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Zork: The Great Underground Empire (Apple II) artwork

Zork: The Great Underground Empire (Apple II) review


"One of the first computer game series ever starts in front of a white house. You need to discover twenty treasures and find the passage to the sequel, Zork II. There's not a ton of plot, but you'll have to deal with two odd mazes, a lantern that dims as the game goes on(once it goes out, you may be stuck by grues--who engendered the word gruesome, of course--that roam in the darkness,) two opponents, a nasty river and even some undead spirits. There's enough of an assortment of items, from th..."



One of the first computer game series ever starts in front of a white house. You need to discover twenty treasures and find the passage to the sequel, Zork II. There's not a ton of plot, but you'll have to deal with two odd mazes, a lantern that dims as the game goes on(once it goes out, you may be stuck by grues--who engendered the word gruesome, of course--that roam in the darkness,) two opponents, a nasty river and even some undead spirits. There's enough of an assortment of items, from the useless to the downright cursed. The main part of the game is underground, and when you find your way down, your trip seems one-way. Even if you get killed your items are scattered and your task is a bit harder; in this way Zork retains some video game roots(one random event is based partially on how many points you have, which increase with treasures found or locations discovered) while still posing abstract puzzles. Along the way you may find secret passages to interconnect some rooms which aren't always useful but lend closure; for instance you'll see a passage below a grate or note that you're at the bottom of a slide, and what's on the other side?

A brief study of text gaming history will show how far ahead of its time Infocom's processor was. It allows you to say 'Drop all but X' or differentiate between, say, an oak door and a mahogany door. Prepositions are also possible, and it realistically represents the area when you board transportation(i.e. can't reach items on the floor when you're in a craft.) Some passages also don't let you squeeze more than a few items through. There are also cute one-liners you can type in that will get amusing responses, nice abbreviations such as Z for wait, tand the DIAGNOSE command helps determine how hurt you are and how many game turns are needed to heal; although they are not the hardest to program, they helped me start, in the absence of having to inject concrete detail and command handling, to write my own gaggle of progressively less inferior imitative BASIC games which, well, tried. Besides, at some point during Zork the player will probably find he needs blunt comic relief, even if the game does allow him to continue after the first two deaths(a bit annoying to lose points and be forced to search the randomly scattered items, though.)

Zork I puts more emphasis on mapping than its successors. In this regard, saving games(a disk you created could have SIX SLOTS) is useful for when you suspect you may get lost, and clever techniques may help you determine which passages lead where. All too frequently in the Zork series, going west and east may not lead you back to the original room. Zork bunches several similar rooms with weird twisting passageways together, and it is nice that, although you can't figure every location at once, you won't have to start from the beginning. However, the game throws a few curves at you. Before you put some items in a trophy case to score points, you'll need to use them to get other items, and one of the treasures(the egg) holds another treasure you'll damage if you open it yourself.

Without recourse to standard graphics and sound(except a nasty beeping if your command exceeds eighty characters) and counting the clever packaging as an entertaining effort not part of the game proper, Zork I usually comes through with witty text imagery for every object or location to examine. It's never in danger of being didactic or mundanely realistic. It relies on magical gadgets and anachronisms(an electronically controlled dam, and the modern stuff such as screwdrivers or a lunch bag are light relief) combined with searches for excessive wealth and even the supernatural. The title itself suggests further antasy as usually the 'I' is not evident in a game title. With all this, Zork is still technically sound and its limitations are much more logical than the standard early text adventure fare of 'I don't understand that.' The mazes are probably much more frustrating than the random fights, but fortunately you can solve so much else without figuring them. Although your character may not find many other people to interact with without killing(the program relies on mysterious voices a lot,) there's still plenty to discover. It also sets the groundwork nicely for later Zorks, as the elvish sword and brass lantern you pick up early on become good companions.

My earliest memory of Zork harkens back to muddling around the house trying to find an entry and eventually making it into the cellar. Fascinated, I spent a lot of time playing Zork I on the Apple after my lobbying efforts, and even when I bought an InvisiClues hintbook(you got a yellow pen to develop hints in invisible ink) it was still exciting to puzzle through the game. Wonderful add-ons such as the history of the Great Underground Empire(to be fleshed out in later Zorks) and the entertaining faux text adventure game in the packaging helped entertain me when I got frustrated. But the Zork games, currently freeware executables, are worth playing through whether by yourself or with a walkthrough handy.

Zorktastic!
--lantern and sword become companions
--start of an imaginative, if not always sound, series
--text parser is commendably complex for the 'stone age' of silicon
--many cool treasures and secret passages
--scoring system is fun

Zork this!
--egg-opening puzzle can be confusing
--long loading times moving from room to room
--some solutions dippy in retrospect

Rating: 8/10

aschultz's avatar
Community review by aschultz (April 15, 2009)

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