@Play: The Omega of Omega

‘@Play’ is a monthly column which discusses the history, present and future of the roguelike dungeon exploring genre.

So let us talk about what is probably the worst thing about Omega: it’s capriciousness.

If you read the experiences of the CRPG Addict you might be given to thinking that Omega is actually pretty easy. Judging by the title screen on his review, he was playing 0.71, a version I don’t have access too, and may actually no longer be available anywhere on the vast World Wide Web.

My version is 0.80, which it seems like it must be harder than his. Also, he backed up his save games, which, while the instructions specifically suggest it if you’re having trouble, is still cheating. All of my games have been played traditionally. And let’s be clear as to why: because I’m a snob. A roguelike snob.

Of course most classic roguelikes have a degree of deadly capriciousness, but for some reason it’s especially bad in Omega. I don’t think I’ve seen a game with as many ways for a game to go from terrific to dead instantly, often without warning and in a single turn.

Here’s a list of ways this can happen, most of which I’ve personally seen.

  • To get it out of the way: you can be struck by a cosmic at nearly any time above-ground (and even underground? I don’t think so). That does 10 damage purely from random chance, with no way to avoid or reduce it. If you have less than 10 HP, your game is just over. Some characters don’t even start with 10 maximum HP.
    Cosmic rays are triggered at two different places in the code, on tables for indoor events and outdoor events. My reading of the code indicates that indoors, a check that can produce a cosmic ray happens every ten game minutes, and outdoors it’s every game hour. However, depending on the terrain, multiple hourly checks can be made per move. Cosmic ray hits are far from the only bad things that can happen per hour, so it’s best to go by road if you can, and with other travel aids if possible.
  • The hedge maze in Rampart is a terrific source of deaths. Traps in there can absolutely wipe you out, or else make the game unplayable. Traps exist elsewhere, but the hedge maze both has a higher density than elsewhere (it always seems to have at least one, and probably has several), and is right there in Rampart. There are a small number of possible layouts for the maze, and traps tend to appear in the same kinds of places, so eventually you figure out where you should search. Specifically: fire traps and scythe traps do a lot of damage, an abyss trap can bestow a bunch of falling damage arbitrarily and effectively teleport you, acid traps do damage can destroy multiple pieces of equipment, a disintegration trap can destroy equipment or kill you outright, and an alarm trap won’t do any damage, but it will make all the guards in Rampart permanently hostile, dooming your character unless you can take them, which is unlikely at the point in the game when you’ll be exploring the hedge maze.
  • Once you step out of the starting city of Rampart there’s the countryside, a whimsically deadly region where you can have “encounters,” during which you may be killed (I can attest) by bandits, goblin shamans, lions, bears, bog haunts, mirrorshades, liches, or even “doberman death-hounds,” who are both fast and get lots of attacks.
    Encounters can generate a monster right beside you, and in that case the game even gives it the first turn. Many times my games have consisted of spending the 15 minutes or so getting all my chores in Rampart done to get my character started, leaving town, getting an encounter on the way to the Archdruid’s temple, and getting wiped out literally before I could do anything. The only thing you really can do about these situations is decrease the amount of time you spend outside.
What did Lawrence Brothers have against dobermans?

I’ve died to random encounters three games in a row before:
#1: Upon exiting the Archdruid’s temple, immediately, a random encounter. Then, in the tactical map, they got a turn before me and I died. I don’t even know what it was; it was invisible and killed me with a missile.
#2: Upon exiting the city of Rampart, again before I got a turn, a random encounter. This time it was a goblin shaman casting spells. One was an area effect spell that killed the caster and awarded me an experience level, but then also killed me.
#3: I got some steps towards the Archdruid’s temple before I got a random encounter that completely surrounded me with hedges. Trying to wade through them poisoned me to poison death.

How did I even wander into this situation?
  • Disintegration traps deserve special mention. I have again checked the game’s code and discovered the logic is: when you activate one, if you’re wearing a cloak, it’ll get disintegrated, no checks, no save, it’s just gone no matter what it is. If no cloak, it’s your armor that gets disintegrated. If no armor, it’s you. Traps in Omega are not common in the Goblin Caves, but can be anywhere there, and there’s lots of space for them.
  • Back to the hedge maze. Monsters can get generated there too, sometimes out-of-level ones, like lions, bears, “were-swarms,” frost demons, or pterodactyls. It’s right by the cemetery too, and sometimes it gets incorporeal visitors from there.
  • The hedges themselves can easily kill you. The game always asks if you’re sure when you accidentally miskey into one, thankfully. If you answer ‘Y,’ you open yourself to be stuck to the brambles for a not-insignificant number of turns, getting poisoned (easily deadly if you’re still at level 0), have your cloak ripped apart, or, if your luck is particularly bad, walking straight into the waiting tentacles of a trifid. Moral: YOU SHOULD ANSWER ‘N.’
  • Then there are the monsters who have unusually deadly attacks. Salamanders can breathe fire for high damage and from a distance unless you have fire resistance from a ring. Bog things can outright frighten you to death in melee. Until you learn that you should wear heavy armor to survive the Goblin Caves you’ll frequently get missiled to death by goblin chieftains, which are a prominent early source of fatality.
  • Learn to handle them, and later in the Goblin Caves your bane becomes goblin shamans, who can do a variety of awful things to you. The worst of these is sleep. If you get put to sleep, they’ll be able to get off several spells after. While somehow you can block their attacks, and even counterspell their continued enchantments, automatically while asleep, you’ll still often get slowed, snowballed, cursed, diseased, or poisoned. Entering a new level there is a particularly tense moment once these guys start showing up.
  • Oh here’s a good one. Fighting tooth and nail against goblin chieftains got my hit points down, but I was resting between fights and not doing too badly. Then not seeing any monsters around I walked across the room, happened to step next to a ‘1’ character, a statue. It came to life immediately as a salamander and promptly roasted my ass. I prefer my ass uncooked.
  • Get a load of this. Rolled stats until I got a character who had an Intelligence of 18, so they could join the Collegium Magii for free right away, and also could join the Gladiators. Did both those things. Bought ten buckets of Lyzzard Partes for early rations. Tripped over a hoplon, a good shield, and found both ring mail +1 and a war-hammer + 2 in the pawn shop. Found the Thieves’ Guild by dint of checking nearly every door in town. Joined the college but failed at the roll for learning a random spell. Went to the Arena and chose to fight the first opponent, a lowly goblin. Set combat tactics to Block Low then Lunge Center. On my first attack against the puny green foe, I take one hit point of damage from them, then: “Oh no! You hit yourself! You died!” Eleven points of damage from a fumble at level 0. That’s like having a fatal accident at after-school martial arts practice.
“Stop hitting yourself!”
At INT 18: “Killed by stupidity.”

It’s not just death that particularly bad luck can cause.

  • Weapons can shatter if you roll particularly badly in a fight. In general, you should consider your equipment in Omega as ultimately temporary.
  • Punching is of little use against strong enemies, so I bought a broad sword for 180 gold. Ventured into the wilderness. Got a random encounter involving a freaking lich. I managed to get away, but not before it destroyed my broad sword from a distance with a spell of Destructo Weaponum. I headed back to town and bought another one, then went to the Goblin Caves. Saw some money, stepped to pick it up, but surprise, there was an acid trap there! It destroyed my thieves’ picks, a bucket of Lyzzard Partes, and my broad sword again! Grawlix grawlix.
How does corrosive acid shatter a sword?
  • If an item gets cursed, you don’t have many recourses. I’ve never seen a scroll of blessing work on them; reading the source code suggests they’re just not strong enough. The most practical thing to do is break the weapon to bits with your bare hands: use the ‘z’ key.
Corporal Phantom guards the entrance.
  • Phantoms that appear in the hedge maze can level drain you; the main defense against that is a Cloak of Negimmunity, which you probably won’t have at that stage. If you just walk near the hedge maze, it’s possible to awaken a phantom sleeping inside. Phantoms are incorporeal, so weapon attacks don’t work on them, and once they’re awake they can chase you, floating right through buildings, throughout the whole city. The entrance to the city is a long passage with walls on both sides; if you don’t have a way of dealing with the phantom (use magic if you can), it’ll block the passage when you leave town, and get a few free hits on you when you return.

