Monday, January 3, 2011

Game 38: NetHack (1987)

Again with the Amulet of Yendor

Playing NetHack almost a year after I started this blog feels like coming full circle. Exactly one year ago, although I hadn't thought about blogging yet, I was deep in the throes of Rogue, probably on my 50th or 60th character, wondering why I was still playing the game and yet--for some impenetrable psychological reason probably rooted in my relationship with my father--I was still playing.

I'm not spending four months on this one, but I'll spend at least long enough to learn how it's different from Rogue, since I keep hearing all kinds of promising things about it. So here's how we're going to do this: the NetHack wiki has a nice summary history of the different versions in the series. My general policy has been to play the latest version of the game; hence, my 1985 version of Rogue despite its original 1980 release date. The latest NetHack release, however, is from 2003, which seems a little unfair to the spirit of the blog.

The Wiki divides NetHack into several "series": "early NetHack" and then separate series for versions 3.0 (1989), 3.1 (1993), 3.2 (1996), 3.3 (1999), and 3.4 (2002). Since each update adds a lot of material to the game, I'm going to regard each "series" as a separate game and dip back into NetHack every few years to see what's new. But when I do, I'll play the last version of that "series." This means that for my first NetHack outing, I'll be playing version 2.3e, released in April 1988 but still close enough to the 1987 version that I don't feel like I'm jumping the queue. I got the compiled version from an FTP site that was kindly sent to me by Ryan ("Pipecleaner Productions") Jones. It took some work editing the configuration so that it would run in DOSBox, but I think I finally got it.

So with all of that out of the way, let's get into the game. The back story, such as it is, is that you've just graduated from the local adventurer's guild, and now you have to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor from the Dungeons of Doom in order to achieve full membership. While you're at it, you're also trying to grab as much gold as you can.

In a notable departure from Rogue, your character is not a rogue. Instead, you select from a list of (in this edition) 12 character classes, some of them standard CRPG fare (barbarian, knight, priest, elf, wizard), some a little more exotic (ninja, valkyrie, healer), and some very odd (archaeologist, tourist, caveman). The choice of character class affects your starting statistics and equipment; I don't know if it affects anything else later in the game. If you choose "tourist"--I just had to--your starting equipment includes a Hawaiian shirt and a camera(!).

"This doesn't look like the brochure."

For those readers unfamiliar with "roguelike" games at all, I would refer you to my original review of Rogue to get a sense of the unique challenges and conventions. Suffice to say that they're all present here: permanent death, dungeons that slowly reveal themselves as you explore, constantly-respawning monsters, unidentified (and often unidentifiable) magic items, turn-based movement, and hunger. Your only stats, just as in Rogue, are hit points, armor class, and strength, and your hit points slowly regenerate as you move around. However, already NetHack has introduced lots of new elements:

  • When you start the game, you have a dog. God knows why. It does help a little by attacking monsters. The help file suggests that you can train the dog to "do all sorts of things," but I have no idea how. I've noticed the dog has a habit of wandering off and "fetching" items from other rooms.
  • When monsters die, they leave bodies, which you can pick up and carry around. At first, I couldn't figure out why you'd want to do that, but I soon realized it was possible to eat them--yuck, but I hope this means food isn't quite the problem it was in Rogue. I also note that if you don't pick up a body, your dog generally eats it.

You have to wonder: who's the real monster here?
  • There seem to be a lot more secret doors in this version, and they're no quicker to reveal themselves than in Rogue. You have to hold down the (s)earch key for a while.
  • Occasionally, rocks block the passageway. You can try to move them, but only so far.
  • There are a lot more game features listed in the help file (I haven't found most of them yet), including pools of water, fountains, and thrones (homage to Telengard?) along with the usual weapons, armor, potions, scrolls, and gold.
  • Your character's name is hard-coded in the configuration file, at least in this version.
  • You can go back up to previous levels at any time, not just when you have the Amulet of Yendor.
  • When you die, the game offers to identify your possessions so you know how much cool stuff you were unknowingly toting about. I understand that serious NetHackers use DYWYPI ("Do you want your possessions identified?") as a codeword for death ("then I came across a floating eye, and before I knew it, DYWYPI").

I don't know why it's not "DYWTHYPI." Probably a version thing.

When Chet the Tourist began his adventure, he was so laden with stuff--including a lot of food and, for some reason, a dead lizard--he couldn't even pick up the first scroll he came across. Almost immediately, he accidentally destroyed his camera by trying to use it as a melee weapon against an acid blob, but he finally finished off the creature with some darts. A few minutes later, he ran into a hobgoblin and DYWYPI.

Note that NetHack didn't suffer from a Y2K bug.

