Nuclear Madman

Jan 8, 1996
25.9 KB
29 / 49
No rating

Closer Look: Nuclear Madman

Recover the stolen nukes! Step one: Visit the water park

Authored By: Dr. Dos
Published: Mar 15, 2021
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Why did I pick Nuclear Madman to put on the Closer Look poll? It's a no-name release by an author who didn't publish anything else. It brings nothing new or innovative to ZZT, and everything it does has been done better in other worlds. It's a very generic adventure that isn't going to wow anybody, and to top it all off, the game suffers from a pretty bad lack of health.

But I picked it because I played it as a child.

I didn't pick it thinking "Oh that Nuclear Madman game was a favorite of mine. I'd love to revisit it." No. I had entirely forgotten ever having played it before. Instead I ran a few roulettes to brainstorm some ideas and the title caught my attention enough to pop it open in the file viewer. It slowly came back to me, still not enough to remember what it was like, but the moment I saw the waterslides I knew I had played this one, and was really curious what I'd remember, what I had forgotten, and if there was good reason that I had forgotten about it.


Nuclear Madman

By: RobertCane
Published Under: ShmorgasSoft
Released: January 01, 1996
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So yeah, this one isn't going to be all that great. It's not exactly cohesive, but it definitely would have hit that idea of humor for me as a 10 year old playing it, and I found myself still smiling at some of the gags.

It starts out pretty ambitious though! Its opening title screen is definitely well-crafted and there's a lot of effort put into it. The music has a good riff and I found myself going back and humming it while playing the game itself.

It's got a very optimistic plot-line where the United Nations decides to finally disarm all nuclear weapons and jettison them into space, ushering in a new era of peace. (Though this being done by amassing a intercontinental army makes it almost sound like something out of Metal Gear Solid.) Tragically, someone has somehow captured the ship and now controls the planets' former nuclear arsenal.

The animations are rather impressive with a lot of dynamic changes to the board making very good use of the limited space being shared for every frame of animation needed. I kept thinking each change would be the last only to be proven wrong multiple times.

I actually started the game before watching the entire sequence until I went back to record the video. There are a handful of ZZT worlds where lingering on the title screen (or on cinematic boards) after the show's over will result in the author yelling at the player to hurry it up already. Actually seeing the full sequence from the start like this does a great job of setting the tone this game will have.


When this pops up you get a much much better idea of the overall quality this game is going to have. It's a COOL game. The madman has four bases with henchmen working for him and they need to be stopped first.

It all seems like it might be a ZZT action game inspired in some ways by the Mega Man series of traveling to these locations in any order, fighting a boss, and then taking on the person behind it all.

Alas, that's not the case. This is actually the first part of a series which never had subsequent releases, so only one base is available and there won't be any closure.

This just in!! An unidentified space
shuttle has been identified orbiting the
planet!! There has been transmissions from
the ship that say that it is armed with a
nuclear bomb! The captain of the shuttle
says that he will detonate it over the
United nations if he does not recieve all
of the gold from Fort Knox in two weeks!
He... <ZAP>.

I better get to the teleporter to see if
I can stop this guy!

The game begins in a rather dismal looking house where the player learns about the nuclear madman and immediately decides to do something about it.

Already the game does something kind of amazing, in that it's possible to stand where the red key spawns in and block it, preventing you from playing the rest of the game.

I definitely did this and had to restart immediately.

Nuclear Madman desperately wants to be a grand ZZT adventure with a massive scale to it. The game is meant to be split across four areas with distinct henchmen to fight in order to gain access to the madman's secret base and defeat him.

The use of four different keys would imply there was a set order to this. However, as you'd likely expect this game is not that large. Only the waterpark is actually found in the game, and no known sequels exist that feature other areas.

Luckily for us, as far as places I'd like to see a young game developer create in ZZT, the water park definitely sounds the most interesting to me.


The game really nails that early STK aesthetic where special colors are used, but there's no real attempt at shading. It's the sort of thing that makes games of this vintage always look a little drab as suddenly everything goes from bright and colorful to this muted look.

