One of gaming's hottest new genres is more than three decades old.
The term "roguelike" descends from the 1980 dungeon crawler Rogue and its predecessors like Nethack, and the genre is generally built around three core ideas: turn-based movement, procedurally generated worlds, and permanent death that forces you to start over from the beginning. You may not have heard the term, but there's a good chance you've played a roguelike before, as modern indie developers have taken the aging formula and reinvigorated it with new ideas. It's how we ended up with fantastic titles like FTL: Faster Than Light and 868-HACK.
But despite their increasing popularity with both designers and gamers, roguelikes largely remain a niche product thanks in large part to their high level of difficulty. They also often have steep learning curves that force you to spend a lot of time getting killed before you understand how things actually work. If you need a game that can ease you into the genre, though, The Nightmare Cooperative is a great place to start.
Built by Lucky Frame — the Scottish studio behind titles like Wave Trip and Gentlemen — The Nightmare Cooperative has you venturing deeper and deeper into a monster-filled dungeon in search of gold to bring back to your struggling village. At the outset, you control a single explorer, moving one square at a time through a series of rooms. The turn-based structure means that speed isn't important, but every time you make a move your enemies will do the same, forcing you to plan ahead accordingly. Where things get especially tricky is that your party will grow as you meet other explorers along the way — and you'll control the entire group at the same time. Moving left will cause the entire team to move left one space, for example, which can get a bit challenging when that team is made of four explorers scattered across a room full of traps and enemies.
"We don't like alienating players."
Aside from the multi-character feature, The Nightmare Cooperative is largely the same as most other dungeon crawlers. The key difference is that it's been streamlined in a way that makes it almost instantly accessible — after just a round or two you get a good idea of how everything works. There's some depth, like how each character has its own unique ability, with some that can attack enemies from long range, and others that can teleport across the level in a single move. These features are seamlessly communicated through the visual design — when your archer gets close enough to shoot a monster, for example, he'll switch up his stance and aim his bow. Everything you need to know is clear just from looking at the screen. "We don't like alienating players," says Lucky Frame's Yann Seznec.
Accessibility doesn't mean the game is easy, though — just like any good roguelike, deaths are fast and frequent, and when you restart you lose all of your progress. It's sort of like a fast-paced role-playing game where you start from scratch each time you play. But instead of making the game frustrating, the high difficulty level actually makes it more engaging. Each playthrough lasts just a few minutes, which made me all the more eager to get back in and try to get further than I did the last time — similar to the feeling I get from the punishment of games like Flappy Bird. I've been playing constantly for a few days and have yet to see the end of the dungeon, but I can't stop trying.
"We wanted to make it feel poignant, rather than punishing."
"We wanted to make it feel poignant, rather than punishing, when you don't make it to the end," Seznec explains. The streamlined design is complemented by simple yet colorful art style and a haunting soundtrack reminiscent of a creepy music box in a horror movie.
All of these elements make The Nightmare Cooperative a great place to start with the genre. And given how many talented developers are incorporating roguelike elements into their games — even the new spin-off of text-adventure Fallen London features permanent death — now's the perfect time to start. "There's something wonderfully romantic, perhaps particularly for a designer, about games that are different every time you play," Seznec says of the current fascination with roguelikes. "Game designers love setting up infinitely changing, yet controlled, environments. In some ways it feels like the ultimate form of game design, because you're designing systems rather than levels."
The Nightmare Cooperative is available now on Windows, Mac, and Linux.