9 ASCII Games You’ll Want to Play Again and Again

Modern Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) offer exceptional gaming capabilities, and have contributed to the trend of astonishing leaps in graphics fidelity. There is not a year that has gone by without a game being released that makes significant advances in technical graphics wizardry. Computer graphics have been advancing at a staggering pace. At the current rate of progress, in the next 10 years it may not be possible to distinguish computer graphics from reality.

Personally, these developments do not overly interest me. I find little fascination playing games that focus so much on the visuals they neglect the essential elements. Too often the storyline and game play has been compromised for visual quality. Most of my favourite games are somewhat deficient in the graphics department. Gameplay is always king in my eyes.

Linux has an excellent library of free games many of which are released under an open source license. The vast majority of these games are aesthetically pleasing. Popular games often have full motion video, vector graphics, 3D graphics, realistic 3D rendering, animation, texturing, a physics engine, and much more. Early computer games did not have these graphic techniques. The earliest video games were text games or text-based games that used text characters rather than vector or bitmapped graphics.

Text-based games often receive little coverage in the Linux press. However, there are some real ASCII gems out there waiting to be explored which are immensely addictive and great fun to play.

The idiom ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ can be extended to ‘don’t judge a computer game by its graphics’. Whilst the games featured in this article have extremely basic graphics, they have many redeeming qualities beyond evoking fond memories of the early days of computer gaming.

There are no fancy graphics here, just great gameplay coupled with the urge of always having just one more play.


UnNetHack in action

The first game in this roundup is UnNetHack, a fork of NetHack, originally based on the hugely popular roguelike game NetHack. NetHack was first released in 1987, and is considered by many gamers to be one of the best gaming experiences the computing world offers.

UnNetHack adds a number of enhancements to NetHack, such as additional monsters, more levels, a few new objects, additional dangers, more challenging gameplay, and most importantly more entertainment than vanilla NetHack. It offers a tutorial to help new players get started.

Be warned, UnNetHack is fiendishly addictive.

VMS Empire

vms-empire in action

Empire is a simulation of a full-scale war between two emperors, the computer and you. Naturally, there is only room for one, so the object of the game is to destroy the other. The computer plays by the same rules that you do.

This game is the ancestor of all the multiplayer 4X simulations out there, including Civilization and Master of Orion. The classic game from the 1980s uses text mode graphical output, drawing your units, cities and the world in color. Commands are issued using the keyboard.

The world on which the game takes place is a square rectangle containing cities, land, and water. Cities are used to build armies, planes, and ships which can move across the world destroying enemy pieces, exploring, and capturing more cities. The objective of the game is to destroy all the enemy pieces, and capture all the cities.

The game starts by assigning you one city and the computer one city. Cities can produce new pieces. Every city that you own produces more pieces for you according to the cost of the desired piece. The typical play of the game is to issue the Automove command until you decide to do something special. During movement in each round, the player is prompted to move each piece that does not otherwise have an assigned function.



Intricacy in action

Intricacy is an addictive, open source, networked, video puzzle game. It is written in Haskell, using the Curses and SDL libraries.

Intricacy runs directly from the command-line, and provides a turn-based, abstract puzzle game where the players need to pick locks, simply by coordinating a couple of tools in order to manipulate the lock’s mechanism. Constructing and solving difficult puzzles within certain strict design constraints is both challenging and good fun.

The catch is that you will be able to pick locks that are designed by other players. It has multi-platform support, with binaries for both Linux and Windows.


XorCurses in action

XorCurses is a puzzle game set inside a series of mazes. It is a remake of XOR by Astral Software, a game published in 1987 and released on the popular home computers of the day including the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Atari ST, and Amiga. XOR is a pure puzzle game with no random or arcade elements.

In some respects, XorCurses is a regression from the graphics of the old 8 bit computers as it uses even more simplistic graphics, with coloured ASCII characters instead of pixel based graphics.

XorCurses attempts to faithfully recreate that game for Linux, with particular attention placed on the behaviour of the objects within the original game.

