Monday, April 3, 2023

ZZT: Intro

Despite it's simplistic graphics and premise, ZZT is one of the most important games. Not merely because of its developer; It's the first game from that Epic, who went from Shareware powerhouse to major FPS developer around the turn of the century, to sort of existing for a while until Fortnite came along and practically became a social media platform unto itself. (I'm old enough to remember when that was the butt of jokes and nothing more) It's also important because it was one of the first games to have a really big modding community. I daresay the first on PC, I know that several games in the rocks and diamonds/Boulder Dash-clone genre had a truly massive number of levels, but those were sort of game agnostic.

This was so big at the time that there was a compilation of the best of these a year later. I actually played that and Super ZZT before, but not this. So, while I don't have experience here, I have played games that were made by people with knowledge of these. Yes, these, plural. There are a lot of worlds here. Ten, so I'm going to start with what seems to be the first, The Caves of ZZT.

Sidenote, each individual episode has it's own title screen, some animated, some not, and some have music. This title screen is not one of those.

In case you forgot what game you were playing

ZZT is simple to get used to. Numpad moves, cardinal directions only, while holding down shift and a direction shoots. Everything else is explained on the side. As you might be able to grok from context, those yen-like symbols are torchs, these are important because ZZT has dark rooms. The lantern, flashing in motion but some color in my screenshot, is a message. Explaining what you have to do here. Find four purple keys to enter the Castle of ****, battle monsters and solve puzzles in 43 rooms. Cool.

I go south, straight into a dark area. Guess it's time for a torch then. Oh, wow, I didn't remember how small that radius was. Or how kind of janky the controls were. Or how short the torches last. At least I got some ammo. I find a locked door here, purple. Guess that's the exit. I head east.

Somehow you can see torches through the darkness
Another dark area. This game sure is showing little mercy. Especially since this area has tigers, or at least that's what they were called to my memory. Tigers wander around, shooting at you. I think these guys are the toughest enemy, which is funny since they put them in a room two screens away from the start. They don't seem to be guarding anything of real value. More torches, but not being here would be the wiser choice, and gems. Gems give you points and health. There's also food, but you have no limit on anything, so outside of buying stuff, which may not be implemented in this episode, they're not the most valuable thing. Anyway, I die. That's a bad sign.
Restarting, I go west. This leads to a simple T junction, only of note because the yellow background has a strange effect on my modern monitor, it makes it seem like there's shading applied. Hopefully that doesn't mean I need a new monitor.
South from there is another dark room, but this one has enough health and torches that I don't feel like I'm in a constant losing fight. A couple of interesting things are here, hearts, which give 10 health; * which function as shot reflectors, and spinning things. I think the spinning things just move you around. It's funny, I barely feel like I can keep afloat here, the game is giving me just enough health to survive against the lions, even being as generous as it is. I'm really getting the feeling this is going to be a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.

Next up, a teleporter maze. In the dark. I'm impressed that this sold that well and that the fanbase didn't just resort to making things harder than the base game. Based on what I had played, I expected this to be fairly easy. This is going for the jugular. Anyway, what you're supposed to do here is move a series of gates, or horizontal and vertical blocks, so that when you travel through the main passage, you can push the blocks that are now in your way. It's more annoying and torch draining than truly difficult.

This leads to the Hall of Mirrors. Finally, something normal. Or rather just less difficult. This screen takes advantage of a lot of ZZT's more interesting features. Mirrors, in this case, is code for invisible walls, except that the second you walk into one, it appears. Very useful, most games wouldn't do that. Then we have the worms, they function like most worm enemies, shoot at the head to take one out, shoot in the middle and create two worms. Sometimes I shot it in the head and created another severed head somehow. The purple club is a ruffian, chases after you. The brown fish thing is a bear, it blindly chases after you. Finally, the arrow up there is a spinning gun, if you're within its sight, it shoots at you. This is not as narrow as you'd think, it anticipates when you're going to walk across it.

All in all a pretty fun screen. This is what I expected ZZT to be, a series of really clever screens dealing with gimmicks like this. Not endless dark tunnels. After solving this section and getting the first purple key, the game spits me back to a familiar area, where I saw the gate earlier. Turns out it's red, probably just the crappy colors the game chooses. I do this because you can't pick up multiple keys of the same color. The game won't let you. So I figure I should burn off the purple key as soon as possible. Hopefully the place I'm walking through is it, because the game sure is insistent I don't go here, calling it Hell.

Uh...huh. The red fish thing is a lion, I think, they move somewhat randomly, but generally towards you. The green thing...I don't know. When I walk towards the middle of the screen, the gate closes behind me, while the one out there just sort of pushes me. And spawning enemies. I don't think I should be here yet.

Fortunately, I had a theory about where the purple doors were, west from the start then north. Also, there are NPCs in this game. I don't know if these will make any sort of positive effect, but I remember mods did some really nice stuff with these guys. From complex friendlies to making hostiles out of them. Quite nasty fellows too. But back to this, I have to deal with those tigers much more carefully than I have. As far as I can tell, I have that area, the area I've already been too, and Hell.

After managing to defeat them quite tidily, I find myself...outside. The dark green tiles can be walked into, but enemies can't. Because of this, you might think you can't just walk off the side of the screen, but you very much can. There are three areas outside the cave, I walked here first of all. At first I thought the trick was using that thing to get the red key, but that's to get out. These solid triangles automatically move in the direct they're pointed. So you have to use those to be able to get past the force of the spinners.

