Saturday, June 15, 2013

NetHack 3.0: Final Rating

Hey, that's how I roll.

NetHack (3.0 series)
United States
The series includes 11 public releases between July 1989 and February 1991
Date Started: 24 June 2012
Date Ended: 12 June 2013
Total Hours: 262
Difficulty: Hard-Very Hard (4.5/5)
Final Rating: 44
Ranking at Time of Posting: 76/96 (79%)

In the 1990s, I had a six-year enlistment in the U.S. Army Reserves. When I first joined at the age of 17, I was weak and pudgy. I had never done any serious exercising or bodybuilding in my life. Shortly after signing the enlistment paperwork, I read in the literature that on the first day of basic training--three months to come--I would need to perform 20 pushups; otherwise, they'd send me to a remedial physical training course for some extra weeks. I didn't like the sound of that.

I dropped to the floor and did pushups until my arms were exhausted and I physically couldn't lift them anymore. Specifically, I did four pushups. After that, I got up and began scanning my paperwork for any loophole that would get me out of my enlistment.

It's not that I didn't realize there was such a thing as training; it's just that the distance between 4 and 20 seemed so vast--my body so exhausted after those four--that I couldn't conceive of a time in which, no matter how much training I did, my body would be capable of 20 pushups, let alone the 52 I would have to do to pass the physical fitness test at the end of the 13 weeks.

But, having no way out of it, I worked at it, and in the next three months, I built myself up to the point that I could easily do 20 on the first day, and after that to the point that I was able to do not 52 but 80 in the final test. After that, pushups didn't seem so hard. I haven't done any in over a year, but  I just dropped and managed to coerce my old, out-of-shape body into 28 of them.

That should have been a lifelong lesson, and yet it still surprises me how often in life we mentally deem things as "unachievable" until we actually achieve them. Upon achieving them, it's like our brains instantly re-wire, showing us maps and paths and patterns where we couldn't see them before. It's like those "magic eye" pictures where until you cross your eyes the right way, you can't believe there's a 3D image in there, but once you find it the first time, you almost can't stop doing it.

While I was doing pushups, every time I hit a new record--10, say--my mind interpreted it as "the most I'm able to do right now, and perhaps the most I'll ever be able to do." But when I hit that goal of 20, 10 just became "the halfway point." Essentially the same thing happened in NetHack. My brain rendered every new achievement as, "Okay, I've reached the highest level I've ever achieved. Now when am I going to die?" But now that I've won, and I can "see" the game in its totality, it doesn't seem that hard.

Last year, blithely getting to character level 10 and dungeon level 13 would have seemed unthinkable. Today, I accomplished it while screwing around just to take screen shots for this posting.

It seems absurd to say this only a few weeks after comparing myself to a monkey who would never ascend given infinite time, but 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 (in this version, at least) at least once every 20 characters. (Maybe if I kept at it, I'd get so good that I'd have to play with "conducts" like never eating meat or never killing another creature directly. These strike me as insane the same way that ever ascending at all struck me as insane a month ago.)

Many commenters had been explaining these realities about the game for the entire year, but there's a difference between "knowing" something and "getting" it. Reading over my old NetHack postings makes me cringe a bit. I wish I could send comments back in time to myself. I've been thinking about what I'd say to ensure that 2012 Chet really gets the game, and this is what I've come up with:

1. A character with greater than 17 strength or dexterity, more than 70 hit points, less than -10 armor class, telepathy, poison resistance, a blindfold, a decent stock of throwing weapons, and a unicorn horn is essentially invincible for the first 25 levels. Immediately work towards these at the outset. Of these, poison resistance is probably the most important, so you don't have to worry about what you eat, and thus don't have to worry about starving.

The intelligence delivered by telepathy and a blindfold was vital to my ascension. Here, I see a squad of "Mordor orcs" coming through the doorway.

2. Once you get these things, or at least most of them, The first half of the dungeon is your playground. Go up and down liberally, kill whatever you can, and start to tick off items (both equipment and intrinsics) on your "ascension list." Once you're down to only a few items, you can head to the Castle and use the Wand of Wishing to get the rest.

3. Carefully note locations of altars (especially co-aligned altars), fountains, sinks, and shops. You will return to them throughout the game to test the blessed/uncursed/cursed status of items, figure out what different items likely are, and create holy water. (Incidentally, to me most potions are worth more diluted and turned into holy water than fulfilling their original functions.)

Sacrificing a Potion of Object Detection to make a Potion of Water.

4. The most important intrinsic/extrinsic combination to acquire is teleportation/teleportation control. It will get you out of a ton of jams and make navigation much easier (and this was before I knew about CTRL-T!).

5. Don't obsess about not being able to identify things. With the exception of weapon bonuses, almost everything in the game can be identified through some combination of careful testing and noting the results. As far as weapons go, your level and strength matter much more than the type of weapon you have. (I ascended without even knowing what I was carrying.) Don't start thinking about suicide every time an acid blob corrodes your sword.

6. Items don't generally disappear. Make caches for yourself, using boxes when you can. Backup weapons, missile weapons, food, armor, pick-axes, and unicorn horns will all become extremely valuable once the Wizard of Yendor starts cursing your stuff.

7. Once you exhaust the possibilities of the shops, stop hauling around gold. It just takes up weight you need for other stuff. Cache it if you really want it, but it's hardly necessary to win the game.

The nature of randomness in NetHack can't be overstated. I think everybody understands that the levels are random, so they never look the same from game to game, and the distribution of equipment is random, but simply stating that doesn't convey how this randomness fundamentally changes the game from character to character. I've had games where I found blindfolds on Level 1 and games where I never found one and had to wish for it; games in which I've quaffed six "Potions of Gain Level" before reaching the castle, and games (including the last one) in which they never appeared; games with shops on every level between 3 and 7, and games with no shops at all; games in which I never found a co-aligned altar; games in which I've found enough wands to crack the world in half, and games where wands were a rarity. Whether you encounter the Wizard on Level 50 or Level 41 (as I did) makes a huge difference as to the difficulty returning to the surface.

Chester gets lucky with a blindfold on Level 2.

