The Nethack DevTeam has just released a new version of Nethack. This is the first new version in more than ten years, so I thought it was worth a note. You can read what they had to say about it here.

Relevant links: ADOM

ADOM title screenOf all the games I have ever played, I’ve devoted the greatest amount of time to Ancient Domains of Mystery. It’s not where I started with roguelikes, I started with Nethack and loved it, but I moved on to ADOM eventually and wound up staying there for a very long time. Like Nethack, ADOM is one of the “core” roguelikes – when talking about the genre it’s one of those games which will definitely come up, it is older and larger and frankly better than most others and it’s one that most every roguelike fan has at least tried at some point. I’d hate to suggest that it’s better than Nethack, they’re both wonderful, but once I tried it I found ADOM to be more captivating and when I try to break down the reasons why I come up with two things:

First, ADOM moves faster. Like all roguelikes, Nethack and ADOM are about slow advancement and being careful, but while the objective in Nethack is to get down to dungeon level thirty, in ADOM you’ll go through 100+ dungeon levels across multiple dungeons as you work through the game. A game which takes very roughly the same amount of time to complete.

Loot works similarly – as you play you’ll pick up a good amount of stuff and a lot of the more tempting things you can try out without much danger. Cursed items are pretty uncommon and there are only a few pieces of equipment with special negative effects, so equipment acquisition is fast and straightforward. In Nethack, every item that you’re considering putting on has to be carefully analyzed. This is fun in its way, being careful about everything is part of the roguelike mindset, but it’s slow and that pacing isn’t always what I want. It can give a greater sense of progression to move a little faster.

Second, ADOM is less complicated. ADOM doesn’t have nearly the level of object interactivity that Nethack has. Nothing does. While this is a very strong point in Nethack’s favor, it imparts a degree of impenetrability. There’s an enormous amount to learn and remember about Nethack and that can be a bit of an obstacle, even after you’ve been playing it for a long time.

ADOM pit vipers by Lawrence BrothersGetting away from comparisons, ADOM has plenty of its own stuff going for it. For one thing there’s a world map, something atypical among roguelikes, and that map is static. Unlike the procedurally generated dungeon levels, the dungeons themselves are always in the same places and the towns, geographical features, and people are the same way. Static towns and static people inevitably means quests: you start out near the village of Terinyo, knowing that the area is suffering from the negative effects of chaos but not much else. That’s okay though, the hapless townspeople are delighted to ask a stranger to help with their with various menial assassinations and puppy rescuing chores, and they will quickly make you feel right at home.

(I’d kind of like to talk about Tales of Maj’Eyal here… Another time. I’ll just say that ToME also has a lot of the the things which I’ve mentioned so far, from the faster pacing to the mostly static world map and quests, but does all of these things to a larger degree. Too large. ADOM finds the sweet spot in between Nethack and ToME and really makes it work.)

There’s a reason I’m bringing this up now: after eight years working on it, ’94 to ’02, and then ten years of limbo, Thomas Biskup, creator of the game, ran a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2012 with the goal of restarting development. Since then there have been quite a few additions, most notably graphics, music, and sound effects, and in 2014 a commercial version was announced, available through Steam. As of the time of this writing, that commercial version has just recently been finished and finally released. This seemed like the right time to talk about the game.

I mentioned graphics and audio: like many roguelikes, ADOM originally had no audio and basically no graphics (ASCII graphics). And again like many roguelikes, ADOM has now adopted a tile-based graphics package to please those people who can’t do without, this was part of what the crowdfunding paid for. Unlike most recent roguelikes though, ADOM had previously stuck to the rule of putting the entire dungeon level on a single screen. This is how Rogue did it, and how Nethack does it, but few other roguelikes nowadays are using this convention anymore and that’s a real loss. It’s a little difficult to recognize why this is though until you’ve played with both styles a fair amount for yourself. It’s partly about density of information – when I switch between tile and ASCII styles I can’t help but be impressed by how much more efficient the ASCII is, there’s an impressive amount that can be fit onto a single screen when you break it down to symbolism. It’s partly about setting boundaries –  containing the level allows for knowledgeable exploration, digging and searching for secret doors has some purpose since you have at least an idea of where you’re likely to find things. And it’s partly about being able to explore at all, some newer games rely on an auto explore feature (ADOM has one of these now too). The sad thing is that using the auto explore is a necessary part of playing some of these games, levels are just too big to do it manually and so you need the computer to do your exploring for you. It can even be dangerous to try and do your exploring for yourself, since the sight range of the character may exceed that of the player.

