Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Must . . . Play . . . Nethack

by Anand Ramachandran

Let’s get the gist out of the way – Nethack is one mean mother of a game. It grabbed me – conqueror of Morrowind, Lord of Baldur’s Gate, Jedi Master of KOTOR – and turned me into a frustrated, weeping, sniveling level 3 wimp. What could be better?

I have attacked this game about thrice a day over the past two weeks. I have, among other things :

  • picked a lock with a credit card

  • accidentally killed my own dog

  • eaten carrion

  • had sex with a succubus who seemed not to enjoy it very much

  • bought tinned food

  • had my ass saved when my God answered a prayer

  • broken a camera

  • had the most enjoyable hallucination trip since . . well . . . a while

  • stripped naked to squeeze through a narrow gap

God! And I haven’t even scratched the surface of this wretchedly deep hack and slashfest RPG. Curses.

Oh – sorry. I’m talking about Nethack, of course. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Nethack is a modern day variant of the RPG classic Rogue, in which you explore a devious dungeon filled with, naturally, traps, monsters and treasure.

However, Nethack, like Rogue, does not resort to frighteningly realistic graphics or sudden loud noises to frighten the gamer ( as far too many slasher movie type games tend to do these days. Good on you, Valve.) In fact, these games are characterized by their use of ASCII characters to create their worlds – your character is an ‘@’ symbol, and orc is an ‘o’, a bat is a ‘B’, and so on. So nVidia and ATI – you know where you can put your processing power. All commands are input by simple keystrokes or combinations of them. It sounds simple, but it’s an ingenious, devilishly complex system that is unmatched in richness. Look at some of the screenshots below to see what I mean.

ASCII based graphics. No clipping problems. Hooray.

Falcon's Eye provides a graphical interface for Nethack. Great for newbies.

All the classic RPG elements are included. Races and Character classes (including esoteric ones like Samurai, Archaeologist, Valkyrie and Tourist) – check. Shops – check. Magical traps – check. Cool equipment and artefacts – check. Scary monsters – check. Cute, fuzzy pet – check.

What sets Nethack apart, for me, though, is its sheer unpredictability. I’ve played about fifty times, and each game has been tellingly, dramatically different. I’m not talking mild, cosmetic, Diablo difference here – I’m talking seriously different experiences. Don’t believe me? Try it.

This, people, is imaginative, joyful game design. A game that can scare the pants off you one minute, and make you double up with laughter the very next. This is the spontaneous magic that often eludes big-name releases. This is what the open source movement is capable of – high quality content that can only be achieved by love of the craft, king-sized budgets be damned.

Of course, did I mention that Nethack is free? Yep – you pay Nada for one of the best gaming experiences on the planet. Long live open source. Eat this, EA.

A warning – Nethack is a difficult game. Most beginners keep dying, as I quickly found out. But with patience, and a bucketful of good advice available on the Net, you’ll soon start descending into the deeper levels, and discovering the endless delights therein. Stay with it. Trust me.

For beginners, I strongly recommend Falcon’s eye, a version of the game that uses some elementary, but serviceable graphics, and a friendlier point and click interface. Makes it easier to get into Nethack.

And get into it you should. Forget the ethics and morals of the open source movement. Forget everything. This is a game every RPG fan has just got to play. At least to put all other hack ‘n slash RPGs in perspective.

You can download Nethack and its variants, including Falcon’s Eye, from www.nethack.org

1 comment:

  1. thanks for the post... I'm downloading the game right away.