And then there’s the worst death of all, an attack by the dread monster Segmentation Violation:

Omega still has some decades-old bugs in it.

So what is my point? It’s not that you shouldn’t play Omega. It’s that you have to expect that your game could end at almost any time. Your game is not yours to have. Your character lives on borrowed time, so do as much with it as you can while you’ve got them.

These are a few things you can’t completely prevent, but what you can do is reduce their frequency. You can reduce the number of spaces you walk through in dungeons. You can try not to be slow when traveling the wilderness. If you encounter a trap, it might not be fair to it, but riding a horse will mean its effects are more likely to happen to it than to you. And good armor is almost always helpful, if you can afford it.

But sometimes, you just die. That’s just the kind of game it is. As you get better at Omega, you still suffer from them, but as you learn to play more effectively, you do find you get farther much more often.

How best to do that will be the subject of the next, and last for now, column on Omega.

@Play: Omega, Character Creation and Inventory

‘@Play’ is a monthly column which discusses the history, present and future of the roguelike dungeon exploring genre.

We’re continuing our look at the classic late-80s and early-90s roguelike Omega! Here are parts one and two.

Omega is a cool game with a variety of RPG adventuring to be had, but it also has a slightly steeper learning curve than a Hack-like. So, under the principle of getting the broccoli out of the way so we can get to dessert after, let’s go over a couple of the more mechanical parts of the game: character creation, and the game’s unusual inventory system.

A note: It is the year 2022, we are all busy people, and Omega is an open source game. Thus I have availed myself of reading the source code to get some details of how Omega does things internally. This might be considered to be cheating, but honestly? Omega doesn’t play fair in some areas, so I feel no guilt about reading the code. One of the virtues of roguelike games is that often one can source dive and still find the game very challenging to play, and that’s definitely the case with Omega.

Character Creation

The first thing Omega asks you is if you want to [c]reate a character, or [p]lay as yourself.

If you choose to “create a character,” the game generates stats in D&D style, rolling virtual dice to produce a set of stats in the range of 4 to 18. You’re given ten re-rolls to try to get the best stats you can. (Under the pre-alpha, development version, you get 30 re-rolls. That version has been pre-alpha since 2001.) The system used is similar to the Dungeons & Dragons tradition of summing three six-sided dice for each stat, but there’s two departures:

  • You’re spotted one point on each stat: it’s impossible to roll a stat less than 4 by this method. You still can’t roll more than 18: one of the dice is essentially five-sided.
  • When the game rolls Intelligence, it saves the two six-sided dice that were rolled, and also uses those two die values for your Power, Agility and Constitution. Meaning, a lucky character in Intelligence will probably be lucky in several more things. I don’t know why it was designed this way, but it explains some trends in stat rolling I’ve seen.
When rolling character statistics, two of the dice are shared between four stats!

If you run out of re-rolls, the game throws you into play with the last set you rolled. There is absolutely nothing saying you can’t immediately quit (Shift-Q) and start over with a fresh set of re-rolls.

If you choose to “play as yourself,” the game will give you a series of questions and ask that you answer them honestly. They include things like how many pounds can you bench press, how many miles you can run, and can you shuffle a deck of cards with one hand.

It does not ask if you can juggle. Omega characters cannot juggle.

If you’re asked a number and answer higher than a certain amount, the program will print a message expressing incredulity, but accept it anyway. A few of the questions ask if the player has some supernatural abilities, like “Do you have ESP?” and “Can you see auras?” A bit of a spoiler: if you answer these in the negative, your character probably won’t have much Power, and Power is important. You definitely should lie about this.

At one point the game asks if you’re “physically handicapped,” which seems insensitive to me. If you’re in a wheelchair, why should you be expected to carry that over into the computer games you play? But again, everyone lies here anyway.

The last question asks if you’re Irish, which is worth a couple of extra points of Power, so here, too, you should apply a bit of the old blarney.

By lying, you can use the quiz to get yourself a character with 18s in everything without difficulty. You could think of it as an easy mode, in that you can still die pretty easily. After you take the quiz, you’re given the option to save your answers to easily get those stats again. I use the roller system when I play, to add additional variety, but it’s up to you.

Whichever method you use, you’re then asked for your character’s name, then whether you’re interested sexually in [m]ales or [f]emales. Ahem. Poly and asexual players might feel snubbed by this, but secretly, the game also lets you answer ‘y‘ or ‘n‘! Answering ‘y‘ for yes means your character will be considered interested in both; answering ‘n‘ for no means neither. This doesn’t have a huge effect on the game, but it does matter for brothel visits: if you answer ‘n‘, you have a chance of gaining an Intelligence point for a visit. If you answer something else, the point you might gain is in Constitution.

What Do These Numbers Mean?

If you’re familiar with Dungeons & Dragons-style attribute scores you probably already have a good intuitive sense of what the game’s stats do, many of which are the same as in D&D. But not everyone knows those, and even old-schoolers might miss some of Omega’s nuances.

In D&D, these are relatively set in stone except for the occasional gain upon gaining a level. In contrast, Omega has several ways for stats to increase, and a few ways for them to go down.

  • Strength helps determine the damage done by heavy weapons. If your Strength is high, you should look into a smashing or a two-handed weapon. Just as important, Strength determines your maximum carry weight. Even if you’re not carrying anywhere close to your maximum, being weighed down even a little reduces your speed, which is dangerous in a roguelike world! It also helps you join the Mercenaries and the Gladiators.
  • Constitution affects your maximum hit points. It doesn’t seem to give you resistance to poison or disease. You need at least average Constitution to join the Mercenaries.
  • A high Dexterity makes it easier to hit monsters, and also affects damage done with light weapons missile weapons. It reduces the cost of joining the Thieves’ Guild.
  • Agility determines your base movement speed, which affects how often you act and how easily you can run away from monsters. Since Agility factors into speed, it’s really nice to have. You need good Agility to join the Gladiators.
  • Intelligence affects the chance to learn spells from random sources. You need an Intelligence of at least 13 to join the Collegium Magii. If your Intelligence is 18, joining it is free! It also helps you cast a couple of high-level spells, but day-to-day, it doesn’t seem to affect much.
  • Power directly affects your maximum mana (that is, magic) points, making it very nice to have for spellcasters. High Power reduces the cost to join the Sorcerors’ Guild.

During the game, there’s a few more, derived from your level, the above statistics, your equipment, and the whims of fate:

  • Hit Points (HP), of course, are your character’s healthiness. If you run out you die, but that’s far from the only way.
  • Mana Points are your character’s immediate magic strength. Your maximum is your Power times your character’s level plus one. (Remember: Omega starts counting levels from zero!) Spells cast come out of this total. A subtle thing about Omega is that your Mana also counts as a protective factor. Some spells that monsters cast will be automatically countered if you have enough mana left.
  • Hit is your chance to hit, given a general situation.
  • Dmg is a measure of the amount of damage you might do. Luck matters for a lot; I’ve had a character with a Dmg of over 40 take several whacks to dispose of a lowly sewer rat.
  • Def is how easily you can dodge blows. Pluses on magic armor go to decrease this.
  • Arm is what D&D players would call “damage reduction,” it’s a property of heavier armor that reduces the hurt you take that gets through your Def.
  • And finally there’s Spd, or Speed, measured as a decimal value. A Speed of 1.0 means you act as often as an average monster. High Agility, low carry weight, riding a horse, and Boots of Speed can improve this. I’ve seen as high as 2.50. Carrying a lot of things can save your bacon, and being a little under 1.0 can be okay. I try to keep it above 0.70, preferably 0.80. Your ability in battle decreases sharply below that.

