Sunday, April 30, 2023

Dark Ages (1991)

Name:Dark Ages
Developer:Scenario Developments
Genre:Side-Scroller Shooter
Time:2 hours 30 minutes
Won:Yes (68W/59L)

Dark Ages is one of the few Apogee titles I haven't really played before starting this blog. All I really know is that a long time ago they released this one as freeware and it was the last game Todd Replogle did before Duke Nukem. It's distinctly a side-scroller, but in this case I remember it being just PC Speaker sounds along with big player sprites and a somewhat ugly look to it. Imagine my shock when I fired it up, and while ugly, there is just an absolutely incredible Adlib tune playing. This is legitimately impressive. Like right away I can tell this is going to be one of my new favorite soundtracks.

For some reason this all looks considerably worse than in-game footage.

The story is, you're the prince of the land. The evil wizard, Garth, guess you're Welsh or English, sent you away to a peasant family so he could obtain power over your lands. He built an army of evil undead creatures to solidify his control. One thing he didn't predict was that the peasant you were to be raised by was once the greatest warrior in the kingdom, and taught you the ways of the sword and magic. Now go forth and save the kingdom.

The heart almost looks like a sci-fi gun at a distance, probably not what you want someone to say about it.

Yeah, you can see why Apogee wasn't too confident in continuing to sell this in 2009. You're offered a limited amount of customization, but the base setting is ctrl jumps and alt shoots. Arrows always move, with arrow up interacting with objects and the NPC. You only have one weapon at a time, which you just hammer the fire button for. I didn't realize this straight away, but the amount of shots you can have on-screen varies with however many green orbs you have. Enemies have varying health. Jumping works like you'd expect from a decent platformer, hold it down longer and you go higher, with the shortest tap giving about 2 tiles. Finally, to restore health, you need to get varying amounts of coins. I chose medium, so I had to get 20 to restore a health point. There's no reason to do this, just choose easy, you regain health at 10 coins.

Movement is interesting, because despite seeming a lot more like a free platformer, that is, one where you aren't tied into tiles, this is actually something of a tile platformer. For instance, you can't turn in the direction of a wall you're pressed against, and when aiming for distance, you jump while both feet are still firmly on a tile. There is no scrolling up and down, it's just a side-scroller.

To restart a level you have to press escape and then restore, depending on the level save first. It's very obtuse.

Soon after I fall down a hole and die. This is a terrible introduction to it, for two reasons. Firstly, I barely went anyway. Secondly, dying on the first screen doesn't tell you that the game has a weird continue system. You save at the start of each level, naturally, but you can save at any time and when you die for some reason. This merely records the state you were in when you entered the section you are in, noted by a change in music and a wall forming behind you.

Here, enemies have mostly the same abilities. They walk, turning around on encountering a wall or possibly just a ledge, and repeat endlessly. Their momentum isn't carried off-screen but their position is. It's more about avoiding them and dealing with seeing things over the tall grass. The primary enemies are birds and giant spiders. Despite their smallness and the inability to crotch, there's no difficulty in hitting them. Considering that even if this isn't basically the second major DOS platform shooter, we're still early on and someone already knew that there were going to be problems with that kind of crap. The same can't necessarily be said for NES platformers.

On each level, you need to get an item to give to this old man. Then he opens the door out. That's basically each level. It's an unusual package straight from the get-go. Nice EGA tiles and excellent music underscored by a comically bad-looking hero.

These guys have a weird aura to them, much more interesting than what they actually are.
Level 2 is an underworld level, with all the usual hazards, collapsible blocks, spikes, falling spikes, dripping acid, lava and secret passages. Not a lot of secret passages, and more often than not they're fairly obvious. Webs in the corners which damage you...for some reason. We have these tall dudes who stand still if you aren't either horizontal or vertical to them. And there are falling boulders, which function like other enemies, except they fall off ledges. You can and probably should shoot them if you can. Adds a bit of variety to things, but it's all still pretty basic. Despite being somewhat nonlinear, it's not nonlinear enough to be all that interesting.
There's not really a good way to figure out which tiles you can walk through and which are blocking until you move into them.

The game demonstrates some level of interactivity on level 3, shoot a switch on the wall to open a door. It has potential, will it pay off? There are signs of genius under the surface. For instance most levels have had a switch in the music track midway through, sometimes multiple ones. Whenever the track ends though, that's just the end of the music for now.

Level 4 only has one interesting element, beyond requiring you to pay a lot more attention to the grass, hands which come out of the ground. If they touch you while they're fully extended, you're stuck until you jump. It's only on level 5 that this becomes some kind of challenge, as they're in places you're likely to be now. More annoying are the witches heads, they pop out of the ground, stay there, and shoot you, you can only shoot them while the head is shooting or about to shoot you. Now the game isn't playing around.

There are also several fun new things I discover. There are water spouts through the second half of the level. I would think, based on past experience with these kinds of things, that walking into them wouldn't hurt, but apparently it does. This game is going to be damned if it isn't going to extract it's pound of flesh. The training wheels are off.

