Game Reviews Z

These reviews are in alphabetical order according to the name of the game reviewed. The index also has a few extra features. First and foremost of these is the instant gratification feature. If you see the SPAG button:

Then you can click on it to retrieve the file from, or to go to that file's directory on the archive (in the case of competition games).

The email addresses used are those submitted with the review, so naturally some of them may be out of date. All email addresses are spamblocked -- replace the name of our magazine with the traditional 'at' sign.

Table of Contents

Zanfar Zero One Zero Sum Game Zombie! Zork Zero Zork I Zork II Zork III The Zork Trilogy Zork: A Troll's Eye View Zork: The Undiscovered Underground Zugzwang Zuni Doll


From: Christopher E. Forman <ceforman SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #8 -- February 5, 1996 NAME: Zanfar PARSER: Good ol' AGT AUTHOR: YAK (Your Adventure Kreator) PLOT: Explore-the-old-mansion EMAIL: ??? ATMOSPHERE: Very, very ordinary AVAILABILITY: Freeware, IF Archive WRITING: Unremarkable PUZZLES: Generic SUPPORTS: AGT Ports CHARACTERS: Cardboard DIFFICULTY: Easy, if you can force yourself through it. There are a number of ways for authors to draw attention to their games: by promoting them through newsgroups, web sites, and e-zines; by creating a favorable (or unfavorable) impression on players, who spread it by word of mouth; et cetera. A more imaginative trick is to give the game a name that places it dead last in an alphabetic directory listing on an FTP archive, so it grabs attention by being the very last thing a user sees when doing a "dir". Well, it worked on me, anyway. The title I refer to is "Zanfar," an appellation that seems to have absolutely no significance in the game itself, apart from the promotional scheme I've just outlined. In fact, there's very little about "Zanfar" that's significant. Though it boasts 140 rooms, there just isn't much there. Very few of the rooms are more than padding, and it's painfully obvious what's important and what's not (the game doesn't allow you to examine ANY scenery). The rudimentary plot simply tells you that you're someone who enjoys exploring old houses like the one in the game, despite the fact that the locals warned you there's something dangerous there. Before long, though, you find out that the whole thing is just another collect-all-the-treasures operation, with no innovations to recommend it. The puzzles are so cheesy and cliched, they could have come out of a white box labelled "Acme Jenerik Advenchur Puzzuhlz." Your exploits in "Zanfar" range from obtaining a light source for dark rooms, to unlocking things with keys (Did I say "The Awe-Chasm" had a lot of locks? "Zanfar" has even more!), to solving a drop-an-item-in-each-room maze, to dealing with a group of cookie-cutter NPCs -- there's an enraged wizard, a "Junk Food Junkie," and a "Humongeous [sic] Bat," to name a few. All this is strung together with wholly unremarkable writing. As a result, "Zanfar" is neither good enough to gain widespread popularity nor awful enough to be a must-play for bad game aficionados. It's the kind of game that you forget all about a couple days after you solve it. If nothing else, "Zanfar" deserves recognition as the most _ordinary_ text adventure I've ever had the privilege(?) of having played. FTP FileAGT files with PC executable runtime (.zip)

Zero One

From: Cirk Bejnar <eluchil404 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #39 -- January 7, 2005 TITLE: Zero One AUTHOR: Edward Plant EMAIL: shed_plant SP@G DATE: October 2004 PARSER: ALAN SUPPORTS: ALAN interpreters AVAILABILITY: IF Archive URL: VERSION: Beta Version 1.2 My first abandoned research complex game of the comp! Well, really it's more of a prison, but you are an experimental subject so it's close. The game was written last year just after the comp and the author has been sitting on it since then. Can I be the first to say, "Don't do this." Release what you've written! We want to play games all year round, not just in October! As for the game itself, it is pretty slight. The author claims that it shouldn't pose any problems for the player, yet almost immediately I was fighting with the parser about disambiguation. This was an issue throughout the game. The problem was especially severe with not being able to refer to items by their adjectives. Scope was also handled poorly, making it easy to refer to things that you can't see and shouldn't know about. Similarly "take all from drawer" was parsed as 'take all'-including the drawer and my clothes. The writing was fine for the most part, though occasionally a bit over the top. Design was less strong, such as a blocked door that leads back to where you have already been and a padlock on which you can't try the keys you find. In addition, I would have liked at least a little more backstory. Who am I? How do I know the man is named Terry? Mystery is all well and good but confusion is not. Overall, Zero One was a competent text adventure, but, for me at least, not particularly fun. I lacked all but the most basic motivation, and the contrast between graphic violence and silly humor was off-putting as well as mimesis breaking. FTP FileDirectory with ALAN .acd and .dat files, walkthrough, and readme

