Friday, November 29, 2013

NetHack Version 2.3e: Ascended!


NetHack (early series; version 2.3e)
The series includes 4 public releases between July 1987 and April 1988
Date Started: 3 January 2011
Date Ended: 26 November 2013
Total Hours: 62
Difficulty: Hard-Very Hard (4.5/5)
Final Rating: 36
Ranking at Time of Posting: 76/121 (63%)

Okay, here's how this happened: a few months ago, when I was bored waiting somewhere with no Internet access, I started fiddling with the NetHack app on my iPhone. I had remembered not liking it before, and I still didn't really like it. It isn't the app's fault; the iPhone screen just isn't big enough to accommodate much of the dungeon, nor many of the common commands.

But the whole experience gave me a NetHack jones. The good thing about NetHack is that it's perfect for small blocks of time, especially when you're half-doing something else. Its minimal graphics, no sound, and ability to pause indefinitely between moves makes it an ideal supplement to boring conference calls, webinars, bus rides, TV viewing, and whatever else. If I'm sitting in an airport with five minutes to kill before my flight, I'm not going to fire up Wizardry VI or Legend of Faerghail; it takes that long just to get the game running, map sheets and note pages open, and all the windows positioned right. But a five-minute NetHack session is just fine. In fact, I'd argue that NetHack probably should be played in small bursts of time, so you don't lose your level of alertness and make mistakes.

If I was going to play more NetHack, I wasn't going to waste time playing the version I'd already ascended, and I didn't want to jump the line by going to the 1992 version, so I decided to go backwards and mess around with 2.3e, the last of the "early NetHack" series, which I played for a while back in January 2011.

I was surprised to note how primitive this version seemed compared to 3.0, which I ascended back in June. Early NetHack had no rogue class, no alignments, no attributes other than strength. Classes don't have names associated with their levels. The screen doesn't display your current condition--blind, hallucinating, confused, and so forth--so you have to note what's happening and when it goes away. There are no NPCs (oracles, guards, friendly creatures, priest) or any command to talk to them even if they existed.

Apparently someone thought this was funny.

The dungeon structure is also a lot more primitive. There are no special levels except the idiotic one featuring the Three Stooges that only appears in this edition. There's no castle level, nor does Vlad's tower appear in the levels of Hell. There is a division starting around Level 30 between dungeon levels and the mazes of Hell. The Medusa is present in this early version, on the last level before Hell, and she was responsible for the deaths of two of my characters. Instead of a Wand of Wishing in the castle, you get one hiding under a boulder on the first level of Hell, a fact that caused no end of frustration when my characters lacked any way to bust up that boulder. More on that below.

And the maze levels oddly use hyphens instead of pipes to mark vertical walls.

Like the 3.0 series (but unlike later versions, I think), the Wizard of Yendor has the Amulet in his possession, and he's located on some random level of Hell (between 30 and 60). There are no down stairways on the Hell level, meaning that you have to find some way to get to the bottom and begin working up.

But enough was the same that I had my bearings. In my final rating for the 3.0 version, I bragged that, "now that I've won, now that I know how the entire dungeon maps out, now that I realize what's possible and how to do it, I think I could ascend... at least once every 20 characters." Well, that nearly held true. I think I fielded 27 or 28 characters before I ascended, and about 18 of them made it past dungeon level 15. When I look back on my early posts, I can't believe how many characters I lost for dumb reasons on the first few levels.

In many ways, early NetHack is harder than the 3.0 series. (Since I haven't played it, I can't compare it to the current version.) Some reasons:

  • There are intrinsics, but they're a complete mystery: you get no hint that you've acquired the intrinsic when you eat a corpse. This means if you eat something that grants poison resistance, the only way you'll know it works is the next time something tries to poison you. There isn't even an option to see your intrinsics when you die.
  • I'm not entirely sure, but I don't think classes start with intrinsics, and certainly not all the ones they get in later versions. The barbarian isn't immune to poison, for instance.
  • The game is much fonder of swarming you with multiple foes at once--including extremely frequent orc hordes and killer bee colonies--than the later version.

These guys were right at the bottom of the stairs.

  • There are no helpful messages that indicate the presence of monsters, shopkeepers, throne rooms, and such.
  • Dipping potions in fountains doesn't dilute them, so you can't make plain water that way to later turn into Holy Water. Even if you could, there are no altars to make Holy Water. This is fine, though, because dipping things in Holy Water doesn't bless them. There are no blessed items in this version, just regular ones and cursed ones. 
  • The lack of altars also means that you don't have an easy way to test the cursed status of items.
  • There are unicorns, but they don't leave horns, meaning you don't have instant ways to cure hallucination, confusion, and the like.
  • Although blindfolds and pick-axes exist, I never encountered them as items in the dungeon. The only way I ever acquired them is by either starting with them or wishing for them.
  • The enemy AI actually seems more intelligent in this early version. They don't necessarily come charging at you, nor to they stand in one spot during your combat. They'll dance around and move aside to allow their allies to flank you instead of, say, stubbornly standing in doorways.
  • The cool weapon/artifact Excalibur is not immune to damage as in later versions.
  • Perhaps most notably: there's a level cap at 14! Between regular combats, Potions of Gain Level, and wraiths, this is extremely easy to achieve.
  • Wishes seem rarer. Thrones and fountains are very reluctant to give them up, and there are no Scrolls of Charging to help you get more out of the occasional wand.
  • I don't have the quantitative evidence, but I felt this version had a lot more traps, including "mine traps" that not only damage you but screw up your legs and reduce your encumbrance capacity for a time.
  • There are no items of magic resistance or reflection. No amulets at all, in fact (except the Amulet of Yendor). No cloaks except the Elven Cloak. No boots.
  • The dungeon consists of 60 levels instead of just 50.
  • Enemies have no trouble following you upstairs, so you can't use the "stair-scumming" trick.
  • There are a billion ways to directly get your strength drained from both monsters and corpses, at least until you finally get lucky and get the "resist poison" intrinsic. Potions of Restore Strength are some of the most valuable objects in this game.

Balancing these challenges was a series of things that made it a little easier, at least in parts:

  • Spellbooks were a lot more plentiful, and genocide actually appears in this version as a spell that you can acquire. I hardly used spells in 3.0, but in this version, they were key to my success.

I just about fell out of my chair when I saw this. But you do still have to be a fairly high level to cast it successfully, and it fades fast.

  • Identification scrolls also seemed more plentiful. Between acquiring the "identify" spell and identification scrolls (along with the various tricks I'd picked up during my 3.0 series play), I rarely didn't know what things were.
  • Though Excalibur is weaker, since there are no alignments in this game, any class can acquire it very easily by dipping a longsword into a fountain. 

Not quite how it happened to King Arthur, but we'll go with it.

  • No soldier ants. No liches. If you can genocide dragons, you don't have any heavy-damage spellcasters to worry about. This balances the lack of any magic resistance items.
  • "Genocide" automatically works on every monster type in a class, just as "blessed genocide" does in later versions.
  • Elven cloaks protect against rust monsters, so they aren't the same menace they are in later versions.
  • Though there are no altars, you can "sacrifice" and boost your luck anywhere.
  • Although none of the Hell levels have down staircases, all of the up staircases are in the exact place that you arrive from the level below. This makes it absurdly easy to both find the Wizard (just put on the blindfold on the 60th level, find the staircase, and hit "up" until you seen him) and to escape the Hell levels after finding the Amulet.
  • There's no "final level" after you leave the dungeon. Winning is just a matter of getting back to Level 1 and going up the stairs.

Because this version lacks so many of the items (particularly magic-resistant and reflection ones), the "ascension kit" ends up being quite small: a blindfold and the "telepathy" intrinsic, a Ring of Teleport Control, a Ring of Fire Resistance to survive in Hell, a Potion of Levitation to get across the Wizard's moat, (there are no boots), and some way to get down to Level 60 and start searching for him. The latter bit ended up being the hardest. It's tough to find level teleport traps after you have a means of teleportation control. There's no Unholy Water so no way to curse a Scroll of Teleportation to get you there when you're ready to go. I ultimately got there by reading a regular Scroll of Teleportation while confused, but you have to get lucky to find the items in the right order.

Without telepathy and a blindfold, you couldn't scope the Wizard like this. You'd have to go looking for him at the center of every level. That would get old fast.

After a series of characters who died both honorable and stupid deaths (eating tainted corpses, stumbling into water while confused, acquiring teleportitis before teleport control and warping into the middle of a treasure zoo, stumbling on the Medusa unaware), I won with Chester the Archaeologist. I decided to go with that class because he starts with a pick-axe, one of the few items I consider absolutely essential. On the way down, I found a Ring of Teleport Control and Ring of Fire Resistance fairly early, both within a massive shop on Level 2.

Look at all this stuff. I was testing things in here for hours.

I cleared out several throne rooms on the way down and, after taking care to boost my luck by sacrificing fresh corpses, sat in them. In one of them, I got my strength elevated to 18. On another, I got the option to genocide a creature, and I chose dragons. Later, with a spell of genocide I acquired, I did away with vampires, too. I used the Wand of Wishing on the first level of Hell to get a blindfold, then zoomed down to Level 60 and started working back. I found the Wizard and his pet Hellhound on Level 40, in a closed chamber surrounded by a moat.

Chester acquires the last item he needs.

I had found out the hard way from a previous character that you don't want to use the Wand of Death on the Wizard in this version. It just bounces off his wall and kills you:

Well, that sucks. Gideon the Barbarian was moments from winning.

But as I said earlier, this version's Wizard is a pushover. I killed him with Excalibur, grabbed the Amulet, and headed up quite quickly given the way this version of Hell handles stairways. As in later versions, the Wizard occasional returns and dogs you on the way up, but he's no more difficult than he was in his lair.

Yes, and I'm pretty sure I can do it again.

Between my existing maps and teleportation, I was able to clear the way back to the surface almost too easily.

I never found an Elven Cloak with this character, so my equipment took a pounding from rust monsters.

Although not all the spoilers I'd previously learned helped, the overall approach did: move slowly, think, be cautious. Don't go nuts chasing nymphs around to recover things you don't need. Don't feel like you have to explore every room and kill every creature. Don't feel inadequate if you ignore throne rooms and treasure zoos.

I absolutely do not have to prove myself in here.

When I ascended in 3.0, the winning message indicated that I'd become a demi-god. The winning shot for this version is more akin to Rogue, where getting out with the Amulet simply added points to your final score, but the position on the leaderboard was ultimately more important than "winning" the game.

Now that I've experienced the totality of the game, some adjustment of the original GIMLET (which I completed almost three years ago) is in order. Version 3.0 improves so much on this one that it deserves to be ahead by more than 2 points.

  • Character creation and development goes down to 4 (I originally gave it 6). With no alignments, the opening choices makes less of a difference, and the inability to see intrinsics develop means that it's hard to enjoy that aspect to leveling. 
  • Encounters and foes goes to 5. The next version more solidly deserves the 6 that I previously gave to this version, with a greater selection of enemies with special attacks, and more special encounter locations.
  • Equipment gets docked a point to 7. This version lacks the full breadth of 3.0's gear, and it doesn't have the options to mix and match them in so many cool ways.
  • By giving this game a 7 on gameplay originally, I was being inconsistent in how I usually treat elements of difficulty. The same score I gave 3.0, 5, would be more consistent.
  • Everything else stays the same: game world at 1; NPC interaction at 1; magic and combat at 5; economy at 4; quests at 2; graphics, sound, and inputs at 2.

This brings the score for NetHack 2.3e down to 36 from the 42 I assigned originally. When I first rated it, I was giving it too much credit for what I hadn't seen. This new score makes this version scale much better with the 44 that I gave to version 3.0.

This little endeavor added another 42 hours to my gameplay time on this version, added to the 20 I spent on it back in 2011.

Despite the more primitive nature of the gameplay, this version satisfied my roguelike cravings for the moment, so it's time to get it together and get back on track with the main list. Thanks for indulging me in this diversion.


Further Reading:  My first, second, third, fourth, and GIMLET postings on this version of game from January 2011; my ascension from 3.0 and my GIMLET for that version; a rundown of the 2.3e version from Wikihack. Later, I went back further in time and played the original Hack, which precedes this version.


  1. Congratulations!!
    Not that I'm in the position to demand anything from you, but I guess you "should" always play a roguelike on the side, you know, for those times that only allow for the occasional quick 30-minute game. I guess jumping ahead to 1992 for this one wouldn't be a real violation of the rules, because graphically there's no advantage in the roguelikes, but you'd still manage to capture the chronological development of the genre.
    P.S.: Is NetHack now still your game of the year 1987?

