Archive for the 'Gaming' Category

Interview with champion Donkey Kong player Billy Mitchell

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Last week I saw the excellent documentary The King of Kong and heartily recommended it to everyone who’s even moderately interested in videogames. You don’t even have to have ever played the titular game, Nintendo’s Donkey Kong arcade cabinet, to enjoy the film (I haven’t). Now, The Onion’s A.V. Club has an excellent interview with Billy Mitchell, the Donkey Kong champion portrayed as a cheater, coward, and all-around jerk in the documentary (as a foil to the hero of the story, Steve Wiebe).

Well I knew something about the characterization and framing of Billy Mitchell seemed off. The documentary isn’t close to impartial, though I suspect that’s only to make it even more entertaining. And now in this interview Billy Mitchell has fired back, confirming a lot of the initial suspicions I had about the film. Is Billy Mitchell quirky? Hell yes. But is he a bad man? No, I don’t think so. He still holds the Donkey Kong world record, and to my mind, he deserves it.

The King of Kong: Vying for the absolute highest score

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

I saw The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters yesterday. The movie is about a challenge between two men vying for the world record score in Donkey Kong. The movie is exciting, of perfect length, and contains more real life plot twists than you would’ve thought possible. The basic structure of the movie is David v Goliath, where Goliath is Billy Mitchell, a slick-haired slimy dude who’s held the world record since 1982. His life revolves around playing videogames and making hot sauce. The part of David is played by Steve Wiebe, a family man who was laid off from his job as an engineer at Boeing and used his free time to get ridiculously good at Donkey Kong (he then later became a public school science teacher). You find yourself rooting for Steve throughout the film, especially because Billy bests Steve’s recently set world record within hours through a questionable video tape submission that shows the digits in the score flickering as they roll over to one million and VHS copy artifacts obscuring the majority of the left-hand side of the screen.

I would highly recommend this movie to anyone who’s into videogames (and even open-minded people who aren’t), because this is a fascinating side of the videogame world that you rarely ever hear about. My heart goes out to one of the world records reviewers at Twin Galaxies (the world authority in videogaming high scores), who watches videotapes of high scores on a voluntary basis nearly every day to vet them. If you agree that videogaming is culturally significant, and that it is worthwhile to track the performances of the absolute best players in the world, you see the necessity for his position; at the same time, I cannot ever imagine doing it. He says it’s worth it, though, because who else gets to see world records broken every day? You can sort of understand his excitement.

The movie ends on a note of disappointment, as Steve Wiebe fails to break Billy’s world record during four days of public play at a videogame arcade in Hollywood, Florida (which is within ten miles of Billy’s house). Despite Steve’s repeated requests for Billy to come out and play head-to-head, Billy defers, and only drops by for a brief visit. The tension in the air is obvious. During the whole film, we never see Billy playing Donkey Kong, which is amusing, because he repeatedly says that scores are only really significant if they are done in the high-pressure situation of a public tournament. It makes you wonder if he is just a cheater, what with his questionable Donkey Kong high score tape submission. The film implies that he is.

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To your mind, tools are a literal part of the body

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

A new study casts light on the (nearly) unique ability of higher order primates to use tools. It turns out it’s quite the elegant mental hack. So far as your mind is concerned, any tools you are using are literally part of your body. Scientists confirmed this by conducting an experiment on monkeys. They observed that the same group of neurons fired off in the same order when monkeys picked up a piece of food, no matter whether they used their hands, pliers, or reverse pliers that required opening the hands to close the pliers’ tip. The firing of the neurons thus had nothing to do with the movements of the fingers themselves when a tool was used, but rather, corresponded to the movement exhibited by the grasping end of the tool. It’s quite an amazing, revolutionary find, and as these things usually go, it makes perfect sense in hindsight.

Imagine swinging a baseball bat. You aren’t concentrated on your hands; once they are grasping the bat you don’t give them a second thought. No, you are concentrated on the sweet spot on the bat. It becomes your fingers by proxy, and the motion of swinging a bat is really just about extending your “hands” to meet an incoming object. That’s why we are so good at hitting baseballs coming in at even 100 mph. It wouldn’t work at all if you had to concentrate on the complex kinematic interactions governing how movements of your hands are translated into movement of the end of the bat. Thankfully, evolution has provided us with such an elegant hack that makes it all work — and a hack that is undoubtedly responsible for modern civilization, as well.

