Saturday, March 30, 2024

NetHack [3.1]: Seen the End! (with Summary and Rating)

If not for those dilithium crystals, I would have escaped with no wealth at all.
NetHack [3.1 series]
United States
Independently developed and released in four versions between January and July 1993
Date Started: 11 February 2024
Date Ended: 27 March 2024
Total Hours: 34
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: 48
Ranking at time of posting: 465/508 (92%)
NetHack 3.1.3 is not quite the version of the roguelike that modern players experience, but it's the closest that I've covered so far. While still including the superior roguelike mechanics for which the series is famous, it tries to be a bit more like a traditional RPG with more background story, a branching dungeon, a personal quest, and a more complex endgame. While most of these changes are welcome, they add significantly to the length and thus create a more difficult experience than earlier versions.

The strengths of this series remain eternal, however, including very large libraries of monsters with special attacks and defenses, inventory items with special uses, and complex interactions between them. The game's complex rules and physics create unique tactical scenarios not only for each player but for each character. Except for graphics and sound, NetHack is perhaps the most sophisticated CRPG of its age.
I have now seen NetHack 3.1's winning screens but have not "won" it in the traditional sense, as I did not adhere to permadeath. My experience with the game is not over, as I intend to field new characters on and off for the indefinite future, and I will report occasionally on my progress. I would like to try to win it legitimately, but I cannot have my entire life subsumed to it.
When I left off last time, I was already on two reloads, one from eating a cockatrice egg, and one because I lost track of Vlad the Impaler. I probably would not have taken the second one if I had not already been forced to reload once. I would have tried harder to find the vampire among the game's 55 levels. But since I'd already given up my ability to win legitimately, I didn't have the patience for it. That kind of scenario is going to recur.
Leaving the dungeon for good.
I ended the last session at the stairs, preparing to leave the dungeon and enter the planes. Once you have the Amulet of Yendor and climb up the Level 1 stairs, you still have five levels left to complete: the Planes of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water (in that order), and the final Astral Plane. The program simply displays these areas as "End Game."
I arrived on the Plane of Earth to find the Wizard of Yendor right in front of me. As usual, I blasted him away with a Wand of Death--down to 5 charges now. This time, he left a corpse, which I thought might be a good sign. I ate it just to be on the safe side. It turns out that leaving a corpse doesn't make him any "deader" than when he doesn't, but it was still satisfying.
Thankfully, my Wands of Death held up.
I was in a small chamber with no exits, but a minotaur (who I caught in the same blast as the Wizard) had a Wand of Digging, so I used it to blast a corridor northward. It took me to another small chamber where I stepped into a magic portal, and I was suddenly on the Plane of Air. I hoped I hadn't missed anything on Earth.
"It's hard to walk in thin air," the game said. I guess that's why there were no features around me. I put on my Ring of Levitation immediately. Dragons and air elementals attacked, the latter engulfing me and doing reasonable damage to my hit points. I found out the hard way that apparently Potions of Extra Healing (not to mention the spell) barely do anything in the endgame. I nearly died inside an air elemental and had to retreat quickly to avoid death at the hands of nearby allies. I was relieved when the magic portal appeared next to me on the east side of the map, and I got out of there.
I got lucky finding this the first time.
The Plane of Fire came next. At first, it didn't bother me. Fire elementals, fire dragons, and pit fiends can't really hurt me. But, blood and ashes, they never ended. I literally couldn't walk a step in the place. And for every one of my attacks, there were 25 of theirs, with dragon breath flying this way and that, shots from wands, special attacks from elementals that have their own special animation. I was relieved every time a fire vortex engulfed me; he couldn't damage me faster than I healed, and I got a break from all the chaos.
I violate NetHack rule #1 and let myself get surrounded.
But if those enemies weren't tough, the archons were. They kept approaching, spouting things about how I would bow to their god and I wasn't worthy of the Amulet of Yendor. They had artifact weapons like the Sunsword. They blinded and stunned me constantly, and in the end, surrounded by other enemies and unable to move, teleport, drill down, or do anything, I died to their attacks.

Analyzing that death, I decided that I needed to clear out some space on the planes. I restored from Level 1 (if you're keeping track, that's three reloads now), zapped my last wish, and wished for 2 blessed Scrolls of Genocide. It worked. I read the first one and took care of all dragons, except the chromatic one and "Ixoth," apparently. I read the second one, hit "E," and found out I'm not allowed to genocide elementals. Goddamn it. Archons, either. Or demons. I thought I had it all figured out. I wasted my last wish on killing dragons and what turned out to be giants because I couldn't think of anything else that had swarmed me on those levels. 
This felt bad. I kinda like dragons.
