Home Computer Graphic Character Sets Compared

8-bit microcomputer graphics were, compared to the graphics cards and chips we mostly use today, pretty limited. While machines like the Commodore 64 and Atari 800 allowed for a fully programmable display, not all devices of the age provided for that.

One solution was what I am told is now called semigraphics, which means using generic characters that are pre-defined by the system in combination with each other, piecing together larger images from symbolic building blocks.

ASCII Art, that fading art form created to make imagines on terminal displays, is a form of semigraphic. The IBM PC character set supported semigraphics mostly through its famous Code Page 437, which provided a variety of line-drawing characters , but looking at it it’s evident that it wasn’t intended for general graphic use.

Different platforms from the time varied widely in their support for graphic characters. Let’s take a quick look at what the options were.


The base Apple II had a very limited character set:

Images in this post taken from Wikipedia

The Apple II’s character offers little opportunity for graphic use. Of course the Apple II is a miracle through and through for being designed almost entirely by one person, Steve Wozniak, and that includes its character set. Note that it doesn’t neglect reverse video, and even has hardware support for flashing characters. Still though, not much you can do with it other than repurpose punctuation and letters.


The PET and successors, by contrast have an excellent character set for makeshift graphics. The image above is of the Commodore 64 version, but the same graphics are used on old PETs, the VIC-20, the Commodore 128, and even the TED-based machines, the Plus-4 and Commodore 16.

While they’re not reflected in the above image, the whole character set can be reversed too. These machines reverse characters by, simply, duplicating the whole set in ROM as negative images.

PETSCII contains:

  • Four playing card suit glyphs
  • A decent set of line-drawing characters, with all intersections both sharp-edged and curved corners
  • Diagonal slopes, diagonal lines and crossed diagonals
  • Horizontal and vertical lines at different places in the character cells
  • Frame corners, which combined with the lines can make decent rectangles
  • Horizontal and vertical bars at several different widths
  • Half-tone checkerboards and half-character checkerboards (on PET systems these have a single-pixel grain, but on later machines the checkerboard squares are 2×2 blocks)
  • 4×4 blocks in enough combinations that, combined with their reverse versions, can be used to approximate a 80×50 pixel display with plain characters
  • Symbols for English pound and Pi

PETSCII is one of the most versatile character sets from the time, and you can do a ton with it with some thought and ingenuity. There used to be a Twitter account (in the days before the Muskening) that posted images of robots made out of PETSCII characters. And because the character set is included in ROM, one doesn’t have to create their own character graphics, using up 8K of system RAM to hold them, to have rudimentary graphics. (In fact, the original PET didn’t even support redefining the character set, so PETSCII was all you got.)


Did Atari consciously follow the naming of PETSCII, with their own self-branded ATASCII? Both are riffing off of ASCII, which stands for American Standard Code for Information Interchange. So I guess PETSCII, going by Commodore’s own claimed meaning for PET, means “Personal Electronic Transactor Standard Code for Information Interchange,” which is pretty terrible. But the ATA in ATASCII makes even less sense, since ATA obviously is just the first three letters in Atari.

While it has nowhere near the sheer number of graphic characters that PETSCII has, it had a decent number, including line drawing, slopes and diagonal lines and playing card suits. Of particular note is that the Clubs symbol has the same hole in its middle that it does in PETSCII.


Wikipedia doesn’t offer a screenshot chart of all the symbols of the TRS-80 set, but it does an HTML Table display, which the above is excerpted from. The only graphic characters it has are these off 2×3 cells, which are like the 2×2 blocks in the Commodore set but with an extra row. This gives its screen slightly finer resolution.

The TRS-80 had fairly basic graphics, it seems: those characters appear to have been it as far as graphics goes. The page I saw that described its capabilities even had a name for those blocks: squots. I think that’s a perfectly fine name for these kinds of boxes, whether it’s on a TRS-80, Commodore 64 or other machine.

Sinclair ZX-81

The ZX-81 had a very limited character set. While it has checkerboard and 4×4 block characters, their inclusion comes at the cost of an apostrophe, an at-sign, and even an exclamation point.

The following Spectrum removed the checkerboards, but added the exclamation point and apostrophe, as well as a lowercase alphabet. Still no @ though.

DOS Code Page 437

This is the one that most of you probably already know. It has its own version of squots, but they’re incomplete: it doesn’t have quarter-box or squot-grained checkerboard characters, tlhough it does have three forms of half-tone, a rather extra assortment of double-lined box characters, playing card suit glyphs, and a number of unusual characters up above that will be very familiar to anyone who played PC Rogue.

DOS Code Page 437 was in many ways the end of the venerable tradition of character set graphics. Neither the Atari ST nor Amiga had much use for general purpose character graphics, instead choosing to use their sets’ spare capacity for international characters, a noble offering, but less useful for graphic use.

It is worth noting some of the characters in the ST’s set, though:

Some miscellaneous glyphs like arrows, an X mark and checkbox, a bell and musical note, the Atari logo in two characters, a bunch of digital readout numbers, and four characters that seem to form a face. Here, I’ll piece it together for you:

Who might this handsome person be? It’s a little hard to make out at this scale, but it’s intended to be a pixel-art representation of “Bob” Dobbs, icon and symbol of the Church of the Subgenius!

It’s not a good set of squots, but it’s not bad.

The Original Neverwinter Nights

The World Wide Web is now over thirty years old. In that time, more content has vanished from it than remains now, but some of it can still be dredged up from the shadowy archives of the Wayback Machine. This is the latest chapter in our never-ending search to find the cool gaming stuff that time forgot….

I feel sometimes like the kid from The Sixth Sense. That reference probably dates me to an extent, it’s from 1999 which feels like practically yesterday. It’s pretty recent as my references go: I know who Kojak was, and remember M*A*S*H.

I feel like that kid because when I look over the internet, sometimes I see ghosts. The shades of dead games. When something disappears from the web, it’s really gone, there is no corpse and its server leaves practically no trace of its existence. But sometimes signs can be found, like archived client uploads, broken hyperlinks, site snapshots on the Internet Archive, or still-active fansites.

One of those ghosts that flickers into my hazy vision sometimes is the original Neverwinter Nights. Not the Bioware game by that name, which really has very little to do with it. The first Neverwinter Nights was a SSI-produced MMORPG on America On-Line, that lasted from 1991 to 1997, a contemporary of Island of Kesmai, and of WorldsAway,which I’ve brought up here before.

NWN might have been a MMORPG, but it was also a MS-DOS game, and it ran on a modified version of SSI’s Gold Box engine, and (I presume) used the 2nd Edition D&D ruleset. That may have been what doomed it in the long run, for the license expired, and AOL, TSR and SSI couldn’t reach an agreement that would allow the game to continue. It is worthy of note that of those three companies, two don’t exist now, and the remaining one is nowadays nearly a ghost itself. I’m not going to say it happened because they couldn’t reach an agreement on continuing NWN, in fact it probably wasn’t, but it’s a little comforting to think it might have contributed. Two things that are equally disposable, it seems, are old MMORPGs and the hide-bound corporations that ran them.

There is a fansite devoted to the AOL Neverwinter Nights, apparently continuous in existence from the days the game was live. It hosts a fan recreation called Neverwinter Nights Offline, which is not an exact recreation of the original but recreates a large portion. Of course, without other human players inhabiting the game’s world, it’s nowhere near the same. It runs in DOS, so Dosbox might be of some use to you.

