Rogue was a little before my time, and it took a while to see the appeal. Games with permadeath sound like an exercise in extreme frustration, even balanced out by tantalizingly random loot and procedurally generated worlds. In the past few years I've come around on the subject of roguelikes, though. It's nice to have RPGs and skill-based games meet up, and they're the best way to enjoy a complete game in a short time.

The latter is what I enjoy most about them, so it grates on me that so many of the best roguelikes take hours to complete. Wouldn't it be nice if more of them embraced their strengths and provided seriously compact experiences? Not that there's not room for the long-form, but how I'd love to have more games out there like Zaga 33 [$0.99]. It's quick, compact and challenging in equal parts—nothing wasted, nothing left out.

It's odd to see a game so well-suited to iOS arriving as a port from desktop, but that's where we find ourselves. Developer Michael Brough has embraced all the best things about the roguelike in Zaga 33, and has done so with bite-sized chunks that fit perfectly into the world of mobile gaming. Got 15 minutes to kill? That's enough to work your way through the whole game if you have the skills to pull it off. Of course, you don't stop there. It'll take more than a few of those short sessions to work your way up to that level, and more than a few afterwards to max out your high score.

Stranded on the, err, rogue planet Zaga 33, your hero, the humble "@," must travel into its depths to destroy the alien cortex. You're virtually unarmed, extremely vulnerable, and facing down 25 levels of hostile aliens. Zaga 33 strips out all but the absolute necessities of the genre. You won't level up your little @, and you get nothing for your kills. Each time you hit an alien you take down one of its two hit points. Each time an alien hits you, you take one damage out of a maximum of nine.

That means hunting is counterproductive, so each time you enter a new screen you'll need to weigh your possibilities. Do you head for one of the potentially useful artifacts? Doing so might draw an alien's attention. You can fight one off easily enough, and you'll recover one hit point when you reach the next room. But if there are two in your way, or three, you might find yourself in dire straits.

Add to that dilemma another layer of concern: you're never sure what the artifacts will be until you use them. The artifacts' symbols are shuffled with every new game you start, so a starburst symbol might be a healing item one playthrough and a nuke the next. Is it worth it to fight through a sea of hostile aliens for what might just be a teleportation spell? It's a tough call. Knowing that the number of items you have at the end effects your final score—well that just makes it tougher.

You're not left with only unknowns, at least. Zaga 33 tells you exactly how each alien will behave. Goblins move toward you, snarks move between you and the exit, and so on. This is information you'll need in order to survive, and it turns each level into something of a puzzle. You can't always reach the exit without getting hit, but it's always worth trying.

Zaga 33 isn't for everyone. The controls aren't perfect, which can sometimes lead to mistakes. The game's distinctly retro aesthetic will be a turn-off for some. And I can sympathize with the feeling that roguelikes can be a bit pointless. I enjoy the repetition, the fight to improve my score in a pretty randomly generated experience, but there's no shame in preferring persistance.

If a retro-style roguelike sounds right up your alley, on the other hand, Zaga 33 is a must-buy. It's tiny, but that just means you can try often and learn from your mistakes. I don't usually expect to get much from a game in 15 minutes, but Zaga 33 makes every second count. Try the free desktop version if you're on the fence—if it captures you like it's captured me, you'll be happy to put down a bit of change to take it on the go.

TouchArcade Rating

  • robmerrell

    I spent a little time playing this over the weekend. It's a great game and a good starting point for those new to roguelikes.

    • Tyler Piderit

      Good to know! Thanks for the outlook. I like Rogue-likes but I'm very new to them. Even flashy/fun ones like Dungeon Raid get really frustrating for me quickly. Just gotta power through it!

  • JCat_NY

    Rogue-Like? Sold.

    • Gagapokerface

      Haha, I was just going to say the exact same thing. Insta-buy!

  • Gagapokerface

    The game is a lot of fun. I wish there was a way to "wait" a turn without moving, but that might make things too easy. It is amazing how many elements you can strip out of a roguelike and still retain that essence that makes the genre so great.

  • Ujn Hunter

    I haven't played the game with the new "swipe" controls yet... but I imagine it will make your "mistake" moves less. I always get hit while trying to exit the room because the game messed up my move. 🙁

Zaga 33 Reviewed by Nissa Campbell on . Rating: 4