What it takes to like Rogue-like games

To this day, I still can't quite get into old-school ASCII roguelikes. Is it something you have to pick up as a youngster, or can the taste be acquired? John Brownlee (formerly of BB Gadgets) explains his love for an "unattractive, sociopathic, schizophrenic" genre. The system requirements: imagination, an unbelievable tolerance for failure, and "a morbid and self-deprecating sense of humor." [Gearfuse]


  1. Oh my lord, I could not love Nethack more. I can never get it to work right on my mac laptop, to the point where I have considered buying a USB 10-key pad just so I could play (the weird 10-key mapping on a laptop just doesn’t work right!)

    For me, it’s just the right balance of luck, chance, and some amount of strategy inside of a world (“world”) that is incredibly detailed, nuanced, and not exactly kind. The chanciness of it, plus the chance to do better or worse based on your choices, kept me coming back for more and more.

    Maybe you get lucky! Maybe you die a fast and painful death! Maybe you pray at the right moment and your god comes down and saves you – or maybe it sends an elemental and you die extra painfully! Endless. Fun. It wasn’t something I played to win; more, something I played to blow off steam and try to do better. No one ever wins at Nethack. When I was younger I’d be up all night trying to get my way through the ninja quest, watching my back for @s or &s that might mess everything up. The best I ever did was the end of the second quest level, and it was a miracle I made it that far.

  2. I’ve played rogue, then nethack, on and off for over thirty years and have never ascended (won). Recently I’ve started playing more again — something fun for my long commute on the train. It’s difficult and fun, and you can pay as much or as little attention to it as you like. I just hope I ascend once before I die.

  3. The best I ever did at Nethack was beat the quest and make it to the castle as a wizard. After cleaning it out, another one came around. This one summoned a whole mob of others. If the castle level allowed teleporting, I’d have been fine. Oh well…

  4. Oh man. I had a friend a few years back who introduced me to ‘Nethack’ and after I learned the basics I became totally addicted.. I’d play for hours. So much fun. I later tried World of Warcraft and couldn’t take to it.. but text dungeons? YES PLEASE!

    In my case I think its because in college I got addicted to MUDing, which for me was as much a social thing as it was a game. (10+ years later I still play…..). So I was predisposed to text, apparently. :)

    Nethack is awesome because every game is so very different. Yes, you may die 9034890343 times, but every game, in regards to items you find and level layouts, anyway (with a few exceptions), is quite different. And there are lots of different options for play, too. I like to play online, which adds a couple different options.

    Hmmm… maybe I should see if Putty works on this computer….

  5. I still think Shiren The Wanderer is one of the top five games in the history of the Nintendo DS. It’s a perfect introduction to the genre, and I think used copies are pretty readily available.

  6. arielariel said: “it’s just the right balance of luck, chance, and some amount of strategy inside of a world (“world”) that is incredibly detailed, nuanced, and not exactly kind. ”

    it’s life. ;)


  7. I spent over a decade flailing away at nethack on a semi-regular basis, only ever making it to the quest level once.

    Then I read The Saga of Ellora the Elven Archer (PDF link), an unspoiled neophyte’s blow-by-blow of an incredibly successful game of nethack.

    It made me realize that almost every single one of my deaths was down to trying to advance too rapidly in the dungeon, rather than setting up base camps, building strength along the way, and choosing retreat as an early resort rather than a last one. Three games later, (on NAO, so no cheats possible) I ascended as a wizard, and haven’t played since.

    It can be done.

    1. You know what I am about to do? Sit down to read a 334 page PDF about Nethack. This is the mark of a great game.

      But then, my favorite video game of all time other than Tetris is Earthbound for the SNES, which is basically simpler Nethack with better graphics.

  8. May I recommend Angband? Find it here: http://rephial.org/

    I accidentally got involved with it almost a decade ago (an IRC network I was helping to run somehow acquired the official angband channel, and it being our second biggest channel I had to go and see what the fuss was all about), and while I could never get into rogue or nethack, angband (and all the many wonderful mods; especially zangband) have been great fun to play.

  9. ‘The system requirements: imagination, an unbelievable tolerance for failure, and “a morbid and self-deprecating sense of humor.”‘

    In other words, it totally helps if you were born in the former Soviet bloc.

