NetHack is one of the most popular roguelike computer games and is notable for having been developed by a team who mainly contacted each other over the Internet. The fact that the development team were from several different countries perhaps helped the game's eclecticism and bizarre sense of humour. It is often said that 'The DevTeam (development team) thinks of everything' - whatever you find for your character to do, they will have a plausible and often amusing response. For example:
- If a lawful character dips his long sword into a fountain, the Lady of the Lake may reach up and transform it into Excalibur. If a non-lawful character tries the same trick, she will be annoyed and curse the sword.
- If you are given the chance to choose a level to teleport to, and you choose level 0, you'll go to nowhere and cease to exist. If you choose -1 to -9, you'll wind up high above the clouds. The fall will kill you, unless you're levitating or flying, in which case you'll land on the surface and escape the dungeon. If you choose -10 or less, you'll go straight to heaven (not a good thing, as it means you're dead).
- It is sometimes possible to change into a monster (polymorph), and when you do, you acquire the monster's abilities. For example, if you polymorph into a female red dragon, you can breathe fire and lay eggs, which will later hatch into your pets.
What's it all about then?
According to the manual, you have been feeling discontented with your job and having strange and vivid dreams of adventuring and combat. When you hear about a mysterious and powerful item known as the Amulet of Yendor, you realise that it is your destiny to descend into the Dungeons of Doom and recover it for your deity. The main aim of the game is to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor from deep in the dungeon, but the general idea is to collect useful stuff, kill hostile monsters and generally head deeper into the dungeon. On your way down, you will encounter a few branches off the main dungeon. These are a good source of useful objects and some are necessary to complete the game.
Your character is initially accompanied by a pet cat, dog, or if you are playing a Knight, horse. You can give your pet a name, and you can tame more pets along the way. Domestic animals can be tamed by feeding them, while other monsters can sometimes be tamed by magic. Pets have several uses - at the beginning of the game, your pet may well be stronger than you, and can be a great help in combat. They can also sense when an item is cursed, and will be reluctant to walk on cursed items. They can be used to steal from shops without repercussions, and rewarding them with food will train them to do this more effectively. (Some people don't like pets, perhaps because of the effort required to keep them fed. For these people, there is the 'nopet' option of starting without a pet.)
Dungeon shops are useful places to find things, though the better items are generally more expensive. Experienced NetHack players can tell quite a lot about what an item might be just from its price. Don't annoy the shopkeepers, though, they're much better able to defend themselves than the bloke in your local offy, and quite willing to kill you. Looting the shop with the aid of a pet is perfectly safe, however, and a strong pet (not a normal dog or cat) may even manage to kill the shopkeeper.
If you get into real trouble - such as being surrounded by monsters and on the verge of death - pray and your god might save you. Don't do this too often, though, or they'll get angry and need to be appeased before they ever condescend to help you again. Sacrificing at your god's altar will eventually1 produce results, too.
History and Variants
NetHack evolved from Hack, which added character classes, pets and shops to the basic features of the original Rogue game. The first version of NetHack (1.3d) was released on 28 July 1987, and the current version (3.4.3) on 9 December 2003. A detailed timeline of NetHack releases is available on the web.
NetHack has spawned quite a few spin-offs, including NH+, NH++, NH--, NH: The Next Generation, Allegrohack2, NewtHack, GnomeHack, QtNH, SLASH3 and the seminal SLASH'EM, which is still under active development. Many features were introduced and refined in these variants (especially SLASH'EM) before being incorporated into NetHack itself. Some examples are riding, the Sokoban4 levels, the Monk class, and conduct (voluntary challenges such as playing a vegetarian).
Want to try it?
Like most roguelikes, NetHack is freely downloadable from the Internet. You can either download the source code or ready-compiled binaries for a number of operating systems including both Linux and all recent versions of Windows at the official NetHack home page.