Better Than Cheap: DoomRL

I’ve spoken before about the super-geeky genre of games known as ‘roguelikes’.  I predicted they were about to go mainstream (at least on the internet) and it still seems to be going that way, though slower than I expected.  The recent release of FTL, an independent game inspired heavily by roguelike mechanics, introduced a huge number of people to the joy of turn-based, randomized action – and the frustration of difficulty spikes that the randomization inevitably entails.

So what’s a roguelike, and why am I recommending DoomRL as a free game you should totally try?

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The argument over which features a game must contain in order to be officially considered a roguelike is a matter of surprising controversy.  It’s a genre born in an indie scene long before most people knew what a computer is, and there have been very few roguelikes that were released as a commercial product.  Most are the work of hobbyists, computer whizzes who are fond of number generators, and as such the vast majority of these games are free.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll keep the definition somewhat simple while still trying to give you a flavour of this curious subgenre.  The term ‘roguelike’ generally describes “any game that resembles Rogue“, a game developed in 1980 to be played on primitive UNIX terminals.  The gameplay resembled an action board game of sorts, turn-based (each action counting as a single turn), with the dice rolls and calculations being handled by the computer.  You play a single character who ventures down increasingly difficult levels of a dungeon, encountering enemies and power-ups.  Your success is largely determined by how well you can plan ahead, and your knowledge of what works and what doesn’t – much like a board game.  Perhaps most importantly, once your character dies, that’s it: you must start again from the beginning, a mechanic known as ‘permadeath’.

Since they couldn’t render what we would now describe as graphics, the game world was represented using letters, numbers, punctuation and simple blocks of colour.  In short, Rogue looked like this:

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Thankfully, even for this most perennial genre, things do move on.  Gameplay mechanics have been changed slightly over time, even as the core essence of the roguelike remains hard-to-define.  You can now play DoomRL, which looks like this:

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Not exactly Avatar, but it’ll do.

Based on the infamous and wildly popular 90s first-person shooter Doom, DoomRL puts you in the shoes of a nameless marine on the Mars moon Phobos who witnesses the opening of a portal to Hell and must survive the onslaught of demons.

The game contains all the hallmarks of the genre – loads of keyboard commands to learn, constantly increasing difficulty, permadeath – but has a very fast-paced, modern feel that allows it to be dipped in and out of at leisure.  It’s been described as a ‘coffee break roguelike’, and while it may seem intimidating to the newcomer, it’s still a good introduction to the genre.

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You’ll never play anything quite like a roguelike, and DoomRL is a solid choice for your first if you bear in mind that it’ll require a bit of effort on your part.  I recommend it not for its entertainment value (though it’s still a very fun and involving game), but because playing a roguelike is like playing a very strange, very niche part of gaming history.  Though it’s based on a somewhat-modern IP and is far more user-friendly than the games they played on those old terminals, the gameplay itself hasn’t changed a great deal.  Yet, somehow, it remains as compelling as it was 30 years ago.

DoomRL is available as a free download for PC, Mac and Linux.  Sadly, the Mac installation is a little fiddly, but hey, if you’re going to learn how to play a roguelike, you might as well go the whole hog and learn how to use the Mac Terminal.

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