Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]
I'm back and fully rested after a break for column #20. And before you complain about the extra week, note that it took quite some doing to get play time in on this week's game....

Up until now we've mostly gone after fairly low-hanging fruit. We've discussed four of the five roguelike biggies: Rogue, Nethack, ADOM and Dungeon Crawl -- Angband is waiting until I can get a proper handle on it. We've also looked at Pokemon Rescue Team and ToeJam & Earl, which each have some roguelike qualities, and DoomRL, which is roguelike but very different in style. But all these games are fairly available. ToeJam & Earl is the hardest of this lot to find, and that was only until Virtual Console put it within the reach of nearly everyone with eight bucks and a Wii, although that may be small consolation.

But the thing about roguelike games is, the genre is seriously old. Rogue, a computer game with random dungeons, a full inventory and tremendous strategy, was created in 1980, a year before Pac-Man. In those 27 years since Rogue's birth we have seen a good many roguelike computer games, and it is no longer so easy to get to play some of them.

Along those lines, the Roguelike Restoration Project is the incredibly noble effort to take some of these ancient games and make them playable under common operating systems. Among the eight games that can be found there are three versions of Rogue, two of Advanced Rogue, and three other games with "rogue" in the title but that take increasing liberties with the play. Like Rogue, all of these are fairly playable today. Unlike Rogue (and like Nethack), they lose some of Rogue's clarity by adding so much to the game. But at least they still exist.

There are some other roguelikes it's getting harder to find nowadays. Moria, Hack, Larn and Omega were the first ones to branch further off from the tree, and there is little, if any, development going on in those branches now. None of these are so easy to find. At least Moria evolved into Angband, while Larn and Omega mostly stagnated. Hack, of course, would become the imposing Nethack, also called Gradewrecker and Thesisbane.

Hack, itself, inspired a few variants back in the day, and one of those is our focus this time: the game HackLite, a little-known variant that is most difficult to play these days because its main version was for Amiga home computers.

ahacklite1.gifGenealogy of the Dungeons of Doom

Hack was originally the branch-off roguelike to stick closest to Rogue. For example, it and its descendants still call many Rogue monsters by old names. Nethack's latest version contains Giant Ants, Floating Eyes, Violet Fungi, Gnomes, Invisible Stalkers, Jackals, Kobolds, Mimics, Purple Worms, Quasits, Rust Monsters, Umber Hulks and Xorn, but Rogue's does not, despite all these foes first appearing there. (Trivia moment: rumor has it the monster names and symbols were changed specifically as an attempt to thwart the automatic Rogue player Rog-O-Matic, but we've already covered that little program.)

In between Rogue and Nethack there were a few different Hack versions, games that were only in currency for a moment compared to their descendant's lifespan, but are still referenced fondly by Nethack's history file. Another version of Hack, one that doesn't get a lot of mention anymore because it was not part of Nethack's lineage, is HackLite, of which versions were made for DOS and the Amiga personal computer.

Meet the Wizard of Yendor's Lost Brother, Neil Yendor

Even while Nethack survived and prospered, HackLite sunk into obscurity, perhaps for two reasons. The first is right in the game's readme: "It is interesting to note that, in the world of Hack descendants, HackLite is the only one I know of that believes a limit on game complexity is a good thing." At a time when players seemed interested in the most detailed game experience possible, the existence of Nethack, which was composed by taking the best ideas from multiple Hack variants, must have seemed awfully compelling. These days there is a thriving side of the roguelike genre composed of games that try to rein in some of the complexity of which they are capable, so it could be said that HackLite was ahead of its time.

ahacklite3.gifThe other limitation was a longer-term issue. Hack's source code has long been public, even if not expressly open, back in those heady days when code was considered free by default if available. Thus it was that HackLite forked off of Hack and Nethack's source code right before Nethack switched to the "Nethack Public License," which was based off of the Bison license, and the nature of that beast should become obvious when I tell you it was produced by Richard Stallman. While Nethack ended up with a license that looks more than a little like the GPL, HackLite's source code was never released, and remains obscure today. No source means no variants, no user-made patches, and no development by anyone other than the author and his agents. Meanwhile Nethack has drawn repeatedly from the work of interested users, fosters a patch-writing culture, and its open nature early on attracted the infamous Devteam.

There is one advantage to keeping a lid on the source. The workings of HackLite are more mysterious than those of Nethack. While its origin came from the folding together of a version of Hack and Nethack 2.3, the game was changed in other ways than that. The specifics of the resulting program no one really knows. When it comes down to it, a lot of the dissatisfaction many have with Nethack comes, not from the fact that it requires spoilers (which it technically does not, all information needed to win is available in-game, although it takes a whole lot of play to see enough of it), but that those spoilers are easy to obtain, and exhaustively correct. How did they get that correct? By source diving, of course.

So that leaves us with the mysterious game itself. The opinions here come from playing the Amiga HackLite v2.8.0, scavenged from Fred Fish disk #799.

"This corridor seems dusty.[More] Perhaps if you cleaned more often?"

ahacklite4.gifHackLite is based off of earlier versions of Hack and Nethack 2.3. Importantly, this was before version 3.0, which instituted many changes to the game system (blessed items came around here) and version 3.1, which gave us the modern dungeon layout. This means that the player is in for a game a good deal more like Rogue than he may be expecting.