    1. Take a deep bow, mmmmdave. I’ve been trying for 25 years without winning. My sister and I used to play obsessively at a database company in Marina Del Rey. The Esc key (which replaced the game with a fake C: prompt) saved our butts many a time.

  10. I’d definitely recommend giving Nethack a try, if you’ve got the necessary free time in your life. And yes, a full-size keyboard is a must. Trying to play on a laptop is painful.

    Other recommendations:

    – If on OS X, make sure your terminal has some decent settings (font, color, nethack options, etc). Here’s a link to a terminal shortcut that takes care of those for you.

    – Keep a window open to the Nethack Wiki to start learning what the hell everything is.

    – Controversial,.. but while you’re learning the ropes, read about Save Scumming and set up a system to make it easy. This will help alleviate a lot of the frustration of dying, and let you explore and experiment a little more. Then, when you think you’re ready, stop using it and raise the stakes to nerve-racking levels.

    – Wait until the next full moon to start your game. Every bit of luck helps! : )

  11. I learned Nethack in college, from a friend of a friend who knew how to play and gave us tips. The level of intricacy and thoroughness in terms of the variety of interactions possible in Nethack is amazing. No other video or computer game I have ever played comes close. I also love the exploration, and the multitude of possible solutions for any given situation. I feel like I learn something new about the game from each character death. Nethack rewards you for being resourceful and creative, which is often not the case in games that have prettier interface design.

  12. Nethack self-plugs: I wrote a history of Nethack’s development and evolution (including involvement of open source guru Eric S. Raymond) here: http://bit.ly/hQivWV

    Speaking of which, there’s a *great* rogue-like for the iPhone, updated with a wry, wiseass flavor, called 100 Rogues. Review here: http://bit.ly/hnTroe

  13. Nethack is amazing. I really think it is the ultimate turn-based game. Every single item in the game has multiple uses, in every environment. Really. The rules are tight, the game play is amazingly well balanced. It’s everything crowdsourcing wants to be. Develop by a diverse team of volunteers over many years, It’s been so tightly tuned as to be nearly perfect.

  14. Sometimes, Nethack can resemble real life at unexpected times. For instance, this could happen if you bumped into a leprechaun while hallucinating:

    The attorney hits!–More–
    Your purse feels lighter.

    My favorite Nethack pet: the purple worm. An army of tame purple worms makes things a lot more bearable on the Astral Plane.

    The original Hack (pre-Nethack) had a nasty gotcha: wielding a cursed food item had the same “sticky” effect as wielding a cursed weapon. “The banana welds itself to your hand!”

  15. [Nethack] is a simulation. Just like some people call first-person shooters “murder simulators”, Nethack is a suicide simulator.

  16. I’ve played Nethack for years and years, ascended five or six different classes, and loved it. But honestly there are roguelikes that have been developed with more modern design ideas that are a lot easier for beginners to get into, and arguably are better games in general. I’ll name two.

    Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup has a great design philosophy. It’s all about presenting the player with interesting dilemmas, and streamlining everything else. The “autoexplore” feature (used with care) is like a fast-forward button for all the boring minutiae like picking up piles of gold and exploring new areas.

    All the information you need is available in-game, not like Nethack where you need to read piles of spoilers (or play dozens of games just to get the necessary information from the Oracle).
    For ASCII haters, the “tile” graphics are not only excellent but actually add more functionality to an already-excellent interface. The religion system and skills system add many different twists to the game; not many games allow this degree of variety in playstyles. In addition to the normal fighters and wizards, you can be an orcish priest who develops a mighty army of orc followers, a pacifist healer, the toy of a capricious child-god who showers you with gifts or sets you on fire depending on how well you amuse him…the list goes on.

    The other I’ll mention is DoomRL, based on the Doom games. It has only ASCII graphics so far (though tiles are coming soon) but amazingly enough they’re more immersive than any tiles I’ve seen in a roguelike. There are only about a dozen symbols and a dozen keys to know, and a full game lasts a half-hour at most. It’s so quick to learn that (unlike most roguelikes) you should really just download it yourself and try it rather than bother to read my opinions. It’s hard to describe how intense and tactical this game is.

  17. I played Hack on DOS, and never won. For my part, you have to understand that back then there wasn’t exactly a lot of competition, graphics or gameplay-wise. I also played Pool of Radiance on that computer, an IBM XT with two 5.25″ low density floppies. Pool of Radiance was on 12 disks and took upwards of half an hour (not embellishment, I timed it once) to do the initial load, so I had a high tolerance for “The Grind” before I even got to the game.