Zero Sum Game

From: Duncan Stevens a.k.a. Second April <dns361 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #13 -- February 5, 1998 TITLE: Zero Sum Game AUTHOR: Cody Sandifer E-MAIL: sandifer SP@G DATE: 1997 PARSER: TADS standards SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive) URL: VERSION: Release 1 PLOT: Funny, innovative (1.6) ATMOSPHERE: Cartoonish (1.3) WRITING: Quite good (1.6) GAMEPLAY: Weak in spots (1.3) CHARACTERS: Very funny (1.7) PUZZLES: Some bad choices (1.2) MISC: Original concept, well executed (1.7) OVERALL: 7.5 In premise and execution, Cody Sandifer's Zero Sum Game is a genuinely funny send-up of an adventure game (Pork, eat your heart out) and perhaps the funniest work of IF since C.E. Forman MSTed Detective. Your mission: you have completed an average hack-and-slash adventure game, but when you come home, your mother sends you out to undo everything you've done. The goal is therefore to lose all 75 points you have at the start of the game, by unslaying a dragon, giving back treasures, and making good all your dirty deeds. That you frequently have to do more dirty deeds along the way is, of course, part of the humor. Humorous enough as a concept, but there's more: you get a sidekick named Maurice the Follower (when commanded to do something salacious: "Maurice can't spring to your aid if he's busy doing that!") who invariably refers to himself in the third person and provides running commentary on everything in the game. And I mean everything: periodically, Maurice exclaims "Oh boy! Look at the size of this [room name]!", which has quite the effect when it comes along in the location named Dirt Patch. Though Maurice is only minimally useful, it is advised that the player keep him around as long as possible to hear his various contributions. My personal favorite Maurice line, when accompanied by a nasty character: Maurice claps. "Hooray for goodness! Down with evil!" Irritated, Darlene glances sharply in Maurice's direction. "Um," stumbles Maurice. "Maurice is shutting up now." The comedy in Zero Sum Game extends well beyond Maurice. (When you try to give something to a dead character: "I bet you also loan money to trees.") The antiheroic "hero" character affords some humor in his or her own right (the gender varies with yours, which you choose at the beginning), stalking around killing everything in sight in a fashion reminiscent of many a combat-based role-playing game. (And berating his or her big toe for its interference.) There's even a sex scene of sorts (or a series of them), played for laughs rather than thrills, naturally. As with Mr. Sandifer's most recent work, "Everybody Loves a Parade," there are numerous particularized lines for ho-hum commands, notably "kiss", whose generic response is "You're not attracted to [character] in that secret special way" but which draws a wide variety of funny lines in certain situations. The glitches in Zero Sum Game mostly arise from the puzzles. For one thing, there are many opportunities to make the game unfinishable, many of them merely from doing things out of sequence; the player is advised to save often, since many of the key developments are a bit hard to foresee. One puzzle can even be solved "wrong" -- you'll get the points, but you won't be able to finish the game -- which is a bit irritating. Even though the game is short enough that restarting it is not a major hassle, the gameplay problems detract a bit from the overall enjoyability. There are also numerous small illogicalities -- you steal an object and its owner doesn't notice, though he does if you show up carrying it; you can't take an object from Maurice, even if he follows you around slavishly; the superstrong hero can't break an old rusty padlock. Logic is not a major factor in humorous games, of course, but then again that's one of the drawbacks of humorous games (witness Bureaucracy, one of the hardest games Infocom ever produced simply because the puzzles all required Douglas Adams logic), and Zero Sum Game suffers from that problem. Small problems aside, this is certainly one of the best of this year's competition, and without a doubt one of the most consistently enjoyable; even with the gameplay problems, I still thought it merited a 9. From: Paul O'Brian <obrian SP@G> Review appeared in SPAG #13 -- February 5, 1998 Zero Sum Game (hereafter called "ZSG") is like the proverbial apple which is shiny & enticing on the outside, but inside is rapidly rotting away. The game starts with a fun premise: You've won. You've collected treasures and solved puzzles, and now (before the first move of the game) you're bringing them home to your mother. Unfortunately, she doesn't approve of theft and killing and other such goings on, and orders you to go back and put right all the wrongs you've committed. Thus the game's name: you try to bring your score down to zero before your moves (5000 of them) run out. This could have been a fun romp of reverse thinking, or an interesting exploration of the morality of the traditional stock adventurer character, or even both. As it turns out, the game doesn't really succeed on either count. The main problem that I had with ZSG is that it takes a much more callous approach to cruelty (no, not Zarfian cruelty. Real cruelty. [No offense, Andrew -- yours feels pretty real at the time.]) than I'm comfortable with. SPAG has a no-spoiler policy, so it's difficult to provide concrete examples of this problematic tendency. Suffice it to say that in order for the player to reach the solution, several harmless and friendly creatures within the game must be killed, sometimes in grotesque ways. These (and other) scenes make it apparent that the author has not taken a thoughtful, mature approach to the implications of his theme. That's OK -- not everything has to be thoughtful and mature. But ZSG reached such a level of cruelty that it wasn't much fun either. Dead bodies piled up in proportions comparable to any hack-and-slash MUD, and even though there's a resurrection spell in the game, you can't use it to revive any of the dozens of dead elves and villagers, or any of the other beings killed in the game (with one partial exception). The game's ending provides the final barb. Without giving away too much, I'll just say that it inflicts some arbitrary punishment on you, not as penance for your crimes, but because you're a "mama's boy" (or girl, as the case may be.) To give it its due, ZSG does have a clever premise, a promising start, and some good puzzles. Some of these puzzles have no particular moral bent, but are cleverly designed. Others in fact do have the particular ethical direction of reversing wrongs: you give the candy back to the baby, for example. That's why it left such a bad taste in my mouth to learn that other puzzles required coldly slaughtering your friends for the sake of a few points. I learned this from the walkthrough -- I had already thought of the "killing" solution to one puzzle, but couldn't believe it was the right thing to do until I heard it from the author himself. After that point, I detached from the game, using the walkthrough to see the whole thing and make notes for this review. It didn't get better. Zero Sum Game's gimmick is one that works best the first time it is used -- too bad this game did such a poor job of using it. Prose: The prose in ZSG is actually pretty good. It's what enabled me to become a little affectionate about Maurice and Chippy before I had to slaughter them. Still, much like the rest of the game, the prose is a good tool used for the wrong purpose. It's like a beginning carpenter using the best quality wood -- the result may look pretty, but it falls apart much too easily. Plot: I think this is a game that doesn't know what it wants to be about. After the competition ended, the author posted to rgif that in fact there was a "larger purpose" to the cruelty in ZSG, and that he was trying to do a number of things, including explore 1st person morality in IF, and to spoof the traditional treasure hunt in a funny, absurd, and extreme way. It's interesting to know this, and also to know that for a number of people, the game worked. Still, maybe I'm overly sensitive (or taking things too seriously), but it didn't work for me. The game's arbitrary limits force brutal answers to trivial problems -- not a very powerful exploration of the concepts the author claims to have had in mind. The plot is a wandering mess, ending in a big "piss off" to its player. Unsatisfying and unpleasant. Puzzles: The puzzles represented both the best and the worst things about ZSG. On the one hand, the first couple of puzzles I solved (the baby and the key) were really clever and interesting, and they raised my expectations from the already high level achieved by the game's premise. Unfortunately, the excitement of these only intensified the letdown of consulting the walkthrough and discovering what cold solutions were required for the other puzzles. It's a pity that the game didn't keep a consistent tone throughout -- I was much more disappointed than I would have been had all the puzzles required nasty measures to solve. Technical: writing -- I only found one grammar error in the entire text, a misplaced modifier. coding -- The coding was relatively coherent, though there was one major problem: the warning system was a complete failure. To test it, I ate the candy, killed the merchant, and killed Maurice in the first few turns of the game. No response. Other than that, I found no major bugs. FTP FileTADS file (.gam) (Updated version) FTP FileBinHexed Macintosh format (.sit.hqx) (Updated version) FTP FileDOS executable (.zip) (Updated version) FTP FileWindows 95 executable (.zip) (Updated version) FTP FileDirectory with TADS .gam file and hints (competition version) Solution (Text) (Updated version)


From: Paul O'Brian <obrian SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #13 -- February 5, 1998 NAME: Zombie! AUTHOR: Scott W. Starkey E-MAIL: starkey SP@G DATE: 1997 PARSER: TADS standard SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive) URL: VERSION: 1997 competition release I love the beginning of Zombie!. In it, you play Valerie, a junior at the local college who is enjoying a relaxing camping trip after having finally dumped her loser boyfriend Scott. The atmosphere of the camping trip is very well-done, from the CD player spinning 80s hits to the various characters squabbling over how to build a campfire. Equally well-done is the terror of learning that there is something awful lurking in those woods, and it's coming to get you. You run, but to no avail: you are overtaken and killed... and then the prologue is over and you find yourself in your actual role: that of Scott, the unlucky guy who has just been dumped by his heartless girlfriend Valerie, ridden his motorcycle out into the country to get his mind off the breakup, and (wouldn't you know it?) run out of gas in the remote woods. The viewpoint shift caught me off-guard, and it worked marvelously. I felt like I had a better insight into my character after having seen him through the eyes of another, and vice versa for the character I played in the prologue. Viewpoint shifts in traditional fiction can make for a dramatic effect; interactive fiction, with its customary second person form of address, made the shift all the more dramatic, at least this time. It also serves perfectly to crank up the tension: one of the first things you hear with Scott's ears is a scream -- it sounds like Valerie, but what would she be doing out here in the woods? Unfortunately, after this promising beginning Zombie! stumbles badly. For one thing, after taking so much time to develop the relationship between Valerie and Scott, the game never returns to it! I fully expected to see Valerie show up again as a zombie, to see Scott's emotional reaction to encountering her in that state, and to find out what happens after he rescues her from zombification. A reunion, perhaps? Well, no. In fact, the prologue is the last we see of Valerie. Now, I usually like it when a game proves itself less predictable than I thought it would be, but this time I felt cheated. I wouldn't have paid so much attention to Valerie or put so much time into learning about the relationship had I realized that she was just a throwaway character. Doubly unfortunate is the fact this is far from Zombie!'s only problem. There are numerous bugs in the code, hand-in-hand (as they so often are) with an unpleasantly high count of mechanical errors in the writing. I kept finding myself feeling frustrated, because every time I really got into the game, allowed myself to get interested in its tensions, a bug or a spelling error would come along that would shatter mimesis and deflate the emotional effect. The thing is, the game does a great job of building that tension. It's a b-movie all the way, no deep or serious issues here, but it's definitely got that suspenseful, creepy feeling that the best b-movies have. (Yes, I'm aware of the irony in that phrase, so you needn't bother pointing it out.) The sound of heavy footsteps approaching, or the feeling of driving rain beating against a worn, gothic mansion, or the sight of horrific creatures staring dead ahead (literally!), and similar gothic pleasures were all very well-executed in this game, until you hit the inevitable technical error. Still, better to have a good game with lots of bugs than a mediocre game executed flawlessly. Bugs are easy to fix. When Starkey fixes them, Zombie! will definitely be one to recommend. Prose: The prose isn't beautiful by any means, and it often shows signs of awkward construction or phrasing. On the other hand, it does achieve many suspenseful moments, and quite often has some very nice pieces of description or atmosphere. I found the rain very convincing, and the eerie outside of the mansion was also well-portrayed. In addition, the prologue had some well-done dialogue and atmosphere, and built the tension just right for entry into the game proper. Plot: The plot was a good combination of the spooky and the silly, with the emphasis on the silly. I found it reminiscent of some of the early LucasArts games, especially the moments with Ed the Head. The kitschy charm of the mad scientist, his lumbering assistant, the haunted mansion, the unholy army of the dead, etc. was great. The main disappointment I had with the plot was the ending. It felt tacked on, as if there were more story to tell but because the game is a competition entry the author didn't have time to explore it. Also, as I mentioned above, the emphasis placed on Valerie was rather odd considering that she never again showed up in the game. I also felt a little frustrated by the ending. I don't want to give too much away, except to say that it managed neither the triumphant feeling of destroying evil nor the spooky feeling of inevitable defeat. Puzzles: I actually liked the puzzles in Zombie! quite a bit. Some of them were a little tacked on (the measuring cups), and the overall puzzle framework (collect the elements of a recipe) is quite shopworn by now. However, all the puzzles, cliched as they may have been, fit very well into the overall story, and that seamless fit makes a lot of things pretty forgivable. If the game hadn't been plagued by bugs, its puzzles would have come very close to achieving the goal of aiding the narrative rather than obstructing it. Technical: writing -- There were a significant number of mechanical errors in Zombie!'s writing. coding -- The game also had quite a number of bugs. It needs at least one round of intense playtesting before it's really ready for the world at large. FTP FileDirectory with TADS .gam file and walkthrough

