The Rogue-like genre has hotly become one of the most popular genres of any. Games like Hades and Spelunky have taken the industry by storm, and the recent boom in high-quality indie development of the last decade has produced a ton of incredible titles beyond the big names.
From the aesthetically basic yet surprisingly deep ASCII titles of the 90s to modern smash hits like Rouge Legacy, I’ve played my fair share of Rouge-likes. Over the years, I’ve developed a sound intuition for what makes the genre tick, and so in this article, I’ve compiled a list of 10 of what I believe to be the best indie Roguelikes. Whether you’re new to the genre or are familiar with the classics, I’m sure to have something new for you to try in this rundown!
Bottom Line Up Front
With the Rouge-like genre being one of the most varied video game styles around, I’ve written the following list of ten to include as varied a selection of interpretations as possible. As such, playing all ten — or at least most of them — will give you a taste for the genre enough to form your own likes and dislikes.
You’ll also find my personal top three at the bottom of the article, as well as a handy Frequently Asked Questions section. Before we begin, let’s try to define the Rouge-like genre.
What Is a Rouge-Like, Anyway?
If you’re vaguely familiar with the genre, you’ve likely heard the term Rouge-like but don’t know what it means.
We’ll start off with a definition. Put simply, Rouge-likes are games like Rouge: a classic RPG title dating way back to 1980. The game popularised turn-based, procedurally generated dungeon crawling, as well as the concept of multiple play-throughs or runs.
In the 40 years since Rouge, there have been dozens of titles that built upon that foundation, and what a Rouge-like is defined as in 2022 could be many different things.
In 2008, a group of indie developers came together at the International Rouge-like Development Conference in Berlin to create a standardized definition. They came up with the Berlin Interpretation: eight must-have elements that a game in this genre should adhere to. You can read in more detail about those elements here, although, for many, including myself, these requirements are too restrictive to represent what a modern Rouge-like is today.
Some consider games that deviate from the Berlin Interpretation should be classified as Rouge-lites. This term is used to describe games that take elements from Rouge, but deviate substantially enough for them to be considered their own thing.
The idea of Rouge-lites has been somewhat of a contentious issue, as some people draw the distinction while others do not. I tend to fall into the latter camp.
Video game genres are evolving all the time, and while games classed as Rouge-likes may play quite differently from Rouge-lites, many don’t consider that fact to warrant a new classification. Super Mario World on the SNES differs drastically from Crash Bandicoot on the original PlayStation, but both are platformers. The original DOOM is a totally different animal from DOOM: Eternal, but anyone would consider both to be FPS titles.
In the same vein, I don’t see much value in splitting hairs between Rouge-likes and Rouge-lites. Despite their differences, they’re two of the same in my mind. While the Rouge-likes on this list share the similarities of procedural generation and perma-death, some are platformers, some are space simulators, and some are rhythm games. If all Rouge-likes adhered strictly to the Berlin interpretation, I think we’d have a lot of reskins of what is essentially the same game.
Of course, that’s just my opinion: play the games on this list and see if you have a different one!
Here are the criteria that I used to determine which games made the cut.
- No particular order: As we’ve established, the Rouge-like genre is a varied style of many different flavors. As such, I thought it was best to present the entries collectively rather than present a definitive best title.
- Retro-style titles included: With the genre going back forty years, there have been as many great Rouge-likes that play like the original Rouge as there have those that look like Dead Cells or Hades. As such, this list will cover a large spectrum of titles from retro-style classics to the latest releases.
- Must be easily accessible: Although I’ll be including retro titles in this list, they must be accessible for the modern audience. Unless you can download and play the game easily on a modern system, I won’t be including it. That means no emulation-dependent titles.
- No AAA Rouge-likes: While Returnal made waves for its inventive setting and intriguing story, this is Indie Game Culture: I’ll be focusing on the best and brightest examples of independently developed Rouge-likes.
With that cleared up, let’s get onto the games!
Spelunky 2 | Mossmouth and BlitWorks | 2020
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch
If I had to pick one series that did the most for the recent popularity of rouge-likes, it’d be Spelunky. Mixing tight, addictive platforming with classic Rouge-like elements, the game was highly instrumental in the transferring of Rouge-like principles to the console setting.
Naturally, Spelunky 2 was another smash hit. It hunkers down on the key elements that made the original so special, while also being packed with fun, innovative, surprising new elements. For me, no other Rouge-like quite fosters the same degree of excitement I feel as I crawl deeper and deeper into Spelunky’s beautiful yet deadly dungeons. The game embodies the inherent thrill of exploration.
While this is essentially a tweaked version of the original, the dungeons just feel that bit more balanced and polished. Exploring Splulunky 2’s loot-rich, monster-infested underground never gets old, and even after your umpteenth run, you’ll still be finding new secrets and novel ways to play.