When I read this article I immediately started thinking about videogames. There’s a break-in period when confronted with a novel controller or control method before its use becomes natural. Before that happens, you’re still consciously thinking about pressing every button, rather than focusing on the effects those actions will have within the game. For instance, I played Guitar Hero for the first time over the New Year’s holiday. At the beginning I was playing easy level songs with only a modicum of success. But as I grew more familiar with the controller, as it became an extension of my body, I got better with it, and by the end, I was tackling medium level difficulty songs. Give me a few more hours with it and I’d be on hard.

My most familiar controller format has to be the standard for PC first person shooters: W,A,S,D (or rarely E,S,D,F) for movement and the mouse for looking and aiming. I’ve been playing games using that for so long it has become second nature to me. I’m not even focusing on my fingers at all. When I’m moving around in Team Fortress 2 I frequently detect spies trying to backstab me simply because I run into them. There’s no lag time at all between trying to move backwards and realizing I’m running into something, then within a fraction of a second I’m spinning wildly in place and firing my weapon before I even see the enemy. And the virtual gun on-screen has become an extension of my hand. That’s the amazing part of all this that I wish the experiment had covered. Not only does the tool become a part of your body as far as the mind is concerned, the tool doesn’t even have to be real at all. It can be entirely virtual. And why shouldn’t it? The cognitive hack thankfully doesn’t discriminate, so it will continue serving us well for decades to come as virtual reality becomes an ever larger part of our life.

The future of virtual worlds

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

The concept of virtual worlds has long appealed to me, ever since I first read about them in elementary school, then proceeded to see them in popular media. The idea of a separate reality with its own set of rules fascinates me. And although we haven’t quite reached the farthest reaches of what we were promised with virtual worlds, they are, for the most part, here already.

Second Life (which I’ve written about a lot) is currently the best example of a general purpose virtual world. In it, one can interact with other people, play games, create things, participate in a full-fledged economy, find love, etc. — basically anything one can do in real life. Yet Second Life’s popularity pales in comparison to pure-gaming virtual worlds like World of Warcraft, RuneScape, Lineage II, etc., showing that we are still very much on the forefront of the field, and so far, it’s the gamers who are proving to be the bulk of the first adopters. But virtual worlds are inevitably on the way in and they should continue growing ever more popular over time, right?

Right?

Well, as it turns out with Second Life, this isn’t the case. Second Life’s player base peaked in July, 2007. Since then it’s been ever so slowly, yet inexorably, declining. What’s happening? Is this a problem with the entire virtual worlds concept? Maybe all that’s been holding it up is hype, and once people really start using one, they find it unnecessary? Or is it a problem with one particular virtual world?

My bet is on the latter. Second Life has significant problems that are directly harming it. It has many stability issues. Performance is inconsistent and prone to glitches and slowdowns in high traffic areas. The game is also nearly impenetrable to everyone but hardcore gamers (and despite having played games most of my life, it still took me a couple of hours after first playing around with Second Life to get the knack of things). And if you want to create some of the more advanced in-game objects (you know, the ones that actually do things), you’ll need to learn an entire programming language, complete with API.

In the end, I think Second Life’s interface is simply too idiosyncratic to appeal to the vast majority of the casual non-gamer types that it needs to truly burgeon. Compare that to the gaming-oriented virtual worlds like WoW which are doing just fine. The problem isn’t with the virtual worlds concept itself, it’s just that there hasn’t been a breakthrough general purpose virtual world like there have been breakthrough gaming ones. Yet. But that time will come. Who knows, maybe it will come in the form of an all new version of Second Life. But I kind of doubt it.

The same game-style interface that is so successful with WoW simply won’t work with something like Second Life. But it’s a deeper issue than interface design: the interface technology itself is there yet. Virtual worlds won’t be successful on a large scale until the interface itself evolves beyond the tired two-dimensional display, mouse, and keyboard. This interface is great for navigating the Internet (which will inevitably be the precursor to whatever virtual world ends up making it big). But it won’t see us through to the next revolution.

I cannot claim to know what specific future innovation in computer interfaces will allow the creation of the first breakthrough general purpose virtual world. I suspect anyone who knows would stand to be very successful off it. But I do have some guesses. Virtual worlds of the future will have to be more intuitive and accessible to the average person. Thus, they will need to map much more closely to the way we interact with the real world.

Rather than pressing a key to turn one’s view to the right, one should simply have to look to the right. This immediately suggests some kind of display set into glasses with motion sensors (or a full-fledged helmet if you want to be bulky about it) such that the view always tracks what you are looking at, and by turning once around you can see the whole world.

