The Legacy of Rogue

The Legacy of Rogue

Rogue (which can be played for free in browser HERE) is one of the most early and influential games ever released, with a far-reaching legacy that has surpassed even the games’ original and long lasting appeal. Sometimes known as Rogue: Exploring the Dungeons of Doom, it is an early example of a Dungeon Crawl, developed initially by Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman for Unix-based mainframe systems in 1980. Freely distributed and therefore existing in the public domain, it was later included in the official Berkeley Software Distribution suite (4.2BSD) before commercial ports of the game began to appear that were developed by Toy, Wichman and Jon Lane, operating as ‘A.I. Design’ with support from Epyx Software acting as a publisher. As the game’s source code is now considered open-source, more modern ports have been developed by third parties.


In Rogue, players control a lone character as they explore several levels of a dungeon in a grid-based, turn-based manner, seeking the ‘Amulet of Yendor’ which is always located at the dungeon’s lowest level. The game becomes progressively harder as they descend, grab the amulet and then have to crawl back up to the entrance to win. The player must defeat an array of monsters that roam the dungeon, collecting loot that can help them either offensively or defensively, and increase their chance of survival through careful decision making. Whilst the player can take advantage of weapons, armour, potions, scrolls and magical artifacts, the game features permadeath as a powerful design choice that couples with randomly generated dungeon layouts to create a very different experience on each playthrough despite the game always having the same goals. These procedurally generated dungeons are a huge part of the game’s popularity and where its legacy can most clearly be seen moving forward.

Inspired by text-based computer games of the period (such as ‘Colossal Cave Adventure’, released in 1976 or ‘Star Trek’ in 1971), alongside a heavy pinch of ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ first edition, used to inform its fantasy setting. Initially the pairing of Toy and Wichman planned to produce a text-heavy adventure when they were students at the University of California Santa Cruz, but instead the slow progression toward randomly generated levels after interacting with fellow student Ken Arnold (who was lead developer of the ‘Curses’ programming library) led them to incorporate the use of ASCII for graphical elements. This produced the iconic @ character figure that has become synonymous with RogueLikes, as well as the use of . and – to dictate individual spaces, building a cohesive maps that function perfectly to this day. Monsters are represented by capital letters, whilst items are usually lower case. Later ports would add additional graphical flourishes such as a title screen, and the modding community would later graft visuals to compliment the ASCII used.

Legacy of Rogue

Rogue was massively popular in the 1980s amongst college students and computer users (thanks in part to its inclusion in 4.2BSD) and inspired programmers to develop a number of similar titles such as ‘Hack’ in 1982 and ‘Moria’ in 1983. Though as the devs had not released the source code at that time, these games introduced variations to the formula of Rogue, beginning a pyramid of subsequent releases, ports and new games all owing Rogue for their source of inspiration. This triggered the coining of the sub-genre ‘RogueLike’, literally meaning ‘games like rogue’, and usually attributing high difficulty level, permadeath and procedurally generated dungeons as well as graphical interfaces (such as ASCII or more visually graphical sprites/model work in later iterations).

In 1981 an automated system named Rog-O-Matic was developed to play and win Rogue, developed by four graduates from the Computer Science Department at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh named Andrew Appel, Leonard Harney, Guy Jacobson and Michael Loren Mauldin. They stated that “In a test during a three-week period in 1983, Rog-O-Matic had a higher median score than any of the 15 top Rogue players at the Carnegie-Mellon University and, at the University of Texas at Austin, found the Amulet of Yendor in a passageway on the 26th level, continued on to the surface and emerged into the light of day.” In response Ken Arnold said that he liked to make “sure that every subsequent version of rogue had a new feature in it that broke Rogue-O-Matic.” Nevertheless, it remains a noted study in expert system design and led to the development of other game-playing programs, typically called “bots”. Some of these bots target other roguelikes, in particular ‘Angband’ (a free single player RogueLike available to download HERE

To this day there is still a massive following of the original game and RogueLikes have maintained a popularity in the developer community. The yearly games competition 7 Day RogueLike has proved massively influential on the indie development scene, and across the past 15 consequtive years it has steadily gained participants (#7DRL 2020 had 168 completed entries). Dedicated forums, twitter accounts, podcasts and more are constantly updated with new information and games in this style. The more recent sub-genre of the RogueLite, which embraces some but not all rules of a RogueLike (usually featuring a form of permanent progression even if character death is featured) has proven extremely popular on consoles and mobile devices, whilst the challenge of RogueLikes has come back into mainstream Vogue after the success of Dark Souls in 2011 popularized games with a steep difficulty curve. Still, a dedicated userbase and continual interest in Rogue led to Toy, Wichman, and Arnold reunited onstage for the first time in 30 years at an event called “Roguelike Celebration” at San Francisco in 2016.

Examples of RogueLike/RogueLites reviewed on MBU