The Underground Bugtown of ZZT

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Closer Look: The Underground Bugtown of ZZT

By: Dr. Dos
Published: Nov. 13, 2016

This game is slightly confusing!

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The reward is another dark room. One that's filled with breakable walls and bombs necessary to destroy them. It's very linear, but there is this optional corridor where you can use some of the extra bombs to blast away into a cache of gems.

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The next screen is full of worms, long centipedes that I lacked the ammo to safely shoot away. Instead the screen became a sneaking mission, quickly passing by the heads and hoping they continued on in whatever direction they were headed.

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The next screen turns the lights back on finally, which is fortunate, given my low torch count.

The factory is very derivative of City of ZZT's elevator. Objects will move the player from room to room until they arrive at their destination. And just like in City of ZZT, any novelty of the game moving the player by pushing them is swiftly eradicated by the tedium of having to wait for the elevator to reach the room the player is currently in.


This bug friend informs the player that they'll need to find a way into the boss's office (hey, that rhymes). The second bug in the packaging department says that the boss knows where one of the three golden keys can be found, so it's important that the player speaks with them.


Both rooms have these music notes that give bonus points when touched, but then oddly they don't disappear. If you try to touch them a second time for more points...

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has them taken away from you! It's a weird punishment for the sake of having a punishment.

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The puzzle to get into the boss's office is pretty straightforward. It's also the sort of thing that 100% would not work outside of ZZT's text environment. In ZZT there's nothing unusual about a green plant looking identical to a bomb. A plant that turns out is actually a bomb would stand out a little bit in a modern AAA title.


So there's the second golden key. Unfortunately for me, I'm still holding the first one, so I'm forced to leave it behind for now.


The factory exit returns the player back to bug town, and by this point I was pretty low on health and had a good amount of gems so I decided to do some shopping.


Of course, I had to make sure to keep enough gems to purchase a ruby key that the mayor had mentioned earlier.

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The not actually ruby key can be used to open up the shopkeeper's vault, promptly replacing it for a cyan key that can be used in the police station to enter the town's mall. Through the police station...


Most of the stores within the mall are closed, which is a shame because I'd love to have seen The Famous Store of What.


Havoc 'R' Us is exactly what it says. Just a room full of worm heads and some ammo and gems. It's possible to grab all the items before the worms get too close.

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Keys 'R' Us meanwhile consists of a single employee wanting to sell us a purple key. Thanks to the four gems in the Havoc store, I have just barely enough money to afford it. Once again, paying for non-essential items in a ZZT game shop nearly screwed me over.


The purple key is the next step on this key exchanging quest. It's used to open the vault in the hospital.


And opening the vault gives the player the combination to the bank vault!


The bank vault is just like the one in Town of ZZT, with the stupid push button right at the start where an unaware player would push the button and stop themselves from ever being able to access the vault and rendering the game unwinnable.

Alexis however, learned from Sweeney's mistake and if the combination has yet to be entered correctly, the entire series of sliders resets, meaning you can't break the game here! It's a triumph for thoughtful design.

And of course, wouldn't you know it, the reward is the third and final key and I'm still here holding the first one, unsure how to get rid of it!


Needless to say, this board gave me a lot of trouble. At first I thought the board might have been accidentally unbeatable. It seemed I could never make any progress due to missing a green key. I originally wound up cheating my way through, only to realize my mistake when I began writing this article.


Remember how there were two green keys back here? I didn't. You're supposed to use the second green key on this board to be able to complete it.

That made the puzzle seem solvable, but it then appeared that it was impossible to make it back out of the room once inside due to the red slider to the left of the white music note object.

Eventually I figured out that this was also a mistake on my part and the room is 100% beatable and 100% of an understatement for its name.

Honestly trying to break it down via screenshots would be a nightmare. I just made a video of the solution instead.

There are numerous points where doing things out of order can make it impossible to clear. I hate this board.


Of course, even after getting through the castle's main area, there's still one more puzzle to solve before the player can return their keys.

The last puzzle to solve is hitting the logical equivalence symbols to make the walls move and work your way through the board until you can finally get rid of a key.


But at least now it's finally over! Bugtown is full of vaults, but they've all been opened now.

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The vault opens up slowly through this colorful section just as the entrance to Town of ZZT's palace opens. The checkmark then tunnels through the room, creating a new path again just like Town.

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Bugtown ends just as Town does, with a little you win screen followed by a swift game over. After that slightly confusing puzzle, I'm thankful for it.

So, The Underground Bugtown of ZZT by Alexis Janson. Bugtown is... a mess? There were certainly less playable games out there by this point in ZZT's history, and Janson would go on to become one of the most well respected ZZTers whose games were inspirational, and whose contributions with things like Super Tool Kit were revolutionary for the scene.

Bugtown however is clearly from Janson's earlier days. It still follows the template introduced in the official ZZT worlds quite heavily, but doesn't really bring anything new to them. If you've played Sweeney's ZZT games, you're not likely to be impressed by anything in Bugtown. Janson hasn't really found her voice yet in Bugtown, and gives us what today feels like a mediocre knockoff of Town.

There are still a few glimmers of what Janson could do hinted at throughout Bugtown. Improving Sweeney's bank puzzle to allow for multiple attempts was a welcome change and genuinely surprised me. The scene with the mayor and being dragged off to jail is a good early example of complex interactions between objects, and with a bit of humor added to it.

Overall, I'd have a tough time recommending somebody plays Bugtown just for the sake of playing Bugtown. Playing it and seeing how it compared to later Janson games might make it more interesting to see how Janson's work refined over time compared to the much more crude Bugtown. Games like Code Red and Mission Enigma were gamechangers for ZZT, but Bugtown is just a buggier version of Town.

The Closer Looks series is a part of the Worlds of ZZT project, committed to the preservation of ZZT and its history.
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