Friday, April 24, 2015

Game 186: Hack (1984)

Hack [v. 1.0.3]
Independently developed on Unix systems from 1982-1984; ported to DOS in 1984
Date Started: 20 April 2015
Date Ended: 24 April 2015
Total Hours: 7
Reload Count: 6 characters; 16 reloads on final character
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 30
Ranking at Time of Posting: 101/184 (55%)

Here's one reason that roguelikes are awesome: while anyone reading this post could identify a roguelike in an instant, to the uninitiated (which, let's face it, is most people), they don't look anything like games. They look like work. An average person glancing at my monitor thinks I'm using some kind of retro graphing calculator or an early DOS version of AutoCAD. He thinks, "Man, I always knew Chet was smart, but whatever that is is hard core."

All week, I've been in a series of meetings and events that didn't exactly require my full concentration but had people hovering around my computer frequently. The Savage Empire was definitely out, as were most of the other games on my upcoming list. I needed a roguelike. Since I kicked Angband to 1993, the next obvious choice was the original Hack.

I can't remember why I missed Hack when I first passed through 1984. I probably looked for it but couldn't find it or didn't try very hard. Having already played Rogue and the first generation of NetHack, I rather expected that Hack would be an obvious evolutionary step, perhaps halfway between the two. (Reading the posts on both will greatly assist roguelike novices in understanding this one.) Instead, I was surprised to find a game that was almost indistinguishable from the first versions of NetHack. By the time of its DOS release, Hack had left Rogue far behind, and the improvements made between this game and early NetHack are few and subtle.

The opening screen from an early version of NetHack. Note how similar it is to the screenshot at the top of this post.
Some history is in order. Rogue was created by Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, and Ken Arnold on Unix systems at a couple of University of California campuses in 1980. My understanding is that they didn't intend for it to be open-source software; in fact, they eventually marketed it through several companies, with varying degrees of success. But other programmers found it easy enough to knock off, and they generally made their creations open-source. This led to the entire roguelike genre.

A fortune cookie message hits a little close to home.
A game known as Hack was first programmed in 1982 by Jay Fenlason and other students at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Massachusetts. By most accounts, the game was essentially identical to Rogue except that it featured more monsters. (Some sources say that it had shops and pets, but Andries Brouwer says those were his additions.) In any event, Fenlason et. al. released Hack with an open-source license. It somehow found its way to Andries Brouwer, a mathematician, computer scientist, and professor at the Mathematisch Centrum in Amesterdam. Brouwer greatly improved the game from its Rogue roots and introduced most of the elements that distinguish it from earlier incarnations, including:

  • Multiple classes that start with their own inventories
  • Shops
  • Pets
  • Intrinsic attributes gained by eating corpses
  • Complex interactions between monsters, items, and the character, such as a dragon's breath hitting other enemies in your path or destroying your scrolls
  • Ability to backtrack to previously-visited levels
  • Special rooms like vaults and "treasure zoos"
  • Ability to write on the floor
  • "Bones" files 
  • Fortune cookies with associated "rumor" messages
  • A special set of levels on which the Amulet of Yendor is found

The adventurer stumbles into a killer bee hive.

There's still plenty of opportunity for later development by Mike Stephenson and the rest of the NetHack development team. The item and monster lists are about half of what modern NetHack aficionados are used to; there's only one way up and down; you don't get the option to identify your possessions or see your intrinsics when you die; there's no "blessed" status or altars; there are no spells or spellbooks (making the wizard class a dubious choice); and while "pray" exists as an option, the manual is quite frank that it doesn't do anything. But the basic structure of NetHack is here, and it's clear we need to credit Andries Brouwer as the most important founder of the game.

Shops are a particularly welcome addition.

Brouwer released the game on Usenet in December 1984. He offered a patch a month later, an updated version (1.0.2) in April 1985, and a third version (1.0.3) in July 1985. The three versions show as much evolution as we see from Hack to the first NetHack. Adjustment of luck based on phases of the moon first appeared in 1.0.2. Designation of the lower levels as "Hell" (and the need for fire resistance) also appeared in 1.0.2, as did the Wizard of Yendor in a special square in the middle of a level (in the first version, the Amulet of Yendor was found under a rock). Version 1.0.3 first required players to reach Hell via teleportation, and it also introduced "wizard mode" for the first time.

