Thursday, 5 January 2017

Missed Classic 35: Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz (1981) - Introduction

Written by Joe Pranevich

More familiar box art.

Last month, I conquered the first real game in our marathon, Zork I. It was a good game, but it could not hold a candle to the original Dungeon. It’s time to turn our attention to its sequel, the aptly named Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz. How will the designers, Dave Lebling and Marc Blank, fare when they have to create a new game using the parts of an old one? I look forward to finding out!

Before we get to the game, there’s a bit of history to follow up on. The first Zork hit the shelves for the TRS-80 in December 1980. This was Infocom’s first product, but were they a gaming company? Or a business software company that sold games to get off the ground? This question would eventually sink Infocom several years later, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Since they still had more Zork that was not yet adapted, Dave and Marc spent much of a year building a new game around the puzzles excised from the previous one and new challenges that they were devising. Personal Software distributed the previous game, but it was clear at this point that they were not focused on marketing games. To better control the product and the messaging, Infocom brought distribution in-house and managed their own mail orders. Although Zork II wouldn’t take advantage of it, this in-house distribution system would later allow them to build the creative “feelies” that they became known for. Perhaps more so than with Zork I, this game marks the moment when Infocom became a real company: they had an office, they had their first real employee, and they were managing the sales themselves. The foundation was built for them to expand.

Full disclosure, I also played this game as a kid although I do not think that I beat it. I vaguely remember that there’s a wizard that comes by and shoots spells at you and that we’ll have to steal his wand to solve some of the puzzles, but that’s just it. My memory may be jogged as I play. If you are just joining us, you’ll probably want to read my review of Dungeon before reading this as I may skim over the solutions to puzzles introduced in that game. Let’s play!

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am: stuck in a barrow with you. 
Zork II begins immediately after the end of its predecessor. The climax of that game was discovering a secret passage into a barrow and that is where we start this one. Our trusty sword and lamp are also here, although nothing else carried over from the previous game. We didn’t enter a password or load a saved game to start this one so that makes sense. Even though I’m a native English speaker, I still had to look up what a “barrow” was: it’s an ancient burial mound. I hope you’re not too disappointed in me.

I traverse a linear path into a cavern, across a small bridge, and finally into a dark tunnel where I need to turn on the lamp. This is all new and I’m mapping carefully. Two rooms later and I’m dumped into a “Carousel Room”. The Wizard of Frobozz is here (already!), points a wand at me, and shouts, “Filch!” Whatever he was doing didn’t work and he leaves in a huff. This reminds me: he can only cast spells beginning with “F”, right? The Carousel Room is a familiar place with an unfamiliar name: it’s just the Round Room with a different name. It has eight exits and we are punted out one randomly when we leave. I’ll be on the lookout for an entrance into Wonderland to try to turn this crazy thing off. I head out a random exit into a “Marble Hall” where I pick up a clay brick. We have explosives! That means that the volcano is probably around here someplace as well and I’ll need to find something to use as a fuse. A few rooms north across a stream and up a cliff face, I find the sturdy wooden door with the keyhole from the 616-point version of mainframe Zork. I’m going to need a doormat…

Is this the way the whole game is going to go? Do we just have a new set of rooms stringing together all of the old puzzles? That would be a letdown. I won’t know until I finish mapping. Just to the west, my fears are put to rest as I discover a huge dragon blocking a path to the north. I am able to sneak west without dying to find the Bank of Zork. There are some new puzzles at least! The Wizard pops by again and successfully “Filches” my sword and I have to reload. I suspect that I’ll need that. Before I can even get back to where I was, he appears again and casts “Feeble” to cause me to drop my stuff. I’m forced to “wait” until my strength returns to normal to continue. His interjections are getting old already, but he doesn’t even stay around long enough for me to attack him.

The Wizard, as he appeared on the C64 manual cover. 

Once I make it back, I complete the Bank puzzle just as I did before to snag the portrait and the zorkmids. Both of them have had their ASCII art descriptions replaced with prose ones. As I’m carrying out my loot, I realize that I have no idea what the point of the game is. Is it just to gather treasure? If so, where should I be putting it? Is there a trophy case hidden somewhere? I trace a path south of there and end up in the Carousel Room from a different direction. This is as good a place as any to store my treasures, I suppose. I save my game, just in case the Wizard is the thieving type.

