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History
Hack

Page 2:
NetHack

Page 3:
Modding

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NetHack - Unix, Linux, IBM-PC, Macintosh, Windows, Amiga, Atari ST (1987)

From the very beginning, NetHack overloads the player with its complexity. It also doesn't really explain anything - you should have read the included guidebook before playing, and if something isn't there (and really, it's easier to list things that are in guidebook than the ones that aren't) then it's for you to discover. Like many RPGs, the game begins with character creation: choosing (or telling the game to pick them for you, but that's not advised for the beginners) your race, class, gender and alignment. There are certain restrictions though: samurai must be a lawful human, valkyries can only be female etc.

While the consequences of those choices seem mostly straightforward to everyone with roleplaying experience (e.g. the race determines starting and maximum stats while the class changes the way your character develops over time and influences his starting equipment), NetHack mixes things up by adding several features that make sense but are rarely seen in video games: for example, a knight has an honor code and he will be penalized for breaking it, the monk is a vegetarian, the samurai knows certain items by their Japanese names and your character can lay eggs (which sounds silly but can actually be used to kill several difficult enemies) while transformed into certain monsters only if female.

NetHack (Windows)

Despite not being written in an object-oriented language (the game was programmed in C), NetHack is a masterpiece of object-oriented design. Without getting into all the minutiae - everything in the game can be divided into hierarchically organized categories (for example, an orcish helmet is a helmet which is an armor piece which is an item) and the general rules are applied to higher-level categories while the more specific ones are applied to lower levels. Additionally, everything is further customized with attributes like weight, size or resistances. This allowed the DevTeam to set up complex rules for the game without reducing its randomness with too many scripted setpieces.

Vorpal blade, for example, is an artifact long sword (therefore it's also an item and a weapon which becomes more effective as the character develops his long sword skill) that has a 5% chance of beheading its target (usually an enemy, though if a weapon-using enemy gets his hands on it, the same fate can meet the player), killing it instantly. As a reference to Lewis Carroll, it will always behead a jabberwock but for obvious reasons it will not have any effects (besides usual damage roll) on the creatures without a head (funghi, slimes etc.). Similarly, telepathy can help you detect every creature on the level with an exception of those that are mindless and you will be unable to wear magic rings if you turn into something that lacks fingers.

The items in NetHack can be used in multiple ways, and it's probably the most complex (and most interesting) part of the game. In fact, there are so many things that can be done with them that the game had to introduce a text parser in addition to commands represented by lowercase and uppercase letters. It's also not just redundancy that could be solved by introducing a general-purpose 'use' command (although there is one: [a]pply): a potion can be [q]uaffed, put in a [Q]uiver, [w]ielded, [t]hrown (or [f]ired when in quiver), [d]ropped or [#dip]ped (in the water to dilute it or in an other potion to create an alchemical reaction). If it's a potion of oil, you can also light it on fire with an [a]pply command.

Of course, NetHack just wouldn't be itself if it didn't use many of those interactions to destroy your precious, useful items. Scrolls are damaged by fire and water, potions can shatter or freeze, weapons degrade if used for [E]ngraving and can break when used to [#force] a lock open. Unlike in many other roguelikes, the material from which the items are made matters too (as opposed to being only a part of their randomized appearance): organic materials burn and rot, iron rusts, glass breaks and stone is affected by stone-to-flesh spell. On the other hand, items made from certain materials might be useful in different situations: if you can't defeat a demon with your weapons, bashing him with a [w]ielded silver bell might be surprisingly efficient.

NetHack (IBM-PC)

NetHack is known for its difficulty - and people who complain about playing it for years and not being able to win are not exaggerating. It's the good kind of difficulty though - you don't need to grind for levels and simply being lucky is not as important as it was in Rogue (unavoidable deaths might happen though - this is known in the NetHack community as YAAD or Yet Another Annoying Death, as opposed to YASD or Yet Another Stupid Death which is used to describe the result of player's carelessness). While the game has many ways to kill your character instantly - from food poisoning to wands of death and bolts of divine retribution - all of them can be dealt with if the player is prepared enough.