In October 1985, Hack 1.0.3 was ported to DOS by Don Kneller, who would later port Moria. Kneller didn't seem to know Brouwer by name, crediting the development of the game only to "several people at the Stichting Mathematisch Centrum in Amsterdam." Reading his notes on the game, we come across this shocking paragraph:

Saved games have no special protection, so you can save a game and make a copy of the save file. Then, if you die trying something risky, you can use the copy to restart your game from the same place.
Folks, this is the author of the first PC port of Hack telling us that it's okay to save-scum. Imagine the time I could have saved myself with NetHack a couple years ago.

Hack offers six character classes: tourist, speleologist (later replaced by the more common term "archaeologist"), fighter, knight, cave-man, and wizard. Version 1.02 introduces the ability to specify sex. There are no attributes other than strength. I played a little with each class and finally settled on a knight to go for the win. Having already won NetHack 2.3e and NetHack 3.0.9 legitimately, I didn't feel any particular compulsion to do this one the hard way. I backed up my save file before each new level and ended up reloading 16 times.

If my adventurer is killed in Hell, where does he go?

I didn't find it very difficult to survive within the first 15 levels as long as I took my time. Beyond Level 15, as the monsters get harder, the game becomes a lot deadlier--particularly since the game caps the character at Level 14 (a liability that continues through the early versions of NetHack). It's important to improve strength as much as possible through Potions of Gain Strength and eating Royal Jelly (from killer bee hives) or spinach, as well as weapons and armor through Scrolls of Enchant Weapon and Scrolls of Enchant Armor. Eating the right creatures conveys fire resistance, frost resistance, regeneration, invisibility, and other intrinsics. I was never able to get poison resistance, and I'm not sure what other intrinsics are available since you can never see them and never get confirmation of their acquisition.

Strength increases a point.

There are fewer options for getting yourself out of tight situations than in NetHack, and I learned to prize various wands and scrolls, including Wands of Teleportation--which send monsters off to a random location--and Scrolls of Teleportation, which do the same thing for the character. While you can get ESP by eating floating eyes, there are no blindfolds in this version, so the ESP only helps when you get temporary blindness from eating rotten food or getting blinded by yellow lights. As with later versions, teleportitis and a Ring of Teleport Control are the most important intrinsic/item pair in the game.

Below Level 25, the levels become a series of mazes. Paradoxically, the game becomes a little easier in the maze section because each level has a dead-end in which a Wand of Wishing lies beneath a boulder. You have to have a pick-axe or a Wand of Teleportation to get rid of the boulder (there might be other ways), but a couple of those wands goes a long way towards finishing your ascension kit. Unfortunately, there are no Scrolls of Recharge in this version.

After Level 30, the maze levels are designated "Hell," and you need fire resistance (either a ring, or by eating a dragon) to survive. You also have to find a way to teleport into it. There are no down staircases after Level 29, so the only way to reach Hell (and the Amulet of Yendor) is via level teleportation. Later versions of NetHack give you several ways to accomplish this, including Cursed Scrolls of Teleportation and level teleportation traps, but in this version, the only way I could find to reach Hell was to read a regular Scroll of Teleportation while confused and in possession of a Ring of Teleport Control.

The Wizard of Yendor and the Amulet of Yendor supposedly appear at a random level between 30 and 40, but I found him right away on 40. He's surrounded by a wall, which is surrounded by a moat, so you need some mechanism of getting past the water and the walls. I found that a Wand of Fire evaporates the water and a Potion of Levitation lets you cross over it. As for the wall, a Wand of Digging or a pick-axe do the trick.

The Wizard is a pushover in this version, since there's no real magic or magic resistance. I killed him quickly with my sword, and grabbed the Amulet from his body. This version's Wizard doesn't resurrect and harass you all the way to the exit.

Once you have the Amulet, the rest of the game--just as in the first versions of NetHack--is a breeze. All of the up staircases are in the same location in the maze levels, so once you find it on the Wizard's level, you just have to keep hitting CTRL-period to quickly pass through all the other Hell and maze levels. Once you get to Level 25, you have to navigate from staircase to staircase, but the game remembers the maps from previous visits, and if you have teleportitis, it's a simple matter to just teleport yourself from the down staircase to the up staircase.

When you go up the staircase from Level 1, the game tells you your score and number of moves.

For someone who has played a later version of NetHack, Hack feels fairly primitive. But just as I noted with Moria in the previous year, Hack was undoubtedly the most complex, tactical game of 1984. It's not until 1985-1986 that regular RPGs start to rival roguelikes in the complexity of their mechanics, and as late as 1990, no commercial RPG has come close to the Hack/NetHack line in the complexity of inventory and inventory interactions.