Level 6 demonstrates this quite finely, throwing as many birds as it can to start off with, and after a while, followed by a tightly, but not impossibly packed together set of skeleton hands. Hearts are rare, the game says, before giving me one on each level in a row. You need it too, because I died on this level twice before getting to it. There's a new enemy, which jumps up from the ground, dive bombs in your general direction, and dies. It doesn't seem like you can shoot it, instead you have to dodge it. The game's first demonstration of this seems to be intentionally pathetic, just to show you this thing exists.

This level is just brutal, even though it gives the player a new weapon, which replaces the old one, and I have four green balls, it's brutal. So much platforming over collapsing blocks, so much precision in jumping over pits. Just look at this example. I have to time this so I jump over the water spout, in-between the dripping acid and the hand popping out. Oh, and there are two of the bird enemies over there. I don't think you can get past here without losing health. There are three episodes and this isn't that far in, I think. What does the game have next? For now, another replacement weapon, this one shoots a constant stream of lightning from the player. In practice, more rapid-fire than the previous weapons, not requiring taps from the fire key. Not that it helps me much.
Everything written here is true.

The game really expects you to constantly make death defying leaps and avoiding these hazards in-between. There are harder games, but this is brutal enough. I do figure out that new weapons aren't tied into random, but hidden, power-ups as much as it seems like jumping in the middle of a statue changes your weapon. I eventually make it past the final obstacle, collapsible blocks next to the water spouts, and I reach a scroll. That was the end of the episode. That seems short, perhaps I misplaced a level number? But for a final level that was very fitting, and it did last quite a while. I note there was no boss battle. Is this a trend that will continue?

You can't just jump across that gap, you need to drop down and shoot the guy on the bottom; you have just enough time to do that.

The first level of episode 2 is positively quaint in comparison. The primary source of difficulty are the weird-moving dudes and all sorts of enemies preventing you from jumping where you should jump. I'd say this wasn't hard if I didn't somehow manage to die twice. The big problem is that after an episode of having at least 2 shots on-screen at once, getting reused to one shot is difficult. I'm very grateful when the game gives me a green ball. This is a very long level and there aren't that many gold coins here. There is a heart, but it's only obtained through some difficult platforming.

It burns, it burns...

After finally getting an item and passing through a door...the scenery changes to almost exactly like it was before except there's a waterfall. Is this still the same level? I know one thing for certain, this is a painful level to play, because those are waterfall tiles, white and blue animated in the most eye-searing way possible. The trick here, outside of having an intense experience merely because I'm desperate for coins and health, is that you have to go to the right first, then go to the left. It's a one-way trip and if the old man at the start hasn't opened the door you're really screwed.

These guys only pop up if your within their firing range, but they don't fire right away, so in places like this, they're not too troublesome.

The next level is "merely" a series of events designed to trip you up. Either you can advance slowly, being prepared to run away instantly, or just memorize everything. It's very tense when everything kills you, but thankfully there's a heart in a side area, very difficult to get, but ever so useful. On the second part of the level, there's an interesting series of tree pillars. This doesn't quite work how you'd think, there's a distinct "top" piece to the trees, which you can step on, and enemy birds bounce off of. Here, sometimes it's at the top, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes there is no top.

It starts throwing a lot of nasty stuff towards the end. Like a series of pillars with the skeleton hands. This episode has been nice about collapsible blocks, so far, but now it's throwing it into the equation. Like with blocks over a pit of spiders or a single one placed precariously as a jumping point over a bottomless pit, where there's acid at the end. And that's also the end of this episode. I guess that means level ends are the music transition points? Huh. That was really short. I am going to see a boss in this game, right?

Episode 3 doesn't screw around. First, two hidden paths, one which doesn't lead forward and one that does. It's not that hard to figure out, but it's an interesting sign of the future. Then collapsible blocks galore, one alone with no path forward until you step on it, then a pillar of blocks, which seemingly leads to nothing, but is a level transition. Then a lovely floor of them, along with a horde of bats. It's easier than 2 since it gives you a green ball soon enough, but it's still difficult. It's not a fair difficulty, often you have to be able to both predict that something is going to happen and perform some kind of impossible dodge.

Like here, about level 5. You have to make a jump of the tiniest power to get over that acid, while there's a spike above you that hurts you, and even if you manage to do that, you still need to watch out for the acid dropping and the skeleton hands. Think that's precise enough? This one loves putting spikes above skeleton hands, which is something I've been instinctively jumping over. The game is trying to play you against yourself. I'd be impressed if I wasn't mad right now.
I think this is too easy, stick some acid pipes here too!
The level after that is quite brutal, primarily because I'm down to a silver of health. I wouldn't appreciate this first section if I had everything though. Just drop a boulder on the player the second they walk through the door. Then just shoot a lot of spiders. I still only have 2 green balls, and now I have the boomerang attack, which depending on the situation is either a slight reach advantage or a speed penalty, because you have to wait for missed shots to return to you. But the exit isn't that far, in fact very shortly after. The level still continues, which makes me certain I should go through the rest of it.