Next up, north. Ah, enemy spawners, shame I didn't get a screenshot of them. They start as dots and turn into circles, creating another of whatever is behind there. They even play a jaunty little tune. You can stop them by being there whenever they spawn something, this hurts you and kills the enemy behind them. Or item, sometimes the game is generous that way. Something other than you blocking it tends to get pushed out of the way, so no being clever and putting a block there.

This is less a weird puzzle and more a tedious one. Remember, you can only carry one key at a time. Walk back and forth across the screen twenty times. I remember trying to think up the absolute worst idea for a level, and while it wasn't as cruel as this, it still involved walking across about as much space. The actual idea is to minimize key usage, that means getting access to those supplies of keys as soon as possible and not opening useless doors. This means those gems are a trap, as technically are those keys in the lower right. As I was finishing it, I almost thought I had screwed myself by not getting access to that area between the two big gates, because I wouldn't be able to reach the exit, but I just miscalculated the amount of space there...only to realize I was locked out...before figuring out that was what that key was for. Okay, slightly more clever than it looks.

Then there's another annoying level. The spinning guns automatically shoot, hitting the asterisks, which shoot back, destroying all the bullets the spinner fires. Clever idea, also annoying. And tedious, because if you get hit, you get sent back to where you entered the screen. Authors set whether or not this actually happens on a per room basis. The game follows this up with a horde of bears in a wide open hallway. I feel like this is the only game where that sentence is underwhelming. After a lot of them, I have the second purple key, and I have to walk back through the wall of spinning guns.

Area number 3, after killing the monsters, I had no idea what I was supposed to do, beyond shooting that thing. The thing in the middle moves. Awkwardly. You can very easily get screwed by some bullet blocking the walls. Yes, the very thing it's supposed to stop, it doesn't. You can kind of help with this by sitting more towards the side not moving, but it's still more dangerous than it should be. Guess I'll just mosey onto that yellow key and...the bottom guns shoot down too.

The rest of this section isn't too interesting, a Pac-man-esque maze where the gun doesn't work and you get invincibility items, with a short duration; Finally, the purple key is in another gate puzzle, fun, but not relatively simple. That leaves...Hell. Probably easier than the game is hyping up, at least compared to some of the stuff that the game thinks is easy.

So, Hell, as the game likes to call it, is about 2x3 screens wide, with an exit consisting of 5 blue doors, the rest having a key each. The first key isn't that hard to get, just dodge the green thing early before too many monsters are on-screen. Another screen just gives you the key, there's nothing in the way. Another is an area full of single piece worms, annoying because they seem to be more intelligent than you'd think, but not unreasonable. This one seems tricky, but just by spamming bullets I dealt with most of them safely.

Then there's a hall of spinners and bears, not too terribly difficult, but requires some quick shooting. Then we have the actual door. You walk in and you're told to kill the invisible demon. The only way to see this thing is when he shoots. This is draining on ammo, not terribly difficult or dangerous otherwise. He moves fast, faster than I can, so it's tricky doing things right. He takes a few hits too, which is the most annoying part.

Followed by the River Styx. I'll give the game one thing, this is the most evil room in the game. You get a series of destructible walls blocking your progress, along with two enemies that shoot homing, spinning missiles. They slowly come after you in the most inconvenient fashion. You need them here, because they'll destroy the walls, you can't shoot. Also, they only disappear in a timely fashion if they hit something, so if they're against a wall, they don't die right away. I just barely make it through, only surviving with a silver of health left.

The Depths of Hell is relatively easier, only annoying because I have absolutely no health. First wait out those lions, so I don't shoot the person. Shooting him results in him shooting me back, fun. You have to walk into him, which then expands the circle of red around the area to the ruffians. This is really where my lack of health is hurting me, because I'm in a completely unideal positive for dealing with enemies all around me and I can't make it back to the chokepoint before a ruffian hits me. After dealing with the worms, I have to deal with that wall of guns on the left. Walk up to the final human, the gates disappear, but I have an invincibility potion. Actually the easiest part.
As if the game would be kind enough to just give you some gems...

After having to walk past the River Styx and a group of tigers, I'm now in the Devil's Quarters. It's less impressive than it sounds. Kill the worms that pop out of the gate in the upper right, it randomly goes up and down. Then when you reach the second gate, that turns into tigers which must also be killed. Then talk to Lucifer. There's some dialog here, but to get past you need to say yes when he asks if you challenge him. Feels weird the game tries to turn it into some majestic situation when even it is trying to joke about it.

This allows me to enter the castle. Which I assume ends the game, except the game is still going. A few animation screens go by and we get another puzzle. I didn't take a picture, again, but it's a room with a lot of spinning guns and blocks, and whenever you get hit, you restart the screen. At first I'm not clear what it is, until I realize I have to maximize my use of these blocks and the keys here to get out. In particular, this relies on you being able to get through a very short gap in the spinning gun's bullets.

Yes, I only made it this far with 2 health, talk about cutting it close

Next, animals surrounded by blocks. This is much more annoying than it looks, since you have to get absolutely precise timing here. You have to move the block out of the way then instantly start shooting. Remember, I haven't any any leeway since Styx. Eventually, I make it through. That, was the last part of the episode.

A very typical win screen and the game ends. What's next? Damn it, that was episode 2, I was trying to do these in order. Next time, Town of ZZT.

This Session: 1 hour 30 minutes

No comments:

Post a Comment