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Column: At Play

COLUMN: @Play: Introducing Sporkhack and UnNethack

July 3, 2009 8:00 AM |

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

We've discussed the information-heavy balance of the game Nethack before. How, once the player learns enough about the nature of the game world, all of the difficulty turns out to be front-loaded, before the player has had the chance to build up experience levels and equipment.

Recently, a couple of variants have arisen in order to remedy this perceived problem. Two years ago was the release of Derek Ray's Sporkhack, and only this past month saw the release of another, UnNethack, created by Patric Mueller.

Nethack's mysterious Dev Team is presumably aware of the problem, and though it is known that they're still around, updating bugs and answering email, and thus we assume are still working on the game, it has been a very long time since the last version. It has been over five years since the release of Nethack 3.4.3, the latest version of the game.

A rising current of opinion on rec.games.roguelike.nethack is that the Dev Team has abandoned the game. Even if they haven't, a few of the more irksome characteristics have survived for multiple versions, long enough that it begins to look like the Dev Team is perfectly happy leaving them in.

Both are games that, to the many characters who die in the earliest regions of the dungeon, seem almost unchanged from the original game. While not any unfriendlier to a new player than vanilla Nethack, most of the changes in these games are aimed at the experienced hacker. Unlike uber-variant Slash'EM, neither seems to be interested in radical reinvention of the game.

COLUMN: @Play: Fatal Labyrinth, or, "LOOK! A PIT!"

June 26, 2009 8:00 AM |

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre. This time - an analysis of an intriguing mid-period console Roguelike, Sega's Fatal Labyrinth.]

Torneko no Daibōken: Fushigi no Dungeon was released in 1993, and kicked off the popular (in Japan) Mystery Dungeon series of console and portable graphical roguelikes. Provided you don't count the Diablo games, they are by far the most popular commercial roguelikes yet made. And judging just from the quality of gameplay, the second game in that series, Shiren the Wanderer, should probably be numbered among the best roguelikes of all, commercial or not.

How did roguelikes become (to some degree) popular over in Japan while they remain a niche in the U.S., land of their birth? Their roots clutch deep in the soil of old-school Dungeons & Dragons, more so than Dragon Quest, presence of Torneko (a.k.a. Taloon) and a bunch of classic monsters notwithstanding. Now D&D did become popular in Japan, so I hear, but it seems to have been even more a faddish thing there. While a number of classic D&D-derived CRPGs (especially Wizardry) continue to sell in Japan, you don't hear much about the prevalence of D&D itself there any more.

fltitle.pngAnyway, some time after Rogue, the original roguelike, was first distributed, someone ported it to Japanese. I know next to nothing about this version of Rogue. It seems to be the lineage traced by the PS2 roguelike "Rogue Hearts Dungeon," billed as a sequel to the orignal game although it seems unlikely they obtained the permission of Toy, Wichmann and Arnold to make it.

That home computer version of Rogue may be the original exposure of Japanese popular culture to the genre, and Mystery Dungeon sparked the drive of popularity and a wave of imitators, each adhering to the concept with varying degrees of fidelity: Azure Dreams, Dragon Quest Monsters, Monstania, Estopolis II/Lufia II, Climax Landers/Time Stalkers, and many others besides, they all owe some debt to these games. But what happened between those two games, Rogue and Mystery Dungeon? Was there nothing at all between them?

It turns out, no. The Sega Genesis roguelike Fatal Labyrinth was first released in 1990, two or three years before the first Mystery Dungeon game was published, and interestingly, unlike that series, it did see release in the United States.

COLUMN: @Play: 2009 7DRL Winners, Part Three

June 3, 2009 12:00 PM |

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

Finally, here we are, at the end of our treatment of the 2009 7DRL competition. It's been a month since the last installment! If it seems like I've been procrastinating here... well, that's probably a fair observation. I hesitate to say that any of the winning games were unsuccessful.

7DRL places greatest importance on development speed; so long as the game compiles and is playable, even if only in a technical sense, it's counted as a success. I consider this to be perfectly valid. Congratulations are due to all winners. Even the failed attempts, by my lights, are all honorable failures.