Make no mistake, the game is going to penalize you for doing this. First you get a series of jumps over crumbling blocks, over them, as there is still solid ground. Watch out for the hands and spiders! Then you have this! Just walk over some falling blocks over acid and under dripping acid. Oh, and at the end there's one of the witch heads, you can walk past those without getting hurt, but come on! You get a heart out of this and nothing else. It's enough of a reward, but it's a sad reward.

The next one, another gotcha. There's even a skeletal hand where you start this level. I'm really starting to dislike these levels where the developer pulls a gotcha like this and I never liked them to begin with. It's a relatively subdued level otherwise, at least as subdued as a level where you have to deal with a wall of bats and death-defying leaps can be. It's just not special at this point. Especially not that the game gave me another green ball.

The next level isn't so bad, but has a lot of single pillars you have to jump off half your jump distance, then return so you don't get hit by a bat. I hate it. It also demonstrates why this game isn't so good as the simple run and gunning of other games, it's boring here.

I feel like I can hear someone back in 1990 say "Let's see them get out of this one!" before laughing. I guess to avoid this you shoot the monsters, then jump up before the boulder can hit you, but this is some pretty precise stuff for a level introduction. You can't really rush off the right because those are the falling spikes...and there are enemies over there, of course. It's just a standard hallway, full of spikes and monsters. Not too difficult, practically a tutorial level with how this game has been going. At the end is a heart, and a lightning pedestal that gives me 16 green balls.
Just casually hanging around down here, not really doing anything...

After I try continuing onward fruitlessly for a while, I check a let's play. Turns out I missed the boss. Because he just sort of hangs out at the bottom of this pit, which is not an acid pit, it just has dripping pipes and a ton of spiders. Those really, are the big threat here...considering I missed the boss the first time. He just sits there and takes it. That's the end of the game. I have to admit, I was expecting either the game to not have a boss or for the boss to be an actual threat...not a dude who just stands there and eats lightning until he dies. But I guess considering how hard most of the game is, there's no reason why the boss wouldn't be like this.

Basically just a race to get a lightning bolt. There's a wise situation to use either advanced weapon, I just wish you had to option of changing it. 2/10

Enemies have technically improved since Monuments of Mars, but only just. You've still got the basic enemies who move left and right depending on certain rules, along with a few wild cards, and then some enemies who function more like obstacles. It's not bad, but it's not very noteworthy. 3/10

Not really any, as even the old men you have to give objects to turn into hostile, and indestructible, bats, after being given a key. 0/10

This is definitely something that'll be compared to in the future, for both good and ill. It leans very hard on the platformer aspect, to the detrimet of everything else, but take away the gotchas at the start of some levels, play it on easy, and you have yourself a very hard, but solid platformer. But with that, and the myriad parts where you have to be precise as heck, jump halfway off the screen and back so you don't get hurt, it's worse than it should be. 6/10

Player Agency:
It mostly works like a regular platformer. You can't crouch, though I'm sure the game would find some way to make that annoying. Instead your shots are sort of in-between the two tiles your character is on. They put in a lot of little bits like that to ensure the shooting wouldn't be some nightmare. I am annoyed by how you can't turn into a wall though. 5/10

You can shoot some switches. It's more busywork than anything else. 0/10

For a game about killing the undead hordes of an evil wizard, this just feels like a generic '80s fantasy film. I don't mind that, I just feel the story, such as it is, is at odds with the game. 3/10

The background tiles are okay, as are the enemies, but the PC just looks ugly. They even go as far as to include a sprite for changing direction, as if that was what this was missing! 3/10

Basically ignorable. 0/10

I genuinely think the music in this game is amazing, even if the game feels a bit too long for the amount it has. I'm not even sure there's a commercial game with better music at this point in time. It's just that the sound effects feel outright amateurish in comparison. How do you have music this great and sounds that are...not? 6/10

That's 28.

It's got some good points, but it just has a bit too much working against it. It feels basic, not so much so that it's limited by technology as much as just a very simple game. Realizing this, and that the game is very short, Teplogle tried to work make what little he had here work extremely well. I think it works in that regard, but this mostly just feels like a historical curiosity as the first proper Apogee side-scroller.
I note that Blum is credited as the artist, who would also go onto doing Duke, but according to bits and pieces on the internet, someone at Softdisk also worked on the sprites for this game. It might be Id, I didn't find a specific answer. If it is, I can't tell what. The PC seems like the work of William Fisher (of Last Half of Darkness fame) while everything else doesn't seem too tied into a style I recognize.

The next title in my little side mission of Apogee and Epic shooters is Duke Nukem. Which is another one I haven't played, but I do have some idea of how that one goes. Will Todd Replogle continue his surprising growth in quality or will the game buck the trend?