Dead Cells is an interesting one. At its Core, the game embodies a classic Rogue-like feel, but it also weaves in some really fun Metroid-Vania-style gameplay which keeps things fresh. The cherry on top is the stunningly vivid aesthetic — the beautifully illustrated backdrops and crisp 2.5D animations had me in awe throughout. Levels are procedurally generated, but the game is so well designed that it feels like they’ve been carefully created by hand.
The title’s stand-out feature, though, is its combat. I don’t think I’ve ever played a Rouge-like with such addictive battle mechanics, and you’ll have to be fast as lightning if you want to keep up.
A wealth of masterfully designed enemies constantly keep you on your toes, and the huge variety of upgrades and special abilities have you switching up play styles at a moment’s notice. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be playing run after run in Dead Cells. It’s one of the most flexible Rouge-likes on the market.
Even if you’re totally unfamiliar with the concept of a Rouge-like, you’ve no doubt heard of Hades. Story hasn’t typically been a huge focus of the genre, but this game changed that.
Greek mythology permeates every aspect of Supergiant’s take on the genre, and its colorful cast of characters — which are rendered in awesome 2D, anime-style cutscenes — will have you glued to the screen for narrative alone.
Of course, the most important thing is the gameplay, and Hades absolutely delivers here, too. With six different weapons to choose from and four different variations of each of those weapons, there’s ample opportunity for you to form your own unique methodology for slaying daemons.
Combat is outstanding: you’ll die a lot, but the way the game ties each death into the overall narrative makes dying something to embrace rather than fear. It’s the full package, and one of the best Rouge-likes I’ve ever played.
Disturbing, ruthless, distressing: these are some of the adjectives I’ve heard batted around to describe The Binding of Issac, and I’d agree with all of them.
The original game became an instant hit when it launched in 2011, but it’s the remake I’ll be recommending for this list. While the 2011 version knocked it out of the park so far as infinite variety, this version has more enemies, items, costumes, and extra challenges than ever.
The game’s take on procedural generation is some of the best I’ve come across. After dozens of hours of play, I can almost guarantee that I’ll still bare whiteness to a new boss or creature I’ve never seen before. Items and abilities are also constantly changing, and never knowing exactly how even your own attacks will function keeps you guessing throughout.
Then, of course, there’s the story and styling — elements that serve to create a totally unique atmosphere on account of its perverseness. We’ve never played as a petrified child that kills his enemies with his own tears, and I don’t think we ever will again.
FTL: Faster Than Light | Subset Games | 2012
Platforms: PC, Mac OS, Linux, iOS
This early Kickstarter success story manages to successfully merge real-time strategy with the genre. FTL is certainly the most unique interpretation of the Rouge-like formula that I’ve played, and we haven’t really seen anything like it since.
Your goal is to navigate your own spaceship as a fleet of enemy ships pursue you, and if you love micro-management in their games, this one’s for you. To make it to the friendly base and beat the game, you’ll need to meticulously manage your resources and carefully kit out your ship for epic space battles.
Like all good rouge-likes, failure is inevitable yet rewarding. With each subsequent run, it’s extremely satisfying to feel yourself getting better and better at managing all the intricate aspects of manning a spacecraft. When you do finally make it to Sector 8, rest assured, you’ll be wondering how you could’ve done it better.
As we’ve seen so far, there’s seemingly no end to the new and innovative ways developers can harness the formula of the Rouge-like, but the rhythm game genre is one you probably wouldn’t have guessed would merge well.
Yet Brace Yourself Games made it work spectacularly well when they released Crypt of the NecroDancer in 2015 – a fantasy rogue-like that has you slaying monsters to the beat of thumping EDM bangers.
Everything from movement to attacking must be executed to the beat of the music. It has a ton of depth in how it makes you use the mathematical precision of time signatures to beat the game, and being rouge-like, its items, enemies, and upgrades galore. The difficulty comes through efforts in multi-tasking, and once you get good, it’s one of the most addictive games in the genre.
Oh, and you can even play this game with a dance mat if you’re so inclined!
Like Spelunky, Rouge Legacy is an important game in how it innovated the concept of the Rouge-like. The second game in the series was released just this year, and its deep RPG systems and extensive replayability secured its place as an instant classic.
Not unlike its predecessor, the sequel masterfully balances risk-reward gameplay through its upgrade systems, and given the extensive degree to which you can modify your stats beyond your starting class, every run offers the opportunity to experience something new and exciting. Even if you don’t accomplish something overtly meaningful at the end of each run, there’s always some satisfying acquisition that pushes you back in for another go.