I went up the stairs to try again. The Plane of Earth took me a little longer because the teleporter wasn't in the same place, but I got a Scroll of Enchant Weapon and blessed it. I read it and got my Grayswandir up to +7. The Plane of Air was a little easier without the dragons, and I found a Potion of Gain Level after I killed a djinn, which got me to Level 29. It took me a lot of systematic exploring on the air level to realize how lucky I'd been the first time. I'd been fleeing a bunch of monsters, and I'd just stumbled upon the portal. This time, I had to go back and forth in rows, killing the Wizard twice, before I found it.
Fire was a bit easier this time. The lack of dragons made it harder for enemies to surround me, and I took the entire thing more cautiously. It was harder to identify the portal because the level had so many traps, and I had to circle a couple of times. Finally, I found it near the center of the map and entered.
The Plane of Water was weird. Every square was water except randomly-moving "bubbles" that threw off my attempts to navigate systematically. Water elementals and other water creatures attacked constantly. But I got lucky. I figured the portal would be on the opposite side of the screen from my arrival, so I made a beeline to the east to start systematically exploring there. I stumbled upon the portal almost immediately and got out of there.
In a bubble on the Plane of Water.
"You arrive on the Astral Plane!" the game said. "You sense alarm, hostility, and excitement in the air!" Immediately, a voice (my god) whispered, "Thou hast been worthy of me!" and I got a pet angel to help me, which I almost immediately lost track of.

The level had three rooms with altars--one lawful, one neutral, one chaotic. Each required a different path to get there, and each area in between was swarming with archons, angels, and priests. Some of them were friendly. There were also three special enemies named Death, Pestilence, and Famine. 
In the final level, I frequently lost track of which @ was me.
The worst part is that the priests kept summoning huge swarms of insects--giant ants and beetles and such. Soon there were so many that practically every free spot was filled with them. They posed no danger at all, but it's a huge pain in the ass to cleave your way through dozens of them, having to acknowledge every single attack that a couple dozen enemies are making against you for every step that you take. It made me realize that this game really needs an area damage spell. I wished I'd saved a Scroll of Genocide for the insects.
I first fought my way north to the central room. The game told me that it was an "aligned altar," but I took a save right in front of it just to be sure. I guess "aligned" meant that it was aligned with something (not neutral), because it wasn't aligned with me. When I sacrificed the Amulet of Yendor on the altar, the game said that: "Aerdrie Faenya accepts your gift, and gains dominion over Erevan Ilesere. Erevan Ilesere is enraged. Fortunately, Aerdrie Faenya permits you to live. A cloud of orange smoke surrounds you . . ." And that was it. The game showed me my inventory, intrinsics, and kills as if I had died, told me my total score (2,077,441), and entered me in the hall of fame. But I clearly hadn't "ascended."
Well, you should have put your altar in a more convenient location.
Reloading (that's four), I fought back to the south and then to the east, killing Death and Famine along the way. I then ate his corpse just to see what would happen, and pretty soon I had reloaded for the fifth time.
But what a flex, right?
I resumed my fight to the east but found that the altar was neutral. Of course. So now I needed to cross all the way to the other side of the map with a billion ants, priests, angels, and so forth in the way. I was so out of patience by this point that I stopped trying to do it carefully and just forced my way through the crowd. It took probably longer, again because of all the messages I had to acknowledge between moves. Then, with the western altar in my sight, the Wizard of Yendor appeared and stole the Amulet!
I didn't get a screenshot of the moment, but it was somewhere around here.
I suppose the proper thing to do would be to chase him down and get it back? I don't know. But instead I went to bed, reloaded the next day, and took it much more slowly. I killed Pestilence this time. I reached the altar and sacrificed the Amulet.
You offer the Amulet of Yendor to Erevan Ilesere. An invisible choir sings, and you are bathed in radiance. The voice of Erevan Ilesere booms: "Congratulations, mortal! In return for thy service, I grant thee the gift of immortality!" You ascend to the status of Demigod . . .
And then it was back to identifying items, intrinsics, etc., only this time my final score was 4,281,164. It only took six reloads.
My kills.
But it was a good experience. Now that I know the entire picture of the dungeon, I can see many ways I could have done things differently--how I will do things differently on the next play:
  • Now that I know what's at the bottom of the Gnomish Mines, I'll just grab it on my first visit rather than having to go back a dozen times.
  • I'll take the time to get all the way to Level 30 and to max out my armor class. There's no reason to go into the endgame with those values less than perfect.
  • I'll experiment a lot more with spells, at least for strong spellcasting classes. My elf got an insane number of spells (but never "Identify!") but barely used them. I'll also store my spellbooks in a central location so I can refresh my spell knowledge when it starts to fade.
My list of available spells towards the end of the game, most of them never cast. I'm not even sure what the numbers mean.