Zork Zero

From: Duncan Stevens a.k.a. Second April <dns361 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #14 -- May 17, 1998 NAME: Zork Zero AUTHOR: Steve Meretzky E-MAIL: Beats me DATE: 1988 PARSER: Infocom, advanced SUPPORTS: Multiple platforms AVAILABILITY: Commercial (Masterpieces) URL: N/A VERSION: Release 393 PLOT: Not much (1.0) ATMOSPHERE: Uneven (1.1) WRITING: Amusing, mostly (1.4) GAMEPLAY: Remarkable (1.9) CHARACTERS: One major one, a bit annoying (1.0) PUZZLES: Many derivative, some good (1.2) MISC: Hard to sustain tone over full-length game (1.3) OVERALL: 6.7 The original Zork series was probably best described as treasure hunt with a satirical touch: there was humor here and there, but most of the plot was straightforward adventure/fantasy, and elements of the ridiculous were added only sparingly. Not so in Steve Meretzky's followup, Zork Zero, a "prequel" that subordinated the adventure aspect to over-the-top camp--and while it works in many ways, fans of the austere feel of the original series may find it a bit jarring. As a game that purports to explain some of the confusing backstory that had swirled around the various Zork entries, Zork Zero is admirable. The documentation--"Lives of the Twelve Flatheads"--is extensive and very funny, and the game is awash in amusing details about Dimwit's excessive tastes. (For example: "This is a small closet. Well, it's small by the standards of this castle; in a pinch, it could probably sleep a few regiments.") Though I would have liked a few more nuggets about how and why various elements of the trilogy came to be, there are more than enough--including the origin of the white house--to keep the Zork fan entertained for a while on that score. The various Flathead siblings and their professions--Ralph Waldo Flathead, J. Pierpont Flathead, etc.--are also well rendered, though I was a bit disappointed that there was only one woman among them, Lucrezia Flathead. C'mon, Steve. Couldn't you come up with any other notable women in history to parody? (My pick would have been Joan of Flathead, though I guess the history would have been hard to rewrite.) Typically of later Infocom works, additionally, the copy protection is woven into the documentation, which provides several unguessable actions. (A few of them, though--such as the 400-floor building with an item on a certain floor mentioned in the materials--feel a little gratuitous.) The plot, though ostensibly serious, is largely a romp. The game tosses you into the fall of the Great Underground Empire, as the descendant of a witness of Dimwit Flathead's death at the hands of the wizard Megaboz and Megaboz's curse on the empire, and the heir to a fragment of parchment that might provide a clue to averting the curse. 94 years have passed since the curse was imposed and the day has arrived, and it is now up to you to break the curse by finding two items belonging to each Flathead and adding them to the wizard's cauldron. The items have now been scattered to the winds, many in rather improbable places, though there is some logic to the location of virtually all of them. You might think that saving the empire is a grave responsibility, but this is a Steve Meretzky game, and virtually everything in it is there for laughs. Items you acquire include a "ring of ineptitude" and an "anti-pit bomb", obstacles come in the form of whimsical word or logic games, and a central piece of the geography is a giant brogmoid. Indeed, the player may justifiably wonder why he or she is bothering to save the empire anyway, since everyone else has cleared out. The setting is relentlessly silly: Zork Zero is set less in a fantasy universe than in a Meretzky world. The bits of swords and sorcery that pervaded the original trilogy give way to absurdism (occasionally a tad adolescent; earwax and toe fungus are pivotal in one puzzle). In one scene, you stumble into an "Inquisition" in which you outwit the executioner with wordplay; in another, you deal with a massive, obnoxious talking toad. Centering the action on a castle full of absurdities is the perfect game idea for Meretzky, but the result is less fantasy than mock-fantasy--whereas the original trilogy used fantasy conventions while mocking them, Zork Zero uses only a few of them and mocks them in such ridiculous ways that it's easy to forget that it's mockery at all. The result is that the humor is less effective than that of many of Infocom's earlier games, oddly, since it's more or less trying to be funny start to finish, while the humor in Zork I, say, came from an occasional fourth-wall one-liner. Perhaps the most peculiar element of Zork Zero is the puzzles. There are some clever and original ones, certainly--particularly one involving a certain chessboard--but most are classic logic puzzles cribbed directly into the game. There is, for example, a Towers of Hanoi puzzle--thoroughly frustrating to wade through for those of us who already know the idea--and a "lady or the tiger" problem, and a Hi-Q game, and even a measure-out-the-fluid-with-two-different- size-vessels puzzle. Suffice it to say that, when you encounter a fox and a rooster in close proximity, it's fairly obvious that a certain crossing-the-river puzzle lurks somewhere in the game. The problem with this isn't that they're poorly done, because most of them succeed brilliantly (and many are adapted to the context); several games are represented in full-color VGA graphics, even. It's just that a set of minds as creative as those of Infocom shouldn't need to copy so many puzzles from the canon. Still, in that this is a long game with lots of puzzles--virtually every object of significance, and there are many, requires some sort of puzzle-solving to obtain--the derivative aspect isn't as troubling as it might be. Most of the puzzles are relatively straightforward, though a few require rather exact timing, and it is sometimes possible to lock yourself out of victory merely by lack of foresight regarding transportation. (Zork Zero does employ one of the niftiest transportation devices in all of Infocom, though, and though the game area is fairly vast, proper use of the device can keep the player moving around it at a rapid rate.) Technically, Zork Zero is spectacular. The graphics are not extensive--pillars framing the screen, most of the time--but there are more elaborate displays here and there, and the details of the pillars change with the setting. The games you play require changing graphical displays, an edition of the Encyclopedia Frobozzica has illustrated entries, and a mysterious rebus (with a bizarre twist) is a crucial part of one puzzle--and the graphics are more than adequate for figuring it out. The parser is up to the standard of Infocom's later games, with the inclusion of function keys that can stand in for common commands. (Since this is a Steve Meretzky game, one of the defaults is "give magic locket to moose.") There is an internal hint system (non-adaptive) which takes care to preserve the copy protection and even makes fun of you if you resort to it too often. As if to showcase the parser's disambiguation abilities, in fact, the game includes two sets of scaled objects--for example, there is a large fly, a larger fly, an even larger fly, and the largest fly. Liquids are skillfully coded several times over, and the transportation system mentioned above, which offers seemingly infinite bug possibilities, works flawlessly. But technical wizardry isn't enough to overcome the game's basic incoherence: though the finale is impressive and suitably surprising, the game meanders considerably before that because it doesn't really have anywhere to go. When your plot simply requires that you pick up 24 random objects, it's hard to develop the plot along the way, and the one significant opening up of new territory isn't enough to really draw the player into the game. There isn't, in other words, enough payoff for most of your accomplishments; usually, you simply get another item to toss into the cauldron. Zorks I and II, though treasure hunts as well, restricted the initial area available far more than Zork Zero does, and conditioned more discovery on solving significant puzzles. Here, solving three puzzles, all of them easy, will allow access to virtually every room in the game. In moving away from the Zork trilogy's conventional-fantasy roots, therefore, Zork Zero loses something of what makes conventional fantasy compelling: danger, discovery, the intrigue of what might be next. Here, there's never really any question about what you'll find, merely where you'll find it, and the fun therefore turns to the puzzles--which deliver in some cases but not all. Certainly, Meretzky's writing is witty and helps to counteract the traipsing-to-and-fro aspect; there are plenty of silly things to try (documented by a "have you tried" section) and funny discoveries. But over the course of 1500 turns, which is what the average player could easily end up spending to solve this, even the best writing begins to pall--and the comic relief in the form of the jester becomes tiresome long before the end. (The jester has an irritatingly small stable of jokes, and many of them have annoying side effects--for instance, he occasionally turns you into an alligator for several turns, meaning that you drop everything and you have to pick it all up and put on the items you were wearing. Alternately, a bat might come along and whisk you to somewhere distant. The appeal of all this wanes considerably after a while, and the spectacular payoff can't overcome the tedium of getting there. Given the amount of story underlying Zork Zero, it's strange how little of it comes out in the game (until the finale, anyway); it doesn't seem that it would have been impossible to discover interesting things about the Flatheads or about Megaboz that shape your quest and draw the player into finding out more. As it is, until the last few moves, what you see is largely what you get. There are entertaining moments in Zork Zero, to be sure. It's questionable whether there are enough to keep the average player interested throughout, though, and to whatever extent it succeeds, it does so in a very different way from any of the other Zork entries. Though it has its moments, I found Zork Zero the weakest of all Infocom's text Zork games. FTP FileWalkthrough (Text)

