Initially created in 1985 to run on UNIX text terminals, NetHack is arguably the canonical example of the “Roguelike” genre, in which the environment, the player, and NPCs are represented by ASCII characters.
Since initial release, NetHack has undergone years of significant improvement by the mysterious “devteam”, who release a new major version every few years. Despite (or perhaps because of) the primitive graphics, this constant refinement over decades has resulted in gameplay of great depth and variety.
While the game ostensibly rotates around the staples of character statistics, combat, inventory, and spells, the player will find that strung along the randomly-generated dungeons are key places and creatures that present an emergent narrative without requiring wordy exposition, gently directing or distracting the player from the overarching quest to retrieve the hoary old Amulet of Yendor.
Death, or indeed any action in the game, is final. The player cannot revert to a previous save point. The game is saved on exit and deleted when reloaded. Otherwise, saved games are inaccessible to the player. Every action the player takes is therefore irrevocable. Since a single game may easily last days or weeks, it is rarely worth starting over, no matter what setback in encountered, and so the player must learn to live with his failures as well as his successes, and tremendous emotion may be invested in the precious avatar.
While there is no plot, per se, the character is tasked with delving into the dungeon, retrieving the Amulet of Yendor, bringing it to a god’s altar in heaven, and sacrificing it; after players do that, they “ascend” (essentially, winning). Doing this is much easier said than done, especially without the use of spoilers (which are generally frowned upon in the hardcore community).
The gameplay is absolutely ruthless. The gods of the Random Number Generator will throw multitudes of chaotic, overlapping situations toward the player, which may result in immediate death for the unwary adventurer. From mineral-digesting worms that eat through walls, to moments quietly training pets to shoplift items from within the shop, to looking forlornly at the wand that could easily save the day if only the player still had arms to pick it up, there is never a dull moment. However, for every pinnacle of triumph, achievement, and joy, there are depths of anguish, terror, and frustration. In many ways, this is the reason NetHack captures the imagination of so many – it does not try to please the player. It simply exists by its own set of rules. Players contort to accommodate them if they are to have any chance of survival.
There are a variety of graphical interfaces through which the game may be played, from simple text terminals, tile-based hand-drawn graphics, to 3-D isometric representations (i.e. Falcons Eye). Although these all present the same underlying gameplay, expert players tend to prefer the simpler interfaces for their clarity, responsiveness, and ability to be driven entirely via keyboard.
- There is an annual NetHack championship, held at http://nethack.devnull.net, which starts at midnight on Halloween, and lasts through the month of November.
- NetHack is a free download, from http://www.nethack.org, and it runs on all types of computers. Players can also play it online at nethack.alt.org via telnet.
- With over 26 years of development and counting, NetHack is one the few games that has a fanbase that is largely younger than itself.
- Since the 8th of December, 2003 development of Nethack has ceased.