Released in: 1980
Available Platforms: Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari 8-bit, Atari ST, Commodore 64, DOS, Macintosh, TOPS-20, TRS-80 CoCo, Unix, ZX Spectrum
Price: Free (Public-domain)
Published by: Epyx (Non-Unix versions) Developed by: A.I. Design (Non-Unix versions)
The idea of the roguelike genre is an interesting one. Giving the player only one chance to beat your game from start to finish, booting them to the beginning of the game if they die, is a bold idea. Back in 1980, Rogue hit the scene as a freely distributed software for almost every kind of computer at the time. While still not the first roguelike, Rogue’s influence across the video game landscape is well known. My video game history-loving self decided to find Rogue and give the 1983 IBM PC version a try. Is the roguelike namesake worth playing today?
The player takes control of the brave Rogue in search of the mystical Amulet of Yendor. To find it, the player must navigate the Dungeons of Doom, avoiding traps, defeating enemies, and finding treasure. Rogue’s story is strangely gripping. It plays like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. For a game with such a simple story, it sets my imagination aflutter.
Rogue’s ASCII based graphics are charming. Green dots represent empty tiles. Arrows indicate that the object is a weapon. Upside down exclamation marks denote potions, rectangles with a dot are armor, etc. The most hilarious to me are the enemies, which appear as letters. Players who can’t get past the rudimentary graphics will find them silly. When I play Rogue, though, I’m so engrossed in the game that I find myself excited at the tiny “o” that could be an incredibly helpful ring.
Rogue is a “Dungeon crawler”: a genre of game where the player navigates a dungeon to find treasure. Players use the arrow keys to navigate the Dungeons of Doom in search of food, better gear, etc. The rooms only reveal themselves if the player has discovered it. If the room is dark, the dots will only appear near the player, meaning anything can pop up from the dark. After the player explores a room, it will remain on the screen until the player reaches the stairs, or they die. Speaking of death, if the player is familiar with “roguelikes,” they will know that if they die, they will start at the beginning of the game. Unlike modern roguelikes, though, Rogue does not have anything the player can use in future runs. If the player dies, that’s it. While it is true that this raises the stakes of the game considerably, it also makes me feel that every attempt at finding the Amulet of Yendor is a learning process. I always think “just one more time” when dying in Rogue.
Rogue has a lot of levels to explore before the player reaches the Amulet of Yendor. Luckily, Rogue has a save feature. The save feature allows players to save an instance of their adventure. If the player dies, however, their save data will be deleted. I find the save feature is perfect for when the player has to put their current adventure on hold. The fact that Rogue also erases the save file after the player’s death is smart for 1980. (It is worth noting that the myabandonware.com version of Rogue is shaky with its .sav file if the player decides to shut off its emulator).
One aspect that players need to get used to if they wish to stand a chance in the Dungeons of Doom is the controls. By pressing the “?” key, Rogue gives the player a list of possible commands. If the player is familiar with PC games of old, this is nothing new. For those who are unaware of how old PC games play, they will need a walkthrough. There are a lot of actions that the player can take in Rogue, and most of them are not very intuitive. As an example: I had reached a floor with no visible exit. I was all out of ideas, and my character was getting hungry. I did some research online and found out that there is a pivotal search action that the player can do by pressing the “s” key. Searching also increases hunger. I finally found the mandatory secret exit, but it was already too late. I died of starvation. While the controls are not bad by any means, it is worth keeping in mind that they need acclamation.
Another tiny nitpick I have about Rogue is that it is entirely devoid of sound. It has no music or sound effects. When playing Rogue, I always had a video playing in the background. I do understand that making music for games was extremely difficult back in 1980, but I would still recommend the player have a playlist of their favorite songs playing in the background.
When exploring the Dungeons of Doom, the player will often come across gold. Since I am used to modern role-playing games, I assumed that Rogue has a shop that accepts my gold. Sadly, there is no purpose for gold other than getting a high score. While back in the day, high scores were a big deal, today, they seldom offer a sense of accomplishment.
When the player finds loot (armor, weapons, potions, and rings), it will give no information on what stats the weapon or armor offers. Rogue also hides the effects of acquired potions and rings. The only way for the player to find out what they do is by quaffing the potion, by wearing the armor or ring, wielding the weapon in question, or using an identify scroll to reveal the effects of the item. What’s more, the scroll’s effects are also hidden from the player, meaning the only way for them to find out what the scroll does is by reading it. Using an item blindly is risky. Weapons, armor, and rings could have adverse effects. In theory, the player could remove these items, but they also have a chance of being cursed. Here is a tip: the player CANNOT REMOVE CURSED ITEMS! If the ring causes blindness and is cursed, the player is now in a permanent state of guessing where they need to go. Items can also offer benefits, so they are crucial for finding the Amulet of Yendor. The existence of cursed objects and identify scrolls adds another level of challenge to an already formidable game. I like this kind of surprise, but I do understand that some players might feel cheated if they aren’t privy to this info.
The criticisms mentioned above are what makes Rogue such a charming game. The sense of adventure, the promise of exciting loot, the formidable challenge of reaching the end, and the adorably retro PC graphics make Rogue a fascinating blast from the past. Rogue is an easy recommendation for those who are curious about this influential gem of gaming history.