Spelunkey and how it changed what it meant to be Roguelike
The term roguelike has certainly gone through quite a bit of change over the years. Initially, it was used to describe a subgenre of games that were similar to 1980's Rogue, a grid-based ASCII dungeon-crawler. What made Rogue different from other dungeon-crawlers of the time, was that all the levels in a run were procedurally generated and death was permanent, meaning if you died at any point you would need to start over. This was something very unique at the time and made for a unique and different experience every time the player would decide to go for a run in the dungeon. Many other dungeon crawlers would implement these systems such as Nethack and Anghand. This subgenre of dungeon crawlers would be called, perhaps not very creatively, roguelikes.
Fast forward about 30 years and the name roguelike no longer refers to that specific subgenre of dungeon crawlers. Now roguelike is a term given to any game that has the two key elements that made Rogue unique, those being the permadeath and procedural generation of the levels. A lot of these newer roguelikes play nothing like a dungeon crawler. These games that took the permadeath and procedural generation from Rogue while being in a completely different genre would come to be classified as roguelites but there is still plenty of overlap between the similar sounding genres.
So what happened exactly? What caused this relatively niche subgenre of dungeon crawlers to suddenly become prolific and varied in their design that we now have multiple classifications for them.
The answer to this is a little game you’ve probably played, Spelunky.
As I mentioned earlier, Rogue was a grid-based dungeon crawler and the term roguelike came into use because the games that fell under it were “like rogue”. In fact, to determine how roguelike a game was a list of high and low value factors was produced. In addition to permadeath and procedural generation some of the other factors on this list include things like being turn-based, grid-based, or involving resource management. As a result of this list of high and low value factors, and the subgenre being a bit niche, most of the games that were produced in this genre were usually some kind of grid based dungeon crawler. As a result there wasn’t a whole lot of diversity in the way these games played, however that would all change with Spelunky.
Spelunky released at the end of 2008 and boy did it make a splash. At its core, the game is a tough-as-nails 2D platformer where the player must progress through a series of randomly generated levels where if they die they must start over from the beginning. It’s a 2D platformer with the two most vital elements of the roguelike genre at the time. The game was released as freeware for Windows at the time and would develop a small following resulting in a more polished remake in 2012.
On its own Spelunky is a remarkably well done platformer. Given that the levels are procedurally generated, it plays remarkably well with levels always able to be finished, even if some require significantly more skill than others. The game captures both elements and shows how they are useful with the threat of permadeath creating intense moments and procedural generation creating countless different experiences. The impact the game had on the gaming landscape is something that shouldn’t be understated. In addition to showing how elements can be adapted from one genre to another, Spelunky also would be a lot of people’s first introduction to the subgenre.
Spelunky is one of the most important games in the proliferation of roguelikes. It not only took the most important elements of the subgenre and successfully applied them to 2D platformer, but it also introduced the roguelike to a much larger audience. Spelunky had shown that roguelikes could be more than dungeon crawlers, which in turn lead to the creation of a plethora games in this genre ranging from shooters, to turn-based card games, to even rhythm games.
While maybe not the first foray into this subgenre for most people nowadays, for many people Spelunky is a game that shows how elements can be adapted from one genre to another to create unique experiences while also introducing them to the roguelike subgenre.