Despite its randomness, we have to observe, with something approaching marvel, that NetHack is an extremely "tight" game. There are tons of items in the game, and thousands of different ways in which they can interact with each other, but the developers seem to have anticipated every potential interaction. Consider the way that you can bash or pry chests with weapons, dilute potions and "blank" scrolls in fountains, make pets out of enemies by throwing food at them, and throw potions at enemies (with a chance that they'll splash back at you!). The developers not only bothered to program different effects for scrolls based on their blessed, uncursed, or cursed statuses, but also have a different effect for reading each scroll while "confused." The self-polymorphing system allows you to turn into just about any monster and gain their special attack and defense skills while doing so. You can turn enemies to stone while wielding the corpse of a cockatrice as a weapon, something only possible while wearing gloves.

This logic unfortunately also applies to death. When I first started this blog and announced it on Reddit, I knew nothing about NetHack. Some of the commenters started talking about it, and one of them remarked:

I made it to the plane of fire before drowning in lava because I took off my ring of levitation to eat a corpse...To be fair, that was an extremely stupid mistake on my part. I had plenty of food in my pack, but I wanted to eat a fire giant to gain some more intrinsic strength that I didn't even really need.

Can you imagine what this sounds like to someone who hasn't played the game? I remarked that it sounded "terrifying." Imagine trying to keep up with all of the possibilities hinted by those couple of sentences. And all in a game where everything is represented by ASCII characters.

These combinations--and hundreds more--make each game of NetHack essentially unique, with the exception of a few fixed levels and of course the endgame. They make hearing about each character's experience, even deaths, relatively interesting.

Given all of this, I can see how people become addicted to NetHack. Every time you step into the dungeon and start exploring the first level, you wonder, "What am I going to find? What unique challenges will the game throw at me this time?"

But ask me if I really "enjoyed" the 262 hours I spent over the past year ascending, and I don't know how to answer. Part of me says that it's a crime, really, that a game this clever, this innovative, this engaging turns off so many players with the specter of permadeath. I realize permadeath is a staple of roguelikes, and most roguelike players wouldn't trade it, and that it introduces a tactical depth to the game that wouldn't exist otherwise, and that it makes the final ascension all the more exhilarating...but let's be frank: someone shouldn't have to invest more than 250 hours in a game to win it. That's just crazy. Imagine what else I could have accomplished in that time. I certainly could have finished any of the numerous books I have half-started. I might have been able to make a good dent in my dissertation. At worst, I could have watched every film on IMDB's "Top 100" list, and still had 62 hours to spare.

All right. This has been a very long intro. Let's see how the game rates on the GIMLET. I should mention that I already rated the "early NetHack" series in January 2011, having experienced much less of the game, but I'm not going to look at that while compiling the scores here.

1. Game World. I've never experienced a roguelike in which the story, lore, and history was well-defined. It's not generally the priority of the genre. In NetHack, you're not really told anything about the game world, and although there are some vague hints in things like the names of gods, they never come together in any kind of "story." (At least, not in this version.) Score: 1.

2. Character Creation and Development. The creation process isn't much--name and class--but the development process is pretty satisfying. Rewards for leveling up, which happens very swiftly in the early game, are welcome and tangible, at least through about Level 10 (after that, the experience requirements get so large that you essentially need to find Potions of Gain Level or to eat wraith corpses). Perhaps more important are the aspects of development that come from eating corpses to gain intrinsics (fire resistance, poison resistance, teleportitis) and those that improve statistics. Unfortunately, there aren't many ways (in this version) to improve anything other than strength, which is admittedly a pretty important one. The whole point of the game is to make yourself more powerful, and it offers you plenty of opportunities to do so.

Chester gains the "resist cold" intrinsic.

The game could stand to do a little more with class-specific role-playing. The character choice determines starting attributes and equipment, and I suppose this choice still matters late in the game to the extent that it's hard to get a high intelligence score unless you start with it. There are a few alignment-based conducts that affect luck (e.g., lawful characters shouldn't use poison arrows). But overall, it doesn't feel like class "matters" much in this version. I understand that changes later with class-specific quests. Score: 6.

3. NPC Interaction. There really aren't that many in the game. The "chat" command is woefully under-utilized. There's the occasional shopkeeper, the Oracle, and some priests that can matter, but your interactions with them aren't very deep. I suppose it deserves a few points for the bonuses you get from the priest and the things you learn about the game from the Oracle. Score: 2.

Chester "chats" with a friendly orc.

4. Encounters and Foes. The game throws a dazzling array of obstacles in your path to ascension, including curses, various debilitating conditions, and dozens of monster types organized into a handful of classes. These monsters have enough strengths, weaknesses, and special attacks to make the game reasonably tactical, and it even has nice one-paragraph descriptions of certain special monsters. I love the variety of the encounters: floating eyes freeze you, leprechauns make off with your gold, nymphs seduce you and steal your equipment, were-creatures can give you lycanthropy, fire elementals can cause your scrolls and potions to catch fire or boil. Every new letter occasions a rush to your notes or the NetHack wiki to figure out how to best deal with it. There are deeper encounters with vault guards, Keystone Kops, the Wizard of Yendor, and other situations that are rare but fun. There just aren't many role-playing options in all of this. Score: 6.

I had my gold ring stolen Monday, Wednesday, and twice on Friday...

5. Magic and Combat. The magic system is underpowered in this version, even for spellcasting classes. You rarely find spellbooks, and you need multiple readings to get very proficient with the spells. Even then, they fade after you cast them a few times. Combat, on the other hand, is enormously tactical despite only a single "attack" option. Knowing when to attack, when to use a spell or item, and when to flee is both an art and science, and it takes dozens of hours of study to figure it all out. There's even some limited use of the "terrain" in combat, such as finding choke points where only one enemy can attack at a time, luring enemies into traps, shoving boulders into their paths, and locking doors to keep them from getting to you. Pets add an entirely new dimension that I never explored. Score: 7.

6. Equipment. Easily the best and most well-written part of the game. There are so many things to find, use, wield, and wear that it's hard to keep track of them all, and the game features a highly original system by which you either have to identify the items (via spell or scroll) or intuit what they are through practice or experimentation. I love games that give you lots of armor options, and this one has armor, helmets, shields, boots, gloves, and cloaks to keep me happy. The testing process can sometimes be laborious; some of my least-fond memories involving killing an entire barracks full of soldiers, lieutenants, and captains, then hauling loads of their gear to the nearest altar to ensure it's not cursed before systematically testing it for its effects on my armor class.

