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volume 1, issue 28

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Adventures in ASCII

By Jeff Miller


  suppose all RPG fanatics remember their first encounter with the genre. Usually, it begins with a reading of Tolkien, followed by long nights of beer, dice, and figurines. I played my first RPG in 1980, sending my level one elven fighter, Polero (the name of all my subsequent RPG characters -- go figure) through B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, that little burgundy module that accompanied the blue Dungeons and Dragons basic boxed set.

My introduction to computer RPGs came shortly thereafter, when my parents, in the guise of Santa, placed a brand new Atari 400 under the tree. Though humble by todayís standards, this 8k RAM workhorse along with a cassette data recorder and cartridge slot ran the classic, Temple of Apshai. Not a high tech game. To find out what any room looked like, you read its description in the manual. A year later, when we upgraded to the 800 and bought a disk drive, I vanquished Mondain of Ultima I and his wife, the Enchantress, in Ultima 2. No small accomplishment for a twelve year old kid.

My addiction to CRPGs continues unabated. Presently, Iím in the throws of Baldurís Gate and Fallout 2, but it hasnít always been easy. Computer upgrades are hard to come by for a freelance writer, and even during the dark days when Iím lagging two generations behind current tech standards, Iíve got to satisfy that Jones.

Thank God for Roguelikes.

Graphics, admittedly, are not these games' forte -- tiled graphics exist for some of them and, in most cases, are very pretty, but for the hardcore player, ASCII art is the rule. As a result, Roguelikes can be played on just about any system, even a 386. But, graphics aside, for the fantasy gamer seeking excellent gameplay -- and in Roguelike games, thereís plenty of excellent gameplay -- their price can't be beat.

They're free.

For a man with an addiction, "free" is the most alluring four-letter word in the dictionary.


What the Hell is a "Roguelike?"

Roguelike games, and there are hundreds ... nay...thousands of variants out there, all share a few common characteristics. First, they are free. Second, they are turn based single player games that involve a player character, usually represented by an "@" symbol, who travels through randomly generated dungeons killing LOTS of monsters, also represented by a variety of ASCII symbols. The character grows in power, accumulating magic items, better armor, and deadlier weapons as he or she descends.

But for me, the defining characteristic of a Roguelike game, that characteristic that makes a Roguelike game such a nail biting experience is that once you die, youíre dead. For good. Game over.

You can save the game, but saves are deleted as soon as you resume play. Every move counts. Thereís no going back to redo an action. Want to see if the Riders of the Apocalypse are edible? Is carrying a Cockatrice corpse down the stairs dangerous? If Iím chaotic and indulge in human sacrifice, will I suffer? Answering these questions is a true test of will because you must be willing to risk losing that character permanently. Of course, if you are a complete and total loser, you can back up your save files, but this is a practice generally placed in the same category as kicking dogs and propagating spam -- no true player would ever do such a thing.

Winning a Roguelike game is a lifetime achievement. In my 5 plus years of playing Roguelikes, Iíve won only once. Many players never win at all.

But they keep on trying.


Ancient History

Roguelike games take their name from their grandpa, "Rogue," a game so old, it traveled from computer to computer in the version 4.2 distribution of BSD UNIX. Way back then in 1980, computer games were mostly a mainframe phenomenon, and the hottest of them all was Crowther and Woodsí Adventure, the first text adventure game. Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman, students at UC-Santa Cruz and huge fans of Adventure, were dying to try something of their own. Instead of writing an Adventure clone, however, they decided to play around with a new library of routines that enabled programs to put characters at specific locations on the monitor. Thanks to this library, the monsters, the player, the items, and the walls could be represented by moving letters and symbols. Rogue was born.

Michael Toy eventually moved on to Berkley where he teamed up with Ken Arnold to continue Rogueís development, and, as Berkley was home of BSD, a then popular version of UNIX, Rogue was included in its distribution. It traveled all over the world and quickly became the most popular game among college geeks everywhere. The authors even wrote a commercial version for Epyx, a now bankrupt game company.

The gameís premise was simple: the player descends an infinite number of randomly generated dungeon levels killing everything in sight, looting treasure and gaining experience. For the modern gamer, Rogue is of little interest except as a piece of gaming history -- thereís no end goal and only a single character class -- but its influence on later games cannot be underestimated. .

"Nethack was one of many games that inspired the development of Diablo" says Matt Householder, a producer of Blizzardís upcoming sequel, Diablo II. "Angband was another dungeon-crawl that the Diablo creators admired and played a lot. The Atari coin-op, Gauntlet, and Epyx' Rogue and Temple of Apshai were even earlier inspirations."

Rogue and its descendants have made their mark on RPGs of every color, no doubt about it.

Rogueís Progeny -- Moria and Angband

For readers not familiar with Middle Earth, Moria and Angband are both dungeons from the work of J.R.R. Tolkien: Moria being the dwarven mines where Gandalf met his end (think you can do better than him?), and Angband, the iron fortress of Morgoth, the dark god from The Silmarillion. Computers and Tolkien are match made in geek heaven, so it was, I suppose, inevitable that Rogue would morph into these new incarnations.

Moria was the brainchild of Robert Koeneke, a self-described longhaired computer nerd from Oklahoma. In 1973, a high school teacher introduced him to computers, and he wasnít impressed ...until he discovered the games. He was addicted and, soon after, began tinkering around with BASIC, hoping to write a few games of his own. Once he reached the University of Oklahoma in 1975, the beginning of a ten year college stint, he started churning out a few, beginning with Adventure knock-offs such as Dungeon, written for the Texas Instrument TI-59 programmable calculator (uncanny!), and Pyramid, a fairly popular game for the TRS-80.


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Credits: Illustration © 1999 Jason Bergman. Adventures in ASCII is © 1999 Jeff Miller. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it...or we'll force you to play NetHack for six years straight. Oh wait...that's not a very good punishment. Don't worry...we'll think of something especially evil. Muhahahahahaha. Really. Try it. I dare you.