On a GIMLET, this game gets:

  • 0 points for not even the slightest description of the game world in the manual.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. The selection is limited and the level cap is a huge turn-off.
  • 2 points for NPCs. You know what gets those two points? The pet. I forgot to reward other versions for this addition. I typically abandon the pet because I find it annoying to constantly maneuver around him, but it's still a unique and interesting element of the game.
  • 5 points for foes: a terrific variety of monsters with special attacks and resistances.

I wouldn't have minded if this had waited for a later version.

  • 4 points for magic and combat. The combat system is deceptively sophisticated with all the item-based tactics you can use, but there's no magic system to speak of.
  • 6 points one of the best varieties of equipment that we've seen to date, and the ability to use items in complex (but logical) ways to solve puzzles.

A mid-game inventory shot.

  • 2 points for the economy. You might get a store on an early level, might not. If you don't get one, there really is nothing to do with the money you find except score extra points.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no decisions or branches
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface, all for the interface, which is intuitive and well-documented.
  • 4 points for challenging gameplay that, while linear for each game, offers a lot of replayability.

The final score of 30 is better than anything else in 1984 so far, but a little lower than the 36 I gave to the first edition of NetHack. The variance actually surprises me a little because I feel like it played about the same, but looking through my notes, I see that NetHack offered enough features to get an extra point here, an extra point there. In any event, it's hard to recommend Hack for modern players with more advanced versions of NetHack available, but I'm glad I played it for its historical value.

I hope to get back onto a regular schedule next week and continue on with The Savage Empire. I have no idea why I have this kind of lull every single April.


For further reading: Check out my posts on Rogue, this game's antecedent, and my posts on NetHack v. 2.3e (which followed Hack) and NetHack v. 3.0.9.


  1. Roguelikes remind me that sometimes the best way to free your creativity is to add constraints. No graphics? No problem. We'll just make everything else better.

    Great job as usual on the archeology on this post. As I've been doing some guest blogging over on TAG, I am frustrated by difficulties really getting into the meat of the story behind the games. You make it look easy!

  2. I've always lacked the patience to deal with most roguealikes but one held my attention. It's a newer game but it's based on Doom and is called, surprise surprise, DoomHack. It blends the elements of doom with ascii art. It may earn a few points for actually having sound, but I imagine you'd just turn it down.
    I mention it because you seem to enjoy roguealikes.

    1. I know of DoomRL, but not DoomHack. I wonder how deep they are compared to the NH line.

    2. you know what? It was DooRL that I played. I just remembered the wrong name. Thanks, I'll have to download that one again.

    3. Ah, now I'm going to be playing DoomRL all weekend...

  3. I guess you have a lull because you provide services to non-government companies that are not able to afford to have one of you on staff and April is around the end of the budget.

  4. The Amiga had a version of Hack, which was my first roguelike. I loved it, and played the bejezus out of it.

    The reason I bring it up is because I still find the name and tagline amusing:

    Hack Lite
    "Plays Great, Less Killing!"

    I don't know if it was actually any easier than other Hacks. I didn't play it again until Nethack, many years later, and by then I didn't remember Hack Lite clearly enough to compare.

  5. Speaking of strength I had my wizard to gain a god like strength score by having a grey dragon as my pet and pulling him along from with a collar and a leash ...

    This was in NH 3.11 so I can't say if there are leashes in earlier versions.

  6. The version I was familiar with would occasionally spout text like 'You step on a frog'. Did the version you played have cheeky random messages?

  7. I vaguely remember that NetHack was UNIX-centric enough that you could configure it to listen to a mail server and have an in-game "mail daemon" rush up to your character and deliver a scroll with the contents of the email. I don't remember if you can send mail via the same, but it's a funny way of integrating the game with the operating environment.

  8. A fully mapped level could resemble a workflow graph ^-^

  9. "Man, I always knew Chet was smart, but whatever that is is hard core."

    To be fair, rogue-likes are ALL hard core.

    1. Traditionally, yes. not any longer though.

      See Dungeons of Dredmor, FtL and many mobile games (of which my favourite is probably 868-Hack).

    2. They mostly still have options to be fairly hard core if you want.

      Pixel Dungeon on Android is a classic roguelike with good mobile interface and graphics - it's pretty tough.