One of the more deadly enemies in NetHack is a cockatrice which can turn unsuspecting explorers to stone if they as much as touch it with their bare skin (this even includes walking over its corpse while not wearing boots). While a newbie might wish death upon a programmer who came up with this idea, a seasoned NetHack veteran who knows how the game's world functions will be able to use it to his advantage. A [w]ielded (remember to wear gloves) cockatrice corpse or [t]hrown cockatrice eggs (as I said earlier, being able to lay eggs is an advantage that only female characters have) will instantly kill most (but not all) of the game's enemies, leaving behind a statue. In fact, those are actually NetHack's best (if only temporary, as the corpses rot away and eggs break) weapons, jokingly referred to respectively as 'rubber chicken' and 'grenades' by the game's fans.

Slaughtering your foes by throwing eggs at them might sounds silly but it's actually part of a common theme you're going to notice while playing NetHack. While the world is filled with magical potions, spellbooks and artifact weapons, some of the most useful items are actually the mundane ones. A towel can be [a]pplied to wipe your hands if they get greasy from canned food (you can't hold a weapon with greasy hands) or [P]ut on to cover your eyes, allowing you to use telepathy. A can of grease can cover your items with a protective layer of oil that will prevent corrosion and make mind flayer's tentacles unable to latch onto your helmet. Magic markers are literally magical and allow you to write scrolls. A photographic camera can be used to blind your enemies (provided they have eyes).

If there is a key to winning NetHack, it's to be prepared (that's a reason why the early game is much harder than the late game, even though you start by fighting rats and ants while in a finished game you'll have killed minotaurs, titans, demons and angels by the dozens). Preferably, you should get all the resistances (either 'extrinsic' - from wearing items - or 'intrinsic' - from eating corpses of certain enemies), have a way of reflecting magical attacks, have a reliable way of healing both hitpoints and status effects, fly or levitate, be able to controllably teleport at will, have a way of removing curses, be telepathic and have a source of conflict (causing the enemies to attack each other instead of you).

NetHack (IBM-PC)

While the gameplay of NetHack is pretty far removed from its origins (creators of Rogue probably never imagined that in a few years there will be a game based on it that allows players to become an invisible dragon-riding samurai with a flaming sword in one hand and a katana in the other one, fighting an immortal wizard in the depths of Gehennom), the plot stays true its roots. Once again, the character is supposed to retrieve a magical Amulet of Yendor from the bottom of a dungeon and bring it back up.

The story is expanded a bit though. The Amulet is now the property of Marduk, the game's creation deity, that was stolen by an evil god Moloch. To retrieve it, the player must descend into the hellish realm of Gehennom which lies beneath the Dungeons of Doom. There, he must perform a ritual of invocation to access Moloch's Sanctum in which the Amulet is hidden. After completing those tasks, the player must leave the dungeon, make his way through the Elemental Planes and sacrifice the Amulet on his god's high altar on the Astral Plane.

Like in many roguelikes, the plot isn't a huge part of the game. It functions mostly as the set of tasks to be performed: items needed to complete the ritual must be obtained (Bell of Opening received during a part of the game known as quest, Book of the Dead guarded by Wizard of Yendor, Candelabrum of Invocation kept by Vlad the Impaler - a boss so weak that the players try to kill him with 'Vladsbanes': the most unlikely items including but not limited to dead lizards, tin openers and dog whistles - and seven candles usually bought from Izchak's store in Minetown), bottom of the dungeon must be reached, the Amulet must be sacrificed on the Astral Plane. It's really just a long fetch quest, although the gameplay is so good that it's still fun.

While the plot is nothing special and the characters are there only to provide exposition, trade items or oppose you, NetHack still manages to create an interesting world. Sure, it's mostly patched together from various mythologies, D&D, Lord of the Rings, Discworld and other popular works in the fantasy genre but the end result is delightfully erudite (in a very nerdy way: the references range from Indiana Jones to computer science and quantum physics) and - perhaps - post-modern without being pretentious. The best examples of this are possibly the quests: they basically interrupt the game to toss the characters into a completely different setting, depending on character's class: a barbarian will face off against one of the major villains from Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, the healer will travel to the land of Greek myths, the samurai will battle against a (historical) shogun who started a civil war in feudal Japan etc.

NetHack (IBM-PC)

As hard as NetHack can be, its difficulty is still not enough for some people. For those who are able to beat the game even with harder to play classes like a healer or a tourist, there's always a possibility of completing it while adhering to a certain conduct: a self-imposed challenge that the game keeps track of. Some of the more popular ones include being illiterate (not reading or writing scrolls or spellbooks and not engraving anything), an atheist (where your only interaction with your god is sacrificing the Amulet on the Astral Plane) or a pacifist (never directly killing anything; pacifist players usually let their pets do the fighting).

