Friday 20 January 2017

Missed Classic: Zork II - Won! And Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich

Last week, I explored most of Zork II and ended my session with suicide-by-dragon thanks to the Wizard of Frobozz. He had cast a “Fierce!” spell and my character happily walked into a dragon’s den. The rest hardly needs explanation. But in dying, I found the first clue of an overall plot: a shadowy, possibly demonic, figure that wants my help to restore his freedom. Is he imprisoned by the Wizard? Is it a coincidence that the two of the colored rooms in the afterlife match the magic spheres that we found? I’m excited to find out!

First things first, I focus on getting past the dragon. I approach him again and take stock. I can’t attack. How about bribery? I hand over a treasure and the dragon takes it to some hidden trove, but it doesn’t change anything. Do I have to give him something in specific? I try to talk to the dragon for clues but it seems that he is trying to brainwash me. I give up and leave, but something weird happens: he follows me. He turns back after one room but this must be part of the trick! I hand him another treasure and expect the same, but he doesn’t follow. Why not? Talking was the trick! When I chat him up, he follows for one turn. If I do it too much, does his brainwashing succeed? I can alternate talking and walking so he follows me even farther. What can I do with a fire-breathing dragon?

Darwin Award Finalist!

I consult my map and there’s only one potential target nearby: the glacier room. I take him the handful of steps and am rewarded with a beautiful scene: the dragon is surprised by the ice and believes his reflection is another dragon. He attacks and melts the ice but drowns in the resulting torrent. A sad end for a mighty dragon! I love this “new” solution to the puzzle. The version of the puzzle in Dungeon was obscure; it forced me into my “request for assistance” in that game. Leading a dragon here makes more sense than throwing a torch and I’m content. This opens up new paths behind the glacier and in the dragon’s den; I’ll check the latter first.

The north passage from the dragon leads to his lair, a treasure chest, and a princess. I check the chest first, but the thrall that the dragon must have had on the princess wears off and she leaves the room. I follow her-- the game helpfully tells us what exit she leaves from each time-- a few steps south, then through a secret passage in the Marble Room, and finally into the garden. She sits in the gazebo and seems to wait. I wait with her and am rewarded by the arrival of the unicorn. She tames the beat and rides off side-saddle but not before she hands me a golden key and a perfect rose. I solved two puzzles for the price of one! Even better, there’s a dragon statue back in the treasure chest. 205 points!

Behind the glacier was the volcano, just as I expected. I won’t narrate the whole thing (I devoted much of a post to it already), but it’s identical to the one in Dungeon. I emerge from my hot air balloon ride and safe-bombing with a ruby, zorkmid, stamp, and crown. Just like that, I have 255 points, but the lantern is fading fast. This may be a problem soon.

I ain’t afraid of no shrub.

I visit the topiary and am disappointed to find nothing has changed. I hoped that the dragon and unicorn bushes would change in some way to signify that I had conquered those puzzles but no luck. Do I have to defeat them all before something changes? My guess is that this will be my way out once I defeat the remaining monsters: the serpent, dog, and “several human figures”. I’ll come back later.

That leaves the lizard-guarded door, the menhirs, and the baseball maze. I try the lizard first. Violence is not the answer-- I cannot attack either the lizard or the door-- but it will eat things that I give it. I work through my all my stuff to see what happens. The candy turns out to be the trick: when he ways it, he falls asleep. The door remains locked, but the unicorn’s gold key takes care of that nicely. I’m in!

Beyond the door is the Wizard’s Workshop, several interconnected rooms where our adversary does his take-home wizarding. Just to the south is a trophy room containing his wizarding certificate and an empty trophy case. I immediately think I’m supposed to put all of my treasures in there, but no… it’s closed and protected by spells. Do I need to find a way to open it? In a sly little nod at Dungeon, the wizard’s diploma was awarded by sending in a matchbook cover! The matchbook puzzle wasn’t in Zork I so it’s nice that it’s not completely forgotten. To the west is a workroom with three stands: ruby, sapphire, and diamond. Since I have both a red and a blue sphere, I’m going to guess that I need to be on the lookout for a white one. To the south of that is a room with a black circle. All four colors match the rooms I traveled through while dead so I must be on the right track, but nothing happens when I place the two spheres that I have. I’ll need the third.