On my next random exit, I get lucky and find the Riddle Room! It has the same riddle as before (the answer is “well”) and I collect a pearl necklace as my reward. I realize that I can’t ascend into Wonderland yet as I do not have a bottle of water. I drop the necklace off with the rest and keep exploring.

A couple of tries later, I land in a “Cool Room” adjacent to an “Ice Room”, the game’s equivalent of the glacier. Will they bring the ivory torch back from Zork I for this or will we have to find a new solution? There’s at least a new exit up a lava tube to the “Volcano View” so I know we’ll be dealing with that soon enough. A few rooms later, it’s a “Cobwebby Room” with a piece of black string. Could that be the fuse? Yes! Now all I need are matches.

I’m still just mapping random exits from the Carousel Room and the next one takes me to a garden area. There’s three rooms here connected north to south with some evil-looking topiary at the south end and a gazebo to the north. A unicorn appears with a gold key around his neck, but there’s no obvious way to get it yet. Do I need to “filch” it with the wand? The topiary is in a variety of animal shapes including a dragon, a unicorn, a serpent, a dog, and some human figures. Are those clues to the types of monsters I’ll be facing this game? I cannot seem to interact with the topiary at all-- the game’s legendary parser doesn’t even know that word-- and I make a note to come back later.

We found the credits!

It takes me longer than I should admit to figure out that I have to type “enter gazebo” instead of a cardinal direction to get inside, but there I find a trove of useful things. There’s a newspaper with the credits, just as we saw in the previous games, plus a matchbook, a teapot, a placemat, and a letter opener. The matchbook entices us to “Visit Exotic Zork I” so no Don Woods puzzle here. The rest of the items seem to be analogs to ones from Dungeon: the teapot could hold water instead of the bottle, the placemat could be used instead of the welcome mat, and the letter opener can probably push the key out. As I pick them up, I get a warning: the lamp is running out of charge. I had hoped that perhaps the lamp would be permanent this time. Just to rub it in, the Wizard appears and casts “Freeze!”. I’m stuck in place and have to wait it out. I can’t even restore my game while frozen! As soon as I can move again, I restore back. Battery charge is at a premium already.

What should I work on first? I fill the teapot with water from the stream and head to Wonderland. The whole area is a duplicate of Dungeon with only one exception: the pool and the leak in the tiny room are now tears rather than sewage. Poor Alice must be stuck someplace… I gather my candy then use the robot to disable the Carousel Room’s rotation and get the red sphere. Literally a piece of cake! I now have 110 points. After I leave, I discover that if we drop the cakes outside of Wonderland, they crumble to dust. I’m not sure if that is an improvement. They go through the trouble to ensure that you still have the “evaporate” cake after collecting the candy, but then they have it crumble to dust before it can be used again? That seems odd. The carousel is now stopped and the violin has dropped from the ceiling. 130 points, but no closer to understanding what I’m supposed to do.

Follow along with this trusty map! Gold is a treasure; Red is an unsolved puzzle.

The next puzzle I know how to solve is the wooden door so I head there next. My guesses were right: we place the placemat under the door then push out the key with the letter opener. Inside is the blue sphere. I peer into the sphere and see a “Murky Room” rather than the “Sooty Room” of Dungeon. I’m going to have to explore to find that so I work to fill in the rest of my map. West of the Carousel Room is a “Room 8” and a can of grue repellent. Looks like a new puzzle! I’m also retroactively pleased that the exit counting that I did back in Dungeon finally amounts to something. Why set it up so you can normally find seven of the eight exits without having the eighth be interesting? Thirty years later, it seems they agree with me.

South of the Carousel Room is another area that I never hit randomly, the “Menhir Room”. The centerpiece of the room is a large rock inscribed with the letter “F” that is blocking a southwest passage. My guess is the “F” is for Frobozz, but was it put there by the Wizard? Or is it a clue that I need him (or one of his spells) to pass?

This is what a menhir is. I didn’t know either.

Past that is a stairway into an “Oddly Angled Room” with passages in all directions. Is this the first maze of Zork II? There’s a diamond-shaped window in each room that is either dark or dim. I explore a few rooms and discover a wooden club with the name “Babe Flathead” on it, then it clicks: baseball! I start to map it, carefully recording which windows are dim and which are not, and the Wizard pops by to tell me that I’ll “never get to first base at this rate”. He’s right because it’s pointless: the exits change. My whole map is useless because it seems that which room you end up in is randomized each time or based on a factor I haven’t worked out yet. My best guess is that I need to find a ball, hit it with the bat, and then something will happen that will make sense. Since I don’t have a ball, I leave.

