Flame Frost Blade


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Closer Look: Demos Without Finished Games

By: Dr. Dos
Published: June 15, 2020

Exploring several demos for games that were never finished

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Flame Frost Blade

By: Flatcoat Lab
Published Under: Interactive Fantasies
Released: March 03, 1999
Download | Play Online | View Files

Now we get into the reason for this article in the first place. All it took was the Worlds of ZZT Twitter bot tweeting a hidden board from this demo to make me want to go back to it. Unlike all the other demos I decided to take a look at, the demo for Flame Frost Blade is the only one I played when it was relevant. FFB is one of the earliest titles I remember looking forward to as a child in the ZZT community in the late 90s, and I wasn't alone. It's an RPG of course, and the titular sword is a magical blade that's half-fire half-ice. This game definitely had some hype going for it. Even before the demo people were anticipating its release.

Revisiting it now though, I have no idea why.

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Two things of note, firstly that this is another Interactive Fantasies title, which may explain some of the excitement, and also that this is one of a very few number of games that requests the player adjust the speed setting. The boost to speed here is pretty negligible and would work just fine at the default setting, but the lack of traditional shooting sequences mean that it's kind of nice to be told you can move a smidge faster throughout the world without an increase in game difficulty for doing so.

The title screen has a short little tune that plays after closing the message to adjust the speed. It's more complex than keymashing, but is hardly an impressive piece. The most notable thing about it is that adjusting ZZT's game speed setting causes the music to stop so you have to reload the world once the setting has been changed in order to listen to the whole thing. It's a pretty funny start.

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Before even looking at the text, I was staring at the circles on the sides of the screen trying to figure out what was going on to create this sort of "notebook paper" background. It's actually a really clever use of negative space and having white arrows pointing inward at each other. I really like the effect, and am sad to say that from a modern standpoint the illusion of circles in ZZT is by far the best thing about this demo.

Really the mystery as to why this game stuck with me for so long was solved the moment Flatcoat Lab's name appeared on the title screen. I'd normally pin this on me being 10 years old when this demo came out, but I know I wasn't the only person excited for this. Lab was pretty notorious for really over-hyping his games. We've seen his earlier title The Misshap Adventure of Daniel Fogerbockie (MADF) on stream and it was a weird and not all that funny or fun to play world that also had plenty of hype built for it. Say what you will about his games, but Lab definitely was an expert at self-promotion.

...Even if the opening to the demo here is warning you to lower your standards for programming already.

When you're making an RPG battle engine in ZZT there's a lot that can go wrong, and Lab admits to spending months on perfecting it, with it still not being entirely complete. Do keep this in mind for later.

Scroll
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Probably Features in the full game.
A large world map.
A large game. (possibly multiple worlds!)
Several cool Cinemas.
RPG battles, and some Realtime ones too..
Multiple spells and Techneaques to learn.
A few challenging puzzels.
Multiple cinimas.
Good music (non repetetive, heh).
Cool nature blends and artwork.
Cool blends and artwork in general.
Great board design.
Cool plot.
Multiple mini missions in between.
Realistic character personalaties.
Humor
And stuff. (and not _that_ kind :)
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

Like Jurassic Park ZZT there's an overview of what to expect in the full game, and just as before, it's mostly fluff. This reads like a checklist of positive things to say about an RPG of the late 90s. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll see "cool nature blends". What more could you ask for?

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The gameplay opens with this scroll and I'm genuinely unsure if this is just meant to be a quick way to get the player up to speed for the demo or how the game genuinely opens. The game starting off with Magus pausing to explain what he's going to actually do in this game comes off poorly. I'm being told this game is going to have a cool plot and realistic characters only for Magus to break the fourth wall right away and seem incredibly lacking in confidence on what this game is going to deliver.

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I admit so far I've been very negative on this game. Looking at the board there's no complaints. Some bedrooms and furniture for the second floor of Magus's family home, and a very good tree. Had the game started with this and skipped that awkward introduction I'd be in better spirits as none of the visuals lead me to sound any alarms.

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In Magus's bedroom the closet lets him get dressed, and thanks to the text file suggesting to touch the closet multiple times I'm able to get some money as well.