Chester won't be wearing that cap.

The whole blessed/uncursed/cursed process adds even greater depth to the equipment system. Scrolls of Genocide wipe out monsters; blessed Scrolls of Genocide wipe out entire monster classes; cursed Scrolls of Genocide create the specified monster. The latter isn't always a bad thing. Also notable is how armor and weapons can increase in level or degrade through various scrolls and monster attacks.

Equally important, as I noted above, is the way in which the different items you can find work together. You can dilute potions into potions of water, then turn them into holy water by placing them on an altar, then use them to bless or un-curse your items. A Ring of Teleport Control with a Cursed Scroll of Teleportation can take you anywhere in the dungeon. Magic markers can create scrolls if used with blank paper. I'm sure I didn't find even half of the possibilities. Only a lack of in-game item descriptions keeps NetHack from a perfect score here, but otherwise it's the best equipment system of any CRPG so far. Score: 9.

7. Economy. Not so good. Gold can be useful in the early stages at shops--if the game bothers to generate any--and in donations to a co-aligned priest--if he appears. It's useful when you encounter the Oracle (again, if you find one in your game). Otherwise, all it affects is your final score. The game has piles and piles of gold everywhere, and I wish there was more to do with it. Score: 4.

Teleporting out of a shop without paying floods the dungeon with "Keystone Kops" while the shopkeeper obsessively follows you around, demanding his two dollars.

8. Quests. The game has a single main quest which isn't even very consistent, since you never hear of the "Adventurer's Guild" again after embarking. I think there's only one outcome to the main quest, and this version doesn't feature any side-quests. No real role-playing and not the strongest part of the game. The Amulet is basically a MacGuffin, and the plot is all about personal gain. Score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Inputs. I've said this before, but I don't see anything particularly appealing or noble about the "raw purity" of a soundless ASCII game, and everything I liked about the game, I would have liked better with a proper tile set and sounds. In fact, I'd vastly prefer actual sounds to the messages describing what you hear--messages that flash too fast while you're moving around. I know some developers have created proper graphics applications to sit on top of the game, and I may try one in the next version.

The interface is good enough. I don't like having capital and lower-case versions of the same letter do different things, but there's really no way around it in this game, and for the most part, the commands were intuitive and easy to remember. I had constant annoyances with having to hit SPACE to continue messages, and I know I could have solved this by frigging around with the configuration options, and I just never bothered. Score: 2.

10. Gameplay. NetHack seems linear at the outset, until you realize you're not really constrained to rushing inexorably forward. The dungeon levels aren't large enough to create a truly "open" gameworld, but it's relatively open within its confined space. It goes without saying that the randomization of the dungeon, distribution of equipment, and distribution of special encounters (including the location of the Wizard of Yendor) makes the game extremely "replayable" except in the sense that it's so hard to win that you never fully play it during each excursion.

With respect to legions of fans who feel otherwise, permadeath just sucks. I wouldn't mind limited save points--even extremely limited save points, like once every 4 hours or something. I wouldn't mind deaths that cost you dearly and take a long time to recover from. But you have to be extremely masochistic to burn through 262 hours and a few dozen characters in your effort to win the game without "save-scumming," and I'm not sure it's worth it. This will always be a complaint of mine with roguelikes, and I'll likely never rate them particularly high in this category for this reason. Score: 5.

I note that the final rating of 44 is 2 points higher than I gave the previous version. My understanding is that future versions will develop more in the quest, character development, and encounter categories.

Despite ascending, I still don't feel like I "mastered" the game. There are a host of things I didn't experience or didn't think about until after I won. Here are some:

  • I never made use of a pet. They were always too annoying to me. I realize the watchword in this game is "patience," and juggling a pet is the ultimate test of patience, but I'm not that patient.
  • I finally read up on how to use scrolls of blank paper and magic markers to create scrolls, and I was looking forward to it, but I never found a single magic marker among my last eight or nine characters.
  • Never did much with luck. I realize that sacrificing corpses on altars and throwing gems at co-aligned unicorns increase your luck, but as I never found a luck stone (I'm not even sure they exist in this version) to preserve it, it seemed like a waste of time.
  • Never did much with artifact weapons. I think maybe a couple of my characters found a special axe once or twice, but I'm not even sure special weapons like "Excalibur" exist in this version.
  • I realized very belatedly that it would make a lot more sense to delay getting the Amulet of Yendor until I'd explored all of the maze levels and found the paths between the stairs--in fact, I should have used my pick-axe to hack shorter paths between the stairs before getting the amulet.
  • Spells strike me as incredibly useless in this game, and I never did much with them. You exhaust them after a few castings, you rarely find spellbooks, and you have to read the same spellbook multiple times to get the spell to a high enough "level" to be useful. But it's possible I missed something and should have concentrated more on spells.
  • I stayed away from self-polymorphing, even though I understand there are some cool effects you can achieve with it, including the ability to eat rings as a rust monster and turn them into intrinsics.
  • I used ELBERETH on occasion to save my life, but there are other ways you can use it to confine and route monsters, and I never really explored that.

I look forward to exploring these options more, and seeing the game progress, in the 3.1 series. My understanding is that it's the first edition to feature dungeon "branches," a series of elemental planes, and special levels of Hell (renamed Gehennom). Mind flayers and some other monsters appear for the first time. There are more options to improve (and degrade) attributes. Getting the Amulet is tougher, requiring multiple sub-quests; most notably, the Wizard of Yendor no longer has the amulet himself.

I'll reach this version in 1993, which might not occur for another three or four years in my current rate of play. I don't know how I'll feel by then, but right now, it's almost impossible to imagine investing another 262 hours in the game. (Though in accordance with my boast above, I suspect I won't need to.) We'll see then whether I insist on playing honestly or play on "explore" mode long enough to experience the changes and then move on.

I accomplished my NetHack goal of ascending within a year, but there's no way I'm going to make my second goal of finishing all 1989 games within a year. Perhaps without my side-trips to NetHack, though, things will go a little more quickly. Let's move on to The Land and see what happens.