That leaves only one remaining exit unexplored: a “Guarded Room” in the southwest of the map past the cobwebs. It’s guarded by a lizard head (like the topiary) and any attempt to go near it nearly gets my hand bitten off. I can’t attack it. I can’t open it. With that, I have explored everything I can. I’m going to have to solve some puzzles to advance any further.


I was going to end here, but the next incident is so embarrassing that I can’t help but to relate it. My first puzzle to target was going to be the dragon but on my way I got napped by the Wizard with a “Fierce!” spell. I don’t think anything of it until I arrive in the dragon’s room and start attacking it on sight. He naturally burns me to a crisp and I die.

I died.

In death, I may have found the first hint as to what I am supposed to do. My spirit finds itself traveling through a red mist, then blue, white, and finally a black mist. There’s a “huge and horrible” presence there and he tells me that I may be useful to rescue him from his fate. Who is he? Not the wizard, certainly? Is this a Faustian thing where the evil (?) wizard has trapped a demon. Either way, he might not be all bad because he brings me back from the dead. I restore immediately after because I’m not ready to die yet… but do we have a glimmer of a plot?

Let’s recap! I found and solved:
  • Wonderland, scoring some candy and a red sphere.
  • I stopped the carousel to get the violin and grue repellent.
  • The locked wooden door, nabbing a blue sphere.
  • The Bank of Zork, stealing a portrait and some zorkmid bills. 
I have not solved:
  • Fire-breathing dragon. 
  • Lizard-headed door. 
  • The glacier which probably leads to the volcano.
  • The “Oddly Angled” maze
  • The “F” Menhir and the southwest passage behind it.
  • The unicorn and the topiary garden.
  • Whatever we’re supposed to do with the Wizard.
There’s a better mix of old and new puzzles than I realized. I’m not sure how well the old puzzles fit in with the new ones, but so far so good. I still do not know the point of the game, but I still have things to experiment with. What is driving our nameless adventurer to explore caverns and banks to steal treasures he doesn’t need? I hope I find out soon.

Time played: 3 hr 55 min

Since this is an introduction post, don’t forget to try to guess the score. Thus far in our marathon, Dungeon has scored 41 points and Zork I only 35. Will Zork II exceed its predecessor? Could it even eclipse the original? I have no idea!


  1. "This is what a menhir is. I didn’t know either."

    Didn't enjoy Asterix comics as a child?

    1. No... I led a sheltered US upbringing and did not read Asterix, Tintin, or the Donald Duck comics. I know how much I disappoint Ilmari and others about this...

    2. I am a bit more disappointed that you did not think of barrow-wights at once when you heard about a barrow.

    3. You know how to hurt me. I suppose it's a word that I intuitively understood because I've heard it before (and it is cognate with "burrow") but not one that I really thought about. But outside that use in LoTR, I'm not sure I use that word very often...

    4. I'm pretty sure I only know the word barrow because of Lord of the Rings - I used to look up words I didn't know as I read.

  2. Alternative title: "Oh no! More Zork"

    I'm going to guess... 38.

    1. I'll have to try to use that title in a future post... I suspect this one will be done in two posts though.

    2. I suppose there's no hope that you'll be able to fit "Zork II: The Tribes" either?

    3. Oooh - obscure Lemmings reference - I like it.

      Also, I guess 33!!!

  3. First time commenter but I'm going to guess 37.

    1. Welcome! I'm glad you could join us for our Zork marathon. I'm having a lot of fun with this series so far.

  4. Also I'm pretty invested in this one. This was one of the first videogames I ever played, on an Apple IIe, in the mid 80s, and as a child under ten I was not up to the challenge of solving - well, basically anything. That wizard was incredibly frustrating though, and I'm going to take some vicarious pleasure in you eventually giving him his comeuppance.

  5. Since nobody's guessed it yet...33!

  6. Zork II! Forsooth, for fun, frenetic frustrations!

    I have lots to say but now's not the time to say any of it. I'll limit myself to one Fun Fact: your guess is correct that "Room 8" - and its can of grue repellant - can only be accessed after the Carousel Room's spinning effect has been shut off.