  • After the game ended, I read some more spoilers and realized that Stormbringer might have been a stronger option in the endgame, as it drains health and conveys them to the wielder. It also level-drains the enemy it hits. Apparently, you can level-drain the Wizard of Yendor down to nothing and make him a non-threat. I probably won't have this weapon specifically, but I'll analyze my weapons better.
  • I'll genocide insects.
  • I'll wear the Amulet of Yendor in the planes; apparently, it makes the portals easier to find.
  • I'll approach the Astral Plane with a better strategy than just "hack through everything because I'm sick of the game."
Now, my experience of nearly 30 hours with one character is probably on the high end, but I still think that the extra content added to this version at least doubles the amount of time it takes to ascend from 3.0. While I enjoyed parts of the new material, I didn't enjoy the extra length. The key problem, as I see it, is that the monsters in Gehennom are so hard that you need to be "ascension-ready" before you even enter the place. That means that almost all your development has been accomplished in the first half of the game, and you have much less to look forward to as you go through the interminable mazes. And frankly, the Astral Plane alone would have been enough at the end.
Nonetheless, I expect the GIMLET to rank the game slightly higher than the previous version:
  • 1 point for the game world. Some extra background for your character isn't quite enough to move it up a notch from its predecessor on a 10-point scale. A consistent and original world is not the game's strong suit.
  • 6 points for character creation and development. A solid character creation system with a lot of options. The choice of character is more meaningful here, as it defines the class-specific objective and the class-specific artifacts. Development is reasonably rewarding and the level cap is high.
My intrinsics at the end of the game.
  • 2 points for NPC interaction. They exist, but interaction is mostly limited to one line of dialogue. Again, those that show up for the quest are a bit more verbose.
  • 7 points for encounters and foes, which is about as high a score as a game can get without more non-combat encounters and puzzles. The number of enemies in this game, along with their special attacks, defenses, and even uses to the character, is beyond any commercial RPG of the era. And now they pick stuff up and use it! Looking at enemies gives you detailed descriptions.
  • 7 points for magic and combat. It's hard to think of a commercial RPG with a more complex combat system, with so many ways to fight, use items, protect yourself, hide, flee, teleport away, and so forth. Enemies can damage each other or themselves in fun ways that create epic gameplay stories. I continue to find the spell system a bit under-developed, alas.
  • 9 points for equipment. Again, a major strength. There are so many potential items to wield, wear, use, enchant, drink, eat, throw, loot, invoke, and a dozen other commands that you could play the game for years and not master all the potential interactions. Consider the ability to blank scrolls, write new ones, dilute potions, tin corpses for rations, and even change the navigable dungeon space. No commercial RPG is offering anything like it.
  • 5 points for the economy. The game has a reasonably strong economic system with several stores and other features like shrines and the Oracle to serve as money sinks. Like everything else, it gets lost in the last third of the game.
  • 4 points for quests, including a main quest and a required sub-quest, including a class-specific quest. There's even an "alternate ending" of sorts.
That's so much better than just joining the Guild.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. No roguelike is ever going to excel in the first two categories, although I found the graphics perfectly functional. I still like the keyboard interface, but man the game has got to do something about the way it handles messages of more than one line, particularly in combat.
  • 5 points for gameplay. It's non-linear and offers a lot of replayability. The difficulty level is somewhat fair, even for permadeath. But this entry simply lasts too long, and almost everything that happens after you enter Gehennom is a boring slog. I liked the personal quest and Gnomish Mine additions. In my opinion, the authors should have then cut about 20 of the final dungeon levels, though, and I'm not sure the four "elemental" levels at the end added anything but time and frustration.
That gives us a final score of 48, four points higher than I gave the last version. Looking over the GIMLET for that game, I'm not sure why I even offered a score of 1 to the kitchen sink game world with its minimal backstory. The other scores are comparable, except for "quests," which is where this version gets its major boost. I expected the "gameplay" score to be lower because I felt this one dragged the ending a lot more (and took a lot longer), but it was exactly the same. However, I also offered this paragraph in 2013:
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.
The vitriol in this paragraph is clearly a product of how long it took me to win the game honestly. I've made peace with that and didn't take away as many points for "difficulty" as I have in the past. 
It also interests me that I offered, in that same entry, a bulleted list of 8 things I never quite mastered. I did better with most of them this time, making extensive use of magic markers and blank scrolls, luck, altars, artifact weapons, and mapping the maze levels. I used ELBERETH more often but not to "confine and route monsters." I still never made use of the pet or self-polymorphing.
The pull remains strong.
