Going Rogue Like

Tales From The Dork Web #7

Steve Lord

A whole subculture of computer Role Playing Games is out there on The Dork Web. These games don't need high end graphics cards. In fact the graphics are often downright crude. What they lose in graphics they make up for in gameplay and depth. For those who've never tried Roguelike games I'll show you where to start. If like me, you've played a few, there's a few games here you might want to try.

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For this post I thought I’d suggest some Brian Eno as background music. An Ending (Ascent) comes from Eno’s soundtrack to NASA’s Documentary For All Mankind. Roguelikes tend to be poor graphically. To compensate, I thought I’d share utopian crystal structures from the mind of German Expressionist artist Wenzel Hablik. Hope you like it.

Where we're going, we don't need GPUs

The term ‘Roguelike’ is used as a catchall term for games that share aspects with an RPG game called Rogue. You might think that the game Rogue was the first Roguelike. This isn't strictly true. The name stuck during Usenet discussions on games like NetHack, Rogue, and Angband. The definition of roguelike was officially set at a 2008 Conference in Berlin. Of course not everyone agrees. The Rogue Temple discusses the term's history in depth.

Depending on your interpretation, the first Roguelike was Don Worth's Beneath Apple Manor for the Apple II published in 1978. Read the fine manual before you try it out in a browser. For most people, the first Roguelike was 1980's Rogue. It's an interesting museum piece to play but lacks mechanics present in later games. If you want to play it, don't forget the manual and hints + tips doc.

Some roguelikes out there have proper graphics. Some are ASCII-only. Some are labours of love, while some are knocked out in 7 days. The Rogue Temple forum is probably the best online discussion community for Roguelikes. The Rogue Basin is a huge wiki dedicated to them. There are thousands of worlds waiting for you to explore.

Although many are of the hack and slash variety, Roguelikes aren't limited to dungeon crawling. There are Sci-Fi roguelikes such as Allure Of The Stars, Cogmind and the brutal Sword of the Stars. It being the Internet, erotic roguelikes are a thing. The extremely NSFW Trap Quest is meant to beat the player while the player enjoys it. Some games such as Firetail, Hack of Life and Fatherhood stray far from the usual hack and slash dungeon crawler into uncharted territory.

Fatherhood in particular does away with combat in favour of saving an ecosystem while trying to maintain a relationship with your children.

A Rogue(like)'s Gallery

LitRPGReads has an (almost) full breakdown of the major roguelikes, but I thought I'd share some of the roguelikes I've enjoyed playing over the years. Start with Zangband, work your way up to Nethack and figure out what works and what doesn’t for you.

Zangband is my personal roguelike of choice. It's based on Angband, which in turn is based on an 80s game called Moria. Angband and Moria are based in Middle Earth, while Zangband is based on the world of the Chronicles of Amber. I've found Zangband (and particularly ZangbandTK) more accessible as a beginner roguelike than NetHack. If you’ve never played a roguelike, start with Zangband on a wet Sunday afternoon, then progress to NetHack.

There's very little I can say that hasn't been written about NetHack beyond the idea that it's to dungeon crawling as EMACS is to text editing. Yes, there’s even a NetHack Emacs mode. NetHack is not an immediate game to get into, but it's intensely rewarding if you persevere. Follow the guidebook, check out the wiki and keep at it.

NetHack is turn-based. You don't need to rush. You don't need to complete it in one session. I run my games on a Raspberry Pi via tmux. Whenever I have a complex task with regular downtime (e.g. I'm compiling, building releases etc) I dip in and out during breaks. Take your time, persevere, save regularly and eventually you’ll ascend.

Daniel Lawrence's Telengard is an all-time classic game that was released on lots of platforms. For me, the C64 version is the best (closely followed by DDI Telengard for the C64 that adds new features). It's a fairly standard hack and slash dungeon crawler with no quests or extras. What it does, it does well but don't forget the manual. Daniel's site is also worth a look.

DRL is a roguelike based loosely on the Doom game series. It was called DoomRL until Doom's owners issued a cease and desist. The game wraps all the fun of doom into an almost Turn-based Alien Breed type experience. Well worth a try.

Sci-Fi lovers might enjoy Julian Gollop's (yes, of X-Com) Rebelstar 2 for the ZX Spectrum. Whether or not it's a genuine roguelike is questionable, but I loved this game growing up. What isn't questionable is the excellent Aliens-inspired gameplay. Read the manual and stay frosty. Also of note by the same author is Lords of Chaos.

There are many more Roguelikes out there, but these are some of the ones that I've liked the most. Notable omissions include Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, Tales of Maj'Eyal and Dwarf Fortress. I’ve nothing personal against these or others, just that I only have so much space to write.

Things You Might’ve Missed

If you enjoy playing the odd roguelike, how about writing one? The 7 Day Rogue Like challenge is both a hub for games created under it, and the NaNoWriMo of Roguelike game dev.

Most classic roguelikes look like they’re made from bricks like some kind of 80s minecraft. The Backsteinexpressionismus architectural movement may be as close as we get to this in the real world. Peter Behren’s Hoescht AG building in Frankfurt is probably one of the better examples, photographed above by KP Hoppe.

If you’ve ever played Fortnite or Unreal, it owes it’s existence partly to top-down adventure game/engine ZZT. The source code was lost years ago, but Adrian Siekerka published a reverse engineered version that when built matches the original.

Annie Forsman-Adams and Kate Ringland wrote this beautiful piece about Dwarf Fortress, Annie’s relationship with Zach, one of the creators and their struggles with managing Zach’s mental health.

Shonumi built a Game Boy Printer emulator and wrote up some in-depth notes on reversing it along the way. Ghidra Ninja walks through cracking Nintendo Game Boy cartridge protection with an FPGA. If that wasn’t enough, Vazgames has an amazing deep dive into the PS2’s hardware, architecture and graphics processing.

Arcade Hacker writes about deconstructing Sega’s Arcade machine chip protection mechanisms. This reminded me about Modern Vintage Gamer’s video on Capcom’s CPS2 protections. Bose published a great in-depth investigation report into issues with their noise cancelling headphones. The Amiga’s not dead, nor is it sleeping.

It’s the Sinclair ZX Spectrum’s 38th Birthday! OzRetroComp took some video from his party. If you only watch one 8-bit computing history TV movie today, make it Micro Men. If you’re familiar with the story, think about sitting down with Chris Curry, Steve Furber and Hermann Hauser for their takes as they watch it.

Giongto35 built a WebRTC-based Open Source Cloud Gaming Service for retro gaming. It has some great features like crowdplay multiplayer, and works on mobile. There’s a full write-up here.

Julian Lehr wrote a fascinating essay about social signaling. Sash pointed me at this complete robotic spider build walkthrough. Tempting to see if I can scale this up to the full-sized spider tank I always wanted. I’m not sure what social signal that’d send!

The Risky Business podcast are running their own newsletter with a weekly round-up of what’s happened in cybersecurity.

To play us out, here’s Gaujart’s Latvian pop-rock. It’s pretty catchy stuff about missing loved ones in unfinished poems.

In times like these I often draw on the wisdom of the Rumi. Instead I thought I’d end this issue with a quote from Hobbit philosopher Samwise Gamgee:

“But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue. In two weeks I’ll be back with the twisted story of how Sega ended up with two completely different Dune games at the same time, and some of the music inspired by Dune. If you’ve enjoyed the links in this issue, please do share it with those who might like it. If you’re not subscribed, but you want to get Tales From The Dork Web in your inbox, just use the form below.