Monday, February 15, 2010

Rogue: the most difficult CRPG I've played

The original version had even more primitive ASCII graphics. I played a 1984 update.
United States
Earliest version written for informal gameplay on Unix mainframe in 1980
Released commercially for DOS in 1984 as Rogue: The Adventure Game, published by Epyx
Later ports in 1985 for Macintosh; 1986 for Amiga, Atari ST, TRS-80 Color Computer, PC-88, and PC-98; 1988 for Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, and Atari 800
Date Started: 15 October 2009
[Edit from 13 June 2021: In these early days, I just played a game without thinking or talking much about the historical context, developers, and associated companies. Rogue was originally written by Michael Toy and fellow students at UC Santa Cruz, primarily for other students. Toy was kicked out of school for poor academic performance, but he got a job at UC Berkeley and finished development there. A few years later, Toy tried to commercialize the game by publishing a version for DOS, Macintosh, and other systems through Epyx--the version that I played. The code proved easy to copy, however, and the future of what became the "roguelike" subgenre was destined to be open-source and freely distributed. Rogue's direct descendants were Hack (1984) and NetHack (earliest version in 1988).]
Rogue was the second game I played as part of this little project, and it nearly ended the project.
Computer games can up the difficulty--and, hence, much of the excitement--based on how often they allow you to save the game. If I recall correctly, the first few editions of Might and Magic only allow you to save at inns. Every time something good happened to your party out in the world, you'd pray that you could make it back to an inn to save your progress. Ultima IV, at least for the C64, wouldn't let you save inside dungeons. I can't remember how many times I entered the Stygian Abyss only to be killed on the seventh level. Modern CRPGs, I would argue, make it far too easy. Why carefully manage your resources and spells, use a thief to scout ahead, craft a plan of battle if you can just save and reload when the battle goes ill? When playing newer games, I force myself to save only once when I enter a new map and not again until I leave. That way, if my character dies, it actually has consequences.

Well. Someone should have told me about Rogue. In all my previous CRPG playing, I had never played it or any of the "roguelike" games. Here's the key difference between Rogue and any other game you might play: permanent death. You see, while you can save your game for later play, every time you start up Rogue and choose to continue your progress, the game deletes the save file. If your character dies, he dies permanently. There's no reloading. You can't try to take on that dragon with only a mace "just to see what happens" or use an unidentified potion "just to test it." There is no testing, no trial runs, in Rogue.

Navigating the corridors of Rogue.

Okay, technically speaking, all of this is true only to the extent that you don't cheat and make backups of your save game files. But my rules include no cheating, so I didn't do that, tempted though I was.

Permanent death in some games might be a challenge, but not necessarily an impassable one. In many of them, your character is magically resurrected (albeit with less gold or experience) anyway. You just have to be careful, right? Well, permanent death wouldn't be so bad if Rogue wasn't punishingly difficult in so many other ways. Let's review some of them:

  • All the items you find are unidentified unless you have a scroll of identification or have identified a like item before. Wield an unidentified weapon, read an unidentified scroll, drink an unidentified potion and you may (in fact, usually will) find yourself cursed, paralyzed, or poisoned.
  • Monsters include aquators, which hit by hit rust your armor class down to 0; rattlesnakes, which bite by bite reduce your strength to 0 (unless you find a rare "restore strength" potion); wraiths and vampires, which sap all of your hard-earned experience points; venus flytraps, which hold you in place when you desperately, desperately need to flee; nymphs, who steal the magic items you spent hours accumulating; and medusas, which have a reasonably good chance of confusing you the moment you touch them and thus making it impossible to fight them.
  • Almost all of the rooms after Level 3 are darkened, so you never know when you're steps away from a medusa, griffin, or dragon--all of which can kill you nearly instantaneously.
  • Monsters match your pace. You can't even really run away from them. (There are some exceptions but you can't rely on them when permanent death is on the line.)
  • Monsters regenerate constantly. You can't "clear" a level. Treasures, on the other hand, do not regenerate. Once you've cleared a level of items, you have to go downwards to find more.
  • Feel like lurking about on the early, easy levels, slaying monsters just to build up experience and hit points? Sorry! You see, your character is slowly starving to death and needs constant input of food which, as in the previous point, does not regenerate. You must keep pressing downward to find food, thus encountering progressively more difficult monsters, whether you're ready or not. Oh, and if you happen to find a cool magic item like a Ring of Regeneration or a Ring of Protection, don't bother putting it on, because it just makes you consume more food!
  • You can't go backwards from difficult levels up to easy ones until you have found the Amulet of Yendor, by which time the need to go backwards has long passed.
  • Traps dog you constantly, some of them tossing you down to the next level before you've finished exploring this one. Sure, you can search for them, but you'd have to search every other square, and thus double the number of movements, and thus increase the speed by which you need your next hard-to-find meal.