Importantly, while HackLite has prayer its purpose is obscure. It does not seem to be a general-purpose plea for aid, and it doesn't even work unless the player has taken a certain measure first. Monsters do not seem to be much worse than Nethack's, but neither is food in greater supply, and without prayer for early emergency feedings lots of players run out. Many of my trial games were ended by starvation, it being a far more potent killer than any of the monsters.

"You feel strong! But you don't feel agile, tough, smart, wise or charismatic."

HackLite also is missing all player stats other than Strength, level sounds ("You hear someone cursing shoplifters.") and burdening levels (plate mail seems to "weigh" the same as a gemstone). The burden level thing is a much greater change than it may seem at first. One of the more head-scratching things about modern Nethack is the proliferation of weapons and armors that go unused. 3.1 players soon learn to avoid plate mail because of its tremendous weight; only those with high strength can carry both it and basic equipment without becoming burdened, while mithril is not hard to find in the Gnomish Mines while being much lighter, and mid-game characters usually wish up or make Dragon Scale Mail, which has the best Armor Class, is extremely light, and provides a free resistance to boot. By doing away with burdening, HackLite restores plate mail's usefulness.

ahacklite5.gifBut HackLite is more than reduced Nethack; it makes some additions of its own as well. One interesting change positive change made to the game, that Nethack itself could gain benefit from, is that items in shops are a lot more similar in price to each other. Scrolls of Identify no longer stick out like a sore thumb as the cheapest thing in bookstore inventories, which may seem like a little thing but actually changes the game quite a lot. Finding that first ID scroll is a milestone in Hack-family games, since the player must happen upon it by chance and test-read to discover its type. This, plus the inclusion of a few additional item types like rings of addiction and wands of futility, can throw players expecting fewer tricks for a loop.

Plays Great - Less Taxing

So, why is HackLite still entertaining to play? It is simple, the same reasons that games like Dungeon Crawl and DoomRL have become more popular in recent years. It is a roguelike that doesn't require what amounts to a Master's degree in the game to be successful at it. Some tricks will help, and there are secrets, yes, but Nethack has entire game mechanics that are secrets. HackLite, on the other hand, does without many Nethack 3.0 and 3.1 that are sorely missed (like player attribute scores other than Strength), but it still contains bones, engravings, vaults and the like.

This is a general feeling one gets while playing the game. Nethack has become so balanced (to some, "easy") over time that successful play is most often attained by playing ultra-cautiously, price IDing items when possible, avoiding testing scrolls if it can be helped, using dipping and other means to figure out the bad potion types, being cagey with wand charges to ID them, and so on. Many experienced Nethack players manage to avoid trial and error identification nearly all the time. HackLite has fewer of these features, so item information must more often be traded for (by usage, which often wastes resources and inflicts bad effects) instead of obtained for free. This makes it a much more chaotic game than NetHack, even despite its simplified game world.

A note about playing this game:
HackLite actually evolved out of an Amiga port of Hack, which was then converted into a DOS version. The Amiga port is still the nicest way to play, due to its interesting, though idiosyncratic, graphics. If you wish to try the version pictured here, you will either need a stock Amiga, or the UAE emulator and images of the Kickstart and Workbench disks, the rights to which are currently owned by Amiga Forever, who sells copies for about $30.

Dos version:
Amiga version:

The Rogue's Vade-Mecum
Readme for HackLite
Dungeondweller's awesome Roguelike archive

Other news:
Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, the version of Dungeon Crawl that sees active development, reached 0.2.4 about a month ago.


Here are my notes concerning differences noticed between HackLite 2.8.0 (2.8.3 is the most recent version) and the Nethack 3.1-3.4 line.

SPOILERS FOLLOW! Do not continue if you wish to avoid them!

No dungeon branches.
No pet displacing. (Very annoying, this.)
No exercise.
No stats other than strength
Shift-X learns spells (not the read command)
Absent commands, no #chat", no #untrap", no #monster
Shops sell objects for more, price differences are less great.
Some messages are different.
"You don't know how to/still can't/will probably never learn to walk through walls"
General items cannot be blessed or cursed. Equipment can be cursed only.
Monster attacks that damage weapons reduce plusses, instead of causing "rusty," "burnt" or "corroded" states.
Preserved items. (Probably analogous to Nethack "erodeproofing.")
Dungeon levels have more rooms. (This is positive.)
Some polymorph monster abilities implemented via special extended commands (#? to get list)
Doors are not "open" or "closed," but always open.
Tins contain food types instead of monster types (salmon makes fingers slippery like french-fried food in modern Nethack). Also, each tin contains random food instead of a predetermined type (that could be, say, identified).
Dead rats always make you "feel sick"
"Reading this scroll confuses you. You are awarded the Yendor Prize for Poetry!" (Confuses player for a good while)
No level sounds.
No burdening levels: plate mail weighs the same as a gemstone.
Dead zombies are edible?
New items: Ring of Addiction, Wand of Futility
Fountains can be generated in shops
Eating rock moles can result in message "You feel tougher!"
Starvation is a much bigger problem.
No partially-eaten things.

Monster corpses do grant intrisics.
Eating floating eyes does confer
Bones levels are in the game.
Overaged corpses can kill players via food poisoning.
Polymorph is in the game.
Potion dipping seems to be in the game, but its use isn't yet known.
Prayer: #pray. (However, it is not as useful as a generic escape from trouble. Speculation: punishment makes prayer available? When punished and praying, I got "the gods accept your tithe.")
Doors cannot be passed through diagonally.
The engrave trick for identifying wands does work.
Vaults are in the game, as well as the teleport traps that lead into them.
Monsters can use weapons, including thrown weapons.