There is also ForgottenWorld (no relation to Capcom’s arcade game), a fan-made recreation of Neverwinter Nights. The note on the fansite dates to 2004, but ForgottenWorld still survives, and even has a Discord. I haven’t tried it myself yet, nor the offline version of NWN linked above. That’s because I see ghosts like these all the time, and I cannot devote the time or energy to any of them that they truly deserve. But maybe, you can.

On Neverwinter Nights Offline, there is a series of Youtube videos where aulddragon plays it for four hours. The first video in the sequence follows. Check out that Gold Box combat style!

Fansite: The Original Neverwinter Nights 1991-1997
Let’s Briefly Play “Neverwinter Nights AOL” (Youtube playlist, about 4 hours)

Roguelike Celebration Talks Start Tomorrow!

Ah, it crept up on me, so let me remind everyone that Roguelike Celebration begins today, although until tomorrow it just means they’re opening their social space for awhile. Nicole Carpenter at Polygon wrote a short piece about this year’s conference.

There is an admittance fee, but if you can’t afford it you can also get a free pass! Please consider paying them if you are able though, they do a lot of work every year in putting it together.

Here is the official schedule (linked), below is it presented just as a list of talks, with ✨sparkle emojis✨ around the things that personally enthuse me. ✨Just because!✨

Times given are US Pacific/Eastern. If you think the short times between starts are indicative of short talks, most of them aren’t that short, they have two tracks going on beside each other:


9:30 AM/12:30 PM: Arron A. Reed, Klingons, Hobbits, and the Oregon Trail: Procedural Generation in ✨the First Decade of Text Games

10:00 AM/ 1 PM: Nic Tringali, ✨Abstract Space Exploration✨ in The Banished Vault

10:30 AM/ 1:30 PM: Linas Gabrielaitis, Fictions of Infinity in ✨Geological Finitudes

10:45 AM/1:45 PM: Ludipe, Exploring ✨Pacifist✨ Roguelikes

11:30 AM/2:30 PM: Florence Smith Nicholls, Another Stupid Date: ✨Love Island as a Roguelike

11:45 AM/2:45 PM Kes, Hunting the Asphynx: Roguelikes, ✨Provenance✨, and You

Noon/3 PM: Mike Cook, Generating Procedures: ✨Rule and System Generation✨ for Roguelikes

1:30 PM/4:30 PM: Scott Burger, The ✨Data Science✨ of Roguelikes

2 PM/5 PM: Nat Alison, In Defense of ✨Hand-Crafted Sudoku

3 PM/6 PM: Eric Billingsley, Scoped-down design: ✨Making a Tiny Roguelike

3:30 PM/6:30 PM: Elliot Trinidad, Touching Grass & Taking Names: Tuning the ✨Blaseball✨ Name Generator

4:30 PM/7:30 PM: Paul Hembree, Audible Geometry: Coordinate Systems as a Resource for ✨Music Generation

5 PM/8 PM: Jurie Horneman, Why ✨Dynamic Content Selection✨ Is Hard


9:30 AM/12:30 PM: Mark Johnson, ✨Generating Riddles✨ for a Generated World

10 AM/1 PM: Jesse Collet & Keni, Fireside Chat About the Development of ✨NetHack

10:30 AM/1:30 PM: ✨Leigh Alexander✨, ✨McMansions of Hell✨: Roguelikes and Reality TV

1 PM/4 PM: Ray, Remixing the Layer Cake: Facilitating ✨Fan Reinterpretation✨ Through ✨Caves of Qud✨’s Modular Data Files

1:15 PM/4:15 PM: Crashtroid, Preventing Ear Fatigue with ✨Roguelike Music

1:30 PM/4:30 PM: Everest Pipkin, The Fortunate Isles: Fragment Worlds, Walled Gardens, and ✨the Games That Are Played There

2 PM/5 PM: ✨Jeff Olson✨, ✨Alphaman✨: Developing and Releasing a Post-Apocalyptic Roguelike Game in the ✨DOS Days✨ When Computers Were Slow, Memory Was Scarce, and No One Had Ever Heard of Object-Oriented Code

3 PM/6 PM: Dustin Freeman, ✨Live Action Roguelike

3:30 PM/6:30 PM: Jonathan Lessard, A ✨Simulation✨ with a View

3:45 PM/6:45 PM: Tom Francis, Generating ✨Boring Levels✨ for Fresh Experiences in Heat Signature

4 PM/7 PM: Patrick Kemp, Design Tooling at ✨Spry Fox

5 PM/8 PM: Stav Hinenzon, A Messy Approach to ✨Dynamic Narrative✨ in Sunshine Shuffle

5:15 PM/8:15 PM: Josh Galecki, ✨Procedurally Generating Puzzles

5:30 PM/8:30 PM: Jasper Cole, ✨Backpack Hero✨ – Player Upgrades and Progression

6 PM/9 PM: Brianna McHorse & Chris Foster, Fusing AI with Game Design: Let the ✨Chaos✨ In

Reviving ZZT

ZZT was (is) an ancient shareware DOS game that runs in character mode, created and published by Tim Sweeney. Originally published by Potomac Computer Systems, a company ran out of the basement of Sweeney’s house, when it expanded its software selection it was renamed to Epic MegaGames, and later Epic Games, under which title it remains today, still headed by Tim Sweeney after all these years. He would go on to create the Unreal Engine, upon which the modern fortunes of the company were founded.

Images from the Worlds of ZZT bot

But back to ZZT, which is still a nifty piece of software, and a lot of fun to mess around with. It included an editor that allowed users to create their own scenarios, which spawned a modding community that survives to this day. Noted game designer and educator anna anthropy wrote a book about ZZT for Boss Fight and she continues to carry its banner today. ZZT scenarios both old and new can be found on the site Museum of ZZT, and every three hours Mastodon bot Worlds of ZZT publishes screenshots from random ZZT adventures.

Because it’s a character-mode game, ZZT modules are often confused with classic roguelike computer games. ZZT is not necessarily a roguelike, but it may be possible for someone to write a classic-style roguelike game in ZZT.

But running a DOS game nowadays is not as easy as it used to be. It requires the use of either a vintage computer system running a compatible DOS, a virtual machine like VirtualBox or Docker, or some DOS emulator, such as DOSbox, a tool for emulating a working DOS system that can run on current OSes, or Zeta, a DOS emulator with just enough features to get ZZT working.

ZZT was written in Turbo Pascal, but its source code had been misplaced by Tim Sweeney and was considered lost, until very recently (the past few days), when a nearly-complete version of ZZT 3.0 was found. Most of it can be downloaded from The Almost of ZZT, on Github, which is that version minus some parts of the source that are considered to be under third-party copyright.

Since it is incomplete it is not useful for compiling a working game, and is presented for historical reasons more than anything. Fortunately, there already exists The Reconstruction of ZZT, a reverse-engineered (with Sweeney’s blessing) version from 2020 that compiles to identical binaries.

ZZT is a subject that deserves much more detail than I can give it in an introductory post like this. Maybe later….

Xmas Lemmings 1991

It’s the holidays and we’re trying to make low effort posts for now, so let’s just watch a playthrough of the first Christmas Lemmings disk, released in 1991.

Psygnosis released several of these as free pass-around demos. This one is of the MS-DOS version, and is only about 19 minutes in total. Enjoy the festive yuletide peril!

@Play: An Early-Level FAQ For Omega

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

We’re approaching the end of our burst of coverage of Unix, DOS, Linux, Mac and Amiga roguelike Omega. There are even other places to play it that have arrived since then, including OS/2, Windows console native, Windows with graphics, and even in-browser.

