By Jeff Miller
"At that time," says the Dev Team, "Mike Stephenson started writing patches to Hack 1.03. Eventually, as it became evident that Andries was not going to resume work on the project, the game that had evolved from Hack 1.03 was renamed NetHack in order to distinguish it from its parent. The "Net" in NetHack, by the way, refers to the Usenet, not to it being a networked game. The poor foresight in this choice has haunted the DevTeam ever since :-)
"The first release of NetHack was 1.4f, and was worked on by a number of people who contributed fixes and new functionality. Mike Stephenson acted as a librarian and configuration manager for the code and managed the 1.4f release as well as a 2.2 and 2.3 release. Somewhere in the 2.2-3 timeframe - the exact chronology is unclear here although it seems to be sometime in 1988 - Izchak Miller approached Mike with the idea of forming a group of interested people to develop the game. An initial group of people who were actively working on the code in an ad-hoc fashion at that time came together, and the DevTeam was born."
The Dev Team, unlike most commercial software development groups, keeps its mouth shut tight concerning upcoming features, with the lone exception of promising that the Y2K bug will be addressed in the next version. They donít even announce when a new version will show up or what the version number will be. It just "appears" at the official FTP site. Loosely organized, the members communicate via email, finish tasks, take suggestions (or even finished code blocks, which they love receiving), and churn out new versions.
Over the years, the Dev Team (a true Internet baby with members past and present hailing from Japan, the Netherlands, Israel, France, and half a dozen other nations) has built NetHack into a remarkable game. You want features? NetHack randomly generates most dungeon levels, but after a player visits them, they remain. Objects dropped on level two stay on level two. Annoyed at that nymph that stole your +3 Dragonbane? Search through the dungeon; sheís hiding somewhere. In addition, there are a number of branching dungeons (the Gnomish Mines and Vladís Tower, for example) and fixed levels (Medusaís Lair, Minetown, Fort Ludious, and the "Quest Levels" for each class, just to name a few) all of which NetHackers know as intimately as their own backyards.
Monsters use wands and other magical items with particular pizzazz. Meeting a gnome with a wand of death is a pitiful thing to behold, indeed. The polymorph code is also a marvel. With the appropriate magics, characters can transform into any monster in the game, complete with that creatureís innate abilities. Want a pet more powerful than the dog or cat you start out with? Polymorph yourself into a red dragon and lay some eggs -- your newly hatched brood will call you Mommy. You like grenades? Become a female cockatrice and lay "stoning bombs." Want the effects of that magic ring to be permanent? Turn into a Xorn and eat it. Hell, NetHackís even got a kitchen sink, and if you kick it, you might cough up a ring someone lost.
NetHackís plot is simple. The most powerful artifact of the gods, the Amulet of Yendor, was stolen by Moloch, god of evil, and hidden away in the Dungeons of Doom under the protection of the Wizard of Yendor (affectionately known to fans as "rodneY"). You are to recover the amulet and give it to your god so that he (or she) can kick every other godís righteous ass.
Be prepared to die. A piece of advice before playing NetHack. Read the spoilers. NetHack is very quirky and some of the most important survival tactics have a tenuous justification at best. Unlike most games, spoilers donít spoil NetHack. They make it playable. Trust me.
Though its source is also publicly available, NetHack doesnít have nearly as many variants as Angband. Still, youíll definitely want to try SlashíEm (Super-Lotso-Added-Stuff-Hack-Extended-Magic), a popular variant based on earlier variants (NetHack+ and Slash) and developed by Warren Cheung and Kevin Hugo. SlashíEm adds more spells, more classes, more items, more quests ... just a lot more stuff than you can shake a stick at plus the ability to ride certain pets. Sure, itís a little buggy, but itís definitely playable, and Cheung and Hugo are continually releasing more stable versions.
ADOM: The New Kid on the Block
A few years ago, when ADOM was first released in beta (itís still in beta, but donít take that to mean that ADOMís not a complete game -- it most certainly is), it hit the Roguelike scene like a neutron bomb. Its initial distribution had over 5,000 downloads in its first week; the latest version has had over 50,000.
The brainchild of Thomas Biskup, ADOM, which stands for Ancient Domains of Mystery, has all the core features of a Roguelike, but adds so much more: a large wilderness area with multiple towns, dozens of quests, multiple dungeons, NPCs that talk to you (albeit simply, but itís a start), skill development, and, most important, a branching plot in a coherent world: chaos seems to have taken root in the Drakalor chain and itís up to you to get to the bottom of the mess.
"I have been playing roleplaying games for more than 15 years," says Biskup, "and when I discovered Hack on an Amiga CD, I really was overjoyed. Sadly it was neither stable nor fast and thus I played only a few games before resigning. Later I tried DND (even simpler than most Roguelike games but very fascinating as far as I am concerned) and then I finally stumbled upon NetHack, which I really liked in most respects. I played for a time, but never was very successful and started to dislike some of its features: the very quirky humor, the lack of atmosphere, the interface, the lack of a unified background. For a day or so I contemplated altering NetHack, but when I looked at the sources I decided that it would be easier to write a new Roguelike game than to change the sources."
Playing ADOM reminds me of those heady days as a kid playing Ultima 2, except that the quests are more intricate, the mechanics more complex and the variety of items, classes, and races boggles the mind. You can play as a half-elf mindcrafter, a drakeling beastfighter, a half-orc necromancer -- thereís over 200 combinations.
Biskup does all of the work on ADOM for nominal fee -- if you like the game, he requests that you send him a postcard. Heís received quite a few.
"There's been everything from the US," says Biskup, " from many countries in Europe -- France, Italy, Germany, Ireland, Great Britain, Norway, Finland -- lots of cards... thanks folks! -- to Sweden, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and many more .... Noticeably absent are Japan, the whole of Africa, if I recall correctly, and the North Pole and the South Pole, although I recently got a postcard from the southern-most city of the world ... Ushuaia ...sent by a nice guy from Denmark who almost managed to get it sent from a station at the South Pole ...that's hard to beat .... I find it a nice thought to see how a game can unite so many countries with so many political views."
ADOM is still currently in beta, but it plays like a complete game. Biskup does plan to release a separate, registered version of ADOM that will have some oft requested features -- point-based character generation, an official save file mechanic, and options to turn certain features on or off -- but the regular version will always be free.
The Rewards of Playing a Roguelike
Fame, of course. Angband, Moria, and Nethack all have very active newsgroups where you can proclaim the exploits of your conquest to the entire world ...er ...ĎNet. And, if you get killed (which is much more likely), you can post yet another YASD (Yet Another Stupid Death), which are often more entertaining than the victory posts anyway.
Second, because each Roguelike game randomly generates a large part of the game, thereís enormous replay value. Most RPGs collect dust once solved. Many fans of NetHack and Angband have been playing non-stop for over half a dozen years.
Last, when you finally do finish the damn game, youíll have that sense of accomplishment that only comes from knowing that youíve spent a sizable chunk of the last year or so of your life just to see the text that says, "Goodbye Polero the Demigod. You went to your reward with 3,343,332 points ..."
- Jeff Miller is currently trying to lead Polero CXXXVIII to victory over the forces of Chaos in ADOM. When he's not doing that, he writes freelance in Winston-Salem, NC.
Credits: Illustration © 1999 Jason Bergman. Adventures in ASCII is © 1999 Jeff Miller. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it...or we'll force you to play NetHack for six years straight. Oh wait...that's not a very good punishment. Don't worry...we'll think of something especially evil. Muhahahahahaha. Really. Try it. I dare you.