Sisyphyean Gaming on the Go

I’ve defined the roguelike genre of video games here multiple times so please forgive me for skipping a detailed explanation, but quickly, roguelikes borrow elements from the game Rogue (1980). In Rogue you encounter randomly generated levels, enemies, and items. With so much of the game being randomly generated each play-through is a varied and an unusual experience. Rogue is also known for its brutal difficulty— if you lose the game, and you probably will, you start it completely over with no ability to reload from a save point. The purpose of the game isn’t necessarily to beat it but to see if you can get further than the last time you played. Roguelikes are essentially a tribute genre, borrowing elements of that seminal piece of software and applying it to modern design and capabilities.

I stink at roguelikes. I’m really bad at them. Rarely, I’ll get on a run where I’m feeling good, I’ll have a set of tools that complement each other, I’m getting super far, and then it all goes wrong in an instant. I see roguelike aficionados on Twitter announcing repeat victories over a particular game and how next time they’re going to “try a different strategy”.

I want to burn their houses down.

Usually it’s my own impatience that does me in, moving through the game world too quickly because I’m anxious to experience the next bit of action. Roguelikes are best played by running away from danger and handling it on your own terms—you can’t do that if you’re thoughtlessly charging forward. The culprit is usually my lack of free time, trying to squeeze in as much of a game as I can, when really I should just play through a few moves, shut it down, and come back to it in a month or four.

Right now I’m all about the one-handed mobile games. I created that list, however, with a fairly tight set of guidelines which left off a few of my favorite roguelikes. This genre of game isn’t for everyone and their particular brand of frustration didn’t belong on that list. That aside, I tend to play roguelikes on my phone more than any other kind of game. They’re perfect for doctors’ offices or a crowded commute since they’re quick and each play-through is different (the quick part is somewhat debatable; see my impatience problem in paragraph three). I love the sense of dread created by roguelikes where every misstep will cost you dearly. In a gaming world where there’s too little consequence it’s refreshing to be challenged.

Below is a list of my favorite mobile roguelikes. It’s rather iOS-centric but that’s what I have! Prices are correct at the time of this posting. I give each game a difficulty rating which is a subjective score between one and five evaluating how likely it is that I’ll ever beat it: “one” for most certainly, to “five” which indicates that “I’d be better off buying a ticket for an Alaskan cruise ship so that I can throw my phone into the deepest part of the Bering Sea.”


Price: Free ($9.99)
One-handed play, vertically?: Yes
Austin stinks?: 3 of 5


Powder perhaps isn’t the “best” roguelike out there but for me it’s been the most enduring. Usually when I find a game I like I go on an insane binge, playing it tirelessly—until I tire of it. Powder somehow escaping that fatigue has been a life-saver, especially over the last few months when my phone has been my primary gaming platform.

I once heard an interview with Powder’s developer where he described his desire to make a roguelike that’s quick and easy to start over after you die, giving the player different items and abilities from the beginning each time. That design approach is why I find Powder to be so loveable—the game caters to my complete lack of roguelike skill. When my character suffers its inevitable early death, I get to jump right into a new and unique one without having to grind out early levels of the game. I can try dumb combinations of equipment and powers without the worry of losing significant time and effort. The free version of Powder only contains the first 15 levels and it costs $10 to unlock the full game. You might deduce however that being so bad at these kind of games that I’ve technically not yet to run into the need to actually pay for Powder. Even so, I’ve played Powder so much that the $10 cost was quite reasonable considering how much fun I’ve gotten out of the game. Every so often I’ll get on a pretty good run which makes me feel like some day, somehow, I might actually beat this one.

Hoplite Roguelike

Price: $1.99
One-handed play, vertically?: Yes
Austin stinks?: 2 of 5


Recently released for iOS, Hoplite is my new hotness and I’ve been playing it non-stop. A tactical roguelike that focuses purely on combat, Hoplite asks you to guide your little Greek warrior through rooms of enemies, becoming a death cloud of sword, spear, and shield. Later levels are particularly tough, and almost chess-like, where you really have to think several moves ahead to keep from getting pinned down by enemy archers or blown to bits by bomb-chucking demons.

You can unlock new and improved abilities with each level and with repeat play, creating
some tough choices later on as you face more and more enemies. I generally go the route of upgrading my ability to throw my spear further, that way I can snipe pesky enemies at range. In Hoplite there is something incredibly satisfying about flawlessly taking out a crowd of enemies, whirling and charging about without taking a hit, and then calmly spearing a fleeing enemy archer.

Hoplite is one of the few roguelikes that I actually stand a chance of beating as while it’s tough, it’s solvable– which actually makes every loss that much more painful. This is yet
another game where my impatience has done me in. My best run so far had me playing a single move a day for a few weeks, but one day I got bored and wanted to play more—I died a few minutes later.

868 Hack Roguelike

Price: $5.99
One-handed play, vertically?: No
Austin stinks?: 5 of 5


This game hates me. Or, I hate it? Both perhaps. The conceit of 868-Hack is that you’re hacking into a network and moving a smiley-faced avatar around a digital interface unlocking programs, scoring points, and fighting hostile programs.