My experiences with Omega have been filled with death, frustration, annoyance, exasperation, and death. But I have also greatly enjoyed the game. While even with source-diving I have not gotten much farther than completing the Goblin Caves, the game is still enjoyable for me to play. There’s lots of cool things to discover, powerful items to find, and interesting strategies to formulate. In Omega one may see early forms of ideas found in venerable NetHack and ADOM.

Those two games have had a lot more fan obsession directed at them over the years, which has broken off some of their sharper edges. There are entire genres of NetHack variants devoted to fixing things about it that some people disagree with.

Omega has not had this advantage. Rather more things will just kill you in Omega. There are a lot of things that deserve experimentation, but that experimentation will often result in an expedited demise, or else make your character unplayable, or merely erase much of your progress.

At @Play we are of the opinion that more people should play all roguelikes, be they classic, modern, or lite. So please, allow me to present a basic strategy FAQ for Omega. Information from this has been derived from many sources: an old FAQ for 0.75, ancient posts on the Usenet group rec.games.roguelike.misc (that’s a link to Google Groups, so follow it before it goes the way of late lamented Reader), and the source code to Omega (these here are the sources I examined).

Why am I so into this? It’s because it’s a worthy game, one that can give an interested player a lot of enjoyment, yet few people talk about it anymore. And yet there is a real sense that this game could someday just vanish. While there’s several Github projects hosting the source with grandiose aims, like converting the code to use C++ or making a “Next Generation” version, they haven’t seen movement in several years.

In a file in the code, Omega creator Laurence Brothers offers his hopes for future development of his project. But then he graduated from college, and passed the game on to others, who, after some initial effort, have not done a great amount with it in the decades since.

Adult Life happens to everyone, and no one should be faulted for failing to maintain an old terminal game that was mostly played by college students. But it is a shame that Omega doesn’t have an inscrutable and forbidding DevTeam like NetHack does, to be mysterious in their aims and slightly malicious in their efforts.

As I’ve said, I’ve been tooling around a little with the source code. Omega’s structure isn’t that hard to understand. Maybe something will come of it. If it does, you can be sure that I’ll mention it here, and probably try to get some more column mileage out of it. Until then, here is a whole lot of strategy discussion on Omega.

This is pretty long! It may be the longest single @Play column I’ve ever written. It’s basically a FAQ itself, although in actuality few have done any asking for a long time. NetHack and ADOM have full wikis. Omega deserves one too, but until that day happens, this is what I’ve been able to piece together.

This logjam of an article is presented along the lines that, if people want to read it, it’s here, and if they don’t, well, at least I’m done talking about Omega for now, and it’s all here neatly in a single page that you can hit Close Tab on with a song in your heart. I don’t expect you to share my obsessions, only that you recognize why I’m obsessed, and to consider if you’d like to house this ancient DOS roguelike in your own brain too.

About as far as I’ve been, having completed the Sewer dungeon.

Here, you will discover how to join guilds, what spells the religions teach, how to immediately earn thousands of gold pieces, the details of more than one secret game mechanic, what to wish for, and how to enter Omega’s secret cheat mode….

Here are the previous posts on Omega: onetwothreefour. And while we’re at it, here’s the two previous posts on Omega’s contemporary Alphaman: firstsecond.

What Is The Objective?

So, what is your character trying to accomplish in Omega? The answer is: who knows?

In its way a bit like Animal Crossing, there is no definite ending to Omega. Your character can retire if they earn 50,000 gold pieces and buy a condo in Rampart. If you do that, then visit it and choose to retire, to the game, that’s a win: it calls the function p_win(), and ends the game. Pay off Tom Nook!

The other form of winning involves becoming an Adept, which means completing the Adept’s Challenge. In the game’s code this is called a “bigwin.” I am not completely sure of the requirements, but part of it involves going to the Astral Plane, which is done through the auspices of the Oracle of the Blue Flame, so don’t attack her! Once you do so you can make wishes when you want, but your score is frozen at the moment you complete the challenge.

Another form of victory is to get your name in one of the positions of the scoreboard. Instead of a Top-X list of scores, it’s a number of positions in the game world. If your character gets to the top of a guild, or a religion, or completes all the Duke’s quests, or gets the greatest Law or Chaos alignment score seen on that installation, gets commemorated, not just on the scoreboard, but as a presence in the game world for future players to hear about.

Some Nuances


Maintaining alignment is a weird process. Omega was created at a time when old school D&D’s lawful/chaotic system was still in recent memory. In this moral setup, good and lawfulness get generally conflated, as do evil and chaoticness. A necessarily reductive, even medieval, outlook upon the world, no distinction is made for rulebreaking to help the oppressed, or the enforcement of evil laws.

In D&D, you decide your character’s alignment when you create it, and the DM is expected to enforce that decision, with consequences should the player’s actions not line up with it. This is especially bad for paladins, who can lose all their class powers. In roguelikes like Hacklikes, ADOM and Omega, alignment naturally changes according to the player’s actions: if you do lawful things, your character slowly becomes more lawful, and the same goes for chaotic things.

There are a small number of things that can greatly affect your alignment. One of them is reading a scroll of law or drinking a potion of chaos when you’re already of that alignment. I find it instructive to recognize how Omega represents: law is information, but chaoticness is physical. There is a “chaos sea” in the game, but no such physical manifestation of law. Even so, each undoes the other.

Over time, the things that affect your alignment the most are small but frequent changes, especially how you deal with monsters. If you attack a monster before it gets a swing on you, it’s chaotic; if you let try to hit you first, it’s lawful. No allowance is made for whether you had a choice in the matter.

If you are purposely trying to change your alignment, the best way to do it is, perhaps oddly, by threatening to intelligent monsters.

By threatening them, instead of killing them wordlessly, you get three lawful points. If you threaten them and they surrender (usually from goblins), you’re give a choice to kill them, rob them, or to free it.

If you let them free, you get two more lawful points. If you rob them, you gain two chaotic points, which is not enough to overwhelm the push towards lawful. But if you execute them on the spot, you gain thirteen chaos points, enough to negate the lawful gain and ten more! It’s unsporting, but it’s a good way to ensure that you stay chaotic, like, if you’re in the Sorceror’s Guild and you don’t want to get mega-cursed, or want to advance with them.


One of the first things you’ll want to do in a game of Omega is to join at least one guild in the town of Rampart.

There is a ton of information to relate on the guilds and what they each do, their requirements for joining, what you get when you join up and advance, etc. I decided to summarize it all by way of this chart:

You might have to right-click it and save if you want to get a good look; I’d like to increase its size by more, but WordPress seems determined to maintain that left margin, argh.

The Fighting, Magic and Religion categories of guilds are all mutually exclusive with each other: you can only belong to one of each at a time. Some will throw you out if you escape their good graces, which allows you to then join another one: the Paladins if you cease to be lawful, the Gladiators if you somehow escape a match without winning, and the Sorcerors’ if you stop being chaotic-although in that case, you also get pretty heavily cursed, and they refuse to sell you mana for the rest of the game. (I’ve seen at least one report that they outright kill you, but this is not supported by my reading of the source code. They do cause some damage, though.)

The whole early period in Rampart is a lot like an extended character creation session. In D&D terms, you don’t even have a “class” until you pick out your first guild. It’s a good idea to not to earn any experience points until you’ve joined at least one XP-using guild, so you don’t waste any.

