Sunday 1 January 2017

Missed Classic 34: Zork I: The Great Underground Empire (1980)

Written by Joe Pranevich

Box art that cannot be unseen.

A few weeks back, I conquered mainframe Zork (also known as Dungeon), one of the most influential text adventures of all time. It was a fantastic game but a true marathon: at more than thirty-six hours of play (not counting my look at the 616-point version afterwards), it is the longest game currently on the site. It had plenty to explore, well-designed puzzles, and a parser that is still best of breed. Written by students for a very specific MIT-flavored PDP-10 system, it wasn’t intended to be a commercial success. It was a fun coding project by a bunch of guys that really thought they were going to get real jobs after graduation.

That is where the story of Dungeon ends and the story of Infocom begins. In 1979, the original designers (Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling) formed a company together. It wasn’t a gaming company. It wasn’t intended to sell Zork to the masses. It was a way to keep the band together as they transitioned to “real” projects. That they changed adventure games forever happened entirely by accident.

The TRS-80, the first personal computer to run Zork.

While others on the team thought about serious software, Marc Blank and a new collaborator, Joel Berez, experimented: how much could mainframe Zork be compressed? At nearly one megabyte in size, Zork was enormous by late-1970s standards. They could not approach that amount of memory on personal computers of the day but floppies were nearly large enough. By building a custom engine and paging to and from disk, they could just about squeeze an abridged version of the game onto a personal computer. Dave Lebling returned to streamline Zork to fit into the new constraints while Joel and Marc finalized the engine. This evolved into a fully interpreted game system capable of “write once, run anywhere” decades before Java made the idea commonplace. Infocom negotiated with Personal Software, a huge name in early 1980s productivity software, to distribute the game. Zork I hit the shelves-- terrible cover art and all-- in December 1980 for the TRS-80.

Diving into Zork I is surreal after having played so many hours of Dungeon. Nothing is exactly as I expect it and at first even my fingers rebel from “muscle memory”. Because this game is essentially a refactored Dungeon, it is difficult to talk about separate from that game. If you are joining us late, I cannot recommend reading this without looking at my review of the original first. With that out of the way, let’s begin!

Our adventure re-begins!

Playing It Again, For the First Time

Zork I starts exactly where Dungeon did: the mailbox by the white house with the boarded front door. From there, it’s deja vu as we find the leaflet, the forest maze, the window at the rear of the house, and the trophy case inside. And yet, everything is also just slightly different: there are no explosives in the attic, we can see the chimney leading to the cellar in the kitchen, and the forest is laid out differently enough that I have to map it over again. I quickly discover that I will have to map everything again.

After I descend into the Underground Empire, it’s apparent just how different the game really is. While most of the rooms are accounted for, they are connected in different ways. Some things are simplified: mainframe Zork loved connecting rooms in asymmetrical ways but now when you go west you can almost always get back to where you were by heading east.

Under the house in Dungeon (left) and Zork I (right).

The area under the house exemplifies this, but I could have picked just about anywhere in the dungeon and found the same. Zork I replaced Dungeon’s six rooms in something like a figure-eight pattern with five rooms arranged in a straight line. All exits are bidirectional and the rooms align nicely with a grid. The chimney is now one square east of the trapdoor, for example, just as it is above ground. The Twisty Maze, and from there the Thief’s and Cyclops’s rooms, are off to the west instead of the east, allowing the connection with the living room to make sense. You almost have to compare side-by-side to see how much they changed. Also missing are the one-way passage from the Torch room (now part of the Temple complex) and the Bank of Zork (presumably in a future installment). Neither of them made sense to be near the white house anyway and moving them is good worldbuilding.

I am getting ahead of myself. Rather than narrate the whole game straight, let me tell you what I found. This is mostly in order:

The White House
  • Both the Troll and the Thief can drop their weapons, an axe and a stiletto, during combat or at death. Other than as new pointy things, I did not find a use for them. 
  • There is a “Zork manual” in the artist’s studio. 
  • The Twisty Maze is significantly easier to map: it has the same number of rooms, but the Thief does not bother your stuff (or he does so considerably less frequently). It takes me only one pass to do it once I gather enough items. 
  • You no longer have to open the bottle of water before you give it to the cyclops. 
  • As it was in the 600+ point versions of Zork, the trapdoor remains open for use after you find any other path to the surface. 
  • The “Round Room” is just a regular room with five (not seven) exits; no magnets or hidden violins. 

