[On the five-year anniversary of Rogue Legacy‘s release (two years after this article was published), Cellar Door Games patched Rogue Legacy with an update that (among other things) allows players to buff the characters for the remix boss fights. This significantly degrades the remix boss mechanic in Rogue Legacy as an example of the inflexible, nonlinear-scaling elements discussed in this article. The article remains archived in its original form, however, as the general theoretical case it makes remains intact (as regards the earlier version of the game, and all other instances of this type of design in other titles). – The Gemsbok]
Today’s topic is yet another indie game, and yet another roguelike-inspired game, and yet another game that I will be praising for its satisfying difficulty. But having covered similar topics so many times now in this series, I would like to do something a little different with Cellar Door Games’ Rogue Legacy by discussing its implementation of remix bosses as an absurd (and, from my perspective, totally welcome) spike in difficulty.
I have done this a few times in this series so far, primarily when covering games that have already been met with overwhelming praise by critics and audiences alike. In such cases, rather than throwing my praise on the praise pile, I try to offer something new, from a reading of the pixel art in FTL to a look at the atmosphere in Spacechem to a precise account of The Binding of Isaac‘s succession of The Legend of Zelda. Today’s angle: Rogue Legacy‘s various remix bosses may be seen as a prime example of nonlinearity in the scaling of a game’s difficulty, which produces potentially unintuitive benefits for the player.
Linear Difficulty in Rogue Legacy:
There are basically two traditional ways to cater the difficulty of a game to the abilities of the player. One is through automatic adjustments—both the kind that help you when you’re failing and the kind that slowly increase the difficulty as you progress—and the other is through a difficulty slider. Both of these styles may be called linear, as there is a roughly 1:1 correspondence between a player’s progress with a game and the difficulty that they encounter.
Most of Rogue Legacy follows a traditional linear formula. Whereas two weeks ago I said that Crypt of the NecroDancer, despite all of its weirdness, may be the closest to the roguelike genre of any of the titles I’ve discussed so far, Rogue Legacy may actually be the farthest away from that genre (among those that claim the genre as part of their composition). Your characters will permanently die and the castle layout is randomized, but the difficulty is nowhere near as unforgiving and the game features permanent progression mechanics.
A player can succeed either through skill, as speedrunners of the game do, or through grinding for superior stats, moves, characters, and equipment. Most players will find themselves doing a combination of both, and much of the joy of the early game is the variety of run types resulting not just from the multitudinous hereditary attributes of the player-characters but also from the urge to use certain types of characters for loot collection and other types for boss runs.
Initially, the fact that more skilled players might find such leniency to make Rogue Legacy too easy led to a simple, similarly-traditional solution: a ‘new game +’ system. This system allows the player to restart the campaign with all acquired unlocks but against room enemies of a higher difficulty, which mounts with each successive completion of the game.
But when I talk about nonlinear difficulty, I’m talking about something completely different. I’m talking about hidden challenges (like the flight obstacle courses in the original Spyro the Dragon) and repurposed mechanics (like the speedrun platforming challenges in Offspring Fling!). I’m talking about tough-as-nails elements with a subtle enough implementation that it is possible for new players to beat the game without once encountering them.
Nonlinear Difficulty in Rogue Legacy:
My best guess as to why remix bosses were implemented is that they were meant to answer the lament of players who disliked the fact that the ‘new game +’ difficulty increases did not affect Rogue Legacy‘s bosses. At the end of 2013, Cellar Door Games went above and beyond the call of duty with their answer: five all-new versions of Rogue Legacy‘s bosses with new attacks, new challenges, and (most importantly) a static, un-upgradeable player-character constructed to face each of them.
By taking control of the stats and abilities of the characters facing the remix bosses, the team was able to create clever challenges and arenas that play off of character abilities while providing a huge challenge to any player (at least at first), and which can not be overcome through grinding.
So what is the unexpected virtue of having players uncover a challenge this brutal? The virtue, somewhat unintuitively, is that even the best players of the game will feel for a time like they have hit a wall. I certainly don’t think I was ever one of the best players of the game—once more, I would refer you to the game’s speedrunners—but this was my experience. I felt that the game was enjoyable and well-made, but overall there was mitigated glory in beating Rogue Legacy because anyone who grinded long enough could have achieved the same. But not so with the remix bosses. Not even remotely so.
There are those players that have risen to the occasion (less than 1.5% of all players, according to Steam), and there are those that have not. I stand by my praise for the experience of ‘hitting a wall,’ because in many ways I feel that this is what makes games fun in the first place. Seeing a challenge that seems insurmountable, and later surmounting it. Not to wax too philosophical (I’ve got another series for that), but without trial there is no sense of triumph, and once a game ceases to offer a compelling challenge and melts into a sequence of similar and uninteresting tasks, it immediately becomes boring.
Some games cater primarily to seasoned players, and this is the appeal of a flat challenge built around simple mechanics like the remorseless platforming in the later levels and modes of Electronic Super Joy, BIT.TRIP RUNNER, and Super Meat Boy. The difference with what I’m describing (and the reason I call it nonlinear difficulty scaling) is that Rogue Legacy does not have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude like those others. There is a full game that all players can enjoy, but for the best the entire main game serves as a verdant training ground for the player, who can then prove their mastery of the controls in the remix boss arenas.
The inherent concealment of these sorts of challenges is what makes them so admirable to me. They might make for a fine bullet point on a store page, but the vast majority of players will not see or benefit from their inclusion. It ends up feeling very personal, because it feels like the developers knew that the game would need to be enjoyable and satisfying for players like me, and they cared enough to put in the extra work to make that happen. The game has a traditional difficulty curve, then a gulf, then a spike to a higher point than ever.
There are games that are designed with the knowledge that most players will test the waters, see what the game has to offer, and then move on; Rogue Legacy is one of these. But there are also games that are designed with the knowledge that some players will be left wanting by a game that compromises with ‘most players;’ Rogue Legacy is also one of these. Because of the remix bosses (and the ‘new game +’ system to a lesser extent), the full range of what can be done with Rogue Legacy‘s enjoyable action platforming is on offer. And when you yourself have conquered these 5 final obstacles, watch this video of a player doing it without taking a single hit and be as impressed as I was.
Turned Up to 11: