Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Out with the new, in with the old

My three-year-old PC is finally getting to the point where it just can't keep up with new games. Aside from the plodding pace of its outdated processor, the machine has picked up the charming habit of occasionally hardlocking whenever I try to play a Direct3D game. Which is, like, every commercial game to come out in the last eight years.

So I've been playing Nethack. If you're not familiar with Nethack, it's a classic text-based game where you're a lone adventurer trying to explore (and ultimately escape) a very, very nasty dungeon.

When I say the dungeon is nasty, I'm not kidding. From the beginning -- especially at the beginning -- everything is stacked against you. Your character starts at level 1 with virtually no spells, armor, or weapons, and your only companion is a small dog or kitten. Meanwhile, the place is positively teeming with monsters and traps, all of which have the capability of making you very dead. As you go deeper into the labyrinth, things only get worse.

When you come across a new item, your character has no idea what it is. That longsword you just found could be cursed, or it could be a +5 Artifact of Ultimate Asskicking (but guess which one it usually is?). The only way to find out what an item does is to experiment with it (very dangerous) or to use an Identify scroll/spell (which are few and far between).

You'll often find yourself hauling around a backpack full of unknown potions, rings, armor, scrolls, and other goodies, all of which are probably useful, but given the game's sadistic streak, at least one of them will be cursed and/or will kill you. So you keep trudging around with all of your unidentified swag, praying you'll be able to use some of it before you get splattered all over the dungeon walls.

Oh, and did I mention that you can't save your game? No quicksaves, no reloads. If you die, you're... dead. Game over. The phrase "Would you like your possessions identified?" will haunt your dreams.

I'm not sure why I find Nethack so addictive. I usually give up very quickly on overly difficult games -- the old SNES Battletoads game went back to the store the next day, and even the beautiful-but-insanely-hard new Ninja Gaiden game didn't get much more than a cursory tryout before I gave up on it. It could be nostalgia driving my urge to restart the game after meeting an untimely end; my very first exposure to computer games was "Rogue" on my friend's Atari 800, which was no less difficult or unforgiving.

Or maybe it's just Nethack's depth and sheer randomness -- there are thousands of items, and they all have a use. The tiny chance that the next room will contain a Wand of Wishing or a set of blessed Silver Dragon Scale Mail gives Nethack that "just one more level before bed" quality that so few games possess these days.

If you want to try out Nethack, you can telnet over to "nethack.alt.org" and give it a shot without having to install anything. If the jumble of random ASCII characters is a bit overwhelming, try out the Falcon's Eye graphical Nethack conversion, which is much easier for beginners to pick up (I've been playing for years, and I still use a graphical version most of the time).


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