Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Nethack for Gnome

Nethack is the holy grail of Linux/open-source gaming: it embodies all of the characteristics that define the traditional *nix game. Nethack for Gnome is a prettied-up version of Nethack that is playable under the Gnome environment. It's just Nethack with a graphical overlay. For all intents and purposes, it is Nethack; it even installs Nethack along with the graphical version, so you can play it in all its oldschool ASCII glory from the command line, if you like.

Quick refresher for those who don't know what Nethack is: it's a rogue-like game, some would say the definitive rogue-like game, and what that means is that the game consists of randomly generated dungeons, it's impossibly hard, the controls are more complicated than rocket-science, it has no storyline, but nonetheless has a devoted cult of followers who think it's the most brilliant game ever, probably because they've devoted so much time to figuring the damn thing out that they're forced to praise it so that they don't seem like complete wankers. You move around these text-based dungeons with the arrow keys, move into monsters to attack them, and use a gajillion unwieldy and ridiculous key-combinations to do obscure and unlikely things to the random objects you encounter along the way. You cannot restore a savegame if you die, which I'm actually fine with, but a lot of people hate that.

(Honestly, I just don't see the attraction to these games; I've tried to get into multiple rogue-likes multiple times over my years of gaming, and they all tend to... suck; I'm not a graphics whore - I loved MUDs and BBS doors - but rogue-likes are simply not good games without an investment of thousands of research hours on the part of the player, that would be better put to use curing cancer or world hunger).

Rather than re-conceptualize the Nethack experience, like Falcon's Eye (review here) did, this is a simple tit-for-tat ASCII-for-sprite swap for the most part. The view of the map is exactly what it would have been in regular ole' Nethack, only it's made out of little graphical tiles instead of being made from letters n' symbols. There are some other differences but they're mostly cosmetic.

As in Falcon's Eye the re-tool for a GUI involves making the mouse accessible, which has the result of giving you a convenient list of the major commands in the menus at the top of the screen. Remembering that 'ctrl-d' is how you kick a door in, 'q' is how you drink a potion, and 'Q' is how you ready ammo in a quiver, 'w' is how you wield a weapon, 'W' is how you wear an item of clothing... all that's theoretically a thing of the past, cuz' you can just click to get 'er done.

Of course, you'll probably get sick of all the clicking and just use the keyboard, but at least when you can't remember how to do what you want to do, you can consult the menu, which is actually more effective and efficient than trying to go through the help internal to the ASCII version.

Nethack is the game that invented whatever the opposite of user-friendliness is. It actively hates its players, it wants them to die, and it demands study equivalent to that required to attain a PhD in order to fully comprehend its ins and outs and develop a winning strategy.

Or so I have heard - in the time I didn't waste trying to figure out how to play Nethack, I've gotten a double-major in English and History, read a few hundred novels, beaten a good dozen or so video games, played a plethora of others to varying degrees of success, and consumed countless gallons of booze. While my degree may be less marketable than Nethack-skills, I can't say I have any regrets.

Playing this graphical version is as painful as playing the Windows graphical version (though I think I liked the look of this one's non-game-map areas better; the map itself looks exactly the same) which is as painful as playing the text version, for all intents and purposes. If playing a game that can only be won by actively going through the code that created it searching for unknown features that will allow you to find victory sounds like a good time, rock it out. It doesn't appeal to me, personally.

This is at least one up on Falcon's Eye as, although it's perhaps not as pretty, it doesn't introduce any of the problems that Falcon's Eye's isometric view did, while it does have all the benefits that result from adding mouse and GUI support. Since you can play this graphical version completely via the keyboard if you like, it's exactly like playing Nethack only with tiny little tiles instead of characters. The mouse support adds accessibility while not ruining the game for old hands at Nethack. In that context, the game is a success.

For what it's worth, lots of people (a minority, but still lots) do like rogue-like games, and you may be one of them. For a different take on the genre, I recommend John Harris' column @Play over at GameSetWatch - he manages to keep convincing me that I should be playing rogue-likes despite the fact that I know I hate them, and he's reviewed a number of the more famous iterations of the rogue formula, as well as some obscure ones. If I ever acquire a Nintendo DS, I'm going to check out Shiren the Wanderer solely on the basis of his numerous in-depth examinations of the game.

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