Zork I

From: Duncan Stevens a.k.a. Second April <dns361 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #12 -- December 13, 1997 NAME: Zork I AUTHORS: Marc Blank and David Lebling E-MAIL: WHO WANTS TO KNOW?! DATE: 1981 PARSER: Early Infocom SUPPORTS: Infocom ports AVAILABILITY: Commercial (IF Archive) URL: N/A VERSION: Release 88 Consideration of the relative merits of Zork I, in 1997, is difficult to undertake fairly. Infocom's achievement in publishing such a game in 1981 -- to fit the limitations of tiny microcomputers, in a language that they had written themselves -- was considerable, and flaws in the game cannot be considered in the same critical light as those of games written today. Numerous bugs have been corrected since the original release, but the game is still essentially the same -- none of the bugs addressed design flaws that affected the plot or structure of the game; its limitations were not serious enough to warrant fundamental changes. Nor was the popularity of Zork I a fluke. Novelty was part of its appeal, certainly, and the game suffers in comparison to later, more polished efforts, but the attempt to create a plausible game environment with only text was sufficiently successful that many, many people were genuinely absorbed -- by the challenge of the puzzles and by the story, such as it is. The versatility of the parser was doubtless part of it -- to get the true experience of playing Infocom's games in the early '80s, struggle through some Scott Adams or the like and its volume of "go tree" and "look rock" commands. The primitiveness of the game environment of Adams and the like is not an indictment, given cost and size limitations, but the wizardry of Infocom in overcoming those limitations should be recognized through the comparison as near genius. Graeme Cree's bug list inventories some of the design flaws of Zork I, some of which have been corrected, some not. My personal favorite, from the first release, involves "give troll to troll," whereupon the troll eats himself and disappears. There are some problems that live on, though -- for example, the player is given an extensive description of the jewel-encrusted egg upon first encountering it, but that description can never be reached again once the egg is moved -- it began with "In the bird's nest...", but the rest of the description relates only to the egg and would be relevant in any setting. Some of the synonyms are a bit off -- "examine passage" yields "there's nothing special about the way." Among the stranger red herrings are the tool chests at the dam, which "are so rusty and corroded that they crumble when you try to touch them," and they certainly do crumble -- after that response, the chests are gone, apparently melting into dust and blowing away. There are numerous small illogicalities -- how does one raise and lower a basket up and down a mine shaft from the bottom of that shaft? Remote control? How does it happen to be that one inevitably happens upon a small object when digging in a room, without prior guidance? Is the thief really so clever -- or are you really so dumb -- that he can steal your light source? Why is it that a room filling up with water obligingly stops filling and waits for you to return if you leave? Many of the rules that IF players have come to expect designers to follow came about as a result of bad experiences with the early games, and Zork I is no exception. Though the inclusion of alternate solutions to problems is welcome, some of the alternate paths are a bit strange -- it is handy to know the shortcut to the thief's hideaway, but there is no way of guessing that shortcut without taking the long, arduous route, and players might well feel they have been put through needless aggravation. There are quite a few save-restore puzzles -- the "squeaky sounds" are hardly adequate warning for the bat puzzle, nor is it obvious that you, the player, will be so dumb as to puncture the boat by boarding it with a sword or other sharp object. The maze is large and irritating -- and the addition of the thief to the mix, while an amusing innovation on Colossal Cave, makes things worse. And most frustrating of all, of course, is the randomized combat, with no way to improve your chances -- an element that Infocom largely set aside after Zork I, thankfully. The writing is somewhat uneven, frankly. There are many rooms whose descriptions are cursory -- whereas Colossal Cave had clearly drawn on explorers' accounts of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky in its attention to geological detail, providing a measure of realism, there are many Zork I descriptions like this: "This is a circular stone room with passages in all directions. Several of them have unfortunately been blocked by cave-ins." Such a variety of settings comes in such a short space -- chasm, canyon, lake -- and with so little description that the reality of the environment suffers at time. Most room descriptions begin with something like "You are in a small room," which says little. Like, how small, man? Bread-box? Closet? There are moments of fairly thorough description in largely irrelevant locales, notably the canyon outside, and there are places where the descriptions are so terse that one wonders whether the intent was humor: Land of the Dead You have entered the Land of the Living Dead. Thousands of lost souls can be heard weeping and moaning. In the corner are stacked the remains of dozens of previous adventurers less fortunate than yourself. A passage exits to the north. Here I am in Hades. *yawn* Wonder if there's a gift shop around. Well, back to the adventure. Examining the remains elicits the response "You see nothing special about the pile of bodies." But though Zork I had little of the atmosphere that would mark later Infocom efforts, the very spareness of its prose was sometimes effective, as in the Troll Room: This is a small room with passages to the east and south and a forbidding hole leading west. Bloodstains and deep scratches (perhaps made by an axe) mar the walls. A nasty-looking troll, brandishing a bloody axe, blocks all passages out of the room. Your sword has begun to glow very brightly. Where a more thorough description of blood and gore might have seemed excessive, the brief reference to "bloodstains and deep scratches" allows the imagination to conjure up the scene -- and the description followed by the mention of the troll, while provided to separate out objects from scenery, heightens the effect of first impression -- the ominous decor -- and sudden realization of the source of that decor, as if the player were peering around the room and saw the troll last. Equally effective is the experience of dying once past a certain point in the game and wandering around as a ghost -- being told that your hand passes through objects, finding exits from the dungeon barred; the feel is reminiscent of Sartre's "Les jeux sont faits." Though the lack of an endgame seems strange to experienced IF players, the final reference to the sequel is genuinely tantalizing. Zork I does work, in the end, though it's hard to pinpoint just why. Collect-the-treasures as a plot is a weary old device, and it doesn't only seem that way to IF players -- it had, after all, been the subject of innumerable fantasy novels and games before IF hit the scene. But its recurring presence points to some appeal that Zork I managed to tap into -- the allure of getting rich, and of obtaining things as diverse as the coffin of Ramses II, a songbird's bauble, and a dead adventurer's bag of coins, keeps the intrigue of finding the next treasure alive, somehow. Vital to the enterprise is, of course, the humor, even if the barrage of self-reference becomes wearying; responses like "Only Santa Claus climbs down chimneys" make the game feel more intelligent than a "You can't do that" response would have, and moments like the description of the vampire bat and the behavior of the thief break up the traipsing-from-room-to-room feel that sometimes plagued Colossal Cave. For my part, I still enjoy this response: >zork At your service! The variety of responses to "jump" -- a command with, of course, no practical value in the game -- and the provision for other nonessential verbs points to the pains that Infocom took from the very beginning to make the environment genuinely interactive, rather than the minimum of nouns and commands needed to get the player through the game. The value of that is hard to measure, but Zork I, with its many Easter eggs, is a good example of a game that felt worth the price because of its breadth -- much to do, many responses to try. Playing Zork I now is indeed worthwhile, both to see how far IF has come and to appreciate its origins, despite the annoyances. It is a credit to its design that it remains an enjoyable game, well worth its popularity. FTP FileSolution (Text)