Temple Complex
  • The “Temple Complex” now includes many of the religious-themed areas from the first game all together: the Engravings Room, the dome, the Torch Room, as well as the Egyptian Room are all consolidated together near the altar. We can still pray there to reach the surface. 
  • The Egyptian Room puzzle with the coffin is completely redesigned. Instead of being part of the Dam puzzle (we had to drag the oversized coffin across the drained reservoir), it’s now connected to the altar room. We have to “pray” it outside through the altar. 
  • The bell, book, and candle are still together, but now the book has a hint to the exorcism puzzle if you turn the page. 
  • The Torch is now just a treasure and permanent light source. Since there’s no longer a glacier to destroy, we’re able to use it all the way to the end of the adventure. 
  • The exorcism is the improved version where we have to ring the bell, etc. (rather than just type “exorcism” as in the older version), but there is no Crypt of the Implementers on the other side. Instead, we find a crystal skull in the Land of the Dead. 
  • Strangely, the grail and its room is missing from this game. It would have fit in perfectly with the religious theme, but perhaps someone didn’t like to mix Christian and Egyptian themes so directly. 

Flood Control Dam #3
  • The machinery room in the dam now also contains tool chests that disintegrate when you touch them. 
  • Draining the reservoir works exactly as before with one exception: it takes time for it to drain. You have to “wait” or do something else before you can cross to pick up the treasure on the lakebed. 
  • The “Loud Room” still has the “echo” solution, but the sound is now more clearly coming from the dam and draining the reservoir makes the noise stop as well. 
  • The matchbook is still used for the exorcism (above), but both the Don Woods puzzle and the volcano have been removed from this game. 

Coal Mine
  • The Coal Mine is now much more linear. You have to pass the vampire bat (with garlic) to get in rather than have him in a side passage. Otherwise the coal gas puzzle and the diamond machine worked exactly as before. This is the most difficult puzzle of Zork I and I’m pleased that it didn’t get nerfed like most of the others. 
  • The Coal Mine maze has been redesigned from seven rooms to four and with far fewer extraneous exits. It’s just about possible to map without items, but I did it the old fashioned way. 
  • The Mirror Room is unchanged. The slide is returned to its previous version and no longer features the hidden “Sooty Room” that required the timber and rope. It still doesn’t make any sense for the slide to emerge into the cellar. 

River Rafting
  • The river section is simplified. Traveling upriver with the treasures (without using the rainbow) no longer requires juggling the gunk, pump, and pointy stick to maneuver the boat through a gap. 
  • We still have to dig on the beach to find a scarab, but now the digging section is on the opposite bank. 
  • I initially thought that you had to wave the scarab to make the rainbow solid, but that is not the case. This leads to the only other new puzzle in Zork I: the location of the scepter (formerly known as the pointy stick). That’s now hidden in the coffin in the temple. I struggled with this for a long time as there was nothing in the coffin in the previous versions. 
  • The emerald is still in the buoy just as before, but there is no longer a barrel at the top of the waterfall to prove how dangerous the descent is. 

When you collect and store the final treasure, you get a message that says, “Look to your treasures for your final secret.” There’s now an ancient map in the trophy case which we can follow to find the Stone Barrow and the entrance to Zork II. What is missing? Off the top of my head, I did not find the volcano, the glacier, the giant well, Wonderland, the robot puzzle, the sliding puzzle, or the endgame. There’s probably more and I should make a spreadsheet...

Time played: 5 hr 30 min
Total Zork Marathon time: 41 hr 55 min

To be continued!

Final Rating

Rating this game is difficult because we must evaluate it on its own merits. Most players would have come to these puzzles without the baggage of 30+ hours of Dungeon. Even so, I feel underwhelmed. This is a pale imitation of the expansiveness and cleverness of mainframe Zork. A kernel of that still found here but without most of the best puzzles, ASCII graphics, or the majority of the difficulty level. This is “just” a treasure hunt now, but let’s see how it does in our scoring system:

Puzzles and Solvability - Many of the most creative puzzles didn’t make the transition to this game, but what we are left with is still very good. The updated versions of the Dam, the Loud Room, and Temple were welcome, but less so the river rafting which lost most of the challenge. We have to evaluate this game only in its own context and what we have is vanilla but a lot of fun. Score: 5.