Shortly on his heels was Chet the Caveman, who upon entry immediately found himself and his dog in battle against a floating eye, to which he gave a "caveman" style name. While he was taking time to name the floating eye, it was killed by his dog, and then eaten.

That's some serious role-playing there.
In swift order, Chet killed a gnome and a jackal with a combination of his club and arrows, and he managed to hoist the jackal's body over his shoulders before his mangy mutt could get to it. He found a fountain and drank from it, but to uncertain effect. The dog disappeared for a while and came back with a scroll labeled LEP GEX VEN ZEA, which Chet--being somewhat dumb--couldn't stop himself from reading. The game asked rhetorically "Who was that Maude person anyway?" and the game map disappeared; it was apparently a scroll of forgetting--could have been worse. An acid blob came along and corroded his club so that instead of a +1 it was a -1. He killed a rat and found a blue gem. Things seemed to be going well for Chet, but the fates played a cruel joke: his god had neglected to set the configuration settings in his universe properly, and he could not save his progress. He died a death of ignominy.

Bruce the Barbarian began bewildered, descending the stairs to find a room with no exits, but ultimately a secret door revealed itself. He found a fountain, too, but instead of refreshing him it spewed forth a trio of snakes. When he had explored every crevice of the level, he beat his mighty barbarian fists against the walls, knowing that he was missing secret doors but unable to find them. Despondent, he descended to Level 2--but not before gnashing his barbarian teeth into the corpse of a jackal and getting what should have been in hindsight an entirely predictable result.

The USDA needs to do something about substandard jackal meat.

The result of the bad food made Bruce woozy, and while stumbling about, he accidentally killed his dog. Shortly thereafter, on Level 3, he fainted from hunger and was killed by the joint assault of a gnome and a bat.

Time for Victoria the Valkyrie to make a name for herself.

Okay, so having played for a little while, these are my questions. I don't want to look up the answers online because I'm afraid of finding other major spoilers, but I'd appreciate your answers if it won't ruin the gameplay experience for me to know this soon:

  • What are gems for?
  • Why is there a command called "pay bill"? Dare I hope there are places to spend my gold in this game, unlike Rogue?
  • As we've seen, the player can accidentally kill the dog. Can monsters? (It hasn't happened yet.) If they do, can you get another one?
  • Is there a way to permanently deal with the boulders?
  • In the lower right-hand corner, next to the number of moves in the game so far, is a value preceded by an "S" (e.g., "S:440"). It went up when I drank from a fountain, but I otherwise have no idea what it is.
  • Does the choice of character class have role-playing ramifications later? Or does it just matter at the beginning?

Of course, the real question is: Why am I up at four o'clock in the morning still playing this game?! The answer, of course, is in the title of my blog. If no one before has said that this game ought to be called NetCrack, consider me the first.


  1. There are shops. Gems are good for selling. Provided they aren't fake.

    The dog normally avoids monsters strong enough to kill it. It's possible to tame wild animals at least in the later versions, but you need to figure out the trick to it.

    The archeologist starts with a pick-axe. It's handy for a lot of things.

    No idea about the S:.

    Character class generally doesn't matter much in Nethack beyond the starting gear. Most late-game characters end up walking tanks regardless of the starting class.

  2. I'm not a Nethack expert, but I can answer a few of your questions:

    Gems are a form of currenct and possibly for something else too.
    There are stores, yes. The way you conduct yourself there is a whole mini-game inside Nethack.

    I believe your dog can be killed by enemies, traps and starvation, but I usually either polymorph it into something else early on or find it loses me in the labyrinth at some point.

    Boulders are to be dealt with in slippery ways. Or in one instance, in a highly logical Sokobany way.

    There is a quest you get later on that is relevant to your specific character class. Not sure if it's as early as in the 1987 version, though.

    To get through Nethack you need a combination of practical thinking and magical thinking. For instance, a Tourist's camera can be used to flash enemies into temporary blindness. Which is ridiculous but not absurd. Also, for your own sake, familiarize yourself with the workings of the magic word ELBERETH.

    There should be some universal hint system for Nethack where whenever you die a bitter death, it just shoots you a gameplay hint or two about how better to survive. As you don't have a solid decade to learn this game, that perhaps would be the best middle ground between spoilers and enjoyment for you.

    Then again, if you're going to be revisiting Nethack every few years, you perhaps *do* have ten years to get acquainted with its magical realism,

  3. aaah classic nethack I remember the dos version being 'amulet of yendor' ported by a guy in hawaii... and a batch file to backup my game. good times. Probably an incarnation of 'hack' than nethack.