    1. In retrospect, I should have given it to Dungeon Master.

      The problem is that "on the side" becomes something more if I'm liking the game or making a push to win. Just because NetHack is a good candidate for brief spurts of play doesn't mean I do it that way exclusively. It ends up taking away from too many other things. If I was more disciplined, it might be a good idea.

  2. Hey...Be nice to the Stooges :)

  3. I actually like that your goal is to escape with the Amulet of Yendor. More fitting for a game like this.

    The "become th3 most p0w4rful demigod" thing was added later to try and make the game more epic. Give me gritty fantasy anyday over this munchkin style.

    1. I actually like that, too. What I don't like is that you get the same screen whether you escape with the Amulet of Yendor or just a bunch of gold. The Amulet adds value to your final score, but the screen doesn't clearly designate that you've "won" the game by getting home with the Amulet.

  4. Congrats, and a fun read as usual! Just dropping a comment to mention you forgot to fill in a TK in there.

    1. Thanks. I thought I'd developed the habit of doing one last check for those before posting/printing/publishing. Apparently not.

  5. Chet, congratulations on ascending again. One good thing about this is, that when you review the rest of the 3.x series, you will be less frustrated by the difficulty, and be able to finish each one and properly evaluate it.

    There are quite a few other rogue-likes that you have to look forward to, although most of them came out relatively recently. Angband, one of the other "classic" games, seems to have come out in 1990 but I have no idea how you'd obtain a early version - possibly write to the current maintainers and ask for help locating one?
    ADOM didn't come out until 1994, and UMoria (the predecessor of Angband) I think was out before 1990. Once again, I don't know where you can get that edition of the game.

    It might interest you to know that, due to the inactivity of the official Dev Team for Nethack, there's been several forks created in the last few years. Two or 3 are still actively maintained, and one, Nethack4, is what I've been playing on and off at the moment. It is very difficult to get running on Windows, unfortunately. But it seems to have the exact gameplay as 3.4.3, but removes some "deaths due to typos" - you get warnings before walking into lava, and eating tainted meat.
    The interface has been improved as well, and overall the experience is really quite nice (for an ASCII game).

    1. Removing of "deaths due to typos" is definitely a feature I would have loved, although it strikes me that those were part of the intended difficulty in the original. I mean, if there's no penalty for walking into water without levitation boots, why have the water in the first place?

  6. Original Moria (the roguelike, not the PLATO game) was 1983. (As far as I can tell, Chet skipped this one entirely, but I don't think a DOS version came out until the 90s.)

    This actually would be a good fallback game if you get the roguelike itch again, Chet.

    1. You had to know I would chime in and push for this as I was lamenting him skipping it before. So I join you in imploring our dear addict to revisit Moria on Unix.

    2. It will happen. It's on my list. Probably not on Unix.

    3. If you have trouble with the dos version, I can set up a unix instance that you can ssh into and play. All you would need is a ssh program like putty.

  7. I just checked RogueBasin, Jason. PC-Moria didn't appear until 1988 or 1989 (approx), and Angband did not come out for the PC until April of 1993, with a final "official" version in August.

    (source: the Angband version history at RogueBasin)

    1. To the best of my recollection, I had trouble finding a DOS version. But I was being less fastidious back then, and I do have it on my list to play in the 1983 slot.

  8. I am ashamed to admit that I play with the tile pack every time I try to play Nethack. It's odd: I can play Rogue, ZZT, and Megazeux just fine with the ASCII, but I can't play Nethack without graphics. I grew up on Castle of the Winds, so maybe my mind is tainted somehow.

    1. The ADOM reboot just got tile implementation and uses the original ascii for the minimap. It looks fabulous.

  9. The Amulet of Yendor is worth 5000 Zorkmids. It's hard to overstate the influence Zork and Infocom had on early gaming culture, some of which continues to this day.

    1. Very true. It's so prevalent that it didn't even occur to me to comment on it.

  10. Your setting-up-windows comment reminds me: you might want to check out Mosaico. It's paid software (dunno if there's a freeware equivalent) that lets you set window configurations for particular activities so you set up Wizardry VI or whatever how you want with all the right apps at all the right sizes, save your configuration, and then you can restore it when you want.

    1. That could really be helpful. I'll check it out. Thanks!


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