Sunday, January 23, 2011

NetHack 2.3e: Final Ranking

The sarcasm is really uncalled for.

I've gone back and forth as to whether to make a GIMLET entry for NetHack. (You're getting it on the same day as my entry for Pirates! because I feel like I trespassed upon your tolerance enough with that game in a CRPG blog.) NetHack doesn't feel so much like a game that you finish and evaluate as one that becomes an ongoing part of your life. Although I played it for about 20 hours, I know I didn't discover even a fraction of what there was to find. Many of you have suggested that I read the spoilers for this version, but I'm having trouble separating v. 2.3e spoilers from later versions, and I've already discovered things I wish I hadn't. Some of what you think I might have missed are features introduced in later versions, like the "explore" option. Thus, if you're a player of the latest incarnations of NetHack, keep in mind that this version is somewhere between Rogue and what you've got.

1. Game World. I can't rank this one too high, but no roguelike really goes over-the-top in its depiction of the world and your character's backstory. You are an adventurer seeking the Amulet of Yendor, and the multi-leveled dungeon lies before you. That's it. There's no real history or lore to the place. Score: 1.

2. Character Creation and Development. Development is satisfying, swift, and tangible. As you slay monsters, you gain experience and automatically rise in levels. Scrolls, potions, and certain items increase your strength and armor class (but can just as quickly deplete them). Your choice of class really does make a difference, if only for difficulty reasons (the encounters seem to play out the same). There are no quest rewards that I could find. Score: 6.

3. NPC Interaction. There aren't many NPCs in this version (at least that I could find): the occasional shopkeeper and such, but the interaction is very basic. There may be others at lower levels. I have to give it a low score pending news that I missed a large chunk of the game: 1. Roguelikes are never really about NPCs anyway.

4. Encounters & Foes. Deceptively complex. Your various foes, featured as letters, don't seem like much of anything until they start attacking you. Eyes put you to sleep, killer bees sap your strength with their stings, leprechauns steal your gold and teleport away, quantum mechanics teleport you away, and nymphs seduce you for your equipment. You start to realize that every little letter requires a different approach from the moment that you first notice it. Although there aren't really "role-playing" opportunities here or scripted encounters, there is a lot of strategy involved, many of the encounters are random, and the enemies respawn. My, do they respawn. I usually regard this as a good thing, allowing you to bolster your experience if you so choose; in this game, it can be quite deadly. My visit to the mysterious vault, and the guard that showed up, hinted at a depth of other types of encounters that I didn't get a chance to experience in this version. Score: 6.

I never really did figure out what this was about.

5. Magic and Combat. I wasn't a huge fan of the magic system, which features learned spells in a spellbook that nonetheless fade away as you use them. Wouldn't the magic points have been enough? Combat, as I've said, can be fairly tactical depending on the type of creature. The problem is, you can't outrun anything, so while it's nice to think that you can tailor your tactics to the particular foe--missile weapons, magic items, and such--you almost always end up in melee combat even when you don't want to. I guess this is where teleportation comes in handy! I feel like I didn't get to explore a lot of combat options, though: does moving rocks around help with tactics? How can you best use your dog? That sort of thing. I'll try harder on this in later versions; for now, I'll give it a 5.

6. Equipment. This is perhaps NetHack's strongest suit. You find an enormous variety of weapons, armor, potions, scrolls, and wands randomized throughout the dungeon, and all of them are unidentified when you discover them (unless you've had a magic item of the same type before). They are harmful as often as helpful, as anyone who has come across a Scroll of Disintegrate Armor or a Potion of Poison can attest. This adds an enormous amount of strategy to the game: when should I try to use an unidentified item, and when should I play it safe? Even better, some of the items have non-obvious uses, or work together in ways that I only started to identify: throw a bit of food at a wild dog, and he becomes your pet. Use another magic item while you're confused, and unexpected things occur. And none of this even gets in to the uses of corpses. I just wish food wasn't such a prominent feature of the game. I know it's all about the challenge, but I feel like the damned thing is challenging enough without always fighting starvation. Finally, the game takes perverse pleasure in identifying your unidentified equipment after you die. I'm going to give this the highest score I've given to a CRPG so far: 8.