That is, I'll move on to The Land after Chester the Barbarian dies. I created him just so I'd have someone to create screenshots with for this posting, but he's doing pretty well.


  1. The GIMLET is interesting in that it rates games by looking at their proximity to the ideal traditional CRPG, rather than their inherent enjoyability.

    You could use it to rate Half Life 2 or Mario 64, they just wouldn't score very well. RPGs sufficiently removed from the BG2 ideal will suffer a similar fate (as we've already seen with roguelikes).

    1. I'm pretty sure it's BG rather than BG2 for Chet (or at least it was).

      The upside of the GIMLET is that you can look for particular rpg elements and adjust for your personal tastes.

      The final score is only as good as the readers relationship to the reviewer. Not that it should really matter to anyone besides metacretins.

    2. That IS pretty much how I came up with it. I thought of the games that I liked most, what I liked most about them, and created categories accordingly. No question that BG/BG2 were in the front of my mind, as well as Morrowind and the latter Might & Magic games.

      Even as I was making it, I was thinking that perhaps the index wouldn't work very well for some RPGs that just didn't prioritize certain features but were perfect in what they were trying to accomplish--the "inherent enjoyability" that you mention. But so far that hasn't happened. For the most part, I've enjoyed games--in totality--with higher rankings more than lower ones. So I haven't had much internal pressure to change my approach.

    3. I should add that even though I had certain exemplar games in mind, the GIMLET as a whole is a composite. None of the games I mentioned above would get a perfect 100. Morrowind's economy is broken from the moment you leave Seyda Neen; the MM games have few encounters of any depth, and BG/BG2 aren't nearly as fun in the "character development" area as games that don't cleave to the AD&D rules.

    4. I think the combat in Infinity Engine games could be better. There's a bit too much 'kiting'.

      Chet, what upcoming games will you be allowing yourself to play (as you played Skyrim)?

    5. I don't have specific plans. I haven't even been keeping track of the modern CRPG market. I only played Skyrim because it was an entry in a series that I'm very fond of, and if there's ever a TES6, I'll definitely play that, maybe Might & Magic 10. There's a good chance I won't be able to resist the BG enhanced edition for much longer. Beyond that, maybe the Kickstarter games I've backed?

    6. Maybe you have not heard about it, and you interested you in it.

      That is a full remake of Baldur's Gate to Neverwinter Nights 2 engine


    7. I hadn't heard of that. I appreciate knowing, but I actually prefer--vastly prefer--the Infinity engine to the Aurora/Electron Engine, so I'm not sure I'd consider this an upgrade.

    8. I think it's an upgrade in the sence that the version of DnD rules NWN2 uses is much better than the one in BG ;)

    9. Ah, yes, I forgot about that. I guess the 3E rules were superior. What I'd really like to see is BG in the Icewind Dale II engine. Someone must have done that.

    10. Someone tried with BG2:

    11. You don't have to worry about BG:EE: It has been pulled off GoG and Beamdog, and patches banned, while they settle an undefined legal dispute. It is on Steam, but they get pitiful royalties from that, and it has had problems getting patches and such, since they don't publish it. (Their publisher was a jerk, and published it on Steam without telling them, cutting them out of as many profits as they could. That publisher then went out of business, and if I had to take a very uneducated guess, I'd suspect this has something to do with their current legal troubles)

  2. lol, if nethack only got a 4.5/5 I shudder to think of 5/5 difficulty...

    nethack has has literally dozens of things which can only be figured out by a) hundreds of deaths or b) reading a spoiler

    lol 4.5

    1. 5/5 is something Chet couldn't win after 250hrs + spoilers

    2. I think the only 5/5 would be Wizardry IV. Reading the wiki/walthrough for Nethack fascinates me with the attention to detail in the game. Reading the walkthrough for Wizardry IV just makes my head shake in dismay.

    3. I struggled with this. NetHack is as difficult as it is solely because of permadeath. Individual battles and the main quest are no more difficult than the typical RPG. I decided I had to save 5/5 for games that are truly impossible to beat for multiple reasons. If no game ever gets it, that's a good thing.

      W4 might have received it if I'd been doing difficulty ratings at the time.

    4. Nethack isn't the hardest RL. I keep hearing about Iter Vehemens ad Necem (IVAN): A violent road to death.

  3. 'Only a lack of in-game item descriptions keeps NetHack from a perfect score here'...

    I might ask as to what your definitions actually come down to. I was under the idea that past 3.x there has always been the opportunity to use the / key (? without a shift) to ask for more information on virtually any in-game topic. Admittedly, a lot comes out as poems, et al, but still.

    You couldn't be any more wrong on sacrificing things at altars. Not only can it change a co-aligned altar to your own god, convey 'protection' (that's a permanent bonus to AC), AND give you artifact weapons - but it can also tell you whether or not it's safe to pray. I really do beg you to at least try it with Chester the Barbarian, here. If it says 'you notice a four-leaf clover', you're nearing an artifact weapon / reward (spellbook/protection/way of dropping the drawbridge on Vlad's Tower/crowning), 'a feeling of reconciliation' means you can pray, 'you feel a little hopeful' means you can't - and 'you feel a sense of insignificance' (or something along those lines) means you're sacrificing jackals and you're level 20. (Gods don't like that.)

    I'm really almost completely sure that it's valid in your version. My dad had a copy of 3.0-something at his work when I was a kid, and I distinctly remember sacrificing for artifact weapons back then.

    1. The / key does indeed tell you what items and creatures are, and for some creatures, you get the ability to ask for "more info." I haven't had this happen with items, though. I tested it before writing this section because I would have loved to give my first perfect 10 here.

      Chester died, alas, after I temporarily forgot that a chameleon is not the same as other types of lizards and ate one.

    2. I could be wrong, again (though I'm saying it with some amount of sureness) - have you tried dropping an item before doing so? I don't think you can do it with something in your inventory, but on the ground it's fair game. (I remember getting lore for 'Snickersnee', a katana for Samurai in the most recent version.)

    3. Yes, I tried dropping items and identifying other things on the ground. I suspect there might be special descriptions of artifact weapons, though. The average monster doesn't have a special description, but special monsters and unique NPCs do, so it would be sensible if the same applied to equipment.