We next check in officially with NetHack with the 3.2 series in 1996, but like I said, I'm going to keep pecking at this version. It's a good late night game, when I want to kill half an hour before bed but I've run through all the New York Times puzzles for the day. I just started a new game, picked a random character, and was assigned a rogue. There are three fountains on the first level. What do you bet one of them will give me a wish?

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Shadow Caster: Air, Land, and Water

A globe shows this world to be quite a bit different from Earth.
As I closed the first entry, I had just gained the ability to transform into a Caun. Caun are the physical size of toddlers, but they have a number of special abilities, including faster regular healing, a healing spell, sneaking, the ability to create light, the ability to create a shield, a kind of "insect swarm" spell, and the ability to grab things at a distance. They are the rogues to the Maorin's fighter.
Although he isn't a great warrior, I spent much of the early part of this session as a Caun, just so I could level him up. The human gains a small percentage of experience from the other forms' kills, but the forms do not grant experience to each other. Since the Caun doesn't last very long in combat, I had him kill enemies with the shuriken.
The Caun can barely see above the shuriken to hit the skeleton.
I'm glad I took MorpheusKitami's advice and let myself look at the cluebook. First of all, it's the only way to assign names to the areas and the monsters, and it's the only way to see how much relative damage your weapons do. That's one Dungeon Master tradition that I wish other games had not adopted. Unfortunately, it also means that I know exactly how many areas the game offers. I had finished the Garden Ruins, the Flooded Palace, the Misty Ruins, and the Dark Temple during the first session. There were 10 more--which isn't a lot, even accounting for the probability that they'll get larger and more complex as the game goes on.
This session opened in the Temple of the Dark God, where Veste had sacrificed two of his top lieutenants to gain the power needed to defeat the People. It was a small map, consisting of one long corridor with chambers on each end (entrance and exit) and four apartments, two on each side. Each of the apartments had a "Disk of Woe" high on the wall that I had to destroy to access the final chamber. The space in between was the home of roaming skeletons, blue phantoms, and rice snakes. The skeletons and rice snakes had no ranged attack and were thus easy to kill with the shuriken. The blue phantoms had a blast attack, but it got caught up on walls and corners easily, as did the enemies themselves.
About to die to "rice snakes."
Destroying the four disks opened the last chamber, where another six-armed Zardaz Guardian attacked. He had a powerful ranged attack, and it was easiest to take him out by switching to the Maorin. Thanks to the manual, I know that the Maorin does 2-8 damage with his claw attack but 8-14 with the magic sword, so I equipped him with the weapon, and he took care of the guardian while losing about half of his health. I switched back to the Caun to heal up (if one form heals, all heal, but some heal faster) before moving on.
The teleporter from the temple brought me to Castle Dorneon, "the oldest structure in the worlds known to shapeshifters," although it doesn't specify that shapeshifters lived there. Honestly, the world-building in this game is so bad that they might as well have not even tried. Veste conquered it with werewolves--whether these werewolves were forms offered to the disgruntled members of the People or an external force is unclear.
Some interesting artwork in the castle.
The area starts in the dungeon, with a werewolf right in front of the arriving player. I lost a ton of health killing it. The arrival area turned out to be one of many dungeon cells in a long corridor. A chain at the end of the corridor unlocked the cells. There was a guy in one of the cells, but I couldn't get him to talk or otherwise offer anything.
Just say one thing and this game's GIMLET goes up 2 points.
The rest of the level wound through a torture room and a large room with skeletons on the floor. There were barrels that I had to switch to Caun form to jump over. The same barrels trapped the werewolves, so I could kill them (although it took a long time) with the shuriken.
Making use of the Caun's special talent.
The torture room had a swampy area with a chain hanging from the ceiling. Pulling it (for some reason) caused a piece of armor to pop out of the swamp. I started to swim for it, taking damage, before I remembered the Caun's "far grab" action. The armor was called Caun armor, so I naturally gave it to him. I hope it's enough to just put it in the inventory. There doesn't seem to be any way to actively wear it. I could be missing something. The controls can be confusing. It's not entirely clear when you're supposed to right-click and when you're supposed to left-click. Every time I want to use something like a potion, I have to bumble around until I get it right. Sometimes you have to turn off the attack actions to interact with something in the environment and sometimes you don't. I should also note that the numberpad allows you strafing options, but that doesn't work well with the right hand on the mouse (which you really need--too much in the game requires precise aiming), so it forces you into an awkward hand configuration unless you're lucky enough to have an external numberpad. That still doesn't excuse this Alienware gaming laptop from not having one, Dell.
I also found a Power Potion, a Frost Wand, and a Silver Sword in the dungeon. Without the cluebook, I would have twisted myself into knots wondering if the Silver Sword was better than the Magic Sword or vice versa, but thanks to the cluebook I know that the Magic Sword is better, except against werewolves.
It's cat vs. dog!