Giant lights so the players don’t get eaten by grues.

With nothing further to do in the workshop, I turn my attention to the “Oddly Angled” maze. Last time, I spent far too long mapping it only to realize that the exits are randomized. I’m fairly certain there are nine rooms (judging by the number of items I had to drop), but if there’s a rhyme or reason to how they are connected I can’t find it. Each room also has a diamond shaped window which is either dark or dimly glowing although once I stumbled on a brighter one. One of the rooms contained a “club” which was really a baseball bat and I hoped I would find a ball somewhere out in the dungeon to play with. As I came back to it this week, my memory was jogged a bit. I don’t know whether I got a hint for this puzzle as a kid or just read about it later, but this is one of the “infamous” adventure game puzzles. I recall that the goal is to “run the bases” so I try to mimic a baseball game. I go to the room with the bat, swing it, drop it, and then make a square: north/west/south/east or northeast/northwest/southeast/southwest. Neither of those work, but I repeat the experiment until I discover that starting off with southeast does the trick (as if home plate was west) and the bases get increasingly lit up as I go. When I fully round the bases, I hear a noise and discover a new staircase has opened up. We did it!

To be honest, I doubt I would ever have solved this on my own. Figuring out that the puzzle was about baseball was easy, but I doubt I would have worked out the next step without having read about it before. This and the “Bank of Zork” puzzle are two of the least liked in adventure game history! I appreciate that the designer was trying to do a different kind of maze, but this could have used some more clues. Let’s keep going.

Who’s a good boy? You are! And you! And you!

The stairs lead to a dead end and a new puzzle: the entrance to a crypt, guarded by a three-headed dog. It seems to be the Tomb of the Implementers from Dungeon, but without the same level of fourth-wall-breaking humor. None of my items seem to do anything to help us get by the dog, but it’s a moot point anyway as my lamp has finally run out of batteries. I restore back and do a few things faster, but it’s clear I’m going to need more time to figure out what to do next.

The “do it all again but faster” puzzles have been a staple in all three Zork games that I’ve played so far, but I don’t particularly enjoy it. It’s part of the meta-puzzle for the game and an extra challenge, but I look forward to the first Zork game without a expiring light source. I work out a reasonably optimal path:
  • I begin the game and immediately grab everything from the gazebo then head to the carousel. There’s no way to predict which exit we’ll take, but I’ll do whatever puzzles come first while I wait to get the Riddle Room. 
  • First attempt gets me to the Oddly Angled maze so I solve it and open the path to Cerebus. 
  • The next attempt gets me north so I destroy the dragon and follow the princess. That nets me the gold key and the rose. While I’m there, I also solve the Bank of Zork. I leave the volcano for later since I haven’t picked up the fuse yet. 
  • Third attempt lands me the Riddle Room! I solve all the way through Wonderland and the robot to stop the carousel spinning. Even optimized, I’m already getting messages about the lamp dimming. 
  • Finally, I grab the blue sphere and solve the volcano. 

After 350 turns, I’m back to where I was with the same puzzles left unsolved: the menhir stone, the topiary, and the cerebus. I haven’t found a use for the rose or grue repellent yet, plus the club and treasures could have secondary uses. Let’s solve this!

It’s the dawning of the Age of Aquarium!

I won’t bore you with the details, but what follows is a frustrating search of the entire game for anything that I might have missed. I re-checked every room for exits, experimented with the stones, and even got eaten by a hedge. Yes, if you wait in the topiary room long enough, the bushes come to life and eat you. I also had one lucky event where the Wizard attacked me and didn’t get away immediately. I tried to grab his wand but failed. I didn’t have my sword on me at the time so my attacks were useless and he escaped. I tried over and over again to make that happen again, but every other time the wizard managed to escape. If there is a trick, I can’t find it-- or perhaps the game just never lets that event fire if you are holding the sword. After hours at this and starting to write a “request for assistance” post, I found an exit that I missed in the workshop. Sometimes, you miss the obvious.