But the purpose of these columns is not just celebration, but reporting on their worth as games, regardless of the strictures of the challenge. Some of the games, including one covered this time, Jacob's Matrix, turned out amazingly well. They'd be worth playing, as-is, even if it had taken the developers years to write them. That is the magic of these kinds of forced-creation challenges; sometimes they produce wonders.

Sometimes. Some of the others, well, are more interesting as programming feats than as games. It's not to say they're not salvageable, but they don't seem quite done yet.

The games covered this time out are Truegod, Escape From Lab 42, dL1, Fist of the Rogue Warrior, Pink Ninja, Jacob's Matrix, Nyctos and Whispers in the Void.

Column: @Play Special: The Rights to Rogue

May 14, 2009 8:00 AM |

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

Perhaps no genre of computer game has as as close a tie to the open source community as the roguelikes. Eric S. Raymond, noted open source booster, both wrote the guidebook to an earlier version of Nethack and wrote the oft-read argument for open software, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," in which Nethack is mentioned.

Angband's source is so open that it's become one of the most-permuted computer games of all time. Linley's Dungeon Crawl picked up new life when the Stone Soup guys started developing their variant, which is now recognized as pretty much the premier version of the game. And all of the 7DRLs are open source.

An interested observer could be forgiven for assuming all roguelikes must be open, but they aren't. None of the Japanese commercial roguelikes are. The source code of one of the big ones, ADOM, remains closed.

(This fact means the game is falling out of prominence now since all changes must be approved by the game's creator, Thomas Biskup, who has moved on to other things. But it also means it's the most mysterious of the major games.)

But the first closed-source roguelike is the first of all of them.

Column: @Play: How To Win At Nethack

May 6, 2009 8:00 AM |

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

While writing another article, I'm sorry to say I got sidetracked off of completing the overview of the 7DRL games this time out, which unfortunately will have to wait another couple of weeks. My apologizes to you, and the remaining game authors.

In the meantime, please accept this hopelessly spoiler-tastic strategy guide for Nethack. The object here is to aid players who have played the game somewhat but always thought that winning was out of their league. It doesn't cover everything in the game, far from it, but with some practice it should get people up to the endgame.

Some time in the future I hope to put up more of these roguelike strategy guides. I hope I don't have to say this, but everything that follows the jump is spoilers of an even greater variety than the usual ones presented here. It's been a while since we've had a big Nethack column, so I hope this keeps everyone interested. It's really long.

Much of the information here has been checked against (and sometimes cases, gleaned from) the Nethack Wiki.

Column: @Play: 2009 7DRL Winners, Part Two

April 21, 2009 4:00 PM |

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

Pixel Journeys is taking a break this month while I continue my reviews of all 25 of this year's in-challenge 7DRL winners - here's the first part.

I should mention, before we resume, that I was preceded in this by the guys at Cymon's Games. If I had known that they had done this when I started I probably wouldn't have bothered, heh. I agree with most of what they say, and where our opinions differ I at least can see why they differ. Each of my own 7DRL reviews contains a link to the page on their site so you can quickly see their take on the game. And to the folks at Cymon's Games, please allow me just to quickly say: good work.

This column's a week late, so let me waste no further time in getting to the games. This time, we look at Cypress Tree Manor, Domination, Backwards Gravity, The Favored, Persist, TetRLs, Expedition, and SpiritsRL.

Column: @Play: 2009 7DRL Winners, Part One

April 2, 2009 8:00 AM |

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

Every year, the halls of the Usenet group rec.games.roguelike.development play host to a strange event.

They begin, each of the participants of this bizarre rite, to write roguelike games, in whatever language they choose and for whatever platform. 168 hours later, one week of development time, they call an end to their efforts and post it to the group. The only requirement is that, by the end of that time, the game be playable by some basic definition of the term. Some continue to work on it beyond the week, and some pick a different week, but by the rules of the challenge they must have something playable to show for their efforts by the end of the seventh day.

