NetHack – A Retrospective Gaming Review

As computer gaming becomes continuously mainstream and accessible, and flashy graphics and polished presentations become the norm, it becomes difficult to believe that a game which sticks to the graphical standards of text-based terminals, which has an idiosyncratic interface and which is hardly instantly accessible would still be in development, let alone be a cult favourite. NetHack, a turn-based roguelike fantasy RPG, first developed in 1987 and still in development today, defies the current conventional logic in the industry by having a dedicated fan base and still sticking to the same gameplay and graphical standards as it did when it was developed.

The plot of NetHack, insofar as it exists, is pretty much boilerplate fantasy: the player takes the role of an adventurer of one of many classes and mythical species, who has been summoned by their god in order to make their way through the Dungeons of Doom in order to secure an artifact named the Amulet of Yendor. A lot of the setting elements take inspiration from conventional fantasy as well, with orcs, trolls, goblins, dragons and the rest of your cornucopia of mythical creatures. It’s when you get to the gameplay that things really start to become distinctive.

The gameplay of NetHack takes place on a tile-based map with randomly-generated levels, in the same vein as other roguelike games. As NetHack was originally developed for Unix minicomputers linked to dumb terminals, each of the tiles is represented by a single ASCII character which can represent anything from black space to a creature to a piece of equipment. Immediately, the game conspires to make things more difficult than most people have come to expect from a computer game, and while there are graphical rendering packages for the game, most players stick to the ASCII graphics. The movement controls are based around the H, J, K and L keys, which is unintuitive to most modern computer users, but which make sense to those who are familiar with Unix, the same keys being used in the vi text editor.

This picture, while looking completely incomprehensible to starting players, can easily be read by NetHack veterans.

At this point, the question remains to be asked: Why would people want to learn such an idiosyncratic interface for a simple game? The answer to that is simple: NetHack is hardly a simple game. Indeed, it is one of the most expansive, detailed and logically-developed games ever made, with something new to learn almost every time you play the game. There is so much to do in the game and so much freedom of choice in how to play that every game can be a different experience.

Internal logic is consistent and surprisingly realistic for a fantasy game, and with over twenty years of development, just about everything you might choose to do has consequences. Some tools, including the pick-axe, can also be equipped as reasonably effective weapons in addition to their more conventional applications. Carrying too much weight will slow you down, causing you to fall down stairs, but at the same time can also increase your strength over time.

Even very complex interactions have been thought out; the cockatrice, a creature which can turn other creatures – or the character – to stone, is a prime example. A cockatrice corpse can be used as a weapon, instantly turning any creature it touches to stone, but it must be equipped using gloves. If the character holding the cockatrice trips over, they will be instantly turned to stone, the consequences for falling on the corpse. The character can also be transformed through various magical means into the creature, and in that state lay eggs, which can be equipped by the character as throwing weapons which have the stoning effect on creatures.

This internal logic looks all the more impressive when one considers the sheer amount of content in the game. More than fifty levels are generated every time a full game of NetHack is played, and the game ably fills each of these levels with progressively more difficult creatures as one descends. Each of the thirteen classes which a character can take have their own distinctive set of specialties and characteristics. This leads to very different styles of play, some with melee-dominant skills, others stronger with bows and other ranged weapons, and others with magic. All of this adds up to a game where completion can take a few days, at least, and learning all of the hidden secrets of the game can take years.

That is, if you ever get to complete it. NetHack is not only a difficult game to get into, but an even more difficult game as one progresses. Complacency is not an option when playing NetHack; almost everything in the dungeon can kill the unprepared player – or the unlucky one. It is entirely possible to be killed on the first level of the dungeon, killed by animals as unassuming as kittens. In fact, it’s possible, as a knight, to die on the first turn, by failing to correctly mount your horse, slipping off and cracking your skull. What’s more, the game gives you a single save-file, which is erased as soon as the character dies, and is useful only as a way of saving progress if the game has to be stopped part-way through. The game is cruel to the unassuming, but to the aware, it makes a potentially thrilling challenge.

For such a difficult game, though, it never really takes itself all too seriously, with plenty of whimsy and craziness in the game. This is a game where the majority of deaths of experienced players usually happen to ants, where shoplifting players get attacked by bumbling police creatures which wield cream pies and rubber hoses. As such, the game avoids that po-faced seriousness that occasionally pops up in the fantasy genre.

NetHack isn’t a game for everyone. Its interface and its difficulty leave it with limited appeal within the wider set of computer gamers, but the variety and challenge are the endearing elements to those willing to learn. What is more, you can be assured that the game will continue to be developed and to evolve; the source code is available to all who want it under the game’s own open-source licence, allowing any programmer with sufficient skill and time to contribute to the project.

Bottom Line:NetHack is very much a game with niche appeal, but to that niche, it represents one of the most impressive bits of game design ever, with a real emphasis of substance over style.

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