There is also a weird system in Omega that confuses some players, the “combat maneuver sequence.” This system was intended to be transparent to players who don’t care about it, so you don’t need to know about this to play, but you do need to know it exists, because of a bug that manifests sometimes.

When you walk into a monster to attack it, it’s not considered a single hit as in other roguelike games. Instead, your character can automatically perform as many as eight separate moves! Each move can be an Attack, a Block, a Lunge, or a Riposte, and each of these moves can be either High, Center or Low.

By default, your combat maneuver sequence is Attack Center, Block Center, and that suffices in many cases. But some enemies like to attack at certain heights (rats tend to bite at your feet, for example). Intelligent monsters are known to watch for when you attack at a given height, and to then block more often at that height, so changing your combat string sometimes can be helpful.

Higher levels, higher speeds, and being a Gladiator all can give you extra maneuver points, and they’ll go unused if you don’t acknowledge them. You change your combat sequence by pressing Shift-F. There’s subtleties to the system that I’m not covering here, but the game does a good job of explaining it in the help for that function.

The thing you need to know is: there’s a bug in Omega that, once in a while, causes it to forget your combat string. And if your Speed drops too low, it might reset your string to the default. If you’re fighting and you notice that you aren’t seeing any messages from your side, no hits, no blocks, not even misses, you might want to hit Shift-F and at least choose a default string (press ‘!‘).


Keyboard Reminders

I mentioned the main keys back in part two. If you need to be reminded of them, you can get a complete list in-game by pressing ‘?‘ (the traditional roguelike Help key) and then hitting ‘l‘.

Many of the keys are roguelike standard, but there are a few that are different: the pick-up-an-item key is ‘g‘, on DOS the recall-message key is Ctrl-O, and to zap wands you use ‘a‘, I guess for ‘a’pply. To use miscellaneous items, it’s Shift-A; it’ll ask if you want to use an item or an artifact. Artifacts are powerful and rare items, and you usually won’t find any of those until much later.

Omega uses both number pad and the vi keys, with added diagonals, for movement. In case they’re useful (maybe you don’t have a numpad), the vi keys with diagonals are hjkl and yubn.

One of the keys, the letter ‘i‘, is your gateway to your most formidable challenge to learning Omega: its inventory system. Prepare yourself!


Oh Boy, It’s Time To Explain Omega’s Inventory

Probably its inventory has dissuaded more players than anything else from playing Omega. I think it’s really not hard to understand! It’s just different, so it takes a little getting used to. Please try to bear with me, and try to consider what Omega’s creator Laurence Brothers was trying to do with it.

The first thing you have to know is your character has two inventories. The most obvious one consists of the equipped items, the ones your character wears on their person; the other is the character’s pack, which is just a bag for loose things.

Most of the time you’ll want to deal with your character’s equipment items, and just store extra stuff in your pack. There is an array of item slots around your character’s body. If this were Ultima VII or Eye of the Beholder or some other 90s CRPG you’d probably have a paper doll display to drag item icons into, but this is a terminal-screen roguelike, so your equipment slots are all represented by letters of the alphabet.

In most roguelike games, you use the ‘w’ key to Wield a weapon, Shift-W to Wear armor, Shift-T to Take off armor, and a couple other keys like that. Not so in Omega. Instead, you move the item you want to use into the proper slot, and it’s automatically utilized. So to wield a weapon, you put it into your weapon-hand slot, which is slot b. To use a shield, you put it into your shield slot, h. (Unlike D&D characters, Omega characters have figured out they can attach a shield to their arm!)

Omega’s item system generalizes the idea of wielding weapons, wearing protective gear and magic items, and having a few items at-hand for immediate use. Instead of having special commands for these things, they’re all put to use using the same process. If you put items where they’re supposed to go, your character will use them.

Gym Class Movie: Your Body Slots And You

So, you have a plethora of slots in which you can place the various fantasy accouterments that are necessary to successful exploration. Here is a list of these slots. When playing, you might want to keep a list of these until you’ve internalized them all:

*: “up in air”
a: ready hand (for general items, like maybe a torch)
b: weapon hand (for what you use to bash things)
c: left shoulder (a place to store generic items)
d: right shoulder (likewise)
e-g: belt (more generic item slots; I’ve kept a goblin corpse in one before!)
h: shield (used automatically in combat situations)
i: armor (put a piece of body armor here to wear it)
j: boots (like above but goes on your feet)
k: cloak (goes over armor)
l-o: fingers (slots for up to four magic rings)

I hope that’s easy enough to understand. Note, if you’re playing 0.90, these letters will be a bit different. They were rearranged a bit to avoid confusion with the inventory management keys.

The most vexing, yet most used, of these slots is the “up in air” item. This is a special slot used as a crossroads between all the other slots and your pack. Whenever you obtain a new item, it goes up in the air, and throws up an inventory prompt so you can communicate to the game what you want to do with it.

A Romp Through The Prompts

When you press the ‘i‘ key (that’s lowercase: in Omega, capital letters are always shifted), you’re shown the list of your item slots and their contents, and the cryptic line:

d, e, l, p, s, t, x, >, <, ?, ESCAPE

If you pick up an item you’ll get a very similar line, except with a tilde in it, and without the list of item slots! This is the short prompt. From the short prompt, if you just press tilde (~), you’ll get to the usual inventory list.

Pressing ‘?‘ describes what these keys all do, and offers to show you full help, but I’ll give you an overview here. They’re all pretty important.

One of the slots will be highlighted with a >> cursor in front of it. That’s the “current item.” You can move the arrow to point to other items with ‘>‘ and ‘<‘ to move up and down. (> and < are the standard roguelike keys for Down and Up. Why don’t the arrow keys work? That’s a good question.) Most of the other commands make use of either this current item, or the “up in air” item.

The ‘e‘ and ‘x‘ keys are your main tools for getting items where they need to be. ‘e‘ exchanges an item from the up-in-air slot with the current slot. ‘x‘ does the same thing, but it also automatically closes the inventory display if the operation ends with the up-in-air slot empty.

If you leave the inventory screen with an item up in the air, that item will fall to the ground! It’s not a place to keep things indefinitely. As I said before, Omega characters can’t juggle.

If you’re at the short prompt, there will be no visible item slot list, and no cursor. Instead, the ‘e‘ and ‘x‘ keys will ask you the letter of the slot you want to move the item to. When you’ve played enough to have memorized what the slot letters are, you can use those and play much faster. Before you get to that point, you can just press ~ to get to the list. There is no game advantage to using one over the other.

Another important inventory operation involves getting stuff into and out of your pack. Your pack also has slots, but they’re all generic.

Pack operations take time. Omega actually simulates your pack like a stack. While you can get items out no matter where they are in it, items deeper in the pack take more time to dig out. Items you want available for instant access are best kept in your main inventory slots, if not in your ready hand (a), then maybe on your shoulder (c, d) or belt (e-g). These slots all can contain any item; slots like shield (h) and armor (i) can only contain those kinds of items.

Items deeper in your pack take more time to reach.
Ideally though, you won’t keep immediate emergency items in your pack at all.

The ‘s‘ key shows the contents of your pack; ‘p‘ puts the up-in-air item or pointed-at item into your pack; ‘t‘ takes something out of your pack. The ‘t‘ key also offers to show you pack contents if you press ‘?‘. Another thing to note: for some reason, pack letters are all capitals. If you try to get something out of the pack, but don’t press shift, it won’t work.