  4. I agree that the game deserves praise for coming up with all sorts of imaginative interactions between the items, but a lot of the interactions seem awfully implausible. ('Cause I mean... eating corpses? Who does that!)

    That, combined with permadeath, kind of forces you to try everything with everything while punishing you for it. Doesn't seem very enjoyable imho, without resorting to spoilers.

    1. It's about magic, isn't it? Lots of ancient magic traditions hold that consuming the heart of a creature rewards you with its characteristics. I prefer to think that my adventurers aren't actually consuming the entire corpse but carving out and consuming the heart.

    2. Yes, or distilling and consuming the essence of the creature in some other manner.

  5. Ok, so let's see the difference between 2.3e and 3.0:

    Game world: 0
    NPC interaction: +1
    Character Creation and Development: 0
    Encounters & Foes: 0
    Magic and combat: +2
    Equipment: +1
    Economy: 0
    Quests: 0
    Graphics, Sound, & Inputs: 0
    Gameplay: -2

    I think the most surprising here is that gameplay has gotten worse. Or might it be a consequence of playing this for 262 hours?

    That magic & combat and equipment is better might also be a result of you getting more acqainted with the game and appreciate more the amount of options you have.

    Anyway, congratulations on ascending!

    1. I looked at the NH2.3 review after I wrote this. As you say, combat wasn't significantly worse in that version; I just didn't understand it as well.

      The variance in gameplay is because in the last rating, I gave the game a pass on permadeath: "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." I understand 2011 Chet's reasoning for saying that, but I no longer agree with it.

    2. I am now imagining you and 2011 Chet sitting on a big couch in front of a fireplace, or possibly two leather chairs, in smoking jackets, drinking Gimlets and discussing CRPGs, with ocessional breaks to solemly listen to New Orleans jazz off a records player.

  6. FWIW, I never understood why you were so fascinated by Elves. It's generally acknowledged that Barbarians are the easiest class for beginners because they start with poison resistance and get speed, followed by Valkyries (once weapon artifacts are in the game ... Mjollnir is a beast.)

    1. After careful analysis, I thought the elf gave me the best likelihood of ascending. They start with the "sleep resistance," "speed," and "see invisible" intrinsics, which are otherwise hard to acquire. They also start with "automatic searching," which cannot be acquired by eating anything. And they're among the few classes to gain "stealth" (not achievable by eating anything) when they level up.

    2. But elves lack the "18 STR 18 CON and a decent weapon" intrinsic that the good classes start with.

  7. Yes, your last paragraph captures it perfectly! Many times, I have "quit forever" playing Nethack and a few other games over the course of the last 20 years.

    What about all the other classes, Chet?

    Actually I'd encourage you to wait for 3.1 to really examine ascending other classes, because 3.1 introduces substantial improvements to playability and content.

    1. Like I said above, I don't think they make THAT much of a difference (at least, in this version) beyond the opening equipment and attributes. If this changes in later versions, I'll look forward to exploring them more.

  8. I think Nethack would be the perfect game if you were in prison for some years and was allowed a computer with only *one* game on it and it could be no larger than some megabytes.

    1. I once fit all of Nethack onto a floppy disk. I think I had to put the spoiler files onto a separate one though.

    2. Nice...There was a novella with a similar theme: "The Royal Game"

  9. Amazing feat, congratulations. I don't know if you'll ever find the time but I'd love for you to compare Nethack with its modern counterpart, Dungeons of Dredmor.

    1. Dungeons of Dredmor is fun and clever but I'm not sure I'd call it the modern Nethack.

      I'd call it a Roguelite

      It's also very easy.

  10. *tilts head* You've already mentioned that you're fully aware of explore mode (where death is optional) yet you've marked the game down for having permadeath? That seems a bit like penalising games for having difficulty levels when the hardest one has features not to your taste.

    With regards to magic markers, a blessed magic marker is one of the classic things to wish for. Write your own scrolls of charging or genocide instead of wishing for them.

    I don't recall much (if any) mention of "bones" levels -- did you have that disabled? These can provide an extra kick to the risk/reward ratio -- a handy cache of items that you know are likely useful, but potentially guarded by a powerful monster. One of my friend's favourite memories was trying to get past a previous bones level of his -- a centaur had picked up Sunsword from his corpse and proved to be a formiddable foe indeed.

    As Aperama said, sacrificing is important, and generally the most likely way to acquire powerful artifact weapons. It's rather satisfying to cut off the Wizard's head with a Vorpal Sword, although I'll grant that a wand of death is the safer route.

    Class-specific stuff certainly improves in 3.1+, but I think you're underestimating the amount of difference the classes make to the early part of the game. A Barbarian and a Healer have to take very different initial approaches to things, for instance, and a Wizard is likely to play different again.

    Aside: I had a friend who wrote a program to continually launch nethack games until he found one where his Wizard (who starts with two rings) had a ring of polymorph and a ring of polymorph control. Lots of early-game fun with that combination!

    1. "Explore mode" isn't really considered "playing" the game, though, is it? Having one setting that's permadeath and the other in which you literally can't die doesn't, to me, equate to a difficulty level.

      The bones levels should go on the list of things I never fully explored. I tended to find that most of the stuff dropped by my previous adventurers were cursed, and I had a hard enough time uncursing the regular stuff I found in the dungeons. Those piles could have been valuable with a littl emore patience.

      I'm not in any way underestimating the differences in the classes in the early part of the game. I specifically said that they matter in the early part of the game. As far as I can see, they don't really matter in the long run. But the broader point is that they matter as a function of attributes and equipment. I don't really think it's possible to play this game "as" a wizard; that is, using spells far more often than melee combat. Similarly, though you can choose a rogue, there's no real "stealth game" to play here.

    2. In later versions at least there is a "stealth game" to rogues. Being able to pick locks instead of bashing helps save on broken items and woken monsters (as does level 1 stealth). Throne rooms are a piece of cake to a rogue as pretty much all the enemies stay asleep and can be killed 1v1. Same with ant/bee hives and any other type of special room like this.

      My only issue with this is that stealth is also given out on level 1 to some classes that do not deserve to have intrinsic stealth on any level (Valkyries...) which weakens the rogue appeal in that category.