The exit from the dungeon led upward, but there was a quick foray down to a wine cellar--casks lined the walls--with more clerics and a chest. The chest had a journal in it. The final entry read: "The Opsis fled the castle when the werewolves came. I have locked myself in the wine cellar, but I fear I'm losing my sanity. The howling, howling . . ." This wouldn't make much sense without the cluebook's backstory.
The way onward was up a flight of stairs to the castle keep, which apparently once boasted a vast library of tomes from other worlds, replaced by books doing nothing but glorifying Veste and Morloch. Other than werewolves, the level had flying blue eyes called blue monitors and robed figures called clerics. The throne room was large and airy, with columns, tapestries, frescoes, and shields. The graphics are about as good as they could be for the era, which is not quite good enough to really immerse you. A couple more years are going to make a big difference. As it is, I spent a lot of time wondering what some complicated blobs are supposed to be depicting.
The castle hall is almost there, but not quite.
The library, accessed from a teleportation pad in the throne room, was full of more blue phantoms and clerics. I had to retreat to the throne room a few times to rest and heal. When I had cleared them out, I found a single book that told of pools of magic water that refresh power. "One such pool is said to be located in the north side of this castle!" I had found the pool but didn't realize what it was. When you stand in it, it slowly refreshes your magic power. It apparently only has a finite amount of power, though, as it dried up while I was standing in it. So it's basically a potion you can't take with you.
Nice try, Tyranthraxus.
From the keep, the only exit went down again. I found myself in another section of the Dark Temple that I had conquered earlier. I faced about a dozen werewolves and a werewolf lord, who dropped a Staff of Power and an obelisk tip. A nearby room had a Chalice of Power, a Crystal of Light, and a Caun Sword. The cluebook clarifies that the Caun Sword is "Caun-made, not specifically for the Caun." It does less damage than the other two swords despite looking cooler.
When I put the obelisk tip on the nearby obelisk, I got the form of the Opsis, "a magical race with many powers." The obelisk bade me to then "restore the Tree of Life in the Mines."
Let's hope it doesn't require sunshine.
Aside from being a disgusting one-eyed beholder thing with two tentacles, the Opsis is pretty cool. His tentacles do a paltry 0-1 damage and he moves quite slow, but he has five awesome spells: "Fireball," "Cold Blast" (which was needed almost immediately to put out some fire squares), "Slow Time," "Mortal Terror," and "Death Blast." The last one straight-up kills anything you point it at, although it takes about a third of the mana bar. I used it to kill the next few enemies I faced, including another Zardoz Guardian.
The new guy makes his first kill.
This time, the only exit led to what the book calls the Slave Mines, where Veste put Caun slaves to work mining crystals.They were apparently prized for their ability to see in the dark and heal rapidly from wounds, including those caused by the mining explosives. A Caun resistance fighter named Geirob thought he could buy his people's freedom by smuggling in a seed of the Tree of Life and planting it, but he was captured before he could see his plan to fruition. Veste, the book reports, "ordered the seed planted and tended, but starved of water and nourishment so that it would bear no fruit, as a symbol of the absolute stranglehold he had on the Caun."
I ignored the little Caun as I explored picking up blue and red bombs. Enemies were large, tusked boars led by a Boar Lord. None of them could fit through the narrower corridors, so it was easy to kill them at range, though it took forever. There were also hostile mushrooms in one section of the mines.
The boar guards can't fit down the corridor.
At the end of the level, I found something that looked like a stick in the ground. I just touched it, and the game said: "With the tree restored, the slaves will be free from Veste's tyranny. You're doing well, Kirt, very well. Go to the Mines below these and restore the obelisk." I'm not really sure how the tree keeps the Caun free, but I guess I'm happy to help. The tree drops red and blue fruit, which act like health and mana potions. I was starting to run out of inventory space as I went through the portal to the next area. 
I arrived in a very dark place. While I was trying to figure out how to get the Light Crystal to work, spiders came crawling along the walls and floors and killed me despite my swinging away at them. On a reload, I started tossing bombs at them, and I was satisfied at how quickly they vaporized. The Opsis's "Cold Blast" also did a good job. There were much larger spiders later on in the level.
Greeted by ceiling and floor spiders.
The cluebook said I was in the Spider Den, with enemies named Shrooms, Giant Spiders, Floor Spiders, Ceiling Spiders, and Skull Mines. It had been the base of operations for Geirob, but Veste defeated him by turning his only water source to poison and multiplying the spiders until one caught Geirob in his web and consumed him.
I couldn't find any way to productively interact with webs covering passageways and sacs hanging from the ceilings. One of the sacs looked like it had someone in it.
