Our memory has grown a bit hazy lately with the glut of cookie-cutter, loot-based RPGs that have carved a wide swathe across the gaming landscape. For many, Diablo is the earliest incarnation of the dungeon crawler that readily comes to mind. Diablo, iconic as it may be, is forever indebted to a game that came nearly a decade before and set the gold standard for hack ’n’ slash RPGs, Nethack, a game that is simultaneously more complicated than any other game out there, yet almost small enough to fit on a single 3.5” diskette. As a representative of your deity, your adventurer must make its way to the bottom of the Dungeons of Doom and retrieve the amulet of Yendor, so that their god might ascend above all others. Things are never quite as simple as they sound.
Nethack was published in 1987 to comp.sources.games on Usenet as a refinement of its previous incarnation, Rogue. ‘Hack’ alludes to the swords-and-sorcery nature of the game, while the ‘Net’ prefix refers to the still active online community that regularly releases updates. You play the game entirely in ASCII, which means everything is text-based. Movement and actions are controlled by key combinations, and colored characters on the screen represent items, monsters and architecture in each randomly-generated dungeon. The low-tech design means that if you can read this, odds are your computer can play Nethack. The game is available for download, for free, on most operating systems at http://www.nethack.org.
As a case study in video-game history it’s interesting enough, but the real appeal of Nethack, and what keeps players coming back for more, is that the game is utterly merciless. Nethack sets the bar for sadism in video games—the controller-smashing frustration of Super Ghouls ’n Ghosts can seem like a welcome reprieve after a floating eye freezes your character and a grid bug nibbles you to death. Monsters, traps, rotten food, and a single ill-advised decision will put your character six feet under, over and over again.
You will die often, and there are no second chances. Once you die, your character’s gone forever - there’s no reloading, and you have to start at the beginning of the dungeon again as a level 1 bumpkin. You can save, but only to take a break from the game, since your save file is deleted as soon as you load it. Veteran hackers (as players endearingly term themselves) are all too familiar with the dreaded death screen: “Do you want your possessions identified? <y/n>”. Fortunately, with all that death you’ll have plenty of time to experiment with the 5 different races and 12 classes, leaving you plenty of wiggle room to find a play style that suits you.
Nethack is a difficult game, but it’s not entirely unreasonable. Once you have a grasp of the game’s mechanics you’ll find yourself making steady progress. The level of open-ended randomness in each game will always keep you on your toes—every action you take has butterfly effect-style ramifications. If you play as a dwarf, the gnomes and dwarves of the Gnomish Mines will be friendly to you, but you’ll be KOS to the goblins in the lower depths of the dungeon. A Healer is an easier class in the early game since they can heal themselves and conjure their own food, but they’ll hit a serious wall as they run up against tougher fauna. You can use that scroll of teleportation now to escape a horde of monsters, but you might regret it later when you activate an unidentified wand that buries you beneath an avalanche of boulders. You might want to ditch that cloak of frost resistance to ease your load, but there could be an ice giant just around the corner.
The versatile nature of the game is ultimately what makes Nethack so engrossing. Unlike modern games that prepackage your entertainment in hi-def visuals hi-fi surround sound, Nethack relies entirely on your imagination. Once you get into it, you'll breathe a sigh of relief when you see the "_" of your deity’s altar in the dungeon ahead, and you'll squirm in terror when you see the "L" of an arch-lich round the corner. The adventure isn't being force-fed to you by a screen, it's inside your head, which is exactly where it's best. The learning curve can be steep, but the reward is one of the most engrossing, satisfying and engaging games you’ll ever play.