|After six years of blogging, I've just caught up to the CRPG Addict's first post.
And so, after four months and 288 attempts, I have finally completed Rogue. I wouldn't exactly say that I'm proud of it as an achievement - beating Rogue requires more persistence and luck than genuine skill, I'd say - but it is an achievement nonetheless. The percentage of people that have played Rogue and beaten it would be pretty small, and the percentage that have beaten it without cheating would be smaller still. Being able to say that I'm in that small percentage feels pretty good.
Getting "good" at Rogue is a weird process in terms of CRPGs. For most CRPGs, that process involves improving your character statistically. If your numbers aren't good enough for a certain fight, you can just go somewhere and kill easier enemies for a while until your numbers improve. Even proto-roguelikes like The Game of Dungeons, which also featured perma-death, had this as an option. And yes, even Rogue sort of has this as an option if you happen to find two rings of slow digestion (something that happened to me exactly once in close to 300 games). But for the most part you're on a hunger timer in Rogue, and the need to find food keeps you from being able to stop and grind for experience. With that as a limitation, there's no way to avoid death by improving your character, and the only method of advancement is through knowledge. You learn what the different items do, how strong the various monsters are, and what tactics and items are needed to maximise your survival. And above all, you learn the value of patience. It's a rare CRPG where the player's improvement is vastly more important than that of the character.
For me, things didn't click until right near the end. I spent months sending characters into the Dungeon of Doom, with very little to show for it in terms of improved performance. For every game where I made it down to level 20, I'd have a dozen more where I didn't even make it to level 10, or died on level 1. Up until a few days ago I hadn't even found the Amulet of Yendor, and I was starting to worry that I'd be playing this game forever.
Then, out of nowhere, I had a game where I made it to level 26 of the dungeon and found the Amulet. I had no idea what it was going to look like, and it turned out that it was disguised as a comma, hidden among the full stops that represent an empty space.
I hadn't done anything different than usual during that game, but I did have a number of advantages over the average adventurer: good armour, a two-handed sword, a high Strength score, and loads of hit points. Having a decent hit point total is crucial to beating the game, and unfortunately that's something that's almost completely out of the player's hands.
Once you find the Amulet of Yendor, you need to take it all the way back to the surface: that means traversing levels 26 through 1 all over again in reverse order. They aren't the same levels, either; the level 25 you just beat won't have the same layout the second time you tackle it. The amulet doesn't give you any extra offensive powers, but I think it does stop you from getting hungry. At least, I don't recall having to eat any food while carrying it.
Anyway, the first time I found the amulet didn't go so well. I made it back to the stairs and climbed to level 25, but then I walked right into a trapdoor that dumped me back to level 26. Then I walked into another trapdoor and found myself on level 27. Then after I found the stairs I stupidly went down instead of going up. Eventually I fought my way back up from level 28 to level 25, only to get cornered by a pair of Umber Hulks, confused, and killed. Umber Hulks are the worst.
After that game, though, things just fell into place for me. I had 34 more game after that, and in 25 of them I made it past level 16 (which is where the game starts to get really hairy). I'm not sure exactly what had changed, except perhaps that I was more engaged and "switched on". Finding the amulet was a real shot in the arm, and I was playing with a lot more determination and patience, and also a better knowledge of what I needed to win.
I'd like to say that skill was the sole factor in my eventual victory, but to be honest I hit the absolute motherlode in terms of luck and item drops. I found banded mail armour early on, and several scrolls of enchant armour. I found a two-handed sword around the mid-levels, and was able to enchant that once as well. With potions I enhanced my Strength score, and managed to keep a potion of restore strength in reserve so that I'd have that score when it was needed most. My hit points were good. And best of all, in defiance of all the odds, I found two scrolls of genocide.
Besides finding the Amulet of Yendor, there's little more exciting in Rogue than getting your hands on a scroll of genocide. I don't think they're included in the later versions (correct me if I'm wrong). When you read one, you get to completely wipe a monster from the game. I never hesitated to wipe out Umber Hulks: their confusion gaze and the near-total lack of agency that resulted made them by far the deadliest monster near the end of the game. With two of these scrolls, I genocided Umber Hulks and kept the second scroll in reserve. That way, if any monster type ever looked like killing me I had a guaranteed ace up my sleeve.
As it turned out, I didn't need it. Without Umber Hulks to worry about, I found that I was formidable enough in battle to survive most situations. Of the monsters on the lower dungeon levels, only Xorns gave me much trouble. Vampires aren't all that hard, and Mimics are easily killed after their initial surprise attack (they disguise themselves as other items in the game). Dragons and Purple Worms are tough, but I never encountered any that were hostile; they just sat motionless while I skirted around them. I did get level-drained by a Wraith (twice), but that was the extent of my difficulty. Any other monster that I didn't fancy fighting hand-to-hand I bumped off with my wands of drain life (which drain half your current hit point total and deal that as damage to the target). I descended to level 26, found the Amulet of Yendor, and got back up to the surface with only minor difficulties.
I have to say that on the way back, once I got to level 15 or so, I felt great. By that point I'd left the really tough monster behind, and all that were left were things like Centaurs, Quasits, Orcs, Hobgoblins, etc. Victory was assured, and it was kind of like taking an extended victory lap while I murdered a whole ton of monsters that had previously made my life hell. There are other games that have given me this experience before: Half Life 2 springs to mind, as the souped-up gravity gun near the end of that game makes you pretty unstoppable, and the final battle in Super Metroid is another great gaming moment where it's just about impossible to lose. More games could stand to go easy on the player in the final stretch, I find it to be a nice end-of-game reward.