ADOM without tilesThere’s also an element of artistry. Like pixel art, it’s really impressive sometimes how much can be expressed within heavy limitations. On the left the player, a mist-elf mindcrafter named Gilt, is standing near the village of Terinyo. As in virtually every roguelike, the player is represented by an “@” and while it may not be immediately obvious that a brown “o” is a village, that’s something you pick up as you play, you can probably make out some geographical features without prior knowledge. There’s a river there, dividing the countryside, and it’s blue as you might expect a river to be. There are green fields near the river and forests a little further away. There’s Terinyo, and a road leading away from the village into a mountain pass – this is a valley after all, and we’re surrounded by mountains. You have perhaps noticed that there’s a second village there, in the forest with no roads leading to it. I’ll let you find out why that is for yourself.

ADOM with tilesI mention all this because the graphical version of ADOM has given up on this rule, it now has scrolling and the maps no longer fit on a single screen. On the left is exactly the same scene, but with tiles enabled. It’s obvious why this has happened, the tiles that it uses are large and square while the original ASCII characters are small and rectangular. Clearly there was a need for more space and I can’t fault Biskup for making this choice – the large tiles look nice, and there’s no way to fit that much detail into such a small space as the ASCII characters occupy. Really, this graphical version of ADOM does an admirable job with the tiles, the sounds, and especially the music. They’ve certainly put in the effort, and the money from the Indiegogo campaign seems to have been well spent.

Still, when I play the game I turn the graphics off and I would recommend that anyone else should do the same. But I leave the sound and music on, that’s appreciated, and even the ASCII version has had a few visual improvements, most notably health bars. Wow, those are great. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s wonderful to have a quick accessible representation of character health, both yours and that of enemies.

I’m just glad that the option to have everything on one screen still remains. As I said, there are very few games which stick to this convention anymore and I find that it’s really a big deal. Play with it some and see if you don’t agree.

So consider all that as the pitch: you should play ADOM.

Now, assuming that you start playing right after reading this, chances are good that dealing with Terinyo and it’s surroundings are as far as you’re going to get for a while. The game is hard enough that progressing further will take some practice and a certain measure of luck, but those initial areas aren’t even half the map and as you continue on part of the fun is seeing just how much more there is to explore – another one of ADOM’s delights is all of the little nooks where it hides treasures, both literal and figurative. With that in mind: if you’re new to ADOM then try to avoid spoilers, at least for a while. Some other games are fairly robust to being spoiled, but you’re missing something if you go that route here. In fact ADOM is the only core roguelike which is not open source, meaning that even now, after a great deal of collaborative effort by the players, not everything about the game is known with certainty. Working out the details of {redacted} and {redacted} was a big thing back in the newsgroup days, and a lot of fun, and the only way you’re going to experience any part of that is by keeping yourself pure and wholesome.

That said, there’s no way you’re going to figure it all out on your own. Once you’ve been playing for a while and you’re just overflowing with questions which need to be answered, check out the mostly fairly kinda spoiler-free FAQ here. It does a great job of addressing those questions, though there’s no way to do that without some spoilers.

ADOM does have a tutorial now, that’s another new thing, but it throws a huge amount of keyboard shortcuts at you in rapid succession. I’m not sure how approachable this tutorial is. Fortunately, there’s also a new bar at the bottom of the screen reminding you of some basic commands (but it’s only there in graphical mode…). A few things to keep in mind:

  • Key commands are case sensitive, so “S”  = “shift+s”, and likewise pairings of characters are exactly what they look like: for “w?” type “w” first, then “?”.
  • Tap direction keys to walk, or use the walk command (press “w”, then a direction), do NOT hold down an arrow key to walk a long way in one direction. That’s a fast way to get killed.
  • You consume food much more quickly when on the world map. Just bear that in mind before you go wandering around forever.
  • ADOM is really made to be played with a keypad, you can move in eight directions using the keypad diagonals and scrolling through text uses + and – to page up and down and / and * to go line by line, all conveniently located on a standard keypad.
  • The manual is extensive and very informative but you don’t necessarily have to read it like a novel. It’s indexed to be used as a reference, and if you just turn to it from time to time then you’ll slowly gather everything that you need to know.

