Nethack – the roguelike which you must play if you want your opinion on roguelikes to count for anything

nethackI’ve been meaning to post this for a while, of course, but there’s just so much to say about it… It’s intimidating. I’m not going to try to extol all of the many virtues of this game (you’re welcome to read about them here), but I will say a couple of things for the none of you out there who haven’t heard of Nethack:

First, if you’ve heard of roguelikes but you’re not entirely clear on what that means, “something something procedural generation… something something permanent death…” Well, this is the game you play. Of the major roguelikes, this is the one which sticks closest to the rogue formula. Think of Nethack as the core which defines the roguelike genre. So why this and not Rogue? Setting aside the pedantry that Rogue is not a roguelike, the reason is simply that Rogue is old. It was released in 1980 and its last feature release was in 1985. There were some bugfixes and ports in 2006/2007, but it’s basically the same game that it was thirty years ago. Good for its time, and that’s about it.

Nethack, meanwhile, has been under continuous development for twenty five years. It is, and I say this without hyperbole or exception, the deepest and most complex game there is. There’s a staggering amount of interactivity here – you will be playing this game for years before you’ve exhausted it all. The principle reason to play this over Rogue is that you will enjoy it more.

As for how you should go about doing that: Well there’s a guidebook, if you feel like doing some reading. Here’s something that’s a little more succinct, albeit out of date now (it’s still pretty much all accurate).

What I’m linking here is the official unmodified release. There is no audio, other than some system beeps, and no graphics, other than ASCII characters. A lot of people have trouble with that aspect, and many roguelikes have started introducing tilesets in response. Myself, I think this is a mistake. Bad graphics are much worse than no graphics, and the ASCII characters really get the point across well once you learn to interpret them. Bring your own soundtrack though.

nethack bat fightTo the left we see a new level one player (@) fighting a bat (B), the player’s loyal dog (d) is coming to help and should the player survive this encounter there is some money ($) lying on the floor in this room, waiting to be collected.

I learned to play on the unmodified release, but there are many variants available for those of you who must have graphics or don’t like the way that the inventory is handled (I can sympathize with this one). There’s a reddit thread about these here (from which I took the title of this post). However you choose to play it, just bear in mind that all roguelikes involve lots and lots of failure and death. For this reason they’re often described as difficult, and that’s true in a sense, but it’s really just a different type of game. Once you learn to embrace that dying is how the game is played, it stops being so frustrating (mostly).