Thursday 22 September 2016

Introducing The Great Zork Marathon

Written by Joe Pranevich

The greatest dam in adventure game history.

Hello, Sailor! Before we get into 1992, we want to peek ahead just for a moment to 1993 and a monumental release: Return to Zork. No one can deny that the Zork games were some of the most successful and influential adventure games of all time. They spawned a franchise that included multiple series of games, books, and toys. They were parodied by some developers but imitated by many more. Next to Colossal Cave itself, I don’t think there were games more influential on our genre than Zork.

And yet, because they were text adventures, we haven’t played any of them. Trickster’s only text adventure review was Colossal Cave, but he wrote it for RetroSmack instead of our fine publication. We’ve played a few text adventures since the Great Relaunch, but we haven’t played any of the Zork games… until now.

This is my challenge: I will play and review every Zork game before the blog makes it to Return to Zork. Considering that it took me nearly six months to play four games in my “Summer of Questprobe” series, I may be biting off more than I should. But I want to give it a try!

“You are west of a white house with a boarded front door…”

Every good marathon needs to have a map, and these are the stops that I hope to take along the way:
  1. Dungeon (1979)
  2. Zork I: The Great Underground Empire (1980)
  3. Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz (1981)
  4. Zork III: The Dungeon Master (1982)
  5. Enchanter (1983)
  6. Possible Side Trip: Planetfall (1983)
  7. Possible Side Trip: Zork game books (1983-1984)
  8. Sorcerer (1984)
  9. Spellbreaker (1985)
  10. Possible Side Trip: Wishbringer (1985)
  11. Possible Side Trip: Stationfall (1987)
  12. Beyond Zork (1987)
  13. Zork Zero (1988)
  14. Zork Quest: Assault on Egreth Castle (1988)
  15. Possible Side Trip: Zork parodies, Pork (1988) and Pork 2 (1989)
  16. Zork Quest: The Crystal of Doom (1989)
  17. Possible Side Trip: Zork novels (1988-1991)
Want some rye?

This list includes all of the games in the Zork and Enchanter series plus a few surprise “side trips”. Wishbringer appears to take place in the Zork universe, although I haven’t played it to know how explicit this connection is. Planetfall and Stationfall may take place in the far future of Zork due to the presence of grues, plus they have been included in Zork anthologies. I also would like to briefly look at the various Zork books as I had several of them as a kid and I’d like to see if they hold up at all. And finally, just in the event that I somehow come in ahead of schedule, I put spots in there for a quick look at the Pork series, a well-known parody of Zork.

Am I crazy? YES. Am I going to try anyway? Absolutely.

Even once this marathon is over, Zork fun will not be. Several additional Zork games will be played in future years of The Adventure Gamer, including Zork Nemesis (1996), Zork: The Undiscovered Underground (1997) and Zork: Grand Inquisitor (also 1997). Undiscovered Underground is a text adventure released with Grand Inquisitor and we’ll solve how we cover that when the time comes. An online-only sequel was released in 2009, Legends of Zork, but it has been shut down by Activision and no offline version is known to exist. It will be a very long time before we get to 2009 games so by the time we get there, we may have a way to discuss it.

Please join me next week as I kick off this series with the mainframe game that started it all, Dungeon, otherwise known as unnumbered Zork.


  1. I started a little bit of the first Zork game several years ago. I didn't get much further than an rapbhagre jvgu n gebyy. It was also kinda weird having combat (and HP?) in an early adventure game like this. Wasn't Rogue partially inspired by early text adventures?

    1. A sliver of "Dungeons and Dragons" inhabits several of the early text adventures. "Adventure" itself had combat (and one fight in particular that was completely stupid by D&D rules, but won on the rule-of-funny). I don't remember the original Zork enough to know if it had hit points. I've started playing Dungeon already (and a post will be on that in a few days) and there *are* hit points as a semi-visible stat. I'll try to remember to write up that when I get into a big combat.

    2. "Beyond Zork" which I played the very beginning of is a adventure/RPG hybrid that has many visible stats. But I don't recall any hit points in others.

      I've played most of these games around twenty years ago and usually I just did the beginnings and moved on. So my recollections could be flawed and I'll be (re-)discovering this with you as I play.

  2. I'm looking forward to this retrospective series, though I generally don't like the Zork games.

    I had a go at the first 3 and didn't get very far or enjoy it due to a combination of the games' difficulty and my impatience.

    At some point I also finished Zork Nemesis but don't remember what it was about, and I finished and enjoyed Zork Grand Inquisitor.

    And to answer your caption's question, " 'Course I do "

    1. Strange, I also beat Zork Nemesis but cannot remember it at all except that I think it had almost nothing to do with Zork. Grand Inquisitor wouldn't run on my PC when it came out so I returned it to the store. That was also during a period where I stopped playing games.

      I like Zork, but perhaps I like the idea of Zork more than I like Zork itself.

  3. The greatest dam in adventure game history.

    The greatest damn what?

    1. Oh, I'm looking forward to this greatly. I have fond and vivid memories of the vast majority of the list and also all three Zork graphical adventures.