Zork II

From: Duncan Stevens a.k.a. Second April <dns361 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #12 -- December 13, 1997 NAME: Zork II AUTHORS: Marc Blank, David Lebling E-MAIL: No, 'e don't DATE: 1982 PARSER: Early Infocom SUPPORTS: Infocom ports AVAILABILITY: Commercial (Masterpieces) URL: N/A VERSION: Release 48 Zork II picks up where its predecessor left off in many ways -- the beginning deposits you inside the barrow that had marked the end of Zork I, your trusty lamp and sword are by your side, and your mission seems at the outset to be more treasure-gathering. But Zork II parts company with the first of the series in a variety of important ways as the game progresses -- that sword is useful, but in a way far more interesting than hack-and-slash -- and the changes suggest that the folks at Infocom were interested less in putting out more of the same than in refining their product and heightening ths challenge. One way in particular that the designers of Zork II chose to raise the difficulty level bears mention because it seems to have been deemed a failure as a game device, and rightly so: the reliance on random events. Two major elements of Zork II are random -- the role of the Wizard and the function of the Carousel Room -- and while each can be disabled over the course of the game, each makes the normal course of gameplay rather tiresome while active. An ill-timed Wizard appearance can actually render the game unwinnable at several points, making Zork II the only Infocom game I can think of (well, Zork I had randomized combat, true, but unforeseeable random events -- meaning save-restore cannot be relied upon in the same way as with combat -- are different) where one can lose the chance to finish a game through no fault of one's own. Usually, this happens because his spells disrupt a time-dependent sequence that only happens once (actually, I just discovered that becoming the object of a "float" spell in the volcano spells death, though an amusing death), but there is one spell which, if cast, instantly cuts off the possibility of winning, in a way that the player could not possibly be expected to guess. This is a cruel trick indeed, and later Infocom games eschew unfairness of this sort -- but first-time players of Zork II should be warned that frequent saves are in order. While the plot, as noted, seems at first to be an extension of the scavenger theme, it turns out to be something quite different; the treasures have a use that marks a change in emphasis of sorts for your character, from gathering booty to exploring the deeper recesses of the cave -- and in that, perhaps, one might say that the plot thickens slightly over the course of the game. The paragraph at the end of the game suggests a larger mission, one that will come as a surprise to the merry treasure-hunter -- and yet it makes some sense, in that it suggests that the valor the player has demonstrated in getting that far points to a more important goal. Magic is prevalent in Zork II, more so than in the original, appropriately so since it is a wizard's domain that you are exploring -- and the progress of the game moves you from object and victim of the magic to its controller, to some extent at least, in that you outwit a variety of magical traps and learn to use some magic items to your own ends. The magic is haphazard -- no hint of the more organized system of the Enchanter trilogy -- but there is a real sense by the end that you, the unskilled but savvy adventurer, have beaten the wizard at his own game, and it helps deepen the admittedly thin sense of a plot. Magic is also played up for humor value, including the wizard's failed spells ("There is a loud crackling sound, and blue smoke rises from the wizard's sleeve. He sighs and disappears.") and such sidelights as the "fudge" spell. (Though I was hoping that there would be amusing applications of the power you gain toward the end of the game, and I didn't find many.) Several of the puzzles are lifted from the original "Dungeon" mainframe game, though most of that had ended up in Zork I. (Though, at one point, you see, from a distance, a location that had existed in Dungeon but had dropped out of Zork I -- slightly confusing to the uninitated.) One of the puzzles has a drastically different -- and much more creative -- solution than in the original "Dungeon" game, though it's more a "wonder what happens if I do this" solution than an "oh, I know, I should do this" solution. The quality of the puzzles is uneven: one requires some trial and error, amusing in its effects when you get it wrong but trial and error all the same. The Bank of Zork puzzle has drawn some criticism for being possible to solve without fully understanding, though the rationale behind it is elegant enough that it seems a minor problem -- and another puzzle requires that one largely set aside one's knowledge of how liquids work (meaning that what I suspect was supposed to be among the easier puzzles stumped me completely when I first played the game). There is, of course, one notoriously bad puzzle toward the end -- bad for its "guess-what-I'm-thinking" aspect and for its inaccessibility to the non-American -- and for pretending to be a maze when not one. And the final puzzle is, I think, ridiculously hard -- the required action is motivationless and the game gives not the slightest nudge in the right direction. Infocom rated Zork II "advanced," but their sense of how to make a game hard without making it unfair was as yet not fully developed. Zork II feels much more polished than Zork I; the geography of the game is somewhat more coherent, there are fewer illogicalities, and the layout is less a series of puzzles than a set of locations that revolve -- literally -- around a central area. The writing -- substantially better than that of Zork I -- confirms that impression; there are virtually no rooms without a complete description, and at times the writer manages to paint quite a vivid picture. The tunnel at the beginning, while otherwise irrelevant, draws the reader in effectively and provides atmosphere and attention to detail that had been absent in the first game; it's as if the player has become less intent on treasure and more apt to notice the surroundings now and again. There are many locations worth picturing in one's own mind in the course of Zork II, this among them: North End of Garden This is the northern end of a formal garden. Hedges hide the cavern walls, and if you don't look up, the illusion is of a cloudy day outside. The light comes from a large growth of glowing mosses on the roof of the cave. A break in the hedge is almost overgrown to the north. A carefully manicured path leads south. In the center of a rosebed is a small open structure, painted white. It appears to be a gazebo. And this: Menhir Room This is a large room which was evidently used once as a quarry. Many large limestone chunks lie helter-skelter around the room. Some are rough-hewn and unworked, others smooth and well-finished. One side of the room appears to have been used to quarry building blocks, the other to produce menhirs (standing stones). Obvious passages lead north and south. One particularly large menhir, at least twenty feet tall and eight feet thick, is leaning against the wall blocking a dark opening leading southwest. On this side of the menhir is carved an ornate letter "F". Providing the salient details as the player looks around the room makes the experience more real and adds to the illusion of stumbling on a world rather than a series of puzzles; many of the most memorable images or scenes in the trilogy are in Zork II simply because the game authors gave the settings so much attention. (When I first played this -- I was 7 -- I had dreams about the Bank of Zork.) Even the after-death sequence was intriguing, and points to mysteries that unravel as the game progresses. Part of the appeal of the writing in Zork II is that it genuinely felt like a series of caves, with geological detail noted and occasional references to a natural light source. In summary, the appeal of playing Zork II lies less in the puzzles than in the game environment, and this installment is best enjoyed at a measured pace, with time to read room descriptions and visualize the scene. Notable for the way it changes the feel of the series, Zork II, despite its flaws, points to Infocom's developing skills. FTP FileSolution (Text)