Remaining functions: ‘d‘ drops the up-in-air or current item immediately; ‘l‘ gives you a text description of the current item, ‘?‘ gives you a reminder of all these keypresses, and ESCAPE transports you out of Inventory Land, and back to the game world proper.

The Inventory System In Practice

So how does this work in play? Well, at the start of the game you have no food. So enter buildings until you find one that tells you:

Commandant Sonder’s Rampart-fried Lyzzard parts. Open 24 hrs. Buy a bucket! Only 5 Au. Make a purchase? [yn]

Answer ‘y‘ to use some of that starting money to obtain some sustenance. It asks “How many?”, so let’s say 10, a good amount for the start of the game.

A passel of Lyzzard Buckets, for your pleasure. *** MORE ***

Omega’s *** MORE *** prompts work like NetHack’s, but appear at the right edge of the screen for some reason. Press the space bar to clear it. You’ll then be thrown into the inventory short prompt:

Action [d,e,l,p,s,t,x,~,?,ESCAPE] ‘Up in air’: 10x red and white striped bucket

You have an item, the new-bought buckets, in the up in air slot, so if you just pressed escape you’d drop your newly-acquired food. What you might want to do is press ‘p‘, to put the item in your pack for later. But if you want to eat immediately, you could press either ‘e‘ or ‘x‘, to move it, to ‘a‘, your ready hand slot. If you do any of these things, you’ll keep the Buckets O’ Lyzzard, and not drop them.

If you put them in your ready hand, or somewhere else on your person, then now you can eat! Exit inventory (if it didn’t happen automatically) and press ‘e‘, the Eat key:

Eat — Select an item [a,?]

Even if you have other items on your person, the food is the only thing that can be called edible, so it’s the only letter listed. You can press ‘a‘ now to chow down.

Your mouth feels like it is growing hair!

Well, it is fast food after all.

If there was already something in the ‘a’ ready hand slot, then the food will go into that slot and whatever had been there will be moved up in the air. You only have so many suitable body slots. You can usually stash anything into your pack, with ‘p’, if you don’t want to be fussed. But your pack has limited space too. If all your suitable body slots and your whole pack are full, you’ll probably have to drop an item.


Ah, that was a lot of broccoli. Are you still with me? Next time, we’ll actually be able to go into game strategy!

@Play: Omega in Overview

‘@Play’ is a monthly column which discusses the history, present and future of the roguelike dungeon exploring genre.

If you missed it, you might want to start with our brief narration of the beginning of Omega.

Omega is beloved of a small but devoted cadre of players. Like Alphaman, it is a prominent early roguelike with an overworld, but unlike Alphaman the world map is the same from game to game. In this it can be recognized as a predecessor of ADOM. It is probably the classic roguelike with the most detailed and interesting town, the well-named city of Rampart.

It’s finger lickin’… um, good?

The CRPG Addict, whose Sisyphean project is to play, complete, and write about every CRPG ever made, reviewed Omega in the early going, although his victory over the game was the easiest kind of win (retirement), and he cheated by restoring save files. Although it must be said, Omega’s own help text itself suggests that players back up their saved files if they’re having trouble, and there are some things about it that almost make me want to play that way.

Omega’s sense of difficulty is a bit unusual. It is overflowing with random events, some of them you can’t do anything about, and it’s possible for those events to kill you with very little warning. But if a character can survive the early going, there are also non-random resources that a knowing player can take advantage of that can help them get a leg-up on the game. In this way it’s like NetHack, in that there are counters to randomness, and a bunch of necessary lore to discover that greatly enhances one’s chances of winning.

Much of this lore has been saved in FAQs, spoiler files, blog posts, and comment sections scattered throughout the internet. Most of these sources remain out there to find, but the nature of the web and the intervening years have made them harder to find than they once were. I’ll present a list of links you can use to find them later, but I’ll gather the most important early-game for you once we get into its gameplay.

Omega is a game that has entertained players for many years. In its heyday it was a popular topic of discussion on the Usenet group rec.games.roguelike.misc. But it does have a number of attributes that have fallen out of favor with players nowadays. I’m not even talking about the typical things one has to get used to in order to play most classic roguelikes. Omega has some particular things you’re probably just going to have to acclimate yourself to if you’re coming to it from contemporary types of computer gaming. This isn’t to seem overly critical; there are a lot of interesting adventures to be had in its world, but there is a bit of a learning curve. But let me give you a broad overview first.

The Hedge Maze of the City of Rampart

About the Game

Omega’s origin is said to extend back to the late 80s, but records on the internet extend only as far back as about 1993. It was created by Laurence Raphael Brothers while he was at Rutgers University. He passed the torch to others to maintain the game at some time before 1993, but even version 0.90.4, the most recent version of the core code of Omega, lists his name in the source code as copyright holder. Lawrence Brothers has been known to sometimes get in contact with people who write about Omega, including the CRPG Addict.

In 1993 it seems Robert Paige Rendell picked up development of Omega. Erik Max Francis currently maintains the official Omega Distribution Page. While the core game has seen no development in a long time, ports for various systems have been made, including OS/2, classic MacOS and even a Windows port with graphical tiles.

Omega doesn’t present you with a great scenario at the start of play. It is more like a general setting, in TTRPG terms a sandbox that you investigate on your own. Your explorations are mostly directionless at the start. There is a character you can turn to that can provide players with a direction for their explorations, and you can also get quests from the Duke of Rampart, but the game doesn’t point you in their direction, and nothing forces you to heed their words. Omega is more like an adventure setting than a single mission you are trying to perform.

The game world is like that of ADOM, with an overworld, a sprawling sequence of above-ground terrain, with locations in it to find and explore that are in the same places every game. It’s the contents of these locations that are randomly generated every time you play. The dungeons are generated and persist, but only if you don’t enter another dungeon; if you go into the Goblin Caves, then leave and go to the Sewers in the city, when you return to the Caves they will have been refreshed. The layout will be the same, but the map will be forgotten, and the monsters will be different. A player can take advantage of this fact.

Lions lurk outside the city gates

The other kinds of locations seem to remain the same each time, although the city of Rampart, the main urban location in the game and the place where you begin play, has mostly the same map every game, but the contents of the buildings are mixed up when the game begins, and its hedge maze area is selected from one of a number of possible layouts. Rampart is the center of the game in many ways. Most of its guilds are based there, and to advance in them and get many of their benefits you’ll have to return to haunt their doorsteps. There are other settlements in the game, but none of them are anything like Rampart. It’s a cool location. It might be the greatest city in all roguelikedom.

The Layout of Rampart

Rampart is the largest city in the game, and where your journeys begin. It’s a good place to pick up supplies, decide which guilds and religions you want to join, and get equipment.

Places in Rampart with set locations, and randomly-placed locations once you’ve discovered them, can be moved to quickly with the Automove command (Shift-M). For more information on the city and places of interest within it, I must ask that you wait until next time. Until then, why not explore on your own, and see what you can figure out? All you have to lose is maybe twenty or thirty lives.

Basic Keys

?: Help. Provides a lot of information about the game and its systems. Refer to the ‘l’ option here for more keys that aren’t listed here.

