Right, so before I let you guys get the essential idea of what the heck this game is about I’ll cut right to the chase. It is appalling.. truly tacky with a capital ‘ack’. And yet it will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts when the sum is quite pitiful, with those component parts being antiquated scrap metal. This game is so riddled with holes and a complete lack of any kind of logic and yet it somehow rewards you for indulging in its many contrivances and pitfalls. The characters that inhabit the story are supposedly all fantasy genre ones but stray into soap-opera, cowboy and other clashing identities. That being said, the experience of ‘Return to Zork‘ will stay with you long after completing it. I will refer to it as ‘RTZ’ for the remainder of this piece.
As I said in my first article, I grew up with 1980s video games. Back in the first part of the decade even graphics weren’t taken for granted for every type of game. A rather modest company known as Infocom made a big statement by publishing ‘Zork‘, which allowed the gamer to interact with a fantasy story narrated and controlled solely by text. The ripples of this game led to a very competitive home computer games market. ‘Zork‘ had much anticipated follow-ups with lurid titles like ‘Revenge of MegaBoz’ and ‘The Coconut of Quendor’. Eventually a similarly anticipated sequel was on the horizon, the first to use full graphic scenes and music, although the ‘Megaboz’ title had already introduced colour and basic graphics for a few puzzles. This latest installment, ‘RTZ‘ was now produced by Activision who had bought Infocom. The object of the game is to solve a mystery over what has happened to a bubbly black man who has posted a video/crystal ball message for you in your letterbox. Or something like that. It really is a bizarre intro vid where the dude — Mr Rooper — doesn’t even finish the first of his three sentences before something sinister happens to him. I quote “Ahhh the sweepstakes winner, I’ve been looking forward to.. No! No! Helllllllp!!”. The picture quality of the game is pretty decent for the time but this opening sequence is so obviously made of pixels that you wonder what the technical team were thinking. From then on you get a vague idea that finding Mr Rooper involves solving the mystery of why West Shanbar remains on normal land whilstEast Shanbaris now stuck underground. Although you would hope that the further you get the more things make sense it’s actually like a microcosm of the ‘X-Files’ or ‘Lost’, where the more the story unfolds the more you’re utterly confused out of your wits. I’ve actually had to look up several reviews to find a decent attempt to put the plot in a nutshell and although I learnt that being a sweepstakes winner mean a share of the land in the former empire of Zork. that still meant I was confused. Very very confused. Admittedly there are many background facts in both the manual and the town hall files section. I must be frank – the red herrings peppering this information only help turn your headache into a migraine. I can say for certain though that Morpheus is the big bad, and every time you die you hear his evil laughter. By the way he has zero relation to the bad-ass character from the ‘Matrix’ franchise apart from first appearing in the 1990s. Notably he can only directly kill you in the final set piece. Before that you can be killed by almost anything and then some.
As for the control system, well it’s… sophisticated. Forget the SCUMM one, forget the Sierra parser system. No, this really is a whole different beast. You can pick up anything, throw anything, tear anything, tie up anything etc etc. It seems to give you — the unseen first person – any amount of options with any amount of objects. Just being first person was the exception rather than the norm at the time. This would seem cool except there are inevitably a lot of obscure combinations of actions which are needed to advance in the game. Because the lack of logic is so strong you are often forced to try every single combination with 2 or 3 objects and if you haven’t been somewhere yet you can really struggle. More often than you would like you can be somewhere, overlook an item needing collection and have sod all chance of getting that puzzle solved once you’ve passed the point in the game.
If you have little experience in adventuring you could see your whole free time taken up by this one game, assuming you don’t just give up and move onto something else. Dead ends are a real bugbear for most adventure game players and ‘RTZ’ has its fair share although thankfully not quite as many as certain other games — ‘I’m looking at you ‘King’s Quest V’ ’. I have briefly mentioned you can die a lot in ‘RTZ’. Some deaths are fair and you are given a warning, but a lot of them are not. If you are new to the Zork universe like I was, and hadn’t played the text-only games you would not be aware that any time you are in the dark you are going to be eaten. By a creature called a ‘Grue’. The great thing about these critters is that you can’t see them, so they could look like anything, even a hobbit, you just don’t know. But in any case you end up very dead. Although dying is a pain, it isn’t quite as bad as not being able to finish the game full stop, and there are some excellent jokes about your particular demise using a stained glass window with the relevant picture superimposed on it.