    Shall I take bets on this for you completing or not completing it? I'll go with not ;) old nethack was known to be a bitch of a mistress.

  4. Going to read properly later on (I'm still on the Dungeon Master diaries), but I just wanted to say that I think you've made a very good choice dividing Nethack into several versions. This should provide for some very interesting articles, I think.


  5. One hint: think out of the box. Roleplay. There are myriads of possibilities in Nethack. Most of them difficult to find for someone used to the standard crpgs.

  6. I can't say for sure about this early version, but later versions of nethack do indeed provide a couple of ways to get yourself another dog. Basically you have to find a wild dog and tame it. It's questionable whether it's worth it, though. Dogs have this annoying tendency to snap up monster corpses you were planning on eating. (And yes, eating monsters can be very worthwhile, provided they're fresh.)

  7. I've played a bit of NetHack, at least the Windows version with tiny sprite graphics, and one of the best things a pet can do for you is steal from shops. I've never gotten far enough to figure out how to train them to do other things, though.

  8. I am pretty sure the S is your search stat

  9. eating corpses may or may not give you some of their intrinsic qualities. Some of which are extremely useful and potentially game-winning (not in and of themselves).

  10. I don't know about the version of Nethack you're playing, but in the more recent versions, the classes do make a difference later.

    Explicitly, Rnpu pynff unf vgf bja cnegvphyne zvavdhrfg va gur tnzr.

    Word of warning, from personal experience: when Nethack experts find out you're playing Nethack, they love to swarm you with spoilers. (This is because since they tend to be needed to win the game, they aren't considered spoilers in the classical sense.) You might want to put an extra notice in BIG BOLD FONT about how you only want the questions answered that you specifically asked.

  11. I believe S is score. It's used to enter your character on the leader boards at the end of the game, and is based on amount of gold, character level, and some other stuff, with a penalty assessed if you died. Some people view having it displayed while playing as cheating, but if you're not playing on a server with other people there then it really doesn't matter.

  12. I didn't know about roguelikes before comming to this blog, and Rogue and M:M weren't looking convincing at all, but Nethack looks quite interesting - your descriptions are in any case! Eager to read more.

    The tourist is of course a reference to Terry Pratchett or I'll be damned.

  13. You named your dog after me?


  14. As usual, I read this blog and want to play the game you're playing!

    Does anyone know if there's a noob-friendly version of nethack (or something similar) that I could cut my teeth on? Or is it best just to take the latest version and go for it?

  15. Andy, there is Falcon's Eye which has a more modern display, graphics and mouse driven interface. Not sure what hardcore Nethack players think of this though. It uses an isometric view which I tend to find harder to work with than a traditional top down view.

    I've only played a bit of Nethack myself but I'm tempted to just go with the most recent stable release.

  16. I probably opened myself up for too many spoilers, as Jason suggests, but I appreciate everyone's contributions. It sounds like I've barely scratched the surface.

  17. Thanks Acrin1, will check that out.

    Did download nethack 3.4.3, and it is easier with a graphical interface, but learning the appropriate keyboard commands isn't easy.

  18. I don't know if you really need to play every major version of NetHack.

    I'd say, for the later versions, playing NetHack 3.0.10 and 3.4.3 would suffice. The higher the version the fewer changes are between major releases and the longer you would need to play to notice the changes.

    BTW, the nethack wiki moved to .

  19. It's not that I think I need to play every major version; it's just with a game this long, I like the idea of popping in every couple of months rather than trying to win the whole thing right now. And there's no way that I can give this up without "ascending" at least once, so my options are either to force myself to do it now, or content myself with the fact that I'll be playing it again in 1989.

    Thanks for the updated link!

  20. Ascending Nethackis is probably my crowning gaming achievement. This game is absolutely amazing, and I can guarantee at this point you've only scratched the surface, as you say. There is so much depth to this game. I ascended with some referencing of a wiki -- if you manage to do this with no guide whatsoever I salute you. It's still incredibly difficult to win with a guide; trying to sort out everything yourself (such as ways to safely identify potions) can be traumatic.

  21. I agree with the previous comment!

    I was damn proud when I first ascended in NetHack. It took me a long time to learn (survival in) this game, and I did so with unlimited access to spoilers and plenty of advice from other players and even then, the game is still bloody challenging and fun. NetHack has so many gameplay concepts, stretegies and details that are crucial for winning and that are impossible for me to imagine that a player could find out for themselves, unless perhaps by co-incidence after years of trying and trying. So it seems to me that NetHack is a game that kinda relies on the players being more-less spoiled... and like I said, it's still hard and fun enough that way. Enjoy!

