The Secret of Cannibal Island

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Closer Look: The Secret of Cannibal Island

By: Dr. Dos
Published: June 16, 2019

Better than the Best of ZZT, Janson shows a traditional key collecting game done almost right

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The cannibal even appears in the village, and continues making their exit.


At this point I decided to start dumping my gems in the tollbooths. I had come too far to let myself get tempted to spend them on the other side for such paltry rewards.

But it left me in yet another precarious situation. I was almost out of ammo yet again, low on health, and still needed 83 more gems. Wherever I went next needed to help with resources more than it hurt


Leaving the village once again shows the player the cannibal running off. This time they move west, burrowing through forest as necessary. These little effects are all done by having hidden objects that look like normal walls, and it's a pretty good effect. They all seem to fit in reasonably enough as scenery, so every time a wall revealed itself or vanished to change available passages, it caught me off guard.


With the key to the forest from earlier, things finally did open up, and the quest for the Ruby Keys became the non-linear scenario like something out of one of Sweeney's ZZT worlds. I checked my options and decided that the best spot to travel to would be the eastern Pyramid location. Pyramids in ZZT were usually puzzles more than action, and I'd expect them to be full of treasures and traps to avoid. It seemed like a place where ammo and health wouldn't be pressing concerns.


I am instantly proven correct. Slider puzzles and a whole lot of gems for the taking.

I compared the forest hub from earlier to the opening board in Best of ZZT and this is another board this is pretty clearly inspired by it, with its trek over the pyramid itself and its sun and sky background.


The first puzzle is a really good one. It looks very straightforward, with the obvious goal of lining up boulders to allow access to the southern path. There are very few moves that can be made, but the order itself ends up being important.


It's very easy to get pushers to start moving, but preventing things from being blocked on the other side is more challenging. This was a fun one to eventually solve, even if it ultimately turned into me trying basically every wrong solution before getting to the right one.


The second one is more of a flop. Much of it is just a red herring, where the vast majority of the boulders and sliders don't matter. As soon as the player gets inside the chamber, they're going to be able to get to everything. Still, it's better for the complaint to be a lack of challenge rather than too much.


The trick is basically to zigzag around the outside rather than try to barge in directly. The reward is a considerable amount of gems (70!) and the three keys needed to enter the pyramid proper.


File this under ZZT board that give me anxiety just looking at them.

Slider puzzles that look like those on the outside can be tough, but when things get spread out, it becomes very difficult to have any idea what any movement will cause to happen or accidentally prevent.

Then I noticed the player has only one move they can make.

It's not a puzzle, but a giant Rube Goldberg machine!


Sometimes, I make little notes in my screenshots by using ZZT's cheat prompt to write some text. This summed it up.


After the contraption finishes running its course, there are still more gems to obtain along with the first Ruby Key.


The back passage leads to the outer pyramid again, and opens up a tunnel for the player to stand triumphantly atop the peak. Not only was I one key richer, but that was enough gems to open the big toll room!


Sweet sweet supplies. Finally, I had some confidence that I could make progress wherever I went next. Prior to this, the most ammo I had looks to have been 70, so that just tripled.


Next I opted to take the other southern path, to the Lava Swamp. Another good choice now that I had ammo to spare when fighting tigers, instead of hoping to snipe them before they fired back at me.


It's a very unusual place! We get to see the lava element Alexis included in the information center, which is nothing more than an animated wall. It's... not the best use of ZZT's resources. This board hits the stat limit entirely because it has a bunch of walls. In fact, with the stat count maxed out, touching the lava won't even let it display the message about being blocked by lava since there's no memory to spawn a "messenger" element that handles those flashing messages.


However the real notable thing about this board is that the passage into the lava is constantly changing color. Since ZZT uses color to choose destination passages, this means that the color changes where the player gets placed on the next board.


I went in on purple, and chose poorly, immediately hitting a dead end.

The idea behind this board is very much original ZZT, a named room with a gimmick that combine to give it some personality. It turns it into something you can talk with anybody who's played the world and they'll know what you're talking about, like Town's Rube Board or Dungeons' Whirlpool. And while it shares those boards' feature of having a displayed name, it also shares the trait of being a lot of fun to play. The close quarters make it easy to shoot at the tigers along each path, but the player needs to be smart and keep an eye out for bullets crossing water from tigers on the other paths.


The lava element helps make the board keep its blinking theme in a way that would be lacking if the walls were just normal... normals. Once a path is safely cleared, it's good to try and find some opportune locations to shoot over the water yourself and take out some tigers on paths yet explored.

Water is pretty rarely seen used for action boards like this, typically being relegated to just being a wall for spinning guns to fire over. This is a pretty unique board, and I haven't even gotten to the light puzzle aspects.