The game also looks gorgeous. Its incredibly clean animation styles, as well as the expertly illustrated layered backgrounds, make traversing Rouge Legacy 2’s procedurally generated worlds an absolute joy.
Caves of Qud | Freehold Games | 2015
Platforms: PC, Mac OS, Linux
Caves of Qud is an enormous game, and one of the most ambitious rouge-likes I’ve seen in a long time.
Set in the distant future, the game dumps the player into a post-apocalyptic randomly generated world where play-throughs are entirely different every time you start again. The procedural generation goes far beyond seeing the odd new enemy or item — entire cultures and settlements within the game’s lore are created from scratch.
With its minimalistic, classic Rouge-inspired graphics, Caves of Qud doesn’t offer the pretty visuals seen in most of the games I’ve covered already; but it’s easily one of the deepest roguelikes you can play today. You can be whoever and whatever you want, and the game’s level of intricate simulation is truly something to behold.
It’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you’re up for a challenge, this title offers an experience like no other.
Cogmind | Grid Sage Games | 2017
You’ll likely have a lot of questions when you first jump into Cogmind — a through-and-through traditional Rogue-like where you play as a robot attempting to escape the grasp of a malevolent supercomputer.
One of my favorite elements of this game is the upgrade system. As you traverse the world and fight other robots, you’re able to essentially cannibalize their parts to use for your own upgrades. Of course, there’s a great deal of nuance to how you perform these upgrades. You can either go the casual route by swapping out old parts for more powerful ones as you go, or by scrupulously matching each part to a specified build.
In this way, Cogmind makes the classic, often daunting traditional Rouge-like formula accessible to new players. It’s as deep or as simple as you want it to be, and I can’t think of any other game in the genre that strikes this balance quite so well. Pack a rich lore, and you’ve got one heck of a game.
Angbang | Alex Cutler and Andy Astrand | 1992
Platforms: PC and Mac OS
If you’re looking for an old-school Rouge-like, you can’t go wrong with Angbang. The game is built atop the foundation of another classic Rouge-like from 1983 called Moria, and Angbang is essentially considered a bigger and better version that upgrades the monochrome graphics to full color.
Uniquely, the game is played across multiple program windows, making for by far the most unique layout of any game on this list. Angbang is a great choice if you’re a fan of tabletop DnD as it follows many of the same rules and classes, and turns are taken on the roll of a dice.
It’s charmingly archaic on the visual front but deeply programmed so far as how you can evolve each play-through. The title is testimony to the fact that video games are much more than graphics, and if you’re interested in exploring the core of the genre, this is a great one to sink your teeth into.
To play the game, you’ll download the appropriate files for either Windows or Mac from the main website.
My Top 3
While I love all 10 games presented in this list, if I had to choose, the following titles would be my top 3:
1. Hades: Hades is my favorite Rogue-like from the list. Its ingenious blend of great writing and incredible combat had me hooked from the start, and I’m yet to play anything that offers the same carefully curated blend of styles and elements.
2. Caves of Qud: This title offers a level of depth I’ve not yet seen replicated. It takes the classic Rouge-like format and exploits it to its maximal potential, and for me, it set a new standard for the limitless creativity the genre can hone.
3. Crypt of the Necrodancer: I’ve always been a sucker for rhythm games, but an EDM-enhanced Rouge-like cross-over was something I didn’t know I needed. Crypt of the NecroDancer embodies everything cool and stylish about the genre, and it’s a must-play for anyone.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: I’m interested in the retro-style titles on this list, but I’m worried they’ll be too difficult for a beginner. Is this the case?
Answer: The old-school Rouge-likes on this list are nothing a new player can’t master, but they’ll be more difficult to get into than more modern entries. Typically, old-school rouge likes are not as tutorialized as newer ones, but thankfully, the Roguelikes board on Reddit should be able to answer any questions you have regarding the older titles. Beyond that, I’d recommend looking up a play-through on YouTube for some tips!
Question: What about the original Rouge? Is it worth trying out?
Answer: The original Rouge isn’t on this list because I believe other examples have improved upon it since — like Angbang, Cogmind, or Caves of Qud. You can try out the original if you’re interested from a historical perspective, but personally, I’d recommend other games in 2022.
Question: Which game should I try first as someone new to the genre?
Answer: It goes without saying that some titles are going to be tougher than others if you’re new. For the new player, I’d recommend either Hades or Crypt of the NecroDancer. Both games are easy to learn even if they can be difficult to master!
I hope this list has given you some insight into the ever-evolving world of the Rouge-like genre. Remember, this list is just a small selection of what’s available.
There are dozens of amazing titles that switch up the formula even further, so when you’ve played everything in this list, always be on the hunt for more!
Once you’ve got a flavor for what you like, be sure to ask on the Roguelikes Reddit board for more recommendations. Have fun!
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