Once you’re a member of a guild, however, it can be a good idea to hold back before joining a second. Your earned XP is split between all the guilds you’re a member of. While you’re a member of only one guild, all of your experience goes only into it, making your advancement in it very rapid. The next-to-last rank in each guild is reached at 4,000 XP. It’s not hugely difficult to get to this if you only have one. That’s only like four trifids. If you have four XP-needing guilds (the maximum), you need to get 16,000 XP to get that far.

The exception to this is the Gladiators. Advancement in the Gladiators doesn’t use XP, and so it doesn’t take a share of the XP you earn. This, makes the Gladiators rather best fighting guild for the magic reliant. Even if you never choose to fight in the Arena, you can still take advantage of their extra combat maneuver point and gym credit. You still need pretty good stats to get accepted by them, however.

The highest rank in all the guilds but the Gladiators requires both completing a special quest and exceeding the guild experience total of the last player to reach the top of that guild. In the Gladiators, you must beat a character with about the strength of the current Arena champion. On multi-user systems, players may compete on a shared scoreboard. Provided you then retire, this puts your character up on the scoreboard as the leader of that guild.

Back in the day, I’ve read, players would compete with each other to get up on the board; nowadays, is there any system in the whole world still running Omega this way? It is sadly a lost form of gaming. Nowadays, if you’re playing solo and don’t come up with a different name for all your characters, you’ll end up with multiple slots taken up by the same name, which breaks your perception of the world, a little.

This explanation of higher-level Omega play brings with it the caveat that I myself have yet to win, despite (and, in a way, because of) all of my experimentation with Omega. I will report in with more on Omega’s endgame someday, once I’ve managed to get to it.

So, which guilds should you choose?

Fighting guilds: My favorite is the Gladiators, because they don’t take a share of XP away from the other guilds, and because they give you gym credit, which lets you pick which stats you want to improve. The Mercenaries mostly give you cash, Strength, and Constitution. The Paladins don’t give you any stat advances at all, and you have to be Lawful to join and remain a member. They do give you a lot of perks though, and every advancement gives you a very good item. That absence of stat advances hurts though, it means you end up spending your own money on stat boosts to make up for it.

Magic guilds: There are two choices here. The tradeoff here is between a chance of random spells from the Collegium Magii, or specific spells and half-price mana refills from the Sorcerors. The randomness from the college is fun, and sometimes gets you very powerful magic (and free experience for learning it!) but makes it difficult to plan your magic game. The Sorcerors’ discount on mana helps you make much more use of your spells, whatever they end up being.

The college is free to join if your Int is at least 18. The Sorcerors Guild is much cheaper to join if you become more chaotic first; the fee can be reduced to as little as 100 gold pieces merely by executing a few goblins (talk to the with ‘t’, threaten them, then kill them).

Religions: The main reasons to join a religion, it seems to be, are some extra Power and the many spells they can teach you. Here they are, and the levels on which you receive them:

Level 3 in all the religions teaches Sanctify, and Level 4 gives you Blessing. The Lords of Destiny don’t offer any spells other than those, but you do still get Pow for advancing.

Note that Set grants Invisibility at Level 1, and again at Level 3, which seems to be an error. Getting Invisibility right away is a point in favor of Set, but getting it twice is a point against him. And Athena and Hecate get Shadowform, a very cool spell, a whole level before Set does.

Pawn Shop

One of my favorite aspects of the game is the pawn shop in Rampart. It’s a rotating selection of random items for sale at a discount. Everything there is pre-identified, both good and bad items can be found, and a large selection of items can appear there. There’s enough good items that show up that it’s usually worth your while to check in, but not so many that it makes the random items you find in dungeons pointless.

Coupled with the cash from robbing the autoteller, it’s a great resource that helps make every game feel different, even when much of the opening time in Rampart is not actually all that random. It also has a lot of psychological value. As I mentioned last time, Omega can be really capricious, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do to save your character. If you’re going to be forced to start over for frustrating reasons, it helps a lot to know you can look in on the pawn shop and have a good chance of finding something useful and different to help your new character get on their feet.

If you’re playing Omega 0.90, you’ll find that the Pawn Shop has a much larger selection!


There are a lot of spoilers here, many of which derived from reading the source code. That is your only warning. A game like Omega benefits strongly from having a community around it, to trade discoveries and observations and compete against each other. This community used to exist. Its annals are recorded in the archives of rec.games.roguelike.misc. It doesn’t seem to exist any more. Please take these notes in substitution for it. I have yet to get into the later portions of the game anyway. The early phases are the hardest parts to survive, so maybe this will help get you through the early frustrating phases.

Rolling a character

Major effects of the stats
Strength: Damage with heavy weapons and carry capacity
Constitution: Maximum hit points
Dexterity: Chance to hit and damage with light weapons, chance to disarm traps
Agility: Movement speed and dodging
Intelligence: Chance of learning spells randomly and some aspects of spellcasting
Power: Maximum mana points

Caveats of the above: I have yet to decode the source far enough to be sure of the effects of Strength and Dexterity in fighting; what’s given here is summarized from the game’s help file. There may be minor cases for each that are not covered here.

So long as your character can join a guild that can increase the above, low stats are not necessarily a big problem. See the section on guilds, above, for more information.

Robbing the autoteller

The ATM is “badly programmed,” not in the game’s code but in the game’s fiction, and can be easily exploited. Use Shift-O to open an account and set a password. (All of the ATM key commands are shifted, for some reason.) Then use Shift-P to enter a password, and enter anything except the password you entered. The teller will print a message saying the police have been alerted, and to press space to continue. Hit any key other than space, and after about half a minute you’ll have from 1,000 to 4,000 more gold pieces and five more chaos alignment points.

You can use those alignment points to get started on a career of gleeful lawlessness, or have the Archdruid neutralize most of them, or give 100 gold pieces at the hospice (or 1 gold piece five times) to get back to net zero if you want to join the Paladins or a lawful religion.

Exploring town

Rampart has a lot of resources available, enough so that it can be hard to keep them all in your head. I offer this chart to summarize what’s there. Note, while the layout of the main city is the same from game to game, many of these locations are moved to a random door. Most of these doors will be the ones that are open at the start of the game, but two, the Thieves’ Guild and the Brothel, will be in random closed (yet, unlocked) doors.

The Hedge Maze

The hedge maze is probably the most dangerous location in Rampart, other than the Sewer dungeon. Traps in the maze are a concern; setting off an alarm trap in here can be disastrous, setting the whole guard off looking for you. If this happens, the game can become almost unplayable. Talk to one of them and they may ask you to give yourself up. Doing this pacifies them, but also means you are sent to the City Gaol, although you tend to be released the first time this happens.

There are certain locations in each hedge maze layout that tend to generate either a trap, an item or a monster. As you play you’ll gradually get a sense of where those are.

The primary attractions in the hedge maze are the house of the Oracle, who gives advice as to the next places to go as well as having a mirror that can provide a free self knowledge spell, and the entrance to the Sewers, a popular second destination after finishing with the Goblin Caves.

Around the side and back of the maze is the Cemetary, which has some interesting items in it, which are unfortunately guarded over by liches. At the entrance to the cemetery, when you try to walk in, you’ll be asked something like “Are you sure?” This is not because of any special property of the cemetery itself, there’s a peaceful invisible monster, a haunt, standing in the entrance.
Of special note, the hedges of the maze are separated from the castle by only a narrow moat of water. It is thought that there might be a secret back way into the castle, if one could get past the moat….

There is one more interesting property of the hedge maze. Randomly each game, a few of its bushes are chosen to be trifids. They look identical, and it’s not easy to tell them apart from hedges without special means. If you walk into either, you’re asked if you’re sure.

