Friday 31 July 2020

Rogue (1980)

Introduced 1980

Before the microcomputer boom of the late 1970s most computers were large, expensive but powerful multiuser machines (“minicomputers”) such as the DEC PDP-11 and VAX. These expensive machines were meant for serious work, but even so a few games had been written such as Colossal Cave and Star Trek.

These were often complex games, but they were severely hampered by the rudimentary output capabilities of the computers involved. Although minicomputer terminals had evolved through the 1970s leading to designs such as the versatile VT100, it wasn’t always easy to leverage the new features into programs.

Cursor addressability was the key feature first seen in the era of the VT52 – the ability to move the cursor to anywhere on the screen and display text. It seems simple today, but the earliest terminals were basically printers-with-a-keyboard (teletypes) and it took a long while for glass teletypes to evolve into the video terminals that could support recognisably modern applications.

By 1980 the newly-developed curses library was making it much easier to use the advanced features of these terminals, and around 1980 a pair of students – Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman – were intrigued by the possibility of writing a game on the UCSC computers systems where they were studying.

Rogue emulated running on a VT220

Rogue broke out of the mould of earlier minicomputer games which either tended to be quite simple or weren’t worth playing once you had beaten them. Rogue was a satisfyingly complex Dungeon-and-Dragons style game, set on several levels of mostly randomly-generated maps. The player roamed these ASCII maps as a wandering “@” sign, with 26 different types of monster represented by letters of the alphabet - V = vampire, O = orc for example. The player could accumulate a variety of weapons, armour, scrolls, potions and rods (wands) to help them on their task.

26 levels down in the game you would find the ultimate prize – the Amulet of Yendor, which you could then take back to the surface? The turn-based gameplay did give the player plenty of time to consider their next move in tricky situations, but on the other hand death was permanent – if slain by a monster or your own stupidity you would have to start over.

Michael Toy then moved to Berkeley from UCSC and met with Ken Arnold who had developed the curses library, the game evolved further and by the mid-1980s commercial interests were involved, porting the game to a variety of 1980s micros including the Macintosh, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum and many more.

It was a hard game to master, and you could easily spend hours and hours trying to tackle deeper and deeper part of the dungeon. The fact that it was simply made up as ASCII characters didn’t really matter because of the rich gameplay – and most micro versions used some simple graphics to enhance the game further.

Nethack running on a modern laptop

Rogue was always a closed source game though, so many open source variants followed. Nethack is probably the most popular of these, with richer gameplay that Rogue but still mostly stubbornly sticking to ASCII.

Of course modern computer games can offer something of the rich gameplay of Rogue-like games along with impressive graphics and sound effects, but Rogue and its derivatives linger on and continue to be developed.

Image credits:
Artoftransformation via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0
Mad Ball via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0

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