Angband and NetHack are two popular roguelike computer games. As they are both roguelikes, they are both turn-based dungeon crawlers, feature ASCII graphics in preference to 2D or 3D artwork, and are notoriously difficult to complete. Despite the 'oldschool' graphics the depth and difficulty of the games attract many fans, two of which are your favourite IconBar editors Jeffrey 'Phlamethrower' Lee and Phil 'Monkeyson' Mellor.
Unfortunately Jeffrey likes NetHack, and Phil likes Angband. This has resulted in many arguments and flame wars in the past, but now we've decided to put aside our differences and try playing the other person's game, in an attempt to settle once and for all the question of which is better - Angband or NetHack?
NetHack, as played by an Angband fan
Phil: a mid-level chaos warrior beastman, with green eyes and golden fur. He has superb charisma. He was unfairly plucked from his natural home in the pits of ZAngband by an evil supreme being known only as Richard of Goodwin, and cast into an unfamiliar and unforgiving world. He is destined to enjoy NetHack or die in the attempt.
Creating a new character
The interface sucks
Things didn't get off to a good start. After I creating a new character, and configuring the game so that I could move using the numeric keypad, I started exploring the dungeon. I kept finding annoyances with the user interface - some tasks seemed needlessly laborious. I got bored very quickly by opening doors manually, by being unable to run around corners or move through doorways diagonally. I found some operations were needlessly duplicated for different contexts - there were different commands for opening doors and boxes, even though the end result would be the same - something would be opened. Similarly, wearing armour and wielding weapons share a single command in Angband, but are different in NetHack. I ended up fighting monsters using my metal boots because of this. Other keystrokes are quite odd too - some priority keys are used for quite peripheral functions - O for options being one. Logical perhaps, but a waste of a good key in my opinion.
I couldn't find a quick way to identify monsters - pressing /, then y, then moving the cursor to the monster in question, then pressing . was quite tedious compared to the * r method in Angband. It was disappointing that the monster descriptions were only quotes from books, and didn't really contain anything obviously relating to the gameplay, unlike in Angband where the attacks and weaknesses of each monster are listed once you discover them.
This brings me to my main problem with NetHack: the lack of feedback.
Like Angband, the game requires a considerable amount of experimentation, but NetHack doesn't provide enough information or feedback to encourage this. There was one point when I was trying to use a wand against a monster. I had no idea whether the command to zap the wand to the right - z (inventory letter) 4 - had worked. NetHack gave no prompt for a direction, and after (presumably) using the wand, it gave no feedback whatsoever. Angband will provide some sort of message, even if the attempt was ineffective (such as "nothing happens", or "the monster is unaffected";) - nothing from NetHack. I found this very discouraging for a beginner - the command syntax and game rules are fairly complicated in any Roguelike game, and it was quite baffling when NetHack apparently ignored my actions completely. I can understand the game wanting to demonstrate that the character is clueless about an object, but I would prefer that the game player is treated with more respect.
Harry Potter and the priestess of Mitra
NetHack feels like an early text adventure where you have to guess the right verb and noun to solve a puzzle, and anything else gives the response "Mistake", whereas Angband feels like a more sophisticated interactive fiction, with better responses for good, but incorrect, tries.
I'm not one for making choices arbitrarily - I like my decisions to be informed ones. That's another reason why NetHack discourages me from playing; Angband provides so much more feedback to the game player - information about your character's status, equipment and inventory, along with that of your opponents, can be used to form a strategy.
At one point in NetHack I had picked up both a bow and a crossbow, but had no way of deciding which would be the better to use. Angband provides basic information about the power of a weapon by default, and can provide more detail on its enchantments with an Identify spell; I really missed that information in NetHack.
I couldn't even work out the better weapon by testing their effectiveness against the monsters, because NetHack fails to provide any feedback on that either. Angband shows how close to death a monster is, so you can tell whether you are having more effect than a papercut; with NetHack, no idea at all. It also makes it harder to decide when to cut your losses and run away - in Angband you might risk staying to deliver the final blow if you know you are likely to outlive the monster; you can also pick off the weakest monsters first when fighting a group.