Zork III

From: Duncan Stevens a.k.a. Second April <dns361 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #12 -- December 13, 1997 NAME: Zork III E-MAIL: One of the world's great mysteries DATE: 1983 PARSER: Early Infocom SUPPORTS: Infocom ports AVAILABILITY: Commercial (Masterpieces) URL: N/A VERSION: Release 17 To say merely that Zork III represents a departure from the first two entries in the series is to understate the case. Though much in this game will be familiar to the experienced Infocom gamer, and though it resolves the series reasonably coherently, Zork III works on a thoroughly different premise from the first two -- and to the extent that it succeeds, it does because the player is willing to set aside expectations built up by Zorks I and II. This is not, of course, to say that Zork III is a letdown, or not an enjoyable game, but it is hardly enjoyable on the same terms as the other parts of the series. The humor, to take an obvious example, is subordinate to the story in Zork III and appears at odd moments, Easter eggs typical of Infocom's writing (listening to the guards in the museum is a good example, or reading the plaque in the Jewel Room after you solve the puzzle). But there is little humor in the storyline itself -- nothing, for example, along the lines of cakes that cause you to evaporate, or wizards casting spells like "Fudge," or thieves making sardonic remarks, or a room that mocks mocks your your syntax syntax until until solved solved. There is one slightly jokey puzzle, true, but the game doesn't really play up the humorous aspect as it might; it is the resolution to a problem that is, like most of the game, thoroughly solemn. The main NPC of the game, when you encounter him toward the end, offers minimal interaction -- and it seems that, considering his identity, something amusing could have been coded in (I certainly never found anything). (No, the bugs involving what happens when he follows you around don't count.) Again, this is not to say that Zork III is humorless -- but the plot feels deadly serious and there is little of the comic in any vital element to the game. (Compare, for instance, the rainbow and bat puzzles in Zork I, or the lizard or Cerberus in Zork II.) The reasons for that are debatable, but my own feeling was that it was a product of the structure of the game; more on that in a moment. The writing reinforces the feel; most of the locations you visit are either on barren landscape or in abandoned rooms evocative of the decayed empire. Though the quality of writing is similar to that of Zork II, the mood created is different: where Zork II's images depicted a mysterious and slightly dangerous cave, with breathtaking views juxtaposed with cramped caverns, Zork III gives us gloom and emptiness. In a sense, though there are a few NPC interactions, no one is there; you are wandering around a region where no one is or has been for a while, and no one wants to be. For example: Land of Shadow You are standing atop a steep cliff, looking west over a vast ocean. Far below, the surf pounds at a sandy beach. To the south and east are rolling hills filled with eerie shadows. A path cut into the face of the cliff descends toward the beach. To the north is a tall stone wall, which ends at the cliff edge. It was obviously built long ago, and directly north is a spot where you could climb over the rubble of the decaying wall. Or: Scenic Vista You are in a small chamber carved in the rock, with the sole exit to the north. Mounted on one wall is a table labelled "Scenic Vista," whose featureless surface is angled toward you. One might believe that the table was used to indicate points of interest in the view from this spot, like those found in many parks. On the other hand, your surroundings are far from spacious and by no stretch of the imagination could this spot be considered scenic. An indicator above the table reads "IV". Mounted on one wall is a flaming torch, which fills the room with a flickering light. It is hard to put a label on the mood of Zork III -- "brooding," perhaps, but that would make it more ominous than it is. If anything, it seems like a T.S. Eliot scene, with its barren landscapes and wisps of mist and enigmatic encounters with unidentified characters. (As I spent last winter in Scotland -- on the North Sea coast, even -- the Land of Shadow description above feels familiar indeed.) The adjective "gray" never appears, as far as I can tell, in any of the room descriptions in Zork III, and yet there is a grayness about the game environment that makes the feel of the game far more real, more coherent, than the other two, even if the scenes themselves are less picturesque than those of Zork II. The description of the clifftop captures the study in contrasts: Cliff This is a remarkable spot in the dungeon. Perhaps two hundred feet above you is a gaping hole in the earth's surface through which pours bright sunshine! A few seedlings from the world above, nurtured by the sunlight and occasional rains, have grown into giant trees, making this a virtual oasis in the desert of the Underground Empire. To the west is a sheer precipice, dropping nearly fifty feet to jagged rocks below. The way south is barred by a forbidding stone wall, crumbling from age. There is a jagged opening in the wall to the southwest, through which leaks a fine mist. The land to the east looks lifeless and barren. A vivid scene, indeed -- a glimpse of the life above ground in full awareness of the bleakness of the setting, and, implicitly, color contrasting with drabness, the look up toward the hole in the cavern balanced against the look down, over the cliff. There is much to appreciate in the writer's ability to accent the pertinent visual details. The plot -- well, thereby hangs a tale. Though, as in the first two entries, you discover what the plot is as you progress, you are given a sense in the prologue of what you are looking for, and it quickly becomes clear that no crystal tridents or golden statuettes are at issue this time around. The scoring system -- you have seven major tasks to perform and are given a point for each, though the game will be far from over when the seven tasks are done -- reflects the new approach. "Seek me when you feel yourself worthy!" proclaims the figure of the prologue, and prowess is not established by a propensity for gathering loot. It can be argued that the substitute makes little more sense, but my own reaction was that I was on the trail of something more interesting than another chunk of gold -- and Zork III does try as well, though not very successfully, to put a different face on the skillful adventurer. (Suffice it to say that your final encounter gives a touch of Matthew 25:31-46 to the rest of the game.) There is a tension here between the two sides of what you are accomplishing over the course of the game, and my own feeling was that it would have been a more interesting tension with more development of the second, more subjective angle, the element not measured by items acquired. (As it is, there are still shades of the more tried-and-true scavenger-hunt approach, though the objects sought are different.) The outcomes in the museum and at the top of the cliff particularly play up how the player's assumptions must change -- in a sense, the central puzzles are those of a child presented with a cookie jar. It is certainly worth pondering how the nature of your escapade with the ring fits into the character-development angle -- and it seems like the sword-in-the-stone angle might have been reworked to fit that idea better. To discuss the plot any more specifically would give away too much of the game, but whatever the failings of the storyline in Zork III, it does offer food for thought, and brings the would-be looter, fresh from amassing two games' worth of bounty, up short. (And the ultimate ending offers, in a sense, the ultimate twist.) The puzzles vary widely -- some are memorable, some are nothing special, and some are just irritating -- and there aren't many. There is one that there seems little possibility of guessing -- the player hits on it by chance if at all. One required series of actions is time-sensitive in a thoroughly nonobvious way; it is easy to lock yourself out of victory simply by waiting too long to settle a certain matter. The infamous Royal Puzzle is not the hardest puzzle in the game; once the player grasps the mechanics, it is a matter of careful planning more than anything else. But small slips can, again, lock one out of completing it (and there is disappointingly little payoff to solving it, other than survival). Others -- the museum and viewing room puzzles, in particular -- are rather rewarding, though, and the latter even explains one of the odder red herrings from Zork II. And the mirror box, while it takes considerable mental aerobics to picture and use properly, is one of the more intriguing Infocom contraptions; mastering its more complicated purpose without help is no small feat. I found the last puzzle a bit unfair -- I learned later that a clue to it appeared where no clue had been before, but, silly me, I didn't think to check. But the novice should be warned that a few of Zork III's puzzles are difficult indeed, and require some trial and error -- considerable, actually -- to solve. There are many small things to enjoy along the course of Zork III, including the obligatory bits of self-reference; like Infocom or hate it, it certainly did come up with novel ways to plug upcoming games, and the advertisement for Enchanter in Zork III is no exception (though it's something of a bitter taste). Some of the problems involve Zork in-jokes of sorts, humor appreciable mainly for its cumulative effects through the first two games -- at the ocean and south of the lake, in particular, and upon examining the plaque in the Jewel Room. And there are genuinely riveting moments, in particular your last glimpse of the hooded figure from the Land of Shadow and your encounter, successful or not, with the Guardians of Zork. A game as skillfully written as Zork III need not describe every room elaborately, simply because the more lengthy descriptions are more than adequate to set the scene in the player's mind; I know I could picture the hallway of the Guardians of Zork vividly, though the room descriptions were fairly cursory. Though the gameplay is sometimes clumsy -- at one point, "enter the flaming pit" elicits "You hit your head against the flaming pit as you attempt this feat", and "climb wall" yields "There's no tree here suitable for climbing" -- the parser is usually strong enough to smooth things over. To appreciate Zork III, I think, the player needs to appreciate what the game authors were setting out to do -- and it was not simply to end the series, because a final spectacular treasure hunt would have done that perfectly well. To have solved Zork III is to have looked critically at some of the cliches of the fantasy genre, some obvious -- the treasure element -- but some less so, such as the expectation of spectacular or striking locations. By setting much of the game on what could be an English moor or heath -- the Crystal Grotto is a somewhat jarring exception -- or an American plain and mountainside, the designers subvert those expectations and make your quest, if anything, prosaic -- at least, prosaic relative to the expectations of the genre. The many locations that are not significant for any puzzle reinforce the same effect, as do details like "The ground here is quite hard, but a few sickly reeds manage to grow near the water's edge." There are few mighty deeds in Zork III -- no dragon to slay or gates of Hades to enter; instead, the puzzles involve cleverness or survival, and using fairly conventional tools to achieve your ends. Perhaps most interestingly, there is minimal magic in Zork III, and you have minimal control over anything magical; logic and mechanics are at issue in the puzzles. Certainly, not everything about the game is fresh -- the overarching plot is not, after all, especially original -- but the experience of playing the game yields something unfamiliar to the fantasy enthusiast. In a sense, the nature of the world of Zork III brings the person sitting at the keyboard into the game in a way that the Zork II player was not likely to feel, unless he or she was used to encountering wizards and unicorns. In the end, the success of Zork III depends on how open the player is to the game's peculiarities. The game is less fun in the most obvious sense than its two predecessors; it indulges in fewer amusing antics and has fewer rewarding things to do. But it ties up the series in a way that more of the same would not have; it marks the end of a process that had been hinted at in Zork II, a process whereby the player's interests and priorities change, and there is more impetus to see and understand than simply to secure what is valuable and bolt. The ending provides a certain perspective on the adventurer that was, particularly in light of the ending of Zork Zero, and the endgame -- centered around prison cells -- is appropriately down-to-earth for the feel of Zork III. There are many good things about Zork III, in the end, and perhaps the best of them is that, in most respects, it goes against the fantasy-game grain. FTP FileSolution (Text)