What I am describing is seemingly delving into the realm of science fiction. But it’s all completely possible with current technology. A decade ago at Disney World I played a virtual version of Pac-Man. They had me put on a helmet with two screens in it, one for each eye. To look around the virtual Pac-man maze, I simply turned my head to either side, and the view adjusted accordingly. The graphics weren’t so good, but that was a decade ago.

Technology has progressed very far since then, and is able to deliver a much closer simulacrum of reality. It’s now possible to get the feet into the action as well, using some sort of motion sensor or, even better, an omnidirectional treadmill, so you can actually walk rather than having to march in place. Imagine, a virtual world that you navigate through in exactly the same way as the real world. That’ll be much more easy for non-gamers than having to learn about WASD.

Looking farther down the line, I think eventually we’ll be able to interact with virtual worlds directly using thoughts, first with neural sensors worn on the head, and then later, using computers implanted directly in the brain. This sounds like science fiction, but it’s rapidly becoming science fact. Researchers have already developed brain implants that allow deaf people with defective ears to hear, or mute people with defective vocal cords to speak through computer speakers. For now this technology is limited to helping people with disabilities, but eventually it will be available to everyone, and not getting an implant will be as Luddite then as not using a telephone is now.

But I’m looking a bit too far into the future now. Virtual worlds don’t need brain implants to be as hugely successful as the world wide web is. They just need something along the lines of the non-invasive natural interface I first described. That will be good enough to put them over the edge and make them hugely successful. But until then, the way we interact with virtual worlds simply isn’t good enough, and Second Life is limited to being a fun novelty rather than the Next Big Thing.

The complete lowdown on Zwinky

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

ZwinkyI previously wrote about Zwinky, a relatively new online game aimed at the young teen market. That was back when it first came out, when the obnoxious advertisements (with the nonetheless strangely infectious music and bizarrely cute characters) first started airing on television. Judging by all of the hits on my blog from people searching for Zwinky since then, it’s become very popular, so it’s worth a revisit.

Your first question is probably going to be: What is Zwinky? That’s a fair question; the ads didn’t do a very good job of explaining it. Zwinky is a light online game, not unlike Neopets or RuneScape. But here’s the rub: to play Zwinky, you need to install a browser plugin called MyWebSearch. And that’s when the bad things start happening. The MyWebSearch plugin gets into everything: Internet Explorer, Outlook, Firefox, AOL Instant Messenger, and a whole host of other browsing, maill, and chatting programs.

Zwinky was designed primarily as delivery platform for advertisements and the MyWebSearch browser, which has been classified by some as malware (meaning it is detrimental software that you shouldn’t ever choose to install) and spyware (meaning it violates your privacy by reporting your surfing habits back to the company). It hijacks bad DNS requests (if you type in a domain name that doesn’t exist, it’ll take you to an ad-laden portal instead of the usual site not found message). It also gives you lots of ads. It’s not something you’d ever want, but if you want to play Zwinky, you have to install it.

So, is Zwinky worth it? All of the gameplay in Zwinky takes place in a persistent online world called “Zwinktopia”. That means that everything you do and collect in it stays the same across different play sessions (unlike, say, Tetris). The player has Zwinky avatars (also known as characters) that inhabit the virtual world. The player can play arcade games to earn “Zbucks”, which the player can then use to buy new clothing and upgrades for their character’s dorm room. If this kind of stuff appeals to you, you might enjoy playing Zwinky — which the huge caveat of the MyWebSearch toolbar it installs.

And Zwinky does seem to appeal to lots of people. According to recent statistics, Zwinky has more unique monthy visitors than its two nearest competitors, Gaia Online and Habbo hotel, combined. So even though it’s relatively new on the scene, it’s a huge success. Lots of young teens are playing it.

One more thing to consider about Zwinky: it is owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp, a company you might better know as the owners of Ask.com and Excite.com. So there is some serious muscle behind Zwinky. It’s not just the product of a one-hit wonder game company. So they are in a good position to leverage Zwinky’s popularity through the use of their toolbar. And thus, no matter how much I advocate against installing Zwinky due to its bad toolbar, there are still going to be many, many young teens out there eagerly signing up, most likely because their friends are playing as well. Ahh, there’s nothing quite like marketing to kids.

