Today we'll be taking a look at poll-winner A Dwarvish-Mead Dream, by Coolzx. Coolzx was a pretty solid ZZTer, who I don't think ever really released anything groundbreaking. He does have a large number of releases, and those that I've played have all been at least enjoyable. I recall being particularly fond of the Infestation series of games in which he turned shooting centipedes into schlocky action games with horror movie vibes.
Mead is one of those games which I'd see constantly on the front page of the Museum as it won a Game Of The Month award in 2000, but I've never actually played it. When I finally decided to take a quick look, it seemed like it would be a fun one to play. The synopsis sounded interesting, traveling between reality and dreams and saving the dream world, all set to some fantasy RPG themes. Well, unfortunately its plot is pretty incircumstantial, never really mattering to the events that unfold.
The good news though, is that while Coolzx doesn't excel in his storytelling, the game is packed with ideas that give it a notable variety in gameplay, and unlike other games that throw a bunch of engines at a wall and hope something sticks, everything (barring one exception) works out quite nicely. This game was a lot of fun to play, and probably its biggest issue is that because it wants to try all these ideas out, it can't really focus and build on them.
Expect some pretty fantastic art though.
The game starts with confusion. This board begins blank, then the game's title appears, and then the giant LOL. "Large orange lump" appears to be a ZZT company, but this may well be the only game published with that label.
a long time ago, there was a dreamworld..
in the dreamworld, creatures of all
kinds lived in prosperity, always helping
each other out...
then, there is the real world. its
evil ruler, reality, plans on taking
over the peaceful dreamworld.
one day, reality attacked the dreamworld.
his stronger forces destroyed,
killed, and slaughtered everyone in
one of the few survivors is an old dwarf
named radux, he was the guardian of the
dreamworld. he started to seek for help..
• • • • • • • • •
No menu here, things jump to the start with some backstory of the war against the dreamworld waged by reality. The dreamworld being full of fantasy creatures like dwarves and orcs made me suspect this was going to be one of those games where somebody from our world gets sucked into the dreamworld and has to save the day, but it's fantasy races across both worlds. The story sounds like it could be cool but it would really be no different if this was just some evil force waging war on the good guys on some fantasy planet.
We're introduced to Radux, the one to find the dwarf capable of saving his world, just as he's about to leave it behind.
Visually, this is nothing special, but Coolzx's excellent art will appear quite soon.
Starting with this beautiful animation of Radux walking down a tree-lined road.
Often when I'm looking for a game to stream or write about I try playing it for a minute just to get a feel for what it's going to be. This was where I was sold on the game.
The player is taken to one last opening board, which honestly would've been a better title screen than the actual title screen. This might be a record for how many titles a game has between the actual title screen, the company themed title screen, and this last title.
Some music plays as well which is repeated a few times throughout the game as its theme. It's okay, which is about all that can be said for any of the music in this game.
you step into a small, warm tavern.
you were supposed to meet someone here.
why, you don't know either, but you can
feel it calling out to you...
you have traveled to frei dan, a small
town in the center of a large forest.
night has come and you feel weary.
you could no longer stand the callings,
so you left home in search of what this
all means. by following your feelings,
you have ended up in this tavern...
your name is glenn, you're a young dwarf,
no older than 15 dwarf-years. your fine
beard hasn't grown very long yet, but you
still keep it well groomed.
you look around the tavern, you do not see
many people, just a few drunks.
someone sitting at a small table calls out
to you. he seems very familar to you,
but you have never met him. he is like
someone from your dreams. he is dwarf,
too, clad in red. he tells you to sit
• • • • • • • • •
Control is handed over, and the player, a young dwarf named Glenn, is able to explore the tavern before indulging in his compulsion to speak with the mysterious Radux. I love the lighting on the entryway.
