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.
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.
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.
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.
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!