The Zork Trilogy

From: Molley the Mage <mollems SP@G WKUVX1.WKU.EDU> Review appeared in
SPAG #2 -- September 26, 1994 NAME: The Zork Trilogy PARSER: Early Infocom AUTHOR: Infocom PLOT: Item Collection ATMOSPHERE: Coherent and rich AVAILABILITY: LTOI 1 WRITING: Solid PUZZLES: Varies, usually good SUPPORTS: Infocom ports CHARACTERS: Memorable, but simple DIFFICULTY: Standard for all three (5 out of 10), but Zork III hardest EMAIL: ??? Ah, the Zork Trilogy. Basically chopped-up components of the Dungeon game which was so popular at MIT, these were the games that launched Infocom to its evenutal fame and fortune. Based more or less on the concepts put forth by the original Adventure game, the Zork trilogy games are mostly an exercise in collection of "treasure" items and solving more or less unrelated puzzles. Zork I is a particularly good example of this, where the player is apparently looting for looting's own sake, while Zork II sets the collection of treasures up as part of the plot (although you must discover this for yourself; at first, you are merely collecting them because you get points for having each one). Zork III changes from collection of "treasures" to collection of related items which taken together serve as a complete set of "Dungeon Mastering" equipment. But in all three of the games, the puzzles surrounding these items (while for the most part well-written, logical, and fun to solve) are basically unrelated to one another or to the story as a whole. The disparate elements are loosely glued together by the concept of the "Great Underground Empire" wherein all three games are set, but beyond that there is no real connection (and thus the games become rather non-linear in places, which is a good thing in this reviewer's opinion, but for the wrong reasons!) In Zork I, you play an adventurer who seemingly stumbles upon the ruins of the Great Underground Empire in the basement of an abandoned white house. You immediately set about gathering the Twenty Treasures of Zork, and put them in your trophy case for safekeeping. Along the way, you'll deal with a nasty troll, a particularly nasty thief, and a maze (blech). Zork II casts you as this same adventurer, continuing his explorations into the GUE (as detailed at the end of Zork I). This time, however, you find yourself in the realm of the crafty and capricious Wizard of Frobozz, whose magic seldom works exactly as he intends it to but always causes you a hassle or two. Freeing yourself from his domain and taking his power for your own is the goal of this one, though it's really just another "collect the treasures" exercise with the worst puzzle in Infocom history thrown in for good measure (the baseball diamond one, for those who know). Zork III ends the tale of your exploits, as you find yourself confronted by the mysterious being known as the Dungeon Master. This game is the worst of the lot, and should be played more for the sake of completeness than anything else. The ending will be apparent long before you get there, and it's not particuarly fun getting there either because of some very stupid random elements to the puzzles which require proper timing (but give no warning to the player that this is the case). This game experiments with a strange scoring system unlike any other Infocom game -- 7 points, one for each of the "major" actions you must complete (which does not include actually winning, I might add). Much shorter than the other two, this game seems more like an afterthought than a conclusion. At any rate, in comparison with Infocom's later works, the Zork Trilogy are on a much lower level. However, they are enjoyable games each in their own right, (though Zork III stretches it right to the limit!) and should be played by any fan of interactive fiction. Don't expect detailed plot, however; it simply isn't there. These games, however, form an important part of the base upon which today's IF is built, and therefore are entitled to a bit of easy treatment. As the first truly "commercial" IF played by any significant number of people, the Zork games are a major milestone in the history of IF -- and they are fun, taken at face value. If you can get them in the original packaging, do so -- the GUE materials are worth the price of admission alone. If not, however, they are part of the Lost Treasures of Infocom pacakge. Highly recommended for play by everyone who wants to know where IF in general and Infocom in particular got going.

Zork: A Troll's Eye View

From: Bonnie Montgomery <bkm SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #14 -- May 17, 1998 NAME: Zork: A Troll's Eye View (An Interactive Tedium) AUTHOR: Dylan O'Donnell EMAIL: dylanw SP@G DATE: January 1997 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Inform ports AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive) URL: VERSION: Release 2 I must say I had my doubts about this game during the first few turns. The player character is a workaday troll toiling in the underground world of Zork, unable to leave his post and with only his bloody axe for company. I worried that perhaps the tedium aspect was the only comment Dylan wished to make about a troll's work. When the first adventurer appeared in the room but then retreated, I really thought there might not be anything more to the game. Then out of nowhere, another adventurer appeared and unsportingly killed me! I had to have revenge! I stuck around for the next 100 turns until I killed and was killed at least a dozen times. Sated, I quit. If I had stuck to my post for a couple dozen more turns, my shift would have ended, reported Dylan. I played the game again and was gratified to receive my paycheck. The game rewards you with extra commands to use in a replay, including how to cut down on the tedium and maximize the combat. This game is a good example of how an author can set clear limits for a small game and satisfy the player within those boundaries. Just about every possible action is rewarded with a response in this one-location game. Several classic Zork commands are supported. Responses vary depending on whether you are on guard or in combat. While the combat text is not original (it is taken from the Dungeon source), it highlights the spurting blood aspects of Zork's sword and axe play. Shameful confession: I wrote to Dylan praising his text in the combat scenes and received his reply that the text was not his own. I have never gotten very far playing Zork or its progenitors. Dylan explained the retreating adventurer I had first encountered: "The adventurers that don't stop are the ones that didn't get the sword from the Living Room, spot a big nasty monster and think, 'Oops. Maybe I'd better try a different route'; they're back as soon as they find the chimney up and come back round with the sword." I was the kind of adventurer who fooled around a bit, got bored, and quit before ever meeting a troll in battle. Maybe it's time to go back and try again. Zork: A Troll's Eye View is billed as a coding exercise by its author, but I think it serves another useful purpose. Give it to your friends who might like IF, but who might also find the full-scale Zork daunting. Whet their appetites with this game, and you may have a new convert to interactive fiction. FTP FileInform file (.z5)

Zork: The Undiscovered Underground

From: Duncan Stevens a.k.a. Second April <dns361 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #14 -- May 17, 1998 NAME: Zork Undiscovered Underground AUTHORS: Marc Blank, Mike Berlyn, G. Kevin Wilson E-MAIL: Dunno, dunno, gkw SP@G DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Available either as .z5 file or as executable for DOS AVAILABILITY: Freeware from Activision URL: VERSION: Release 16 PLOT: Not much (1.0) ATMOSPHERE: Effective (1.4) WRITING: Solid (1.3) GAMEPLAY: Quite good (1.5) PUZZLES: Not too hard (1.3) CHARACTERS: Few (1.2) MISC: Effective, though not really much as teaser (1.3) OVERALL: 6.5 Short but entertaining, Zork: The Undiscovered Underground is the first Zork text adventure to be produced under the auspices of Infocom since 1987's Zork Zero. Changes in the entertainment world since then mean that the text game that couldn't exist as a marketable product in its own right (or so believes Activision) was produced for the sake of the graphic game Zork: Grand Inquisitor, as a teaser/prequel. While I can't comment on the worth of ZGI, I do think there's more than enough in ZTUU to make it an enjoyable game, with or without the larger game, and the whole thing feels appropriately Zorklike. That it should, as it happens, because the writing comes courtesy of original Implementors Marc Blank and Mike Berlyn, while our own (the IF community's, that is) G. Kevin Wilson did the programming, in Inform. The mechanics of the collaboration aren't clear--to me, anyway--but it's skillfully done: there are very few slips that I can see 'twixt writing and programming (a room description beginning "As you step through the door...", for example). The game is awash in references to Zorks of old--there are 69,105 seats in a theater, you carry an "ersatz-Elvish sword of no antiquity whatsoever"--and there are several responses that mimic the original trilogy (notably, ZORK still yields "At your service"), though I missed the variety of snappy retorts to JUMP. (YELL, unaccountably, yielded nothing at all. I thought that was in one of the Inform libraries.) At any rate, ZTUU also reproduces the atmosphere of the earlier games: the setting is an abandoned "cultural complex" with plenty of details about the Flathead influence (there is a backstage scrim for Uncle Flathead's Cabin), and plenty of funny self-reference. The game is set after the fall of the Empire and the end of the Age of Magic (the Age of Science is now underway)--the year is 1066--and the sense of rediscovering the crumbling underground world is just as strong as in the originals: the game strives more for Zork II-style silliness than Zork III-style desolation, but there is some of both, for example in the "fifty-story triumphal arch" leading into the ruined theater. The puzzles are few and not particularly hard, with the exception of one toward the end that requires some intuition (though there's an odd parallel with one of this past year's competition entries.) The main problem is that the whole thing is a little directionless--your initial instruction is to "explore, enjoy yourself, and bring back news," though the objective soon becomes getting out. But you don't plan your escape so much as solve a series of puzzles, the last of which happens to give you a rather unlikely escape route (clued, but not in a way that most would guess). This isn't a huge setback--after all, it's consistent with the "go-wander-around" feel of Zorks I and II--but given that the game never really goes anywhere, plot-wise, it's a little odd to consider this a "teaser." It certainly didn't tease me into buying ZGI (though that was probably inevitable, since it would require that I buy a new computer as well), nor could it, really, since there are no cliffhangers, nothing intriguing that won't be resolved until the later game. (I was expecting ZTUU to leave me in some perilous place, or afford me a glimpse of something tantalizing.) The most interesting element of ZTUU, to my mind, was what it indicated about Activision's view on the continuing IF community. The amount and variety of references to the older text games--and the simple fact that it was produced in Inform by a member of that community--suggested to me that any promotional effect this might have for the graphic-adventure crowd was incidental: the point was to hype ZGI to the die-hard text fans (though, again, I'm afraid it didn't do that well). After all, those most comfortable with point-and-click wouldn't be likely to catch on to the parser quickly enough to make the game worthwhile. (Reinforcing that, when the Implementors make their obligatory appearance: one of them recalls the "virtues of ZIL, but offers the opinion that a faster compiler would have been nice." Cute, and obviously directed to the latter-day programming crowd. Blank and Berlyn have their fun with the project: the room where you find the busts of the Implementors goes on at some length about the "Golden Age of Text Adventures," and then notes that "it is clear that an attempt was made to commercialize what remains, for now, above the busts, is a sign reading, 'Consult the Oracles - 10 Zorkmids.'") It is worth wondering, though: if the attention of the latter-day text-IF community is important enough for Activision to produce freeware as promotion, even short freeware, might the company secure the services of Blank and Berlyn for a full-length commercial text game again? (I know I'd buy it.) Alas, probably not, for a few reasons. For one thing, piracy would be too easy--data files for text games are small enough to transfer here and there quickly, and copy protection in the old Infocom style could be easily duplicated. (As far as I can tell, the existing community has been reasonably honest about not giving away copy-protection secrets even for the Masterpieces games, but that's not exactly something that Activision can bank on.) More importantly, it's not clear that the market is big enough to make such a project worthwhile--spending some extra money on a game likely to make plenty from the graphics crowd is one thing, relying on text-gamers to make a game profitable on their own is another. Finally, the sheer size of the free- and shareware IF market would probably discourage anyone from trying to market a new commercial game, since text fans don't really need any one new game for a fix (and those who have exhausted the resources of the GMD archive are probably few). It'd be nice if there were a way to convince Activision that enough of us would buy a new text Zork entry to make it profitable, but I'm afraid it probably ain't so. (And yet...if there were another freeware teaser that actually worked as a teaser, except leading to a larger _text_ game...well, one wonders.) At any rate, though there isn't a lot there, ZTUU is a charming return to the Zork universe in text form: those who appreciated the humor then are sure to enjoy it even more now. With more to do and more of a plot, further text offerings from Activision might even be commercially viable. FTP FileInform .z5 file, readme, and InvisiClues (.zip) FTP FileMap in GUEmap format (.zip) FTP FileWalkthrough and map (.zip)