There isn't much to see, a few drunks who've had to much mead, a goblet, a painting, and a very quiet bartender. The game funnels you down the path forward with few distractions.
man: hello, glenn.
man: does it surprise you?
man: ah. my name is radux. i've been
looking for you.
radux: what if i tell you.. you
are going to save the world?
radux: hmm. nevermind about that now,
let's have a drink first.
bartender, two goblets of mead.
the bartender quickly fills your goblets,
you stare at the dark liquid in your
radux: well, drink up.
you hesitate.. then, you lift up your
goblet, and take a large sip..
as you swallow the strong drink, your
mind drifts away as your body petrifies.
you fall into a dark trance, as your
mind travels to places unknown...
Glenn is pretty quiet about the strange situation, feeling Radux and him meeting
is no mere coincidence. He accepts the drink of Dwarvish mead, and the game begins...
• • • • • • • • •
radux: this, glenn, is the dreamworld.
far away from where we came from...
the dreamworld is where people escape
to when they sleep, away from the
dark reaches of the 'real'.
radux: the dreamworld is in grave
danger. the real, has taken over,
dungeons formed without reason,
and the creatures de-evolved into
stupid, but more vicious monsters.
yet.. there is one who can stop all
of this, a dwarf, the only real-born
dwarf that is a dream..
radux: yes, i am too, but i was born
here... you, are different.
you have the ability to travel between
dream and reality whenever you want to,
like me, but you can also resist the
powers of the 'real', which i cannot.
radux: descend into the dungeons,
glenn.. i will show you the way..
• • • • • • • • •
Glenn is whisked away to the dreamworld, learns of its plight, and the truth the he himself is a dream. However unlike Radux, Glenn can move between the two worlds freely. His quest is admittedly vague. Glenn needs to save the world but has no real guidance as to what that entails. Is there an enemy to defeat? A crisis to avert? All Glenn knows is that it's up to him.
Coolzx brings us another great art board with this portrait of Radux before throwing Glenn into a dungeon.
radux leads you to a large cave
entrance.. the wind started to blow
softly, then stronger, the
wind is roaring now..
radux: this is the village dungeon,
you will prove your strength in here.
radux: the village dungeon has been
created especially for beginners, such
as you, you require no training.
i will be waiting for you
on the other side of the cave...
...here, take this sword.
you receive a fairly long sword, its
in average condition, and the blade
has been sharpened well.
radux: ...go now. quickly.
you wield your sword, then you cautiously
descend into the dungeon..
• • • • • • • • •
Nothing is really explained here, other than I guess Glenn needing some training to do what he's supposed to do. He's given a sword and a pat on the back and sent into a dungeon to test his abilities.
The game is broken up into a few parts with these nice interstitial boards which play a short theme. They're quite reminiscent of Cannibal Island, but a lot more modern looking. This is some prime silhouette work here, suffering only from the misuse of "descend" instead of "descent" for the title of this chapter.
The first bit of gameplay begins and Coolzx manages to make his dungeon as stylish as the art boards. The use of half-block characters (made of of text) as an outline give things a very distinctive look, and also an excellent job of making navigation easy on the eyes. A lot of ZZT dungeon crawlers (see: Dungeon Master's Gallery or Deceiving Guidance among others) focus nearly exclusively on browns and grays, with everything being as dark and grimy looking as possible. Coolzx's dungeon feels very clean and streamlined, with lots of bright coloring for everything the player needs to take in.
Things are very roguelike inspired, particularly by Thomas Biskup's Ancient Domains of Mystery which is credited for its influence in the credits. (In fact, the "village dungeon" as it's called here is what one of the two first dungeons in ADOM is called as well.)
The ZZT community in the mid-2000s definitely got a little obsessed with ADOM and the latest triumphs and demises of ZZTers' characters were a constant discussion on IRC (much to the chagrin of those who didn't care for the game), but Mead predates that by several years, so it was a pleasant surprise and meant that the ASCII representations of monsters in this game would match a vocabulary I was well familiar with. (Though to be fair, "g" for goblin and "o" for orc isn't exactly ADOM exclusive nor inscrutable to those who haven't played their share of roguelikes.)