The remaining two rooms are the “Wizard’s Quarters” and “Aquarium Room”, just to the west of the sphere platforms. There doesn’t appear to be anything to do in his room but the aquarium contains a baby sea serpent. That’s one of the monsters from the topiary and so very suspicious. The aquarium is quite large and we’re able to climb into it, but the serpent eats us alive. I eventually work out that you can break the glass with the bat, but even then the dying serpent kills us with his final breath. Only by throwing the bat are we able to both kill the serpent and not get eaten ourselves. In the process, we find the white sphere! That’s a nice surprise because I was certain that it was behind the menhir.

Now that I have all three spheres, I place them in their color-coded stands in the Wizard’s workshop. Magic happens and we get a new black sphere, but this one contains a “huge and fearful” shape rather than a vision of a faraway place. Now what? I take it to the black pentagram just to the south-- isn’t it convenient that the Wizard had this all set up for us?-- and the demon is freed! He offers to grant us our heart’s desires… for a small fee: treasures. Lots and lots of treasures. The Wizard reappears and appears quite powerless against the creature, pitiful actually.

Who holds the devil, let him hold him well; He hardly will be caught a second time. - Goethe

After a few trips, I hand over all my treasures. I’m shocked that I had the right amount on the first trip as that means I didn’t miss any puzzles. What about the menhir and the topiary? Or do I just not need all of them? Either way, he’s glad to grant me my wish. I wish I had come to this point unspoiled, but it’s hard to not hear of such a famous sequence thirty years later: I wish for the wand. The demon grants my desire and the Wizard runs away. It’s time to practice my vocabulary of non-swearing F-words!

I explore around a bit to look for things to cast spells on but the menhir stone seems like the best candidate, plus the giant “F” on it is a dead giveaway. I point the wand at the stone and say “float”, but that doesn’t do anything and the wand needs to recharge. That’s unexpected and I was sure that was the right path. I go through my notes for every spell the wizard ever cast against me. Float, Filch, Feeble, Fierce, Fence, Fudge… None of them do anything. What the heck am I doing wrong? I try to do spells on the dog and on myself and nothing works. It turns out to be a stupid parser problem. Typing ‘say float’ doesn’t give you any errors and seems to work, but in fact you have to type ‘say “float”’ with quote characters around “float” for the spells to work. Bad design! Once I work that out, the stone floats away and I can enter the next room: a kennel containing an oversized dog collar.

At this point, it’s almost too easy: I take the collar to Cerberus and put it on him. He immediately becomes a very happy dog! I pet him and can pass into the crypt. It’s just like the one in Dungeon except it’s memorializing the Flatheads rather than the Implementers, but I still know what to do: I close the door and turn off the lamp. Nothing happens. It doesn’t let me pick back up the lamp (because I cannot find it in the dark) so I restore and try again. This time I realize that the crypt is actually two rooms. I go to the second room, turn off the lamp, and a secret door appears. I walk through it and the game ends. Onward to Zork III!

Time played: 4 hr 20 min
Total time: 8 hr 15 min
Total Zork Marathon time: 50 hr 10 min

Zork III: Oh No, More Zork!

Final Rating

Rating this game is going to be tough. It is frustrating: fantastic in some ways but incomplete-feeling in others. As a guy that has passed 50 hours of Dungeon-derivatives, I’m really glad to see the new puzzles and a new world to explore. Zork I did a great job making its puzzles all seem naturally connected to its world, but Zork II feels more disjointed. Perhaps it makes sense why a dragon would camp out next to a bank, but if you can come up with a reason why there’s a baseball stadium near some menhirs that is blocking the route to a crypt then you are more creative than I am. The dragon puzzle was the most satisfying of the new ones while the “Oddly Angled” maze was an exercise in frustration. The introduction of Wizard was fun, but he’s not too much more than a different take on Zork I’s Thief. I vaguely remember being able to solve more puzzles with the wand, but I may be thinking of a different game.

