Nethack is evil. It’s the bane of my existence. It’s destroyed my life, and I suspect nearly destroyed my marriage. Or, at least it’s annoyed my wife a little. It’s also scratched my CDs, left dirty dishes in my sink, and long blacks hairs in my tub. In short, it’s one of the greatest games ever written.

By why? Why is it so great? Honestly, I don’t know. First off, Nethack is a dungeon crawler hack’n’slash. Played in a two-dimensional dungeon, you, the hero, wander around dark passages, fighting off creatures, collecting armor, weapons, scrolls, wands, rings, potions, and all manner of other devices, with the hope of eventually defeating the Wizard of Yendor, from whom you may retrieve the Amulet of Yendor. And then, after all that you get to run all the way back up, where you can then enter the various planes and ultimately sacrifice the Amulet to your god.

But why do you bother? What’s so awesome about this Amulet? Damned if I know. The story doesn’t really matter (if you want that, go play ADOM, we don’t want ya here!). What matters is the game is fun and addictive. It’s also brutal. Among it’s defining characteristics (which it shares with other Rogue-likes):

  1. Minus a select few, all levels are generated randomly. Thus, every game is different from the last.
  2. Most items start out unidentifiable. There are various tricks to figure out what things are, but again, each game starts afresh.
  3. When you die, you’re dead. No continues. No save points. Nadda. Yeah, you can save your progress and restore it, but if you die, it’s game over, man! Game over!
  4. There are a seemingly infinite number of ways to die, each more stupid than the last. You can turn to stone wielding a cockatrice corpse while burdened. You can be frozen by a floating eye and zapped to death by gridbugs. You can by surrounded by minions summoned by a wererat and bitten to death. The list goes on and on…

In essence, each game is like a pull on the slot machine arm. You might get lucky, finding tons of food early on, co-aligned alters a plenty, and mithril armor everywhere you turn. Or you might not, and find yourself struggling to survive in the gnomish mines, only to arrive in minetown where you discover a cross-aligned altar, while the cursed aggravate monster ring that’s stuck on your finger has the guards attacking you at every turn. Of course, Nethack folks claim that every game is winnable… I’m not sure I buy it, but I suppose it’s possible. :)