But then Coolzx immediately makes up his own non-ADOM enemy instead of calling a green capital-O an ogre.
Though dwarven sausage and large rations are definitely an ADOM thing. ZZT isn't quite up to handling a hunger system, so they serve as a source of healing here.
Combat is the basic "touch them before their code sees they're next to you" which here as in most other worlds isn't very engaging. There's some randomness involved that lets you miss attacks, but everything is out of the player's control so you really just mash into enemies and hope you win before they take off too much health.
The big issue with the randomness however is that Glenn misses when the object is blocked in a random direction, which means in those narrow choke points, against some foes (not all of them have a hit/miss check) it's possible to have a 0% hit rate.
The new foes here include rats, a rat king, and a slightly stronger purple orc known as an "orc scorcher". (Orc scorchers are taken from ADOM. Pro-tip: keep your distance so they throw an orcish spear at you, it's a very reliable early-game weapon.)
In addition to the issue with impossible to hit enemies in hallways, the code suffers a bit elsewhere with minor issues like some random enemies causing messages to pop-up as a scroll rather than a flashing message. At one point I had an enemy throw an error and just stop moving as well. They're some scuff marks on a fun dungeon crawl, and thankfully don't happen with every object.
These two things here are some unique items, the first being a "large meal" that heals 30 health and also results in Glenn finding some gold near it, and a button to open up the gate to the exit.
Again with the cool art by Coolzx. It's worth pointing out that the use of red as a skin-tone is pretty uncommon post-STK. I think it gives the game the look of an older ZZT game while still cheating and using red on dark-red, an STK color.
you walk out of the dungeon..
your heart still beating with the
excitement you had while exploring your
first dungeon... radux greets you just
as the red rain has began to fall.
radux: you made it.
radux: the red rain falls, we musn't
speak long.. reality is coming, and
not taking prisoners. you must go on
by yourself now. reality can track me
down easily, if i follow you, you
will get captured. beware of reality's
servant, bestial, you must defeat him
before facing reality. now i must leave,
the red rain falls, and radux leaves.
you're alone now. the red rain falls,
and you are alone.. the red rain falls..
time must not be wasted, you head on to
your next dungeon..
• • • • • • • • •
The rat king was apparently the boss of the dungeon, but I sure didn't notice. Any hopes of additional training are cut short due to the red rain, a sign that reality is about to strike. Radux can no longer aid Glenn without them being tracked down by Bestial, a servant of reality. There's not really any guidance here. Glenn just gets to wander off in search of the next dungeon, but he has no leads or magical artifacts to collect, it's just the next place to explore for him.
Next chapter, "evil". This time with a picture of Bestial, but one that doesn't quite give all the information as will later be revealed.
Glenn's quest leads him to a... okay I was going to say village high on a mountaintop but then I realized that would be a "high mountain village", a location in ADOM but one that I think is far more likely a coincidence than a reference here.
Coolzx opts to cut the village down to just the essentials, no decorative homes or any implication there's other buildings elsewhere, just the three buildings the player will need to interact with.
There's also a big ominous crack against the wall of the mountain. If you guessed this is a secret path, you'd be correct, but Glenn needs to learn about it for himself rather than letting the player discover it before it can be used.
I decided to check out the church first since it sounded like the most interesting of the three places. Sure enough, it's another pretty board with stained glass windows and some simple but very effective lighting effects. There are a lot of churches in ZZT games, usually in fantasy titles (but of course Teen Priest as well).
It's kind of amazing how much of a mood the lighting gives this church. It winds up seeming very peaceful, but it won't last.
The priest explains the village's decline thanks to some orcs who were too tough for the local soldiers, and sure enough...
...Garlash, the leader of the orcs bursts through a wall and just immediately kills the priest. It's not communicated very well, and I fully expected the priest to be okay in the next scene, but nope, just instant death. Glenn at least gets a chance to defend himself.