I flew the Opsis over an area of poison and pulled a chain to get access to some parts of the level. Caverns were full of Shrooms, difficult because they had a ranged attack. I found a power-restoration pool across another lake of poison. My inventory filled up with items I didn't understand: Cane of Force, Shock Horn, Tri-Wand, green and blue crystals, and so forth. I even found a second shuriken. 
A good place for the Opsis.
At the conclusion of the level, I restored another obelisk tip to an obelisk and got my fourth form: a Kahpa, or frogman. "With this form you rule the waters," the obelisk said. "Now return to the Temple; the Ssair need your help."
Maybe I'll find a princess.
The Kahpa has a pathetic "claw" attack, but he has "Shock" and "Sonic" attacks, the second of which is particularly powerful underwater. He has no other special abilities. I expect I'll need him primarily for his water-breathing ability.  
The Kahpa contemplates taking on some enemies.
I didn't know who the Ssair were, but a teleporter took me to yet another unexplored part of the Dark Temple. It was short--a couple of Rice Snakes and Green Ssairs who apparently did not need my help because they attacked me. A hidden door brought me back to the main part of the temple that I'd already cleared, where a new teleporter took me onward to the Flooded Caverns. I enjoy water levels as much as I always have, which is not much at all, so I think I'll wrap up there.
Some miscellaneous notes:
  • I kept the music, credited to John Miles, on for a while. It's not bad. The exploration melody is sparse, with drum beats, staccato plinks, and drones that suggest half-melody, half-background sound effects. When you're in combat, everything but the drum beats and the drones fade away, but an absurdly bombastic victory tune accompanies every kill. I left it on for a little while. 
  • I didn't notice until late in the session that the player can set a difficulty level from a list of five options
Modern games would try to take some of the sting away from the lowest ones by calling them "story mode" or "casual," or something, but this one pulls no punches.
  • The perspectives and sizes of objects shift when you change forms. The Caun's perspective is closer to the floor, and he sees everything as larger, for instance.
  • The game is very linear. Once you teleport to a new area, you generally cannot go back to a previous one.
I end the second session feeling much like I did after the first one. The game isn't bad. It moves along at a good clip. The shapeshifting is more interesting and less bothersome than I thought it would be. I just wish it was more of a proper RPG, with proper leveling, a real equipment system, and maybe an NPC or two. At least it looks like it won't linger too long--I might be able to wrap it up in one more.
Time so far: 6 hours

Monday, March 25, 2024

NetHack [3.1]: Nothing Lasts Forever

"If dragons and vampire lords and demon princes don't offer any real danger, what at this point could possibly kill me?"
                          --Chester N. Bolingbroke, 1 game hour ago
The answer is: a cockatrice egg. I didn't even know that was a thing. If they existed in 3.0, I don't remember or never encountered one. I'm not sure how I could have told that it wasn't a regular egg.
I was on dungeon Level 45. I had found a boulder at the end of a hallway. Some earlier version of NetHack hid Wands of Wishing beneath boulders at the ends of hallways in Hell, so I felt I needed to smash every boulder, just in case. I smashed this one, and there was an egg. "Cool!" I thought. "A little bit of nutrition between meals!" I ate it right off the floor. I took a step, and a message flashed by that I missed. One more: "Your limbs are stiffening." Maybe something could have healed me at this point--the unicorn horn?--but I didn't recognize it for what it was. I took another, and suddenly it was "DYWYPI?"
I did not want or need my possessions identified, but I did check out my intrinsics. It was a pretty impressive list:
"You were extremely lucky" does seem to apply to this character.
And then, just like I told you I was going to do, I restored a backup. I had saved on this very level, when I first arrived. I went back and grabbed the egg. I threw it at the next enemy I saw, but it just missed him and splattered against the wall.
A couple of notable things happened before Level 45:
  • I ate wraith corpses on Levels 42 and 43, rising to character Level 23.
  • A master lich cursed some of my stuff on Level 46. I had to waste a few holy water potions uncursing the items. So it wouldn't happen again, I read a blessed Scroll of Genocide and wiped out all liches.
Knowing that Scrolls of Genocide exist, you'd think monsters would be extra nice to adventurers.
  • On Level 44, I missed a trap door and dropped two levels.
  • On Level 46, there was a large square area that I couldn't access in the middle of the level. I couldn't find a door into it, and digging didn't work. I figured this was the bottom of an area that could only be accessed from an upper level, so I returned to Level 45, where we picked up the adventure above.
Well, there's something to look forward to.
After the reload, I finished exploring the rest of 45 and didn't find a way down into the square area. I then went back up to Level 44, which I'd only explored a small part of. The stairs brought me to the southeast corner of some kind of fortress crawling with demons and undead, and a demon lord named Orcus. But he generated friendly, so I didn't have any problem with him except that he kept teleporting next to me and blocking my progress. I eventually killed him on some return trip so he'd just leave me alone.