  22. I've been playing nethack on and off for more than 20 years, and I've still never ascended.

  23. CRPG Addict - I must say I'm in the same boat. I've gotten pretty close - but I'm stubborn and play a little too loose - it's kind of like chess, you can spend a little while making your move - and I tend to hammer buttons and run in a bit too much. Reading spoilers does not ruin your enjoyment of Nethack - in fact, I've found it makes it a lot more enjoyable. It's a hard, hard game even with the spoilers so the spoilers just make it a little less unforgiving. Don't give up! I certainly won't.

    1. Oh, you have much, much catching up to do.

    2. "it's kind of like chess, you can spend a little while making your move - and I tend to hammer buttons and run in a bit too much."

      You called it right. How many deaths from just a little haste? Rapidly punching the search button is like driving beyond your headlights -- by the time you react to a change in circumstances, you're dead. All through Nethack, haste makes death.

      This is a game an accountant could love.

    3. Here's what keeps bringing me back: Nethack has so much logic, humor, depth, and complexity that it's absolutely amazing, and there's nothing else remotely like it.

      Then I play for a while and I remember what's "wrong" with Nethack: in any rational person, it repeatedly triggers emotions related to loss aversion. Far from the traditional game where, with care, you build from nobody to superman with a few speed bumps along the way, in Nethack, that which is given can be taken away, and a very non-negligible portion of it absolutely will be. Got a rush of endorphins from that stat boost? Don't worry, the opposite will be coming soon enough. Love that new armor? Sorry, now ALL your armor breaks and falls off as you are infected with Lycanthropy. And don't get too attached to that lovely new spell, because that fire ant is going to burn it, all your other spellbooks, scrolls, non-metal armor, etc. etc., to ashes. And so it goes.

      In Nethack, you are (usually) significantly advancing overall. However, in human (and some animal) psychology, loss avoidance is weighted substantially more heavily than gain enjoyment. Thus, in a game, if you take three steps forward and one step back, but your personal loss-to-gain weighting is 5 to 1, you may find the game overly painful, even if many aspects of the game are very enjoyable and even compelling.

      THIS is the not-fun element of Nethack, which WILL cause pain to nearly all typical humans.

      Additionally, across releases, the US vs THEM theme is visible. Why did a recent update change the behavior of slow monsters? It used to be that, if you were twice as fast, you would hit, step back, hit, step back, to avoid damage: this was part of the game strategy. A recent update nerfed this: the monster is still twice as slow, but it is randomized to remove this viable strategy. They might hit this turn and skip next turn, or vice versa.

      Why do wizards forget each spell 20000 turns after it was learned, no matter how frequently it is used? This makes the loss of a spellbook immensely MORE painful and perhaps even game-ending.

      So, who am I in a nutshell? Seen through the gauzy haze of nostalgia (every few years), I remember that Nethack is amazing! I remember that I enjoyed the complex gameplay, the humor, and many other compelling qualities. So I strike up a replay. This inevitably exposes me to the recurring experiences of losses and takings. Across years and versions, there are even NEWER ways to destroy older strategies, to no obvious gameplay benefit. Ultimately, I don't quit because I can't figure out how to work through it. I quit because I'm not enjoying myself, and I simply make the choice to find something more enjoyable to do with my time than presenting myself for another Nethack beating.

      But rest assured, in a few years, I'll be back!

    4. That's a really good analysis. When I play roguelikes, I do often find myself doing a kind of re-wiring of my usual expectations. It helps to regard every advantage as a temporary buff, like the effects of a potion, not meant to last. Thus, when it's taken from you, your reaction becomes more, "Ah, there it goes" than "WHAT!?!?" I don't mean to imply that it's easy, though.

  24. Great write-up! Already this sounds like a heap of fun. I'm looking forward to reading your subsequent nethack exploits. I think this is only the third game so far that your blog has really motivated me to play (Ultimas aside; the others being Starflight and Dungeon Master).

  25. Not sure if this had been commented on yet, so I'll post it here: A member of the NetHack Development Team shared that in the year of its 35th anniversary NetHack is joining the small collection of video games at the NY Museum of Modern Art and will be part of an upcoming exhibition on video games starting September 10 at the MoMA:

  26. I'd guess that DYWYPI vs DYWTHYPI is either a version thing or an abbreviation, but I quite like the latter. I imagine it being pronounced "Do you want thy pi?" spoken by a faux archaic numerophage who will eat the pi if you don't want it.

    The scroll of forgetfulness mentioning Maude is one I've heard about, although I believe I heard about it in a different version, where the message is "Thinking of Maude causes you to forget everything". I heard that if you name your character Maude, it instead says "Your thoughts turn inwards".


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