Magus has to get himself dressed and has to grab his staff before invisible objects will let him leave, helpfully telling the player to get dressed and not forget Magus's weapon should he try to leave early. This kind of design shows up all the over place, despite adding next to nothing. Perhaps it's just an example of "realistic characters", in that most folks won't go about their daily business outside in their jammies. Perhaps it's meant to be an extremely subtle tutorial for newcomers to ZZT to encourage them to touch everything. Maybe it's a now a vestigial remnant of Code Red's influence on ZZT worlds. There the player can do numerous things around his home at the start of the game, but each one actually alters the course of the game, changing the time of day, or how characters will interact later based on how they were treated at the start. Either way, this is one of countless worlds where you darned well better put some clothes on.

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Continuing to follow the tropes, Lab includes a bookshelf with some comedic titles to browse. They're not very good and Lab gives up almost immediately on coming up with something.

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Magus won't go into his parents' room as he has no reason to, so the only way to go is downstairs where similar restrictions are placed on entering the two back rooms of the home. It does make things more along a little more quickly, but while the other bedroom looked pretty generic, the room in the top left here seems to have a bunch of things in it that I'd be interested in exploring if Lab would allow me to do so.

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Mom's just mopping endlessly like a realistic person. The entire family is supposed to have the role of watching over the mythical blade, so I assume that Magus's father is already there and Magus is just being polite and checking in on his dad before putting food on the table by hunting deer which he will kill by beating them with a big stick.

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Leaving home, the scale zooms out a little and what I assumed were meant to be town walls are in fact just a fence around the Magus family property.

I do like Magus getting to make an observation to himself. Little incidental dialog like this is rather uncommon. I am amused at how his speech patterns suddenly get more high-fantasy.

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There aren't any signposts directing Magus where he should be going. I of course went in the opposite direction of the blade I'm supposed to be checking on. Going north leads down the path to the end of the demo though, so this is the better option after all.

The village is sprinkled with a few buildings, all currently locked up.

Again to credit Lab on approaching things a little differently, I really like this sprawled out yet compact village. With smaller buildings like these, plenty of games would shove everything onto a single board. While there's no problem with doing it like that, usually multi-board towns (especially ones like this that offer very little to explore) feel like they're too dang big. Lab keeps the feeling of a small village without it being crowded by having the town rest between a riverbank and a large mountain. Between this and HM, I'm noticing the importance of mixing up your shapes a bit. This village feels very distinct from most.

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It's Talus! I have no idea who this is, but I think they're supposed to be Magus's friend. They sell potions and spells which come in handy for the RPG battles no doubt.

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"Orb of Agony" sounds like a good spell, but Magus lacks the funds for the time being. He can afford to spend four gems on a healing potion which is tracked by how many torches the player is carrying.


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This part really bugs me. Talus is right after all, Magus is part of a lineage defending the sword from... well bad guys I guess, but this is such a simple opportunity to provide the player knowledge of the sword. Flip the script around here and have an option for the two to just chat, and then make Talus start asking about the sword and give the player a natural way to learn the game's lore.


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Asking Talus if they saw anything is kind of an odd thing to ask, and the response is even stranger. It's almost as if there's just a line of dialog missing- wait a minute.

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Much better. ZZT's use of apostrophes to indicate comments sometimes causes collateral damage like this.

With the full script things make a little more sense. It sounds to me like the Flame Frost blade was stolen last night. That's not good.

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Although the other buildings can't be entered, we can learn a little more about them. Importantly, this reveals that Magus's father isn't an active guard of the blade. It sounds like that means it's all on Magus.

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I love this line.

We also learn that Magus is still very young in this game and probably shouldn't be the one in charge of protecting the Flame Frost.

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There's one more part of the village, but like the upper half none of the buildings can be entered.

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On the left is a dwarf guarding the mines which seems like a sensible first dungeon for this kind of game, but if there were ever plans to go to them, we'll never know.

On the right side there's somebody fishing on the bridge, and yet they can't be talked to! The bridge is blocked by objects where Magus explains he has no reason to go into the forest which is fine but I want to talk to this guy!

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Heading all the way north leads to the cave that contains the Flame Frost Blade. Lab zooms the camera in again and honestly, I like the shift between zoom levels throughout this little demo. It gives a sense of importance to the places where the camera gets in close, and pulling back for less important areas like a village full of locked buildings makes it quick to explore.

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Lab also seems to be a big fan of bridges. This is the third one we've seen already! This board exists solely as a lead-up to getting to the blade.

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Damn it Magus. You're supposed to be guarding that thing.

