiltrate than Rogue was of yore. Even if you, oh ye product of the Xbox generation, can see past the simplistic graphics of your average roguelike, you might find yourself slaughtered during your first game because you didn’t know, for example, that that dungeon sink you were prompted to kick had a 20% chance of a brain-consuming water nymph snaked up inside the drain, and the only way to escape it once woken is to use your dagger to write ‘Elbereth’ on the floor. And why would you know that stuff? It’s insane.
Luckily, in the last few years ago, we’ve seen roguelikes swing in the opposite direction: a return to deep gameplay, but simple , accessible mechanics.
Few games better sum up this shift than Brogue.
The first thing you need to know about Brogue is that it’s the game that will convince you that ASCII can be beautiful. Although everything in Brogue is represented with alphanumeric characters, the quality of implementation is stunning; during a game, you will explore the depths of shadowy subterranean lakes, come upon fruit-filled dales glittering with sunshine, dangle above vast gorges upon rickety rope bridges, and see entire rooms incinerate into flame.
But Brogue is also notable in that it takes everything complicated about the mechanisms of roguelikes and strips it away, leaving only the gameplay. In Brogue, you don’t have to worry about classes, or learning spells, or training skills skills, or keeping your piety level up, or what the command is to tell your minions to attack, Your character just explores the dungeon. You “level up” by finding potions that increase your strength. Your strength determines what weapons and armor you can use. You don’t even earn XP for killing monsters: it’s possible, but not likely, to beat the game by taking a stealth approach.
Brogue is a beautiful game, the purity of the original Rogue as scried through the filter of the 21st century. You can download it free here.
Most roguelikes have a very simple premise and a very small scope: you’re a brave explorer delving into a dungeon, in search of a treasure or some ancient evil to defeat. It’s the equivalent of going through Moria over and over again when there’s all of Middle Earth hanging invisibly above you.
What Sets It Apart:Interesting quest system. Unlockable classes, achievements, online chat. Vast game overworld.
ToME is a roguelike that gives you Middle Earth in addition to Moria.
That Tolkein connection isn’t accidental: ToME originally stood for “Tales of Middle Earth” when it was first released back in 1998, although it’s since created its own fantasy mythology. Either way, in ToME, you don’t just explore dungeons… you solve quests and find adventure in a massive overworld in which one haunted dungeon or orc-ridden wood is just a single level in an entire globe of adventure.
The latest version of ToME released last year is about as modern as roguelikes get. The game features an MMO-like leveling system, Diablo-like special powers and abilities, a rich and detailed game world, multiple free-flowing quests, a cool achievement system and unlockable classes.
And those unlockable classes? They get awesome quick. ToME has entire classes built around chronomancy powers. A spell that lets you revert time back to a previous point, a spell that move enemies forward in the timeline, a spell that lets you split the timeline in 3 to try different approaches to a problem and then pick which one to stick with, and more.
Don’t like the graphics? You can switch them out with any tileset of your choosing (I’m fond of the OldRPG tileset here, but there are many more). The game also has an elegant permadeath system, in which you can earn extra lives by pleasing the game’s spectral overlord who presides over the domains of death. There’s even a social aspect: you can chat with other ToME players as you grind, asking them for advice or linking cool new gear you’ve found.
ToME is a shining example of how polished and advanced a roguelike can be in 2013. The fact that the game is 100% free while matching the polish of commercial efforts like Dungeons of Dredmor just boggles the mind.
You can download ToME for free here.
Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup
I have friends that I regularly bore with tales of my adventures in Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup. Well I know the glaze-eyed, thousand-mile stare as I regale a friend with a tale about how I lost my last spriggan enchanter, charging the ghost of a fire elementalist with my backpack stupidly stuffed full of fireball scrolls (“I exploded.”) or try to explain to my girlfriend, in earnestness, why I was okay with having been stomped to death by a herd of death yaks (“I had it coming.”)
What Sets It Apart:Unmatched depth, seemingly infinite scope. Powerful, intuitive interface. The absolute best of the modern roguelikes.
Over the past few years, I’ve spent hundreds of hours with Stone Soup, and I’ve never even come close to winning it. And in the next few years, I’ll doubtlessly spend several hundred hours more.
Stone Soup scratches an itch. Ever ytime I play a game, I walk away feeling that I learned something new about how it works, and yet satisfied that I didn’t need to know it beforehand to have had a chance to beat the game.
Stone Soup is an exquisitely fair game, the antithesis of the diabolical design philosophies that went into earlier roguelikes like Nethack, where an act as simple as eating an egg you found could instantly end your game because, hey, you didn’t hear? It was laid by a cockatrice. But not all eggs are laid by cockatrices. Only some eggs. You just can’t tell which ones.
Stupid and unfair, and exactly the kind of thing Stone Soup’s designers think is stupid and unfair too.
Although Stone Soup is an extremely difficult roguelike, there’s generally only one mistake you can make: being too reckless, and therefore making your next move before you’ve properly thought through the situation you’ve landed yourself in and the skills and items you have at your disposal.
The design philosophy of Stone Soup is exquisite fairness, and the Dev Team is committed to making the most devilish, dastardly, insidious and addictive game that they can make… that is still technically winnable by any player picking it up for the first time with absolutely no experience playing it whatsoever!
In what other game can you play a sentient housecat monk, a gladiator mermaid or a vampire warrior?
Then there’s Stone Soup’s incredible scope. In what other game can play a vampire warrior, or an ancient mummy reanimated from the dead, or a sentient housecat monk, or a gladiator mermaid? In what other roguelike will you meet gods that grant you magical decks of cards that conjure up ancient demons to fight for you, or snail gods as old as time itself who punish you if you run too fast? When else will you find yourself trapped in a labyrinth with a minotaur, banished to hell with demons, fight your way back, plunge your way through a demesne of snake men, then die because you were gored to death by a bunch of zombie yaks?
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Even in its genre, Stone Soup is the grand patriarch, the roguelike against which all others are measured. It’s the game that saved roguelikes from themselves, rightly calling out the sadomasochistic mechanics of earlier roguelikes as bullshit and striving to create a game that is challenging and devilish, but accessible to anyone. Consequently, Stone Soup has almost single-handedly brought us into an era of fairer, 21st century roguelikes.
Lastly, I would be amiss not to mention Stone Soup’s incredible interface. Although many of its tricks have since been borrowed by other roguelikes, there still isn’t a roguelike out there that does such an admirable job of taming the necessary convolutedness of a roguelike’s massive scope with a powerful interface aimed at meeting the needs of beginners and experts alike. In Stone Soup, you can search for any object you’ve seen in the game just by hitting Control-F, then travel right to it just by tapping a key. You can auto-explore the dungeon until you meet a monster or find an interesting item, just by tapping the ‘o’ key. You can quickly travel to previous levels or bookmarked treasure troves. You can choose to manually juggle your skills, or let the game figure it out for you. And much, much more.
I’ll just say it: Stone Soup is my favorite game, ever.
I’ll just say it: Stone Soup is my favorite game, ever. While having no narrative to speak of, it is an infinitely deep masterpiece of pure gameplay, and to my mind, the ultimate fulfillment of the roguelike genre’s promise. This is a game you could play for the rest of your life and never see everything.
If you want to give Stone Soup a try, you can download the latest version for Mac here. But one of the great things about Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup is you can also play it in any browser on the web, no download required.
Next Page: Roguelikes for iOS
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See more here: The Best Roguelike Games On Mac & iOS [Feature]