As long as I’m talking about rogue-like games, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Linley’s Dungeon Crawl. More baroque than rogue, but not quite so overburdened as (or, on the other hand, as polished as) Nethack, it’s worth a look. Death comes quickly in Crawl; at any given point, you are only two or three wrong moves away from an ignominious end. While on the one hand this sounds tiresome, it is actually a refreshing break from games like Angband, where the entire first 12 hours of the game consist of a walk in the park, and then the difficulty suddenly ramps up from “trivial” to “impossible” in the space of a few minutes. In Crawl, any time you see more than one enemy on the screen at once, you have to give serious consideration to running away as a viable strategy.

The game tries, with some success, to implement a Morrowind-like “gain proficiency in the skills you actually use” system, where practicing skills is more important, in an absolute sense, than what “level” you are. This creates a feeling of specialization in the characters that is somewhat lacking in games such as Angband and Nethack, where really the end goal is to acquire equipment that makes your character the all-singing all-dancing God of War. In Crawl, your character’s skills matter much more than what he is carrying. This is exciting.

The only real downside to the game’s relative immaturity is a crushing lack of in-game documentation (an aspect of gameplay in which Nethack is the gold standard). There’s not a lot of “flavor” text here. It is a roguelike stripped down to essentials.

But sometimes the essentials are worth being stripped down to. People talk about the fact that Nethack literally has the kitchen sink in it as a virtue, but I think it’s a vice. It represents, to me, a loss of direction, a nonsequitur if you will, like a fart joke in a Jane Austen novel. The entire existence of the Sokoban levels in Nethack are an example of something that would have been a good April Fool’s joke – once – but now are regrettably baked in to the balance of the game, to the game’s detriment.

Development on Crawl seems to have slowed down in the past few years. This is a shame. If there’s anyone out there looking for a project to contribute to, I think you could do a lot worse than to contribute to this one.

In many ways, Crawl is Nethack without all the stupid junk in it. Anyone who loves the genre should give it a close examination.

The Dungeon Crawl website is here. There are binaries available for Windows and MacOS, and the game can be easily compiled on Linux or BSD. The wikipedia entry on Crawl has a nice description of some of the more esoteric aspects of the game, including its interesting skill and magic systems.