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Nethack – A Traditional Roguelike Game

Remember: “The Devs Think of Everything”

Nethack is a modern roguelike dungeon crawling game, and perhaps the one most exemplary of the entire genre. It utilizes top-down ASCII or tile perspective, procedural dungeon generation with certain special, static levels, unparalleled complexity, turn-based hack and slash play, and high difficulty. While Nethack is considered a modern roguelike, it is very true to classic roguelike form and has been in development for over 30 years. Nethack is free, open-source, and available from the official website.

Story and Overview

Nethack takes place in the Dungeons of Doom, where an adventurer plagued with dreams of the dungeon goes on a quest for the mythical Amulet of Yendor – the same item sought in the original Rogue, the game on which the genre “roguelike” gets its name. On recovering the artifact, the adventurer is tasked with returning to the surface, rising through the elemental planes, and offering the amulet to his or her deity of worship for a place in the Godhead. This is not an easy task.

Even for a roguelike game, Nethack is exceptionally difficult. Completing the game, or ascending to immortality, is a major achievement. The dungeon offers little or no guidance short of the occasional fortune cookie or hidden message scribbled in the dust, items like potions and wands are unidentified by default and may be fatal if misused, and death is always permanent.

My dog, Trooper, and I wandering through the dungeon.

Complexity

Though Nethack at first appears to be simple, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Roguelikes are the most complex games on the market to begin with, but Nethack is exceptionally complex even for the genre. It’s the father of the popular roguelike phrase “the devs think of everything,” because even the smallest details in the game are accounted for. 

From keeping pets fed and trained to paying attention what you stick your weapon into to trying to figure out what all your unidentified potions and wands do, every single action in Nethack has consequences. Even seemingly small choices in the very early game have lasting, resounding repercussions that most players won’t even realize without the help of spoilers. Alchemy, item effects that depend on a characters alignment and condition, a developed religious system, and hundreds of monsters with unique abilities put Nethack in a league of its own.

As an example of unforeseen consequences for small actions, a player shares an unfortunate anecdote exemplifying how much the details matter:

 

“So, I’m in the mines battling a bunch of monsters. I put on a blindfold so I can use my telepathy to see what monsters are left. The last monster is a chickatrice. I kill the little guy in two swings and step over the body. Because I’m blind and telepathy doesn’t work on dead monsters, my character automatically reaches down to feel what’s on the floor and accidentally touches the chickatrice. What a terrible mistake.

The chickatrice’s body turns me to stone when I touch it with my bare hands. And that’s just one more reason why you shouldn’t wander through the dungeon with a blindfold on. Well, unless you’re wearing gloves.”

Secrets

Secrets in Nethack go hand in hand with its complexity. A player is considered “spoiled” if they use outside resources to learn and take advantage of Nethack’s many hidden mechanics, but without help it’s considered near-impossible to complete the game. While discovering secrets is a lot of the fun, Nethack’s mystery can be overwhelming and even off-putting to new players. Even experienced players routinely discover new secrets after years of play, which is impressive in and of itself. Whether a player chooses to spoil herself with help or not, beating the game remains very challenging.  Without some idea of how to identify the game’s hundreds of items (simply using or equipping them often doesn’t always work – or it kills you), it can be very difficult to know what things are and what they do.

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The Oracle (pictured as the blue @) may offer information, for a price.

More Information and Strategy

Nethack’s complexity and depth call for intensely strategic play. Virtually all runs in the Dungeons of Doom end in death, which is why an ascension is a memorable occurrence. Dying over and over again in the early levels is a long and frustrating way to learn the game, but there is a lot of help available to get new players started. Early game is where most deaths occur, but most players agree that the mid game is where Nethack really starts to shine. It is not uncommon to play for years and never even see the late game.

Luckily, many ascensions are complemented by an ascender-made post on Nethack’s active subreddit, generally including the strategic approach used, items found and lost, and important occurrences and turning points.  The community is always happy to offer help as spoiler-free as possible, so information on strategy is readily available. Nethack also has a well-made wiki with useful, up-to-date information to help players make viable choices throughout the game.

Final Words

Nethack’s simple interface and clunky control scheme belie a truly incredible machine. Nethack remains a pillar of the roguelike community and will continue to grow and evolve for years to come. Despite its learning curve, it’s a fun, addictive game that’s kept IT departments across the world “busy” at work for decades. At LRL, we highly encourage any serious roguelike fan to give the game a solid shot, and wish you all good luck down there in the Dungeons of Doom.

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