Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a kinda-sorta bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

Here's a look at a roguelike game that some of you might not quite be familiar with. The graphics are very well-done, at least.

It's got an isometric view, fairly detailed character and monster art, and decorated room walls and floors. Looked at with unfocused eyes, it even begins to resemble Diablo. So what game might this be?

scree008.png

Of course, it's Nethack.

Would you go Head Over Heels for this?

(If you recognize why I picked these section titles, you're probably an even bigger geek than me.)

scree014.pngNethack is one of the most widely-ported games in existence. Probably, the only games made for more platforms were from Infocom. And all of Nethack's official ports, amazingly, are compiled off the same source tree, with customizations to work around the crotchets of this operating system, or that C compiler. And since the facts of the display varies greatly across platforms, the output portions of the source code are compartmentalized in a very thorough way.

This compartmentalization makes it relatively simple to create a new graphics system, simple enough that many ports support multiple styles of output. A few years ago there was a version for Linux and Windows systems called AllegroHack, that was like the basic tile version but with much more detailed graphics and more colors. Soon after that we saw the release of Falcon's Eye, a version of the game that provided isometric graphics, even more detailed images, and a somewhat-improved user interface.

scree010.pngAfter a couple of years updates died out, although its developer still plans to continue work on the port (the original site is still on the web here), leaving the world bereft of a maintained, high-quality graphical Nethack port until DarkArts Studios forked it to produce Vulture's Eye and Vulture's Claw, which are graphic versions of Nethack and SLASH'EM respectively.

Perfect for playing on either the Solstice or the Equinox

scree020.pngSome of the eye-candy in the Falcon/Vulture games goes far beyond the call of duty. Different rooms have different wall styles, and dressing elements remain consistent within each room.

There are several tilesets used for mine levels. An isometric minimap in the corner assists the player in keeping track of his position in the level, and a map window can be called up to get a look at the board in a more traditional format.

But the most useful thing here for new players is the various user interface enhancements. Most of the traditional keypresses work as before, but the inventory screen has been made much more capable. Not only is it graphic, but pressing the right mouse button on an item brings up a submenu of things to do with it. Yes! Finally a version of Nethack that's light on the need to memorize commands!

scree027.pngIt should also be noted that the right-click menu is fairly inclusive, offering functions such a "eat" for all items, not just food. This is probably by design; there are times in the game when the player might want to eat something that wouldn't ordinarily be considered food, or wield something that's not a typical weapon, or throw something that's not a missile. Having commands mysteriously appear and vanish from the list at different times would be a subtle spoiler.

The right-click inventory feature, should a player discover it, makes Nethack vastly more accessible to a new player. So it really is a shame that it isn't easier to discover itself; most new players wouldn't expect to find it there. And although there are command icons in the corner of the screen, some of the most important utility commands, particularly searching, saving and quitting, are still only accessible through keypresses.

A knight is nothing but a Light Crusader

scree005.pngOne of the first things players will notice about Vulture's Eye, probably before the new graphics in fact, is that the game has music and sound effects. The sound effects, particularly, are implemented in a haphazard manner: the sound code scans the message buffer for a number of strings, and if one is found, it plays a roughly-appropriate sound. So, the word "kitten" will play a sound of a meow.

This might seem clever at first, but the program is not at all discerning about context. The same meow is played whether you display your kitten, whether you're being attacked by an enemy kitten (standard definition of awesome: enemy kitten), or whether you're stepping over the corpse of your deceased pet. Fortunately, both music and sounds can be turned off from the options menu.

scree025.pngWhat I consider most interesting about the Vulture's games, ultimately, is that they're easier to play if you have no prior Nethack experience. The more familiar with standard Nethack a player is, the more comfortable he'll be with its key commands and simple, but information-rich, screen.

Vulture's Eye's isometric graphics may help a new player to better perceive the world as a place, but the graphics take up lots of space, meaning the player can't see as much of the world at once, corridors and walls are easy to confuse (especially with walls overlapping floor spaces), and the greater diversity in monster and item representations makes it harder to distinguish them at a glance.

For a new player, these distractions aren't substantively greater than those presented by Nethack itself. But for an experienced player, Vulture's Eye has poses a surprising learning curve, even though the game itself is identical to vanilla Nethack.