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Monday, June 15, 2020

My Favorite Games, Part 3: Nethack

Besides Skyrim and Minecraft, another of my favorite games is Nethack. Sort of. I haven’t played much Nethack since discovering those two, in fact I think it’s been several years since I’ve played it. I’ve played some other rogue-likes and dungeon-crawl computer games since then, though, including one for the last couple weeks. It might be worthwhile to examine the genre and share some opinions.

The fundamental features of these kinds of games are:

  • An obviously D&D-inspired aesthetic, fighting hordes of monsters to get loot.
  • Procedurally generated dungeons, so no two playthroughs are exactly the same.
  • Randomized loot with different abilities that can be used to improve combat odds.

Rogue-like games are often distinguished from later dungeon-crawl games by their use of turn-based combat instead of real-time combat and very simple ASCII-based or tile-based graphics. These take their name from Rogue, the first of their kind. Nethack is like a grandson of Rogue, and I’ve played some others: Doom Roguelike, Local Area Dungeon, ADOM, Angband/Moria, Pixel Dungeon. I’ve also played some other dungeon-crawl games that aren’t necessarily rogue-like: Diablo 1 and 2, Torchlight, and now Minecraft Dungeons. But there are certain elements in Nethack that I find much more satisfying, even if I’ve never been able to ascend.

  1. A Broader Variety of Monsters to Encounter. Nethack tries to include practically every monster in the AD&D Monster Manual, plus a few more. Modern dungeon-crawlers try to fake this by adding extra traits to a handful of basic monsters, but it’s just not the same.
  2. Better Dungeon Variety. Modern dungeon-crawlers may look better, but the fancy tiles are often no different than standard tiles in the same game… if you see an altar with candles on it, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the altar is usable in any way, or that the candles can be affected (extinguished, relit, removed.) And there are substantially fewer special rooms compared to Nethack’s vaults, shops, throne rooms, room full of statues, or other special areas.
  3. Modifiable Dungeons. If you make a change on a Nethack dungeon level, the change will always be there (unless a monster changes it to something else.) This includes pushing boulders around, breaking statues, stashing items in chests, engraving words on the floor, or using a pick or wand of digging to make tunnels. Other than a few limited changes triggered by solving puzzles, games like Diablo don’t allow such modifications, and levels typically reset either every time they are visited or after they are solved. There is no persistence.
  4. Mysterious Loot. Items found in chests or dropped by monsters may have unknown features that must be identified. Some games (Diablo) implement a crude version of this through a scroll or spell of Identify, but in Nethack, there are ways to identify via experimentation or process of elimination.
  5. Non-Keyword-Based Loot Generation. Modern dungeon-crawlers typically “cheat” to get more loot variety by randomly selecting one or more keywords that add effects to an item. So, a “Blazing Sword of Shivers” might set a victim on fire and cause fear. There are actually very few “keywords” in Nethack (Blessed, Cursed, Rustproof, Fireproof, Rusty, maybe a few others,) so most of the variety comes from having a large number of available items. I find the keyword approach pretty boring.

As I said above, I’ve been playing Minecraft Dungeons for a couple weeks now. I enjoyed it a little at first, but it has its problems. I agree with maybe 60-75% of the complaints made in the Honest Game Trailer, but the one that really stands out as a missed opportunity is that there’s absolutely no mining in Minecraft Dungeons. Or crafting, but the mining complaint really stands out, since as I said above, Nethack allows mining. They didn’t necessarily need the effects to be persistent (Minecraft Dungeons levels reset each time they are visited,) but it would have been nice and in keeping with their brand if there were at least some areas that could be mined with a pick to create shortcuts or uncover secrets. And really, the level variety is so low, it becomes pretty repetitive very quickly, especially after beating the Arch-Illager the first time.

So, playing Minecraft Dungeons has just made me want to play Nethack again. I’m spoiled now, so I may wind up going with Vulture, and even cave in and pay for the Steam version instead of learning how to compile it myself for free.

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