Sunday, July 17, 2022

Priority Adventure 7: Zork: The Great Underground Empire (1980)

For long-time readers of the blog (or those who've gone back through the archives), this post might give a sense of deja vu.  After all, I have covered Zork before, way back in the dim dark days of 2016 (the so-called "worst year ever" until every year after proved to be successively more horrible).  The version I covered at that time was the original developed for the PDP-10 mainframe at MIT, or the closest I could get to emulating that version.  Today I'm covering the game in it's most iconic, recognisable form: its commercial release as Zork I: The Great Underground Empire.

But first, a little history refresher.  After Colossal Cave Adventure became popular at MIT, four students (Dave Lebling, Tim Anderson, Marc Blank and Bruce Daniels) decided to create their own game in the same style.  They developed it from 1977 to 1979, and it proved extremely popular.  After graduation, three of the game's creators (Lebling, Blank and Anderson) went on to help found Infocom as a software development company.  The three of them convinced the other founders that Zork could be sold commercially, and the game's eventual success changed the entire direction of the company.

In the original game, the goal was to explore the Great Underground Empire in search of 31 treasures.  Finding all of the treasures allowed entry to the Tomb of the Unknown Implementer, and an end-game gauntlet of puzzles that led to a fantastic treasury.  The game ended with the player being forced to assume the role of the Dungeon Master, who must oversee the dungeon and its trials.  The complete Zork was far too large for release on home computers, so the development team gradually cut it down into a smaller game.  This game was released late in 1980 for the TRS-80, then on the Apple II in 1981 (followed by every computing platform known to man in later years).

The initial release of Zork was distributed by Personal Software, and features some artwork of dubious accuracy.  The white house and the mailbox are on point, but the hulking barbarian is a far cry from the adventurer of Zork, at least as I imagine him.  The manual that came with this version was quite extensive at around 30 pages, but mostly focuses on introducing the player to basic text adventure concepts, with little in the way of lore.

By 1981 Infocom had taken control of its own packaging, and this saw the debut of the classic cover that most of you should recognise.  Early releases of this cover featured the same manual as before, but eventually the game would come with a booklet entitled The Great Underground Empire: A History (the version I found has a copyright of 1984).  It's written in Infocom's customarily humorous style, and presents a history of the kings of Quendor, the empire which formerly ruled the lands where Zork is set.  In brief, the war-like king Duncanthrax, after conquering everything he could on the surface, decided to expand his empire below ground, hiring the Frobozz Magic Construction Company to undertake the project.  The work would be continued by his great-grandson, Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive, who commissioned a number of large and pointless projects (including the Flood Control Dam which appears in the game).  That this was all written years after Zork's development should tell you how relevant it is to the game itself, but it's amusing enough to be worth a read anyway.

I replayed Zork earlier this year (April, which means I've nearly caught up to the present day), choosing the Apple II version.  It didn't take me long to breeze through, because I pretty much know all of this game's puzzles by heart.  Playing this game is almost like being on autopilot for me, so I have no memory of the order I did things, or what my mental process was like at the time.  There probably wasn't any mental process at all.  So instead of going through the game beat by beat, I'm just going to run through all of the treasures and where they're found, with a focus on what's changed from the original game.

The iconic beginning.

The game begins in front of a white house, with the player standing next to a mailbox.  The mailbox contains a leaflet welcoming the player to Zork.  The surrounding forest hasn't changed from the original, still featuring a grate hidden under a pile of leaves, a tree with a nest containing a jewel-encrusted egg, and a canyon leading to the end of a rainbow.  The house inside is also much the same: a kitchen with a water bottle and a sack (containing garlic and some lunch); a dark attic with a rope and a knife; and a living room where the player finds an elvish sword, a lantern, and an empty trophy case to store any treasures they find.  The original version had a couple of extra items: a newspaper reporting on recent updates to the game, and a clay brick in the attic.  The newspaper's obviously no longer needed, as the game's no longer in active development, and the puzzle involving the clay brick has been cut (more on that, and other cut content, below).

Also in the living room is a trapdoor hidden beneath a rug, which leads to the Great Underground Empire.  This is where the vast majority of the game's treasures are found, and as I said above I'm going to run through them all to give a sense of the game.  If I don't mention any differences from the original game, assume the treasure is obtained in roughly the same way in both versions.