  4. I've only played a tiny bit of Zork, and never bothered with it because I got my head turned by the pretty colours of graphical adventure games.

    I'll be interested to see how they rate!

  5. My first one on your list was actually Wishbringer. My dad bought it when I was just getting into computer games for the first time (so, 1985). I remember it came with great feelies - including a glow-in-the-dark stone, which is hot stuff when you're 5.

    Of the rest of the series, I played the first Zork many many moons ago, and got stuck somewhere along the line. Probably eaten by a grue. I never invested in the remainder of the games, so I'll be eager to watch this playthrough!

  6. The original Zork games are really difficult. I'll be surprised if you actually finish them all. I never got past half the first one. But it's definitely a worthy and ambitious project to play and cover all of them. It's a shame that I grew up just a tiny bit too late to get into the Infocom games despite playing a lot of classic text adventures, so I've never played many of those. I will have to play Planetfall and maybe Stationfall when you get to those.

    1. If I don't finish, I will make extensive Requests for Assistance! I hope I'm up for the challenge but these old text adventures can be HARD.

  7. Next to Colossal Cave itself, I don’t think there were games more influential on our genre than Zork.

    I think you can look to the starts of series and blockbuster chart-toppers as influential: Scott Adams' Adventureland was hugely influential (if only due to having its source code published and reverse-engineered... of course it was also directly informed by Colossal Cave, you can see in its very name); Mystery House (again, wouldn't have happened without ADVENT), MUD (the "Dungeon" in "Multi User Dungeon" is mainframe Zork), King's Quest 1, Deja Vu, The Secret of Monkey Island, and Myst. It's probably hard to find adventure games that escape the shadow of those titans. (Not impossible -- Maniac Mansion! -- but non trivial.)

    these are the stops that I hope to take along the way

    The Enchanter games are set in the Zork world, but their gameplay is of a very different style.

    As for Planetfall, you do find some grue references in early Infocom games (eg. Starcross) due to shared libraries and shared solutions to design problems (the grue emerged as a replacement to "falling down a pit" when in the unlit attic of the white house... where a pit would be unlikely to be present) but I don't think that means they need to be part of this spree. Well worth covering, but on their own merits, on their own schedule.

    The gamebooks will go quickly, as every twist that is not narrative-advancing is a dead end.

    You can look at the Porks (I'm sure it's been a dog's age since anyone has), but there are perhaps more meritorious Zork derivatives that have emerged since the RAIF community emerged -- things like Zork: A Troll's Eye View.

    If you can recruit a colleague fluent in Japanese, it could also be very interesting to look at the localized JP versions of Enchanter for the PC-98 ( and Zork for PlayStation / Saturn (

    1. The extremely flimsy justification for including Planetfall and Stationfall (other than "I want to") is that the former was included in the 1994 "Zork Anthology" set and there's just barely enough references in the game that if you squint really hard you might be able to see the resemblance.

      We'll see what happens since it's an optional side trip. I just want to see if Floyd is as awesome in reality as my flimsy memory.

      The crazy thing is that I've played most of the Infocom games... for a few minutes and then put them down. This is the first time I will be investing my full effort and attention to play them, as much as possible without hints. (And I hope to take advantage of the blog readers and do Requests for Assistance rather than look up the hints myself. More fun that way.)

      As for history, I've been considering even putting together a chart but I have come to learn a lot more how our games are connected. There is a nearly unbroken line that stretches from Adventureland to Elvira, for example, through the work of Scott Adams and his partners. Sierra's "Hi-Res Adventure" series was named in direct contrast to Adams's "Adventure" series with even the same style numbering. (And it no doubt encouraged him to rename his "SAGA", for better or worse.) And from Sierra we get so many of our classics through one twist and turn to another right down to upcoming games like Hero-U. They aren't unbroken lines, but you can see the genes.

      It's been fascinating for me when we find games that break that. I'm just starting to look at Startrek 25th Anniversary and (spoiler for the intro!), it has almost no adventure pedigree. It's taking design ideas from places we recognize, of course, but the only adventure game any of its major developers worked on in the past was Tass Times. Remember that one? Instead, they seem to be guys who will be much more known for RPGs.

      ICOM, Looking Glass Studios, LucasArts... it would be interesting sometime to trace which of the games we have played go back to which original ideas.

    2. Company / staff histories are very interesting indeed, the Adventuresoft / Adventuresoft UK lineage runs from Scott Adams' TRS-80 original all the way through to 2005's "Dark Corners of the Earth" (and come to think of it, I believe that Simon Woodroffe was last seen at the helm of Rare, so it's not impossible the line might bear a bit more fruit... though Rare prefer to mine their own history.)

      It gets more interesting when you look at the splits from solo adventure games to multiplayer online games (Alan Cox's work with Adventuresoft involved use of a codebase for a MUD, and many MUD developers ended up spearheading the big and influential MMORPGS) ... very different branches from the same tree.