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Despite Talus saying they some some people go in last night, there's a thief here now.

Thinking about it, the thief doesn't use the blade when you fight him so he probably isn't the thief Magus should be looking for. The thief rushes at Magus and the player is transported to the super fancy RPG battle engine that Lab was building up.

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At first glance, it looks like any other ZZT RPG. It's got a Final Fantasy style active time battle timer for both opponents, and the usual smiley faces with slashes and pipes used to represent swords and staves. A helpful scroll explains how it all breaks down:

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Well, first off Lab apologies that the engine still has some bugs. That's not a particularly good sign when it's been "months in the making", but fine, complex RPG mechanics can certainly make it difficult to catch any mistakes in coding and we're dealing with a demo.

Then we're told this is an easier fight. Also fine, this is the first one after all. It should basically be a free win to let the player become familiar with their options.

Then... we hear that Lab doesn't "know how to use randomness that well". I don't even know what this means, but it is a bad sign for sure.

Scroll
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-=]Guide[=-

Health: Staying healthy in this game is
crutile. Your health is represented by the
health on the default status bar.
Enemy health is measured by ammo.
Healing potions are Torches (max of 5)
Gems are money, so it's not important for
fighting. I mean it's not like Magus is
gonna buy the enemy's weapon from him. :)
And Mana is Score.

Stamina: The bars under the names gradualy
gradually fill up with boulders, when your
bar is full, you can attack. The same
with the enemy.

Taunts: Magus taunts the enemy. But it
takes up time, so he'll do an attack
so the time's not waisted.

Potions: Healing potions are a good thing
to get and use. They fill up 20 health.
Magus can only carry 5 at a time.

Attack: Magus will attack with his staff.
various techniques will be learned in the
game.

Magic: Over the course of the game Magus
will be able to learn several spells,
but they take score per spell.

Enemies: Enemies have different classes,
races, and spells too.
Classes depend on which spells can be used
and how much health and stamina the enemy
has. Spells are adapted to the class.
(eg. Rangers use nature magic)
Races also play a part in Health/Stamina.
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

So health is used for Magus's health. This is probably less often used than having a physical health bar made of breakable walls on the screen. It offers the benefits of being far easier to manipulate for things like healing than breakables, but it makes it a lot harder to balance as you don't know how much health the player is going to have for each fight if you're not resetting it at some point.

Ammo for the enemy is whatever, but note that this "easy fight" has less than a 20 point difference between the two. It's a good thing Magus bought that healing potion which is represented by a torch. Lastly, score for mana. Admittedly, given ZZT's limited number of counters, it's not unusual for RPGs that use them to end up using score for magic or something, and the only thing that's notable about it is that ZZT doesn't include a cheat for points.

Magus has a few options for fighting, the first is the excellent taunt ability which makes Magus insult the opponent and then also do a basic attack. I love this.

Potions are revealed to only heal 20 HP. The numbers aren't looking good here. If Magus and the thief are doing small amounts of damage, then healing is worth the turn, but that also means that this fight will drag on for ages. If the two do larger amounts of damage, then quaffing a potion and being hit in return is probably going to negate the vast majority of healing in the first place.

There aren't any special fighting techniques in the demo, and there's one spell, but I didn't find enough money to purchase it.

Lastly, there's a note about how enemies race/class combinations can effect their magic and stats. In theory this could mean maybe later on you'll get forms of protection from certain types of magic and that could be a fun thing to play around with, but there won't be anything of the sort here.

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Instead it's as generic as any other ZZT RPG. We've seen this menu plenty of times by now, and the "taunt" ability, while new, is no different than a regular attack with some text attached.

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Without any magic, my only options are rolling the dice on this basic attack and hoping my rolls are better than the thief's.

There are of course little ASCII animations of swords slashing and Magus swinging his staff downwards. It's just nothing particularly noteworthy.

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The thief's basic attack did 15 damage, so yeah, potions are going to be pretty bad.

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Here are all the taunts. They're incredibly generic and have nothing to do with regards to the context of why they're fighting, or that Magus is fighting a thief. These taunts could work just as blandly against any foe.

After enough taunts, Lab just starts saying things himself instead.

S.N.A.C.K. 3 (Super Neato All Color Kit) was a rather popular ZZT toolkit of this era. It was my personal favorite prior to making one myself as a teen.

