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.

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