The participants of NaNoWriMo ("National Novel Writing Month") have long known that, when a person is forced to create something within a limited period of time, sometimes amazing things happen. And likewise, the participants in the 7DRL, or "7-Day Rogue Like" challenge, sometimes look at their monitors at the end of the development period and find that they've created something unique and awesome.

According to the Roguebasin report page, around 45 people participated in the challenge this year during the main challenge period, and 25 were successful.

Over the next three columns, we will take a look, as far as we are able, at all 25 of these games. In this column we examine nine games: DungeonMinder, Epic! Monster Quest: Hyper, Underbooks, Excitable Digger, Decimation, DDRogue, Fortress of the Goblin King, Fruits of the Forest and chickhack.

COLUMN: @Play - 'XRogue Has Not Yet Ceased To Be'

March 8, 2009 12:00 AM |

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

Once again with the aid of the work of the Roguelike Restoration Project (link, sometimes unstable), let us return to the early days, when Rogue was the big thing in campus Unix labs and its several imitators became the first roguelike games. This is the second article on the RRP. The first covered the game of Super-Rogue.

Two games in particular concern us this time. Advanced Rogue was developed from 1984 to 1986 by Michael Morgan and Ken Dalka. It was a considerable expansion of the original game, with different monsters, multiple artifacts, trading posts and other ways to buy things, and a lot of other new features.

It introduced many features that Hack and Nethack would later pick up and run with, such as a three-level curse/bless system, a basic form of shops-as-rooms, charmable enemies and many kinds of enemies. This is also the game that introduced items of "miscellaneous magic," which brought to the game many different things that were explicated in the 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons DM's guide. Those items include gauntlets, boots, chimes, bracers, and other objects, and probably form the inspiration for Hack's many equipment types and tools.

COLUMN: @Play: 'Spelunk, Spelunk, Spelunk'

February 6, 2009 4:00 PM |

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

"Probably the easiest way to describe Spelunky is that it's (kind of) like La Mulana meets Nethack - every time you play the levels, items, monsters, and so forth, are all procedurally-generated. [...] My goal was to create a fast-paced platform game that had the kind of tension, re-playability, and variety of a roguelike. In roguelikes, the gameplay tells the story, and I wanted to give Spelunky that type of a feeling... but make the player rely on their reflexes rather than their brain (or knowledge of what 50 billion command keys do!). If there's a best of both worlds, that's what I was trying to go for."
-- Derek Yu, introducing Spelunky on TIGSource Forums.

spelunkytitle.pngSpelunky has been talked about on a fairly substantial number of blogs in the short month of its public existence. Considering that its aim is to bring some of the unique characteristics of the roguelike games into a different genre, I figured it was fair game for examination here. The result is quite a clever little game, highly addictive and quick to play. Death is incredibly frequent, but that should come as no hindrance to us, right?

Right?

[Note: This is @Play's fiftieth column. At the end is an overview of topics already covered and a list of links to them.]

COLUMN: @Play: Cause For Incursion

January 2, 2009 4:00 PM |

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre. This time, a look at the roguelike Incursion with a side trip into Vancian Magic.]

This column has been requested in comments several times now. While not one of the better-known in its genre, the freeware roguelike Incursion seems to have a fairly rabid community, and examination shows it to have some rather addictive play, a good attention to detail, and one of the most "realistic" dungeons yet seen in the genre..

incurtitle.png (To clarify something I see as important.... In this column I refer to the game as "Incursion," because it seems to me to be the best thing to call it. It is projected, however, that this game is actually a prototype for an even-more-ambitious roguelike, which will be called "Incursion: Return of the Forsaken.")

For starters, Incursion is the only roguelike of which I'm aware which follows D&D 3rd Edition rules. Well technically that's "Open Gaming License" rules, the format by which Wizards of the Coast, custodians of the D&D brand, made them available for others to build their own products off of.

Of course, most roguelike games have always been based off of Dungeons & Dragons, though usually a much simpler, older version and not "officially." 3rd ed. D&D does have its interesting aspects that lend interest to such a game, and there is nothing in the third edition rules that prevents it from being used in an old-school, roguelike dungeon-crawling context.