Walking into a hedge can do a variety of bad things to you, including tearing up your cloak or poisoning you, but walking into a trifid is usually fatal-unless you’re carrying a bucket of salt water outside of your pack! If this is the case, then instead of getting devoured by an evil plant monster, you automatically destroy the trifid and get 1,000 experience points for it! This is usually enough to advance you to the next experience level until you get up to 8,000 XP, and even then it’s a substantial boost. The more experience you get from methods like this, the less you’re put at the mercy of Omega’s combat systems.

The key is, you need the bucket of salt water to perform this trick, and also to either identify which bushes are the trifids. The salt water is sometimes sold for cheap in the Pawn Shop, and are reasonably common finds in the Goblin Caves. Identifying the trifids can be as simple as walking systematically through the hedges, although it’s best if you go cloakless and have poison resistance from a ring. You can also use some spells, like Firebolt and Ball Lightning, which destroy hedges but don’t affect trifids.

Why am I so into this? It’s because it’s a worthy game, one that can give an interested player a lot of enjoyment, yet few people talk about it anymore. There is a real sense that this game could vanish. There’s several Github projects hosting the source. They tend to have grandiose aims like converting the code to use C++ (last update: three years ago), or making a “Next Generation” version (last update: six years ago).

In a file in the code, Omega creator Laurence Brothers mentions his hopes for future development of his project. And then he graduated from college, and passed the game on to others, who, after some initial effort, have not done a great amount with it in the decades since.

Adult Life happens to everyone, and no one should be faulted for failing to maintain an old console game that was mostly played by people in college. But it is a shame that Omega doesn’t have an inscrutible and forbidding DevTeam like NetHack does.

I’m tooling around a little with the source code. Omega’s structure isn’t that hard to understand. Maybe something will come of it. If it does, you can be sure that I’ll mention it here, and probably try to get some column mileage out of it. Until then, here is the conclusion of our strategy coverage of Omega. Previous articles are here: firstsecondthirdfourth.


Certain spells, if you can get them, can make your journeys much easier:

  • Invisibility makes most enemies escapable if you can get at least one space away from an attacker. It offers no protection in melee combat, but no one can chase or shoot you while you’re unseen. Items can make you invisible too, though.
  • Sleep used against you is dangerous (but see more on that below). Sleep used against a monster tends to be even more dangerous for them, however: they tend to stay asleep indefinitely until attacked. You can doze a monster in the Arena and take your time resting for many minutes (with the comma key), and I haven’t seen the opponent awaken yet!
  • Firebolt is does moderate damage, and can destroy hedges. It doesn’t affect trifids, so it’s a good way of telling them apart.
  • Ball lightning is even better, and can affect a 3×3 area. However the low-end attack spell, Magic Missile, tends not to be too helpful.
  • Identification is extremely important if you don’t join the thieves’ guild; there are so many cursed items that some means of identification is basically required, and identification scrolls are too uncommon.
  • Shadowform makes exploration a lot easier, making overland travel faster, letting you pass through walls, and making it harder for many monsters to hit you.
  • Curing is nice for battling disease without having to find healers or a Potion of Curing. Healing, however, isn’t that useful; it doesn’t heal for much so in battle it’s mostly giving your enemy free hits, it consumes your precious mana points, and if you’re not in battle, you can use the comma key to rest for ten minutes for a similar effect.
  • The Enchantment spell is extremely useful if you can get it. It allows you to add pluses to equipment, weapons, armor, and rings, at the cost of mana points. All of these things help out a lot. I have discovered that enchanting an item to more than +6 will probably destroy the item. Beyond that, the catch is that nothing in the game that I know of grants Enchantment specifically. The only way to get it is through random means, particularly studying at the Collegium Magii.
  • At higher levels I can’t offer much advice. Two gods offer Hellfire at top rank, which instantly kills many monsters. Disrupt does high damage at a point in sight of your choosing. Disintegrate can destroy both monsters and walls.

Free experience

There’s a good number of ways to gain experience points without fighting!

  • Every lock you pick with thieves’ picks gives you 3 XP. Given the number of locked doors in Rampart, and the low experience requirements for the lowest levels (level 1 at 20 XP, level 2 at 50), if you can get picks somewhere, you can gain two levels right off the bat that way. You get free lockpicks from the Thieves’ Guild, but you don’t have to be a member to pick locks, or gain experience from it. If you don’t want to join the guild, sometimes you can find some in the pawn shop.
  • Disarming a trap earns 5 XP. If you score a critical success on the roll (more common at high Dexterity) and manage to salvage a trap component, you gain another 25 XP.
  • Greeting the Archdruid in the temple north of Rampart (talk with the ‘t’ key) is worth 300 XP. This is not only worth three levels from zero XP, but if you’re a member of only one guild or religion, it’s nearly enough to get you to the first level of advancement in it, which happens at 400 guild XP points. Reaching the first tier in a religion earns you two new spells! The biggest danger of doing this is the chance that you’ll be eaten by the lions and doberman death-hounds that perpetually roam the countryside.
  • Scrolls of Law and Potions of Chaos earn you experience points relative to how much alignment you have in their areas. They can be worth a lot! Don’t read/drink one if you’re of a different alignment, though.
  • I mentioned above that killing a trifid by carrying salt water earns you 1,000 free XP!
  • At the brothel in town (“The House of the Eclipse”), if you knock on the door at night and have 500 gold, you’ll have an “educational experience” and earn 100 XP. This also has a chance of increasing your Constitution, unless you answered “n” to the sexual preference prompt at the start of the game. In that event, you’ll instead have a chance to increase Intelligence. That’s rather a lot of money for 100 XP, but it’s a risk-free option if you have a lot of cash.



You can always buy cheap food from the fast food places in Rampart, but they weigh 20 units. Although the default description of fast food is “red-and-white buckets,” they’re just food rations that haven’t been identified yet. Other food may be lighter, but can only be found randomly. I usually buy 10 food rations to start out, which is enough to make it to the Archdruid’s temple and back to Rampart. Note that the food rations you find in dungeons may be poisoned food, which is a different item class than normal food rations.


Remember to set your combat routine! That’s Shift-F. Read the game’s help about combat to find out more about it. At first you only two points to spend. Generally I find it’s best to spend them on Lunge Center: you get hit more often, but at least you can strike opponents with reasonable frequency. Whenever you gain some Agility, gain a level, or join the Gladiators, check to see if you gained another combat maneuver point. All of these matter, but except for the guaranteed bonus point you get as a Gladiator, they seem to be awarded a bit randomly. My first addition to my combat routine is Block Low at the start; after than, Block Center. From there I may add extra attacks. You can have as many as eight points, which can make you quite the terror.

If you’re against a stronger foe in an encounter, and have a chance, set your fighting routine to blocking at as many different levels as you can. You can escape from an encounter if you get to an edge of the tactical map, even if monsters are adjacent to you. Remember to set your moves back to how you want them later.

If you speed drops significantly (to 0.50 or slower), you’ll be warned that your maneuvers have been reset. This usually means you’re already in big trouble.


This is an obscure but extremely important aspect of Omega! At the side of the screen, there is a display they tells you what the current phase of the moon is. Do not ignore it!

If the phase of the moon matches your alignment, then you get an extra to-hit bonus equal to your experience level, and also do double damage! But if the phase is opposite your alignment, then you take a to-hit penalty of half your level, and do half-damage!

