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The Best Command-Line-Only Video Games

A rundown of the biggest, most expansive and impressive games that you can run entirely
in your Linux shell.

The original UNIX operating system was created, in large part, to
facilitate porting a video game to a different computer. And, without
UNIX, we wouldn’t have Linux, which means we owe the very existence
of Linux to…video games.

It’s crazy, but it’s true.

With that in mind, and in celebration of all things shell/terminal/command
line, I want to introduce some of the best video games that
run entirely in a shell—no graphics, just ASCII jumping around the
screen.

And, when I say “best”, I mean the very best—the terminal games that
really stand out above the rest.

Although these games may not be considered to have “modern fancy-pants
graphics” (also known as MFPG—it’s a technical term), they are
fantastically fun. Some are big, sprawling adventures, and others are
smaller time-wasters. Either way, none of them are terribly large (in
terms of drive storage space), and they deserve a place on any Linux rig.

AsciiPatrol

AsciiPatrol is, in my opinion, one of the most impressive terminal games
out there. A clone of the classic Moon Patrol, which is a ton of fun
already, this terminal-based game provides surprisingly good visuals for
a game using only ASCII characters for artwork.

It has color, parallax scrolling backgrounds, animated enemies, sound
effects—I mean, even the opening screen is impressive looking in a terminal.

AsciiPatrol

Figure 1. Shooting Aliens and Dodging
Potholes in AsciiPatrol

For a quick round of arcade-style fun, this one really can’t be beat.

Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead

Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead is absolutely huge in scale. Think of it as a
top-down, rogue-like, survival game with zombies, monsters and real
end-of-the-world-type stuff.

The game features a crafting system, bodily injuries (such as a broken
arm), bionic implants, farming, building of structures and vehicles, a huge
map (with destructible terrain)—this game is massive. The visuals may
be incredibly simple, but the gameplay is deep and open-ended.

Cataclysm

Figure 2. Running from zombies in Cataclysm

SSHTron

The Tron-inspired light-cycle games (and non-Tron-themed variants, such as
Snake) have been a staple of gaming since the 1980s. And,
SSHTron provides
a four-player version right in your terminal.

Simply open your terminal and type in the following:


ssh sshtron.zachlatta.com

And, away you go! You’ll instantly be connected and can join a game with up to
three other players. It’s simple. It’s quick. It’s fun. You can’t beat that.

SSHTron

Figure 3. Magenta FTW in SSHTron

DRL (Doom, Rogue-Like)

What if you took the classic first-person shooter, Doom, and turned it into
a top-down, dungeon-crawling adventure (à la the classic
Rogue)? Enter DRM
(aka Doom…Rogue-Like).

The gameplay is fast and easy to pick up. It’s a quick way to get your
adventure game fix in without spending a huge amount of time playing
something more demanding (like Cataclysm).

DoomRL

Figure 4. Find your very own missile launcher in
DoomRL.

Ascii Sector

This is one of my personal favorites.

Ascii Sector is a space-exploration game set entirely in your terminal.
Travel around between worlds, trade goods, fight alien ships, upgrade
your ship, go on quests. The scope is huge, and the atmosphere is
delightfully retro-sci-fi.

Think of this game as being in the same mold as Elite, Wing Commander:
Privateer
or TradeWars 2002. If you’ve ever enjoyed any of
those, Ascii
Sector
will not disappoint.

AsciiSector

Figure 5. Approaching a Planet in Ascii
Sector

There are moments in this game that simply make me smile. When coming to a
planet, for example, and it’s displayed entirely in colorful ASCII, it
just looks glorious. I can’t recommend this game enough.

Dwarf Fortress

This is the only non-open-source game I’m recommending on this list. But
the game is so truly spectacular, it has earned a place here. And, it’s
free (as in beer).

Think of Dwarf Fortress like a combination between
Minecraft, a top-down
adventure game and a general construction simulator. There’s a huge world
to explore and build, with the player not so much directly controlling any
of the characters, as giving them tasks and roles. Woodworking,
crafting, farming, brewing—there are so many details and options in this game.

Dwarf Fortress


Figure 6. One of Many World Maps in Dwarf
Fortress

Dwarf Fortress is the kind of game you easily can sink countless hours (and
days and weeks) into. It’s absolutely staggering in scope and
complexity.

Frotz

Although not technically a “game” in the traditional sense of the word,
Frotz
is an interpreter for text adventure games—like the Infocom classic,
Zork.

Being able to enjoy these adventures, many of which still hold up today,
right in your terminal is absolutely delightful. You can find text
adventures (or interactive fiction) all over the internet. Some made by
companies long since abandoned, others released (usually for free) by
independent creators.

Frotz

Figure 7. At least you haven’t been eaten by a grue
yet.

Making the Experience Fancier

If you really want to get the most out of playing games in your terminal,
you’ll want to make sure you have a terminal emulator that does them
justice—especially one that supports color text.

And, if you really want to step up your “I’m playing these like they were in
the 1980s” game, I recommend cool-retro-term. It’s a terminal emulator that
mimics (quite well) the look of old CRT monitors, including tons of
options for scan lines, amber text and more. It really makes these games
pop.

Cool-Retro-Term

Figure 8. Even the man page for GCC looks
fancy in Cool-Retro-Term.

Cool-Retro-Term is sure to win over even the most die-hard skeptic of
playing text-based
games.

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