Monday, April 24, 2023

ZZT (1991)

There's no definitive title screen for this game, every world has it's own title.
Publisher:Epic MegaGames
Developer:Epic MegaGames
Genre:Top-Down Shooter
Time:5 hours 10 minutes
Won:Yes (67W/59L)

ZZT is a curious beast. On the surface, the kind of game that shouldn't work; a simplistic-looking ASCII shooter that doesn't have diagonal movement or independant shooting and movement. A game where the supposed genre of it isn't the main attraction, instead, it's more about finding out what can be done with it: the weird animations, the puzzles and a strange sense of adventure.

Created by Epic founder Tim Sweeney, the game was a success by shareware standards, some 4000 copies were sold. It's an amusing thing to read in retrospect, because even in the late '90s Sweeney would be ragging on Looking Glass for their "failures". Nevertheless Sweeney learned one important thing from this that continues even to this day, the importance of allowing users to create their own content. Because the ultimate appeal of the game is the wealth of fan content that has come out over the years.

The story and setting changes between even these official worlds/episodes, but the gist is that the player is an adventurer with a gun seeking treasure. In fact, he likes treasure so much that he gets health points from finding it; or at least the primary treasure, gems. Occasionally there are other health items, sometimes food, sometimes hearts. The gun requires ammo, found in packs of 5 around the game world. Scrolls have information or possibly a choice to pick, and energizers are temporary invincibility. Finally, there are torches, a short range light source allowing passage through dark areas. There are other items, but they're less common.

Special interest to the keys, they don't quite work how you'd expect. Obviously, keys of the same color open the same door, but that key only does it once, that key is gone. Meanwhile, you can only carry one key of that color at a time, something the game very much exploits. Purple keys are usually used for the episode finishing section.

Not really counting as items are these bombs, which you walk into once to activate, then can push wherever you want within 9 seconds, and spawners. Spawners do what you'd think, they spawn whatever is behind them. In the game itself, always enemies. You can block a spawner if you sit at it's exit point, destroying whatever's behind it. Even if a spawner has multiple exit points, as such.

Each door here takes you to a place expanding on that creature's abilities and habits.
The monster list is more complex. A wide variety of enemies, ranging from those not very interested in you to enemies that hunt you down and shoot at you. One thing I didn't quite realize until looking through the demonstration world is that even within a specific enemy type there's a lot of variation. It's something you sort of notice, but don't quite figure out is actually determined beforehand until this. Most enemies die in one shot or one touch, at a health cost to yourself of course.

  • Centipedes are a snaking, segmented monster, uninterested in the player. They simply go wherever they want. Each individual piece of a centipede has to be shot, but shoot it in the middle and you've created two centipedes. Their only variation in behavior is that they have a deviation setting, the higher it is the more likely they are to take turns they don't necessarily need to turn. This also seems to increase as they gets shorter. Caution should be taken when sneaking up on one, because if the head gets stuck, or sometimes when they randomly get shot, the head shifts to the tail piece. They get my vote as most annoying in general.
  • Bears are somewhat stealthy. Depending on their sensitivity, they either slowly walk towards the player or wait for him, only arriving when the player is a certain number of lines away. They don't really dodge though, so they're only troublesome if the game puts them behind a locked door or something.
  • Ruffians are like bears, minus the lying in wait. They usually just chase after the player at the first opportunity. Assuming they aren't placed behind a locked door, they're fairly simple to take out. Interestingly, these have some of the more complex AIs, as they have an intelligence factor and a resting time. The first determines how likely they are to directly chase after the player, while the resting time long they rest. Compared to other enemies, they mostly just charge in a straight line, so if something involves a lot of tight corners they aren't going through it.
  • Lions (which I may have mistakenly called cougars in the playthrough) just chase after you, with the ability to dodge. Yeah, some of these guys actually try to dodge. These guys are more annoying than dangerous. Their intel factor determines how accurately they chase after a player.
  • Tigers can shoot. They're the only regular enemy that can do this. As such depending on the situation they're the most deadly of the enemies. The game really liked putting these in caves, but for the most part I eventually found this more annoying than troublesome. They have two factors, intelligence and firing rate. Those are fairly self-explanatory.
  • "Objects", or as represented here, other people. These are not universally enemies, sometimes friendly NPCs. This demonstration uses humans, but in the game they can be a ton of other symbols, most notably a dragon which required bombs to kill. These can do whatever the author of the game wanted them to do, from just standing there, to chasing after you, to shooting, to shooting special homing "stars", really spinning "/" symbols. These don't automatically disappear like bullets, only if they hit something they can destroy or after some time. Each "object" is unique in how you have to kill it, they don't just die in one hit and probably don't even get hurt if you touch them.
  • Slime wasn't used in the game proper, but I suspect it'll arrive soon enough. Slime basically just expands after however many seconds the author set. You can destroy slime itself, it's just a destructible wall, but not the green asterisks. I don't remember how you should deal with that. Perhaps being pressed against it, like with spawners.
  • Spinning guns are invulnerable and shoot bullets or "stars". They have two factors, intelligence and firing rate. They're more puzzle enemies as such, as at a high firing rate you can't really dodge past them.
  • Pushers aren't enemies, they just push in whatever direction they're pointed in until they can't anymore. They're usually combined with blocks, pushable objects, and what I call "gates", one-way blocks which can only be pushed horizontally or vertically.
  • Sharks also didn't figure in the game itself. They hurt you if you're next to them, but they only move in water. They're annoying because you can't shoot them. Whenever they're used, it tends to be somewhere you can't just slither past.