Despite Lab telling you to get on with the game, all these taunts absolutely advance the fight as they'll followed with basic attacks. Of course the player is going to want to see all the taunts when there's no downside to using the attack other than having to clear an extra text box.

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Because like so many RPGs of this quality before it, things come down to entirely to luck, I found myself considerably weaker than the thief after a few rounds.

Healing potions (which you can only afford one of), restore 25 health. So as I expected, after the thief's next turn I was barely better off than I had been before. Quick reminder that the guide at the start of this fight said they'd restore 20. Even with this slight buff in the code it's not enough.

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Yeah, no. At least in Dragon Woods there were a variety of spells to choose from so it felt like trying again would mean I could take a new approach. If I wanted to restart this I'd still just be using the same basic attack every time.

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Hooray! Even with a quick cheat for another 50 HP, Magus still barely survived the fight. I guess "Ackbar" is the main villain? This is followed up with a game over so we'll never learn more.

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Well, not quite. After the fight ends, Lab just activates Magus's death to cause the game over. Now I don't have to replay the fight to see what happens when you die! Thanks Lab.

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Okay, it actually ends with a game over and an object breaking. It's very fitting.

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Now, this is what happened when I didn't buy the "Orb of Agony" spell. The reason I didn't buy it was because I didn't find enough money to do so. The demo's text file suggests buying the spell and a potion before going into the northern cave.

Except there aren't any other gems in the demo! You get five from Magus's closet, and seven after winning the fight with the thief, by which point it's too late to go shopping. So the suggested strategy requires you to cheat.

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So Orb of Agony encircles the thief at the cost of 20 score, meaning it can only be cast twice. Also it can still miss. Granted it does 20 damage if it's successful, so you can take half the thief's HP out in two turns. I tried the fight a second time with the spell working once, and still lost. It was considerably closer?

I don't want to play this anymore.

Final Thoughts

Oh no, I went back to a thing I remembered enjoying as a child only to realize it's not good at all. Well, as far as the coding goes.

Visually, I quite liked the demo for Flame Frost Blade. I've seen countless towns in ZZT, and this one stood out with its unique long and narrow shape across two boards. The zooming in and out for scale also shows some thought to the game's design. While that's about all the praise I can really offer it, it's actually really good in that aspect. Lab is spending all his time trying to get you excited for a mediocre and unbalanced RPG combat system and story that isn't there when he's doing some very good work in the graphics department and not uttering a word about the demo's one real strength.

By the late 90s there's this obsession with RPGs in ZZT. It's the genre to tell your grand story in, show off your incredible coding skills in the battle systems, and plays nicely with ZZT's overhead perspective of grid based movement. Almost without fail, they hold up terribly. Most promise so much and do so little. Flame Frost Blade is no exception. The sole innovation on display here is the ability to make Magus say "Bastard". Perhaps in 1999 this meant a tough character full of rage who gets things done, but nowadays it's just silly teenage writing. Land of Gannon had the benefit that players were likely already familiar with the Zelda characters and have the luxury of filling in the blanks when the game fell short. Jurassic Park ZZT also had something to fall back on, but Flatcoat Lab wanted to create something entirely original.

And hell, not to claim that making a Zelda or Jurassic Park isn't valid, but Lab was the one taking on the more daunting task here. The problem is he doesn't seem to rise to the additional challenge at all. Nobody has any knowledge of this world, its inhabitants, or its rules except for Lab, who does a miserable job letting anybody else into this world of his. I get that the sword is powerful and magic, but I don't know what happens if somebody manages to lay claim to it. Throwing out the name "Ackbar" at the end is a meaningless gesture. Nobody knows who that is. Nobody knows why it matters.

I was about to say I'm more interested in that guy on the bridge Magus couldn't talk with, and sure enough they do have dialog coded. His name is Joe, and he says "That suketh eggs" at one point making him my new favorite character.

I complain about how blank everything is, and I'm honestly curious if there was another demo at one point that's been lost or something because I swear I remember there being more about the sword itself and finding it really cool as a kid, absolutely looking forward to the full game. The obvious answer is that I was a dumb child, but I feel like there had to be more for the game to stick with me all these years. By 1999 I was well aware of ZZT RPGs and nothing else in this game would have really surprised me. Yet somehow I had the impression for the past 20 years that Flame Frost Blade was a cool RPG that never got finished.

It's definitely not.

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