Some of these things might have been very useful.

7. Economy. You occasionally run into stores, so unlike Rogue, you can actually buy stuff with your accumulated gold, which makes it all the more infuriating when a leprechaun comes along and steals it. But, gods, how I wish the shopkeepers would identify your stuff for a fee. Hell, their own items aren't even identified! You could pay 100 GP for a potion and have it kill you. Score: 4.

Thankfully, this shopkeeper is selling food!

8. Quests. The one main quest is to find the Amulet of Yendor, and I don't think there are any side-quests in this version, although I could be wrong. The main quest itself isn't all that compelling--like most roguelikes, it's just a MacGuffin. Score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, & Inputs. The array of keyboard commands is dizzying at first; almost all letters are used, and lowercase and capitals do different things. But you get used to it surprisingly quickly, partly because they make intuitive sense, such as (w)ield and (s)earch. I didn't like how in the middle of combat, the game would suddenly decide that the messages were too long to fit on one screen, so I'd have to hit SPACE to continue the fight; outside of combat, SPACE means "pass," and I would get into a rhythm by which I would hit it accidentally in the middle of combat, wasting a turn. That's about my only complaint. As for graphics and sound, complaining about them in a roguelike somewhat misses the point, but I will risk your disdain by saying that I wish they were a little more advanced. Score: 2.

10. Gameplay. In a sense, NetHack is extremely linear, propelling you forward through layers of the dungeon. However, you do have a lot of flexibility as to how fast you descend and how much you want to risk starvation for the sake of extra experience on lower levels. The randomization of the dungeon and the strengths and weaknesses of each character class make it enormously replayable. Unfortunately, most of the time you're "replaying" at times you wish you weren't, such as just after your valkyrie gets transmogrified into a mimic on the 15th level. The game is enormously addicting at lower levels, but dying on a higher level really takes the wind out of your sails. Although I've heard reports that some NetHack masters are able to ascend in almost every game, I find it fiercely challenging, which is at once part of its charm and utterly exasperating. In a regular CRPG, I might punish this type of difficulty, but it's not like you don't know what you're getting into when you fire up a roguelike. Score: 7.

I will venture that this is the only game where this happens.

The final score of 42 seems a little low, although keep in mind that I didn't get to experience everything, and I might have ranked it a few points higher if I did. I hear that later versions have more NPCs, more complex dungeons, quests, and such, and I expect a significantly higher ranking then.

Even as I finish up this review, I wish I hadn't closed out the game. I should probably do something unique with NetHack and leave it continually open until I win, perhaps playing a little bit every day or every week, in between other games. I probably will do this with the next version (which I expect I'll get to around summertime), but continuing with this version when the next level offers so many innovations seems a little silly. The next time, I also plan to keep a much more careful log about what the different items, foes, and corpses do.

I did briefly consider cheating (at least, just backing up my saved games) to win, just so I could report on what it was like. But this opens things up for all kinds of abuse later on, and I'm not very good with self-regulation unless I establish fixed, absolute rules. My use of a hex editor to cheat my way through Mission: Mainframe already puts me in dangerous waters. Plus, when I finally win NetHack--just like with Rogue--I want the satisfaction of beating it fair and square.


Edit from 11/29/2013: Almost three years later, after I ascended in NetHack version 3.0, I returned to this version, won it, and lowered the GIMLET slightly to 36. See that post for more!


  1. I do recommend trying Nethack until you beat it, but you should really just play the latest version.

  2. There is an option,
    rest_on_space, setting it to false eliminates the problem of accidentally resting in the middle of a fight. SPACE is then only used to get the next message at the --more-- prompt, resting is done with the dot. I don't know in which NetHack version the option first appeared. There are in fact many useful options - best kept in a config file - in the more recent versions. They are described in the NetHack Guidebook, which I think is not considered a spoiler.