Ouch. Balancing these difficulties is one "pro": your health regenerates fairly quickly. If you can survive one battle, chances are you can heal up before the next one. But, like everything in Rogue, you can't count on this.

Our intrepid hero is about to die. Again.

The end result is that although the game would probably take only a few hours to complete if you could constantly save and reload, it took me four months to complete playing it "fair." And let's be clear: for three months and 28 days of those four months, I was playing with different characters than the one that ultimately won the game. Most of the time it takes to win Rogue involves playing, dying, screaming, and restarting at Level 1.

In the next post, I'll talk about gameplay mechanics and how I finally won.


Further reading: My experience with roguelikes grows with postings on Moria, Omega, Hack, early NetHack, and NetHack 3.0.


  1. If you liked Rogue / Rogue like games, you might want to check out "Ancient Domains of Mystery" or A.D.O.M - a labor of love for the creator, who, as best as I can tell, has been working on it perpetually to this day ... a very nice adaptation and improvement on Rogue

    1. In my opinion ADOM is the best computer game.

    2. So, I'd say that when people speak of favourites, you have two kinds:

      Sentimental favourites, whereby that game has memories and associations that are special to a given individual.


      Definitive favourites, whereby an reasonable argument can be made that no other game offers a superior experience.

      I have sentimental favourites, like Curse of the Azure Bonds and Fallout. I wouldn't recommend them to any one as the best example of a particular game experience though.

      ADoM I'd call a definitive favourite. You can make a good case for it being the actual best traditional roguelike there is. I'm glad Thomas is finally gonna get a proper pay day for all his efforts when it's released on steam.

    3. That's an excellent distinction to make. I don't think a lot of readers keep it in mind when I "trash" their favorite game from 1982, as if a modern player would find it authentically fun.

    4. I have played many C64 games as a kid, then many games from amiga, mostly platform games, then came pc and fallout, warcraft, stalker, men of war, sudden strike, fallout 3 and most important oblivion. But i came back to adom many times. It is a kind of a jewel in a crown.

  2. Joe, ADOM hasn't been in active development for quite a while, although the author is working on a deluxe iPad port. I remember the game surfacing around 1996-1997, and judging by Wikipedia, ADOM's development history goes from 1994-2002.

    Anyway, it's a good game. It has more story and a rounded-out world compared to most roguelikes, although going through the same story bits over and over again after you repeatedly die can get old quick. Definitely worth playing.


  3. Good points ... I agree on both counts... the author has stalled out ... but it is probably the best of the rogue-likes... still, now that I understand this blog better, it is probably not on the CRPG's radar ... maybe when he has more time .... LOL

  4. As a harcore CRPG gamer, I just wanted to thank you for the incredible laugh I experienced CRPG addict...albeit at your expense. We've all been in that gaming scenario once in our lives.

    dying..and then screaming....priceless...

  5. Mike, I can't thank you enough. This was one of the first "real" postings of this blog, and one of the first jokes. No one else commented on it!

  6. Hi! My brother introduced me to your blog and I really like what you're doing. I started checking out a few specific games but then decided I would read through the entire blog from the beginning. While I do that, please forgive me while I leave my comments on some very old posts. I'm actually surprised at how many of these games I have played (though perhaps I should be surprised at how few there were in the 80s because that really explains why I've played so many of them).

    I can remember playing Rogue even into college in the mid-90s. I never took it seriously, it was always just something to kill some time. I thought it was cute how all the letters of the alphabet were used, and I used to joke that I felt bad for the monsters when they "missed" me ("aww... the kestrel misses you!") Of all the Rogue-like games I've played, Sword Of Fargoal was by far my favorite, and the only one I ever had the patience to play to completion.

  7. Glad you like it, Keir. I read and appreciate comments on old postings, so go to town.

    Fargoal never had a DOS release, so I didn't play it as part of this blog. I wish I hadn't set that dumb rule.