As I said above the opening sequence is a bit odd. Thankfully a respectable number of actors seem to fare better with decent enough exposition. The basic plot remains very vague having said that. The odd artist however is simply diabolical, despite their quotable lines and having a major role! All the actors are digitized so it looks like they are real people who happen to be formed by obvious pixels. This was 1993 and the technique of changing people into cartoon-like animation (as in ‘Beowulf’ or the Spielberg ‘Tintin’ movie), wasn’t even on anyone’s imagination radar. But for the time this was quite remarkable. Competing games from Sierra such as ‘Gabriel Knight’ had perhaps the same calibre of digitized speech but not the whole ‘life-like’ aspect, with the norm still being a comic-book look to characters. So this whole aspect is to some extent a big selling point for ‘RTZ’. Ok you are still confused as to what the hell the whole Zork world is really about, but in its own way there is a certain charm to the conversations you will have. Well speeches really as you – the first person – can’t really talk back, only adjust your emotions in the conversations.
This emotion thing is one of the many flaws in the game as when you think a gentle approach is useful you are actually shooting yourself in the foot. You can scare away a shifty beggar and be screwed from there-on-in, or you can be too nice to a dangerous troll and miss out on a key item to finish the game and again be screwed.. Also bizarre is the manner in which every single chat you have is recorded automatically. It’s up to you to figure out when to play back the conversations, and this doesn’t apply always to perhaps the most appropriate of educated guesses. The key use of the recorder comes late when you need to tell 4 good jokes and quickly otherwise you will die from depression and lose the game. Yes — depression in a computer game. I’m serious! And on top of that you need a weed to stay alive whilst playing these supposed jokes. If you didn’t make sure the weed was taken alive at the start of the game you have no chance to use it to stay alive. So if you did that, saved your game carefully thereafter for every stage of the game and then come to this late puzzle you — just — can’t — WIN. At least not without restarting from the beginning. Then you will want to shout ‘Helllllllp’ at the top of your lungs.
The most dramatic way to lose the game though, and actually a relatively fair one, is when you kill a character who is harmless and innocent. There is a sudden rush of wind, the screen goes dark — not Grue-dark mind — and suddenly you get a pompous am-dram actor in a cloak and hat strut onto screen. “We seem to be working at cross purposes. I must relieve you of your belongings until you learn”. Yes you get grounded like a naughty youngster by this camp crusader – known as the Guardian. He only ever appears in this one scenario, there isn’t a separate instance where you work with each other. And you don’t so much get relieved of things as have them taken away forever. So it’s a wise idea to save your game otherwise you are in trouble. Yet bizarrely the game is designed for you to let you drop items in almost every screen, and then come back whether the next minute or the next hour, and pick the items up again without another soul taking advantage. So if you throw away your items and kill an innocent the Guardian does naff all as he can’t take away what you aren’t carrying. Although this is a design error, its one of the best features of the game. Sadists everywhere — rejoice!!
So a lot of potential to lose the game. At least the makers of ‘RTZ’ are smart enough to give you copious amounts of save spaces. Other assets are the soundtrack which has dated well all things being considered, and the ability about two-thirds in to use a magnet on a vulture to fly you all over the place, thus saving time. Again I am deadly serious — vultures like magnets in this game. But somehow this truly bonkers idea makes the game the stuff of legend. I have to qualify the praise though by saying that it only spares you the frustration of having to go through three horrible mazes once you have solved them. So that means a lot of head scratching and a pen and paper at the ready to mark out all your steps. The worst of the mazes is going through a bog where if you jump on the wrong lily you drown. A special item is needed to help you check the lily is stable enough. This is the only time where the soundtrack really gets on my nerves as its so melancholy and grim and every single screen is identical. The other mazes involve some very homogenous woods. The bigger woods need trial and error as well as a bit of problem solving. The smaller woods are simply an obstacle to get through, and the solution is so obscure you will never forget it once you somehow figure it out. So I guess that’s a testament to an 18 year old game standing the test of time, in that its hardest puzzle is unforgettable.
More basic frustration comes from some of the movements across the Zork world with utterly bizarre choices of direction arrows and perspective. You have to be very careful to try finding arrows facing one way and then the other otherwise you just won’t finish the game. Did I say this game was illogical yet? Well there you have it, a game that looks quite pretty, sounds quite harmonious, but is chaotic to the zillionth degree. If any of you out there solved it all without peeking once at a hint book or walk-through, well you are a stronger individual than myself, but I really fear for your equilibrium because it must have involved a lot of hair-pulling and cursing.
The game is still available these days via engines such as ‘Gog’ which let you play old games on modern systems. Like I say the game will stay with you if you fancy trying it out for the first time. Just make sure the other people in the neighborhood don’t catch you screaming most times you undeservedly mess a puzzle up.