A bad player blames his tools?
Even the shops lack information. Potions and scrolls aren't identified, so you have no idea what you're buying. NetHack doesn't disclose the weight of any item either, so working out which to drop when you are burdened becomes another guessing game. It's fairly easy to get a new character set up in Angband - you can easily visit the shops to acquire essential, basic (and often life saving) equipment and get your possessions identified; in NetHack you start with a few items, but it's not so easy to find anything else you need (even if you find it, you have no clue if it's any use). After a couple of hours of playing NetHack, I was no wiser about the gameworld than when I started. Apparently it's possible to learn attributes of objects using a stethoscope, but I never came across one in my travels.
Exploring the dungeon
It seems that NetHack continually punishes you for not having the right items, but gives you little opportunity to get them. Food was my main problem. My character went from satiated to hungry, then weak and fainting incredibly quickly; most of my characters died from hunger, not in combat. The constant search for food was rather tedious, and got in the way of real adventuring. I can understand the role hunger plays in Angband - it stops you loitering in the dungeon for too long - but NetHack overplays this angle. NetHack forced me to be a hunter gatherer in order to survive, whereas in Angband I could just pop out to the shops. Maybe I'm too domesticated for the dungeon lifestyle?
Bells and whistles
Even allowing for the difference in character representation (I was quite surprised when a pile of rubble - : - started moving, and turned out to be a newt), I consider the NetHack display inferior to Angband's. I think the status areas lack colour (this could be an implementation issue, as I was running a terminal version) - it's easier to notice your hitpoints turn from green to yellow to red than to keep reading the numbers.
I wasn't keen on how the dungeon maps were displayed either. Angband shows corridors by indicating walls with #, so each corridor is a minimum of three characters across. NetHack only displays the areas you can walk along and doesn't show the walls at all, which makes navigation more tricky, because you can't tell the difference between a half-explored corridor and a dead end. It also makes finding junctions harder. That said, it's less important in NetHack, because most (all?) of the levels fit on a single screen, and feel cramped compared to Angband's sprawling dungeons.
I prefer the Angband method because it allows for different styles of gameplay; you can lead a monster to one corner of a room, then run around the dungeon and attack it at distance from behind, or use the landscape to your advantage by tunnelling diagonal corridors that protect you from summoned monsters, and you and monsters can flee further away. NetHack felt quite confined in comparison, like 8-bit single-screen platformers before they worked out how to do scrolling. Another annoyance was that you could only fire weapons in the 8 compass directions, whereas Angband could target any location. I realise it can provide a kind of strategy to the gameplay, but it seems one that exists because of the technical implementation rather than a true game design choice.
Have I complained enough yet? I did like the gameplay when the interface and implementation didn't get in the way, and I wasn't being held back by a lack of information. It felt good fighting my way through the gnome mines, and a revelation when I found the town and shops down there. There were some interesting monster attacks, such as the dust clouds that surrounded me and hid the map from view. The Gauntlet style hacking and slashing gameplay was quite fun, but I just felt let down by the unstructured path through the game, and all the baffling rules and special cases.
NetHack is probably quite fun once you've climbed the steep learning curve, but the pitiful interface, and substantial lack of information and feedback made it too annoying for me to persist with.
Angband, as played by a NetHack fan
Jeffrey, neutral male human hacker. He has a +1 bathrobe of cold balls concealment, and +2 ego. He was unfairly plucked from his natural home in the Dungeons of Doom by an evil supreme being known only as Richard of Goodwin, and cast into an unfamiliar and unforgiving world. He is destined to enjoy Angband or die in the attempt.
One of the first things I realised when creating my character in Angband was that the game reveals a lot more information during the character creation process than NetHack. You're also allowed to backtrack through the different steps, so you can easily try out different combinations of race and role and see what stats they generate, or to re-role using the current selection in order to update the random attributes. While this style of character generation may appeal to some people, I'm generally of the "You get what you're given" mentality and aren't interested in getting a character with perfect stats right across the board.