From: Stas Starkov <stas_ SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #25 -- June 20, 2001 [This review popped up in my mailbox on April 1st, and while I've edited the language, I've made no effort to fact-check the contents. Make of it what you will... --Paul] NAME: Zugzwang - The Interactive Life of a Chess Piece AUTHOR: Magnus Olsson EMAIL: zebulon SP@G DATE: 1999 PARSER: Inform Standard SUPPORTS: Z-code (Infocom/Inform) interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware URL: VERSION: Release 2 If you don't know what the term 'zugzwang' means, I don't want to spoil your fun of playing the game. But if you're one of those several geniuses who play chess sometimes, you already know what it means. Yes, this game is about chess. I'll tell you more -- this game is a sort of chess simulation. You yourself are a chess piece -- imagine this. But this is not so bad as it sounds -- in the beginning you're only a Pawn (the least powerful piece in chess). And if you're smart and bold (you must be very bold or, umm, very bald -- I'm not sure) you will really win. Your moves can bring peace and order on the chess fields. Incredible responsibility lies on your weak (in the beginning) shoulders -- it is up to you to save the entire world. 'Zugzwang' features many never-before-seen aspects of RPG (role-playing games) and RTS (real-time strategy). There are about ten big battle fields, and hundreds of types of armor and weapons. The deepest depth of NPC implementation that the IF world has ever seen would be enough already to earn Zugzwang the honor of most intellectual game in GMD. But it must not distract you from the game: 'Zugzwang' features a floating level of difficulty; that is, the game observes your playing skill and if you're good, the difficulty rises and vice versa. The AI (Artificial Intelligence) never lets you stay bored. There are some bad things about game itself: if you own a quite small computer screen you can't enjoy the beautiful almost-3D graphics. But if you have a good fast 3D accelerator (like Voodoo 5 or GeForce 256 -- I have both) and a really fast computer you'll experience the full quality of this technically high-end game. But if you want more, a good expensive sound system will help, as well your favorite joystick. This game compelled me to buy a professional sound card, and I don't think that my money was lost. And there is this unique feature: 'Zugzwang' supports VR-helmets of six types. But most important, this game is compatible with almost every computer system (Windows 2000, Linux, Mac etc., etc.). You must know that this particular game is only a demo. To receive the full story of 'The Interactive Life of a Chess Piece' you must register. And I can say that it is worth your money. The full version comes on _two_ DVDs or on _twelve_ CDs. "But what is the special offer mentioned in the demo game?" you can ask. It is source code for the _entire_ game, which means that you yourself can create a game that you can sell after that. Yes, sell -- and get really big money for several hours work. This game is really good from the standpoint of creating your own version. And, of course, even the demo version supports multiplayer mode via the Internet. This game is the apotheosis of the text adventure. You _must_ play at least a demo. But I'm sure that after the very beautiful, stunning, mind bending climax, for the next several hours you'll only be able to do one thing: reminisce over the greatest moments of the game. And after that you'll smash your piggy bank and order the full registered version of 'Zugzwang'. One last thing that I absolutely must say -- this game is fully compatible with RAIF-POOL. And if you're not a beginner in IF, that will definitely mean something to you. FTP FileTextfire 12-pack containing original version (.zip) FTP FileInform .z5 file and source code

Zuni Doll

From: Duncan Stevens a.k.a. Second April <dns361 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #14 -- May 17, 1998 NAME: Zuni Doll AUTHOR: Jesse Burneko E-MAIL: burnekoj SP@G DATE: 1998 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive) URL: VERSION: Release 1 PLOT: Conventional horror-film (1.1) ATMOSPHERE: Uneven (1.1) WRITING: Sometimes good (1.0) GAMEPLAY: Weak (0.8) PUZZLES: Illogical in places (0.9) CHARACTERS: Entertaining (1.2) MISC: Promising beginning, not sustained (1.0) OVERALL: 5.0 Zuni Doll bills itself as an "interactive horror story," and its setup faithfully recalls horror movies: you, the unsuspecting schlump, have bought a doll associated with a strange legend involving homicidal tendencies held at bay by magic, and the setup ends with an indication that the magic has been disabled. What follows is predictable but entertaining, to a point: you are attacked by the bloodthirsty foot-high doll and devise various clever means of saving your skin. If you haven't seen "Child's Play," no need to rent it: Zuni Doll has roughly the same idea. Zuni Doll benefits, to some extent, from appearing at a time when horror movies are in scant supply (well, they're still in video stores, but they don't get released much)--and to the extent they appear, they have to make fun of the genre, as in Scream. (Admittedly, this isn't a horror buff writing, but I'm gonna generalize anyway.) If it were the mid-'80s, Zuni Doll wouldn't feel remarkable, since the player could get the same idea far more vividly on screen--but in 1998, there's a nostalgia to playing a game that tries to reproduce that feel. And Zuni Doll is successful to some measure: the setup is appropriately ominous, the contrived circumstances that loose the doll on you just plausible enough to feel real, and several of the confrontations (particularly when the doll is hacking its way through a door) genuinely suspenseful even if improbable. Unfortunately, implementation problems weigh the game down considerably. A certain device that you throw together to thwart the doll defies both logic and reasonable syntax--I was forced to resort to the walkthrough. (Actions that aren't on the author's mind get "This dangerous act would achieve little," as if danger were a primary consideration with a homicidal doll on the loose.) At several points, hitting the doll elicits "That would be less than courteous," hilarious enough (Graham probably didn't have this sort of thing in mind when he wrote Inform's default responses) but not helpful for the overall feel of the game, shall we say. And after a certain point in the game, the suspense more or less disappears, and you can take as long as you like to dispose of the doll. That, unfortunately, subverts the desperate feel of the earlier scenes--you're out of danger, and you needn't make every move count--and thereby loses the aura of the horror movie. Grammar problems and some improbable coincidences don't help. And, if I may say so, the author humanizes the doll just a bit too much, in that it seems to acknowledge pain and takes time to lick its wounds, so to speak--wouldn't a villain intent only on killing be a little more scary ("it's STILL COMING!")? There are, to be sure, many things that Zuni Doll does well, and the author seems to be familiar enough with the conventions of horror that another attempt might be quite successful. Notably, the MacGyver-esque feel of turning ordinary household objects into weapons or shields is well rendered and often very funny, and the ultimate resolution is satisfying. The game builds tension well, in the prologue and when the doll is hacking through the door, though the game might have benefited by even more of it (after all, the scariest bits in movies of this ilk are always when the bad guy is lurking somewhere, not when he's on screen)--perhaps an extended buildup, with ominous noises and such? Also, there are some fairly clever puzzles, though making time to figure them out slows the game down--my feeling is that the author should either keep the puzzles or the horror-movie feel, but not try to do both. This is a nice effort that needs some work, in short. If it breaks new ground in IF--I can't think of any slasher games as such--it should be noted as such; perhaps it might lead to more polished efforts. As it stands, it recaptures the feel of horror movies only in fits and starts. FTP FileInform file (.z5) FTP FileSolution (Text)
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