Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Game 357: Hack (Fenlason)

As I understand it, the world of Roguelikes is mostly divided into two families; the big, grind-heavy, mechanically transparent *bands which derive from 1983's Moria, and the more compactly designed, more complex Hacklikes, which if course derive from Hack.

I'd already played and been disappointed by Moria, which started off fun but quickly turned into a repetitive skinner box of massive, deadly levels that you have no choice but to farm for days on end in the hopes that a good item or stat-boosting potion eventually spawns, because you have no hope of surviving the invisible, stat-draining horrors that lurk past certain levels without the right gear to see them and the stats to beat them quickly. Angband, I hear, is even worse, but that's some ways off. Just as Moria begat the more famous Angband, Hack begat the more famous Nethack, and according to the Nethack Wiki, Hack was most likely first played by the public in 1984.

Roguebasin states that the Hacklike is defined by five characteristics, and then proceeds to list nine of them:

  • Persistent levels. In Moria, every time you go up or down the stairs, or cast Word of Recall, a new level is generated, with new monsters and (possibly) items. The potential for grinding/farming is both unlimited and expected. In a Hacklike, levels that you return to stay just the way you left them.
  • Complex interactions. Items in Moria aren't complicated. That Battle Axe of Slaying Evil +5 is for killing stuff and is somewhat better at it than your Wooden Club of Slaying Dragons +2, but you might want to hold onto the latter for when you fight dragons. Nethack lets you wield a cockatrice corpse as an instantly petrifying weapon, but be sure you're wearing gloves first, and don't become encumbered or you might stumble and touch the cockatrice by accident.
  • Small levels. Moria's levels spanned multiple screens. Hacklike's span one each, like Rogue.
  • Inventory size. Hacklikes just give you more stuff to lug around.
  • Short Equipment Upgrade Path. What Moria lacks in item complexity, it makes up for in breadth of upgrades. A Hacklike could give you game-winning gear from the start, if you can figure out what it does.
  • Identification by Use. In Moria you can just buy scrolls of identify to find out what that new ring does. These are finite in a Hacklike, so you'll need experimentation and logic to figure most of your stuff out.
  • Shallow power curve. Admittedly I didn't feel very powerful when I beat Moria, so maybe this is more in contrast to Angband.
  • No surface level town. Moria had a town level where you started the game and where all the shops were located, along with the entrance to the dungeon and some annoying NPCs that harass you.
  • Consumable spellbooks. Moria had four spellbooks of incrementing expertise and several spells of corresponding power, which can be cast repeatedly until you run out of mana. Nethack uses more of a Vancian approach, with one-spell books that fade when read, and fade from memory when cast.


I like to play original versions when possible, and while the most widely played versions of Hack, of which Nethack is based on, are the ones released by Andries Brouwer from 1984 to 1985, the Nethack Wiki claims "extensive modifications" from the original by Jay Fenlason. The page says of a "hack121" build:

[...]it is probably the closest to the original that is known to be extant. 

Hack121 it is, then.

For whatever it's worth, CRPG Addict played Brouwer's "final" v1.03 release and found it "almost indistinguishable" from early Nethack. We'll see how this one compares. Or at least I will once I get to 1987 and play Nethack. I may or may not play a Brouwer version or two in the interim years.

Hack121 runs just fine in DOSBox, which is nice, though the VI-style movement keys ("HJKL" for cardinal directions) is not so nice.

Woah, what's this? A surface-level store? RogueBasin said there wouldn't be anything like this.

I start off with ring mail, shield, and a long sword, tinderbox and lantern, and spend the rest on oil and rations. Then I go straight into the dungeon.

A pickpocket waited in the starting room, but I killed him easily and took his ill-gotten money.

So far, this seemed to differ little from Rogue, apart from the store and the wider variety of items. Items are so commonplace, in fact, that I frequently found myself running out of space, abandoning mysterious objects like keys and jewels, and even useful things like extra rations. At least, unlike in Rogue, you can go back to previous levels and collect things you dropped there.

I did find that without a light source - a thing I'll note was present in Moria but not Rogue (and implemented here in a manner very similar to how Moria does it), the winding passages between rooms would often not reveal themselves, making navigation nearly impossible. Furthermore, without a light source, monsters will sometimes be invisible, and you don't want that. I am not sure what the difference is between torches and lanterns as far as light effectiveness goes, but torches are cheap, at 1GP for 20, but that many torches take up a lot of inventory space.