    3. Right, but lockpicking is available to any class, and stealth comes with an elf cloak, which isn't exactly a rare item. My point remains that by mid-game, every character has essentially developed the same strengths and weaknesses, and the specific class no longer matters.

    4. True, but it's harder to acquire the loot you need to reach mid game (or at least more time consuming) if you don't happen to have a lockpick or an elf cloak (or wear something else that's better which is usually the case).

    5. I'm not saying I'm happy with the way rogues are (which is all I've been playing since your first Barbarian died, and I've gotten one to late game on NAO), but they are functional enough. If lockpicks and skeleton keys were more rare and rogues got the ability to steal from monsters then they would be better at their role. Removing stealth from classes that don't deserve it (such as Valkyries) wouldn't hurt either.

      My point wasn't to contradict your reasoning (and especially not for this version of the game), but to say I like playing rogues. I can pretty much take out anything that isn't instant death in the early and mid game. Fighting most encounters 1v1 and at long range with a hail of daggers (up to 4 as a rogue can be thrown at expert). Heck +5 daggers can kill top level enemies even later on before they have had a chance to do much damage. Like in two turns.

  11. Just out of interest, what Kickstarters have you backed?

    I have back a few - Wasteland 2, Dead State, Project Eternity, Torment, Hero U, Divinity. And I'm looking forward to more games than I have done in years.

    Jus - UK

    1. Hero U, Wasteland 2, and Shroud of the Avatar. Of them, I gave the most to Heru U since Corey is such an active commenter on my blog, and in fact that might be what I use as a deciding factor in whether to back future projects. It's too expensive otherwise.

      I backed SotA because of its Ultima legacy, but every update I get about the game suggests it's something that I don't want to actually play.

    2. Yeah, I really wanted to back SotA, but everything I read turned me off too. But it can get very expensive. Although I'm quite sad and i do get a bit of excitement following the fundrasing and willing it on to each stretch goal. God I need to get out more

      Jus - UK

  12. I am disappointed with your final score. Not that I am a big fan of the Nethack (only ascended once same as you), but this game surely deserve higher rating than 44/100. Comparing this game with some modern RPG’s is like comparing Beethoven 9th symphony with the Lady Gaga songs. I guess at the end of the day it is a matter of taste and pointless to pursue that arguing further.

    Instead I wanted to be constructive and try to find out what went wrong. As far as I can see your GIMLET is solid and that’s not the problem. Next, I have checked your scores for each category, and we could agree on most of them though with some reserves. For example, the Gameplay imo should be 7-9 (arguably 10). Graphics 2...hmm... that is a bit rich considering it is coming from a book writer. It is like saying Hemingway or Jack London’s books have graphics 2 and Superman comic has graphic 10, therefore Superman comic is a better book. But overall we could agree on the given scores.

    I believe that injustice done to this game is because you are trying to mix apples and pears. Some of the games are simply not RPG’s they are hybrids at least, so your GIMLET is not applicable for them. That is why you have somewhat lower scores than they should be on the games like this one, Hero’s quest, even Dungeon Master. They are not pure RPG’s. If you ask, 9/10 people would tell you that Hero’s Quest is a better game than Heart of UUkrul.

    Of course that Quests in this game got score only 2, same thing would happen if you would pronounce Football Manager an RPG. Yes great Economy, Character Creation, Gameplay and Combat but it is not an RPG. You have stretched the genre too far which is the cause of lower final ratings for number of games.
    Interestingly enough, in your pursuit for the best RPG’s which I do respect, you have completely skipped best candidates for the title. For example complexity of the Quests or the Magic and Combat even the Game World is on a whole different level in some of the MUD’s (non graphical RPG’s). Best quest story in let’s say Skyrim is a little child comparing to quests in some of the MUD’s. I am sure many RPG’s gurus would agree on this one. Further on not even a mention of the console RPG’s like Final Fantasy, Megami Tensei, Legend of Zelda or Dragon Quest will make your best RPG questionable to the certain degree.

    However it is your blog and these are only suggestions. I do like and respect what you are doing and frequently but not thoroughly reading it. RPG community would lose not having a blog like this one and I am sure your enthusiasm will not pass unnoticed.


    1. I don't think you get the GIMLET; maybe I don't either, but here's my take on it. The GIMLET is a purely subjective method of ranking and rating the games he plays. Or as Chet put it: "The things I like about CRPGs may not be the same things you like."

      Also, the GIMLET is not a system meant to say this game is better than another; it's a system meant to say this game is better as a CRPG than another. It may not be perfect, it may not be something you agree with, but the GIMLET is definitely something different to the usual rating systems you can find in magazines or websites. If he did a GIMLET on Football Manager and it would get a low points tally it wouldn't mean it's a bad game. It would just mean it would suck as a CRPG. Since he's playing all games with his "CRPG glasses" on, I don't see a problem with that.

      I'm sure Chet could clarify things much better than me, if he wants to.

      Regarding graphics and your book analogy... I think it's a forced analogy, but let's just run with it. Let's pick Chet's favourite book (lol) as an example: Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. If you compare it to Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus in terms of visual appeal, it's only natural to say the graphic novel is better. Of course, some editions of LotR have beautiful illustrations, and so do many other book editions, so there's that. More importantly, you won't be rating books/comic books on visual appeal alone, just as Chet doesn't rate games on graphics/sound/interface alone. I don't see why we should get bent out of shape because a text-only game with no sound get's a low rating on this category. It's just one of ten categories he rates games in. A stellar game with horrendous graphics, sound and interface could still theoretically get a rating of 90.

      As for your last point, regarding Chet missing some key games, it's really simple: this blog started out as PC DOS (and eventually Windows) games only. It was platform specific, if you will. Along the line Chet realized it may not have been a wise decision so, for quite some time now, he's been playing catch-up on other platforms. Since he's doing that chronologically, he's only touched on early platforms, like PLATO, Apple 2 or Commodore PET. I'm sure when the time is right, and he get's around to it, he'll try some ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amiga or NES games, to name but a few influential 80s platforms.

    2. I doubt he'll get around to consoles considering this is the "CRPG Addict". That being said, I highly doubt Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy would be in the running for best RPG, since they were essentially created to be simpler alternatives to Ultima.