I’m having a harder time pinning down why the game feels incomplete. It’s certainly less polished than Zork I with more parser issues (damn wand!) and strangely missing vocabulary. Trying to solve the topiary puzzle without ever using the word “topiary” was difficult! And, as it turns out, impossible because there was no solution. I even checked a walkthrough afterwards to see if I missed a puzzle, but no. We also never needed either the rose or the grue repellent. The latter is especially strange because you received it as a reward for discovering “Room 8”, but why make a big deal of it if you never use it? It would have been better to put the candy there instead. This game is also considerably smaller than its predecessors. Dungeon was a massive 210 rooms by my count, cut in half to 110 for Zork I. This sequel only managed 80. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but combined with the lack of polish and seemingly missing puzzle(s), it makes me feel less satisfied than I think I should.

That covers most of what I wanted to say; I’ll keep the ratings themselves brief:

Puzzles and Solvability - Weaker than its predecessor with two of the “worst” puzzles of the series. I struggled a few times. The volcano is still one of the best puzzle sequences so far so I’m glad it was kept in here largely intact. Score: 4

Interface and Inventory - The interface could have used more testing and vocabulary, especially around the end of the game with the wand. It’s still a solid Infocom experience, but less solid than its predecessor. Score: 4

Story and Setting - The antagonist is better defined and we had an interesting interplay between the wizard and the demon at the end. Unfortunately, “at the end” is the problem because we spend almost the whole game solving puzzles with no discernable goal. I also found the setting weaker than the first game. Score: 4.

Sound and Graphics - No graphics or sound. Several of the treasures had ASCII art in the original Dungeon but all of that was excised. I suspect Infocom hadn’t worked out how to do it on mixed-size screens. Score: 0.

Environment and Atmosphere - The lack of cohesiveness hurt my enjoyment of this chapter, but the wizard was fun and an improvement over the Thief of the previous game. I’d love to say that we had a lot of tension, but it never really materialized. Score: 3.

Dialog and Acting - Excellent prose with fantastic depictions of the wizard and demon with a limited amount of real dialog. We expect great things from Infocom and they deliver. Score: 4.

The final tally is (4+4+4+0+3+4)/.6 - 32! I don’t feel the need to add or subtract bonus points so let’s just leave it at that. It’s lower than both Zork I and Dungeon, but that seems right to me. That places it about on par with the original Adventure and I can get behind that. If they had spent a bit more time polishing, it might have scored much better.

With that, Laukku wins! CAPs will be awarded with the next mainline game. Most of you guessed higher with the average score being 35, the same as Zork I. I also expected it to fare better, but perhaps Zork III will be the game to get the scores moving in the correct direction again.

Up next in our marathon: Zork III. I’m eager to bring our tour of the remaining parts of Dungeon to a close.


  1. I am pretty sure you need the grue repellent at the end. You must have sprayed it all over you at some point, because otherwise you'd be eaten by a grue in the final room.

    1. Nope. I just replayed the ending yesterday. I confirmed that I didn't use the grue repellent nor did I even have it in my inventory when I turned off the light in the final room. I might have just been lucky if there's a random chance, but it happened that way both times I beat the game while writing this.

      Could be a bug in my version perhaps? But I'm using the "Lost Treasures of Infocom" DOS release from 1992 which is as far as I know the final versions of all of the games.

    2. The grue repellant is more of a subtle clue than a necessary item. If you look at it, the label reads to "use only in place of death!" or something along those lines. The final room - where you need to wait in the dark - is a Crypt. I.e., a place of death. So, the grue repellant is a subtle clue to solving the final puzzle: instead of relying on your light in the "place of death," you should abandon it (and, with grue repellant, you'd feel safer doing so).

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Interesting, I always thought you had to use it! But does the repellent still do something in other rooms, that is, let you move in darkness without being eaten by a grue? (That's at least how it works in some other Zork games).

    5. I believe so; but it also doesn't last very long, and you still can't see in the dark even with it applied, so it's of limited utility in this game.

  2. Some more Zork II Fun Facts:

    - There is in fact an alternative light source - well, sort of. If your lantern runs out but you have a high enough score, the Wizard shows up and casts "Flouresce" on you. Which means YOU start glowing, and never need a light source again. That's great!... except, it renders you unable to solve the final puzzle, since there's no way to extinguish your light and thus no way to find the Crypt door that only appears in the dark.