  10. One of the interesting things about the ASCII roguelike model is how programmer-friendly the genre is. It does not take a great deal of programming experience or effort to build a functional engine and it's easy to extend with new monsters, classes, items, special events etc. In fact, it's probably one of the best projects a budding programmer can take on.

    I never played Hack (though I watched a friend play), but I liked that the character classes were more imaginative than your usual classic fantasy foursome + variants.

    1. Yes! I'd never worked with anything but BASIC and Logo (turtle graphics!) and such before a love of Nethack drove me to download the source and a C compiler and begin tinkering as a teenager. I won't say it was the best way to learn programming, but it was very satisfying to figure out how to add new monsters, new types of squares, etc. I never got too ambitious--some new classes, a menu-driven conversation system, and a few similar items were my biggest changes--but it certainly taught me a lot.

  11. comment comment comment

    Just noticing your worries about this post on your Savage Empire post. I think perhaps part of the problem is since this is a subset of Nethack play, most people have already commented what they want to comment. Plus, not many people play original Hack any more (you even said in this post it wasn't worth the trouble with Nethack available).

    In any case, one thing I could bring up is: are there any other roguelikes that need this kind of treatment? I honestly don't think so except for maybe ADOM (which had a long ascii development, developer break where it was thought he was "Finished" with ADOM, then he picks it back up again w/ graphics).

    Despite a lot of development in, say, Dungeon Crawl, I feel like roguelikes are so much effort to play that I'd rather the Addict spend his limited time elsewhere.

    1. Angband and ADoM will get the treatment at least, I anticipate, but they're still years away.

    2. Oh, I was mostly kidding on the post, but thanks for coming by anyway.

      I've committed to playing the first release and final release of most roguelikes, and I'll gladly stick an intermediate one in between if I really like it.

    3. I play nethack, I've played rogue, I see no need to play the one inbetween. If they had a different story for each then sure but otherwise it's just a trip through history. This sort of logic would probably affect most roguelikes.
      T.O.M.E could be an odd one, it started as an Angband variant, but has now delibarately broken away from it completely (the acronym even stands for something else now)
      If I was introducing someone (again) to dwarf fortress, I might pick a slightly earlier version, just to "ease" them into it before they have to worry about undead or minecarts

  12. The paragraph from a roguelike creator condoning save-scumming is hilarious.

    Today, the closest thing I can think of to a save-scum-immune roguelike is Diablo III's Hardcore mode. Diablo III is entirely online, so the only way to save-scum in Hardcore would theoretically be to host a private server of it.

    1. Diablo II hardcore is far more rogue like than Diablo 3. D3 is a much easier game overall.

    2. The absence is any sort of internal prompt means D2 hardcore (and presumably D3) just involves a lot of grinding.

      The best roguelikes (imho) have an anti-grind mechanism.

      Various roguelikes can be played on public servers which prevents cheating.

    3. Nah, there's no button mashing. You just point your cursor to what you want to hit and hold the mouse button down until that thing goes away.

  13. Ah, Hack!
    This is the first Rogue-like I played back in late 80's. It was on a diskette that came with my first IBM PC, an XT with Hercules graphics card.

    The very first thought when I started the game was, "What the heck?!? What are those bunch of ascii characters? What's this thing???"

    I didn't know it's a game until I tried it. I thought it might be some kind of tool, a disk sector editor or something judging from the file name 'hack.exe'.

    Well, after a bit of playing around, I got to like it. There's no fancy graphics, not so much of story or anything. But, it's still somehow charming and fun to play.
    I played it off and on for years. Never made it past level 10, though.

    I found your blog couple weeks ago, looking for something else (well, it's 'Wilderness, survival adventure' and google sent me here for your article about Wilderness Campaign).
    I've been reading your blog ever since, and still got a lot to catch up.
    You're doing a fantastic job! It's been very pleasant journey down the memory lane for me.

    1. I, too, had the same feeling and almost said the exact words: "What the ha-" looks at title of the game, "Oh... ooohh... so THAT'S where you got your name from. Clever"

    2. Thanks, SJ. Glad to have you with us. One of the best outcomes from this project has been my introduction to roguelike games. I can see firing up some variant of NetHack every once in a while for the rest of my life.

  14. I haven't made it this far into your blog yet (it takes forever when you read all the comments as well), but I just came across a review of this game written in the March/April 1986 issue of Amiga World and wanted to point it out in case anyone was interested. The issue can be read or downloaded at Not sure if links are OK here, but if not feel free to delete:


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