Breaking into the videogame industry

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

I graduated from University of Maryland, College Park with a citation for completion of the Gemstone Program, which is a four year long undergraduate group research project. Our project was an educational computer game for elementary school children called A Day in the Bay. If you have any children, you might want to check it out. We put a lot of work into it and it’s by far the most polished program I’ve ever seen to completion. It didn’t hurt that we had two other programmers in the group besides me, as well as some some graphically and musically inclined people.

But it’s those two programmers that this post is about. We all graduated with degrees in computer science in May, 2007. By that point, I had already accepted the job offer by my current employer, an IT Consulting company, and then started working in July. The other two programmers were both intent on breaking into the videogame industry. Unfortunately, neither of them have been able to find jobs yet (although one of them had a couple of interviews at big name game development houses like Epic and Lucas Arts). The bottom line is that breaking into the videogame industry is hard.

I’m not going to lie, I enjoy making videogames, and I do think it would be neat to make them for a living. Who doesn’t want to do what they love? I’m guessing the vast majority of computer science graduates fresh out of university feel the same thing. And therein lies the problem. Everyone wants to go and make games. But the market for game developers is actually pretty small. There are far, far more jobs available in the general IT field. For every game that is made, at least ten times as many in-house applications are developed, maintained, or modified. Yes, working for a corporation and writing the back-end for a new system isn’t glamorous, but it pays well, and there is no shortage of open positions.

It all comes down to supply and demand. There are a lot more people who want to be game developers than open positions for said profession. Thus, the companies that are hiring are free to pick and choose from amongst only the very best. If you aren’t a stand-out candidate for game developer — and by that I mean you’ve made amazing game demos, not necessarily received good grades — your prospects are very slim. And even if you are hired, the working conditions are terrible, yes, even worse than in China. Working many hours of unpaid overtime per week is expected and routine. And just forget about having an outside life when a release date looms and crunch time begins. Spending all waking hours working seven days a week is not uncommon.

And don’t bother complaining about these poor working conditions, because the company knows they can always just hire one of the thousands of other programmers out there who want to make games. There’s no real pressure to treat their employees better. Needless to say, the burnout ratio is incredibly high. And the pay isn’t even better than other, far less stressful programming jobs. It doesn’t have to be. And when expressed on an hourly basis, the pay is actually a bit less.

So I don’t mind my current job. Yes, the programs I write are sometimes boring, but I work a standard 40 hour week, leaving me lots of free time to do other things I’m interested in. I wish my friends from university all the luck in finding jobs, but I also wish, for their own sakes, that they weren’t so dead set on becoming game programmers. There are lots of other programming jobs out there that are much easier to get. Sometimes you just have to stop chasing your dreams and settle for what’s attainable, especially when that dream could easily turn out to be a nightmare.

We do what we must, because we can (a retrospective on Portal)

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

Portal screenshot
Portal, a game that is part of the Orange Box collection by Valve Software for the PC, XBOX 360, and PlayStation 3, is the most fun game I’ve had the pleasure of playing in a long, long time. It’s not just me saying that; Ars Technica and Games Radar also love it, and so does pretty much everyone else who I haven’t bothered to link to. Just a warning: this post contains heavy spoilers. If you haven’t played it yet but are planning to, don’t read any further. Otherwise, read on to hear what all of the fuss is about. Even if you’re a non-gamer, Portal contains many elements of note worth hearing about.

Portal takes a single new game mechanic and runs with it, blowing the entire genre wide open. We’ve never seen anything like this before, and It Is Awesome. The mechanic is this: you have a portal gun that can make a portal in nearly any type of surface of the game (floors, walls, ceilings, and angled joints included). You can place two portals at once. Other games have had features like this, but in them, you touch one portal and you are instantly teleported to the other portal. Not so in Portal. The portals aren’t mere warp points; they are warps in time and space.

Look through one and you see everything on the other side. Line them up correctly and you can see yourself, or if you have just the right line of sight, you can see yourself many times over, kind of like a barbershop mirror effect. Place the portals near each other on two faces of a corner and amuse yourself for minutes by continually chasing your figurative tail. I did. Make a portal in the ceiling and one in the floor directly below it and fall forever. And if you have any speed going into a portal, you keep it coming out of the portal, allowing you to translate vertical momentum from, say, falling into a floor portal, into horizontal momentum upon exiting a wall portal. Launching out of 45 degree-angled portals is the best. And you can better believe that the game’s puzzles take full advantage of these features.