    3. I understand what Anonymous means about the GIMLET and all I can continue to say is that it works for me. If certain games don't score high because they're not "pure RPGs," to me the index is still meeting it's purpose, because what I really like the most are pure RPGs.

      People who have a problem with it mostly have a problem with the final rating, I think. If you don't care about how the game stacks up against an ideal CRPG, just look at the individual scores. The spreadsheet will even let you sort by them. If you really love a good combat system, sort by that. Copy the data into your own spreadsheet and delete the NPC column if you don't care about that. Or just ignore the numbers and read the text.

      I still don't have a firm plan for exploring other platforms. It would be best to consider my blog, and the project it describes, overwhelmingly based on DOS/Windows, and to consider any other reviews I throw in a little bonus. Please don't start to expect them.

    4. As you specifically mention Hero's Quest, I think this quote from Chet's ranking of that game pretty much encapsulates the idea behind the gimlet.

      As I suspected, the final score of 53 is a bit lower than what is reflective of my actual enjoyment of the game (a fate that also befell Pirates! with a score of 48), but it's still a good score, tying the game with Ultima IV, Starflight, Wasteland, and several others. If it still seems low, keep inmind that the GIMILET is meant to rank CRPGs specifically and not "enjoyment" in general. If combat tactics, gold, and equipment are your bread and butter, it is inescapable that you will find Hero's Quest wanting.

    5. I use "inescapable" and "inescapably" too often in my writing.

    6. Yes. You are all right about the GIMLET and I never really wanted to disapprove the GIMLET itself (though I can see why you have got that impression). My suggestion was and still is to turn your attention more to pure RPG's and not to skip notable ones. Otherwise you will spend too much energy and time on the games that are not really RPG's.

      If you do decide to go that way next RPGs you are going to play will be Sims,Total War,GTA series, because they have as much RPG elements as Pirates and Hero's Quest, if not more.Probably someone would come with better examples but those will serve the purpose.

      So I guess what I would like to see is that you stop following blindly some list or the same platform but instead you are following real RPG's no matter where they are coming from. That is what you really like to play, same as rest of us.


    7. I realize that as I move along through time, I may have to tighten my criteria a bit, but right now, I enjoy being flexible. Don't be fooled by my playing Pirates!, though: it's indefensible as an RPG. It doesn't have any of my three core elements. I just wanted to play it.

  13. >someone shouldn't have to invest more than 250 hours in a game to win it

    Why not? You aren't entitled to success. You try your very best, do all that you can, and the game might decide to screw you over, and you might find a way to bounce back, or not. It's just like real life, in its own way.

    Roguelikes aren't designed to be 'won' and checked off a list permanently. They are played in perpetuity by the vast majority of their fans, and to those fans, "shouldn't" is an affront. NetHack doesn't owe you anything. Earn your keep, or don't.

  14. "Equally important, as I noted above, is the way in which the different items you can find work together."

    There is a term coined from this: The Dev Team Thinks of Everything. It even has a TVTropes page.

  15. "My understanding is that it's the first edition to feature dungeon "branches," a series of elemental planes, and special levels of Hell (renamed Gehennom)"

    Just a quick aside, Gehennom (or جهنم) is the Arabic word for Hell.

  16. Nice review. It came away with a decent score but Nethack is one of the less appealing in the genre for me. Not sure why, maybe because it focuses more on depth than scope.

    The real question though, is how the hell did you get to 80 pushups so quick? I've been alternating between pushups and chinups and I still hover between 10-20! You must have been doing them every day and all day lol.

    1. I was 17 and in Basic Training for 13 weeks.

      The frequency of sets and the number of reps per set makes a huge difference. Google "100 pushups." That program does a good job balancing intensive workouts and rest. I tried it about 4 years ago and got up to around 60-70 again. I didn't finish it, but perhaps you'll have more willpower than me.

    2. Thanks, I see what I've been doing wrong now; they set up weekly rep goals and tiers instead of doing flat sets.

      Now, if only I could apply the system to my gaming and reading backlog lol.

  17. I wasn't sure where the best place to put this was, so I'm just going to put this in what seems like the most relevant post.

    On your master list you have Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM) and I think it's worth mentioning that it has a very similar aspect to Nethack in that there is a point where the versions clearly split. Namely there is a massive difference between version 1.1.1 and the significantly later released 1.2. There may be other notable "break points" before 1.1.1 since that version is from 2002, but I haven't really looked into those older versions. I mention this because you have done this sort of versioning with NetHack, yet don't have anything listed for ADOM. This is probably because you aren't at that game yet and as a result not done the sort of research you would on one you're about to play, but I feel adding this point could alleviate some confusion for someone looking at the master games list.

    There's also a game that's outright missing, 2012's Tales of Maj'Eyal. It makes sense that it might be missing since it's often abbreviated ToME4 which could be interpreted as some level of versioning from DarkGod's previous project Tales of Middle Earth (aka ToME2, which is on the list) similar to how NetHack 3.0 is still technically the same game as previous versions, but that's not the case with Maj'Eyal. It is an entirely different game with almost no resemblance to the Angband variant that's made in an entirely different engine. You might never get around to this game, but considering you have games on there you wouldn't play at all based on your current criteria, this one might as well be on there.

    1. "This is probably because you aren't at that game yet and as a result not done the sort of research you would on one you're about to play." That's exactly it, but thanks for the note, as I'll discover this when I do a pre-game search of my comments before playing.

      There's nothing on the master list after 2008. I deliberately leave a 10-year gap so history figure out what is and isn't an RPG before I bother transferring the games to my own list.

  18. I won NetHack (3.0 or 3.1?) once, decades ago, and never played it again.
    As far as I am concerned, the most interesting and wonderful feature of NetHack is the mail daemon. I'm not aware of any game that has offered this kind of in-game integration of notifications, and I'm not even sure if it would be possible with the 'sandboxing' in modern operating systems (or, at-least, it wouldn't be possible without the user explicitly approving it first).

    I can think of no way to describe the sense of awe (and later, respect) I felt when I encountered the mail daemon for the first time. I was in the middle of a combat, when suddenly a daemon (a monster far more powerful than those I had previously encountered) runs towards me. Imagine my fear as the daemon comes within striking distance, and... hands me a scroll. The daemon then runs away. When the combat is over, I look at my inventory, then select the command to read the scroll, and the text of the scroll is... the body text of an email I had just received.

