Return to Zork

You are standing in a field west of a white house with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.

>Open the mailbox.
Opening the mailbox reveals a leaflet.
>Read the leaflet.

22_1These unforgettable lines greet you upon entering Zork: The Great Underground Empire, a game that kickstarted one of the finest adventure series ever made. It’s also one of the oldest ever made, being initially programmed by several MIT guys in the late 70’s and finally coming of age during the 80’s, when Infocom (then just a start-up company) created and released the original Zork franchise, ushering in a new standard for text-based adventures.

But the old trusty text parser takes a back seat with Return to Zork, Infocom’s first attempt at a modern graphic adventure complete with all the possible trimmings; 3D rendered visuals, real-life actors, a simple point and click interface and an orchestral score that will make your Sound Blaster work overtime. It’s quite a technical leap bundled into one package and a definite stretch of early 90’s computing power, but how well does it play?

Even without the versatility of a parser, the amount of options you get with just a few mouse clicks is quite impressive. Though it sometimes does aggravate how you must resort to point & click gymnastics for simple actions (like filling an empty flask with water from a faucet), the interface is a definite asset once you’re comfortable with it. A few clever additions to your inventory include a map that roughly tracks your location, a camera for snapping pictures and a tape recorder that automatically stores each line of spoken NPC dialogue. Finding what every other puzzle item does and how to use them is about half of Zork. The rest is solving puzzles by interacting with the army of oddball characters found throughout game, and here too the options are vast.

“Want some rye? ‘Course ya do!”

Meet Boos, the town drunk. Want some rye?

Instead of a dialogue tree, NPC’s react to your disposition, which you can select from ‘apologetic’ to ‘threatening’ or ‘fascinated’ when interacting with characters, resulting in different reactions on their part. Or else you can ask them about your inventory, photos or tape recordings. The way the game handles copy-protection is quite effective – at various stages of the game, NPC’s will ask you for specific Zorkian folk knowledge that you can look up in the included Encyclopedia Frobozzica. Only twice you will have to go through this task, and it’s pretty non-intrusive and amusingly clever.

The game is also surprisingly non-linear. Though there is but one central story to follow, lots of minor deviations make each playthrough different. You’ll possibly have more than one go at the game considering how easy it is to screw up the puzzles, essentially making the thing unbeatable. Then there’s also the ‘Guardian’, a mythical figure that shows up whenever you commit an act that the game considers immoral, and who consequently takes away your entire inventory (simultaneously snatching away any hope of success). Plus there’s a crapload of ways to die without warning, followed by a telltale evil laugh signaling that you’ve just kicked the bucket.

Return to Zork took a considerably long time to piece together and marks quite a triumphant technical achievement for the series. A little more onscreen text (like subtitles) or a simple volume control would have gone a long way here, and that’s not even covering the often wayward puzzles. Get past these hoops and Zork is a realm mostly worth revisiting.

System Requirements: 25 Mhz 386, 4MB RAM, 2.5 MB Free Space, MS-DOS

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