Enemies see through the portals too. I got myself killed once by accident when I opened up a portal right in front of a turret while the other portal was behind me. The turret’s targeting laser went through the portal and right onto my back, and the turret proceeded to riddle me with bullets. And the puzzle with the rocket turret, where you have to backtrack in the level to get the turret to shoot a rocket at you and travel through the portal to blow up a glass barricade far away, is sheer genius.

Portal is amazingly fun to play. There’s never been anything like it. And the designers enjoy teasingly rubbing it in your face. There are several puzzles in the game that appear to be platformer problems, with an intricate series of moving objects that seem like they could be traversed in the normal platformer fashion (but can’t). Of course, the solution is actually just being observant enough to notice the one portal-able surface at the other end of the set of obstacles and simply skipping over the entire trap. After you figure out these puzzles, you can’t help but admire what a different kind of gaming experience Portal is.

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World of no-regret-craft

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

World of WarcraftIt has been two years and two months since I quit playing World of Warcraft. I wasn’t really into it “that” badly as I “only” had 23 days of combined play time across all of my characters when I quit. 23 days of play time doesn’t seem like a huge figure, so let me put it into perspective: that’s 552 hours. Doesn’t seem so tiny now, huh. And remember, 23 days of play time is a pittance compared to the people who are really into the game and have been playing it for nearly three years now. Some players have exceeded an entire year of play time across all their characters. That’s a scary figure.

It’s not that I still obsess over World of Warcraft. It’s usually not on my mind at all. But I bring it up because two of the people at work are quite into it. One of my coworkers has 50 days of combined play time. They were discussing the game and I was able to join in, despite not having played in so long. That’s a testament to how much I played it (and thus how much I reinforced my knowledge about it), as well as a testament to how little the core game has really changed. They were looking at player stats online and checking out their realms’ forums, so I had the sudden urge to see what was going on at the forum for the realm I used to play on, Cenarion Circle.

Here’s the scary thing: I recognize a lot of the names of the characters that are posting on that forum. And that doesn’t even include the unfamiliar names of new characters created since I stopped playing by the people I played with. The number of people who have been playing for all of these past two and a half years is quite astounding. I gave up on World of Warcraft and went on to do much more useful things: for instance, I completed my college degree and got into serious writing. Others haven’t been so lucky. If I was still playing World of Warcraft now at the same rate I was then, my play time would easily be over 100 days. Imagine all of that time, completely wasted. And as I look on at my fellow players who never did quit and kept wasting their time, I feel very saddened.

Now many people will have qualms with that assessment; “Who are you to say they’re wasting their time?”, they might ask. Well, I’m someone who’s been there and done that. I can look back at the things I’ve done in my life and identify the ones that were useful and the ones that were not. For instance, every second I put into my education was worth it. And I use an extremely broad definition of education here — it includes everything I did that enhanced my academic, as well as technical, skills. Yes, that even includes blogging, which has helped to make me a better writer. I can look back at the archive on this blog and say to myself, “That was worth it”. This will be especially true when I look back on it decades from now as a detailed description of my life.

But World of Warcraft simply wasn’t worth it. I got nothing out of it. It’s a black hole of vanished time in my life. Yes, I made all sorts of “friends” while playing the game, but the simple nature of the beast is, as soon as you stop playing, you lose the main communications medium that was keeping you in touch with said friends. A WoW addict isn’t going to find a lot of time to talk with you in instant messenger; his time is better spent chatting with his friends in-game, who he can still play with. I’ve seen this same story repeated across the blogosphere. Oftentimes, people don’t even find the game fun anymore, but they keep playing it just because most of their social circle resides inside the game.

My one regret about World of Warcraft is that I didn’t quit playing it sooner. I really feel sad for all of those people who are still pouring double-digit percentages of their ongoing life into it. Imagine the realization they will come to a year after quitting (and quitting is inevitable for all players, eventually), when they realize that it was all just a huge waste of time and that they didn’t get anything out of it besides an ephemeral satisfaction of addiction. Let me repeat something I said after I quit WoW that I have kept my word on: I will never, ever, play another MMORPG.

FPS nirvana approacheth

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

These next few months are going to be great for FPS (first person shooter) fans. First up on our plates we have the recently released BioShock, a suspense/horror FPS for Windows and XBOX360. I’ve been slowly playing my way through the Windows version, and I am impressed. The theme, mood, and ambiance are all stellar, and miles above the typical FPS.