The keys and doors of course are what turn a single trip through the board into a prolonged one. The player needs to unravel doors in a certain order to reach the Ruby Key prize at the end which requires taking the moment to make sure they're going down a good path, and also make notes on what color passage to enter the board with next time.

For the most part, it works quite well. The linear corridors combined with crossover from bullets being shot over water make this board a treat to play. My sole complaint is that you'll run out of tigers before running out of key and doors. From this screenshot I still need to go through a lot of passages with nothing but a single cut-off tiger remaining to worry about. I think adding a spinning gun or two and making some columns conveniently all water would give the player something to time their travel across even when the tigers were gone.

Plus, it'd be a good opportunity to use the "spinning-gun-be-gone" potion again.


With the lava swamp conquered, the only area left is the "Temple of the Ancients".

I don't know what to expect here, but I do know that I'm not walking over there for those gems because I'm finally in a state where I don't need them.


Dang, this is a lot to take in. Brush up on your manual, because this board includes Blockheads, Splitters, Replicators, and Loose Rocks!


So the idea here is that the player has to use Blockheads to destroy the Loose Rocks. The Blockheads mostly move away from the player and you're intended to corral them into the rocks where they'll both be destroyed. The bomb is there to then destroy the Blockhead behind the duplicator so the player doesn't have to worry about being attacked by one. (They take 25 health on a hit!)

Unfortunately, what Janson is trying to do here isn't really possible in ZZT. The rocks can only tell if they're being blocked, not by what. The only exception for this is the ability to check if they're being blocked by the player. So while the player can't destroy the rocks by standing next to them, they can just shoot them.

The bullet won't actually hit the rock, but it will occupy the tile next to them which blocks it. So this whole thing is kind of a dud.


The next portion of the temple is a bunch of spinning guns, and using Replicators to spawn boulders to block them with. This one is also pretty dull, since either the player has enough ammo to make a row a boulders or they don't. There are some keys which necessitate being shot at to collect, but it's brief enough to not result in too much health being lost.


It's not a complete bust however! This final gauntlet starts once the player runs into this button, causing the square-root sign to begin endlessly firing bullets. This turns into a chase where the player needs to navigate the turns fast enough to remain ahead.


The Splitters just make things more chaotic. The path diverges and gives the player a change to run around as they see fit towards the exit, but it doesn't take long before the whole area is filled with bullets as each Splitter turns one into two being shot perpendicular from where it was hit.

It's frantic, and I lost a good amount of health, but it was definitely the high point of the temple.

Oh, and the scrolls just say "OH NO!!!" which is hilarious. It's very difficult to read them since chances are that message is going to immediately be replaced with the player saying "Ouch!" from the barrage of bullets right behind them.


The passage at the end of the temple leads to a tiny dark room with the final Ruby Key and a few gems. Taking the passage again goes to the canyon outside the temple.


Wait a minute. This is another Best of ZZT reference.

With all the Ruby Keys collected, this time I did in fact go get those green gems after taking such a beating. Still, it's bound to be enough health for the final area of the game.


For just a little more confidence, I went back to the cannibals and did what I could to open up the smaller toll area. I'm a little disappointed it's not enough to open everything, but it makes it very likely that somebody might spend too many gems here and be unable to open up the other vault, which has an essential Ruby Key.

Oh, and I somehow missed that not only is the outside of the village very similar to Best of ZZT but the inside definitely has a lot in common with it as well.


Also I made some art.


And so, to the west, lies the Fortress. Not to be confused with the board to the west in Best of ZZT, called Fortress.

That cannibal from outside the village ran here, and has been waiting for the player. They run inside and wedge themselves behind the Gold Door and the entrance.


I've got the Gold Key. I've got the Ruby Keys. Plenty of health and ammo. Just time for one last pep-talk from this friendly cannibal.


Suddenly! Tragedy!

Alexis Janson did not manage her flags properly, and so one of the Ruby Keys overwrote another.

This stinks for a few reasons. Firstly, I need to cheat to make the game winnable. Secondly, I don't think it's possible to even collect flags in such a way that things work out. Lastly, all it would take is clearing a flag like "STATUE" after putting it on the altar to prevent it from happening. It's an ugly blemish on an otherwise solid game.

Cheating makes it easy enough to get inside at least, but it's a shame.


Janson does a little gag with her numbering, and prepares us for the final chapter.


I kind of expected the final area to try and combine some of the unique elements of the game again, but there's no lava, no Splitters, no potions, nothing. It's just just one last action-puzzle sequence, which isn't a bad thing.


The doors open (they assume you have the keys anyway), and the challenge begins with a room full of keys and some scrolls.


The advice is kind of obvious as there aren't enough keys to go left. The nose comment is a bit more vague, and I'm not sure what it means honestly.