A nurse attacked me as I was cleaning out the area, and I know from spoilers that if a nurse hits you when you're naked and unarmed, she will heal you. If you're already at maximum health, there's a small chance that she'll increase your maximum hit points. She usually then teleports away, but this was a no teleport level. I figured I could stand there and mine her hit point increases indefinitely. But I guess the "no teleport" rule doesn't apply to nurses, because after a couple hits, she was gone. I should mention that I was standing right next to Orcus when I stripped, so I was really trusting that "friendly" flag.
It's kind of a fantasy of mine.
The rest of the level seemed to be some kind of ruined town. There were a couple of abandoned stores with more mimics than loot, and nothing I particularly wanted. I found one Scroll of Enchant Weapon and one wraith to bring me to Level 24. I found an altar to Moloch last, long after every enemy I had slain on the level had rotted. I briefly considered trying to kill Orcus and then sacrifice him to my god on the altar, but I decided that isn't the sort of thing I would even consider if I didn't have a backup.
Level 47 had another central square area that I couldn't access, so I continued downward. Same story again on 48. I vaguely remembered a similar "tower" in the last NetHack version, where you had to find an entrance on the bottom level. But Level 49 was a regular maze level with no stairway up to that central area. I went back to 48 and spent longer than made sense trying to dig my way into it before continuing on. I figured I'd find the bottom level and then backtrack if necessary. In fact, at this point, I got impatient (the mazes really are exhausting). I started digging in the floor, dropping down levels, until I reached a level where the floor was "too hard": Level 55. 
I gained nothing by coming here early.
I wandered around until I found the "strange vibrating square," which I marked with a pile of gold, then started to work my way back up. On Level 52, I found a central area shaped like a "+", surrounded by water. In earlier versions of NetHack, this is where you found the Wizard of Yendor with the Amulet of Yendor, but I knew things were different here. I put on my Ring of Levitation, crossed the moat, and hacked a hole in the wall. Where the Wizard stood in earlier versions was a teleporter, which took me to the central square on Level 48. 
I miss the old version, where I'd be an hour away from ascending right now.
I fought through lots of demons (and more killer bees with royal jelly) on the lowest tower level. On the second, more dragons and demons with a large central room full of gold that I didn't bother to take. The top level had still more battles. Someone dropped a Potion of Gain Level, which brought me to 25. A Scroll of Enchant Weapon got Grayswandir up to +4.
The top level had another "+"-shaped area surrounded by water, which I approached the same way as the first one. This time, the Wizard of Yendor was inside. I backed off diagonally to deal with his vampire first, but the Wizard teleported outside the room and next to the moat where I was. I blasted him with a Wand of Death and missed. I hit him a second time and he died, dropping the Book of the Dead, which I verified with an "Identify" scroll.
Now it gets real.
Killing the Wizard before I absolutely had to was a huge mistake. Throughout the rest of the game, he kept appearing at the most inconvenient times, usually right next to me, and attaching, cursing my stuff, summoning packs of monsters, and stealing things. He doesn't even need to appear to curse you; you just get a message that you've been surrounded by a malignant aura at random intervals. He's nearly impossible to kill; get a couple of lucky hits, and he teleports away. I learned to fire a Wand of Death at him the moment he appeared, but I only had about 10 total charges. I envisioned having to get some Recharging scrolls at some point. Later, I found some more wands, fortunately.
I knew from spoilers that I still needed a Candelabrum of Invocation, which I'd find in Vlad's Tower, which was somewhere above me, via a staircase that I had missed. I followed Broken25's advice to wish for a Spellbook of Magic Mapping, which I memorized and cast on every level on the way up, quickly identifying the stairs. I found the second stairway to Vlad's Tower on Level 43. I fought through two levels of demons and whatnot, made it to his throne room, hit him twice, and watched him read a Scroll of Teleportation and disappear.
Arriving in Vlad's Tower.
After not being able to find him anywhere in the tower, I started working my way up the levels with my blindfold on, looking for him. By the time I reached Level 23, where I knew there was a friendly altar, the Wizard of Yendor had cursed just about everything I had. I dipped a stack of potions in the swamp level and brought them to the altar, then dropped them, forgetting I was still levitating. The potions, falling from the extra distance, smashed on the ground. I still had a few other potions, so I went and dipped those, came back, took off my Ring of Levitation, dropped them on the altar, and prayed. Now my god decided to give me a weapon: Stormbringer. But he didn't bless my potions. I tried praying again, but because I had just prayed, he was displeased with me. Annoyed, not knowing where the damned vampire was, looking at my cursed items and rapidly-diminishing uses of Wand of Death, I quit and restored from way the hell back on Level 51.
