1987 was a stellar year for gamers, boasting the release of many games that would go on to make their designers millions. Contra, The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Metal Gear, Street Fighter, Mega Man, Maniac Mansion and Final Fantasy all saw debuts, heralding multi-million dollar franchises in the video game industry on par with the largest film franchises.
1987 was also the year Nethack was born, a game with no graphics distributed for free on Usenet before the internet was a thing. A mere 25 years later, Nethack is being played regularly by millions of people, people still challenging each other with online tournaments and new tests of expert gameplay.
The premise of Nethack is simple. You are an adventurer tasked to recover the famed Amulet of Yendor, an artifact that you need to give to your god in order to receive immortality. To find the amulet, run down to the bottom of the dungeon, grab it and get back to the top.
Along the way you will run into enemies. These include everything from innocuous newts to angels, demons and Death itself. Medusa blocks the path barely halfway down. Adventurers that make it into the astral and elemental planes will eventually be harassed by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A very basic quest becomes incredibly complicated to complete.
Finding the tools to complete the task requires a little luck and a lot creativity and cunning. Armor and weapons, magical and not, litter the dungeons. Occasionally, shops and temples will appear to offer assistance – for a price. A pet is there to get your back until you get it killed or lose it somewhere in the Gnomish Mines.
Nethack has survived for so long because of its depth. It is detailed to a level that most games would beg for. Items have so many uses that new players can die from hunger while they’re just walking around playing with things. Potions are layered enough to allow alchemy. Scrolls and spells do interesting things based on your state of mind. The blessing of your god is of the utmost importance and whether that blessing is given or not can affect the game in too many ways to count.
Because the game is free, fans have done a huge amount of work on it. This has provided a range of mods for people to try out with rules adjustments for days. It has also provided graphics.
The basic game now comes with a basic tileset. The tiles aren’t detailed, but they do look like they’re supposed to which makes them much easier to read than the ASCII boards the game was originally played on. Fan built tilesets offer graphics from popular fantasy worlds or personal artistic interpretation. Builds like Vulture take it one step further, adding three-dimensional gameplay. The game still isn’t gorgeous but it’s more than adequate for people that treasure game design over game style.
Nethack is the perfect dungeon crawl. It’s easy to learn but very hard to master, like chess! It requires patience and creativity to succeed, and if you play it you will be both smarter and cooler for it.
Plus, we’ll be able to discuss the ridiculous ways we died.
You can download the official Nethack release here.
Need spoilers? Use the Nethack wiki.