The Game of XYZABCDE

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1.50 / 5.00

Closer Look: Game of XYZABCDE

By: Dr. Dos
Published: Oct. 31, 2021

If at first you don't succeed, die, die, again in this incredibly challenging yet satisfying adventure

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Humor Abound

For a game this brutal, a lot of what keeps it worth persevering through isn't just the satisfaction at tackling such a huge obstacle, but zzo's distinct sense of humor that does so much to uplift what would otherwise be more mundane locations.


Sometimes he'll be playful about options available when interacting with things. Even if it kills you, you'll find yourself wanting to try out every option available, and as you move along in the game and return to things you couldn't quite figure out you may check some options again. I went down the list of options on this sleeping cop only to return later to see if I could find any hints for what I was supposed to do with them. When I checked his pocket for a second time and found a diamond inside I couldn't help but laugh when I realized that of course there'd be a diamond in his pocket, I put it there!


The language used is always very specific. If something doesn't quite match, it's clearly deliberate. Asking where the "information desk" is at the "Information" desk just lets you call this librarian out and they immediately realize that you are correct.


Because zzo is so committed to accuracy and clarity of statements you get some fun moments like this to make sure nothing counts as a loophole.


The dragon boss I struggled with is at the end of a road with a big "NO TRESPASSING" sign. That boss is of course named "No Trespassing".


Text windows are obviously the main source of humor, but the absurdities sometimes come from walking onto a board. This game has a Pokemon center. Why is there a Pokemon center! zzo incorporates all this stuff into the gameplay, and the way it's so often played straight only makes the absurdities more fun to deal with. The Pokemon center is a destination later where you'll take advantage of the computer inside once you have a way to fix it. Without it though, you're still free to head inside and talk to the nurse about healing your Pokemon.


There's also a Pokemon trainer inside confused by your strange appearance that wants to know if you're a Pokemon yourself, and to fully commit to the bit when you first enter the building the Pokemon center theme music from the original games is played.


In some powerful commentary about how society places people in a small set of boxes, the public toilets aren't made for two predominant genders, but instead by dominant hand. I really got a kick out of this because like what it's parodying this binary is also a false one. There's no "ambidextrous" toilets anywhere, but surely those people exist. Inside each is just a toilet, one for lefties and one for righties. No diamonds, clues, keys, or anything else. The buildings exist entirely as a gag.


Nothing could prepare me for this. It's been a about two weeks now and all I can think about is how incredibly good a dark house to scare away ships is. It's a really powerful concept and ties itself into gameplay by letting the player head to the docks only to realize no ships will be coming to take them where they need to go because of the dark house.

Me, 2015: I can't really put into words why, but this new Undertale game feels like a ZZT game.

Me, 2021 playing Deltarune Chapter 2 while writing this article: SEE!! SEE!!!! I AM VINDICATED!!!!


And it's called the What's Up Dock. XYZ's extreme difficulty might turn you away from the game, but be honest, stuff like this definitely makes it a more tempting prospect.


Finding a fish in a video game as a "red herring" item is hardly anything new. The darkhouse happens to have one lying around that you can try and cook, but you're just incredibly bad at it. Or maybe you're fine. Regardless, the fish's presence does not help.


Jumping ahead to a segment in which you're thrown into a castle dungeon there's a lone scroll in the middle of the dungeon puzzle that contains some Latin which meant a trip to look up a translation. Whatever is said in Latin sounds profound. Brilliant.

Puzzles Most Fowl

For those shaken to the core by the demands inflicted on the player just to navigate the world, the numerous puzzles are equally as challenging to get through. What really got me thinking with this game, is how we perceive differences in difficulty between action and puzzle. I'm discussing zzo's game here as something dangerous. Experts only. Do not attempt if you are not a professional ZZTer. There are sirens blaring and caution tape wrapped around the whole thing to make it clear that you really should know what you're signing up for to conquer this game.

Meanwhile though if a game has slider puzzles that keep me up at night it gets a lot more praise. Alexis Janson gets heralded as one of the best ZZTers of all time, and nearly every game of hers I've tried has some intricate puzzles. These puzzles get praised for stopping me in my tracks for a bit and feel satisfying to complete. Even when I was truly bested by one in The Three Trials and had to come up with an alternate solution my verdict was that it was a fun if challenging game. Likely a lot of the distinction between what's expected of the player in action versus puzzle comes down to the fact that slider puzzles usually let the player just sit and think for as long as they need.

