The newt hits! You die...

Publication date: 13 September 2011
Originally published 2011 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.

 

If you call yourself a gamer, but you've never played NetHack, I really must insist that you do.

NetHack on the big screen!
source: Flickr user warthog9

If you never have, I understand. Everything about NetHack - pretty much everything about this whole category of "roguelike" games, actually - could have been carefully engineered to repel new players.

Eighty-column, coloured-text "graphics" (tilesets are for the weak). No sound. Turn-based. Keyboard control.

And roguelikes, famously, have a degree of difficulty that no popular modern game - which is to say, no game that more than a tenth of the people in the comic-book shop can be expected to have played - can match.

(Well, OK - maybe Demon's Souls.)

In roguelikes, "hardcore mode" is the default mode. A proper hardcore mode, not something like the Mildly Irksome Mode in "Fallout: New Vegas".

Roguelikes are difficult in a different way from all of the old super-hard action games. Those games were so hard either because they were originally arcade games that were expected to make money (hel-oooo, Ghosts'n Goblins!), or because there really wasn't much content to them, so they got playtime from difficulty rather than actual stuff to do. (Look at Conan: Hall of Volta for the Apple II, for instance. Seven one-screen levels. No save. Can be played through in eight minutes and 38 seconds. Most players never finished it.)

Saving the game in NetHack and most other roguelikes is just a kind of pause button. When you load the save, the game deletes it. When you die, you die. Unless you back up your savefiles (not good form at all, old chap), or play in "Wizard" mode, where you can resurrect from most deaths.

You won't learn properly using Wizard mode, though. There's enough variation in NetHack's swirling cloud of interacting elements (as I write this, nethackwiki.com has 2,122 articles...) that you won't find yourself going through the same tedious early-game stage over and over just because you keep getting murdered before you see Level 3. Even if you play the same character race and class every time, you'll be learning. And, with any luck, having fun.

Not least because of NetHack's odd combination of D&D dungeon crawling and generalised nerdy silliness.

You can blind Asmodeus with a cream pie. You can be attacked by the ghost of one of your previous characters. You can give just about anything a name. There is a customisable fruit. And oh, so very many ways of extracting items from shops without paying. (And, preferably, surviving.)

But really, have a go at it. Or at some other roguelike. You could start with the much simpler Larn, or the positively bonsai You Only Live Once. But NetHack is the king, and I say this as someone who's finished ADOM.

(Once. The easiest ending. I have also only managed to kill the Balrog once.)

Roguelikes are great if you like the idea of dungeon delving but are not crazy about twitch games, or the endless clicking of Diablo-style action RPGs. If watching pro Starcraft players gives you sympathetic RSI, bear in mind that high Actions Per Minute in NetHack is a handicap.

The game is turn-based. Nothing happens until you press a key. Some actions, like looking at your inventory, don't take any time at all.

So if you're in a deadly situation, you can go and make a cup of tea while you think about it. Only people spectating on your game (if you're playing on a shared Internet NetHack server) will be annoyed by this.

I don't insist that you actually become good at NetHack - lord knows I'm a total patzer. But you should at least play long enough to learn what being good at NetHack looks like. Because then a greater enlightenment awaits you.

The goal of NetHack is to "ascend". Get through the branching trick levels at the end, grab the Amulet of Yendor against the wishes of the extremely annoying Wizard of the same name, go to the Astral Plane, and join the endless feast in Valhalla.

If you learn NetHack naturally, without constantly alt-tabbing to the Wiki, you can expect to put in hundreds of hours of play before you ascend for the first time. Plain old luck won't cut it. Even if the Random Number God loves you, you're still not even going to make it to the vibrating square, or know what the heck the vibrating square is, until you learn, at some length, how to play.

When you've got the basic idea, go to alt.org/nethack. It's a Web site for people who play NetHack the old-fashioned way, via Telnet. No-one can cheat there, you can play on the nethack.alt.org server, and you can also watch TTYREC recordings of past games, or even watch games currently being played (yet another candidate for wall-projection during your next nerd party!).

Alt.org also have statistics. Some of which are astonishing.

The obvious NetHack leaderboard categories are ascending in the minimum possible number of turns (or, extremely perversely, the minimum possible amount of real-world time), or ascending most consistently no matter what cards the game deals you at the start.

(A standard lousy-NetHack-player technique is to play very riskily at the beginning of the game and just start a new character if you die. This partially accounts for the second-most-common cause of death at nethack.alt.org being the lowly jackal, which is actually hardly dangerous at all, unless you're very low level and playing very poorly. As I write this, the number-78 killer is the grid bug, a monster which is asymptotically close to totally harmless, and number 241 is the acid blob, which has no attack and can only hurt you by splashing acid on you when you hit it. Oh, and number 155 is "choked on a food ration", a staggeringly stupid death, since food rations are not one of the edible items that boosts your stats, so there's no reason to eat one if you're already full and thus in danger of choking on further food.)

It's not the most life-affirming leaderboard category, but the pithily-named Top Timewasters certainly have managed some sort of achievement. And, of course, you can also just try for the highest numeric score.

But then, there are Conducts. (Which actually debuted in a NetHack spin-off called Slash'EM, and were then added to the parent game.)

NetHack tracks, you see, how you play. What you do. And, more importantly, what you don't do.

If you never pray, for instance, you get the "Atheist" conduct. If you never wish for anything, you get "Wishless". And if you want just a little more challenge in your game, you can never eat anything (and yes, you do normally have to eat to survive), or even never hit anything with a weapon.

Ordinary NetHack players like you and me receive our moment of humbling enlightenment when we discover that there are further, "unofficial" conducts, not tracked by the game and only provable by a cheat-proof, game-recording server like nethack.alt.org.

There are many unofficial conducts, some of which are just jokes; if you make it to the end of the game, for instance, it is not difficult to ascend "stoned, in beachwear" - wearing only a Hawaiian shirt, and hallucinating.

But then, there are the very, very few people who've ascended with the "Zen" unofficial conduct.

All you have to do for the Zen conduct is play the whole game, except for one unavoidable late-game reading of a book, with a blindfold on.

Completing NetHack while blindfolded is not as hard as, say, winning the Bathurst 1000 in the same condition. It won't impress the kids on Xbox Live, either. And it's not much actual fun.

But boy, does it ever put those annoying Grand Theft Auto helicopter missions in perspective.

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