There was a time, before the Internet was public, when you could buy Rogue, and I bought it. That time was 1986. At that point I had my Tandy 1000 and very few games for it. I’d gone from the color and graphics of the Commodore 64 to monochrome EGA (or maybe even just CGA) and though it was technically a “better” computer, I was feeling the loss. Loss was a theme of 1986.
Along came Rogue, though. Marketed by Epyx, this took all the excitement of dungeon questing and distilled it down to its essence. You, in a maze-like dungeon, fighting monsters and gaining loot, trying to survive. I think everyone here knows the term “roguelike”; this was as roguelike as it got. The game had already bewitched college students on mainframes everywhere; now it was invading homes. I was enthralled by it.
At first. But here’s the thing about Rogue: it’s really goddamn hard. While it’s true that not knowing in advance what scrolls and potions do, or whether items are cursed, or if moving a certain boulder will trap you forever add to the mystery and excitement of the genre, they’re also incredibly frustrating to a new player. You have no guide, no hints, not much to go on, and you will die quickly and often. Over and over. Often having little idea what killed you, or any way to have prevented it. And that’s assuming you don’t just starve to death because maybe not enough food randomly dropped. Sometimes the stars will align and you’ll luck into drops that let you get further than ever before, at which point you’re slaughtered by monsters who have now leveled up way faster than you have. Oh well, that’s Rogue.
You eventually pick up on ways to extend your Hobbesian life, if only by another level or two, but the process is slow and punctuated by a thousand deaths. Your character will die many times, but so will your hope. If you’re me, who isn’t particularly good at games and doesn’t have a lot of patience, you will get tired of it long before you get better at it.
Though not completely. I would go through periodic resurgences of interest, in Rogue and in games that it inspired. I’ve briefly done the Hack thing several times, and tried a few others as well. Later on the PC I’d play Telengard (it’s possible I played this on the C64 as well; I don’t remember) which was practically the same thing only with a different interface. Today on the iPad and in the indie games market, “roguelike” and “procedural” are common buzzwords and hard to avoid. Just recently I purchased Rogue Legacy for the PS4, and I die a whole lot in it.
Like the Velvet Underground or The Stooges in music, Rogue influenced a lot of games I like more than the original, though I respect it. I still have the itch, but it seems that making these games easier is not a priority; the frustrating difficulty is, by now, seen as a feature that defines the genre, rather than a hindrance. Or maybe I’m just still terrible at them.