      I've got to say, I haven't seen a great deal of direct Sierra influence since they jettisoned their own legacy as their time was running out and no one was in a big hurry (well, aside from Tsunami Media) to pick up the tradition after it was thought commercially extinct. (Fan developers aside, such as Infamous Adventures.)

      25 Anniversary is unlike games that came before, but it didn't reinvent the genre from the ground up. Though it might not have shared any staff with Lucasarts, I think it's closest to multi-character titles like Maniac Mansion and DOTT, only with more ship combat. (Also: Interplay did have an adventure game background -- Tracer Sanction, Mindshadow, Borrowed Time, leading up to Tass Times and Neuromancer -- they have all just been dismissed as non-notable 8)

      I know that the CRPG Addict tracks historical firsts (such as: first depiction of drug use in a CRPG, to pick one at random), but as he has a unique "big picture" view courtesy of his superhuman solo project, he doesn't need to coordinate with anyone.

  8. Interesting and ambitious plan! I wouldn't have considered Wishbringer to be part of the Zork series, but it does have a similar fantastic feel and some references to the original.

    My first adventure game was ADVENT, my second Zork. But I played them on mainframe computers, not in the Infocom versions. Zork was originally a single huge game, but Infocom split it into three parts to fit on floppy disks and computers with 48K (Apple II) memory. I believe they added some things in to each part so they could stand on their own.

    1. I understand that "Mainframe Zork" is the game presently circulated as "Dungeon", containing the raw material for Zorks 1-3 (as it simply wouldn't all fit on a home microcomputer). Apparently a couple of unused loose ends eventually made their way into Sorcerer.

      And heck, here's the rest of the trivia about its history I wrote for it over at Mobygames:

      As with Space War, Rogue and ADVENTURE, the program was made as an intellectual exercise of sorts before a home computer game market existed... as such, it could be run freely (after all, why copy-protect software that can only be run on a handful of expensive institutional minicomputers?) by anyone who connected to host 70 on the ARPAnet -- a relatively limited and restricted group of military and academic elites back in '79.

      The source was stored in an encrypted fashion but someone (known to the annals of history only, presumably for legal reasons, as "a somewhat paranoid DEC engineer who prefers to remain anonymous") was clever or bored enough to both procure and decrypt them. Since MDL only ran on the PDP-10, this anonymous engineer took on the tremendous feat, uncredited, of translating Zork from MDL to the more limited but far more portable language FORTRAN IV... whose distribution in turn was ported by others to FORTRAN 77 in 1981, and eventually to C in 1991... an underground chain leading to all home versions.

    2. I have a good writeup on this too in the Dungeon intro post which will be out in a few days. I'll be playing the "Dungeon" version which is the FORTRAN-then-C port that the anonymous hacker released to the world.

      The cleanest way (as I know it before I play) to put "mainframe" Zork in context with the others seems to be: Zork I is a stripped down version of Dungeon with enough of the space and puzzles removed to fit on a system at the time. Zork II and Zork III had new connecting tissue and the remaining puzzles that couldn't fit in the first one, with Zork III especially getting the end-game. One puzzle was even put into Enchanter. But honestly how much of that is true, I have no idea. That is from doing the research on Dungeon, not from experience. I've also read that Zork II was mostly new material with Dungeon sliding into I and III. I can't wait to find out.

      One of the exciting things about playing Dungeon first is that we-- in a way-- get a peek into the minds of the game designers. If we consider Dungeon as a "rough draft" for the later Zork games, by watching what changed we can indirectly observe their thought processes. What did they think worked or didn't work about that game? Etc.

  9. Great plan, and what a lot of interesting facts in the comments!
    For me it all started with a Spanish version of Colossal Cave by Aventuras AD ( The name of the game was "La Aventura Original" (Original Adventure). Eventually I discovered its original inspiration and the Infocom games.

    Like many here, I played the Zork trilogy but never completed them. Those things are really hard. Frustrated, I moved on to Enchanter, and found it to strike a more agreeable mix of challenge and enjoyment.

  10. It suddenly occurs to me that, if Planetfall and Stationfall are considered part of this universe, then Starcross (Infocom's first space/sci-fi game, preceding both 'falls) might also be by extension. There are some references in Planetfall that imply its being in the same universe as Starcross.

    1. Track down the references and let me know what you think. I'd love to play Starcross, but that may be a bridge too far.

    2. From the Zork wikia :

      Starcross, Planetfall

      The phrase "You are likely to be eaten by a grue" is used in Starcross. In Planetfall grues are said having been unwittingly taken from their home planet and introduced to Earth (by the alien ship in Starcross), then spread around the galaxy alongside man and become a universal pest for human civilizations.


      A racehorse is named "Lurking Grue"

    3. From the Zork wikia :

      Starcross, Planetfall

      The phrase "You are likely to be eaten by a grue" is used in Starcross. In Planetfall grues are said having been unwittingly taken from their home planet and introduced to Earth (by the alien ship in Starcross), then spread around the galaxy alongside man and become a universal pest for human civilizations.


      A racehorse is named "Lurking Grue"


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