The Lawful phase is a full moon; the Chaotic phase is a new moon. Each is each other’s bad phase. For Druids, the half phases are the best times, and the bad phases are both full and new moons. Each phase period lasts for two game days. If you’re not aware of the effects of the moon, the result is your character just mysteriously rocks or sucks every so often. Lunarity also affects the magic consumption of your spells.


In the overworld, unless your character is really strong, there is always the chance the game will screw you over with an adverse effect. Chaos storms can, on a whim, reduce your Power by 10 and zero out your mana, or teleport you into the middle of the Chaos Sea, or even reset your experience total and level to zero and remove all your spells and guild ranks. These eventualities are unavoidable, except by wearing Seven League Boots, which nullifies outdoor travel time. In all other cases they happen ever game hour when on the land. The only solution is to spend as little time outside as possible. Being a Druid, riding a horse, or being in shadowform can reduce this time, but only Seven League Boots negates it entirely.

Aside: One possible result of a chaos storm is being teleported to a random location in the overworld. A possible result of this is being sent to the middle of the Chaos sea, surrounded on all sides. Your only recourse in this instance is to try to swim to shore. The following is one possible result of that:

Summarized: the player is given a big negative alignment boost, then usually a whole experience level, and is then killed outright. Thanks for nothing!


Four types of traps offer special dangers:

Alarm – In dungeons, basically harmless. In Rampart though, probably makes the game unplayable until you turn yourself in by talking to the guards out trying to kill you.hysically, harmless. But spellcasters will find their magical reserves instantly depleted by this, usually meaning an expensive trip to the Sorceror’s Guild at the very least.

Disintegration – Destroys your cloak, your armor, or you, in that order. It does no damage to you personally if you’re wearing either of those two things. Just be sure to always be wearing either of those things.

Acid – Does damage, but more importantly, can destroy multiple items you’re carrying, even in your pack. Worst of all, if the trap decides to destroy a wand it’ll explode and cause a manastorm, doing heavy damage to you. I’ve been wiped out by two wands exploring from an acid trap.

Abyss – This is the worst trap. Teleports you to The Abyss, a place where you fall for an arbitrary distance, then back to the countrysite to land and take falling damage from the distance you fell. The higher amounts of damage are uncommon, but all too possible, and it can thdo any amount of damage.


Generally curses are of the typical roguelike style. Both wearable equipment and wands you’re carrying can be cursed. Worn equipment that gets cursed can’t be removed unless you can somehow lift the curse. The item often gains big negative effects too, like Rings of Strength are transformed into Rings of Burden when cursed.

I don’t have all the information on curses that I’d like to give you. As near as I can tell so far, to actually remove a curse, you have to get a blessing from a god you worship, which relies on sacrificing a good-enough item to them first. Scrolls or spells of blessing do not appear to work, although a blessed item is further away from being cursed to begin with and so can be an effective preventable measure. Your best recourse, that I know of, is to destroy the item by bashing it (Shift-Z). Some items may take multiple attempts.

Dungeon features


Water is sometimes a big obstacle dungeons. Once in a while you might get a setup where you can’t make forward progress. You can jump over water, but only if you have seen the ground on the other side and know it’s empty. This is a prime use for a scroll of clairvoyance, which lets you map out a small square section of the current dungeon of your choosing. As an aside, this definition of “clairvoyance” in roguelike terms may have been an influence on NetHack’s, which maps out a section of the dungeon around the player. Or, maybe it was the other way around, and NetHack inspired Omega?

Anyway, a good way to die is to jump into water, which puts you at the mercy of whether the game thinks you’re carrying too much weight to swim out. You’ll be offered the chance to drop various objects to try to lighten your load enough, including as a single action, dropping your entire pack to be lost in the unknown depths. This is one of a number of ways the game has to destroy your whole non-equipped inventory at once; others include overweighing your horse while out in the countryside (it runs off and your pack is in its saddlebags) and an effect from touching a stone in a village.

It’s difficult to have a horse in a dungeon, since your character automatically releases a horse when you enter, but if you can manage it, it seems that they will swim across it readily. The way I know is to befriend a horse found in the dungeon.


There are statues in Rampart and the villages too. You can try to bash them (with the ‘z’ key), which can turn them to rubble, cause them to give you a random hint, or sometimes come to life. I have seen a statue, in a dungeon once, actually come to life when I stepped near it and immediately attack me. (It was a salamander, and since I didn’t have fire resistance at the time, I died very quickly. Statues aren’t defined to be of any type, they describe as “A strange-looking statue,” so there’s no hint as to what a statue might turn into. It’s for the best to be wary of them.


Rubble is created when you tunnel through a wall, sometimes when you bash a statue, and when a monster destroys a door, as well as sometimes just generated randomly in dungeons. When you step on rubble, sometimes you take a small amount of damage, and sometimes you’re stuck in place for a number of turns. You don’t have to repeatedly try to get out of the rubble to escape it. All that matters is the amount of time that passes. You can still attack adjacent monsters while you’re stuck in rubble, you just can’t leave it.


Altars appear in dungeons as well as in Rampart and villages, and can be used for the same purposes. Most of these random altars will be of alignments other than that of your current god just from the law of averages, so if you’re already in a religion, praying at one in the dungeon is usually a bad idea. You can interact with altars in a couple of other ways. You can bash one, but this will draw the wrath of the altar’s deity. You can also cast the spell of Energy Drain at one. If I read the code right, you might get a couple of points of Power out of one this way if you’re not in a religion, but in any event you’ll still suffer from divine wrath. In this case, you take a random amount of damage between 0 and ten times your experience level, which is often a chance of immediate death. For many characters, this has the potential to be instantly fatal. I shouldn’t have to say this, but especially don’t bash or cast Energy Drain on an altar belonging to a god you’re a follower of.


Most lava takes the form of isolated pools. You can jump over it. I wouldn’t jump into it. Having a horse is no use here. There seems to only be one defense against walking into lava, other than just answering “n” to the question of whether you’d like to cook yourself: from reading the code, if your character’s name is “Saltheart Foamfollower”, and it’s got to be that exact capitalization, you’ll only take one damage from lava. It appears to be a reference to the Thomas Covenant books by Stephen Donaldson.


Poison: Caused by hedges, spells, traps and some monsters. Means your hit points decrease maybe once a game minute. Cure it at the Healer’s, at the Paladins if you’re a member, a potion of poison antidote, or by eating lembas. It goes away on its own if you can survive long enough, but don’t take it lightly.

Disease: Caused by spells and some monsters. Means you don’t naturally heal. (Usually, you regain some hit points every ten minutes.) Get it cursed at the Healer’s, the Paladins if you’re a member, by eating lembas, or by drinking a potion of curing. Note, this is a different curative potion than poison.

Stat loss: Caused by poisoning and miscellaneous other causes. This lowers a stat, but not the max stat associated to it. Cured with a potion of spell of restoration, or by resting for a week in a rented condo. (That cures a number of the more obscure conditions.)

Slowness: This is caused by some spells, especially those of the goblin shamans. It is a long-lived condition. The only cure I know of is a week of rest in a condo, which you should avail yourself of as soon as possible.

Sleep: This one is extremely dangerous. Although the game still lets your character block and even counterspell while you’re asleep, you don’t get to take any non-automatic actions. The death march of flipping through page after page of attack messages, unable to do anything, is one of the most frustrating events in Omega. Fortunately it’s simple to become completely immune to sleep: just eat a schezuan pepper, which when unidentified are described as being “withered reddish stringy vegetables.” They’re not uncommon in the Goblin Caves, and sleep resistance is important enough to get that, if you haven’t found them by the time you’re done with Level 5 in the Caves, it’s worth regenerating the caves to gain more chances to find one. (You regenerate a dungeon by entering a different dungeon, even if just for one turn, the Sewers in the Hedge Maze are good for this. When you go back to the Goblin Caves, they’ll be unmapped, with a new set of monsters, and some of the treasure will be different.)