  3. I'm glad you decided to give different versions of Nethack separate GIMLET scales- it will be fascinating to see how the scores change over time.

  4. Frankly, if I had my druthers, you'd never mention NetHack again. Despite the whole "dev team thinks of everything", NetHack doesn't present a coherent world or anything close, and the arbitrary (and by arbitrary I mean completely random) nature of the game made it unsatisfying to me. And I'm a software engineer who works in Linux, I'm supposed to LOVE NetHack!

    I'm sorry, I understated. I'll be honest. I HATE NetHack and don't understand why others love it so. I tried, I really did. And then I had a game where I was going along pretty good, got down to level 4 or so, and opened a door. Behind the door was a goblin with a wand of fireballs. Since I had just opened the door it was his turn. He killed me instantly.

    What am I supposed to learn from that?

    Life is too short to put up with a piece of crap masquerading as a game. My Roguelike of choice is now either Ancient Domains of Mystery or (more often) Dungeon Crawl, both of which are Nintendo hard (or harder!) but are fair enough that when you die, you can understand why and hopefully not make that mistake again.

  5. I beg to differ on "no roguelike really goes over-the-top in its depiction of the world and your character's backstory".

    Larn featured an interesting backstory and Omega featured a diverse countryside with several different towns and dungeons. Both were first released in the 80s although at a time before the success of Angband and NetHack defined what a Roguelike should look like.

  6. CRPG Addict: "when I finally win NetHack--just like with Rogue--I want the satisfaction of beating it fair and square.". There is a posting on, of someone who has won the game without spoilers. Quoting: "Beating Nethack completely from scratch took roughly 1700 games, played over a period of four years and three months."
    And he used wizard mode to experiment and learn about the game.

    Viridian: GWTWOD - gnome with the wand of death (or any other powerful wand) is proverbial among NH players. But NH is no exception as far as random unavoidable deaths are concerned. What would happen in Crawl if you opened a door to face Sigmund, or even a mere kobold shooting poisoned needles? And then there are snakes, out-of-depth monsters... Crawl is an excellent roguelike; at least on par with NH, possibly better, but, having played both games quite a bit, I think unwinnable situations are more common in Crawl, only death comes usually in a few turns rather than instantly.

  7. Anon, thanks for the tip. I did read the guidebook, but I just missed this config option. I appreciate it.

    Viridian, that's the kind of feedback I love to get, even if I don't fully agree. I did have a lot of fun with NetHack, despite its difficultly, and I am looking forward to the next go-round. But I agree that even the most sincere NH apologist couldn't explain the type of unavoidable death that you mention, particularly in a permanent-death game.

    Unnethack, I will allow that those games you mention HAVE a back story and game world, but neither of them "go over the top" with a back story like, say, Ultima Underworld or Dungeon Master.

    Second anon, that's a sobering statistic, but I'll give it a try anyway. Your poster played only an average of about a game a day. If I ultimately have to capitulate, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

  8. Regarding death -- I truly believe a major part of Nethack is learning how to minimize risk -- identification techniques that minimize the chance of death, eating habits, resistance building. Basically, your goal is to learn how to build a character where insta-death is as close to impossible as possible, barring your own mistake.

    It's all about getting to that point. For example, figuring out poison resistance is a key early game skill.

  9. Many people LOVE to provide spoilers because it makes them feel smart that they know something which you don't. To my other fellow commenters: Unwanted spoilers are the equivalent of ruining someone's thrill of discovery.

    @CRPGA: There really is no way to separate old version spoilers from new ones. A few things have changed, but mostly things just get added.
    I encourage you to spoil yourself as little as possible, because one of the great joys of CRPGs is the discovery (as you have noted).

    Nethack is a true treasure. It has the deepest game play of any game in existence, because over the years TDTTOE: "The Dev Team thinks of everything". I encourage you to "experience" it over the course of years, rather than trying to cram it into your usual model.