  8. I was looking forward to this all through BT1 and Akalacrap. I'd never even heard of this game or the genre of 'rogue-like,' but it sounded like fun. And I was right, this game is awesome. Who knew you could have so much fun with 98KB? I think i've been at it for a week, this game is hard, you weren't joking. I thought I was going to win today as I was on the 19th level past the aquators and rattlesnakes with 21 str, a platemail +1, a two-handed sword +2/+3 of medusa slaying, 2 hold monster staves ,a cold stave, lots of food, and some other stuff. I even killed a Griffin for the first time....then I read a teleport scroll and ended up in a giant room with no exits. A few hundred searches later I found the exit in a spot I'd searched many many times before with a line of badass monsters waiting behind it. I killed a griffin, troll, and wraith before an ur-vile one shotted me with 21 hp before my hold monster could take effect...I wanted to scream.

    People who save-cheat are lame.

    I have another game going that I'm confident in, but it will take me forever to end it, you see I found 2 ring of slow digestions and a scare monster scroll and I'm currently sitting on the 12th level repeatedly entering 9999 . then killing all the monsters around me. a few months when I'm level 20 I'll venture off and see if I can win this thing, heh. That games at home, I downloaded this at work too and there I continue to play shorter games.

    Can't wait for the future rogue-likes!

  9. I think your strategy is the only way to win: find the rings of slow digestion and then just level-grind like mad until you're strong enough to beat the monsters on the lower levels.

    I think Rogue purists have a pejorative name for save-cheaters, but I can't remember what it is.

  10. Rogue like fans call save-cheaters "Save Scummers". Scumming is a general term for cheating.

  11. Cheating or abusing the rules of the game. For example you can ladder scum to constantly generate new levels and look for items, which is not cheating but is using the system in a way not intended.

  12. I look back at these early postings and I'm almost embarrassed. Why didn't I include more screen shots?

    You can't "ladder scum" (is it "scum" or "scrum"?) in Rogue because you can't go backwards. I guess you could do it in combination with save-whatevering, but man, that would be REALLY evil.

  13. Pure nostalgia.
    I played this for a long time when i was 12 years old in my first x286 PC.
    Of course i never had a chance of winning but i found it a very nice game back then.

    I revisited it a couple of months ago but only played for some 2-3 hours before abandoning it.

    The correct term is scum.

    In ADOM it is very popular to stair-hop (stair-scum) to regenerate levels in a certain dungeon.


    ADOM should make your master list. It is great.

  14. I never played Rogue, but since I got my iphone (August 2010) I've played a handful of roguelikes that have better graphics. They're great -- GREAT -- for casual gaming. They're challenging, randomly generated, and there's almost always something new. They're so hard I can often finish a game while I'm in the bathroom, for instance. Or at least play though a level and put it down for later.

    When I have more than 10 minutes or so, I want to focus on character development, backstory, tactics (you know, roleplaying). I want a more immersive experience.

    You can say it's a failure of my imagination, but watching the little @ symbol bump into a capitol M doesn't do much for me.

  15. That's a good point. I often find myself looking forward to roguelikes for that very reason--you can play them in brief bursts of time and not feel that you're missing out on any immersion.

  16. Hybris here. I'm currently using your business-related absence to read through your postings for a second time. Man, you have come a long way - your style has improved very much!

    Regarding saving in modern CRPGS: I have quite a problem with that in Skyrim, of all things. I have not had so much fun playing a game in ages - and that might be why it suddenly irks me that the game makes it too easy for me to escape the consequences of my actions. It is just immersing enough for me that I want my actions to have meaning! A little background: I am playing a classical rogue (pun definitely intended) who, naturally, steals things. Sometimes out of people's pockets. But since the pickpocketing is not a matter of my skill as a user but of a statistically often unfavorable throw of the dice, I used savestates at first to stop guards from taking my other valuable, stolen stuff. But since yesterday I upped the stakes by vowing not to use saves when I'm thieving my way through the lands. This forced me to prepare for my thieving romps, which was kind of a mechanical way of inducing roleplaying. And it worked: suddenly the game is even more fun. I took the concept further in another direction, too; I try not to look at the map and the compass when I am out to find a specific landmark. I only look at the map once, when I set out; I memorize the best route and any other landmarks and possible obstacles on my route. And then I start adventuring. The joy of unexpectedly finding remarkable and hidden (because no compass!) places is incredible. This makes the game so much more enjoyable for me.

    Sorry for the long post, just had to share this when I read your comments on savestating.

  17. Hybris again. Just to clarify: By "Prepare for thieving" I mean stashing or selling my stolen loot first, and preparing a few potions to up my pickpocketing.

  18. Much easier to be a burglar in Skyrim than a pickpocket, isn't it?

  19. Hey! I just won a game of Rogue for the first time ever. Boy was that a challenge; my pulse shot through the roof when I picked up the Amulet of Yendor for the first time... and began actually ascending one staircase after another... it probably took me 40 or so attempts to see a victory! I'm really excited so I'm going to write a bit about the strategies one can use to win.

