The term roguelike is an interesting one. It was originally created to describe games similar to the 1980 game Rogue, a dungeon crawler with randomly generated levels, turn-based combat, and permadeath with nothing carrying over from run to run. Now the term has expanded to include any game with randomly generated levels or encounters and permadeath. Some folks have extreme ire against the term being used in such a sweeping manner, debating online that the term should be roguelite instead. While I do have my own definitions for what both roguelike and roguelite means, they are just my personal definitions. My opinion on the debate as a whole is that it doesn’t really matter. Genre names are more limiting than anything else and language is a continually growing, evolving thing so terms often become bigger than originally intended.
But this is all to say that I love roguelike games. I love when a game in the genre succeeds at still feeling fresh after dozens, or even hundreds, of hours played. I’m fascinated by how the games all have their own sort of gameplay language they use to speak to the player. I adore getting lost in games that are so heavily mechanics driven, playing run after run, and learning a little more about the game each time. I wanted to take some time to discuss a few of my favorite games in the genre. Keep in mind, I haven’t played every roguelike. Some major games I’ve only played little to none of would be FTL, Risk of Rain, and Nuclear Throne. And honorable mentions going out to Darkest Dungeon, Slay the Spire, and Into the Breach—all of which are incredible games, but feel to me to be games with roguelike elements more so than roguelike games. But with all that out of the way, let’s get into my top five favorite roguelikes.
Hades released last year to instant critical and fan applause. It topped many best of the year lists and has been a commercial smash hit for developer Supergiant Games. And I found myself on the outskirts of this celebration, however. I picked up Hades the day it released on Switch and loved the gorgeous art direction, the intense and lightning quick combat, and expressiveness allotted to the player when building a run from boons offered by the Olympian Gods. However, I found myself less interested in the story and characters as most people seemed to be, preferring to just hop back into the next run. I was disappointed in the lack of gameplay benefits the relationship system brought. Neither of these are bad things really, just things I didn’t particularly care for in the game. Hades is incredible, no doubt, but it came out pretty much the same time as another roguelike in 2020—one you will be seeing later on this list—which devoured all my free time of a few months.
#4) Streets of Rogue
Streets of Rogue is a fantastic little game with incredible depth. As a top down, 2D immersive sim, each floor tasks you with completing certain missions like neutralizing a target, stealing from a safe, or escorting an NPC to the exit of the level. How you complete these missions, though, are completely up to you. You can hack enemy turrets to fire upon their owners, use vent systems to poison a building full of hostiles, sneak around all guards, or just go in guns blazing and killing everyone in your way. What makes the game great is the options given to the player and how the game world reacts to them. Some classes immediately hate each other and will fight on sight like the members of the opposing gangs, thieves and police, gorillas and scientists. It leads to some of the most chaotic situations a roguelike can offer and some of the highest satisfaction too when everything goes just according as planned.
#3) Enter the Gungeon
Enter the Gungeon probably has the best moment-to-moment gameplay out of any game on this list. It’s face-paced, brutal, and an absolute blast to play. Shooting down enemies, dodging bullets, sliding across tables, and rolling through pots and boxes all feels incredible due to the insane amount of polish in the game. Enemies are all expressive and easy to spot, things explode into clouds of pixels that then cover the floor, and every gun has a unique reload animation. And everything in the game is a gun. The enemies are bullets, the bosses’ names are gun puns, the guns you can pick up are reference guns in movies and games, there’s even guns that shoot smaller guns which in turn shoot bullets. The difficulty is set higher than most roguelikes I would say, but it feels so good to play that you will find yourself loading up another run again and again and a gun and again.
#2) Spelunkey 2
Remember when I said that another roguelike came out around the same time as Hades? Well this is it. After not being able to really get into the first Spelunkey, I was shocked how much I loved Spelunkey 2. It feels like a remixed and perfected version of the first game with tweaks, changes, and new additions to keep things fresh for old players and exciting for new players like myself. I’ve never played another roguelike where the player’s skill matters as much as in Spelunkey 2 due to the fact that the item pool is very limited and the game is obscenely difficult, with death often coming instantly and hilariously and with you cursing Derek Yu. It can feel discouraging to get far into a run only for it to end in a second due to a poor jump or misplace bomb, but if you stick with it there are some of the most satisfying challenges to be overcome in the game. I named Spelunky 2 my game of the year for 2020, so if you are interested in a deeper look at what makes it so great, you can find that here.
#1) The Binding of Isaac
This is it, folks. The big one. The reason I bought a New 3DS and a PS4. The game that started me on the road to loving video games. My favorite game of all time.
The original flash Isaac was one of the first modern roguelikes and helped popularize the genre. The game has been expanded many times—I personally picked it up during Rebirth and after—which has lead to sine wave of quality, but the game is so vast, with some many secrets to discover, hundreds of things to unlock, nearly unlimited synergies between items to learn, all leading to no two runs feeling the same. The game has its own language that it speaks to the player with and it expects them to learn in order to tilt luck in your favor. What started as developer Edmund McMillen wanting to make a smaller game poking fun at Catholicism blossomed into something bigger, something more personal, and one of the most popular indie games ever made. This game means so much to me, and there is so much I want to discuss about it at any given time, that I find it hard to write about because my thoughts get wiped up and spun around like a hurricane. It is my “forever game,” a game I can pick up anytime and anywhere and still enjoy it. Come Hell or high water, from the beginning of Creation until the moment of Rapture, I will always love The Binding of Isaac.