  • numpad/vi keys: walk, bump into enemies to attack them
  • numpad 5: run
  • .: Wait 10 seconds, note this is twice the length of time it takes to move a step
  • ,: Wait a specified number of minutes
  • s: Search surrounding spaces for secret doors or traps
  • i: Inventory (explained further down)
  • x: Examine something in a location in sight. (very useful for distinguishing what monster or item is on a space)
  • g: Pick something up at your feet. (Think of it as ‘g’ain)
  • e: Eat something
  • q: Drink a potion (‘q’uaff)
  • r: Read something
  • a: Zap wands and rods (think of it as ‘a’pply). Note, to be used, most items must be worn on your person. You can’t just use items out of your pack, you have to get them out first.t: Talk to someone. This is used to greet some characters and threaten monsters. Talk with and greet a horse you own to ride it.
  • f: Fire a weapon or throw an item.
  • o: Open door. (used frequently)
  • c: Close door. (used less often)
  • m: Cast a magic spell. You specify which spell you want to use by entering its name. You only have to enter as many letters as to distinguish the spell from the others you know.
  • Shift-A: Use miscellaneous items or artifacts. The item that lets you escape the Arena when you win a fight is of this type.
  • Shift-F: Change your attack routine. (‘F’ight)
  • Shift-S: Save the game (supply the filename as an argument on the command line to load the game)
  • Shift-T: Tunnel through a wall (use in moderation)
  • Shift-M: Autotravel to a known location in your current town. Places that are the same from game to game are automatically known, randomly-placed locations must have been entered at least once. As with spells, you enter the place’s name, but only have to enter as many letters to uniquely identify your destination.
  • Shift-E: Get off your horse.
  • Shift-D: Disarm a trap.
  • Shift-G: Give an item to someone.
  • Ctrl-I: Look in your pack.

On Inventory
To use most items, they can’t just be in your pack, but must be in one of your equipment slots. Your “Ready Hand” slot and your three Belt slots can hold almost anything, and are good ones to use for single-use and miscellaneous items. I like to keep food in the ‘e’ slot of my belt.

  • x: E’x’change the up-in-air item with the one (if present) in one of your inventory slots.
  • s: Show contents of your pack.
  • p: Stash the up-in-air item in your pack.
  • t: Take an item from your pack.
  • d: Drop an item from the selected slot

—–

I’ve got much more to say about Omega, but this article is already much longer than I wanted it to be! There’s so much ground to cover that I’m increasing the post frequency of @Play for a bit, so you won’t have too long to wait for the next part. In the meantime, you might find these links to be of interest….

@Play: The Alpha of Omega

‘@Play’ is a monthly column which discusses the history, present and future of the roguelike dungeon exploring genre.

This is the beginning of our exploration of classic roguelike Omega. Instead of opening with a mere explication of the game and its history, I figured I’d offer some play examples through screenshots, and give a bit of the story of my experience with it, while explaining some of the points of the game’s beginning along the way. After all, my aim is to get you interested in this game, maybe even to try it out yourself, and a mere description of it is unlikely to push you very far in that direction.

A more detailed description of the game is coming soon-tomorrow, in fact. In the meantime, this short play was under version 0.80.2, which is the current “stable” version, and has been for over 20 years. There is a newer “development” version, 0.90.4, which is almost as old.

So, I started a new game of Omega. Starting characters are rated on the traditional D&D scale of 3 to 18, though they can become higher during play. A few rerolls resulted in stats that were above average across the board. While the highest was only 16, none was beneath 12. I accepted them and named the character Rodney. (It’s a lucky name. Bad luck.)

All games of Omega begin in Rampart. The layout of the city doesn’t change generally, but the location of some businesses and places does, as does the layout of its hedge maze. Rampart is safe to rest in, unless you gain the ire of monsters in the hedge maze. They won’t come out to bother you unless you go inside and they see you.

I decided to go for a chaotic build this time, which meant not being able to avail myself of the many benefits of Paladin-hood, but allowing my character to worship Set, who grants the spell of Invisibility when joining. Invisibility is helpful for escaping inopportune battle. It also means I can go ahead and rob the ATM right away instead of waiting until after joining up with the Paladins or a lawful religion.

This is a spoiler, but it’s one of the most-used plays in Omega, and it greatly helps you get characters underway. To rob the ATM, open an account (press Shift-O while interacting with it), choose a password, then press Shift-P and enter a different password than you entered. The ATM will tell you the police have been called an to “Press space to continue.” Press any key other than space. There’ll be a little display and you’ll end up with between 1,000 and 4,000 more gold. This will break the ATM, so you can’t do it again, and give you a bit of Chaotic alignment, but it’s not much and you can get it reduced easily by talking to the Archdruid, which you should do really soon anyway.

The ATM money is important for joining one of the magic guilds and the Thieves’ Guild, which are very expensive to a starting character, and help you pick up some bargains from the city Pawn Shop. My exploration of the city found the Thieves’ Guild in the upper-right corner of the city. I joined up with three guilds: the Collegium Magii, the religion of Set, and the Thieves’ Guild.

The Pawn Shop often sells useful random items, and its stock slowly changes as time passes. In this game its starting inventory included boots of speed, a terrific item that can make the early game much easier. It also had a scroll of spells. Reading a scroll of spells provides a chance of learning a random spell, which can also greatly improve a character’s viability. Sadly, this one provided nothing.

Having higher Dexterity, I decided to go with light weapons. The choice in Omega is generally between heavy bladed and crushing weapons, which use Strength, or light and missile weapons, which rely on Dexterity. I went with an epee, costing 100 gold, which turned out to be a great choice for this character.

Rodney’s various career tracks now underway, they visited “Commandant Sonder’s Rampart-Fried Lyzzard Partes” and bought 20 buckets (it’s easy to run out of food in the wilderness), and then stepped out of town for a stroll north to see the Archdruid. A chat with the Archdruid provides 250 experience points, enough to immediately advance a character to Level 3. A Level 3 character is far from omnipotent, but won’t be in danger of being fried by a cosmic ray, which happens in Omega from time to time. You can also get your alignment neutralized somewhat there, but I was leaning into Chaoticness.

Back in Rampart. A place to get a few extra gold pieces is fighting the first opponents in the arena, which is usually pretty safe if you restrict yourself to the first four. (Note, if you join the Gladiator guild, you’ll earn more money for your fights, but will also be advanced to harder opponents!)

There’s a general sequence of events in Omega’s early game that provides for optimal play. After robbing the ATM and advancing to level 3, I usually like to tackle the hedge maze. At level 3 the opponents here are usually not too bad, although there’s always the danger of encountering something hideously strong: I once got roasted here by a fire-breathing salamander. The traps here can also be dangerous for the unwary.

One reason for exploring the hedge maze is to get access to the Oracle, who eventually provides access to an important late-game location, but also gives advice on where to go and can reveal your alignment to you. When the game asks if you want to attack them, be sure to say No! You may also find a few random items and the entrance to the Sewers, an early dungeon.

Then it’s off to the Duke of Rampart to get the first quest, which involved killing the Goblin King. The Duke will only deign speak with you if you’re at least Level 3. Outside town, the Goblin Caves must be searched for in the wilderness, with the ‘s’ key, but are always in the same place: three spaces south of the city.

Here we see the result of casting Object Detection. It’s cheap to cast, and can provide aid in determining which passages to explore in dungeons. But mana points in Omega don’t naturally regenerate over time, only from gaining an experience level or other explicit sources, and so must be guarded jealously. One of the more horrible things that can happen to a magic-using Omegan is stepping on a Manadrain Trap, which can leave you helpless. If you’re not in the Sorcerers’ Guild they charge a ton of cash to refill your mana. It’s worth looking out for powtabs in the pawn shop, which restore mana when eaten.

The Goblin Caves have a winding kind of structure, and often have copper pieces embedded in the wall. You can tear down many walls by using the Tunnel command (shift ‘T’), but this produces a pile of rubble that harms you when you wade through it, and that takes time to dig yourself out of. It’s mostly useful for getting yourself out of passages where you’re trapped by neutral NPCs who block you and refuse to get out of your way. (Or you could just kill them, if you’re of chaotic bent.)

As you gain character experience, you also advance in all the guilds you’re a member of. The guilds provide extra benefits as you gain standing with them; the Collegium Magii teaches you the Identification spell, although if you’re a member of the Thieves’ Guild, item ID is pretty cheap there.

