Going Old-School with Nethack
"No! It's too strong! I ... oh, damn it, the f*cking troll killed Carbomb."
"What the hell are you talking about?" asks my wife Charlotte, who with a quick glance toward the little bed perched on our window-shelf can see that our cat, Carbomb, is still totally alive and sleeping peacefully.
"Oh," I say. "I set the game so that if I start with a pet cat, the cat's name is Carbomb."
"That's a game?"
"Sure. This little 'at' symbol is me, and that 'T' is a troll, and this is a ..."
"Sounds great," she says, and goes back to her book.
Okay, so perhaps not everyone understands the appeal of Nethack. Actually, it seems likely that the vast bulk of today's gamers have never heard of Nethack, which really is something of a shame. How many games do you know of which have been in near-constant development for thirty years, boast a stunning depth of artificial intelligence unrivaled by modern titles, and will run flawlessly on any computer, of any speed, running any operating system available?
We're talking about a game which uses the ANSI character set for its graphics, so it's not exactly processor-intensive and it's not looking for any 3D acceleration (there's a windows edition that uses a graphical tile-set, but real men go for the original). Granted, it's turn-based, which makes the AI slightly less stunning than it would be in real-time. And sure, it requires you to flex that big, grey muscle in your head in order to turn a 'T' into a hulking troll capable of dealing out great whomps of damage (not to mention returning from the dead). Still, Nethack is a fine title worthy of respect. It's the Clint Eastwood of games: venerable, spindly-looking, and yet somehow still a bad-ass who keeps on doing what he does at a high level.
Based on the original UNIX title "Rogue," Nethack is a dungeon-exploration game. The most easily-comparable modern titles would be the Diablo series, which certainly took their cue from Nethack and other Rogue-like games. The game is pretty easy to get into at the start. You're presented with a couple of simple choices: Name, Character Class, Race, Alignment ... standard D&D stuff. You're then dumped into the first dungeon level with a few inventory items and a pet (either a little dog or a kitten). From there, it's up to you to explore, fighting monsters, gathering items, and avoiding traps. Eventually, if you're good enough, you'll make it down through many levels - most randomly generated, some pre-created - to steal an amulet from the Wizard of Yendor, bring the amulet all the way back to the top of the dungeon and then through the astral planes, to lay at the altar of your God.
That's how you win the game, but mostly what you'll be doing at first is dying. A lot. You'll die of starvation. You'll die because you accidentally punched a shop keeper and he beat you to death. You'll die because a Gnomish Wizard cursed your two-handed sword, welding it to your hands, so you were unable to pick up that potion of extra healing you desperately needed. You'll die in ways that will make you snarl in frustration, or cackle in unexpected amusement. And while you're doing all of this dying, you'll be learning. Soon you'll know which monsters are safe to eat and which are poisonous. You'll know how to polymorph your dog into a silver dragon. You'll know how to survive for much longer than you were initially able.
Still, you'll probably never beat the game. No, I'm not kidding. I've been playing Nethack off and on since I was ten years old - back in the halcyon days of 1987 - and the only time I've ever seen the ending screen was when I cheated my way through the game. In fact, the only time I've even seen the Wizard of Yendor was that same cheat-riddled play-through. I did make it to his front door once without cheating, and was promptly drowned by a giant eel. Sonsabitches! Shoulda remembered my oilskin cloak.
It's quite possible that Nethack is the single hardest game I've ever played, and yet I keep coming back. Why? Because it's never the same experience twice. Huge chunks of the game are generated randomly each time you play, including most dungeon layouts and the monsters that populate them. These monsters can vary from incredibly stupid to highly intelligent. The smarter opponents will pick up items and use them, unlock doors, cast spells on you, and often do things that surprise you. The first time you die because an enemy picks up a potion of sleeping that you discarded, hurls it at your face, and proceeds to beat you to death while you sleep, you'll understand what I mean.
Feeling overwhelmed? Scared the game's going to be too hard or confusing? Don't worry too much -- you've got something I didn't have when I was ten: The Internet. The main Nethack site has lots of documentation links, and there's also the invaluable user-driven database at WikiHack which contains a veritable ton of information, tips, tricks and techniques, all easily searchable. Best of all, the game is totally free ... if you don't like it, you can walk away without feeling bad!
So don't be scared. Grab a copy and immerse yourself in another world. Sure, it's a little drab, but it's an important piece of gaming history that, I suspect, you'll enjoy a lot.