Finally terrain. I'm not going to explain the obvious bits or the ones I already did, though I find it amusing that the actual name of blocks and gates.

  • Forest tiles can be walked through, but block shots and enemies.
  • Water can be shot over but can't be walked over.
  • Blinkers, or lasers as I thought they were called, blink into and out of existence, be on the tile when it blinks into existence and you get hurt.
  • Invisible walls work in interesting ways, they're invisible until you walk into them, at which point they appear.
Further info:
  • Each screen has a setting that determines whether or not you can shoot on that screen, and whether or not you have limited shots on-screen. There's also one for time, it runs out and you get sent back to the start of the screen with less health. Even crueler screens can send you back if you get hit at all.
  • There are objects, usually asterisks, which reflect shots, sometimes at an angle, sometimes straight back. This is almost always used as a puzzle or because there's some spinning gun nearby.
  • Throughout the game there are these spinners, which I call them because they spin anything touching them in the direction they turn, I think always clockwise. The game creates one-way passages this way via the use of multiple ones. They're annoying to deal with because of the controls, which I'll explain why these two elements don't always mix when I get there.
  • Teleporters, which teleport you over a short distance as indicated by what direction they're pointing in. There are teleporter mazes and yes, they are annoying.
  • There also exist doors which change which screen you're on, they have a colored icon with a white = sign. They don't use keys. You can also walk off the edge of the screen, usually.
A somewhat typical screen, with some of those green asterisks I mentioned.
Controls are simple, as every screenshot I've taken shows what you can press. Arrows to move, shift+arrows to shoot, P pauses and T activates a torch. It's okay, nothing particularly amazing or particularly annoying. It all works, but you can't move and shoot. There's an interesting delay to movement, just like if you were to hold down a button while typing, a delay after pressing before you start running. If I were to change one thing, I would change how torches work. They just feel too short ranged and too short lived; it's not that these are hard to deal with, rather, it makes things annoying.
The kind of text scroll you can find at the beginning of most episodes

The base game is divided into four episodes along with two demonstration episodes. The game doesn't mention what order these are in and it's not really like there's an overarching story, so I partially ended up playing these in the wrong order. The Caves of ZZT was the second episode and I played that second. Probably because it was first alphabetically. Funnily enough it's arguably the worst episode to start with, as it's by far the hardest. The episodes can be divided into two types, "town" episodes and "dungeon" episodes.

Town episodes center around a central town location, you return to this town after journeying through each section to buy things and to use whatever keys you got elsewhere. There's always some treasure area you need a combination or special item for, only for the game to taunt you by having it turn out the area was essential and has basically no treasure.

The start of a dungeon episode.

Dungeon episodes center around exploring a dungeon. Nobody is going to be selling you anything, but because relying on that too much is already a losing proposition, that's not too much of a loss. Instead, it's all about finding keys to get out. Not even the barest excuse of a plot, just a dungeon crawl ala ZTT's spiritual ancestors.

There are several distinct styles of screens.

This particular screen is an invisible maze, but far from the worst offender in that regard.
The combat screen. Straight up combat in this game isn't great, but it feels like something that has to be done. It's a straight test of reflexes, once you understand the basic behavior, not even the nitty gritty, of enemies, you shouldn't have much of a problem in most situations. As I've mentioned, the game tries to get around this by putting intelligent enemies right behind doors or hiding them in the dark. The game gives you enough ammo that in most situations you need to have some sort of limitation placed on you to put you in danger.
Teleporters without a linking teleporter just teleport you over to the next tile, something fan episodes exploit.
Related to these are the forest screens, which tend to have enemy spawners for some reason. These tend to be much like the doors, except you decide where you open it. They feel like a distinct style, but there's nothing much interesting about them except for having hundreds of squares you have to walk through for anything else to go through.

The dodging screen. There's a wall of spinning guns, either across the entire screen or just a small section. Dodge them, because you can't shoot and if you get hit you'll get sent back to the start. I found them annoying as I was playing, but thinking back, they added some much needed variety and the challenges they had were very interesting. Even at its simplest, trying to find a gap in the wall of bullets so you can safely pass. That said, one loose variation of this screen was my least favorite room.

It was a river, upon which my path was blocked by shootable walls, except I couldn't shoot. Instead, you had to rely on two NPCs walking back and forth, shooting the "star" homing projectiles. What made this the worst was at this point if I got hit I was dead, but even if I had more health this still wouldn't have been fun. You basically have to just hope that you can cross with a minimum of health lost.

Most don't contain as much busywork as this screen.