    When the next Nethack version rolls around, if you stick to your intention of playing only Nethack until you ascend, then you will need to use spoilers. The choice is yours but just be aware of that reality.

    Finally: I wouldn't recommend taking the time to ascend in 3.0. I would mess with 3.0 for a few days then switch to the lastest version. Then I would allow yourself to enjoy the latest version at a leisurely pace over the course of however long it takes you to ascend. When you ascend one class, you (as a completionist like me) will want to ascend all the class, then all the class/race combinations.

    Then you should check out SlashEM (although this will provoke much gnashing of teeth among "purists" who continue to play vanilla despite having beaten it in every conceivable fashion).

  10. Everyone tells me that I won't ascend in NetHack without spoilers. I regard this is as a challenge. The one piece of integrity I've maintained throughout this blog is NO CHEATS. I'm not giving it up for this game, no matter what the consequences.

  11. I don't think we are worried about you trying to ascend with no spoilers as much as you saying you will not move on from the game till you do. We don't want your blog to grind to a halt because you cant beat Nethack for seven years or so. Your work schedule already causes enough long blackouts between your updates, so no need to have a game make you drop off the map entirely.

  12. It is possible to ascend without spoilers, but the only case I know of did take years. I think you'll enjoy the game more if you approach it spoiler free, but do allow yourself to move on before ascension if the game starts to lose its fun factor.

  13. Probably what I'll do is post mysteries and points of confusion on my blog and let you all give me hints. That strikes a nice balance between playing the game for months until I ascend and getting outright spoilers.

  14. Yes, UbAh has it right: I'm hoping you won't rush it, and also hoping the blog won't grind to a halt for a year.
    I still encourage you to have it be a game you play on and off over the course of months so that you have the time to discover and learn at your own pace, rather than being shepherded. There will be no shortage of people who will take joy in providing hints, I'm sure! It's just tough to learn on your own when you have a hint page to which you can refer ;)

  15. What I probably should do is make it my first 1989 game and then keep playing it throughout the year, instead of trying to do it all at once. You'd get an occasional NetHack posting in between postings for other games.

  16. Loving your blog, Mr. Addict. I've been reading it for over a week, starting from the beginning.

    All this content on Nethack makes me wonder if you'll be tackling "Vanilla" [i]Angband[/i] though, it being the other "big" roguelike and progenitor of many, many variants. I personally have played off and on for years - my first win still counts as one of my proudest gaming achievements.

    Gameplay is totally different from Nethack. Being closer to a more spophisticated version of[i]Rogue[/i], the focus is on survival and loot rather than puzzle-solving.

    Angband still has a strong community, based at There are even two webcomics!

  17. Yep. I've got Angband on my list for 1992.

  18. Excellent news. I think I missed it on your list because I was looking for it in 1990.

    I may well still be lurking around here when you do get to it, so I can hopefully offer the occasional useful tidbit (I'm a five times winner).

  19. Do I have the date wrong? Roguelikes are notoriously hard to pin down.

  20. Actually, looking at the official website, the first public distribution for DOS happened in April 1993.

    It may be rather buggy, though, as a bugfix version came out soon afterwards.

    More here:

  21. Another vote for just play the most recent version.

  22. Just to stick my oar in, ADOM has: a question system that determines your stats, semi-random origin stories, NPC villages, a main quest and several sidequests.

  23. It sounds as if this game is not meant to be beaten (at least in this version). It's like playing Tetris, you play it for the diversion and occasional challenge. Well, today I tried Mission: Mainframe to experience those roguelikes myself (I grew up on Commodore and the Amiga, and I guess that's why I missed the fun of the roguelikes). It does not sound very complicated, you just have to play very conservatively (and the age factor is there to force you to go for the occasional risk). But still, random factors can ruin your game quickly. And the simplicity can lead to a loss of focus.
    I will try NetHack soon. After all, it seems like a couple of fanatics have turned the simple principle into a science.


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