ADOM RPGCoverIllustrationThe tutorial will have you as a fighter, usually considered to be the simplest thing to start off with, but after you’re done with that I suggest a barbarian – a troll barbarian can bash it’s way through just about anything in the early game and heals quickly, the only trick is keeping yourself fed. If you want something with a little more finesse you could try an archer, my favorite combat-oriented class, just bear in mind that you’re never going to find enough arrows (or ammunition for your ranged weapon of choice) to be able to shoot everything, so you’re going to need to use a sword/axe/pokey stick as well.

While ADOM now has a commercial version, it’s been available as postcard-ware for the last twenty years. Basically free, but Biskup likes receiving postcards from different people who have enjoyed his game and he requested one from anyone who cared to send it. … I never sent him one. I feel a little guilty about this, but even more that it brings me to my one relatively minor gripe about the new version of the free game. The game now has an advertisement for the commercial version which you need to pass through every time you start it. The old request for a postcard politely turned itself off after it had served its purpose, not so with the new ad – there is no option to disable it. This is not my primary gripe though, I don’t begrudge Biskup charging for ADOM and the free version is the right place to mention the commercial one. Seeing the ad every time I start the game is annoying, but I can deal with it. My gripe is this: passing through the ad requires pressing a key, and that key is randomly chosen. In other words, it’s not merely an ad but it’s an ad which requires your attention.

It could be much worse, this takes a second at most, it’s not much of a burden to get into the game. As I said, a minor gripe. It’s one thing to show an ad though, it’s another thing to demand that people pay attention to it. Especially when it’s so easy to confirm that they’ve already seen it.

Still, a small blemish on a fantastic game which offers so much. As I said, I’ve spent more time with ADOM than with any other game I’ve played and relatively speaking I consider that time to be well spent (I have wasted most of my life). Try it.

Well. Had a little trouble with my internet connection, was switching ISPs, but I’m back now. My apologies to my legion of readers.

There’s a sub-genre of puzzle games which involves building things. Most frequently what you build are bridges, hopefully ones which don’t fall down, but there’s a wide variety and what’s pretty consistent between all of these is a realistic representation of physics (within a practical limitation). This used to be quite a novel thing, evaluating forces acting on all of the objects in a scene is more CPU-intensive than was feasible in most games back then, and so games which did this, whether building games or others (they were almost all building games), came to be known collectively as “physics games.”

fantastic contraptionThat’s a terribly poor descriptor nowadays, given that more current games use physics than don’t, but it’s still the moniker given to games in which taking advantage of a physics engine is the focus of gameplay. Fantastic Contraption is such a physics-based building game, though what you build are… cars. I’m going to call them cars, fanciful cars. And yes, I realize that I just said that the game was physics based, and that would seem to me to be inconsistent with the idea of stiff inflexible rods made out of flowing water, but I never took that course on fluid dynamics, so what do I know?

Also the game is pretty fun I guess. Maybe you should just try it.

z-roxYou know that bit in Flatland where the square is trying to explain what a sphere is to the other two dimensional people around him? A sphere is a point which grows to a small circle as it passes through the two dimensional plane, then grows to a bigger circle, then shrinks back to a point. I’m sure you all remember that. (You should read Flatland. There’s a game based on Flatland actually… I’ll post that some other time.) Anyway, that’s Z-Rox in a nutshell except it’s two dimensional figures passing through a one dimensional space.

I love Z-Rox just for being interesting and original, but also for being accessible. It’s one of those games which is very easy for a non-gamer to grasp and enjoy quickly.

epic comboIt’s a game where you smash the shit out of turtles. That sounds gruesome and cruel, but if they don’t bleed then it’s not horrifying. Right?

Anyway, Epic Combo! is in the same vein as ragdoll-torture games like Flakboy – it’s all about finding a way to set up your deadly deadly traps which will allow them to function with maximal efficiency. The victims of your lethal sickening traps are turtles, but they could just as easily be bouncy rubber balls. Maybe you should pretend that’s what they are.

There’s also a sequel, Epic Combo Redux, which is the one that you should probably play since it’s just the same game but with more stuff.