Advancing in a religion is a good source of spells. Several of these spells came from worshiping Set. I currently know only one combat spell: Firebolt. It isn’t bad, although it’s costly to cast.

Here’s an instance of some of that bad luck I mentioned! If you fail an attack particularly badly in combat, you may drop your weapon, or it may even break! This kind of tragic happenstance is all over the place in Omega. You just have to roll with it. If all you have is your hands you’re useless in a fight with ! It can be worth it to carry a spare in your pack.

A good test of whether your character is doing well is if you can easily defeat the chieftains in the Goblin Caves. A Goblin Chieftain is fast, and hits hard with their great axes. If you’re wielding a weapon not indicated by your stats they’ll put an end to your adventure very quickly.

While Goblin Chieftains are bad, Goblin Shamans, which look identical on the screen (a green G) are even worse! They can cast a variety of annoying spells, and can poison you, give you a disease (get this cured at the Healer’s in town) or even put you to sleep. That last one nearly ended the game by itself.

There’s identification scrolls and spells in Omega, and you can pay the Thieves’ Guild to identify things you’re carrying, but there are also random scrolls that outright identify an entire category of item. These are all identified as “Jane’s Guide to Treasure,” and they’re definitely worth purchasing if you find one in the Pawn Shop.

Some traps in the dungeons are particularly nasty. Abyss Traps can teleport you to a random location, and also tack on some damage too. I already mentioned how dangerous Manadrain Traps can be to a magic user. Disintegration Traps can annihilate a piece of equipment you’re wearing. The choices are either to search every space (and even that might not be enough) or hope for the best. If your Dexterity is pretty good, it’s usually not hard to disarm known trips with Shift-D.

It was a pretty good game, but it ultimately ended at the hands of a bog thing in the wilderness. Turns out they’re pretty tough. Who knew? Omega is of the school of game that teaches primarily by killing you over and over again. Each new monster is a fresh opportunity to possibly get slaughtered because you don’t know if it’s too strong for you to tackle, or the special trick to beating it.

Maybe that’s a good indication of what playing Omega is like? I have elided a lot. Tune in tomorrow for a more traditional introduction to Omega.

@Play: Alphaman, Part 2

‘@Play’ is a monthly column which discusses the history, present and future of the roguelike dungeon exploring genre.

This is @Play #89. We resume our examination of 1995’s post-apocalyptic DOS roguelike, Alphaman! If you missed it, don’t forget to check out part one!

Checking Berries and Inspecting Gadgets

I’m an outspoken fan of interesting identification systems in roguelikes. You’re free to disagree with me, but I find that they add a layer of strategy to the use of items. In many games, when you randomly find a good item, it makes sense to immediately press it into service. Often there is no skill in its use; you use, wear or wield it, and from then on its powers are at your disposal. At its furtherest extreme it’s like the random number generator is playing you. There should be some decision-making involved to properly utilize the item once it’s found. Maybe items have limited durability that has to be managed? Maybe items change over time, so you must know when best to use them? Or, as with Rogue and Hack, maybe you don’t know what many items are at first, and must figure that out through some risky and costly manner.

Congratulations!

Alphaman uses an identification system, but it works differently from Rogue’s. While there are items that can identify other items, for the most part you don’t identify things like that. There are two major classes of unknown items in Alphaman: berries and devices.

Berries are somewhat like Rogue’s potions. They’re one-use items that are generally consumed to activate. Alphaman has 35 kinds of randomized berries to discover on each play. While the game gives you insight into a few berries at the start of the game, most berries must be discovered by testing them. Like Rogue’s potions, there are good and bad berries, and like in Rogue, once you know the function of one variety of berry, you know it for all other berries of that type. Good-type berries might heal you, restore your fatigue, permanently increase your defense, or help you figure out how to use gadgets. Bad ones could poison you, cause you to grow useless extra limbs or blind you. And then there are the interesting cases, the berries that could be either bad or good, depending on its color. Most berry effects are temporary, although some, like the berry of blindness, last a significant number of turns.

An important thing to keep in mind about berries: known berries are marked with an asterisk, but their descriptions don’t change in-game. You must check your known items list to find out what a berry does. Flipping between the inventory and the discovered items list does get annoying after a while.

Alphaman’s innovation with berries is giving each a ripeness level. All berries have a color that tells you how ripe it is. The colors go through the spectrum, from red (least ripe) to purple (most ripe). Ripeness is kind of like the curse/bless system of NetHack, but all berries naturally become riper over time. More ripe berries are more powerful than less ripe ones.

You will probably have to consume some berries to identify them. If it’s a bad berry, you want to identify it by eating it unripe. If it’s a good berry, you want it to be ripe to maximize its effects. But some berries give bad effects when unripe and good effects when ripe. That’s especially the case for stat and experience effecting berries, which are very helpful when eaten when ripe. A few berries are also better off thrown at enemies than eaten yourself. Decisions, decisions.

Gadgets are also divided into two classes, small and large. There are 97 types of small device and 38 of large. Fortunately you don’t have to use-identify them! There is a command, F, to figure out how to use a device. You aren’t guaranteed to be successful, and if you fail your chance very badly you could break the device, or, if it’s a grenade-type item, cause it to go off in your hands.

Many kinds of gadgets are humorous, and some are useless, but a few apparently-extraneous ones have a secret function that can be discovered if you experiment with them. Like, a microwave oven can ripen berries, and toilet paper can be used as a weapon against dung beetles. Try using items, with the U key, to see what they do. A handful of items can also be “Unused,” with Shift-U: this is usually used to un-equip wearables, but that’s also how you get things out of a Backpack item.

Mutations and Fatigue

Two unique characteristics of Alphaman are the way it handles mutations, and its fatigue system.

Mutations are in other roguelike games, of course. They’re important elements of both ADOM and Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. Alphaman uses them as an extra couple of perks your character receives upon creation. Unlike many other games, starting an Alphaman character is very quick: you get basic stats in a number of D&D-like categories, and are randomly assigned one Physical and one Mental mutation. You don’t gain more mutations as a character progresses. The ones they begin with are the only mutations they’ll have through the whole game.

Mutations are used the same way as items, with the U key, for “Use.” Most of them have a short delay before you can use them again. All of these mutations are beneficial, but you don’t get any say in what you get, other than by start-scumming, quitting and restarting many times until you get your favorites. Some mutations immediately increase one of those middling starting stats up to epic levels. Most mutations are very helpful if you know how to use them correctly, but figuring out the best way to use them might take a few games. I especially found the Quills mutation, which gives you an innate missile weapon you can use in a pinch and directly damages monsters who attack you in melee.

“Pooped”

Fatigue is a very interesting addition to the roguelike formula, in my opinion. Every action you undertake carries with it a cost in energy, which comes out of your fatigue level. Fatigue is shown on screen by a status that runs from Well Rested down through Pooped, and eventually Exhausted. Your actions become less effective as your fatigue rises. If this sounds burdensome, it needn’t be. It doesn’t take very much to restore your fatigue level. All you generally need to do is rest a few turns, with the period key, to get your level back up from Pooped to Well Rested.

What fatigue does is impose a limit on doing many things in close succession. Fighting large numbers of enemies at once, even if they’re attacked one at a time, will tire you out a lot. If you’ve being chased by monsters and are a little faster than them, you can probably store enough of your stamina by running until you’re one space away, then resting a turn while they catch up. Carrying a lot of things, measured by your on-screen Encumbrance level, or having a low Constitution stat causes you to become fatigued more easily. But so long as you think to rest a few turns after fights you should be okay.

Spoilers

This section is spoilers, but they are the kind that, at this late date, I think will help a player decide whether they want to play this unusual and interesting game more than actually give anything away. Still, if you want to go in completely fresh, you’ll want to skip this section. (I gave a few very minor things away above, but that’s pretty light.)

