All right, settle down you guys, it's time to play.
Hey Frank, give me that groove we worked up last night on the guitar, you know the way I like it.
Oooh yeah. That's the one. It gets me to singin'. And not just about any ol' thing. No, it gets me to singin' 'bout my favorite thing in the whole wide world...
There are computer games, and then there are computer games. And among them all, not a one quite takes the place Rogue, one of the great originals, holds in my heart.
The village elders have sent you into the Dungeons of Doom (revisited in Nethack) in order to retrieve the lost Amulet of Yendor, perhaps the most sought of all fabulous RPG treasure. In order to find it, the player must descend into the black depths of the earth, through twenty-six dungeon levels, while surviving lethal traps, discovering the secrets of ancient magic, and overcoming twenty-six different breeds of monster, from the lowly Emu up to the mighty Dragon.
The first thing of note about Rogue is that it is randomly generated. Every time you play, the game is created anew. Unlike practically any other roleplaying game you could find (except the venerable genre of Roguelikes, which originated with Rogue), the player is not on some static, unchanging quest, but in a different world every time a game is begun. And it is not just the mazes that are different. The same breeds of monster will appear on a given level from game to game, but their locations and numbers vary. And the magic items in each game are also randomized, and identifying their functions in such a way as to minimize ill effects and avoid wasting valuable resources is a major part of game strategy. In particular, it was Rogue which originated the Roguelike magic system, in which there are a wide variety of random magic items in different classes, in Rogue these are potions, scrolls, wands and rings, and each is differentiated to the player by its description (such as, orange potion, scroll titled "ILORA YEBINAM," mercury wand, moonstone ring). It is possible to find more than one object in the dungeon with the same description. The thing is, all items sharing a description share the same purpose, so once you figure out what one does you know all of that type. Some items can be identified just by using them, but sometimes this wastes the item in question. Some items can only be identified through extensive trial and error, and profound knowledge of the quirks of the game's magic system. There is one type of item, the Scroll of Identify, will infallibly identify one item type, but each can only be used once, and although common, you still never have as many as you'd wish.
The second thing about Rogue is fairly controversial, but is a logical consequence of the first. That is that death in Rogue is permanent. When you save the game, the current session ends. When you restore from that save, the game resumes, but the save file is erased. And when you die, the game ends. The upshot of this is you don't get any "second chances." When you die, that's it. On the next game you must start over, in a freshly randomized dungeon, with new randomized items. With a little thought it becomes obvious that allowing players to endlessly reload saved games opens the door for all sorts of cheating in a world such as this (try the random item, see what it does, reload and avoid any ill effects and keep the trinket). Still, people have become so conditioned to being able to reload their saved games that this turns off more people off of Rogue and its bretheren than perhaps anything else.
The third thing about Rogue is that it has no graphics. Or rather, for graphics it uses an ASCII representation of the dungeon, contents, inhabitants. The player is that little smiley-face character. Monsters are represented by letters of the alphabet, according to flavor. Rogue is so old that when it was created, this was really the only option concerning graphics. Tradition (and ease of implementation, and compatibility) has caused most Roguelike games to stick with the ASCII interface. Also, Rogue's interface has a steep learning curve, which in each key on the keyboard has as many as four different functions, depending of whether Shift, Control or Alt are pressed at the time.
And the final thing about Rogue is most interesting, and frustrating, of all. And that is that Rogue is hard. Really quite amazingly hard. Harder than Diablo, certainly. Harder even than Nethack, and that's damn difficult. It's not hard in the same way, for although Nethack is superficially a very similar experience to Rogue, it is full of so many options and choices and strategies and clever bits that unless you die on move one, you can never really be sure that it was the random number generator that did you in. The bad magic items in Nethack are also less damaging than the ones in Rogue, there is more magic in Nethack than Rogue, the early monsters are easier than in Rogue, and, on the whole, the average Nethack character improves in ability faster than the monsters improve in challenge. In Rogue, you have to rely on the magic items more than in Nethack, and there is no guarantee that the necessary stuff will show. And Rogue is an extremely hostile environment, one in which the monsters get stronger, usually, faster than the player can get better through equipment, level gain and other forms of improvement. At level 12 Trolls start appearing, which can give even good characters a run for their money, and on level 17 appear, for the first time, Griffins, which usually kill all but the most powerful when battled toe-to-toe, and not too long afterwards are found Medusas and Dragons, of which a single example of either can be a game-ender. At that point, Rogue becomes a game of stealth and evasion, and the design of the dungeons is such that evasion is not always possible. Finally, if by some fluke the Amulet is recovered down on level 26, there is still the very real possibility that the player will either be killed by monsters on the way up, or will run out of food (which doesn't get generated on the up trip).
These horrific odds would be unfair in almost any other game, but they aren't such a big deal in Rogue. Because, and this is the important thing that people who don't like Roguelikes tend not to understand, the object of Rogue is not to win. Rogue dates back to an era when most computer "games" were played until failure (such as Ms. Pac-Man or Galaga, which last until the player runs out of lives). The object of Rogue is not to win, but to get a high score, here measured in gold collected in the dungeon. Winning is still worth a score bonus, but one should never expect to win. Nethack has partially lost sight of this, allowing players to basically mint their own points by delaying their exit from the dungeon and killing more monsters. But in Rogue, each and every point is hard-won. Only gold matters for score in Rogue, and the only way to find more gold is to go deeper in the dungeon and brave ever greater dangers. Even if the player could mint his own points, the game's time limit (in the guise of the food requirement) would eventually put a halt to that.
So there you have it. Rogue. The origin of a genre. The utmost inspiration for Nethack and Diablo. And the damnedest hardest game you will probably ever play. I mean, gak.