Creating a new character
On the subject of stats, Angband also reveals a lot more information once the game starts. For example, shops openly display what the items are that are on sale. While this extra information is certainly useful, I'm worrying if it results in the item identification aspect of the game being a bit too easy. I've grown rather fond of the tricksy shopkeepers in NetHack, and the way they take care of shoplifters. Shoplifters? Yes, that's right, in NetHack you can shoplift, but not in Angband. In NetHack, shops just appear on the map as a room containing items and a shopkeeper, so you can interact with them in the same ways as any other room containing items. There are many techniques for shoplifting, some more successful than others, but none of them are possible in Angband because shops are just a single square on the map which take you to a seperate screen, limited to buying and selling items.
The town and shops
Talking about features that are missing from Angband, there are another two big ones in the form of corpses and spirituality. Corpses serve several purposes in NetHack - apart from adding a bit of extra realism, they can be eaten, offered to the gods, or resurrected. Some monsters even have a habit of coming back to life. Spirituality in NetHack is important because it affects how other monsters react to you, and can also be used to gain items or help from the gods by praying, offering sacrifices, or making donations to the church.
Getting back to Angband, another thing that struck me was the plethora of gameplay options. NetHack does have a good number of gameplay options, but they're all set at compile time, and for official releases they'll all be in the default settings. Angband, on the other hand, allows you to change the options at runtime, to make the game harder or easier, or even to change some mechanics altogether. Surely one of the boons of roguelikes is the prestige you get from your fellow hackers when you complete the game - but if everyone's playing using different settings, how are people meant to judge how good they are?
In particular, there's one feature of Angband that I've never been able to fathom - the ability to have non-persistent levels. This basically means that you can run away from any danger at all just by going up or down one level in the dungeon, because when you return to the level you left it will have been regenerated afresh. Non-persistent levels has also given rise to stair scumming - the art of going up and down a staircase until an 'interesting' level is generated (i.e. one likely to contain a good item). And how does the player know that it's a good level? The game announces the level type as the player enters. And since stair scumming became so popular, they even added auto-scumming into the game as a toggleable option. Pure lunacy. If the boring levels are boring and no-one plays them, why not just remove the code that generates the boring levels?
Exploring the dungeon
For people who don't like non-persistent levels (and stair scumming), you can thankfully turn persistent levels on. However that option isn't enabled by default, so I was playing my game with non-persistent levels. But why they chose to have non-persistent levels in the first place still escapes me. They can't even use the excuse that it's because a lot of travel between the surface and the dungeon is required in order to complete the game (and thus new levels are required to stave off boredom or keep the player from running out of supplies), because most people will just use Recall scrolls to teleport straight from the dungeon to the surface and vice-versa.
As I went down into the dungeons, I found that the monsters there were fairly weak and easy to kill. Part of this is because the Angband dungeon is deeper (100 levels as opposed to NetHack's 30+), and the other part is probably because I managed to choose one of the character roles that's hardest to kill (Warrior). Combine this with Angband's large levels and a string of 'uninteresting' levels, and my first couple of hours of gameplay were fairly boring - spent exploring long corridors and chasing after monsters that were too scared to fight me. The boringness of the levels, and general lack of items dropped by monsters, even meant that I had difficulty finding useful items such as weapons, armour or food - or even potentially self-harmful items such as scrolls or potions.
Luckily things started to get interesting when I reached levels 10 and 11. I began to encounter rooms full of (weak) monsters, guarding a 'unique' monster - a much tougher mini-boss, if you will. Out of the two or three uniques that I encountered, I was unable to kill them as we were evenly matched, and I was forced to retreat to the level above (And throw away all hope of seeing the same unique again). If I had actually picked up some useful items during the previous levels (as opposed to practically nothing at all), then it may have tipped the balance in my favour and allowed me to defeat one.