To win at Alphaman generally requires:

  • Finding Elvis’s Hideout, and getting the Blue Suede Shoes from the real Elvis (who is friendly, but won’t give you the shoes until all the Impersonators are defeated). BTW, all of these places are considered “castles” by the game.
  • Finding the Munster’s castle, 1313 Mockingbird Lane, which contains a map to reveal the location of the Grinch’s stronghold. The stronghold can be found without the map, though you’ll have to search around for it.
  • Finding the Castle of Those Who Came In Second to find Buzz Aldrin’s Space Suit, which confers radiation resistance. The Grinch’s place is always in the middle of a radiation zone, which will rapidly sap your health while you’re within it. It is possible to acquire radiation resistance by other means, so this may be optional.
  • Finding Trump’s Casino for the ID card to get into the Grinch’s castle. You’ll easily know the casino—most of the monsters and items found inside it are “Trump” monsters and items, as in, Trump Ghouls, and the Trump Cheese Grater.
  • Finding the Castaway’s Fortress to obtain the Keptibora Serum from Gilligan, which provides 24 hours of resistance to the Grinch’s nerve toxin. The Castaway’s Fortress is always surrounded by water, so a means of travel to it must be sought.
Some of the jokes in Alphaman have not aged well, but there are bits that are rather prescient.

In the roguelike way, each of these steps contains many unexpected perils, and it may take you multiple attempts at each, falling victim to each major obstacle at least once, before you discover the way through. If you have the time, energy, and patience to put up with that, then Alphaman will supply you with many hours enjoyment. The pleasure of this may begin to diminish for you as you die more and more often, however.

You first games are likely to be short, so not much lost, but the further you get, the more you lose when an unexpected danger kills your hapless character. (“It’s a rosebush, how hard could it be?”) One thing that might help you, that’s not a tremendous spoiler, is that the various castles you have to explore can mostly be done in any order.

He’s a mean one! He really is a heel!

At the very end of the game you’ll face the Grinch, and he has one last nasty surprise for you. I am torn, a bit, about whether to spoil this, but it is in a chapter of spoilers, and it may save you a loss at the very end of your journey. So I will reveal this: Your final task is not to kill the Grinch. Think about who he is, what he came from, look around his castle for significant items, and thing how you might be able to find a way to appeal to his better nature. That’s all.

Alphaman’s Legacy

The legacy of 20th-century hussle.

1995 was towards the latter days of the age of shareware. It’s easy to forget, but there were different types of shareware. There was the first-hit’s-free type, the kind that gave out the first episode but where the publishers released the others by mail order or or commercially. That was the model that Wolfenstein 3D and Doom used, and was probably the most successful. Then there’s the kind that lets you play up to a certain point, but to go beyond that you had to pay for a registration code, that unlocked the rest of the game. This often got assigned the moniker of “trialware.” Then there’s what we might call “true” shareware, where the game, in full, was distributed, and while it might nag you to register it, there was no need to to keep playing. If players enjoyed it, they were on the honor system to send in their payment. One of these true shareware games was Alphaman.

Alphaman’s creator Jeffrey Olson tells me he only ever received about 30 paid registrations for his game. At $15 each, that comes up to $450, which given the number of hours he put into it doesn’t seem like proper recompense. Perhaps it’s because of the prevalence of free, sometimes even open source roguelikes like NetHack and Angband, which were already on releases that current-day players would see as reasonably complete. Jeffrey doesn’t harbor any hard feelings, he says, he was just happy to meet people who enjoyed his game.

In the years since its release, Jeffrey has been doing quite a lot with his life! He graduated with a doctorate in Physics from Cornell University. He made hardware that will travel to the planet Jupiter on the Europa Clipper:

“[…]cooling a JPL infrared spectrometer to detect what chemicals are present on Jupiter’s icy moons, and to the asteroid Psyche, cooling a gamma ray spectrometer that will detect what elements are present in the metallic asteroid. I wish I had put a gamma ray spectrometer in Alphaman.

Jeffrey also also been married for 30 years, plays soccer every week, plays the trombone, and makes his own beer to share with friends. A high-school friend of his, Peter Jessop, helped test the game, and has done voice work for a wide range of big-name video games, among them Destiny 2 and Red Dead Redemption! It’s always nice when one of our team does good.

I asked Jeffrey if he had anything to say to people who have played and enjoyed Alphaman over the years, and who might play it in the future. He said, “Thanks for taking the time to play Alphaman. I hoped you enjoyed playing as much as I enjoyed creating it, and sorry about all the jokes from the 1990s that aged so poorly. I’ll always be embarrassed by references to Dan Quayle, Mary Decker, and the Kevorkian Machine….”

Thanks for your efforts, then and now, Jeffery. We’ll meet again in the Adventurer’s Lounge someday, after the last quest is done.

@Play: Alphaman, Part 1

@Play is a continuation of a column on roguelikes that I did back on GameSetWatch. At the moment it is monthly, so please look out for it! GameSetWatch no longer exists on the living web, but it can still be found in the Wayback Machine. (Many of its best articles are also preserved in the book Exploring Roguelike Games, published by CRC Press.)

Yeah, I’ve been ekeing a living out of these wastes for years, even since The Bomb ended life as we knew it. Life back then was simple. You might have had a soul-crushing office job, but you didn’t have to face off against vampiric warthogs or psychic blue jays. Just on the way here I was set upon by a stalk of asparagus with a chip on its shoulder and deadly radiation coming out of its leafy head. I had to run up close to it and whack it to death to make it stop zapping me. At least, I think it was dead. It wasn’t moving no more, but the same thing’s the case with normal asparagus. Maybe it’s just resting.

I’m on a mission here from out of state to find the source of a deadly nerve toxin with the power to destroy the rest of life on Earth. First I have to find my informant, Elvis Presley. Yes, that Elvis. The world’s always been a weird place, the nuclear war just made it a whole bunch weirder. But before I can find him, I’ve got to get to his castle. No, not Graceland, the one here in New York. I don’t got time to fill you in on how much you been lied to.

Look over there, it’s a gazelle! Looks harmless, doesn’t it? You see that laser gun on its back? DUCK YOU FOOL, get down behind this rock! Okay, here’s what we do. You run over there to distract it, and I’ll get up close and poke it to death with my pitchfork. We’ve only got once chance at this, we either take down this antisocial ungulate or the whole world, such as it is, is toast. It might suck, but at least we’ve got all these cans of Spam littering the ground to survive off of. You don’t like Spam you say? What do you think this is, a convenience store?

Nuclear weapons have destroyed civilization. You’re a mutated human living in a valley in central New York. This looks like the end.

But maybe it’s not. The world is in bad shape, but life continues, in its way. But maybe not for much longer. An outside group has sent you in as its agent to investigate rumors of some entity that’s obtained a deadly and virulent nerve toxin that could wipe out what remains of life on the planet. You don’t have much information on this being or its location at the outset of your quest. Only that it’s some creature known only as the Grinch….

Alphaman Basics

Alphaman is a console-based roguelike computer game released for DOS in 1995. This means it doesn’t qualify as an early roguelike, but it’s still pretty old.

1995 was the year of Windows 95, and at last the beginning of Microsoft’s push to eliminate MS-DOS. DOS wasn’t dead yet though, which was fortuitous for Alphaman, since it’s a DOS console program and can run in Windows 95’s DOS compatibility layer. Nowadays if one doesn’t have access to a PC from that era, they’ll probably have to run it on the emulation platform DOSbox.

It’s been a while since I’ve done an @Play, it might be worth it to go over some really basic basics of both it and classic roguelikes generally.

The smiley-face is you. Letters of the alphabet are monsters, most of which are trying to kill you. Walk into a monster to hit it with your currently equipped weapon.

