Six awesome ASCII games you need to play

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I’ve always admired ASCII graphics, mainly due to my predilection towards retro gaming and large pixels in general. Just as a game like Portal twists your ideas of space and makes you think differently, games with sufficiently poor visuals stretch your imagination and make you adopt a new headspace entirely.

In fact, many games these days in the independent scene deliberately minimize the graphic component while creating gameplay far greater than more visually impressive offerings. I always keep a few like this around, and here I’ve collected a couple to keep you busy over the weekend.

Warning! Some of these games will resize your screen, causing your icons to move around.

ASCII Art Ship
Most recently I found this fun, basic little time-waster when I wrote up wonderfl, an innovative flash development site. Celebrated shooter-maker Kenta Cho created ASCII Art Ship, and if you’re interested you can go to the site and play with the code. Arrow keys to move, Z or X to fire.

Shoot’Em

For those of you looking for slightly more flashy quick fix, ShootEm is a great turret-style game. You’re defending yourself against falling asteroids and other detritus. It’s technically just a layer of ASCII over a basic 3D engine, but the effect is amazing and it’s really fun. Tip: Save the bombs for when you really need them, and watch your ammo.

Rect Winder ASCII

A slightly more cerebral shooter can be found in Rect Winder ASCII. Set up barriers to block incoming shots. Resizes your screen for sure. Download link is kinda in the middle of the page.

Privateer: ASCII Sector

Want to stay in space but craving a little deeper action? Fans of Privateer and games like Freelancer or Escape Velocity should check out Privateer: ASCII Sector. One of those insanely deep games with no graphics to speak of. Considering the scope of what they set out to do, I think they’ve done quite a good job in depicting space, battles, and planets using only the ASCII character set.

DoomRL

If you’ve already beaten Doom enough times that you don’t care to try again, maybe you should try it in DoomRL, the insane ASCII version set up as a “Roguelike,” after the original ASCII-based adventure/dungeon crawl game and its brethren. While it doesn’t have the atmosphere of the original (which can still scare), it does appear to have the same labyrinthine map structure.

Dwarf Fortress

Lastly, if you’re really looking to throw your life away, it may be time for you to investigate the dauntingly complex and eye-boggling Dwarf Fortress. I absolutely cannot stress how complicated and addictive this game is. First, it builds an entire planet for you procedurally, building mountains, running rivers from lakes and so on. It adds civilizations which clash, war, leave ruins, and control territories. You then pick a tiny plot of land to build your fortress on and you’re sent there with a few dwarves and a wagon to build a mighty fortress. You have to tunnel into the living rock (of which there are dozens of kinds), harvest food, build rooms and furniture — pretty much every single aspect of life is accounted for in this beast of a sim, and it is presented in the most user-unfriendly interface I have ever seen. So why do I recommend it? I really don’t know, just try it and find out.

There you have it — there are more to be found out there, but the lesson to be learned is not just that ASCII games are awesome (though they are) but that fun and intriguing gameplay doesn’t have to be wrapped in pixel shaders and photorealistic textures. Games like World of Goo and Mirror Stage (wow) managed to impress me with their ideas and depth despite simplistic graphics; keep an eye on outlets like TIGSource for more good stuff.

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