The gate screen. These are puzzles involving one-way blocks and pushers. Move everything in the right place and you open the way forward or get a key. I have to say all these screens were fun, at worst a screen was merely okay or forgettable. This is where the game feels the strongest, in dealing with these weird puzzles. I almost wish that the game consisted entirely of these puzzles, but perhaps this game couldn't hold itself together over 40 screens of puzzles.

Finally, show-off screens. Basically just the game showing off whatever fancy scripting is going on behind the scenes or some fancy animation that looks cool. At least to me. ZZT has an incredibly powerful scripting language, it's probably worth it more to play the mods made for the game than the game itself. Compared to something like Doom or even Wolfenstein, stuff you could make with the engine itself feels like it could just blow away the base game.

There are of course, screens that don't neatly fit into these styles of screens, but these are the obvious patterns. Some of the screens that fall into these patterns can feel incredibly clever, even the combat screens, because the game just has so much going for it. This is ultimately why the game works, variety and the sense that, even if this particular screen is boring, the next one has the potential to be amazing.

A basic gun. 1/10

I'm impressed at how much under the hood is going on with these enemies, far more complex than I thought. Even at that basic level you still have some decent variety in behavior. 5/10

NPCs here are a bit too basic for what I'm sure is possible, sure they can shoot you, but beyond that they basically only say basic things or offer something for money. The most complex NPC in this game basically amounts to shooting him, then giving him money. 1/10

While it's true that there are plenty of meh boards, a lot of interesting and they feel like more than the sum of its parts. 7/10

Player Agency:
Simple, but nothing frustrating. 5/10

I found the puzzles and the environmental interactions both worthwhile. Even though the base game feels like it isn't taking advantage of its features, the things you can screw around with is fairly staggering for a game of it's style. 7/10

ZZT has an incredible sense of adventure, that something interesting might just be beyond that next corner. 6/10

Despite the primitive high color text graphics, ZZT has a charm all it's own. 2/10

You're a treasure hunter, hunt. How a game with the potential to do so much did so little I'll never know. 1/10

Simple but effective PC Speaker. 2/10

That's 36, but I feel generous, let's give it an extra point, so 37.

ZZT feels like the peak of that simplistic style of top-down shooter where the designers have the spirit, but haven't quite nailed down what the genre should be and the tech isn't quite there yet. It's just worthwhile despite looking like crap to anyone who didn't grow up with it. Even if you don't play this game, I suggest you track down a copy of the Best of ZZT and have a look through the mods included with that.

I guess there are going to be at least three more ZZT game entries, ZZT's Revenge, basically an expansion to this; Best of ZZT, which is a compilation of fan levels; Super ZZT, which is the only one that's a proper sequel. All these are 1992, meaning there are a few Apogee games I should be getting through first. In the meantime, I have to work on regaining that momentum I lost thanks to the illness I had.

Monday, April 17, 2023

ZZT: Won

You gotta love how almost all these freeware rereleases of old games never bother to remove the "don't copy" bit.
With a name like that, I'm expecting my most hated aspect of the game is going to be in full force. Darkness. I do like that title screen though.

I imagine if you're fast enough, you could shoot the blocks stopping the front gate, not that it would do you much good.
The game begins with a gate forcing the player into the dungeons, as gates close behind him. Hey, wait, I remember something exactly like this in a Best of ZZT level. Seems somewhat cheap, but I guess there's no other way to do that. The story, as I discover, is that the evil guards of the dungeon have thrown me in, not recognizing that I'm a great escape artist. Find the four purple keys, and get out. Why break the usual format at this point?
Why is he so far away from the monsters?

Ah, a human...and it's a skeleton. Funny, you never really think about some minor aspect like this when you're playing, but this was something consistent across the various mods. I never thought it came from something in the base game. After taking out those cougars, I can go in any direction here. That purple door is actually a yellow one, I think they changed the color as a yellow circle against a white background would be hard to see.

I'm not sure if the spinner in the middle can ever shoot at you.

Starting from the south, we of these rooms. Take a key, get past the monster spawners, unlock the door, and because of the one-way paths, go through the other monster spawners. Am I going to deal with these creatures the right way or the cheap way? Eh, like I want to deal with these things. Funny thing is, there's not really any way to break into the tiger enclosure without getting shot.

Next up is a series of long, winding hallways full of cougars and worms. It's not as fun as it looks. It's kind of annoying dealing with worms in this game, as you're never quite sure where they're going to go, and unlike with the other enemies, that isn't an obvious feature. The path splits off too, which means you have to go to 2 different side areas. Past the tigers is the blue key, while to the east is a treasure room guarded by some cougars on a spinner. That much was amusing for a section.

Monsters can't really cross teleporters, and interestingly, you can't reach that bit of ammo in the upper left.

After a section in which I have to get past a series of bouncing bullets, I come to this room. South leads to a cave full of monsters, but that's okay because the game just gives you 250 ammo. It's more about the game's fancy object movement system, which I can't really show you in screenshot form. This nets me another red key. North, the game is also generous, a huge stack of ammo and another blue key. It's very suspicious that the game is this generous with supplies. Blue door's on the same screen so I go west.

