Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Roguelike Review: NetHack

NetHack is the modern day, synonymous roguelike; it is the game other roguelikes are compared to. A direct heir of Rogue(1980) and Hack(1985), NetHack stays true to the source material while expanding the in-game content manyfold. NetHack is still being updated for new OSes, such as Mac OS. Amazingly, NetHack can be played by blind people with the proper Braille equipment.

NetHack starts with standard role playing character creation: enter your name, character class, race, and alignment. My character Max, for example, is a chaotic human barbarian. Your class and racial choice will determine your strengths and weaknesses during the game. As an example a barbarian excels in hand to hand combat; whereas a mage does not. Knowing your class and racial abilities is paramount to surviving the Mazes of Menace and beyond.

The player's main goal is to retrieve the fabled Amulet of Yendor from the Mazes of Menace and sacrifice it to your aligned god. You start with a trusty pet cat, dog or pony. Before starting the game it is advised to read the guidebook that comes with Nethack. Setting up game options and reading about different commands will help you in the long run.

NetHack is very unfriendly to new players. It takes no prisoners, it doesn't hold your hand and it will permanently kill your character. Monsters, starvation, drowning, poison, trap, explosion, choking and spells are a few of the many ways to die in this game. There is no tutorial and you will either have to read a starting guide or NetHack's provided guidebook for a basic introduction. There is an exploration mode which will make you invincible, but stops you from scoring points and winning the game. Exploration mode can be used to learn about the game before getting serious with personalised characters.

Dungeons are randomised, which means no two games will be exactly the same. Even your character's death will be used to create new dungeon levels. This randomisation is the key to NetHack's, or any other roguelike's, longevity. Remembering dungeon paths, death traps, choke points and escape routes will become second nature. Creating new paths and corralling monsters into single file are skills which every aspiring dungeoneer and spelunker must master. Traps litter the dungeons and one wrong step can lead to death. Watch your step, and keep your pet dragon close. 

As you, literally, eat your way through enemies you will learn which strategies work and which don't. Every death should be treated as a learning experience and eventually the secrets of NetHack will unfold before you. There are spoiler FAQs and in-depth guides, but these will ruin the delight of experimentation and surviving on your own. Completing the game without spoilers is said to be near impossible. There is a lot to remember. Writing things down in your own notepad will remind you of certain monsters, potions or scroll effects.

NetHack is slightly addictive; you will want to avenge your fallen characters; you will want to go deeper into the dungeon; you will want to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor or die trying; you will want to genocide undead liches. Trying new character classes and racial combos and exploring new dungeons paths can keep you playing Nethack for weeks, months or even years; you have been warned.

If slick 3D graphics are all you care about then this game is not for you. Imagination and personal narrative is what NetHack brings out in players. If graphics are important, NetHack does have assorted tilesets for GUI OSes. The program Vulture here turns NetHack into an isometric game for the ASCII averse, graphically inclined player. Vulture already comes with a copy of NetHack.

If you like Dungeons and Dragons, literary references, fantasy, sci fi, magic and adventure then NetHack is for you. If you lack imagination and patience or you hunger for bleeding edge graphics then NetHack is definitely not for you. Personally, NetHack is awesome.

NetHack is free and available here.


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