Level 1 mapped out. I had to stash a few rations in a sideroom owing to lack of space.

Descending to level 2, I found a spare mirror and cross, which are sold in the store and I assume are used to defeat medusas and vampires. Then I found a special room called "Warren's Weapon Shop."


Unfortunately, my attempt to speak to him was understood by the game as "attack." He got pissed off and killed me to death with his magic death ray of death.

Also featured sometimes are 'random' shops with big assortments of random crap, which will also buy stuff from you! Sometimes at seemingly arbitrary prices - once time I sold arrows for hundreds of gold pieces, which can be attained seemingly for free by fighting orcs.

I learned to be very careful about stepping around the shopkeepers, but these are still nightmares to navigate in other ways. You have to turn off auto-take in the options menu, or else you grab any items that you step on and have to tediously drop anything you don't want to buy. Stacks of items are taken all at once, and if an item you want is in a stack, and you can't carry the whole stack due to the weight, then you've got to shuffle items from one tile to another until you can get at the one you want. Items are usually not identified, not even after you buy them, and prices aren't listed until you pick something up and use the 'pay' key, and then only if you have enough cash. I know this goes against modern Hacklike design, but I'd prefer a menu system.


Some of the other deaths I suffered over the subsequent games:

  • I found I could equip a two-handed sword and shield simultaneously! And then got killed by a giant rat on level 1 which for some strange reason I couldn't seem to hit.
  • An acid blob on level 3 corroded my weapon, and after that a 'neevil' finished me off.
  • I bought a crossbow from the starting shop along with a longsword. The crossbow was cursed and impossible to unequip! So I quickly ran out of bolts and, reduced to whacking enemies overhead with the crossbow, died to a goblin on level 1.
  • A magic staff turned out to be a wand of death, and when I tried using it to kill a difficult 'queevolt' enemy, the death ray tore right through, bounced off a wall, and killed me.
  • While leaving a random shop on level 1, I got confused about which smiley face icon represented me and bumped into the shopkeeper, attacking and angering him. Another time, this happened while entering the shop - I stupidly barged into a closed door, not knowing what was on the other side, bumping into a shopkeeper!.
  • A deadly team of paralyzing hurkle and brain-eating zombie waited in ambush in a darkened room. Nothing too awful if you retreat into a narrow corridor and fight them one at a time. But a sneaky neevil had been following me through that corridor and blocked my egress just long enough for me to get paralyzed and subsequently brain-munched.
  • A 'grabber' enemy on level 6 swallowed me whole, inflicting digestion damage each round with unerring accuracy even as I hacked it from the inside, and I died first.


It's hard to say whether this game is more or less difficult than Rogue. My first run at Rogue ended twelve levels below the surface, and I haven't made it nearly that deep yet. But Hack's dungeons are much more complex than Rogue's 3x3 layouts and slower to thoroughly explore, and I don't know how deep they go. So far, most of my deaths have either felt like they were my fault for carelessness or incorrect judgement, or they taught me something about how the world works so that I might avoid it in the future, but it remains to be seen if the deeper levels still play "fair" or not, compared to Rogue's hidden strength-sapping dart traps and lethal-at-any-experience-level Umber Hulks.

One mercy, seemingly unique to this version, is the ability to buy food at the start, and quite cheaply too. Rogue forced you to keep moving or starve, but here, it seems you could, with enough starting cash, stock up on extra food and take your time farming experience from the endlessly respawning monsters. A "monster trap" could actually be a good thing, letting you farm more efficiently on low-risk baddies, though once you get a few levels down, where monsters like acid blobs can do permanently nasty things to you, you might want to not do that.

Inventory management is pretty annoying, with the stuff you find well outpacing the rate that you need to use it. Given that you can always return to previous levels to retrieve, I think you're supposed to take notes on items left behind, but it's hard to be motivated to do this when you know death is basically inevitable and will render your notes moot.

Overall this version of Hack is pretty fun so far, and still feels like Rogue with more stuff in it. For the time being, I don't feel tempted to savescum, and I'm interested to see if I can win without it, or if not, how far I can get.


  1. If you are interested in talking to him, I can pass along your information to Jay Fenlason.

  2. Wow. I didn't realize that any version of Hack/NetHack had surface-level stores.

    I'm not sure why I never tried the Jay Fenlason series, since the NetHack wiki gives it as its own group. By going right from Rogue to the Andries Brouwer version of Hack, I clearly missed an evolutionary milestone.


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