Given this, I probably should have used the sword at least once.
I returned to the tower, fought my way up again, and destroyed Vlad this time, taking from his corpse the candelabra. Now possessing the bell, book, and candelabra, I headed back down the various levels to the bottom and its vibrating square. I'm eliding the boring combats and the occasional blasting of the Wizard of Yendor with the Wand of Death on the way. My stock of holy water got low as I kept uncursing items.
I knew I had to perform a ritual with the bell, book, and candelabra at the vibrating square, but I didn't know the order. First, I readied the candelabra by attacking a stack of 7 tallow candles to it. I found those in a shop, I think. Then I tried bell, book, candelabra. When I got to the book part, the game said I "raised the dead," and a bunch of wraiths and zombies appeared. I'm not going to complain about wraiths. Only one left a corpse, but that's another level.
I started again with the book and raised a bunch more dead, one of which read a Scroll of Create Monster, turning the whole place into a circus. I teleported out of there and returned slowly. That took another half hour to clear up. 
Oh, for the love of god . . .
With "book" out as the first option, I tried candle, bell, book next. That worked. There was a blast in the area around me and a bunch of squares got replaced by water. Another wraith appeared just then, left a corpse, and got me to Level 27 when I ate it. I then went down to the bottom level of the dungeon.
The result of the completed ritual.
The bottom level was full of vampires, ghosts, wraiths, zombies, vampire lords, devils, demons, and mummies. Man, did I get sick of acknowledging combat messages. Not one of a dozen wraiths left a corpse, the bastards.
The next time I play, I genocide giant insects first.
I opened a door and got attacked by a swarm of Moloch's priests and priestesses, all of which seemed to have the ability to summon giant ants and beetles. I mowed my way through them to a central chamber surrounded by fire traps. There were no openings in the wall, and I couldn't bash or dig through it. Storing my flammable stuff in my Bag of Holding, I began circling the building (I take no damage from fire traps) looking for a secret door. I finally found one on the back side.
What if I just offered it immediately on that altar? I didn't think to try.
As I entered, the High Priest of Moloch intoned, "Infidel, you entered Moloch's Sanctum! Be gone!" He ran up as I entered. I instantly blasted him with the Wand of Death. On his body, I found the Amulet of Yendor.
Taking extra care between moves, I slowly made my way back to the stairway and prepared to ascend 56 levels. I soon ascertained that I could no longer teleport on demand. Random Teleportitis still kicked in occasionally, and I was happy when it did. (I cursed the special levels where teleportation didn't work.) I was also happy I'd used so many Wands of Digging to blast shortcuts through the maze levels. About a third of the time I tried to go up a set of stairs, the game said, "A mysterious force momentarily surrounds you," and I got teleported somewhere else on the level instead. 'Cause that's what this game needed. I also kept getting messages that I felt "vaguely nervous." 
I get teleported from the stairs to the center of the maze. This nonsense stopped after I got out of Hell.
A wraith corpse on Level 40 got me to character Level 28. In addition to the Wizard of Yendor, Baalzebub dogged me all the way up, frequently appearing and stunning me. (Fixing it just meant touching the unicorn horn, but it was still annoying.) On Level 33, Asmodeus joined him. They kept teleporting away when I actually hit them. I didn't want to waste the Wand of Death on them. I eventually killed them both with my sword on Level 31.
I can't tell you how thrilled I was when I finally made it to Level 26 and started seeing regular dungeon walls again. I don't remember the maze levels in the previous versions sucking this bad. I would give anything for a spell that just blasts the hell out of maze walls in all directions.
I am so happy to be out of the maze.
On Level 25, I tried blessing some potions again, and thankfully it worked this time (I also got Stormbringer). I was able to uncurse most of my stuff that the Wizard had cursed, including my blindfold, magic lamp, and one of the Wands of Death. At this point, I had four wands with six charges total, plus one wish left on my Wand of Wishing. The one good thing is I had plenty of food--so much that I forgot about my cached rations on the castle level.
And, eventually, I was on Level 1. I wasn't quite sure what to expect at this point. The last version I played had one final level after you ascended, but I thought I remembered that this one had multiple. As I went up the stairs, the game warned me there would be no return. I continued. "Well done, mortal!" it said. "But now thou must face the final Test . . . Prove thyself worthy or perish!"
Believe me, I have seen enough of this place.
It was pretty late at night at this point, so I decided to save the endgame area for a new session. Obviously, I've already lost the ability to win "legitimately" in the eyes of most NetHack players, but I still want to see the endgame, analyze my experience, and figure out what I'd do better next time.
Time so far: 36 hours. This character is going on 30 hours, incidentally. I have no idea how so many people win it so fast.