  7. Put me down for a guess of 36.

    As for why the cakes disintegrate after the section is done: my only guess is they didn't want to come up with (and/or didn't have the space for, as the case may be) code to try to use the cakes outside of the Wonderland section. (I think I once tried to eat the "Eat me" cake outside of Wonderland in the Inform port of the mainframe Dungeon - I think I was actually trying to use it to get past a narrow crack somewhere - but it didn't do anything.)

    Yes, in the original dungeon, there are only seven exits from the Round room. The exit where the riddle is is used twice. Perhaps this is to make it more likely to find that area early on... In Zork 2, you can get shoved out of any one of the seven main exits, but "Room 8" is only reachable after the room is turned off.

  8. Never actually played this game, but the one thing I know about it is how to solve the Oddly Angled Room puzzle. It's pretty clever, and I think you'll manage to figure it out without help.

    1. Also, I see 39 isn't taken yet, so I'll go for that.

    2. It's also a pretty unfair puzzle, if you don't know the intricacies of onfronyy, which is most likely true of many non-Americans.

    3. Oh yes, this puzzle made me scream in frustration, as above mentioned non-American I unq ab pyhr bs gur ehyrf bs onfronyy, V qvqa´g rira erpbtavmr vg nf onfronyy.

      I guess this will fare a bit better scorewise, so I say 40

    4. I'm not actually American either, but abe nz V cnegvphyneyl snzvyvne jvgu onfronyy, ohg gur pyho jvgu gur Onor Ehgu ersrerapr naq gur gnyx nobhg lbh abg trggvat gb svefg onfr fcryyf vg bhg fb urnivyl rira gubfr jvgu rkgerzryl ehqvzragnel xabjyrqtr bs gur fcbg unir n qrprag rabhtu punapr gb trg vg.

      I'd say the Rumpelstilzchen puzzle in the original King's Quest is far more unfair, since you have to work with a very specific spelling of the name that most non-native speakers won't be familiar with at all.

    5. Problem is, to fully get the problem, you'd also have to know that ehyr 1.04 bs bssvpvny onfronyy ehyrf fgngrf gung "Vg vf qrfvenoyr gung gur yvar sebz ubzr onfr guebhtu gur cvgpuref cyngr gb frpbaq onfr funyy eha Rnfg-Abegurnfg". Vs lbh qba'g xabj guvf dhvgr fznyy gvqovg bs onfronyy ehyrf - ubj gur guerr onfrf ner gb or bssvpvnyyl fvghngrq (svefg onfr FR sebz ubzr cyngr, frpbaq onfr AR sebz svefg onfr rgp.) - gur qverpgvbaf lbh unir gb gnxr jba'g znxr nal frafr. Gb znxr gur znggref jbefr, nccneragyl bayl n zvabevgl bs onfronyy svryqf npghnyyl sbyybjf guvf ehyr.

    6. Aha. Yeah, I didn't know that, that'd make it a bit more difficult.

      Sounds like something you could probably figure out from just trying all four immediately logical potential solutions, though. I think.

    7. It never occurred to me, despite reading more than a dozen Grimm stories in the original German, that Rumple would be spelled "Rumpelstilzchen" in German. The -chen suffix should have been obvious, even though my German is no longer adequate enough to be able to recall what the other parts of his name mean.

      Any German speakers want to comment on the etymology?

  9. Hello, friends! I need some history help.

    I know that Deadline had feelies in 1982, but beyond that I am unable to confirm when the updated versions of Zork I and II were released with the new manuals... and I also believe that the first versions of Zork III were released vanilla. The first time I can see all of the GUE backstory in the Zork manuals are in the 1984 re-releases. Even the initial Zork III manuals are pretty basic.

    I'm not an expert here, but do any of you know this for sure?

    1. "Releases of Zork I, II, and III beyond those mentioned above but before the grey boxes are counted among the "folios" as well, although they looked different and are referred to as "blister packs." They had a thin cardboard with a plastic tray attached to the front and contained nothing but a sheet with instructions and the disk. The disk was either a 5 1/4" or an 8" and naturally the size of the pack varied with the disk provided."


      And looking at this page: seems that the manuals appeared only with the "grey box" versions of Zorks.

    2. That guide is perfect! And confirms what I already thought. So I will not need to really pay attention to the Zork manuals until after Enchanter and the 1984 re-releases. Thanks!