Look at this orc! Garlash rules.
While act one focused on dungeon crawling, act two is the more traditional ZZT RPG with a turn based battle borrowing from Final Fantasy's Active Time Battle system. When the relevant meter fills, that character gets to attack.
The battle has a theme song, but it doesn't loop. It's probably for the best as it's only about 12 seconds long.
The choices are the usual two. Glenn can attack with his sword which deals more damage, but can miss. Alternatively, Glenn can just punch an orc for low damage, but always hit. The amount of blood from a single punch sure makes Glenn seem pretty capable.
The sword slash attack makes a quite nice looking slash effect appear.
Garlash's attacks are less notable, just descriptions of using a club or missing. The fight is easy enough, and again, this is to the game's benefit as like chapter one, there's not really much depth to the combat. It's preferable to just make these fights quick and easy so they don't get tedious or frustrating with their limited options.
Garlash is quickly defeated, and Glenn gets his rewards. Unlike Garlash, Glenn shows him mercy and lets him live.
In a weird sort of reversal of the typical fantasy game experience, it's not the priest who gives out quests or important information, but the orc that killed him.
Garlash's quest isn't exactly explained, and all it really is is an optional dungeon to explore, with terrible directions given to find it.
Asking for the way out isn't any help either. Apparently the sword used to defeat him in combat isn't good enough.
Back out in the village, it's time to explore the other buildings. The first of which can't actually be entered, just interacted with. There are a variety of healing options here, all unexplained so you have to either edit the game or just try them out and load your save to see how they all work.
Light - 5 gems, 15 health.
Woundcure - 10 gems, 25 health.
Treatment - 15 gems, 50 health.
Max - 30 gems, 100 health.
Then there's "turpentine" which heals based on your score. I'll go into that one at a later healer when I actually purchase it.
The church looked nice, and I think the stark black background actually worked well with the stained glass, but here things are a lot more bland. The shop sells two different swords which can be examined on the table, and purchased from the shopkeeper.
The names of the weapons are admittedly pretty badass. Looking at the swords on the table only gives you their name and price. There's no explanation for what makes one more expensive and (assumed) better than the other, but Glenn is going to have enough cash to buy SLAYCORE already, even without the money from defeating Garlash.
The strange thing in the corner is a "stuffed lesser-Bestial", so I guess that's what Glenn's next foe looks like.
This secret passage took me a moment to find because Garlash's directions are to move north once, and then east a bunch, but the player will start on top of the passage and be one tile lower. It would've been easier to just say "check the east wall" since there are only a few tiles anyway.
This secret dungeon once again changes the rules of combat, reverting to classic ZZT action, shooting built-in creatures. The walls are made out of doors which is definitely an unusual look.
I think 2000 is probably peak "using anything that isn't an object is bad" for ZZT, so even Coolzx calls it such.
ZZT creature behavior is easily on par with or even superior to the vast majority of object based enemies. Ruffians are a far more dynamic fight that walking into a rat and hoping the random block check is in your favor. The real issue comes from it necessitating shooting, and all the creatures taking one hit. If ZZT's creatures had a modifiable health value, I wonder if the backlash against them would've been so severe.
The dungeon here is extremely short, just two boards, and the second board is just a few bears which immediately make me look sheepish for saying ZZT's default enemies are good because bears are pretty boring on their own.
This is what happens when you let Garlash design a dungeon.
Who'd have thought, the giant crack in the mountain was a secret exit. At least he gives Glenn a key so it's not like Glenn could have just left from the big obvious way out.
The key isn't for a door or something, but for the crack itself! It doesn't lead in, but up, and Glenn climbs his way to the next screen.
The title screen is some simple shaded text with a cup, and a tagline about descending into the dungeons. There's some dungeon crawling here, but unlike Deep December or Psychic Solar War Adventure, Mead has a lot more than just going into dungeons and getting the treasure at the bottom.