On the first networked, Unix-based computers, your gaming options were severely limited. You could play the Colossal Cave Adventure, a text adventure game (one of those text-based ones with a parser that accepts commands like “go north”, or “throw stone at ogre” or “examine your navel”); simplistic AI-based games like a chess game where you’d have to play a physical board, enter your move in chess notation, and the AI would give you its move in chess notation in return; quiz games of all stripes; or maybe even a Star Trek based game (which I remember playing on my Tandy 1000 EX, my first computer, and is admittedly pretty fun as a strategy game). In 1980, though, the first graphically represented, heavily D&D-influenced RPG came into the picture and completely blew the rest of the RPGs at the time, out of the water.
Of course, by graphically represented, I mean it used ASCII characters used to display text on the console to represent the player, the dungeon, items and monsters. Turn by turn, you’d move an @ symbol one space at a time — and for every space you move, the monsters on each floor of the randomly generated dungeon if they are awake and roaming, or know where you are, would either wander aimlessly or come after you with relentless tenacity respectively, hoping to put an end to your spelunking career. Meanwhile, you ran around grabbing everything that wasn’t nailed down, like gold for points so you could get on the high score list, or weapons, scrolls and potions to make killing these ne’er-do-wells easier (thus facilitating your staying alive to get more gold).
The below example was stolen directly from the Wikipedia article on Roguelikes:
Jeez! Look out for that Dragon, it’s just one step away! My advice: ready some kind of weapon with ice properties this turn, so you can hit it by walking into it on the next. Stopping and thinking about your actions, and especially retreating when necessary, pays off in this kind of game, whereas being a meathead and grinding through the enemies will only earn you your gravestone screen and a probably-low spot on the high score board.
Now, the earliest versions of Rogue didn’t have color, because the terminals you were playing on were limited to green or amber on black (and maybe, if you were lucky, a few shades thereof), so you couldn’t tell what kind of Dragon that was until it started gnawing your f@ce off. Newer games emulated and expanded on the genre that Rogue started, porting it to new systems and making use of extended ASCII unicode “graphics” (e.g. NetHack), adding color when monitors and video cards were capable of it, adding shops to make use of the otherwise useless point system that gold was in its original incarnation, adding a town, or multiple towns, an overworld, quests, events, and Tolkien or Zelazny references, one of the Tolkien based adaptations even going so far as to create the entirety of Middle Earth.
Once computer UI’s got graphical, you’d think that would be the death knell for roguelikes, but the old games got facelifts, with specialized ports that include tilesets, isometric graphics, and once computers were capable of such things, even took away the turn-by-turn nature of the game. You’ve probably played this particular example — it’s called Diablo.
Roguelikes aren’t limited to computers though. If you have a Wii, you have a number of options for dungeon-diving, like getting Baroque or Chocobo’s Dungeon, or you could use the Bannerbomb executable loader (basically, a memory overflow hack that may be patched against in future Wii upgrades, so if you want to do this, do it now). Then you can install the Homebrew Channel and Homebrew Browser, so you can download and play the several Roguelikes that have been ported, including POWDER and Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup.
Though, admittedly, without a keyboard with which to issue commands with a single keystroke like ‘l’ook, ‘r’ead, ‘q’uaff (that’s actually where I learned that word!), ‘m’agic, ‘p’ray, ‘E’at, ‘e’quip, ‘^e’ngrave… the interface gets pretty cumbersome with the panoply of commands at your disposal, unless your console comes with a keyboard or a million buttons on its controller.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go grind some more — my level 5 warrior can barely survive the Barrow Downs’ second area. It’s just absolutely shameful! I’ll never recover the shards of Narsil and face Morgoth in Angband at this rate!
PS – in honour of this post, and of you reading through the whole thing, I’ve implemented an easter egg on my site. Those of you who know anything about video games and secret cheat codes (or with any minor ability to read website source code, I guess) ought to know what to do to access this easter egg.