The basic premise of Xor is to roam around a series of mazes collecting all of the blue masks and then finding the exit. You have two player-shields to aid you and you can use either one at any time and switch between them. The first few levels are easy to progress, but the rest are progressively harder to solve. A particularly challenging and difficult puzzle game that will keep you engaged for hours.


Goblin Hack in action

Goblin Hack is an open source roguelike OpenGL-based smooth-scrolling ASCII graphics game. The game is inspired by the likes of NetHack, but faster with fewer keys.

Goblin Hack has a simple interface that appears to appeal to players of all ages, and fires their imagination in today’s world of over-rendered games.

Players can choose one of several classes before being thrown into the first floor of a randomized, ongoing dungeon.



Curse of War in action

Curse of War is a fast-paced real time strategy game released under an open source license. It is implemented using C and ncurses. There is also an SDL version available.

The core game mechanics turns out to be quite close to WWI-WWII type of warfare, however, there is no explicit reference to any historical period.

Unlike most real time strategy games, in Curse of War players do not control units, but instead they concentrate on high-level strategic planning: Building infrastructure, securing resources, and moving armies.

A multiplayer mode is available. Computer opponents differ in personality, and it affects the way they fight.


Brogue in action

Brogue is an open source Roguelike game for Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, iOS and Android.

Brogue is a direct descendant of Rogue, a dungeon crawling video game first developed by Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman around 1980. Unlike other popular modern roguelikes, Brogue favors simplicity over complexity, while trying to ensure that the interactions between components are interesting and varied.

Your goal is to travel to the 26th subterranean floor of the dungeon, retrieve the Amulet of Yendor and return with it to the surface. For the truly skillful who desire further challenge, depths below 26 contain three lumenstones each, items which confer an increased score upon victory.

Brogue is a challenging game, but still great fun to play. Try not to be disheartened by the difficulty of the game; with some application, Brogue will become very addictive.


DiabloRL in action

DiabloRL is a roguelike “unmake” of the popular Blizzard game Diablo 1 classic RPG to a turn-based ASCII roguelike.

The game was created for the 7 Day Roguelike Competition, but has since been expanded with magic items, spells, more classes and levels, as well as fast travelling to known locations, and high scores.

DiabloRL gives you a choice of classes, the Warrior, Rogue, or Sorcerer. Each of these has different starting and maximum stats, as well as completely different play styles.

  • Website: diablo.chaosforge.org
  • Authors: Kornel Kisielewicz, Chris Johnson and Mel’nikova Anastasia
  • License: GNU GPL
  • Version Number: 0.5.0

Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead

Cataclysm in action

Cataclysm is an open source post-apocalyptic roguelike, set in the countryside of fictional New England after a devastating plague of monsters and zombies. It is a continuation of Whale’s original Cataclysm, which expands it with numerous new creatures, buildings, gameplay mechanics and many other features.

While some have described it as a “zombie game”, there’s far more to Cataclysm than that. Struggle to survive in a harsh, persistent, procedurally generated world. Scavenge the remnants of a dead civilization for for food, equipment, or, if you’re lucky, a vehicle with a full tank of gas to get you the hell out of Dodge. Fight to defeat or escape from a wide variety of powerful monstrosities, from zombies to giant insects to killer robots and things far stranger and deadlier, and against the others like yourself, that want what you have…

Cataclysm is very different from most roguelikes in many ways. Rather than being set in a vertical, linear dungeon, it is set in an unbounded, 3D world. This means that exploration plays a much bigger role than in most roguelikes, and the game is much less linear. As the map is so huge, it is actually completely persistant between games. If you die, and start a new character, your new game will be set in the same game world as your last. Like in many roguelikes, you will be able to loot the dead bodies of previous characters; unlike most roguelikes, you will also be able to retrace their steps completely, and any dramatic changes made to the world will persist into your next game.

  • Website: en.cataclysmdda.com
  • Authors: Kevin Granade
  • License: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License
  • Version Number: 0.C
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