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Have You Ever Beaten the Greatest Computer Game of All Time?

NetHackLike many readers, I’ve “beaten” a variety of computer games over the years, from 4X strategy games (Civilization VI, Master of Orion) to role-playing games (Fallout, Skyrim) to everything in between.  Whether the term “beaten” is appropriate depends on the game, but most games have some kind of end state.  Even giant open world games like Fallout and Skyrim have a main quest line that you can resolve.  Most games also have escalating difficulty levels, and some have an elaborate system of badges, awards, and achievements.

Ironically, there’s one game I’m sure I’ll never beat at the hardest difficulty: chess.  But then, neither can Magnus Carlsen so I feel okay about that.

In general, beating computer games is a function of how much time and effort you put into it, and they’re geared to be beaten to begin with.  Completing Fallout IV or DOOM is hardly something you’d brag about but there is one game where you might list victory on your tombstone.

I’m referring of course to NetHack, which has been termed the greatest game of all time.

The game is a roguelike exemplar, wherein players take on one of many various fantasy roles and descend into the dungeon in a text-based environment, with the usual hacking/slashing, treasure-grabbing, exploration, and leveling.  Much of the game is randomly generated, though there are many hard-coded levels and waypoints.  That game dates to the early 80s, and was based on earlier games (chiefly Rogue and Hack).

Here’s a screenshot:

Many people would look at that and say “ok, it’s an old game and now we have graphics”.  Indeed, the game dates from a time before computer graphics int the modern sense existed, though today you can plug graphics engines into NetHack.

However, while you may have different display preferences, what you may be missing are two key points.

The first is the extraordinary depth of gameplay.  The NetHack wiki has 3,413 in-depth strategy articles as of this writing.  Check out the strategy section to get a flavor of the gameplay.  Typically you start in the upper levels, then head to various specialized branches (the Sokoban room, the. Gnomish Mines, etc.)?  Are you going straight for your class’s specialized quest?  What is your plan to get the array of resistances needed?  If you come across an early altar, do you want to sacrifice on it to get a gift from your god, or is the risk of rising monster levels on a level too high?  Questions and options abound.

The second key point is permadeath.  When you die, you die, and there’s no “quick load to last save”.  The game may easily take you months to complete, but if you start in January and die in March, you start over with a brand new level 1 character.  This reality is a radical alteration of the usual “run in and start swinging the sword” style of play.

It gives the game a razor-sharp tension and injects a lot of careful consideration in each move.  When months of progress are on the line, you may favor retreat over frontal assault when you’re down to 50% hit points. But on a deeper level, you are constantly managing risk versus reward, just like real life.

While thousands (tens of thousands?) have done it, “Ascending” (beating) NetHack is still something of an accomplishment.  I remember exactly where I was when I ascended which is not something I can say for other games.

NetHack is not the only roguelike game. Angband is another popular game (more combat and randomness, less puzzles).  There is even a wiki and subreddit devoted to roguelike development.

If you’re looking for a challenge, give NetHack a try!

3 Comments

  1. Susan:

    Yep. I am a teacher and play games all day long with very wise students. I play hide-a-phone and full range of games:) Been beat over and over.

    September 14, 2022 @ 1:19 pm | Reply
  2. and there’s “quick load to last save”

    I think you meant there’s NOT quick load?

    September 14, 2022 @ 4:23 pm | Reply

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