Level drain: Your level is distinct from your experience total. You can lose levels without losing experience points, which is what level drain is. If it happens, it’s immediately bad, but you get those levels back the next time you earn XP. You can also lose experience points, which in turn brings your level down. That can only be fixed by earning those experience points anew. Certain interactions with altars, particularly, can cause that, like asking for a blessing when a god doesn’t think you’re worthy.

Of special note, conditions are recorded by the number of turns they have left. There are special cases in the code that cause conditions that have more than 1,000 turns to never run out! At that point, the game considers them to be permanent! This is true of both good and bad conditions.

Specific monsters

Lions – Deadly if you’re not already a competent fighter, and fast. A common source of death from random encounters. If you don’t think you can take one, you might set your combat sequence to all blocking at different heights, then trying to get out of the map.

Goblin Chieftains – Common foes in the Goblin Caves, and will kill you a lot if you’re not ready for them. Setting one of your combat sequence items to Lunge Center helps. The big trouble with them is the great axes they wield, which have the potential to go lots of damage. If your own Strength is high, they aren’t bad weapons to wield yourself.

Goblin Shamans – They begin appearing at Level 6 of the Goblin Caves. You need to be sleep resistant (use the schezuan pepper trick I mentioned) before you try fighting them. If one of the slows you, rent a condo for a week to cure it.

Grunts – Usually pretty easy to beat, but if it connects with that club it can do 20+ damage. Best to treat it with respect, especially the one that shows up in the Arena.

Phantoms – They can drain your levels, which a cloak of negimmunity can protect against. They’re also incorporeal, so you can’t just smack them to re-death, but they can be harmed with magic.

Salamanders – As near as I can tell, you just want to make sure you have fire resistance. If you do, they’re pretty easy. If you don’t, you will be well-roasted.

Horses – Can be tamed by giving them a bag of unmilled grain (give with ‘g’). Talk (‘t’) to a tamed horse to ride it.

Mendicant Priests – These annoying supplicants follow you looking for a handout. Once they see you, they stick to you like glue, and can block you in a dead-end. You can give them a trinket to make them go away; this counts as a lawful act. They aren’t hard to kill, but can curse an item if you don’t finish them quickly.

Itinerant Merchants – Worth talking to on the off chance they have a good item for sale. They usually just sell junk, or hype their stables back home.

Fnords – These peaceful creatures are nevertheless very dangerous; while you’re adjacent to them, they summon other monsters, who probably won’t be peaceful. Usually best to just slay, despite this being a chaotic act you may want to avoid.

Soldier Ants – As in NetHack, soldier ants are a particularly deadly foe in Omega. They’re fast and the can poison you. While poisoning in Omega doesn’t have the risk of instant death that it does in NetHack, it drains significant health over a short period of time. If you get stung more than once, you’re probably done for. It can be worth trying to drink unidentified potions to save yourself; either Curing or Neutralize Poison will end the condition. It might be best to turtle up (set your fighting maneuvers to all blocks) and make for the stairs.

Harder foes – Run. A tactic that might work is to set your combat maneuvers to all Block at different heights, to “turtle up.” If you do that, and you do escape, remember to change your maneuvers back after. Note, however, that if you see a really out-of-depth monster, there’s a good chance that it’s actually a phantasticon, a fairly weak creature that masquerades as other types of monster. Its alternate appearances do not give it any special powers. It flips randomly between forms every few turns, so hang out at a distance and see if it changes.

Miscellaneous advice

Here’s something really basic: how should you run the game? Most of my playing has been in the DOS version of 0.80.4 running in DOSbox, and that’s how I suggest you play. Every other version has some issue: the Amiga version requires you set up UAE and figure out how to activate it in Workbench; the OS/2 version requires you set up a virtual machine running that OS; the two Windows versions both hide your location from you (the player) when you (the character) are invisible, a joke that’s not so funny when it makes the game difficult to play. The DOS version also hides your location, but still reveals where you’re standing with the terminal cursor.

In that DOS version, when you see the Oracle in the Hedge Maze, the game will ask if you want to ring the [b]ell or look in the [m]irror. Due to a coding oversight, after you look in the mirror, it looks like the prompt is still active. If you then press ‘b’, it’ll be interpreted as a movement command (diagonal down-left), and ask something like “Are you sure?” If you then answer ‘y’es, you’ll walk into the hedge, where you might get stuck, poisoned, or if you’re really unlucky eaten by a trifid. There is a command for interacting again with something right where you’re standing: the ‘@’ key.

There’s a similar issue when you step on a disintegration trap. The game will flip immediately past the notice that your cloak or armor has been destroyed. You can see the notice if you press CTRL-O (in DOS) to look back through the message buffer. Be careful not to step on the trap again immediately after, as you’ll probably disintegrate yourself if you do.

Don’t forget to check the key commands, with ‘?’. There are different keys for ordinary play and the overworld map.

It’s easier to get started playing a chaotic character than a lawful one. A chaotic character can get cheap mana from the Sorceror’s Guild, can build experience and alignment alike by threatening goblins then killing them (starting at around Level 5 you can even do it to chieftains), and you don’t have to worry about giving monsters the first try to hit you. Lawful characters have to play a bit more carefully at first. Neutral characters (like druids) have to play more carefully still.

Don’t drop anything in the overworld, as you won’t be able to pick it back up.

When you see an unfamiliar monster (especially in the overworld, where almost anything can turn up), the first thing you should use is Shift-X to identify it. Especially if it’s displayed as a letter with a background color, it’s almost guaranteed to be something dreadful.

Unlike NetHack, there are no “false” rumors. Anything you read on a hint sheet, hear on the wind, or get from other sources is true.

True Sight protects you from blindness.

At the start of the game, if you plan on going Lawful, it’s not a bad idea to save enough money from the ATM to join the Thieves’ Guild, which can be done before you get to +10 alignment. You can join the Paladins so long as your alignment is >0, so there is a window in there where you can join both. Once you’re in with the Thieves, they’ll never kick you out, but the Paladins definitely might.

Why join the thieves? They identify things cheaply, and then buy the identified things for more than the Pawn Shop will. Identified things generally sell for much more than un-identified. Joining the Thieves, depending on your Dexterity and alignment, may cost more than 1,000 gold. If you don’t have the cash from robbing the autoteller, you might get trapped in a spiral where it’s difficult to scrounge up enough money to join later.

If you get trapped in a dungeon, which happens once in a while, you can tunnel (Shift-T) through walls to get out of it, but you’ll leave a pile of rubble where you dig, which can trap you for some turns and harm you when you try to get over it. Also: if you tunnel too much on a level, you can collapse the dungeon around you, usually resulting in an immediate demise. (There are several warning messages that appear before that occurs though, so occasional tunneling is okay.) Tunneling is generally not useful for getting money embedded in walls, though: the money gets buried in the rubble.

Monsters in Omega never follow you through the stairs to a different level. This is an important fact!

Once the money from robbing the autoteller is used up, you may find yourself in need of more cash. The money you find in dungeons (in the early game at least) tends to be small amounts, worth 10 gold or less.