    Yes, Rogue is a very hard, unforgiving game. It makes NetHack look easy by comparison. Its saving grace is that an average game lasts about 20 minutes; the entire game can be successfully completed easily in under 2 hours. (Compare that to NetHack: after 2 hours, you're just getting warmed up!) It's a positive thing that Rogue makes it nearly impossible to effectively grind away for hours, safetly slaughtering hordes of non-threatening monsters for experience and booty. Also, the need to experiment with unidentified items is tremendous fun, once you get over your fear of taking risks. Games are boring when you can always play it safe.

    No, the secret to winning is not finding 2 rings of slow digestion and grinding weak monsters for endless hours. The key to victory is to run from powerful monsters whenever possible. Once you start encountering griffins on level 17, and even worse monsters down the line, fighting them directly is rarely the answer. It only gets rougher from there; at level 18 you'll find medusas. Around this time you should simply be heading downstairs as fast as possible until level 26 where the Amulet of Yendor is located. No matter how tough you think your character is, if you pick a fight with a vampire, jabberwork, griffin, dragon, or medusa you will likely not survive unless you have good magic items to back you up. Xerocs, however, are quite easy to defeat by the time you run into them (they'll surprise you though!)

    Move fast - from level one to the end, and back. Explore each room to collect treasure and slay each monster you can for experience, then move down to the next level as soon as your HP are reasonably close to max. After gaining an experience level or two, killing monsters on the floor you're currently on is nearly pointless because the experience points they provide winds up being negligible; furthermore, few monsters drop any treasure. On the other hand, deeper-level monsters will raise your experience level rather quickly when you get there. You're not missing anything by running through the dungeons fast. Also, don't waste your time searching for traps. Just dash through the dungeons and deal with falling through the occasional trapdoor.

    (continued on next post)

  20. Test ID potions and scrolls. You'll be glad you did later. Save scrolls of identify for wands/staffs first, and rings second; don't waste them on potions or scrolls. Save all those nasty potions of paralysis, blindness, and confusion. It's not nice having to drink them once, but they become priceless later on when you can throw them at the dangerous critters so you can run away and survive. Evasive items like potions of haste self and scroll of teleportation can save your life as well. Scroll of scare monster is wonderful (drop it and stand on it; monsters can't attack you, but you can hit them). You can still throw items and aim wands correctly when you're confused by medusa. Save useful wands (striking, teleport away, etc.) for when a tough monster is blocking your path. Don't waste them on rattlesnakes or aquators; just take your licks with these guys. You'll usually find enough potions of restore strength. Save your best armor for level 18 when aquators stop appearing. Until then (levels 8 to 17), wear other armors for the aquators chew up. Avoid trolls and phantoms as well as you can since your armor is subpar during this time; you may need to use some of your evasive items or offensive wands/potions against these guys. Sometimes it is better to just jump down the nearest downstairs than finish exploring the level, to get away from a troll during mid-game!

    Phantoms are invisible, but slow, so you can often run around them. Many monsters start asleep and won't attack unless you hit them first or move around adjacent to them too much. Many sleeping monsters on the deeper levels should be left alone! Leprechauns and nymphs always start asleep and never wake up unless you directly attack them. They usually carry magic items or food; take them out from afar with missile weapons and rejoice! Corridor mazes in deeper levels are nice because most (all?) monsters won't follow you into them. You can attack a troll, for example, and duck back in the maze to heal up. You'll heal faster than them and eventually prevail. I've even slain griffins and ur-viles using this method. If you run into a dragon, a wand of polymorph will work on it, and since it's the most dangerous creature in Rogue, anything it turns into will be easier to handle!

    Well, that's a good start. If you have the nerve and thick skin needed to play Rogue, remember: above all, be persistent! Don't fret about dead characters; you'll have quite a few of them!

    -Johann the Fox

  21. Johann, thanks for the comments and I hope future readers get down here. Your approach is different than the one that I used to win, but maybe I would have won faster if I'd been a little more bold. I do seem to recall that running away from enemies didn't really work for me, though.