    I left Hack behind, though, especially when I discovered Wizard’s Lair II. With 4 colors and extended ASCII characters for terrain and monsters, it was Hack++, and created a game world as large and detailed as any “RPG” game I’ve played since.

    Now, I have a friend who keeps trying to sell me on Dwarf Fortress…

    1. I accidentally stayed up until 2:30 am last night playing Dwarf Fortress. It is insanely difficult to learn, coded by one guy, free, has a variety of tilesets (which I need), many tutorials (which you need to start), a wiki (which you need hours and hours into the game), and it is absolutely great.

      There are a lot of articles about it, this one has this graphic (impolite, perhaps NSFW) which is pretty funny. http://jayc4life.wordpress.com/2010/04/12/dwarffortress/

  18. I wasted a lot of time playing rogue, hack, and the like back in the 1980s.

    I’m reminded of an easter egg that used to be in GCC (the GNU C Compiler). Richard Stallman (aka RMS), who was the head developer for GCC at the time, disliked the #pragma feature of the C language, considering it a botched design. The standard described it as an optional feature whose behavior was implementation-defined. RMS decided that GCC’s implementation would define the #pragma directive to mean “start a game of rogue”. Actually, the compiler would search for rogue, hack, and nethack on the user’s machine (I don’t remember the order) and play one of them if found.

    GCC is much more boring and professional these days, unfortunately or fortunately depending on your perspective.

  19. I picked up NetHack in graduate school (speaking of unattractive schizophrenic sociopathy), so I don’t think it’s something you need to imbibe with your mother’s milk, like some genres of computer games.

    However, I do think it is virtually impossible to acquire the taste for that kind of thing if you don’t already have it. If you think you don’t like roguelikes, you probably never will.

  20. Hello, my name is mdh, and It’s been 4 days since my last game.

    I’ve been playing for 20 years, and have also never ascended. I blame my addiction for my utter failure to engage with less imaginative games such as: any with graphics or sound.

  21. I love, love NetHack/SLASH’EM – though I have generally stuck to Vulture’s isometric tiles on OS X. I’m wondering if I can get myself over the ASCII hump. Would make life a lot simpler, but is that level of detachment more of a barrier than I suspect? It must be, or I would’ve managed to make the jump by now… 

    I used to play on my 1,1 MacBook which had the virtual numpad situation — that worked great for me. More recent Apple keyboards, including the aluminum wireless don’t even have that feature. I actually did buy a separate numpad just for it…! Totally worth it.

    Also, add me to the list of ‘playing for years, zero ascensions.’ But we just keep going…

  22. Both Nethack and Slash’EM (Super Lotsa Added Stuff Hack – Extended Magic) have been ported to Android. You should be able to find both in the Market, along with additional tile packs beyond the default ones that are pretty common for use on non-terminals.

    You’ll probably want a high-res screen, and there are a few niggling annoyances (pets aren’t indicated, you can lose part of the game’s 80-column-wide status/info bar at the bottom of the screen), but overall quite playable.

    You’ll probably want a real keyboard, but you can do without one – tapping various regions of the screen either moves you, does appropriate actions in the chosen direction, or does appropriate actions right where you are).

  23. I love Moria, I have played it for so many years. Never won, don’t know if I really want to.

    For some reason I just never got into Nethack, it’s just not for me. But I do like most of the other roguelikes I have played, like Angband (well, it’s really Moria so duh!), Omega, and ADOM.

    I’m a old school gamer, so that’s probably one reason why I like roguelikes. I started playing when games looked like that and games were most often insanely hard (to make the play time longer). But still… I have a hard time understanding what’s not to like about a roguelike. Unless one is a young one that just have to have fancy smancy graphics.

  24. Maybe it is an acquired taste. I grew up playing MORIA on Apple II’s. Much later I got back into Angband and ToME for a bit. Oddly, Nethack never appealed to me.

    It breathes. [more] You have died.

  25. I suppose it’s a matter of what you want out of a game. I prefer games with 16 colors or less. Maybe I just got used to filling in the visuals with my own imagination and that became part of playing the game for me.

  26. I don’t like the original net hack with just ASCII, but there was a version with basically colored blocks and some very simple icons.