1. Jewel-Encrusted Egg: This is found in a tree not far from the white house, and is likely to be the first treasure the player will find.  In a devious touch, it also happens to contain one of the last treasures the player is likely to find.  See the Clockwork Canary below.

2. Beautiful Painting: The path south of the entrance to the underground leads to an art gallery, where this painting is found.  There's also a shaft here leading back up to the house, but the player can't squeeze through while carrying more than two inventory items.  It's a quickly discovered way back to the surface, but an inconvenient one for someone who's found a lot of treasures.

3. Bag of Coins: North of the entrance to the underground is a hostile axe-wielding troll, who will have to be dealt with violently.  (Zork has a couple of combat encounters, the outcomes of which are randomly determined.  The player is more likely to succeed the more treasures they've found, but the troll is met much too early in the game for the player to have gotten any stronger.  Luckily the elvish sword is usually enough to kill it.)  West of the troll is a "maze of twisty little passages, all alike", which can be mapped by dropping items. (I must admit, this time around I just used a map I'd made years earlier.)  Found in the maze is the skeleton of a former adventurer, and on its body is a rusty knife, a useless lantern, a skeleton key, and a bag of coins.  The coins are a treasure, and the key unlocks a grate  in the maze that leads back to the surface.  (This adventurer was supposed to be the protagonist of Colossal Cave Adventure, something that I guess wouldn't have been as obvious to home computer players as it was to the mainframe users at MIT.)

In combat with the troll.  They've cleaned out the seemingly meaningless
string of numbers that appears every round in the mainframe version

4. Platinum Bar: Not far east of the Troll is a room that's so loud you can't concentrate to take any actions; everything you try just results in your command being echoed back at you.  There's a platinum bar here, but the noise means you can't pick it up.  I've always beaten this puzzle by using the ECHO command, which then allows you to act as normal.  It's somewhat nonsensical, but shouting "echo" when there's an echo is something people do in real life, so I appreciate the designers acknowledging it.  Apparently the noise is coming from the Flood Control Dam above, and you can also stop the noise by messing around with the dam, but I've never tried it that way.

5. Torch: Not far from the Loud Room is a room with a deep shaft and a railing.  You can tie a rope to the railing and climb to the bottom, where you'll find an ivory torch that is always lit.  This item fixes the problem of your lantern having a limited battery, but it's also liable to be stolen by the thief if he wanders past.  (Speaking of the thief, his tendency to move items around made this one of the biggest problem areas of the original version of the game.  If you left the rope tied to the railing, he'd almost certainly wander by, untie it, and leave it at the bottom of the shaft where you could no longer get to it.  It's needed for a later puzzle, so if this happens you can't win the game.  In Zork 1 you only need the rope to climb down this shaft, so if this happens it's not such a big deal.)

6. Gold Coffin: South of the Torch Room is a Temple, an Altar, and an Egyptian Room where you find a gold coffin.  In the original game this coffin's in an entirely different area, and due to its size and weight it takes a bit of rigmarole to carry it back to the trophy case.  In Zork I you just need to pick it up then go pray at the nearby altar to be transported to the surface.

7. Sceptre: The sceptre is inside the coffin.  I don't think this treasure is in the original game.

8. Pot of Gold: If you take the sceptre to the end of the rainbow, you can WAVE SCEPTRE and the rainbow becomes solid.  A pot of gold also appears at the end of the rainbow.  This puzzle is in the original game, but instead of the sceptre you have to wave a magic wand which looks like a normal stick.  Once the rainbow is solid you can use it to get to the top of the nearby waterfall.

9. Crystal Skull: Back at the Temple and Altar you'll find a brass bell, a book, and some candles.  Not far from there is a gate to Hades that's blocked by the spirits of the dead.  To get by the spirits you need to ring the bell, light the candles (using matches from the Dam), and read from the book.  This lets you pass through the gate into Hades where you'll find a crystal skull just lying around.  In the original game this gate leads to the Tomb of the Unknown Implementor, which eventually opens to reveal the end-game trial that's been cut from Zork 1.  There's no crystal skull in the original game either.

10. Trunk of Jewels: Getting this treasure requires operating Flood Control Dam #3.  To do this you need to figure out the right buttons to press in the dam's control room, and activate the control panel with a wrench.  This activates the dam which lowers the water level of the river so you can cross.  You can also then take the trunk of jewels, which is embedded in the river floor.

