This door is locked.

I've heard of NetHack a few times down the years but never realised what it was - a descendant of Hack, which is a clone of Rogue. Oh. Ohhhh. Oh this should be interesting then...

What's more interesting is that NetHack has been around in one form or another since 1987 and it is still getting updated with new content and mechanics, with the last release, version 3.6.0, coming as recently as December 2015.

Advancing technology doesn't tend to let that happen, especially in gaming, and so I'm going to take full advantage of it and play version 3.6.0 (mostly because I can't get version 1.3d going yet, but don't tell anybody that).

Fun Times

First up is a quick character generation menu, where - if you don't want to have a randomised character to match the randomised dungeon you're about to be dumped into - you can select from a variety of classes and races. Do you want to be a dwarven caveman? You can! An elven priestess? You can! A human tourist? You can! Why you'd want to I'm not sure, but the usual fantasy tropes are present to select too.

It is dangerous to go alone, so they say, so each time you roll a character and get dropped into the dungeon, you are accompanied by a pet. It might be a dog, it might be a kitten, it might even be a pony. Whatever it is, it'll have its uses, which include scouting out items and attacking enemies for you.

Like Rogue before it, exploration of your surroundings is essential to make progress. The dungeon is 50 levels deep, full of monsters and traps slowing down your progress towards your quest: to find and retrieve the Amulet of Yendor. If that's familiar, it's because it's the same quest as Rogue.

In fact, a lot of what I wrote for Rogue could come across into this NetHack write up, they really are that similar. I don't remember a field of view effect as strong as this though, allowing you to see things before you stumble into them. That's handy.

Anyway, once I knew what I was getting into, I was raring to go.


Shame I couldn't get passed this locked door. The levels are procedurally generated, as you'd expect, but I was hitting the same problem far too often. I have never progressed past the first level of a NetHack dungeon, mostly because of locked doors (ignoring the almost inevitable cause to not make progress: a silly death).

That sounds stupid, right? And I know I am stupid, but I've read guides and wikis and I'm still defeated by doors. I know you can kick them, and while they might not open first time it's possible to bust through - I know because I've managed to do it. I know you can open them with keys, but have never found any keys. I think - and I'd hope - that you can attack them with weaponry, but have been unsuccessful with my attempts because of what is likely to be a stumbling block for many new users: the controls.

The keyboard is used to its fullest. It all does something, and keys often do multiple things. There are many, many actions you can do in NetHack. Move, attack, search, eat, quaff, read... it's a long list, and it helps to have it open with you while you play. Many are obvious and automatic, if not to you (I guess the left and right keys move me left and right, yes, that's good) then to the game itself (auto pick up of items you walk over for example).

Exploration is one part exploring, one part stumbling sometimes. Your pet - even the kitten - can often get you out of sticky situations. I once fainted from hunger, I believe, and had to watch my kitten fend off some bugs, lest I be killed. Shame it wasn't successful on that occasion...

Items can be considered blessed, uncursed or cursed, and their attributes vary according to their status. Cursed armour can't be taken off, which is tricky considering you can't always identify what it is or what it does until you put it on. Magical scrolls are unknown until used (or I assume looked at in detail somehow) and potions go by their colours until you drink them to see what happens. It could easily be annoying to not know such things, but it feels somewhat realistic, and can often lead to some humorous situations, even if it results in your death.

Further Fun Times

It's been a while since 1987, and with NetHack being freely available to port and fork and goodness knows what else, you can find graphical versions to give you a better idea of what's going on. Version 3.6.0. even comes with a simple graphical option if that's your thing, and I think it'll be my thing until I get to grips with the game a little more.

With the number of additions over the decades, items, monsters, environmental objects and so on require not just the use of all kinds of ASCII characters, but now colours. With some graphics however, players can grasp the situation that much easier. They can see their inventory and stats in easy to read, scale-able windows. They know what colour their cat is. Important for some people, that.

More importantly though, I could use my mouse on locked doors. The more I clicked, the quicker my randomly made wizard kicked it open. Successfully, but then the idiot went and ate a jackal corpse.

Final Word

I've still got quite some way to go before making any sort of progress in NetHack, but by this point in time I have many options to help me out. The NetHack community is as large and as varied as the dungeons in which they try to descend into. The guides are as detailed and complicated as a UNIX user manual, to me at least, but they are there for all who need them. The game itself is like like crushing a D&D manual into a Terminal window, and that's marvellous.

Now, I'm playing version 3.6.0, released in 2015. I've said that I should aim for as close a version to the original as possible, for any game, but we can't have everything. Version 1.3d is considered the first version of NetHack, so I'll have to find a way into it at some point. The release notes of each version are available and list everything - it turns out kittens and ponies weren't in the initial version, along with a whoooole load of items and monsters...

However, with all those new additions over the decades, there might be an argument to be made for NetHack becoming perhaps a bit bloated or straying from it's origins too much. I can't speak on the former, having not ventured anywhere near the depths of the dungeon, but I'd disagree with the latter. NetHack today feels like I imagine the NetHack of yesteryear felt like.

Let's not forget that it was a Rogue clone first, and was then built on and improved with the likes of shops in levels, pets to accompany you and so on. It's a creation of a devoted group of people looking for an experience that they might have first had playing Rogue, and want to have again and again.

If there's only one game that is allowed to be called Rogue-like, then maybe it's NetHack. Whether you play for five minutes or five hours, you should go and get lost in NetHack.

May you have more success with doors than I.

Fun Facts

Version 3.4.3 is often the go-to version of NetHack for players, simply because that's all there was available to them. It was released in December 2003, with the next version coming 12 years later: version 3.6.0.

NetHack, developed by Mike Stephenson / The NetHack DevTeam, first released in 1987.
Version played: 3.6.0, 2015