The only qualm I have with BioShock, and this is a big one, is the combat. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it isn’t precise, it’s sloppy. It’s hard to accurately aim weapons and get good hits on enemies. The targeting reticles for plasmid attacks are way too large and do not allow for satisfying aiming. Battles devolve into manic rounds of mouse-clicking with enemies that are jumping all over the place and much too hard to hit with the inaccurate weapons. BioShock’s console lineage is plain as day. If you’re looking for ultra-precise FPS combat like you might find in a Quake, Doom, or Unreal game, you’re going to be disappointed, because BioShock doesn’t have it.

That’s why I don’t really understand how BioShock scored a 96% score at Game Rankings (a review aggregation site for games like Rotten Tomatoes is for films). I would score it an 85%, tops, mainly because of its lack of good combat. And BioShock doesn’t even have a multiplayer mode, which is what I usually end up spending the majority of my time playing. I find it more fun to play against fellow humans anyway.

Thankfully, true multiplayer FPS nirvana is on the horizon. Team Fortress 2, the long-awaited sequel to Team Fortress Classic (a Half-Life mod) will come out in a month. TFC is a ridiculously fun game and every indication is that TF2 will deliver. TF2 is also being released simultaneously with Half-Life 2: Episode Two, a single player expansion for Half-Life 2, as well as Portal. Both Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One were excellent, and Episode Two should be too. Portal is a single player FPS based on the Half-Life 2 engine that I haven’t heard much about. It’s more of a puzzle game than a shoot-em-up, but that’s fine; I like puzzle games, and hopefully this one will be good. We can always use some puzzling to break up the monotony of killing hundreds of enemies, right?

And if all of that wasn’t enough, be on the look-out for Unreal Tournament 3, the next installment in the excellent long-running Unreal Tournament series. Not only is UT a great game, but it tends to engender extremely good mods as well; I remember playing the mods Alien Swarm and Red Orchestra for UT2003 more than I played the base game!

So if you are an FPS fan, these next few months are going to be pure gold. Great single player as well as multiplayer games are being released, leaving something for everyone. And unlike BioShock, the combat in Half-Life 2 and Unreal Tournament has always been PC-precise, not console-sloppy. I’m really looking forward to them.

A long history of dumbing down roguelikes

Sunday, September 2nd, 2007

I recently tried out the game Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja for the Nintendo DS. It’s another in a long line of commercial roguelikes (it’s worth reading the article to familiarize yourself with the concept of what a roguelike is). What annoys me about commercial roguelikes is that they do not admit to their heritage (all of the free software roguelikes typically identify themselves as such). And they tend to lack the complexity that makes the real deal so much fun. Izuna, unfortunately, is a pale imitation of a good roguelike.

Izuna is simply too shallow. There are only a few types of items and only three types of equipment (a maximum of two of which can be worn at once). It’s just so simple. I played through the first two dungeons and felt like I had already gotten everything out of the game that I was going to get. So I stopped playing Izuna and went back to playing NetHack, the preeminent modern roguelike and direct successor of the archetypal Rogue.

That’s not to say that Izuna doesn’t have anything going for it. By roguelike standards, its graphics are top-notch (although keep in mind most roguelikes don’t even have graphics). And Izuna has clever dialog and a substantial plot, something that roguelikes also typically lack. But if I’m going to play a roguelike, it’s not graphics or plot that concern me. It’s the gameplay mechanics. And NetHack is far more interesting than Izuna.

I can name one commercial roguelike that I would consider good: Azure Dreams for the Playstation 1. Its mechanics were sufficiently complex and engaging to really interest me. It also had all sorts of fun minigames revolving around the town outside of the tower (the dungeon in the typical roguelike schema). And dare I say it even had a pet system that was superior to NetHack. The problem with Izuna is that I guess they figured since it was on a handheld system, it had to be pretty simple. It doesn’t even have any pets.

My playing of roguelikes is cyclical. NetHack is the only game I’ve come back to over long periods of time, a testament to how good it is. Whenever I stop playing a game that I was previously way into, such as World of Warcraft, and more recently, Supreme Commander, I always end up going back to NetHack for a spell, trying to Ascend another character class that I haven’t Ascended yet. So far I’ve done seven or eight, and I’m working on, fittingly enough, a rogue right now.

If you’re interested in trying out NetHack, go open up the NetHack Guidebook in one window and use a telnet client such as PuTTY in another to connect to nethack.alt.org. That’s the address of the largest public NetHack server. Of course, you can download, install, and play NetHack on your local machine, but I like playing on public servers. It’s not that the game is multiplayer or anything; I just like being able to play the same game from anywhere that has Internet access.