11. Trident: The crystal trident of Poseidon is just lying around to the north of the river, and you can easily take it once you've activated the dam and crossed over. Alternatively you can use a mirror situated not far from the entrance to Hades: touching it teleports you to another mirror near the Trident Room.

12. Jade Figurine: Not far from there is a room with a Giant Bat guarding a jade figurine.  The bat will grab you and dump you somewhere in the nearby Coal Mine, but if you're carrying some garlic it will leave you alone and you can take the figurine.

Being carried away by the bat, with a reference to Hunt the Wumpus.

13. Sapphire Bracelet: This bracelet is between the Bat Room and the Coal Mine, in a room filled with gas.  Taking the ivory torch or a lit candle into this room results in a fatal explosion, but the lantern is safe.

14. Diamond: At the end of the Coal Mine maze is a strange machine that can only be turned on if you're carrying a screwdriver.  Getting into this room requires squeezing through a narrow crack, which you can only do while carrying one item.  Unfortunately it's also dark in this area, so you need to bring a light source through as well as the items required for the machine.  This is done via a basket that can be sent down from an area above.  With all of this done, you then need to place a piece of coal in the machine and activate it to turn the coal into a diamond.

15. Jeweled Scarab: To get this item you first need to find the boat at the base of the dam, then inflate it using an air pump found across the river.  Any sharp items in your inventory will cut the boat open, so you need to be careful before getting in and riding it downstream on the river.  After a while you can disembark on a beach on the east bank and dig to find the scarab.  In the original game, this item is a statue.

16. Large Emerald: Further down the river is a buoy that's there to warn you that you're about to go over Aragain Falls.  If you take the buoy with you and open it up you'll find an emerald inside.

17. Silver Chalice: Deep in the maze is the lair of a Cyclops, which can be put to sleep with some food and water (or scared away with the name ODYSSEUS, but that solution's a little more obscure).  Up above the Cyclops' lair is the hideout of the Thief.  He'll show up to defend his home, and you'll have to beat him in a straight-up fight.  If you try this early in the game there's little chance you'll win, but once you've obtained a decent number of treasures and racked up a good score you'll be able to kill him.  In his lair you'll find the silver chalice, as well as any other treasures he's nicked off you during the game.

18. Clockwork Canary: But wait, don't kill that Thief too quickly...  First you'll need to make sure he steals the jewel-encrusted egg from you, because he's the only one who's skilled enough to get it open.  Inside the egg is a clockwork canary.  (Make sure to take the canary out of the egg before putting it in the trophy case, otherwise it won't register as a treasure.  I forgot about this, and it took me ages to figure out why the game wasn't acknowledging that I had all of the treasures.)

19. Brass Bauble: To find the bauble you need to take the clockwork canary into the forest and wind it up.  The canary's song will summon a bird that drops the bauble at your feet.  There are some birds singing occasionally when you go through the forest, which is definitely a clue, but this is one of the more obscure puzzles.

20. Ancient Map: Once you've placed the previous 19 treasures in the trophy case, an ancient map will appear.  This map leads outside to an old stone barrow, which you enter to beat the game and progress to Zork II.  This map isn't in the original game, as it has an entirely different end-game.

Following the map to the stone barrow. I forgot to screenshot
this when I played through, so I nicked this image from

Going back over Zork I and comparing it to the mainframe version, I'm impressed at how much of the game they managed to fit into a home computer release.  The entire overworld is present, as is the bulk of the underworld, albeit rearranged and streamlined somewhat.  The areas that haven't been included are the ones that are harder to get to, and the ones containing the most difficult puzzles.  I'll do a quick run-down of what was cut below:

  • The Bank of Zork is gone, which is just as well because I never quite figured out how it works.  I guess I'll get to refamiliarise myself with it when I get to Zork II.
  • The whole volcano shaft and the hot air balloon is gone.  In terms of timing it's one of the more complex sequences in the original game.  his is where the clay brick explosive I mentioned earlier came into play.
  • The area with the four cakes where you have to eat one to shrink down has been cut.
  • The nearby area where you have to control a robot to free yourself from a trap is also gone.
  • The puzzle with the three interconnected crystal balls is gone.  This means that you no longer need to use the rope and timber to suspend yourself halfway down the coal mine shaft in order to access a secret room.  This was one of the cleverer puzzles of the original, but also one of the fiddliest, so I can't say I miss it.
  • The entire end-game trial is gone, and as I recall has been moved to Zork III.
  • There's no "last lousy point", which was earned by sending away for a brochure and receiving a stamp that featured a dig at Colossal Cave Adventure's creator Don Woods.  It's a shame, because I love the gag, but the in-joke wouldn't play as well on home computers as I assume it did to the mainframe users who were familiar with Zork's predecessor.