Perhaps I'm meant to use way too much ammo here...

Is this a joke? This is one of the purple key rooms? This is incredibly easy. You'd think with the reflecting walls and tigers I might be in trouble, but no, this is simple. I'd go as far as to say this might be one of the simplest rooms in the entire game, possibly even including fan episodes. I keep expecting a shoe to drop in terms of difficulty, but I think this is just going to have a weird difficulty curve at this point. The hardest part of this entire section at this point is just a worm section in the same room as the bouncing bullet one, you can't shoot so you actually have to avoid those guys.

One key down, three to go. Yet only three paths from the opening hub. I decide to go north, through the cyan door. This area isn't interesting of itself, just another combat room without much worth talking about, yet the game just hands you another purple key, to open a door here sure, but it's strange. I'm sure there's something hiding here which gives me reason to use it for it's real purpose rather than trying to speedrun through the episode.

I suppose you could put all the blocks in a specific area, but that would hardly be sporting.

Now, this screen is interesting. You have to go through each of these little areas in turn, grabbing all the gems as you do. This means actually thinking about where you shoot instead of just the usual shot spam you're afforded at this point. The blocks here even turn into tigers at the end of it, which is quite a clever little touch. What's next? A series of red doors hiding some cougars, and a path to the north.

It's really quite simple when you think about it.
Ah. This is another excuse to show off what the game can do automatically, it's a puzzle, but a rather straightforward one. Press the buttons in the correct sequence to grab a key. What makes this slightly more than just a trick is that the initial button press on the machine pushes two keys, one to the left and then one to the right. Don't deal with that properly, and you'll lose a key. I don't think that puts you in an unwinnable situation, but I caught the trick before I could find out.
The spawner in the middle works just like any other, block one exit and he dies, he just spawns two every spawn cycle.

After a simple block pushing puzzle, there's this screen. As per usual, the idea of this screen is that you dodge the tigers in this hall of reflective walls, but in practice I did my usual bit of just blocking the spawner from spawning and all was well. And that's really it for this section, after all the doors you're just given the next purple key, and the only non-tiger challenge here is a spinning gun which is quite easy to avoid.

East from the starting area leads to the area directly south of the last screen, so much so that two of the treasure rooms there are only accessible through here. It's another simple hallway puzzle, with some paths being blocked by bombs and others by gates. More busywork, but interestingly, this place has two paths, one through a series of lasers and one east. I chose the lasers.

Complete with a little invisible maze in the lower left.

Another easy purple key, except this one is actually clever. You can't shoot in this room, so instead you need to exploit the invincibility potions and in one case, gates. Invincibility works like you'd expect it in most games, touching something hostile hurts them, and in this case kills them. So you merely exploit the time you have to deal with any threats. And in those cougars case, the gates actually kill things. I didn't actually know that.

So east, to the final area. This is deceptive, you might think you have to shoot those things at the end, but what you really shoot is that >> symbol, miss and spinning missiles come after you, while you can no longer shoot down wherever you just shot. It's more annoying than clever, because you really have to get this thing's pattern down.

You have to aim the bomb carefully in order to get that pile of gems down south.
South is another simple but interesting room. You've got your requisite combat, but the puzzle here is the star attractive. That central gate there is something you have to make smaller, and to do so you need to take advantage of that bomb on the left. Further complicating matters is that purple holed wall, you activate it from the outside and where the wall is shifts. The next room over also has an interesting concept, using bombs as a shield against spinners.

It's hard to describe combat in this game with any meaningful detail, because it's the very definition of simple.
That's the last key, but not quite the end of this episode. There's one last screen; which is basically a repeat of the earlier gem grab stages. Feels woefully disappointing as a last screen.

So, a dragon is playing ZZT on top of some skyscrapers?

The actual final screen, after an animation of three dudes opening a gate is this, finally, a proper-looking win screen. And with that, Dungeons is done. That was by far the shortest episode, and only took as long as it did because I'm still under the weather. Even with that condition, it was still the easiest too. This is some weird difficulty curve. Guess I better play the last episode, The City of ZZT, in this entry too. There are other episodes, but those all are apparently counted under a sequel/expansion ZZT's Revenge, so I guess that's gonna get it's own entry. I'm also feeling ZZTed out right about now.

City, naturally, is a return to the town format that Town of ZZT started. A den of smog, bureaucracy and corruption as the helpful text crawl tells us. The pawn shop sells things, no tricky stealing items like last time, and the city hall there requires a pass. Guess I'll go west, downtown sounds like a happening place and I'm a happening guy. Strangely, there's a crossroads, with a sign warning of muggers and "Dr. Bob" along with plenty of ammo.

The train station is the way out, but I seem to need to do a lot to get out. I need an ID and some stuff from a travel agent to get out of here. I don't know if there's a travel agent here at all. Guess that's the bureaucracy the game warned me about.

