As enthusiasts, we naturally seek out simple descriptions to encapsulate, as shorthand, a shared set of aesthetic qualities. While this tendency has led to bizarre and convoluted acronyms like "MOBA" and "MMORPG," it has also unearthed charming descriptions like "roguelike," a term that I have come to appreciate for its terseness and its accuracy. In two syllables, the term directly communicates its meaning — the game is like Rogue! — and you immediately understand what's being described, so long as you're familiar with that seminal 1980 dungeon crawl.
Of course, that description provides very little value if you aren't familiar with Rogue, so I wouldn't blame you if you were to hold me at gunpoint and ask me, through gritted teeth, to provide a more concrete definition for "roguelike" or else. After a deep breath and, perhaps, a silent prayer, I would provide the following list of characteristics, each of which was popularized by Rogue:
- Level designs are prodedurally generated (to provide unpredictability).
- All player death is "permadeath" (to provide tension).
- Players can find items with effects that may or may not be known to the player before their usage (to provide risk/reward).
- Movement is turn-based, with players and enemies moving simultaneously on each turn (to provide opportunity for tactical consideration).
(Okay, you can put the gun down now. Seriously.)
Most roguelikes decorate those core concepts with other mechanical flourishes, such as a broader set of character abilities (e.g., magic spells, techniques) or a character advancement system that allows characters to grow stronger over time. Zaga-33, a freeware roguelike by Michael Brough, says to hell with all of that and cuts as close to the bone as possible, limiting players to two verbs — "move" and "use (item)" — and providing context-sensitive variations on their application. If you move into an enemy's space in Zaga-33, you attack that enemy; if you use an unidentified item, all other instances of that item in the world are identified.
By providing the player with a concise set of homonymic interactions to navigate the challenging dynamics of its world, Zaga-33 is easy to learn, satisfying to play, but difficult to master. Though it's not my favorite roguelike, it effectively and immediately captures the key characteristics of the genre, just like the term that often describes it.
Some further questions for discussion:
- How far were you able to make it into the planet?
- How does the Intellivision-esque presentation relate to the underlying mechanics of the game?
- Is this the first roguelike you've ever played? If not, how do you feel Zaga reflects the characteristics of the genre?
(Screenshots taken from the iOS version of the game.)