868-Hack is a masterpiece of efficient design with a tight game world and an uncomplicated rule set. While rather straightforward on its surface, lurking below is a cruel system of risk and reward. I wouldn’t know the sweet taste of reward however, since I’m rubbish at assessing the proper time and place for taking risks. Unlocking programs in the game gives you special abilities or points, causing more enemies to teleport into the world around you. If you unlock a program while in an exposed area, you’re likely to become surrounded and killed. Each enemy type moves in a different fashion and there’s no predicting which will appear and hand you your doom.

I’ve played 868-Hack a lot. A lot. And while I’ve gotten better I still have problems not going for programs or points at the wrong time. I keep touching that hot stove. I keep flying too high in the sky on wings of wax. I keep…I’ve run out of metaphors where I don’t learn from my mistakes or die from hubris. 868-Hack is one of the best mobile games of all time. It’s great but I just stink at it. The game is connected to iOS’ GameCenter where you can see other players’ high scores and if I ever see any of those people crossing the street I’m going to run them down with my car and throw their phone into the sewer.

 100 Rogues_PatientRockDotCom

100 Rogues

Price: $0.99
(with micro transactions to unlock additional characters)
One-handed play, vertically?: Yes
Austin stinks?: 4 of 5

Points deducted: You can’t play outside audio while playing 100 Rogues, a major no-no


When I first started getting into roguelikes a couple years ago I dug into the iOS app store looking for games in the genre but I wasn’t able to find much. An episode of Roguelike Radio pointed me to 100 Rogues and for a time it was all I played. The game has a quirky sense of humor and art style mixed with a design that aims to be a roguelike by its very definition– including brutal difficulty of play and an aggressive “hunger clock”. Hunger clocks are a game mechanic common to roguelikes where your character must eat regularly or starve to death. The purpose is to keep the player moving and unable to rest to heal their wounds for long as food is a rarity. Roguelikes are jerks.

I didn’t stick with 100 Rogues for any extended period as it got rather boring, rather quickly. A difficult game is one thing but 100 Rogues also was missing the awesome emergent gameplay many faithful roguelikes excel at.

“Emergent gameplay” is a hoity-toity description of events in a game that aren’t specifically planned by the developer. For instance, you perhaps throw a “potion of confusion” at a group of enemies and they mistakenly walk into a pool of lava. These events are made possible by systems placed in the game (i.e. the potion and the lava) but aren’t always deliberately meant to interact with each other. While 100 Rogues has a few characters types, randomly generated items, monsters, and terrain, after a while I couldn’t help but exclaim I WANT MORE. Every play-through was the same.

But! A recent patch has made a big difference to the experience of 100 Rogues. The levels are now generated with fewer boring, endless hallways and there seem to be a better, more
interesting assortment of items you can find (or at least they’ve been made a little more available). While that aforementioned roguelike gold standard emergent game play still isn’t quite there, I’ve had a renaissance with
100 Rogues and still think it worth the

Cardinal Quest roguelike

Cardinal Quest

Price: $3.99

One-handed play, vertically?: No
Austin stinks?: 1 of 5



Hey! I’ve actually beat this one! For those who may want an easy introduction to the roguelike genre, Cardinal Quest is a great place to start. Its mechanics are simple and there’s not a lot to manage in the game. Say, for instance, you pick up a sword that’s better than the sword you’re carrying—the game automatically equips it and sells off the old one
for gold (points). It’s that kind of thing that makes hardcore roguelike players sneer at
Cardinal Quest, but they can shove off. There’s enough difficulty in this game for the casual player to be challenged and yet be encouraged by smart play.

Not many games get the basic stuff right so what Cardinal Quest does well is a pleasure. Admittedly Cardinal Quest doesn’t have much of a life after you beat it, particularly after you do so with its three character types, but it occupies its particular niche with confidence. Plus, I BEAT THIS ONE.



Price: Free
One-handed play, vertically?: No
Austin stinks?: 4 of 5


Ah, here we are, confronting (one) of my greatest shames: I’ve technically not yet played the original Rogue. It’s certainly on my to-play list but I haven’t yet made the time. Older games, especially those 30+ years old like Rogue (!) can be tough to try if you weren’t there to experience them in the beginning. It’s important to understand video gaming’s roots but sometimes the quaintness of that experience only goes so far especially when held up against modern design. I think that’s the case for this entry, a faithful mobile port
of the original
Rogue. The game is sparse, inscrutable, and constrained.

Why do I have it on this list then? The control scheme of this version of Rogue is super cool. Roguelikes with controls that rely on the many buttons of a computer keyboard don’t always translate to mobile devices very well, having to resort to massive dropdown
menus. While this version of Rogue does have dropdown menus you can also to take actions by swiping your screen in specific ways. If you want to read a magic scroll you run your finger along your phone’s screen in a particular “Z” shape or if you want to don new armor you form a “W”.  It’s a magical feeling that makes me feel very involved in the action, especially when there’s not actually a lot going on in the game itself.  But, it’s free and worth playing for a bit and deleting when the magic is gone.

There are a few more roguelikes out there for mobile devices and I’ve played most of
them, but they didn’t really catch me for various reasons. Got any favorites of
your own?