Interface and Inventory - The Infocom parsers are still fantastic and this game retained most of the excellence of the MDL parser despite the cramped conditions. I can’t do much worse than rate it the same. Score: 5.

Story and Setting - I love this setting, but this game doesn’t really go anywhere. Without the later stages of the original Zork, all we have is a basic treasure hunt and an ending that little more than “explore over there next”. This game world and setting feel more like a real place. The environment makes sense in a way that mainframe Zork never managed to do. Score: 4.

The Zork I map is considerably smaller than Dungeon.

Sound and Graphics - All of the ASCII art that was present in mainframe Zork have been expunged, either because the illustrated items and puzzles were moved or because they didn’t know how to handle it on mixed-size displays. There is only one score we can give. Score: 0.

Environment and Atmosphere - In many ways, this is the superior version of Zork with a consistent world and an environment that was humorous but didn’t hit you over the head with it. And yet, it’s also considerably less varied than its predecessor without any glaciers, volcanos, or giant wells. Still a joy to explore. Score: 3.

Dialog and Acting - The writing remains top-notch, helped in no small part because this was an opportunity to go back and polish everything. Score: 4.

That gives us a final tally of (5+5+4+0+3+4)/.6 = 35! That is significantly fewer than the mainframe version of Zork, but in good company with other adventures of the era including Spider-man, Shadowgate, and Winnie the Pooh. It’s hard to get around that this was only part of a completed vision. Will we have to wait for Enchanter to have a real Zork game that was designed from end-to-end for personal computers?

Looking at the guesses, most of you guessed a lot higher. Mainframe Zork was a classic and this condensed and abridged version lost a lot in that translation. Lakku guessed the closest and will win our prize! CAP distribution will come with the next mainline game to be completed.

With that, I am off to play Zork II and see how this series evolved. I’ll see you all in a few weeks.


  1. Quite a reduction in points! Then again, this seems a fair assessment - the first Zorks feel like a part of a bigger whole and not independent games. I suspect this will be even more obvious with the middle part of the trilogy, which is essentially just running from the end of Zork I to the beginning of Zork III and solving few obstacles in between. I'd also guess that the third installment is the most complete and self-sufficient of them all.

  2. A couple of other puzzle-simplifying clues dropped into Zork I, that weren't present in Dungeon:

    - If you try to open the egg, you now get a message along the lines of "you lack the manual dexterity and the required tools." This is a hint that someone with better dexterity and such tools - i.e., the Thief - is the only one who can open the egg.

    - The sceptre, which is needed to solidify the rainbow, has two clues to its function: its description (covered with enamel and/or precious stones of all different colors), and if you "wave" it somewhere other than by the rainbow, it (the sceptre) generates a small rainbow in the air. So you don't need to have played Adventure to solve this one. (It's still pointy though - which means it can still pop the boat!)

    Did you ever try to resurrect yourself after having died? Death leaves you wandering as an incorporeal ghost, but there's a way to recover from that (in both Dungeon and Zork I)! (Items you had upon death are randomly scattered - I believe non-treasures go above ground while treasures go below ground.)

    Finally, here's the ROT13'd solution to the whole "granite walls" business, which is wholly optional and I don't know how anyone is supposed to figure out without consulting the hints (I certainly didn't): Gurer ner bayl gjb jnyyf va gur tnzr gung ner NPGHNYYL znqr bs tenavgr. Bar vf va gur Gernfher Ebbz (gur Guvrs'f uvqrbhg); gur bgure vf va gur Grzcyr. Gurve vzcbeg vf gung, vs lbh'er va bar ebbz naq glcr gur anzr bs gur bgure (fb glcr "grzcyr" va gur Gernfher Ebbz, be glcr "gernfher ebbz" va gur Grzcyr), lbh genafcbeg gb gur bgure ebbz. Guvf yrgf lbh npprff gur Guvrs'f ynve jvgubhg univat gb unaqyr gur Plpybcf. Naq ab, vg'f abg pyhrq naljurer ubj gb qb guvf.

  3. You should read the manual for the game. World of Zork is one of the coolest fictional worlds ever and most of is - in manuals.