The Legacy of Rogue: Internal Growth vs. External Reward

With their very different approaches to Rogue-inspired 2D platforming, Spelunky and Rogue Legacy illuminate two of the most powerful ways in which games motivate us to keep playing them.

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It's a question of "if." For months now, Spelunky's tunnel man has been awaiting my arrival, patiently lingering in the hallway that connects the ice caves with the temple, hoping against hope that someday I might deliver unto him a key. To do so is no easy task. The key must be carried all the way from the mines, through the jungle, and then through the ice caves, to be presented to the tunnel man. I don't care to remember how many times I, key in my cartoonish little hands, have gotten within sight of the door that would take me into the tunnel man's presence, only to meet a sudden, crushing demise thanks to a mine, a woolly mammoth, a blast from a flying saucer, or some comically spectacular combination of all of these things. It's a painful subject for me; I'm sure you understand. And each time I fail, I return to the beginning with nothing to show for my efforts but a slightly more bruised ego. I don't know if I'll ever succeed, but I intend to keep trying.

It's a question of "when." Yes, every one of Rogue Legacy's bald barbarian kings or hokages with no foot pulse who heroically ventures into the castle is likely to meet an untimely end under my control, but with their efforts, these fallen heroes pass something on to the next generation, making it just a little easier for the children who follow in their footsteps. There was a time when dying with 1500 gold or so meant I'd had a relatively successful run. Now, because the gold I've acquired has enabled me to improve my gear and my abilities, I can fight harder and live longer, and a typical run nets me around 8000 gold, letting me improve my abilities further still. The castle boss has already fallen to my blade. Alexander, known also as The Forgotten, the gigantic glowing skull who presides over the forest, will fall too, sooner or later. It's just a matter of time.

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Both Spelunky and Rogue Legacy fuse 2D platforming and action with elements taken from traditional roguelikes. They've both got randomly generated environments, and when you die, you're sent back to the beginning. But they've channeled those inspirations in different directions. Spelunky is truer to the spirit of the original Rogue and its ilk; there's nothing in the way of persistent unlocks or upgrades except for tunnel man's shortcuts and an assortment of playable characters who all play identically. Cleverly, Rogue Legacy's title refers both to the in-game dynasty of heroes and to the game itself, which is a product of Rogue's design DNA combined with that of so many games that have come since. In its bone-tossing skeletons and shielded knights, there are echoes of Castlevania. In its assortment of unlockable, upgradable skills, you can clearly see the influence of Diablo II and every other game that has popularized skill trees over the years.

Rogue Legacy's title refers both to the in-game dynasty of heroes and to the game itself.

The results are two games that have enough in common to be powerfully reminiscent of each other, but that provide very different pleasures. In Spelunky, death can come instantly as the result of one false move, and all of the growth and development happens inside you. You learn how enemies behave and how to deal with them. You learn how traps operate and how to avoid them. And so eventually, thanks solely to your increasing knowledge and improving skill, you go from escaping the mines one out of every 10 times you play to one out of every five times. The game never lets up; it never gets easier. You just get better at it. The gratification that results from seeing your improving skills tangibly reflected in your improving performance--a new high score, or finally overcoming a challenging level--has always been one of the most powerful rewards that games can offer.

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In Rogue Legacy, death comes quickly at first, but more and more slowly as you progress, and the most significant growth isn't your own improving skill but the improving, persistent attributes and equipment of your heroes. You work, you put in time, and you're rewarded with a character who gradually becomes stronger and more capable of overcoming the challenges he or she is faced with. While Spelunky is deliberately designed to test your skills as a player, Rogue Legacy's gameplay is deliberately designed to be less demanding of your skills so that the improvement of your characters' attributes factors hugely into how far you're likely to get and how long you're likely to survive. Your own skills are still significantly rewarded, though; making your way to fairy chests can be demanding and grants you powerful runes, and although even the most skilled player could probably not finish the game with a level one character, a skilled player can come away from each run with more gold, and enjoy improving his or her character more quickly as a result.

The similarities and differences between Spelunky and Rogue Legacy cast into sharp relief the distinctive allure of playing games that demand and reward nothing but player skill, and those in which your character becomes stronger as you put in time and explore the world. It's 1985's Super Mario Bros. vs. 1986's Metroid. It's 1991's Street Fighter II vs. 1997's Diablo. After all these decades, I can't decide which particular pleasure I prefer. It's a good thing I don't have to.

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