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Look Out, @ ! Beware the B!
6.25.2001 by Professor Particle


There was a time when liking video games was like wearing an 8-bit mark of the geek on your forehead. Cool people were too busy being cool to bother memorising arcane codes (up-down-A-B-A-B) or locations of hidden warp zones. As technology improved, this facet of geek culture slowly oozed into the mainstream. To millions of people, the idea of a movie featuring Lara Croft seems completely natural. Would these same people wait in line to go see Pong: The Musical?

There was a time when people would give you confused looks if you uttered names like "Frodo" or "Gandalf". Now, everyone and their donkey has been imprinted by the hype-machine of the Lord of The Ring Movies. "I hear Ian McKellen learned how to pull a rabbit out of a hat for his research into the role." "I hear the entire cast had to learn how to read runes because that's what the script was written in." "I hear Fatty Lumpkins is being played by Willem Defoe." SHUT UP! Go listen to the Dead Alewives' Dungeons and Dragons skit if you haven't already. If you laugh with it and say, "That's so true." then you're a geek. If you laugh at it and say, "Geeks are so lame." then stop reading now.

Angband is refreshing breath of something that will never be co-opted by non-geeks. Fans that cream their pants in search of 57394857919728 polygons-per-square-inch will be sorely disappointed. Old school 8-bit Nintendo players may even shun it. It's in the classic geek art medium of ASCII. Yep, that's letter, numbers, and symbols. Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself.

In the beginning there was Rogue. Well, not really. There were text adventures around that described the contents of rooms, and users could type in commands (normally in the format VERB NOUN) to interact with the game world... "Go north" "Get shoe" "Eat Hamburger"... Rogue was a new species of game because it used the ASCII characters as representational graphics. The commands were now single-key shorthand allowing you to move, fight, drink, or whatever, with each keystroke. It's most powerful feature was that the game was never the same twice. The program generated a new map, challenges, rewards, each time you played.

Rogue gave birth to several games in this genre, but the one that stands out for me is The Mines of Moria. The title gives away it's Tolkien-inspired nature, but unfortunately that's where much of the flavour ends. You are represented by an @ and your ultimate mission is to kill the Balrog (represented by a capital B). There are Balrogs and Hobbits, and Elves, and Magic, and Blah, and Blah, and Blah, but most of the game feels like generic D&D rather than an escapade from Lord of the Rings.

Angband is a step up. It's got the same framework as Moria (You've got to kill Morgoth instead of the Balrog now. PotAto, PotAHto), but with some vast improvements as far as flavour is concerned. Now you can run into individuals from Tolkien's books like Gollum or Wormtongue, and use the unique items that you've read about like the Phial of Galadriel. To top it off, it's got the two words that geeks love. Open. Source. The game is constantly growing and improving. Bizarre variants have mutated over the years to give Angband fans altogether different flavours.

I have to force myself to stop lest I give away some surprises. Every self-respecting, Tolkien-loving, keyboard-tapping geek should try this out. You would never have thought that a bunch of ASCII could be so engrossing. It's the One Game to rule them all, and in the darkness, bind them.




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