by Robert Fenner
I originally contributed this piece to HyperPlay RPG Fanzine Issue #3. You can purchase that, and other issues, at their website.
Ah, Roguelikes. They can be fiendishly difficult, overwhelmingly deep, and endlessly addictive. Formerly the domain of mainframe computers and ASCII DOS programs, Roguelike-inspired games have seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years, to the point in which consoles and computers regularly see a wealth of titles that attempt to provide a unique twist on the genre's core tenets of procedurally-generated environments, permadeath and accessibility. Many of these titles, like Derek Yu's procedural platformer Spelunky, or Edmund McMillen's gore-soaked shooter The Binding of Isaac, have gone on to achieve critical success and gain passionate cult followings. Even heavy hitters like From Software's Souls series have included Roguelike elements in their core design.
However, one only need to look back at the Playstation 1 to find a fair-sized library of high quality Roguelikes; a handful of them ahead of the curve in their own ways, boasting some unique and surprising features. Unfortunately, all of them went criminally unrecognized, and their most forward-thinking ideas wouldn't be seen again in the genre for decades - if at all.
I've selected four of these games to acknowledge their achievements, and perhaps even introduce them to a new audience. Keep in mind this isn't an exhaustive list, but a smattering of titles that each bring something different to the table.
Torneko: The Last Hope (Enix, 2000)
Roguelike fans are no doubt familiar with ChunSoft, a developer who essentially codified the Japanese Roguelike with their Mystery Dungeon series. Beginning on Super Famicom with the Japan-exclusive Torneko no Daibouken ("Torneko's Great Adventure"), Mystery Dungeon titles generally eschew permadeath in favor of stripping the player of their items and experience. Initially, you might be wondering "what's the difference?", but part of what makes the Mystery Dungeon titles special are their evolving worlds. Indeed, sometimes losing is the trigger to unlock new events or meet new characters. One who performs a perfect run of any given Mystery Dungeon on their first (or fifth, or even tenth) attempt won't even see a smidgen of what the game hides beneath the surface.
Torneko: The Last Hope is a direct sequel to Torneko no Daibouken, and is probably the most conservative game on this list. However, conservative does not mean boring--It's actually quite fitting, considering it's based on Dragon Quest, a franchise known and loved for its trademark consistency. The Torneko games stars the titular portly trader of Dragon Quest IV as he dives into dungeons in search of treasures to sell in his shop. Whereas the first game saw Torneko strive to reach the bottom of one giant dungeon, The Last Hope contains a number of dungeons, each with a different biome and their own tricks that players must master if they wish to succeed. A haunted mansion teaches the importance of using arrows to take down powerful foes from afar, while an infested basement requires knowledge of what magic rod works best in which situation.
The Last Hope is a difficult game, but it's hard to get too frustrated when fighting Akira Toriyama's cute monsters and listening to Koichi Sugiyama's fully orchestrated soundtrack. Dungeon divers who stick for the long haul will be rewarded, because once the credits roll, extra dungeons as well as a job change system unlock. The Last Hope is as massive as it is charming.
Chocobo's Dungeon 2 (ChunSoft/Square, 1999)
The second of three Mystery Dungeon titles borne out of a partnership between ChunSoft and Square, Chocobo's Dungeon 2 happens to be the very first Mystery Dungeon title to receive a Western release. A spin-off of the gargantuan Final Fantasy series, Chocobo's Dungeon 2 is a lighter take on the Mystery Dungeon formula. Whereas Torneko saw you revert to level 1 when leaving the dungeon, Chocobo's Dungeon 2 sees you retain your experience, allowing you to build your bird up over the course of your quest unhindered. This makes for an accessible Roguelike for players new to the genre, but Chocobo's Dungeon 2 is no cakewalk. Later dungeons throw you into encounters with cute versions of legacy Final Fantasy bosses, in which a keen understanding of the game's vast item and magic systems are essential.
That said, the adorable Chocobo isn't going it alone. She finds herself joined by a motley crew of equally cute (and competent) companions, including Mog the Moogle thief, White Mage Shiroma, and Final Fantasy mainstay/crusty mechanic Cid. Usable Magicite Crystals bring the series' trademark Summon Beasts into the fray, to turn the tide of particularly hairy situations. Chocobo's Dungeon 2 is a great roguelike for beginners, but expert fans shouldn't write it off, as there's a lot of joy to be found in Square's twist on the formula.