The upper chamber seems like a good start, push a few boulders and blocks the guns, then collect the keys.


Verrrry sneaky Alexis.

It turns out that the order you collect the keys in the opening room is very important.


Things go a little better the next attempt.


In the first room on the right, the player gets trapped inside, but there are enough objects around to make it clear that this is a temporary situation.


There are more keys, and a brief invisible maze. I run into another duplicate, but it seems to be okay since it's not stopping me from going anywhere.


Attempting to push the boulders into the rightmost room however, proves fatal. Unable to pick up the red key, there's not enough room to get inside. Another reload.


The player is forced to get the red key, and should in fact somewhat ignore the scroll and open the red door here right away, even if the left portion is to be saved for last.


On the third attempt, I conquer the puzzle. Hitting the button up top causes the purple objects earlier to clean up the mess and frees the player.


A few keys later, and it's time to shoot some tigers, and get yet more keys.


The next area crams several things in a tiny space. There are some more keys to collect (safely), a pusher, a bomb, a button, and some division symbols.


Opening the door releases the pusher and pushes the bomb. Pressing the button causes the division signs to move up in a staggering pattern so the player can make it across without getting hit by the guns. You're supposed to use the bomb to blow open the walls, but can just shoot them instead.

Though, if you don't use the bomb, you still need to blow it up before it ends up blocking the path up ahead.

The other button is used to reverse the movement of the division signs to make a trip back, which will become necessary soon to get the last keys down there.


Running past some blink walls lets the player grab the keys for below, but there's the issue of me having already hit the button to send the division signs to the bottom. This is compounded by the fact that one of them keeps moving far past the other causing them to desync.


Another trip past the guns, and one more race past the blink walls, and then it's on to the final blink wall room here. The red walls make a spiral pattern, however that just means that most of the walls can be ignored. The blue and final key opens up the last area, with a few lions to try their best to stop the player, but it's no use, and I move on to whatever awaits on the other side.


There are also these weird and not really necessary invisible walls to cut the player off? They don't get in the way of fighting the lions, so I don't get what they're for compared to just walling off the right border of the screen if Janson wanted to make it clear the player can't walk off the edge.


The passage leads underground, to the Gold Door and a switch to open passage to the end.


I always liked the effect of parting sliders like this.


All that remains is this one final scroll. Our hero can escape this island, whose secret was that it had a submarine.

Final Thoughts

Don't let my occasional griping fool you. Cannibal Isle is a very good ZZT game that's still a lot of fun to play. It has a bit of that amateurish feel from a still new programmer, with its just slightly too restrictive resources and errors like the blockheads and flags. However, those problems are easy ignored. There's far more fun than frustration here.

It feels like Janson wants to make something more grand, like she'd go on to do with her later games, but is still erring on the side of caution. There are a lot of ideas with potions, lava, Splitters, and toll booths, but all of them serve to supplment the kind of elements ZZT already ships with. It almost feels like an early blueprint for MegaZeux in that way, with the sort of items it added to its own default toolbox being logical next steps for ZZT elements. Yet all of these new additions are the kind of thing that could be used in nearly any ZZT game. Later worlds would focus more on story and creating settings that feel more like places than the single screen challenges to collect a key at the end seen here.

The new elements are also disappointing in that they pretty much only show up once. Lava is used wonderfully thematically in the Hot & Cold room. Potions seem like a fun mechanic, but most of it just gets used for a gimmick to never come back. I'd have loved to see these things used more throughout the game, and especially combining them elsewhere. Give me a choice between fighting my way through some lions and ruffians or taking a run through another maze of Splitters with a potion to destroy the monsters at the end. Use Replicators to copy keys in exchange for ammo, trying to get through an otherwise insurmountable amount of doors. Instead they just show up and quietly move on. Never getting a chance to match the anticipation brought on by the information room.

The casual influences of Monkey Island are also an oddity. I wonder if she wanted to do something more in the style of that game. By the late 90s ZZT had a booming adventure game scene with ZZT interpretations of King's Quest, Dizzy, and original adventures like Pop! finding success. Did she feel that ZZT couldn't handle it? That it wasn't what a ZZT game "was"? Or maybe she just liked the music and figured nobody would notice a litle youthful plagairism.

Cannibal Isle is certainly less Monkey Island and more a replay of the first Best of ZZT, but far more playable and far more cohesive feeling by nature of being made by one person. It's the type of game that died off as the years went on and ZZT games become more story-focused and engine-driven before coming in vogue again as "retro" once enough time passed to acknowledge that it can be enjoyable to shoot tigers in dark caves. It shows its age sure, but if you can look past the blemishes of not quite passing QA by modern standards, I think Cannibal Isle is a game definitely worth running through yourself.

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Special thanks to VengefulChip, for their collection of The Secret of Monkey Island music in numerous formats

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