    - Attacking the dragon actually works like talking to it - so long as "Fierce" isn't active. If you attack the dragon *once*, it doesn't kill you outright, but gets annoyed enough to follow you. "Fierce" gets you killed there because I guess you just keep attacking repeatedly (and automatically).

    - There are many, many places where the Wizard's "Fall" spell will get you killed. Basically anywhere with even a possibly dangerous drop. The Volcano rooms, the bridge to the Dragon's lair... my personal favorite is the Top of the Well.

    - The Wizard has a sense of honor. Trying to attack the princess will cause him to immediately warp in and reduce you to cinders with a lightning bolt. "Fry!"

    - In addition to wishing for the wand, you can also wish for the demon to kill the wizard, which ends up leaving the wand for you to take. I forget which of the two prompts the wizard to try casting "Fudge!" It doesn't help him much.

    - You could also try to bypass the wand entirely and just wish for the demon to move the menhir. This works... but if you don't have the wand, you get killed by glowing wards just as you pass through the final door into Zork III. I think the very first published version of the game didn't have those, but they were added later.

    - There is one hazard in the dungeon that even the demon can't handle. Try wishing for him to kill the dog. He even refunds your wish when that doesn't work out so well for him.

    - If the Wizard ever casts "Filch" on you and by doing so steals a treasure, it appears in his trophy case, which you can't open. The same happens to any treasures you're carrying if you get killed. This costs you points, irrevocably - but doesn't lose you the game, as the demon will simply be satisfied with whatever set of treasures you can still access. After getting the wand you can "Filch" those last treasures back out of the case, but there's no reason to do so or benefit for it.

    - The "Murky Room" you see through the spheres is a subtle hint to the white sphere's location. Why is the room murky? Because it's underwater (in the Aquarium). Why can't you see the sphere until after you destroy the aquarium? Because it's clear and thus can't be seen in the water. I think there's also mention of a serpentine shape - either when gazing into the spheres, or when walking through the white misty room when dead (those colored mists, as you surmised, also sync up with and are subtle clues to the spheres' locations).

    - The bat can serve as balloon fuel just like the newspaper. You don't need to swing it for the Oddly Angled rooms - you just need to "run the bases" starting from where you find the bat (i.e., home plate). Apparently there's some obscure baseball rule that baseball diamonds are supposed to have home plate on the west side, so that batters aren't squinting into the setting sun during late-day games.

    - I think there's a book in the wizard's workshop that explains the syntax for casting spells with the wand.

    - Did you ever examine the candies? There's a very good reason they are the solution to the lizard head - they're candied insects!

    1. Wow! Lots of good stuff.

      For some reason, I was trying to be (and I think the game was trying to be) a pacifist this time around. Zork I required combat in two cases (the Troll and Thief) and I think you could kill the Cyclops as an alternate solution. This time, the game doesn't require you to kill anything and so I didn't really consider attacking the dragon or asking the demon to kill the wizard. Speaking of which, asking for the wand causes him to cast "Fudge!" which is very funny!

      I never examined the candies. I guess this is Dungeon-blindness; I simply didn't look too closely at a puzzle I already solved since it was just a plain treasure in that game.

      I also think I figured out the "Murky" room clue in retrospect, but I spent the majority of the game assuming that the flat wall you could see in the murk was the side of a polished menhir.

      And for our foreign-language friends: Don't feel bad if you didn't know what "filch" meant. When I played this when I was younger, I had to look it up. It's not a very common word.

  3. I should have thought about this for my post, but what puzzles are left un-adapted?

    I can think of: the endgame (of course), the sliding block puzzle, the slide, and the mail-away stamp. Am I forgetting any others?

  4. Read Zork 1 and Zork 2 manuals, please, for story and world overview.

    1. I will! The manuals that you are thinking about weren't included until the 1984 re-releases. I'm probably going to do a special post or something in a few games when I get to 1984 to talk about what's in them.