    Man – talk about a scary game… It’s like playing D&D the first time where you have little idea what will come your way.

    I have been playing this new game like an idiot for a week. Clients are getting pissy, but I can’t get near the high scores of the week!


    It has a similar feel with a more modern look. But it adheres to the “once you die, you die” model.

  27. How 20 years fly by – this post almost brought a tear to my eye ;-) Why is a book better than a movie? I think because your imagination can create a world around it much finer than that which Hollywood can do. I think with games like Rogue it’s the same concept.

  28. I just wish I could find a game that looked like a roguelike (or the simple sprites of the barely-graphical ones) but played more like a mainstream CRPG. What with my only computer being a netbook right now, I don’t mind low-fi presentation; I just can’t stand that punishing gameplay.

  29. A shame to let an article about Nethack go by without mentioning Desktop Dungeons, which I’m sure is a favourite of many a boinger:


    It turns the Roguelike experience into a short-burst (10-20 min) puzzle game. The rules and features are as quick to learn as the game itself is hard to quit.

    It’s free, but Windows only. One of the essential indie games, IMO.

  30. How my last game of Nethack ended: As a chaotic human wizard I sacrificed a shopkeeper in the gnomish town. Blood covered the altar since he was my own race and Anhur sent Yeenoghu the demon lord. I was freaked out since I was doing really well with my pet polymorphed salamader (a fire being similar to a naga) and it was kicking the crap out of everything. Luckily, I realized he was peaceful. Whew! So I had this expensive camera with about 72 shots on it and I thought to myself, “How often does my god send a peaceful demon lord? I should really commemorate this experience” I took a picture of Yeenoghu and he screamed. One hit and I was confused, unable to cast spells, pray or read scrolls. I was killed while helpless by a camera-shy demon lord.

    I love that game and have been playing for 8 years now. I’m totally reading that 334 pdf, probably when I’m supposed to be doing something else…

  31. You might want to correct the spelling of schizophrenic.

    While I’m at it: in what way is playing as am ampersand schizophrenic? While I agree that too much computer-game playing does result in “significant social or occupational dysfunction.” But how does it “manifest as auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions, or disorganized speech and thinking…”

    I mean, other than only walking sideways through doors, leading with your firing hand.

  32. I finally kicked that nethack addiction by getting a macbook without a number pad, but posts like this remind me of all those nights without sleep.

  33. The Stone Soup version of Dungeon Crawl happens to be my choice of “poison”, tho i also have a sweet spot for Steamband (a steampunk/league of extraordinary gentlemen variant of angband).

  34. Nethack certainly is beatable. You can telnet to nethack.alt.org and watch masterful players successfully ascend just about any day of the week.

    I find it funny re: not being able to play without a number pad. hjkl, man. I bet you guys use emacs too :)

    1. > number pad vs. hjkl
      Oh, so *that’s* what people were talking about number pads for; I didn’t remember ever using them when I played nethack, even on the PC graphics version. My fingers already knew hjkl from using vi.

      And yeah, the pictures on ASCII nethack look better than the pictures on most modern video games (and a *lot* better than on the 8-bit or MSDOS PC games) – but they’re quite not as good as the pictures in the original Adventure. Compare “A nasty little dwarf throws a stone knife at you and misses” with the typical nasty little animated graphic of a nasty little dwarf….

  35. I’ve a lot of fun playing Angband or ADOM. My brother coundn’t understand how it was fun having games with 3d an a lot of action. Facing a green dragon (breath acid) in the dungeon was way more scarier than Doom.

  36. I’ve kept characters going for months in ToME before dying. Play without tiles, and you’ll never believe how the letter ‘D’ can suddenly strike fear into your heart.

  37. Play ADOM, as it’s more coherent (persistent overworld and quests), has less controls to remember and better online help.

  38. alright thats it! I am hooked ^^

    I started reading the elven-pdf and I bookmarked a ton of roguelike sites, this is going to be great – I get more and more retro: first I started playing fallout 2 again. Then master of orion 2 followed, right after Jagged alliance 2. Freecol was another retro addition, and then i found a millenium 2.2 remake that runs in vista…

    now nethack seems to be the next big thing for me :-) Although I very much enjoy the story of the elven archer, the abundance of “(laugh!)” etc is starting to bug me – and I still have 100 pages left or so!

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