Roguelikes are a class of computer game imaginatively titled because they are like Rogue. Rogue, released in 1980, was a dungeon crawler with an excuse plot---enter dungeon, find magic item (the Amulet of Yendor) and return without dying. The game was very popular for its time, likely in part due to its user interface: while most similar games of the time where text-based, Rogue had primitive graphics:
You, the player, are represented by the @. (Image source: wikipedia, released under the Creative Commons 3.0 license.)
It wasn't long before people were reverse engineering their own versions of Rogue, as everyone seemed to have an idea about how to improve the game: new monsters, new items, new options... And thirty years later, that's still going on.
I'll talk more about some specific roguelikes in a later post; there are lots out there, and I play a good chunk of them. But in general, these games have the following characteristics in common:
- They are dungeon crawlers; you are a hero in some type of fantasy (usually) setting, and you must go kill things/find loot/complete quests/whatever.
- The gameplay is turn based. Indeed, the key moment for me was when I realised that these games are turn-based strategy games masquerading as rpgs, and most of my stupid deaths come when I forget this and act to quickly.
- They are hard. The iconic game message is "You die." Roguelikes operate on one life, death is final. Sure, you can copy your save files to get around this, and some games won't even try to stop you. But the difficulty is a lot of the appeal, and cheating like this rather misses the point.
- The graphics is very simple. Most roguelikes can be played with ascii symbols just as in Rogue, though many also offer some tile sets to aid visibility. This also makes these games ideal for me; I play them on my netbook on the commute in and out of work.
- They are free; you can't persuade people to pay money for these types of games any more.
- They are deep; thirty years of development leads to a lot of features, items, monsters, skills, actions and so forth. Granted, that's thirty years of amateur development by people working in their spare time, but since they haven't been wasting time developing graphics or other fripperies it's all gone to the gameplay. The most extreme case is perhaps Angband, which I'll talk about next week; the oldest known variants date to 1993, and it's still in active development.
If you're looking for some immersive experience with cutting edge graphics and sound, this isn't the place. But for something a little different that you can dip in and out of, that has little to no hardware demands and that offers a challenge, Roguelikes are ideal.
 Some exaggeration may apply.
 Or possibly, "It breathes. You die.", for when you get killed by something you didn't even see.