Here's my winning character on the cusp of victory:
And this is the inventory I had at that moment:
Just before I left the dungeon, I ate all of my food and drank my last potion of healing. Then, with great deliberation, I unfurled my scroll of genocide and took great pleasure in wiping out every Xorn in the dungeon. Vengeance is sweet, and unnecessary vengeance is all the sweeter.
So Rogue is done, and I have to say that it's been one of the best experiences I've had with a game on this blog. Frustrating, yes, and far far too time-consuming. But unlike other games that have eaten up far too much of the blog's time, I'd quite happily sit down and have another crack at the game right now. It has problems, but I expect it to do very well on the RADNESS Index.
Story & Setting: This is one of the categories where this game will fall down the hardest, because the story is absolute nonsense. The goal of the game is to find the Amulet of Yendor at the bottom of the dungeon, simply so that you can be admitted to the Guild of Fighters. It's a reward that in no way befits the difficulty of the task in question, and really calls into question the sanity of the hundreds of adventurers I sent to their deaths. As for the setting, the Dungeon of Doom is a random labyrinth whose rooms and tunnels are represented in ASCII. Any atmosphere here comes from the game mechanics, and not much else. Rating: 1 out of 7.
Characters and Monsters: There aren't any characters to interact with as such, but it's not that kind of game. What it does have is monsters - 26 in total - and each of those has its own abilities and behaviour. From the weak bats that flit about at random to the tough Umber Hulks with their confusing gaze, from the Wraith that drains levels to the Troll that regenerates, this game might have the most well-realised line-up of monsters seen yet, and the most faithful to its Dungeons & Dragons-inspired roots. Rating: 5 out of 7.
Combat: The core combat here is basic: you simply exchange blows with your enemy until one of you has been killed. But with the ability to maneuver, and the raft of items available, Rogue has what is probably the most tactical and enjoyable combat to date. Why exchange blows when you can use a wand of drain life, or a healing potion, or a scroll that teleports you out of the battle entirely? Like Akalabeth before it, the entire game engine is available during battle, and that opens up a lot of options, but Rogue has far more variables in play, and makes for a much more exciting experience. My one complaint is that it can be a bit random at times, but that's true of most games of this vintage, and of D&D itself. Rating: 4 out of 7.
Aesthetics: This is Rogue's weakest point, for sure: it has no sound, and its graphics are entirely represented by ASCII characters. It's functional, and it does have a certain charm - enough so that the genre inspired by it still frequently uses the same style - but it's still a definite failing. Rating: 1 out of 7.
Mechanics: It's tempting to give this game a very high score here, because everything about it just works. The monsters, the items, the combat, the exploration... it all melds together into an incredibly tense gaming experience. It also controls really well. There are a load of keyboard commands, and some keys do different things depending on whether they're capitalised or not, which you'd think would be terrible. In practice it works, especially when you get to the point where you no longer need to consult a cheat sheet. Even so, I feel like the randomisation lets it down. There are some games where you just can't win, regardless of how well you play, and that's a let down. Rating 5 out of 7.
Challenge: This is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyably challenging games I've ever played, but it is far too random to score highly here. In some games, like the one where I beat it, all the items you need fall into your lap. In others, you get nothing, and limp into the high levels with 30 hit points and not a prayer of victory. Ideally, you'd stand a chance of winning in every game after mastering its tactics, but that's not the case here. That's not cool, but at the same time, there's just something about Rogue that kept me coming back and trying again. Rating: 4 out of 7.
Fun: Despite how futile, random and frustrating it can be, Rogue is a lot of fun. I think that's because of how open it is: no two games are ever alike, and there's no end to the situations you can find yourself in. Sure, it sucks to win a hard-fought battle against a Xorn, only to take one step into a trap door, fall down a pit, and get instantly killed by Quasit. Yes, it sucks when you polymorph a Bat into a Purple Worm and get eaten on Level 1. But what other games of this vintage allow such variety? There are plenty of times playing Rogue where my death was inevitable, but I always felt like there was something I could try. Plus, after nearly 300 games and four months I still feel like playing it. That has to count for something. Rating: 5 out of 7.
Bonus Points: I'm giving Rogue the full two bonus points, for inspiring an entire genre.
The above scores total 25; that score doubled, with the bonus points added, gives a RADNESS Index of 52. That puts it on top of the CRPG pile, six points ahead of The Game of Dungeons v5.4. It doesn't crack the top of the overall list though, as Zork is well ahead on 64 points. At this early stage, though, I feel pretty good about two genuine classics like Rogue and Zork topping the charts on this blog.
NEXT: To be honest, I'm not sure what comes next. This pandemic situation has me going through some bullshit, and as readers of my other blogs will know I'm currently taking a blogging hiatus. I'll call it a hiatus for now, because I'm pretty sure that I just need a break, but it's entirely possible that I might not be back. If that's the case, and this is my final post, I'd like to thank my regular readers, and I hope you've enjoyed what I've been doing here. I'll still be reading comments on the blog, and I'll be on Twitter (@NPMahney) if you want to get in touch.