While the idea of completing NetHack without killing monsters, using wishes or even eating (yes, a foodless conduct is a thing) sounds crazy, there are players out there for whom even that was too easy. They've invented their own extremely difficult challenges, the most well-known of them being a zen conduct: playing the whole game (with an exception of the ritual which requires reading Book of the Dead) with your character blindfolded. As anything in NetHack, those kinds of challenges can lead to a hilarious failure: one popular story describes a player who played one game on a public server for over a year, collecting every precious gem in the dungeon and using magic to turn rocks into gems (he needed a group of tame giants to carry all those gems). After all this work, he unknowingly quaffed a cursed potion of gain level (which causes the player to gain a dungeon level instead of an experience level) while on the first floor, causing him to be transported to the Plane of Earth (from which there is no return) without his gems and giants.

Of course, the game can also be made easier. Beginner players might want to try the e[X]plore mode which allows them to respawn after each death (with a sarcastic "Okay, so you didn't die" message) instead of starting from the beginning. Finishing NetHack in explore mode doesn't count as winning according to the community (just like shmup fans consider only one-credit runs to be victories) but is a good way to learn its intricacies. More experimental-minded players might also try wizard mode which allows for, among other things, teleporting to any place in the game, levelling up at any point and spawning arbitary items, monsters and dungeon features.

NetHack (Windows)

All the official versions of NetHack are basically the same, the only difference being the look and feel of game's graphic interface's window on different operating systems (an exception: MS-DOS doesn't have a graphic interface, requiring the game to be played in a text mode). The gameplay doesn't change in any version. NetHack can be played either in color ASCII mode (with optional 'IBM Graphics' and 'DEC Graphics' which draw walls as straight lines) or a tile-based mode. The game is controlled with a keyboard, preferably one that includes a numpad.

NetHack's options (stored in a defaults.nh file in game's folder) allow a great degree of customization. It's even possible to change which letters signify what monsters, load custom tilesets or write elaborate rules governing what items your character will pick up automatically (it's more useful than it sounds as there are things out there you shouldn't be picking up; in fact, in extremely rare circumstances a character who automatically picks up everything might be killed on the first turn, before even getting a chance to move). It's not Angband-level softcoding where editing included text files was enough to make mods though - NetHack variants can be made only by modifying the game's source code.

As NetHack can be started in a terminal, it's easy to setup a server for online play. Players can connect to those servers with telnet or ssh (Windows doesn't have built-in SSH support so puTTY or similar software must be installed), without having the game installed on their computers. NetHack doesn't really have a multiplayer option though - the player can't interact with each other in any way other than watching games in progress and sending messages to players (they will be delivered in-game by a 'mail daemon' - a pun on demons you'll encounter in NetHack and daemons or background processes in Unix-like operating systems). If a player dies, there's also a chance that a level on which he was killed will be saved (with his grave and all the items he was carrying) as a 'bones level' that can be encountered by other players (this happens in single player too but obviously you'll find only the graves of your characters so it's quite boring).

NetHack is an exceptional game. It's a result of literally decades of hard work - and it shows in how big, complex and fine-tuned everything is. It's world is a fantastic mixture of various pieces of nerd culture - and there's a lot of passion, humor and unique charm in it. It cannot be overstated how big and complex NetHack is: as long as this article may be, it didn't even cover half of the game's mechanics. It'd probably take a short book to describe everything including dungeon branches, methods of identifying items, ways to die, religion, wishing and artifacts.

That is not to say that NetHack is without its flaws. Learning the game is a serious time investment and will probably require reading walkthroughs (or 'spoilers' as they're called among the game's fans), the interface is sometimes a bit clunky, you'll probably go insane trying to get your pet to follow you downstairs and the Gehennom levels can get pretty tedious and boring if you don't bring enough scrolls of magic mapping. It is more than worth the frustration though as despite its age it's one of the finest experiences gaming has to offer - a truly timeless classic in a medium where works that age well are an exception, not the rule.

Quick Info:

Developer:

  • NetHack DevTeam

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NetHack (IBM-PC)

NetHack (IBM-PC)

NetHack (IBM-PC)

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NetHack (IBM-PC)

NetHack (IBM-PC)

NetHack (Windows)

NetHack (Windows)

NetHack (Windows)

NetHack (Linux)

NetHack (Windows)

NetHack (Windows)

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NetHack (Windows)

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NetHack (Windows)


Comparison Screenshots


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History
Hack

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NetHack

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Modding

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