Azure Dreams (Konami, 1998)
Azure Dreams is perhaps the most ambitious game on this list. Its labyrinthine 90 floor tower may borrow liberally from ChunSoft's Mystery Dungeon, but Azure Dreams mixes things up with enough varied activities to elevate what would be a middle-of-the-road dungeon crawl to a genre-defying classic.
Released at the height of PokéMania, Azure Dreams contains a robust monster collection/raising system: Monster eggs found within the tower can be sold for a hefty sum, or hatched to gain a new buddy. Leaving the dungeon, whether by death or egress, sees your protagonist return to Level 1, while monsters retain all experience gained, making careful management of your companions the key to late-game victory.
But wait, that's not all! One of Azure Dreams' most rewarding features is one that manages to be entirely optional: Town building. When you start a new game, the Desert Town of Monsbaia is relatively sparse and quiet. Yes, it has all the usual RPG town amenities; equipment and item shops, a tavern, a clinic and so forth, but it's not a particularly happening place. As you return to town with valuable items or eggs to sell, you can use your newfound riches to start gentrifying Monsbaia into a thriving oasis of entertainment. You can build extensions to your own house to increase inventory capacity, you can improve existing shops, or you can build entirely new structures; from fountains to food stands, or even casinos and racetracks. Secret items found on the tower's higher floors hold the key to creating even more attractions, including a large swimming pool.
If dungeon crawling, monster raising and town building isn't enough for you, Azure Dreams tops it all off with a romance system, giving you a choice of seven different belles to woo, each with their own personalities and quirks. Put it all together and we see a bold twist on the JRPG; a game nearly two decades old resembling a prototype of recent hits such as Rune Factory or Stardew Valley. Azure Dreams truly is a one-of-a-kind experience, and a polished-up re-release would surely become a cult darling.
Baroque (Sting, 1998)
Over in Japan, developer Sting (Yggdra Union, Gungnir) attempted their own twist on the formula with Baroque, a sci-fi horror RPG set in a bleak post-apocalypse. A mysterious angel tasks the player with descending to the lowest level of the imposing Neuro Tower, in an effort to "fix" the world. The Tower proves to be as bizarre inside as it is outside; a maze of rusted metal filled with ghastly, HR Giger-inspired mutants to contend with.
When you're not exploring the Neuro Tower, you've got free reign of the town at its base, filled with residents to converse with. Some of the townsfolk you'll meet are the Bagged One, a bound woman who initially appears to speak in non sequiturs, until you realize she's reading your thoughts. And who could forget Longneck, a childlike mutant with a burning desire to be buried alive. Other RPGs would treat time in town as a peaceful respite, but socializing in Baroque is anything but soothing.
Some readers may be familiar with Baroque's 2008 remake for PS2/Wii, but the original 1998 Playstation/Saturn release was a completely different beast. Whereas the remake was a disquieting third person action RPG, classic Baroque is set squarely from the first person perspective. Having to rely solely on audio clues to determine if something is sneaking up behind you adds an affecting layer of survival horror to an already tense experience. Combined with a crushing industrial noise soundtrack from Masaharu Iwata, Baroque is an incredibly claustrophobic and downright horrifying Roguelike, and one well worth experiencing despite the language barrier.
So there you have it, four unique and varied takes on the Roguelike genre, all on Playstation and released before the turn of the millennium. Looking at the current game development zeitgeist, one would think each of these games would have been celebrated for their bold achievements. And they were...in Japan, anyway. In the West (with the exception of Baroque), they were barely a blip on the radar, and critical scores were middling at best, harsh at worst. GiantBomb's Jeff Gerstmann, when writing for Gamespot, lamented The Last Hope's samey dungeons and lack of in-depth story, but ultimately praised the game as a whole. Erik Reppen of Game Informer was far less charitable, calling the same title "ugly and stupid".
So what's the deal? If I had to play pop culture archaeologist, I'd surmise that the success of Final Fantasy VII may have had something to do with it. FFVII essentially brought the JRPG into the mainstream, and did so with great aplomb. A new generation found themselves introduced to the genre for the first time, and likely expected future JRPGs―especially those from Square―to build on the groundwork laid by FFVII. Such expectations died down eventually, and the Roguelike genre saw a resurgence in popularity, culminating in the genre's current status as a desirable buzzword. ChunSoft's Mystery Dungeon is still going strong, and their frequent tie-ins with licenses such as Pokémon and Etrian Odyssey have seen Mystery Dungeon essentially become an annualized series. Its latest title, 2016's Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate for Vita, received critical acclaim across the board. Taking a look back at the four titles above paint an enticing picture of the evolution of the console Roguelike, and will likely make one appreciate its current renaissance even more.