Another 'interesting' encounter was with a swarm of fruit flies. They are a self-replicating swarm, that unless dealt with quickly can easily overrun the level and deal you a death of a thousand papercuts. Lacking any area-of-effect attacks, my only available tactic was to attempt to seal them into the room they were in by closing the doors. And then the next time I changed level, they'd be gone for good anyway. But the reason I'm mentioning the fruit flies is that (to my knowledge) there's no creature like this in NetHack. There are monsters that rise from the dead, or ones that summon help, or giant worms that grow in length, but none that self-replicate. It's certainly a very different type of monster to have to deal with, and put me in mind of a certain scifi show (Which, unless you know me, probably isn't the one you're thinking of).
Eventually my adventuring came to an end when I wandered into a magic trap. The trap blinded me briefly, and when my vision returned I had a dark elven warrior (and behind him a druid) on one side and a hairy mold on the other. Unaware of how many other monsters could be around me, I decided to try and retreat back the way I came - past the hairy mold - and to the safety of the staircase. But the mold was proving quite difficult to kill, and by the time I had killed it the druid had teleported himself to the other side of me. He quickly took the place of the mold, blocking my escape, and my death soon followed. Traps are all over the place in NetHack, including monster traps like this one, but they appear to be a lot less common in Angband. I was also unprepared for the strength of the monsters it unleashed - I get the feeeling that the strength of monsters in Angband jumps up in leaps and bounds, compared to the more gradual climb in NetHack. Either that or it was just bad luck from having so many easy levels previously (And thus nothing to use to level-up my character with).
A deeper dungeon, but less depth
In conclusion - although Angband has a more developed UI than NetHack, it has several odd features that I just don't agree with (such as non-persistent levels), and it appears to lack many of NetHack's features (corpses, real shops, spirituality, dipping items into potions, etc.), making the gameplay shallower. The way it constantly bombards me with statistics sometimes makes it feel more like a pen-and-paper D&D game rather than a computer game, where I need to obsess over stats of items and monsters if I'm to stand a chance of progressing to the lower levels within a reasonable timeframe. It may have been bad luck, but I also get the feeling that leveling-up in Angband (to allow safe access to the next group of dungeon levels) takes a lot longer than in NetHack. Not only are NetHack's levels smaller, but the monsters are therefore more densely packed, and they also have less chance of running away. This makes leveling-up a much quicker process, compared to the endless corridors and cowardly monsters of Angband's first few levels.
A conclusion, of sorts
Although at first glance NetHack and Angband may appear to be the same, in reality they are two very different games. Angband has a clear focus on combat, with the myriad of statistics thrown at the player, and the rather light-hearted approach it takes to the logistics of dungeon life. NetHack downplays the combat and is more focused on experimentation and even puzzle solving, requiring your character to gain knowledge of almost everything he encounters if he is to succeed.
NetHack, although having an underdeveloped UI, arguably has the deeper gameplay. Angband deliberately lacks this because it is the foundation for many different variants that offer alternative or more sophisticated environments, skills and gameplay. Perhaps it's unfair to compare NetHack to vanilla Angband for this reason, but if the player doesn't like the overall feel of Angband, how is a variant going to help? Angband is certainly the easier game for beginners to pick up, and possibly a good introduction to the Roguelike genre, whereas NetHack requires a lot of experimentation to uncover certain gameplay mechanics, to the point where you are unlikely to be able to complete the game without reading at least a couple of spoilers.
Much like religion, the version you are taught first is the one you believe to be good and true and proper. The alternatives just don't cut it. You can relate to the core themes, but the differences in rules and implementations repel; the problem with NetHack is that it isn't Angband, and vice versa. There's no solution to that, other than having a very open mind. Or a wand of polymorph.
Thangorodrim - The Angband homepage
NetHack.org - The NetHack homepage
RISC OS ports: Angband and variants; NetHack
@ Play, a series of columns on Roguelike gaming