    This was done entirely using the existing mechanics of the game - the game play area, a monster, a scroll, the player inventory, and a command to read a scroll. It didn't break the fourth wall, it just let something through it.

    You can read about this on the NetHack wiki entry for the mail daemon:

    1. i /expect/ this would have worked reasonably well on an older unix.

      i'm not sure how it would work under a more modern linux that's a little more clamped down.

      you might have to allow it in your nethack config file [or you'd have to set up your linux specifically to allow it.]

      i'm not even sure it would be possible in windows/mac [to be fair, i'm not sure if there's a native port of nethack for mac, for what it's worth.] at all. [but if it were, that would be very cool.]

    2. Nethack has been offered on just about every OS with enough memory to run it at various times. The current release still supports MS-DOS for some reason. So yes, it has supported both classic mac and OS X at various points.

      I thought a lot of unix programs still used the traditional method of having a 'mail' directory and one email per file; all nethack did was check that folder for new messages every X minutes and copy the first few lines of the text file to a scroll if there was anything new. That should still work if you have that setup in the same way and give the nethack program read access to that folder. When I was looking into this in 2005 it was a lot easier to find these details, even the new nethack wiki is almost empty on the technical details now.

      This was important back in the day as lots of sysadmins would play it on their text-only terminals during downtime and could still be watching their email.

      I checked and it is still built into the Linux version, it was never implemented for MS-DOS or Windows (Since every mail client handles their own POP3/IMAP access there), and was never compiled into OS X.

      The one place it is still used is public servers like where other users watching your run can send you messages.

  19. this - i think - is an absolutely fair gimlet for an absolutely difficult game.

    i also think that it's awesome that you won it, given what a milestone nethack is for rpg's in general. [and roguelikes in particular.]

    permadeath will just always turn me off, so i have less than no desire to try this.

    1. quite a lengthy comment, ahoy!

      well. while i was gone a thing occurred to me about this comment that i should likely clear up:

      i dislike permadeath immensely, as stated, but i don't mind it if it's couched in continual forward motion. by which i mean that the step away from roguelike and into roguelite territory has gotten me to try this style of game. [i sunk 160 hours into rogue legacy, which is a very neat little roguelite.]

      the forward motion i'm describing here is that your /account/ moves forward even if your /character/ dies. [or something very like that.] - which means that your death wasn't trivial/in vain. instead, you moved yourself forward - even if by slow degrees - by interacting with the game and it's challenges and /that/ had some long term effect on your chances going forward.

      it's just a pity that rogue legacy itself - the game that got me nominally interested in roguelites went right ahead and just broke it's compact with the player once you entered new game+. since this is a game you'll likely [eventually] play, i'll rot13 my further comments.


      ebthr yrtnpl vf n tnzr bs vaperzragnyvfz.

      lbh cynl/qvr/ercrng, ohg rnpu ercrng fgrcf lbh sbejneq ol fybj qrterrf nf lbh nznff pbva naq svyy bhg gur ebbzf bs lbhe pnfgyr. lbhe pnfgyr vf ubj lbh "fgrre" lbhe sbejneq cebterff. vg'f cbffvoyr gb svyy bhg gur /ragver/ pnfgyr, bire gvzr naq guvf, gura nyybjf lbh gb or fbzrjung oebxra naq birecbjrerq va arj tnzr+ - naq sbe n yvggyr juvyr - orlbaq gung, gbb.

      bar bs gur pber ryrzragf bs ebthr yrtnpl vf - haqrefgnaqnoyl - snpvat obffrf. punyyratvat raq-tnzr sbrf gung lbh unir gb orfg jura lbh trg gb gur raq bs rnpu jvat bs gur "bccbfvat" pnfgyr.

      gurfr ner terng, orpnhfr lbh gnxr rirelguvat lbh'ir yrnearq fb sne, naq lbhe fbhcrq hc punenpgre naq qrsl gur bqqf gb xvyy gur obff, ubjrire...

      vs ebthr yrtnpl vf nobhg vaperzragnyvfz, vg vf /nyfb/ nobhg orgenlny.

      ng gur cbvag jurer lbh ernpu arj tnzr+, gur tnzr nofbyhgryl orgenlf vg'f qrfvta cuvybfbcul naq gur cynlre nyy va bar ovt tb.

      lbh fgvyy pyrne bhg gur pnfgyr naq lbh fgvyy frrx raq tnzr obffrf, ohg abj gurer ner arj tnzr+ obffrf gung lbh pna snpr. gb svaq gurfr, lbh ybbx sbe qvssreragyl-fglyrq obff qbbef, ragre gurz naq svtug.

      UBJRIRE: gur zvahgr lbh ragre vagb gurfr qbbef, gur tnzr lbvaxf njnl lbhe vaperzragny cebterff naq gur punenpgre lbh'ir pubfra, naq vafgrnq, qhzcf lbh vagb gur ebbz jvgu n cer-trarengrq punenpgre gung unf cer-trarengrq novyvgvrf.

      vg'f abj abg fb zhpu n grfg bs lbhe fxvyyf nf lbh'ir yrnearq gb nccyl gurz gb gur tnzr, vafgrnq, vg'f n grfg bs "pna lbh svther bhg jung gur qrirybcref vagraqrq sbe lbh gb qb gb orng guvf fcrpvsvp obff onggyr jvgu gur xvg gurl'ir tvira lbh?"

      naq vg FHPXF.

      vg fhpxrq fb zhpu gung v whfg chg qbja gur tnzr gura naq gurer. v unq ab qrfver gb fvax zber bs zl gvzr vagb n tnzr gung jbhyq whfg orgenl zr ba n qvzr nsgre 160 ubhef bs cnvafgnxvat jbex.


      so i believe that i could stand to try more roguelites, but i certainly wouldn't play a roguelike.


I welcome all comments about the material in this blog, and I generally do not censor them. However, please follow these rules:

1. Do not link to any commercial entities, including Kickstarter campaigns, unless they're directly relevant to the material in the associated blog posting. (For instance, that GOG is selling the particular game I'm playing is relevant; that Steam is having a sale this week on other games is not.) This also includes user names that link to advertising.

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