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by Maciej Miszczyk - February 2, 2015

History - from Beneath Apple Manor to NetHack

In 1980, a video game called Rogue was released for the Unix-based mainframe at UC Santa Cruz. The game's challenging nature, easy to understand nature and, most importantly, its use of procedural generation to create levels (despite not being the first RPG game to do that - two years earlier Don Worth created a little-known proto-roguelike Beneath Apple Manor) made it extremely popular among students and professors alike - first on various university mainframes, later on home microcomputers.

The development of Rogue was taken over by Ken Arnold and the game itself moved from Santa Cruz to Berkeley - home of the BSD operating system and free software license, vi text editor and a large part of 1980s hacker culture. The popularity of Rogue became so great it was even included in some of the BSD releases. But there was something about Rogue that didn't really fit into the ideals of the hacker culture - it was closed-source, and the home computer versions were distributed commercially.

Ken Arnold

Naturally, the hackers did they best they could to create their own, free and open-source versions of Rogue for their computers of choice. The early roguelike games were, at first, literal clones (or attempts at such) of the popular Unix game. As time went by, those games grew more complex and introduced many new mechanics - from the town in Moria and Larn to multiple endings of Omega.

One of such clones was Hack, created by Jay Fenlason in 1983 and its gimmick was quite simple - this time, the adventurer was not alone. Instead, he entered the dungeon with a little dog who would help him in combat. As the game was open source, when the original creator stopped updating it, the development was taken over by Andries Brouwer who greatly expanded upon it. Hack (by 1985 featuring the ability to pick the character's class and gender as well as special rooms, complex mazes and elemental attacks and resistances) soon became nearly as popular as Rogue - especially thanks to USENET through which the source code was distributed.

Andries Brouwer

As the game became popular on newsgroups such as net.sources, net.sources.games and net.games.hack, players started developing their own modifications and ports to different platforms. When the game was once again abandoned by its creator, a fan named Michael Stephenson created his own fork of the project called NetHack and posted it to comp.sources.games newsgroup in 1987. Its earliest releases were simple modifications of the old Hack and its ports, adding several monsters and character classes to the existing game, but the complexity of NetHack grew with each subsequent release.

The game was not developed by Stephenson alone, though. In 1986, the NetHack DevTeam was established. This group consisted of various fans of Hack and communicated mostly through e-mail and USENET (hence the 'net' in game's title). The team included, among many other people, Eric S. Raymond (a programmer and free software advocate) and professor Izchak Miller (a philosopher specializing in phenomenology). After Miller's death in 1994, the character named Izchak was added to the game in his memory (he's the owner of a lighting store in Minetown).

Over the years, the DevTeam expanded upon NetHack, fixed bugs and posted new versions on rec.games.roguelike.nethack (commonly abbreviated as 'RGRN' - a newsgroup that for years was the main hub of the NetHack community and is active to this day). The game grew to be one of the most complex, well-designed and bug-free titles ever created and kept a strong cult-following despite its extremely antiquated presentation.

The last release of NetHack was the 3.4.3 version, posted to the official website in 2003. Since then, no updates were posted and some members of the community even considered the project to be abandoned (variant called NetHack 4 was even developed as an unofficial continuation of the game). In 2014, a new version appeared under the name NetHack 3.5 (as well as alternative names 3.5.0 and 3.4.4). According to the DevTeam announcement, it's not an official version but a leaked unfinished draft of what's supposed to be in the next release.

Beneath Apple Manor (IBM-PC)

Rogue (Unix)

uMoria (IBM-PC)

NetHack (Windows)

NetHack (Windows)


Hack - Unix, PDP-11, IBM-PC, Linux (1983)

NetHack's predecessor is a surprisingly unremarkable game. Its early releases are just clones of Rogue with more monsters (represented by both lowercase and capital letters) and a friendly dog that travels with your character, while the latter ones are simply underdeveloped, less complex versions of NetHack.

The games take place in a generic fantasy world (the title refers to the concept of hack and slash which now is usually used to describe action-RPGs or zeldalike video games but back then referred to combat-oriented tabletop RPG campaigns) with no exposition about it. Presumably, it's the same as the one in Rogue as this game (just like its more popular descendant) also deals with the search for Amulet of Yendor, an item of vaguely defined magical powers. Interestingly, several versions of Hack rename it to Amulet of Frobozz as a reference to Zork, a series of text adventure/interactive fiction games.

Generally speaking, the player must descend to the bottom of the randomly-generated dungeon, get the Amulet (which requires killing the Wizard of Yendor in later versions) and go back up. On his way, the player battles against the wide assortment of fantasy-themed monsters (fighting is done by moving to the square occupied by the enemy character) and tries not to starve, which is easier in the later versions where killed enemies leave edible corpses.

Later versions of Hack are otherwise harder than the early releases as the game throws in various ways to die instantly. The most well-known are the cockatrices which can turn the player to stone (also present in NetHack) and 'Hell' levels (below level 30 of the dungeons) which end the game instantly if entered without the source of fire resistance.

Hack 1.0.3 (IBM-PC)

Possibly the most interesting thing about Hack is that despite there being many different versions of it, most of them are lost: the tapes containing the very first release are missing, Brouwier's posts containing the game's source code haven't been completely archived etc.

In fact, there are only two versions of Hack available to the player: Hack 121 and Hack 1.0.3. The former is an IBM-PC port of some early release. It uses colored DOS textmode graphics similar to Epyx's version of Rogue and, unlike any other version of the game, begins in a shop in which a player can choose his equipment. Other than that, it's a straightforward Rogue clone and it doesn't even have Hack's iconic dog.

Hack 1.0.3 is available for DOS, Unix and several unix-like systems (Linux, BSD). It's a monochrome ASCII game. As the latest known release of Hack, it feels almost like NetHack in certain respects: there are character classes (even though they have to be selected by starting the game with special command-line options as the game lacks character creation menu), the enemies leave corpses, there are artifact items etc. It's still pretty basic though and the game relies heavily on luck. Some of the most interesting NetHack features like a complex system of interactions between items, dungeon branches, quest or gods haven't been implemented yet so I can't really recommend this game beyond its historical significance: both the simpler Rogue and the more complex NetHack provide better experience.

Quick Info:

Designer:

  • Jay Fenlason
  • Andries Brouwer

Genre:

Themes:


Hack 1.0.3 (IBM-PC)

Hack 121 (IBM-PC)

Hack 121 (IBM-PC)


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