I love video game item shops. Even when I can't afford the curios on display it's always fun to examine them, read the flavour text, and plan a wishlist of future acquisitions. Item shops also often act as respites from a long and tiring video game journey. In the PC game Roulette Knight, though, they're where you go to die.
Screenshot: FourQuarters team (Roulette Knight)
As the name suggests, Roulette Knight is about loading a gun, having your virtual hero, point it at themselves, pull the trigger, and hoping to come out the other side unscathed. It's a simple mashup of traditional RPG mechanics and slot machine probability that shouldn't work on paper but is incredibly tense and fun to explore in practice.
The game starts in one corner of a map, and allows you to navigate to new squares which offer different status magnifiers and levels of risk and reward. On the first square you might only need to pull the trigger with one bullet loaded in the chamber, but as you progress the number goes up. So too does the reward.
With each successful pull netting you more gold and experience points. There's a skill tree, and protective helmets you can buy to survive more shots to the head then just the starting two, as well as health items, regen abilities, and spells.
Screenshot: Acclaim Entertainment (YouTube)
I hate Skinner Boxes and the general design of scheduled reward systems, but I'm also a sucker for them. The dopamine drip of overcoming an obstacle and then collecting a reward gets me every time. I also love combing through stat sheets and strategising about how my character will grow and become more powerful.
Roulette Knight manages to satisfy both of these appetites despite being a small freeware project born of a game jam. There's loot to buy, but resources are so tight it's never about collecting for collecting's sake. Instead, ideas like "farming" and "gambling" are strictly in the service of surviving another round. It makes rolling the dice over and over again, which is effectively what the roulette mechanic is, feel intense and sometimes revelatory, like when you squeak by with no health and get that crucial level up (don't underestimate +15% evasion).
The first video game item shop I ever walked into was in Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II. You might know it as that NES game with a half-naked Fabio Lanzoni on the cover. The shopkeeper sells you the usual stuff like keys to unlock chests and magic scrolls, but he'll also let you gamble if you're running low on cash.
His game of chance revolves around selecting which cup a skull rolling falling down a pyramid of bones will fall into. It's a fun time until you run out of money. If you keep hopping around the store for too long with no money to spend, the shopkeeper will even pick you up by the lapels and throw you out.
I've never beaten Ironsword but I've spent a hell of a lot of time trying to game its economy by playing with those skulls, and it's held a special place in my heart ever since.
I think that's partly why I've enjoyed Roulette Knight so much. It basically takes the logic and appeal of the RPG item shop, weaponises it, and then tries to kill you with it. What if a game's entire adventure took place in front of a store counter? That's the question the game seeks to answer, and it does it surprisingly well.