The large green punctuation symbols (not the periods) represent foliage; you usually want to go around these things, but sometimes you might be able to break through.

Other colored punctuation and symbols are usually items you can collect. When you walk on an item, you automatically collect it. This might burden you a lot, if you are carrying many heavy items. When you’re burdened (check the Encumberance status), you tire more easily and get hungry faster.

The red border is the edge of the current section of the world map. Walking into it will give you a brief glimpse of the world around you, then you’ll appear in the next screen over.

You might find a purple symbol in the wilderness. These are lairs. You can go down, into the lair, with the < (Lesser-Than) key. (Note: This is the opposite from other games! In most classic roguelike games, > goes down and < goes up.)

You might find a large blue rectangle with an opening in one side. These are ruins or castles. Walk into the opening to enter and explore. These usually extend both up and down. You can find nice items and tough monsters there. To win the game, you will have to find and explore several castles.

If you press the Question Mark key, you’ll be shown this very helpful screen telling what the various keys do. A capital letter means to hold down Shift while pressing it. Especially note these keys:

  • u: Use an item, including wearing armor and wielding weapons
  • U: “Unuse” an item, taking armor off and cease wielding a weapon. This also gets items out of a backpack.
  • d: Drop an item (use this to become less encumbered)
  • f: Try to figure out a device
  • e: Eat food (Cans of Spam and Beef-A-Roni, mostly). Also press ‘e’ to eat berries.
  • . (period): Rest (to remove fatigue)
  • s: Search, checking the eight squares around you for hidden passages, useful in ruins and castles
  • p: Use your physical mutation
  • m: Use your mental mutation (the u key can also use these)
  • t: Throw an item. Use this with darts, shuriken and other missile weapons. You’ll be asked to pick a spot to throw at.
  • Z: Sleep. When the sun goes down you must find a quiet place and sleep through the night. Inside a cleared level of a structure or lair is good for this.
  • F1-F7: Changes the display to show more information. F2 brings up your inventory, F3 lists items you have identified, F4 shows a summary of your condition, F5 shows the overworld map, and F7 shows a list of symbols relevant to your current location.

As you play, you’ll eventually find better weapons and armor. For armor, Unuse the one you’re currently wearing with Shift-U (items in use are marked with an asterisk in the item list), then use the new one by pressing U. The effectiveness of your current armor is represented by your “Armor Class” in your stats. Armor Class affects how easily monsters can hit you with physical attacks. The game will seem a fair bit easier if you’re wearing good armor.

Alphaman uses the old D&D paradigm for Armor Class, in which lower numbers are better! It starts at 10 and goes down. Negative numbers are especially good! Leather and Hide Armor are weak, Ring and Chain Mail are better, Plate Mail is very good. How are you supposed to know that if you haven’t played a lot of D&D, or aren’t a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism? It’s just one of those little things that all RPG players must absorb, eventually. Some of it you have to figure out as you go. It’s part of the game.

Note, in Alphaman, protective equipment tends to wear out with use. Eventually as you take blows, you’ll be told that your armor is damaged, and then, destroyed. It would be good to have backup armor to put on when that happens.

Up, Down, and Around

As mentioned, Alphaman is set in the future, after a nuclear war that ended civilization, instead of the usual D&D-inspired fantasy scenario. This puts it in the ballpark of D&D’s neglected sister game Gamma World, and its ancestor Metamorphosis Alpha. Instead of magic spells there’s advanced technology and weird mutations, and replacing the monsters from myth and folklore there are deranged versions of animals and plants. Because the setting is on Earth, just in the future, it is less anachronistic to include places, devices and even people from our planet’s history. Alphaman really carries this aspect to extremes with its many pop culture references, as we’ll see later.

A glimpse of the “overworld,” the large-scale map of the landscape that connects the areas.

The most popular roguelikes from the time had a “vertical” structure. They were made of a series of single-screen dungeon levels extending deeper and deeper into the earth. Rogue, Hack, NetHack and Larn all do this. ADOM was also like this in its original form, before it got an overworld. Moria and Angband have vertical dungeons, but each dungeon level took up multiple screens, and those games flip between them when the player gets near one of the edges of the viewable area.

Alphaman has vertical dungeon areas, that extend conceptually either down into the ground, or up into above-ground buildings, or both. But it also has an “overworld”: a wide above-ground region that sprawls out many screens north, south, east, and west. There is both an overworld screen that reveals the large-scale lay of the land, and individual screens contained within it, each representing one square of the overworld. At the start you’re shown the overworld and your location within it, but you’re immediately taken down into your current screen. When your character moves to an edge of that screen, the overworld map and your location are again shown for a moment, then it’s replaced by the map of the new screen your character has entered.

In most roguelikes it is standard practice, in vertical dungeons, that the game stops counting the actions of creatures off of your current level. If you’re adjacent to a monster on the previous level it might be given a chance to follow you, but otherwise it cools its heels while you’re away, assuming you’re not playing one of those games where dungeon levels you leave behind aren’t forgotten about completely.

A swarm of irate critters intent on mischief.

Alphaman works like that when you’re in a location that plays by vertical dungeon rules, but on the overworld, monsters on screens that you leave are not forgotten about. They continue to receive turns, even while they’re out of sight of your character, and can follow you across a substantial portion of the overworld map. It is very likely, as you flee, that the new screens you enter will contain monsters of their own who will happily join in the chase, until you’re leading a whole cloud of angry letters across the leafy landscape of post-apocalyptic New York.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Apocalypse

Anybody got any butter?

As you might have picked up from the introduction, Alphaman has a lot more pop culture references than the typical roguelike. NetHack, a game that some consider to be excessively burdened by jokes, is reserved compared to Alphaman. In addition to ultimately fighting the Grinch:

  • Your first major destination is a castle of Elvis Impersonators where you must find the real one,
  • You may visit castles belonging to the Castaways of Gilligan’s Island and the Munsters, and could even end up exploring a Trump casino,
  • A lot of miscellaneous monsters may be found throughout the game, like the inhabitants of the castles, as well as: Mr. Potato Head, a “Bush,” who if defeated summons a “Quayle” (this game was published long before the era of Bush 45), an “Algore” that plants grow around, King Kong and Godzilla, “the Blob,” and others.
  • A wide variety of wacky devices and objects, some of which are useless, including (just a few) a Chia Pet, a Cheese Grater, and a mask of former Democratic Speaker of the US House of Representatives Tip O’Neill, which blinds you but scares off monsters.

As the Bush/Quayle and Tip O’Neill jokes suggest, the humor of Alphaman is of a distinctly 90’s flavor, and so as time passes the jokes age further and further out of currency. Some people reading this may not even have been alive during the reign of the first George Bush. On the other hand, slaughtering your way through a castle-like Trump Casino carries a special vicarious thrill that people from the 90s probably wouldn’t feel nearly so deeply as today. An important item to collect there is Trump’s “Presidential ID Card.” Did Jeffrey Olson know something then that we didn’t…?

We have so much to tell you about Alphaman, and its creator Jeffrey Olson, that we’re saving more of it for next month. See you then!

Links

The site with the last remaining original mirror of Alphaman is ftp.funet.fi. Alphaman there is alpman11.zip. It can also be found on Abandonia. Alphaman was not the kind of game to get a physical release, and the end screen requests that you distribute it far and wide, so there are no legal issues there.

To play Alphaman now, you’ll need a means of running MS-DOS. You could spin up a virtual machine that runs DOS, but most people will just want to use DOSbox. DOSbox requires a little configuration, but can be used in many different platforms, including Windows, Mac and Linux.

Here is the source code to Alphaman, on GitHub.

Here is The Alphaman FAQ, on Usenet (1995) via Google Groups, which, amazingly, Google hasn’t shut down yet.