Rogue: the most difficult CRPG I’ve played

The original version had even more primitive ASCII graphics. I played a 1984 update.
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 (albiet 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 an 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.


Posts on Rogue: One | Two

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