Here are some other likely sources of money. The best way to earn cash in the early going is selling great axes from goblin chieftains to the Thieves’ guild. You can’t do this unless you’re a member. You get more money if items are identified. If you identify them first, you can get 133 gold each, which tends to pay for your membership before long. The pawn shop doesn’t pay as much, but can be an acceptable fallback, although they, too, pay more if an item has been identified. Neither location will accept cursed items, but great axes used by the goblins are not generated cursed.

Once you find better magic items, you can get a good amont of money from them. And look out for “huge green gem” and “some stones,” as those are gem stones that bring you a lot of cash once they’re ID’d.

It’s risky at low levels, but there’s the Arena. Look out for the grunt, apprentice ninja, and especially salamander opponents in the early going. The salamander follows the apprentice ninja, you really want fire resistance before you tackle that one.

If you’re really low on money, you can go to the Public Works building in Rampart to get your money increased to 99 gold once.

When you talk to an animal, you get a silly reaction that results in the animal handing you an academic paper indicating that ANIMALS CAN’T TALK, DUMMY. Har har.

The Alchemist’s shop in Rampart can buy monster parts from you, or else for a fee turn some parts into useful items. But if you go to see them with such items in your pack, you might be dismayed to constantly be told you don’t have anything. In fact they can use lots of things, but they can only see items if you’re carrying them in one of your main inventory slots. They won’t notice anything in your pack.

The single most useful thing you can do to survive the early game is buy a good weapon (warhammer or morning-star for strong characters, epee or rapier for dexterous ones), then set your fighting routine (Shift-‘F’) to Lunge Center. I usually check the Pawn Shop before buying something in the Armory, in case something better can be had there for cheap. If you’re a strong character, you should probably switch to a great axe, from a goblin chieftain, as soon as you can.

The second most important thing is to have decent armor, which takes the edge off of each source of damage. I usually go with chain mail, or better if the Pawn Shop has something, but try to upgrade to plate, or especially . Generally, I find good heavy armor is better than light armor, even if it slows you down a bit.

Many of the miscellaneous items you find in dungeons, like tin soldiers or broken swords, have no useful purpose, but a few do. We’ve already noted eating schezuan peppers makes you permanently sleep resistant. Giving (with the ‘g’ key) a sack of grain to a horse can make it rideable.

The general loop of the early game is to find useful stuff in the Goblin Mines that you can identify at the Thieves’ Guild (only open at night), then either use or fence there. Use this money to improve your equipment and build your stats at the Gym and Library. There are stones you can touch in the towns that can also improve your stats, but they can have severe drawbacks, including but not limited to destroying everything in your pack.

If you manage to get the Enchantment spell, I know from experimentation that enchanting rings past +6, at least, is risky.

The problem with most good armor is that it’s heavy, and reduces the amount you can carry back to town at once. An exception to this is the best armor the Armory sells, lamellar armor, which offers both great protection and is very light. The problem is, it costs 3,000 gold pieces.

Omega has a cheat mode, which is called “wizard mode” by roguelike tradition. The DOS binaries have it enabled. While broadly intended for development use, it’s also a good way to learn how to play the game. You can activate it by going to the very upper-right corner of Rampart and attacking the corner of the wall to the north-west. The game will ask if you’re sure. Wizard mode is cheating and will disqualify you from the winner’s board, but it can be a less frustrating way to get used to Omega. It has a couple of special commands: Ctrl-W maps the current area, and Ctrl-X lets you make a wish.

If you do this, or you get a wish randomly (which happens once in a great while), a text prompt will appear asking what to wish for. The first thing you’ve got to know is, you only get one try. If you wish for something and the game doesn’t like it, it tells you “you feel stupid,” and what you actually receive is bupkis.

There’s a very limited number of things you can wish for. This isn’t an Infocom-style parser, nor a NetHack-style wish for an item. You can only wish for one of a small number of discrete things. This is a pretty big spoiler, but the game is so laughably precise about what you can wish for and how you must wish for it that I’m going to go ahead and lay out the whole damn list, directly from the source code. You can wish for:

  • Power (grants a lot of mana)
  • Skill (seems to grant one experience level in 0.80, or a flat 10,000 xp in 0.90)
  • Wealth (10,000 gold)
  • Law or Chaos (25 alignment points in that direction)
  • Balance (zeros out alignment completely)
  • Location (asks you which area of the game you want to go to)
  • Knowledge (teaches you a highly random number of spells, and may reduce the casting cost of some spells you already know)
  • Health (heals you and curses any poisons or diseases)
  • Acquisition (gives you a random item, works differently in wizard mode)
  • Summoning (sends in a monster, also works differently in wizard mode)
  • Death and Destruction work, but they’re really not a good idea.
  • You can wish for Stats only from wizard mode

Everything you wish for must be in lowercase beginning with a capital letter, and with no trailing spaces. You won’t get anything you wish for if you don’t capitalize it! The code uses the standard C library function strcmp() to do the check, so you have to get it exactly right.

If you do some searching for old Omega spoilers, you might find indication that you can wish for the main stats in normal play. That used to be possible, but was removed from the game by 0.80. You also used to be able to decide what was summoned. It’s not the only feature that had been heavily nerfed: blessed rods of summoning used to let you specify what you wanted to summon in an oblique way, but in 0.80 and 0.90, it’s always random.


Rods of Apportation lets you get money embedded in walls.

Day businesses in Rampart open at 7 AM and close at 9 PM. Night businesses keep the opposite hours.

Dungeon levels can have multiple down and up stairs, but each has only one entry point coming from above and below. All the stairs doing down from a level lead to the same upstairs. All the stairs going up from a level lead to the same downstairs. If you teleport into a level, you end up at the same entry point. This can be taken advantage of sometimes to speed your travel, but it can also slow you down. It also means, if you’re sent down into a level by a pit trap, you’ll always be left at a place where you can immediately walk back up stairs.

White underscores in dungeons are elevators, they ask you to enter a dungeon level to be taken to. Don’t use them to ascent by more levels than there are in the dungeon. If you’re on Level 3, and go up three levels, it’ll take you to the surface. Higher than that and you’ll suffer a terrible fall.

Goal levels in dungeons cannot be warped to, so go to the level before. The goal level of the Goblin Caves is Level 10, and the goal of the Sewers is Level 18. The other dungeons you’ll have to find yourself (or read one of the FAQs linked below).

The Return spell from the Explorer’s Club is great, acting somewhat like Angband’s Scroll of Recall, or Diablo’s Scroll of Town Portal. Cast it on the first level of a dungeon, and it’ll take you to the deepest level you’ve been to. Otherwise, it’ll take you back to the first level. It usually takes some time to activate though. Because of its operation, it’s usually a good idea to go down stairs you find in a dungeon, even if just for one turn, if they’ll take you to a level you haven’t seen.

In addition to the chance of arbitrary damage, when you trigger an abyss trap, the game rolls d100, and if it comes up 13, you meet Yog-Sothoth (people familiar with H.P. Lovecraft will recognize the name), and if your alignment is higher than -10, you just die instantly. If your alignment is lower than that, you are granted 2,000 XP. There is no special effect if the number comes up as anything other than 13.

At Last!

We’re done talking about Omega for a good while! If you need more information, some documents on the official Omega distribution site may help you, although they’re all for 0.75: the FAQ for 0.75, a hint sheet, and a spoiler file. There’s more to say, I’m sure, but let’s save some for a future time.

Next month, we’ll have some other roguelike obscurity to talk about. See you then!

@Play: The Omega of Omega

@Play‘ is a frequently-appearing 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: Alphaman, Part 2

@Play‘ is a frequently-appearing 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.


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.


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.


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!


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.