Nethack is one of a very few games to which I return perennially. I’ve been playing it on and off for at least five years and I think it’s because of my playing style. I tend, when playing games for which it is an option, to be an explorationist gamer. I always do the side-quests, and I loves me a sandbox. I can show you where every hidden warp tile is in Giana Sisters. Now, even after all this time, Nethack still finds new ways to kill me. (I’ve never ascended, incidentally - mostly I die of impatience or silly mistake). The highest-scoring player on my high-score table at the moment died by falling downstairs. I was dragging a corpse back to a nearby altar, and idiotically went down stairs while seriously overloaded. The next down was killed by a hallucinogen-distorted panther.
The fun of Nethack is not so much in discovering the story, or hidden areas (though there are plenty of these, the map is mostly procedurally generated so there’s no definitive knowledge to be had - though some special regions do recur in the same configuration). The fun is in learning some of the enormous range of ways in which things can interact, then using that to try to survive a bit longer, or to disover yet more new things. There is a saying amongst Nethack players, (naturally abbreviated to an acronym) - “The Devteam thought of everything”. You never have the same game twice in Nethack - the random levels and assignment of equipment means you don’t know what you’re getting, and in the case of potions, rings, scrolls, wands etc. means when you do get them, you don’t know which type they are until you identify them somehow.
A list of random things I’ve encountered just in my last few games, to give you an idea of the variety and flavour; my god has gifted me Mjolnir, (Thor’s hammer) as thanks for a sacrifice on His altar; I have been bitten by a werewolf, and while subsequently transformed into one myself, summoned wolves to fight by my side; I have been blinded by a crow; I have been seduced by a nymph into removing a cursed item of armour (along with the rest of my clothing) which I couldn’t remove under normal circumstances; I have been attacked by the ghost of one of my own previous players; I have used a pick-axe to mine my way through the dungeon walls and find a hidden vault full of gold… and so on and on.
Of course, there is another acronymised phrase amongst Nethack players: YASND - Yet Another Stupid Nethack Death. The thing is, Nethack is pretty hard, which is to say it will hand you your arse if you’re not careful, and maybe even if you are. It is turn based, so a lot of the time the thing that kills you could have been escaped or overcome if you were paying more attention, or had thought a bit longer before drinking that unidentified potion, hence the ’stupid’ in YASND. But Nethack pulls off a rare trick by making it fun to lose. The fun is in the discovery, even your downfall can be pleasing by its novelty, and it never feels unfair. This last is important. I always feel cheated when an RTS beats me by giving a dumb AI a shitload of extra units or production capacity. I don’t mind losing to Galactic Civilisations II over and over again, because the thing is just better at the game than I am.
Graphically, Nethack is very simple. I’m not so old-school as to actually play in ASCII, but the tileset I use is hardly high-res. It’s just really not the point. It’s not much of a looker, but what a personality! A metric fucktonne (which is 1.7 imperial shitloads) of character types, monsters, magical items, spells, hidden tricks and sly references. One day I’ll finish it - until then I look forward to the next unlikely death.