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The Gamespy Hall of Fame
Every Tuesday, we induct a new game into our Hall of Fame. These games were chosen either because of their brilliant gameplay (which makes them playable to this day), or because they innovated in such a way to reshape gaming as we know it.
By - Dave "Fargo" Kosak

NETHACK

NetHack is simply an anomaly.

Here's a game that's been under continuous development for over 15 years. It has no graphics, unless you count the primitive patterns made of ascii characters. And yet is has a huge following -- a very active newsgroup, fans all over the globe, and many instances of major media coverage. There's some kind of magic in NetHack, a world so huge and complex that every game is completely different, where each new item can twist the gameplay in new directions. Mostly we love it for the surprises -- the number of times you try some amazingly obscure action and find out that it works, leaving you to slump back in your chair and exclaim, "They thought of everything!"

The NetHack Dungeon -- Click for an explanation of the game screen.
NetHack is an ascii-adventure game (or "Rogue-Like" game, as we'll see below) where your character is an intrepid dungeon explorer and you've got to descend into the bowels of a randomly-generated, mazelike empire of tunnels -- complete with villages and shops and fortresses in the lower levels. Your environment is depicted using nothing but text characters, so humans are "@" characters, and different alphabet letters represent different monsters. (A "d" is just a dog, usually pretty harmless. But beware of the capital "D," that represents a dragon...) Nethack has been in development for over 15 years, and because it still has no graphics, nearly every line of code ever added is pure gameplay. The hundreds of different items all interact with each other in surprising ways, and with randomly generated dungeons, the game is never the same place twice. Best of all, it's open source and free to play -- Download NetHack to see what the hub-bub is about.

To understand the NetHack phenomena -- and why we chose to feature it out of all the other Rogue-Like games -- requires a bit of background. After all, not even Daikatana has been in development for over a decade...

Rogue: The Grandaddy of Nethack

Harken back with us to the early days of the 1980s. The "personal computer" was just beginning to take off, and machines like the Commodore 64 and the Apple ][ were asserting themselves into the market. The only machines with any real power were still at the big businesses and universities, where users would log in from a terminal and run their programs from the big expensive mainframes. The only way to talk to the mainframe was through screens of ascii text. This hardly sounds like a friendly environment for gaming, but nonetheless a few managed to thrive. We already saw that text adventures had started a new trend when GameSpy inducted "Zork" into the Hall of Fame, but something new was about to happen.

Tales of NetHack Addiction: Volume I
"Since I started playing it in 1986 I believe that a version of it has occupied space on my hard drive without interruption. Between my bouts of Nethack, I've played Pirates, SimCity, Civ, Doom, C&C, War2, Diablo, DK, AOE, UO, Homeworld, The Sims, just to name a few. They were great games, but I solved them, beat them, got bored with them, and ended up back playing Nethack. Nethack is a truly amazing game, it is so complex, as they say in rec.games.roguelike.nethack, "the dev team thinks of EVERYTHING." This is why I think I always come back to it, even after all the games I've played, it still holds a challenge for me, I've only ascended 4 of the 13 character types, and every new game holds untold mysteries for me." - Raliegh Grantham

C programmer and BSD Unix developer Ken Arnold devised a system for "drawing" on the terminal screen using ascii characters, allowing those mainframes to render primitive graphics. Sure, they were just text characters arranged in shapes, but it was enough to spark the imagination of a couple of programming students in Santa Cruz, California. They imagined creating a graphical adventure game -- but, unlike games like "Zork" or "Adventure," the puzzles would be generated by the computer, and it would be different every time you played.

The game they created was called "Rogue," and at the time it was unlike any other game. You would travel into the depths of a dungeon to acquire the famed "Amulet of Yendor," which, among its many powers, would enable you to climb back up the steps to the surface. Your character picked up items and gained experience throughout the game, so it was basically an RPG. Rogue's development continued and suddenly became a phenomena when it was bundled into version 4.2 of BSD UNIX, appearing on University campuses all around the world. (See "A Brief History of Rogue" for one developer's first-hand account. For more info on Rogue, check out ClassicGaming's Game of the Week: Rogue)

Next: Rogue gets "Hacked," and we speak with the NetHack Dev Team...

 


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