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The best game ever

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By Wagner James Au

Jan. 27, 2000 | Even if you're a regular at Slashdot, the Internet town clarion for hardcore techies, you most likely missed the odd little announcement posted just a few days shy of 2000: After more than three years of silence, an elusive consortium calling itself the DevTeam had just released a new build of the fantasy role-playing game Nethack, version 3.3.0.

The post might seem especially odd for a site that usually devotes any game coverage to eyeball extravaganzas like Quake III. After all, Nethack has been around for nearly 15 years and doesn't require a soundcard, a 3D graphics card or even a VGA monitor. Indeed, the entire game is usually played with graphics no more ambitious than ASCII text.

But as any hacker worth the title will tell you, Nethack is still one of the best games ever made. What's more, it's one of the best open-source games ever made -- meaning anyone who cares can grab ahold of the game's source code and make changes and improvements. The player's guide is even authored by none other than open-source ontologist Eric S. Raymond, perhaps best known for his essay, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," in which he argues that the open-source software methodology produces technically superior software -- a line of thought that is intellectual kindling for the Linux firestorm now raging through Wall Street.

Does that suggest that Nethack is a technically superior computer game, despite its lack of graphic zap? Depends what you are looking for. Still beloved and played by many, with an active Usenet group -- -- Nethack embodies all that is obsessive, brilliant and geekishly lovable about hackerdom. And while open-source advocates are more likely to vaunt the movement's ability to transform desktop and network computing, this endearingly pokey dungeon adventure is perhaps its most accessible exemplar, demonstrating how its core virtues seem to work even in the unlikely realm of computer gaming.

However, if you download the new version of Nethack -- a compressed file barely a megabyte in size -- from its official Web site, you will probably experience an initial letdown. Challenged to retrieve the powerful Amulet of Yendor from a fathomless, monster-plagued dungeon, you'll discover that the dungeon is actually a randomly-generated configuration of brackets, asterisks and periods; the villainous pit beasts are an assortment of letters ("O" for Orcs, "D" for dragons and so on); and your heroic avatar is nothing more than a cheerfully blinking "@" sign.

But beneath these primitive graphics is a game of such richness and endless variation it usually takes years to master, if at all. On my recent visit to Blizzard North to preview the game company's wildly anticipated sequel to its hit role-playing game "Diablo," Blizzard's designers readily acknowledged their debt to Nethack and other "Roguelikes" -- games of single-player dungeon questing.

. Next page | Wielding the rubber chicken in an ASCII wonderland

Illustration by Jennifer Ormerod/

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