Downtown is enemy heavy. This is, I think, the most enemies this game has thrown on-screen. Thankfully, I have enough ammo for it, but this is actually forcing me to conserve ammo for once. And yeah, watch out for Dr. Bob, because Dr. Bob is the only place you can go. Since I picked up some gems, I buy some ammo. Better safe than sorry, though for all I know I could end up regretting it later.

Interesting. The coin things here move the cyan holed doors. Basically, you have to manipulate these so you can get whatever treasure or key is hidden behind said cyan doors. The other half of this are enemies in tight spaces, not that troublesome at this point. Dr. Bob isn't as bad as he was implied to be, telling me that there's a secret passage to the left of XYZZY in the forest, an Adventure reference.

I like how there's just a bum hanging out with wild animals.
 That's where I head to next. Or rather the park, because that's where the forest is. Turns out what I've been calling cougars are actually lions, forgive me for that slip up. Anyway, despite the next screen being more interesting, this one actually gave me a little trouble. Why? Because as it turns out, enemies in this game are more annoying to deal with when they have wide open spaces; they can dodge quite easily. There's a beggar here, I gave him some gems but he didn't really do anything for me. And it turns out the secret passage needs another key, guess that's why I got a spare one from Dr. Bob. I just need to find the ZZT Bandit.

No funny business here, you have just enough keys to get through this screen.
Continuing counter clockwise, it's time for the Atrium. Okay, this screen's cool. The spinning gun up there gradually shoots bullets into the atrium, following a path made by the reflective asterisks. It's an interesting twist on the key hunt type screen this game tends to have, because this one just doesn't feel like busywork, unlike so many others. Unfortunately, the room beyond it is just another monster hunt, with the end result being torches.
After reflecting on things later, I suspect there might be a secret passage somewhere relating to that X and O.

Finally, the jail. Lots of locked doors and you can't shoot in here, sounds about right. I found this deceptively hard, because the two gates I could use to block the pushers had my full attention. I need to do this puzzle in such a way that allows me to get the maximum possible bombs by pushing the two gates into a certain position. Assuming that would even work, I would still be screwed, you need five at minimum to get out. The actual answer was just pushing the bottom gates out one at a time, and of course using the blocks to move the bombs around.

After this there's a teleporter maze and then I can meet the ZZT Bandit. He more or less tells me what I already know. The green key here allows me to explore previously locked doors in the jail, most importantly, the exit. The bandit's hideout has some gems and a train ticket. I appreciate both, I lost more health than I'd like in the area after the Atrium, but now I'm sort of stuck. I end up finding the answer by luck. After talking to that beggar again, I don't give him money, he shoots me, so I shoot back. Then he offers to sell me a city hall pass for 20 gems.

Basically the only reason to ever worry about those worms is if they somehow enter the series of spinners.
The city hall is another place I can't shoot, guess this is supposed to be a gun free zone. Three places are offered to me for now, and I chose the processing department, seemed like the best choice. I can shoot in here, guess they just didn't want me shooting the clerk. Whatever you think this room is, put that out of your mind, because that thing in the middle is a robot. I can control it with the arrows down there. You might also think I have to shoot the worms, no, it can't hurt anything. Instead, it shoots the walls surrounding those keys and blocks down there, before pushing the keys to me. If that sounds annoying, it's because it is.

North is a dark room containing a key with a ton of bears. The key to the mayor's office, according to the game. The only other thing in this section is some treasure. The executive washroom, another area from the main hall, just has a locked door, with another key and minor treasure. With one toilet in a wide open area. I suspect that's supposed to be the joke. Meanwhile the elevator seems like an exercise in patience, leading to five different areas if you include the one I just came from. The first one I enter is this, the spa. Basically, now the player has to figure out a path for his shot. Only instead of shots going off at an angle like they do for spinning guns, you need to create corners for the shots to bounce off of.

That nets me a cyan key, something which confuses me until I see the mayor's office. Another key hunt. Next room is a dark maintenance room, mostly lions and bears, about as fun as it sounds. Really, this whole section feels like busywork, probably intentional in a way. Waiting constantly for the elevator. The final room I go through is another gem hunt, this time there are rooms with gems on entrances in each cardinal direction, each room is full of monsters. It's more effective to just shoot the things rather than try to obtain all four gems.

I can't help but feel like a town with this much corruption would have something better to advertise itself, but current awful flavor of the month Chicago's big tourist attractive is a big reflective ball in the park...

The trick with the mayor's office is just to walk through the bullets as they bounce away. It's just a single matter of pushing blocks at that point. Then it's just more busywork going back and forth. Finally, the mayor. He has the final piece of the puzzle, an ID card, allowing me to leave the city. He requires a small bribe of 100 gems, naturally.

It's not a very detailed pub...
After successfully dealing with the train, the game ends in a pub. Not the best ending screen, but far from the worst. City, I think, was the best episode. Generally the best combat screens, along with some of the more interesting puzzles; negating the tedious sections. And it wasn't just about finding some purple keys to exit some location. A fitting end to the base game.

This Session: 2 hour 00 minutes

Final Time: 5 hours 10 minutes