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VICE vs Video games

Playing the Holy Trinity of Video Gaming’s Roguelike Resurgence

Hardcore and each distinct within their field, today's randomly generated games are thrilling experiences.

Art for The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

As I sat there in my decade-old Slazenger tracksuit bottoms, idly fingering a sweaty roll of chocolate digestives, at the mercy of a full-blown Destiny addiction and floating around the surface of the Moon looking for my 156,234th cache of helium filaments, I wondered again where it all went wrong.

Was it that I needed a pair of tracksuit bottoms without holes in, or pockets that hadn't perished?

Was I feeling nauseated by the copious amounts of crumbling, calorie-laden foodstuffs I'd ingested that afternoon?

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Or was I crying out for something different? A game experience that didn't force me to grind the same old fucking spaces over and over again just for the sake of collecting a few more arbitrary materials to raise my Light level by a couple of centimetres so I could equip another bland-looking and ultimately meaningless piece of vanity armour? That didn't force me to wait behind waist-high cobblestone walls while a red flashing mist gradually disappears from the edges of the screen before emerging again? That didn't make me watch dewy-eyed as I inevitably end up bottom of the leaderboard again after being final-smashed into oblivion for the twentieth time in a row?

Admittedly, it was all of these things and much, much more.

However. The despair of familiarity and ennui was short-lived, because it was around this time that I was introduced to Edmund "Super Meat Boy" McMillen's sublimely scatological roguelike title, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.

And a whole new world of video-game chaos opened up before my eyes.

A screen from The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

A cartoonish and depraved reimagining of the Bible story, Rebirth tells the tale of a baby whose god-fearing mum goes all batshit and tries to sacrifice him. Short story short, it's a pick-up-and-play dungeon crawler with pills, poop, piss, putrescence, bosses, botflies and blasphemy. Smash TV with Satan and little sweetcorn-flecked piles of shit, if you will.

Gameplay wise, first time round it all seems like fairly familiar stuff – the top-down view won't make strangers of anyone who's lived and loved old Zelda, the twin-stick control scheme will make players of Geometry Wars and Dead Nation feel instantly at home, and there's no love or imagination lost on the 16-bit visual stylings. Soon though, the remake of 2011's The Binding of Isaac will make your head spin faster than the rickety old sizzler twist at Bedford funfair.

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Brilliantly, there's only one instance where the game holds your hand, and it's scrawled crudely on the floor in the first room: move, attack, bomb, item (see above). From there, you're on your own. You'll go from room to room collecting items and power ups, the effects of which you'll largely be completely ignorant, until you collapse, die, and wonder what the fuck just happened.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, release date trailer

Start the game again, and you'll be surprised to find that everything's changed: the layouts, enemies, bosses and power ups. All of this essentially means that no two runs of Rebirth are the same. In fact, with over four billion of the game's eight-digit seeds to play through, four hundred items to collect and any number of ways to synergise them, it's more than likely that you'll see something fresh every time you play.

I've had runs where I've been able to vomit explosive green blobs, runs where I've been able to telekinetically control my projectiles from the other side of the room, runs where I can fly, runs where I've transformed into a hovering dead cat, runs where I've been able to fire a room-clearing foot wide laser beam, runs where I've picked up a throwing knife that can one-shot bosses, runs where I've made it all the way to the stunning boss fight with Mega Satan, and runs where I've not even made it past the first floor. I know that when I next press "new run" on the game's title screen (tonight, probably) I am more or less guaranteed to be surprised.

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Like the first taste of that pack of digestives, immediately I wanted more. And, as fate would have it, the roguelike genre's having a resurgence at the moment. And so it was that I stumbled for the first time from the shit-smeared inferno of Rebirth into the comparatively cheerful caves of Derek Yu's Spelunky.