Perhaps the difference is simply that a slider puzzle is either:

An action board is much more fluid and generally the outcome isn't confined to a single board. When you're damaged by a lion, that damage carries over to the next screen. You can't know the player's state when the enter or leave and so the expectation is for the player to have some room for error to avoid turning an action board into a puzzle board where every action is critically important.

Regardless of how much more players are willing to put up with when working with squares, triangles, and arrows versus Greek letters and playing card suits though, zzo can go toe-to-toe with puzzle masters like Janson, Barjesse, and the late Flimsy Parkins. Thanks to the double (or at least uneven) standards between the two types of boards though, if you're able to handle the action, you'll be capable of doing the same with the puzzle designs.


Right from the start, just two boards left of the starting board, zzo begins to demonstrate his puzzle making abilities. My reaction upon seeing this was to simply turn 360 degrees and walk away. The nice thing about the non-linear structure meaning I could save all the scary boards for the end.

This puzzle politely includes "GET THE DIAMONDS" written in text on the board. It doesn't take too big of a time investment into XYZ to realize that if a sign says to get some diamonds that it is very much an order and not a suggestion. I had the terrible misfortune of simply not even noticing the red gems, making it all the way through and realizing that I'd have to start the whole thing over to solve the red section properly.

While I'm more than happy to defend this game despite it very clearly being meant for a small audience who vibes with the design, this is one of those moments that's just miserable. Really there are two issues I had here. The diamonds you're intended to collect blend in too much with their surroundings. Being stuck on a section is fine, but having the player deceive themselves into thinking they've solved it when they're really in a game-ending state just isn't a good look. Make them blue. Make them white. Make them just not match the section they're in, and this would be easy to avoid.

The second issue though is the lack of clarity with what happens after you reach the end of the puzzles. This is a non-linear game and so my assumption was that I would need to keep a return path open so I could exit the board later. I made it maybe halfway through before just being completely stumped. I could find a way forward, but it would leave me no chance of going back. I eventually just went into the editor and checked to confirm what would happen when I reached the end. The door will change all the puzzle pieces to forests allowing a brisk return. Without any way of knowing that though, I was needlessly making these puzzles even more difficult than they needed to be. The only real hint that you don't need to worry about the return trip is that there isn't any text on the board telling you to think about how to make an exit. The lack of information on its own though can't be trusted to be information itself.

Otherwise? It's a really tough board that sure enough, makes you feel good about each section you complete.


There is of course more to puzzle design than the traditional boulder and slider gridlock. Other times the player is tasked to find an item in order to make progress. The Pokemon Center's PC is out of commission. The player isn't told what needs to be done to fix it, just that it's a hardware issue rather than software. Eventually some tools are acquired and the system can be repaired and used with a disk found elsewhere to solve another puzzle.


Then there's this thing. I have never been so glad to not have a green key in my life. I can't actually comment more on this one since I never actually had a spare green key in what I played. It looks significantly scarier than the western slider puzzle board, incorporating transporters into the equation which is a great way to make everything more maddening.

Oh, and it's worth noting that energizers do not protect the player from being hurt by blink walls. I feel like I'm genuinely missing something extremely unique here though since energizers can't be pushed meaning that they're essentially walls the player can take down to change what can be moved where. It seems like the "MAZE OF ENERGY!!!" is definitely a head scratcher.


Puzzles might not even announce themselves, relying on the player to understand that they're dealing with one. A dark room on the northern path is the bomb storage room, which is just a mess of boulders and bombs. It's not really even a puzzle so much as it's about moving delicately. If you go around blowing up bombs and pushing boulders around you might unintentionally block yourself from being able to reach a key. This is a test of the player's patience where just slowly working your way through the bombs and avoiding the boulders entirely will get you where you need to go.


The northern path doesn't let up and leads to what's generally my favorite series of boards. There are some big open spaces, some slow start shooting objects, and just a lot of jukes. The walls on these boards are made mostly with water which really gives the space a weird feeling. I'm not sure what if anything it's supposed to be. Here though a small puzzle is incorporated into the mix. It's your usual "push boulders onto fake walls". Those more familiar with the details of how pushing in ZZT works might think you can be clever and just push a boulder across the top row and have it erase the fakes, but zzo knows that as well as you do. Instead these boulders actually have stats and things with stats preserve what they're on top of making the puzzle work as intended with one boulder per fake.

The tigers here throw stars and being able to find a key moment to slip out and take some of them out is essential to being able to actually finish the board alive. In addition to the threat from the tigers and ruffians you might also notice that there are nine fakes and eight yellow boulders. For the final boulder you need to actually rely on a very slow duplicator in the corner that's producing more. This makes for an even more unusual setup as the boulders will be against the wall until they reach almost the very top. The player also needs to make it to this corner in such a way that they're able to place the final boulder and be able to traverse freely to the left still. This isn't realistically a problem as there's some extra room to push boulders to the left, but a player that doesn't recognize what's going on here might accidentally block themselves off.