That's pretty much all the major material that's been cut from the game, which isn't a whole lot.  Of course this is just what I recalled from skimming my maps from years ago, so I could be missing something.  Most of this material was moved to Zork II, with just the end-game trial being moved to the third game.  I'm much less familiar with the latter two parts of the trilogy, and I'm looking forward to revisiting them to rediscover what's been added around the existing puzzles.

I heartily enjoyed going back to Zork I, but I know the game so well that it hardly counts as playing it.  Instead of being a challenge it's like a nostalgic walk through an old neighbourhood, albeit one where I might be murdered by a nasty Troll or a sly Thief.  But the atmosphere and idiosyncratic humour of the game are so good that I always enjoy going back, and I'm sure I'll do so again a few years down the track.  I expect this game to do exceptionally well on the RADNESS Index.


Story & Setting: The mailbox, the white house, Aragain Falls, Flood Control Dam #3, the maze of twisty passages, all alike...  The setting here is iconic, and the couple of asides about the fall of the Empire give it just a touch of history and wonder.  The treasure hunt story is nothing special, but as an excuse to explore the Great Underground Empire it does the job. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The Troll, the Thief, the Cyclops and the Bat are pretty much it.  Most of them are simple puzzle or combat obstacles, but the Thief is something else entirely.  He has personality, he has an agenda, and he has the ability to make you hurl expletives at your monitor.  As I said when I played the mainframe version, the Thief is the single greatest villain in gaming up to that point.  As of Zork I's release in 1980, I still believe that's true.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Aesthetics: It's an old-school text adventure, but due to the enjoyable writing this one's going to score about as high as a text adventure of the era can score.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Mechanics: I don't know if I mentioned it the first time around, but the Zork parser runs really smoothly.  Perhaps it's just my familiarity with the game, but I hardly ever run into issues with finding the right command, and that can be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for this genre.  It also accepts some quite complex commands, especially in comparison to its contemporaries that are usually restricted to two words.  I might be rating this one a little high, but it's the parser that all others are measured by.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

Puzzles: It doesn't have the difficulty of the mainframe version, but the puzzles in this game have been tightened up, and the most irritating ones have been completely cut.  The difficulty ranges from dead simple to devious, but there's nothing here I'd classify as unfair.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

Challenge: Zork I is a tough game to crack, but with persistence it can be done without the need for a towering intellect (i.e. I was able to do it without help about a decade ago).  I especially like that it begins with loads of simple puzzles, and saves the really hard ones for later.  There's always something else to try in Zork, even when you feel like you're stuck.  There are random elements that can kill you off, but the most likely of these is the Troll, and he's encountered right near the start.  A hard game, but a fair one, and about as well-judged as any adventure game I've played. Rating: 6 out of 7.

Fun: I always enjoy going back to Zork, so there's going to be an amount of bias in this score.  But let me be real with you, this category is kind of bullshit, and represents nothing more than my own  personal enjoyment of a game.  Zork's one of my faves, but it's not one of my all-time faves, and there's only so much you can get out of most adventure games once you've explored what they have to offer.  It's hard to go past this one though, as it's one of the most enjoyable of the era.  Rating: 6 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 2. Iconic, influential, and it still holds up.  A masterpiece.

The categories above total 33, which doubled comes to 66.  Add the bonus points, and Zork I scores a  whopping RADNESS Index of 68. That's the highest rated game on the blog so far.  The mainframe version is second on 64 points, which makes sense to me.  The mainframe version might have more packed in, but Zork I is more focused, with a tighter environment and an emphasis on the exploration and puzzles that worked best from the original.  Funnily enough, taking out the more frustrating parts of the original made for a better game.  I doubt I'll ever go back to the mainframe Zork, but there's no question of whether I'll return to Zork I.

NEXT: It's back to Scott Adams territory, as I put on my old west prospector's hat for Ghost Town.