A screen from Spelunky

Spelunky's a side-scrolling, cave-dwelling platformer that has a trouser-bulging hard-on for the Mega Drive era, if that tinny, farty, admittedly fantastic soundtrack is anything to go by. And it likes to make you die, as you'll discover if you're patient enough to persevere through the lengthy tutorial.

Put simply, If you're one of those people who could never pass the later levels on Super Mario Bros. 3 because you never mastered the thumb-sliding fine art of holding the sprint button at all times, Spelunky's unlikely to take up anymore of your precious time, because this is a game that takes serious skill. Be prepared to fall into spikes, get bitten by spiders, shot by arrow traps, experience pelvis-shattering drops, and get eaten by piranhas. Over and over and over again.

Once you've learnt to play by its rules you can start trying to make your way through the game, and there are caves, jungles and igloos and more to explore for those who have the necessary skills. You'll need to make your way through four stages of each environment before progressing to the next, and each poses its own set of environmental and enemy based problems.

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Spelunky trailer (2012)

Like Isaac, each run's different. Excavating for precious gems can make your life easier, as these can be exchanged for a handful of lucky-dip items and power-ups in the game's shop, if RNJesus deems you worthy enough for one to appear. You're given the same basic set of equipment – ropes, five hearts and some bombs – but other than that, it's up to the game to decide your fate. As such, you can never really prepare much, and I think that's where the thrill of these games lies. You never know what's lying in wait, and your only choice is to problem solve on the fly. It's slippery, it's cruel and it's maddeningly compulsive.

Slashing the finish-line tape with a gleaming pixel-art sword, and completing the roguelike resurgence trifecta, is Cellar Door Games' Rogue Legacy. Arguably the more conventional of the three games covered here, Legacy treads the territory with a genuinely surprising twist.

A screen from Rogue Legacy

Yes it looks just like Symphony of the Ghosts 'n Ghouls n' Goblins. And yes, it plays more than a little like it, too. But just you wait.

The aim of the game? Explore a castle and kill five bosses. Gather gold and collect blueprints to level up your armour, health, perks and so on. Die and technically you're dead forever, but your heirs survive, and they each have different strengths and traits, ranging from colour blindness to gigantism.

Rogue Legacy, launch trailer

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So here, not only are the castle and its creatures randomly generated, but you are too. Will you pick the gigantic knight with glaucoma, or the speedier dwarf who sees everything upside down? The heir system adds another layer of choice, challenge and surprise in what would otherwise be a fairly conventional dungeon crawler.

Each heir passes on their treasures to the next, so after a few hours of play you'll probably be powerful enough to meaningfully tackle the first boss, and it's out of the castle and into the next area. It's got a soundtrack that's gagging to be Googled, just the right level of post-Xbox Live Arcade smarm and self-awareness, RPG mechanics that come straight out of Castlevania and a shatteringly weighty feel to the swordplay. Pick it up when it's free on PS Plus this month, and put it down at your fucking peril.

A screen from Rogue (1980)

In 1980 there was Rogue, and in 2015 we have roguelikes. Games in which the central challenge and gravity-defying draw comes from being unprepared for the worst and off our guard, spoilt rotten by waypoints, samey formulas and the soullessness of the triple-A title. These are worlds that genuinely keep on giving, digital pillars of the idea that we get out what we put in. They're experiences that contain genuine exploration and intrigue, where the drive to see more becomes the reason to oh-go-on-one-more-go-then, even at two in the morning.

And as odes to a bygone era, there are not many people without the proficiency to pick up and play them – the question is how far can they go. Judging by the colour of my skin and the bags under my eyes this rainy Sunday morning, you can go pretty damn far.

So if you happen to catch yourself Sparrowing around Venus looking for that piece of Spirit Bloom, whacking generic zombie #477 around the head with generic melee weapon #122, or navigating to a fetch quest waypoint on a bland, fiddly mini-map, don't just reach for another choccy digestive with a melancholy sadness behind the eyes. Join the unpredictable, beautiful pandemonium of the roguelike resurgence.

@jonothonbeech