Ultimately, the part that did me in was the dungeon sequence. After a lengthy process to reach the leftmost board and enter a castle, the royal family inside is prompt to banish you to the dungeons. While the dungeons aren't really any more difficult the the rest of the game, once you start them you are trapped inside. The other areas on the overworld are much more willing to let the player change their mind. The only way out of the dungeons is through, and once you've finished a board or two the idea of loading an earlier save and having to repeat them from the start doesn't seem like a wise investment of time.


This is the one that got me though. What I eventually figured out is that part of the strategy involves using that lone boulder to push ammo between the transporter and blue door in order to travel through it. Although doing that also seems to make escape impossible? You win zzo. (Again, I've been time pressed severely with some life changes and do wish I had the chance to finish this game rather than have to let it beat me.)

Game Over Yeah

Despite my praises, one nuisance of the game is a surprisingly large amount of instant game overs. As opposed to Warlock Domain, these ones are a considerably less obvious. Yet I still find myself defending them. In most games these would be a source of frustration with how they're presented. In XYZABCDE you are going to be saving so frequently that the idea of losing any progress to an abrupt demise is laughable.


They're tough sells. Crushed to death by a phone booth? Sure, I don't think anything good would come from lifting one over one's head. The note underneath is a great touch. Is it something important? We'll never know. It also sews a little thread for the player who does die to this, putting the thought into their head to always keep their eyes peeled for some item that might allow them to get to the note.

But no, it's just trolling. You'll only be able to be sure if you look at the code.


Just a few tiles over from the phone booth are some spikes on the ground. Go upstairs and you can sleep on a bed or check underneath it. Maybe don't take a nap.


You know, most of this seems to be confined to the darkhouse. Here's still another where the top floor allows you to try and leave the window. This one admittedly seems suicidal to begin with, though really the only reason it's fatal is because your wing is broken so you can't fly. Normally you'd of course be able to do this!


Within the castle's dungeon is a winding path in a normally dark room with a pretty straightforward message. It's nobody's fault but your own for this one. As you'd expect in the corner of the board by the key you're meant to collect here is a bomb.


I mean.

Okay But...

So maybe you can still get me on board for the game overs. They're meant as gags that while sometimes unexpected are again in a game where your typical play-style quickly becomes saving after every enemy you manage to shoot or every few steps without being harmed. The world is one of ZZT's most dangerous. You're kind of setting yourself up for these after your first reveals that you can be killed instantly in this game.

A few gripes of mine go beyond what is or isn't an acceptable level of challenge. There are a few instances where I can't defend the decisions. Some things aren't communicated that really should be and will instantly flip your mood when you run into them.


The "No Trespassing" fight with the few precious bombs and the large number of dragons? It took me quite a bit to manage to survive with stars pushing everything around, but it turns out the demand is even greater. Note that this board has a connection to the north. Once the dragons have been defeated, all the ricochets turn into breakables and you're expected to use remaining bombs to blast your way north. It feels needlessly cruel to make the demand be not just to kill all the dragons, but to do so in a way where you'll have some bombs left over to be able to keep moving ahead.


And it's not just a single bomb! The board is connected in three sections with the player being required to access this board from each of them. The two sides to push away the sliders, and then a run up the middle. With proper positioning this is going to require two bombs be saved until after the dragons are defeated in order to have breakables that can be destroyed. So now it's not seven bombs for ten dragons. It's five bombs for ten dragons.

The problem here though is one of communication. I had a panicked realization when I finally beat the dragons that I'd need a bomb to continue onward, but without trying to converse any spares I still managed to have one up top. It was a huge letdown to discover that this wasn't good enough. My refusal to cheat for health during the fight quickly gave way to "Well I'm not doing that again" and I zapped some extra paths. If something like three arrows were placed and a warning to not use all your bombs on the dragons I think this would work out. The issue isn't the difficultly, which while extremely high can be overcome. The problem here is that I don't think most people would look at this fight and think extra bombs would be needed. Then because the difficulty is so high, it's hard to find that motivation to do the fight a second time just ever so slightly differently.

Then of course there's the slider puzzles to the west with the diamonds to collect. I already went into it there, but like with the bombs the realization at the end that I screwed up was enough to make me just say "oh well" and zap ahead. At least with the diamonds I could blame myself for not noticing them. A little extra contrast would be welcome to prevent such a mistake, but it was my mistake to make. For the dragons you're just going to barely scrape your way through the fight and then without being quite fortunate be told to do it again.