  22. oh, what memories... we played rogue in (approx) 1982-1983, on VAX Unix, which (for mainframe users) in itself was a sensation already. rogue quickly became an addiction, with groups of students taking turns from level to level and playing through the nights (because during daytime the few VT52/VT100 terminals were not available for such important stuff).
    i think the frenzy lasted for about eight months, and three or four times we had seen or even captured the amulet but got killed on the same level or one up - but then the unthinkable happened, three guys, after a very long night, close to 4am, we managed to find the amulet and get back to light alive. If i remember correctly it really just said something like "Congratulations. You have won." And that was it. We couldnt believe it. But somehow it was just right the way it was. almost 30 years ago now. what a time...
    so thank you for the memories :-)

  23. Thanks for the story! The ending IS a bit of a let-down.

  24. Yeah I have to disagree with Johann too. Speeding through early lvels means you wont have the gear to survive the late ones, furthermore just running from big monsters causes you to run into a second big monster and die instantly almost every time. In my experience what you need to win is a 2h sword or a longsword. Some good armor to put on after the aquators disappear. A restore strength potion for after the snakes disappear. As many gain str potions as possible after the restore. And as many 'get out of jail free cards,' the stuff that lets you kill any monster, the best of which being slow monster staves. It's been a while so I don't remember the specifics but I assigned a point system to the items and if I didn't have enough points worth of items on a given level I'd just quit and start all over again because I knew I was behind in terms of items and even if I lived for 10 more levels I didnt have the stuff to win the game. To that end I'd fully explore every level up until 20 I think, at which point its a mad dash to the stairways.

    I also had a system as to when to use unidentified items. I'd never use a scroll until I had (choose 2 of 3) an armor i wanted to upgrade, or a weapon i wanted to upgrade, or a staff/scroll I wanted to ID. Once Id found the ID scroll I'd only use scrolls when i had both a weapona nd armor I wanted to upgrade/remove curse on. Once all 3 of those scrolls were discovered I'd use em as soon as my inventory got full, using ones I had dupes of first. For potions I'd quaff them as soon as I found them looking for gain str potions. Once I find gain str potion I quaff them as I find them as long as im at maax str. If I lose str before finding it I stop quaffing because I dont want to waste it. Then I hold off on quaffing until my inventory is full and then I'd quaff ones I have dupes of first. What I'm really looking to identify is the gain str and restore str because I dont want to waste gain str while poisoned and I want to make sure i have one resore strength left after the snake levels. Once those are ID'd i'll quaff everything else thats unidentified.

  25. I love your idea to play all those games with strong rules.

    Entry of Roughlike games enlighten me. This is the idea I was looking for. How to make old games and games in general can be more realistic experience. What would empathize completely in a magical world.

    Currently I play MM1 Secret of the inner sanctum. I'm on the 8th level of my company. But I decided. I start from the beginning and use SAVE (in inn) only to continue the game from the last stop - as in the Rough - with all it's consequences.

    The real adventure begin!

    I really thank you for this.

    ps. sorry for my English language skill...

  26. Posting this comment way after the fact, but good work on beating Rogue. It's rare to find a single game that can be said to have spawned a whole sub genre to the extent Rogue has.

    If you ever open up to "indie" games, do check out Brogue. Its quite well done and eases up some of the interface constraints of Rogue

  27. I play it on Amiga I'm not sure if this things appy to the DOS version, but I would add some more to the "Well, permanent death wouldn't be so bad if Rogue wasn't punishingly difficult in so many other ways. Let's review some of them:" part-

    - All the items unidentified when you start a game. You have to take notes if you discover something so next time you know what did you found BUT new game and the game scrambles the letters for scrolls, changes the potion effects, so you have to take notes from scratch.
    - You go deeper than lvl 26 and collect more stuff but you have to climb back more floors to finish the game. It is up to you. (If you low on food you can try find some more etc...)
    - Amiga game save editing (cheating....): game changes the location of the HP / STR in new games so it's tricky to find them. Hint: your actual HP and max HP and STR have exactly the same distance between. Once you figure what to look for, you can see it right away. Cheating not necessarily ruins a game in my eye. This one is a tough cookie. I never played it and wanted to see it, but not spending 4 months on it. I beated it with cheat, but I enjoyed it so much, started over. (with cheat), to discover more things about it. The hunt for the HP location in the save file is a game itself for me.

  28. I just recently discovered r/roguelikes and this blogpost: , which inspired me to find this post and just restart your blog from the beginning.

    1. I am really enjoying going back through time and reading these old posts. I just finished Orthanc and while it greatly improved over Rutherford's game I found it to be rather disappointing in terms of finding / collecting interesting items. It ended up being more of a mapping exercise and collection of encounters. Game of Dungeons did a better job of providing magic and items aplenty so I least felt like my character was continue to improve. Magical item occurrence was too rare in Orthanc which seemed to make the experience more sterile. I've not played Rogue yet, but I will, and from what I've read here at least there are many different items to find.


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