I never said I was a patient man. As a young teen, I would cheat on book reports by reading the Cliff notes or watching the movie. I would rush to the 7-eleven directly after school on Fridays to grab the latest comic books (this is before all the comic shops standardized on Wednesdays, obviously). I loaded COMMAND.COM into a RAMDISK so I wouldn’t have to keep replacing the floppy boot disk after I ran large programs. That sort of thing. Well, I squeaked through high school. I eventually gave up reading and collecting comics. I got a hard drive in 1990 and stopped booting off of floppies. A lot of my issues corrected themselves as I got older.
In January of 1985, the very first game I played on the family 8088 was Hack. It was given to me by a friend of my brother’s, and it was yet another life-defining moment; the good kind, where it shapes you positively while you’re not paying attention. Being the first PC game I had access to (my prior pirating experience was Apple II), I was determined to give it a shot. Ironically, getting Hack up and running involved some hacking in and of itself: You had to alter config.sys to add ansi.sys; you had to alter hack.cnf to define how many drives you had, or a hard disk; you had to learn several bizarre movement keys like K for up, J for down, and other stuff that didn’t make any sense. It almost wasn’t worth the trouble for a young PC user.
Once fired up, Hack treated me to a complex dungeon where almost anything could happen: Shoot a bolt of fire, have it bounce off a wall, and ricochet back to hit you and catch your scrolls on fire; or kill an animal that turns people to stone, put on some gloves, and then use the dead carcass to turn enemy monsters into stone; etc. It was complex, it was deep, and it was wonderful.
It was also harder than a motherfucker. Hack, and its descendant Nethack, are some of the less forgiving members of the Roguelike family. It was relatively easy to go from king of the world to king of the dead in as little as a three moves. Every new machine I bought or built would get Hack installed as a nice little “initiation”, and every time I wouldn’t finish. I’d fire it up a few months later, 5 or 10 times a year, still wouldn’t finish. I’d cheat terribly, even finally finding the Amulet of Yendor, and the game would catch me cheating and write “You escaped with a CHEAP PLASTIC IMITATION of the Amulet” to the high score file. The screams of frustration were audible for several city blocks.
I got better. I found all sorts of things totally by accident. Eat a floating eye and you get sick, but if something later blinds you (like a flash of yellow light, or a potion of blindness), you can suddenly see ALL of the monsters in the level. Get drunk and read a teleportation scroll, and instead of teleporting somewhere else in the level, you teleport to a different level entirely. The more I played, the more I discovered. (I also discovered later in life that hack had prepared me for Unix administration, since the movement and option setting keys are identical to the “VI” file editor.) Yet I still didn’t finish.
Two weeks ago, I decided to play Hack on my 8088. I had forgotten how slow it played; the more monsters that were roaming the level you were on, the slower it took to respond. And it was then that I realized I could use that artifact of processing speed to my advantage. Most of the time that I had died, it was through some incredibly stupid event, like a dragon turning the corner and frying me with a bolt of fire, or not knowing that an umber hulk was in the same darkened room as I was, making me confused. When a level went from fast response to slow, it meant that a large amount of monsters had suddenly materialized. I would immediately check myself and carefully consider each decision. With this newfound realization, I played with hyperfocusing intensity over the course of several days.
Today, twenty-one years after I first got Hack working on my 8088, we come full circle, back to the 8088, to what I think are the two most lovely text screens I have ever seen on any CGA monitor:
I never said I was a patient man… but I guess I am :-)
Update, 1/7/2012: I just today learned that Donnie Russell’s excellent Windows port of Hack has now been ported to Flash and can run in any browser that supports it. It supports saving as well as some cute sound effects.