That same bed in the darkhouse that kills you if you try to sleep in it also lets you check beneath it where you'll find some glass. Reasonable enough. However after scouring the world I eventually had to look up where the tools were. They're also under the bed. You need to keep looking. In fact, if you look a third time you'll find the floor and notice that it seems broken, hinting at the inevitable demise of those who sleep in it. There are plenty of ZZT games where you'll need to keep examining things to fully exhaust what can be done with them. XYZ just doesn't do it often enough to ingrain it in the player's tool set.

Right at the start of the game you can bother the sleeping cop who tells you to leave them alone and goes back to sleep. Bug them again and they'll arrest you for being a monster. The odds are good you'll be thrown into your cell before acquiring some dynamite needed to escape it resulting in having to quit out of the game entirely. Again, it's not bad design to have the player select options multiple times, it's just not communicated effectively enough that they'll need to do this. Though it was clear from a few visible objects and a mismatched wall tile in the police station that there was more too it, it's just as easy to assume you need to acquire an item to gain additional dialog with the cop inside. I honestly didn't find out you could be thrown into a cell until I was going back looking for examples of your more monster-like physical features.

I think that these are some more concrete grievances than "game too hard". Tools like the editor and Museum file viewer reveal all sure, but I do not think zzo wanted them to be required part of the experience. It's a tough game, but doesn't feel like it wants to make the player give up on it.

Final Thoughts

This is very much a game that is not for everybody. zzo's Town of XYZABCDE is a game very different from most modern ZZT releases in how its own celebration of the early days of ZZT game design isn't a lack of STK colors, a weird somewhat surreal arrangement of set pieces, or anything else that celebrates the classic aesthetics. It's a celebration of the difficulty and the satisfaction that comes from it.

"Don't feel overwhelmed. You can expect to play ZZT a total of about 20 hours before you finish the game. It is well worth the effort and you can always take your journey one step at a time." — HELPME.DOC from ZZT v3.2

The original ZZT worlds both Sweeney's and those compiled into Best of ZZT and ZZT's Revenge were way harder than a lot of other early worlds yet as a child I always felt they were something that could eventually be done. These days of course they feel pretty trivial outside of a handful of slider puzzles. zzo builds on that legacy by returning to the teeth clenching days of thinking you've figured out the trick to solving the Rube Board only to realize you were wrong and had to start again. The utter lack of health restoration in Town is reflected here. The game is modernized a little, and zzo is certainly aware of every decision he makes here. Resources are precious, puzzles are incredibly fiendish, and you better check for a time limit on every board lest one sneaks up on you. This is the kind of game that when you beat if you're supposed to take a Polaroid of your CRT monitor displaying your high score and mail it off somewhere to be published in a newsletter. It's an experience mostly left by the wayside as players have such a wide amount of options of games to play and developers don't want to create a world which mostly goes unseen by the playerbase. (Whoops, sorry zzo.) XYZABCDE is a game for a niche audience within a niche audience making it feel comparatively neglected when otherwise I'm singing praise onto other 2018 games like Faux Amis or The Zombinator.

Even if you're not a fan of a game that has such high demands on the player, I think this one is worth dabbling in for a little bit. I was quickly won over and surprised at how well it clicked. There are definitely some genuine issues to me that go over the line like the bombs in the dragon fight, but I think taking up the challenge and trying to best this game rather than it besting you can be a ton of fun. I don't usually go for these hard games, ZZT or otherwise. I want my games to be a way to bleed some time and enjoy myself while doing so. What zzo is offering is what he wants out of a game, and after putting in some time on this one, I totally understand the appeal.

Still, I really do have to apologize to zzo for not actually finishing his game. I very much wanted to, but had the real bad misfortune of opting to play this one in the midst of some very chaotic months with meeting new family, flying across the country to visit old family, driving across the state to look for a new place to live, and then working on packing it all away. I had to rush this game and this article and I do think zzo deserves better than that. This just turned out to be a real bad time to be stuck on a board for a considerable length of time, and I hope when my life calms down a little to put this game on a retro PC and play it isolated from any and all distractions. There's something special here. An ability to create difficulty with so few pieces. All too often a hard ZZT game is one that feels like it just wound up that way by not providing the ammo and health needed to get past the big pile of tigers. zzo is operating at a level far beyond this. There's an understanding that even if the enemies are often quite sparse on his board that they're all properly tuned to make you really have to earn your way to the other side.

In the end, what beat me was real life getting in the way. I hope to be able to give this game a round two and eventually come out on top.

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