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NetHack (PC) artwork

NetHack (PC) review


"Thereís a saying in the NetHack community that the DevTeam thinks of everything, and itís true. The game is so deep and fully realized that itís impossible to put down. Once youíre hooked, you keep coming back no matter how frustrating it gets sometimes, because NetHack isnít just a game. Itís an addiction."



NetHack is older than I am, and next to modern-day creations, it looks pathetically wanting with its sorry MS-DOS interface and ASCII visuals, but the fact that people still play it should tell you something. Itís a unique game. For one, it was developed by a bunch of people on Usenet rather than some video game company. Anyone with a little programming knowledge can edit or improve it, and the result handily demonstrates the idea that open-source software produces a superior product. NetHack isnít just any old game: itís the Rogue-like RPG by which all others are judged, and it doesnít need to be pretty.

You are an adventurer who figured it was a good idea to explore the Mazes of Menace to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor for the glory of your god. You pick a class, race, sex, and alignment, and while youíve got your elves and dwarves, wizards and rogues and barbarians, NetHack goes beyond standard genre fare. Archaeologists specialize in tool use and start with equipment strikingly reminiscent of Indiana Jones, while tourists have cameras for weapons, credit cards, and Hawaiian shirts that do nothing but make shopkeepers rip you off.

As soon as your character is made, youíre thrown into the first of over fifty randomly generated floors in the dungeon, promptly die, and meet the high score list for the first of many, many times. If you want to keep playing, youíre going to have to make a new character. In NetHack, you canít just reload from a save every time you do something stupid; you have to live with your mistakes, and when you die, thatís it.

Youíd better get used to it, because the dungeon has an endless variety of ways to kill you, and it doesnít hesitate to use them. This game is so obscenely difficult that many people play for years and never win. But thereís so much to do and see that by the time you start really minding, youíre good enough to make a serious bid for victory.

The development teamís attention to detail is painstaking. Take the cockatrice, for example. Its touch turns any creature not immune to petrification into stone--and not just when it attacks you. Everything from fighting it bare-handed to kicking it without wearing boots to eating its eggs counts as touching it. The danger doesnít go away when it dies--but if you have gloves, you can wield its corpse as a weapon, although itíll still kill you if you fall down a pit or flight of stairs and land on it. If you polymorph yourself into a female cockatrice, you can lay eggs, which can be hatched for use as pets or thrown as projectile weapons, as they petrify enemies on contact. Similarly, when a mind flayer eats part of your brain, you donít just lose points of intelligence: you can actually forget the layout of some levels and the identified status of a number of items. However, wearing a greased helmet deflects its attacks, or at least until the grease wears off.

Then thereís a monster called a quantum mechanic, and every once in a while it drops a box with a housecat named SchrŲdingerís cat inside that has 50/50 odds of being dead when you open it. NetHack picks no bones about the fact that itís made by nerds for nerds. It alludes to everything from Star Trek to Discworld, even sporting t-shirts with slogans like ďDonít PanicĒ and ďI explored the Dungeons of Doom and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.Ē

Dungeon-crawling is indeed thankless sometimes, but itís made a little easier by the fact that you can tame monsters to fight at your side as your pets. You start the game with a little dog, cat, or horse that follows you around and attacks monsters, but it can go feral if you abuse it or leave it alone on a different floor. You can saddle and ride some of them, even train them to pick up items (e.g. steal them from shops) and bring them to you. With late-game spells and magical figurines, itís entirely possible to assemble an army of dragons, mind flayers, high-ranking angels, you name it--but be careful, because they might turn against you if you donít treat them well.

Feeding them makes them tamer, though. Both you and your pet starve to death if you go too long without food, and monster corpses are a vital source of nutrition, especially during the beginning of the game. You have to be picky about which corpses you eat, though; some poison you, stun you, or cause you to hallucinate, some turn you into a werebeast or make you randomly teleport around the map, and most rot if you hold onto them too long. You can gain magic and status resistances, the ability to telepathically see the locations of all monsters on the level when blind or blindfolded, become permanently invisible, or gain control of random teleportation (which is also granted by corpse-eating). These abilities help, and in the dungeon, you need every bit of help you can get.

If youíre really in a bind, you can pray to your god for help. If you do it too often or when you donít really need it, though, your god will become angry with you, but being able to pull a deus ex machina our of your pocket every now and greatly then mitigates the annoyance of the lack of reloads. You can also sacrifice the corpses of enemies on altars to increase your luck and alignment, and sometimes your god blesses you or gives you a powerful item.

But donít get cocky; your awesome spells and amazing armor class wonít protect you from doing something moronic like meleeing a jelly until its passive attack kills you because you are INVINCIBLE and don't need to pay attention, right? (Oh, how well I know!) This game is merciless. You die a lot, sometimes because the RNG hates you, but more often because of your own stupid mistakes. But you learn from them, and five minutes later youíll be back in the dungeon again, grimly determined that this will be the time. Sure, youíll probably die again, but youíll get farther than you did last time. After you get past the initial learning curve, NetHack never really makes you feel that winning is impossible; only your failings stand in your way. Youíll keep playing because you know you can do it someday, and in the meantime, every floor you manage to clear is a little victory, a rude gesture in the face of your impending doom. Youíll keep playing because this is a game worth beating.

Thereís a saying in the NetHack community that the DevTeam thinks of everything, and itís true. The game is so deep and fully realized that itís impossible to put down. Once youíre hooked, you keep coming back no matter how frustrating it gets sometimes, because NetHack isnít just a game. Itís an addiction.

Rating: 10/10

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Featured community review by viridian_moon (May 06, 2007)

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