Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Mazes of Menace

Recently, you have begun to find yourself unfulfilled and distant in your daily occupation. Strange dreams of prospecting, stealing, crusading, and combat have haunted you in your sleep for many months, but you aren't sure of the reason. You wonder whether you have in fact been having those dreams all your life, and somehow managed to forget about them until now. Some nights you awaken suddenly and cry out, terrified at the vivid recollection of the strange and powerful creatures that seem to be lurking behind every corner of the dungeon in your dream. Could these details haunting your dreams be real? As each night passes, you feel the desire to enter the mysterious caverns near the ruins grow stronger. Each morning, however, you quickly put the idea out of your head as you recall the tales of those who entered the caverns before you and did not return. Eventually you can resist the yearning to seek out the fantastic place in your dreams no longer. After all, when other adventurers came back this way after spending time in the caverns, they usually seemed better off than when they passed through the first time. And who was to say that all of those who did not return had not just kept going?

Asking around, you hear about a bauble, called the Amulet of Yendor by some, which, if you can find it, will bring you great wealth. One legend you were told even mentioned that the one who finds the amulet will be granted immortality by the gods. The amulet is rumored to be somewhere beyond the Valley of Gehennom, deep within the Mazes of Menace. Upon hearing the legends, you immediately realize that there is some profound and undiscovered reason that you are to descend into the caverns and seek out that amulet of which they spoke. Even if the rumors of the amulet's powers are untrue, you decide that you should at least be able to sell the tales of your adventures to the local minstrels for a tidy sum, especially if you encounter any of the terrifying and magical creatures of your dreams along the way. You spend one last night fortifying yourself at the local inn, becoming more and more depressed as you watch the odds of your success being posted on the inn's walls getting lower and lower.

In the morning you awake, collect your belongings, and set off for the dungeon. After several days of uneventful travel, you see the ancient ruins that mark the entrance to the Mazes of Menace. It is late at night, so you make camp at the entrance and spend the night sleeping under the open skies. In the morning, you gather your gear, eat what may be your last meal out side, and enter the dungeon...

So begins the Nethack guidebook. Your only introduction to the Mazes of Menace. One of the hardest games ever. One of the simplest premises ever. Go down a bunch of dungeons, recover an Amulet. Get out.

Oh, you can go in as a human, a gnome, a dwarf, an orc or an elf. If you are playing the Slash’em variant, you could be a Drow, a Doppelganger, a Lycanthrope or a Vampire.

Your could be lawful, neutral or chaotic, and will have an appropriate aligned deity.

You could be – oh – so many things – an archaeologist with a fedora and a bullwhip, a barbarian answering the call of Crom, a caveman – a newly trained troglodyte, heralded as the Chosen one, a healer- starting off as a Rhizotomist. Perhaps a tourist - praying to Blind Io, Offler or the Lady, trying to find the Amulet with the Platinum Yendorian Express Card.

Whatever you are, whoever you are, you start off at level one of the Mazes of Menace - a series of randomly generated dungeons - with ASCII characters representing everything from you - @ , a white at, walls , armour  - boxes and chests.

And the bestiary?

abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz. ABCEDFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ. ':

How do you fight? By moving on to a square with a monster on it. But thats not the only thing you can do. You can dig through walls. You can find secret rooms. You can drink from fountains and use toilets. And if youre lucky - and lawful- you can dip a longsword into a pool and have the lady in the lake transform it into Excalibur. You can eat a mushroom and start hallucinating that your pet is a Mother-In-Law or a PushmiPullyu Llama. You can kill a long worm and enchant its tooth into one of the best dagger based weapons - a crysknife.

You can polymorph yourself - and if you can cotrol your polymorphism, you can become a dragon  - or even better a cockatrice. Why a cockatrice? Because you can lay eggs. No ordinary eggs. You can lay petrification grenade eggs. Or if you are a dragon, you can use your breath weapon - burn your enemies, freeze them, melt them in acid - or disintegrate them.

You will come across all kinds of stuff as you travel. Good stuff, bad stuff, artifacts. Say a prayer if you find a named lawful silver saber - the amazing Grayswandir. (Withywindle isn't there though). If you are playing the Slashem variant - you may find the Wallet of Perseus, an artifact Bag of Holding with 6 times the capability of a normal Bag of Holding. Or you may find the Houchou. A weapon that instakills if it connects. What kind of weapon, you ask? It's a spoon.

There are special dungeons, too.  There are the Gnomish Mines, leading on to Dwarftown. There is the Oracle, who gives you answers to questions you don't need answered.There are the quests - tailored by class. A samurai deals with Ashikaga Takauji. A Valkyrie has to fight Lord Surtur. A caveman or woman Tiamat. A barbarian has to fight Thoth Amon for the hear of Ahriman. Lord Carnarvon instructs your archaeologist to retrieve the Orb of Detection from The Minion of Huhetotl. Or youre a knight? King Arthur commands you to retrieve the Magic Mirror of Merlin from the Dragon Ixoth. A tourist? Twoflower wants the Platinum Yendorian Express Card- which unfortunately is in the Thieves Guilds Hall, deep in the Shades. And you know what they call a horse in the Shades.

So what can you do? Fly? Sure. Walk on water? Get the right boots, and no problem? Genocide entire species of monster - no worries. The fabled scroll of genocide will do ya. Bless em - by dipping them in Holy Water and you can wipe out the entire class of families of the monsters you wish to destroy. Tip - start with the Liches.

And then theres all the things you can do with cockatrices. I won't even get into that.

If you’re lucky, you get the amulet, make your way past the elemental planes of Earth, Air, Water and Fire to the Astral plane to sacrifice the Amulet to your God – and you meet three of your compadres – guys mentioned in the Bible – Revelations Chapter 6 – Pestilence, Famine and Death. By now, you are the other Horseman.

Oh – and how long does it usually take you to get this far? Anywhere from a year to a decade. It took me seven years for me to complete the game. My only ascension, Tez the Samurai. Haven’t done it again, though it’s supposed to get easier.

It doesn't matter what your games are - whether you’re the Solitaire/Minesweeper corpo type, or the hookey playing Seal Clubber from the Kingdom of Loathing or the master of multiplayer Halo – the Pwner of N00bs across XBox live – or the Raja of the RPG, the boss of Bethesda, Blizzard and Bioware – you have not seen gameplay that comes close to the gameplay NetHack provides.Or as this guy puts it -While the graphics may seem primitive by today's standards, today's gameplay seems primitive by NetHack standards. So will gameplay twenty years from now. By NetHack standards, positively paleolithic.

There’s a Telugu proverb about books- some are like grapes – pop them in your mouth, and you get their sweetness, others are like bananas – you have to peel them to get the edible stuff. And there are those like coconuts, where you have to take a machete to them, before you can even think of peeling after which you have to crack the nut to get at their sweetness.

NetHack is the ultimate coconut. Once you get past the shells and the fibre, the payoff is incredible