The player is quickly funneled down a narrow path so an object can activate, blocking off the exit and trapping the player inside the waterpark. It's not very threatening since this is where the player deliberately wanted to go in the first place.

The first order of business, is to purchase a ticket.


I love the way this game is written.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    • such as maps, wagon rentals,
or even our new...

I SAID shut UP.

...electronic radio devices which can tell
you about many things, including...

Look. I'm trying to be NICE here. Do I
have to SHOOT you?

...the origins, creators, and fun of a
certain part of our...

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

It's a time-honored tradition in ZZT for the protagonist and their allies to shoot whoever they like whenever they like and suffer no consequences for it, and Nuclear Madman is no different in that respect.


Cane's game feels very much like a textbook ZZT adventure, and it sticks to the tropes just enough that whenever he does deviate from it to try and be funny, it frequently works.


It's hard to not love.

The two employees actually take a moment and decide to go into early retirement and run away from their posts and off into the distance leaving the player free to enter. The money's already been exchanged so no free passes or anything.


The waterpark is arranged around a central hub with three paths to explore. There's this one lost patron who wanders around and heads north, commenting on not knowing where they're going.


Except all the paths have these big signs. I suppose the purpose of this lost fellow is to make the player interested in following them, which normally would have worked on me. However, seeing the sign for the sideshows brought up some really vague memories and I had to see if it was like I remembered.


I love these circusy looking designs for the buildings! They're really unlike anything else and do a great job of capturing the colorful patterns you'd see in such a place, ASCII or no. This especially applies to the one made of cyan pushers. You never come across things made out of triangles in ZZT where everything is composed of rectangular tiles.


Although these buildings all hold sideshow attractions, each one is mandatory as eventually the player will discover that they need to open seven doors, one of each color, before they can confront the madman's henchman.

As much as I love Nuclear Madman's unique design and sense of humor, the actual gameplay is going to be pretty forgettable. The game is far from the worst I've played, but the mechanics the game offers do little to keep you interested. There's a reason I forgot about the game for twenty-some years.


The top building holds a safe cracking game. After paying the rather large 50 gem fee the player gets to hit the six buttons in the proper order to unlock the vault. There are no hints, and a wrong guess results in the player losing ten health. So yeah, this isn't very fun. It's purely a guessing game.


Once the vault has been opened, the player is free to collect the white key. You could simply figure out the combination and reload the save, inputting it flawlessly, or you can embrace randomness and try and get through the rest of the game after losing 120 health like I did.


The next sideshow is a bit more of your standard ZZT fare. It begins with a simple transporter maze, which once escaped leads to an open area filled with creatures and gems. In order to reach the proper end, every last gem has to be picked up. On the bright side, I definitely needed the health after opening the vault.


But first this helpful hint is provided.

I was disappointed to find out that while he is coded to react to shooting him, all it does is says "Big Mistake." and triggers a game over. I figured there'd be some kind of explosion effect or something.


Saying you'll hurt the man results in the same message, so the only way forward is to ask for the key which makes the man disappear, leaving the key forward behind, and then reappear at the end of the transporter maze portion of the sideshow.


Just inside is this other scroll that explains the actual goal of the board. I'm really amused that it's presented like this because with how slapdash this game is designed I genuinely would believe that the author added this in at the end after realizing that he actually never did explain what to do here.


Calling it a "transporter maze" is being very generous as only two of the sections that make up that half of the board offer a choice of where to go next.

The gem collection process is a lot more involved as there are so many enemies. The gems do offer plenty of protection, but this is one of the few moments in the game where the player can actually gain back some health so I found myself wanting to be very cautious with my shooting so as not to shoot and destroy any gems by mistake.


While it's not much of a challenge either, it does get a bit tedious. This is mostly due to the imbalance in ZZT between health from gems and damage from enemies. There are a little more than sixty of them which means sixty health to gain back, but every hit is going to take away ten health making a pretty big dent into what's a rare moment of generosity.


The key is acquired and the panic room opens up. The player can request what they want, but unfortunately everything but "a key" leads to the same outcome. I like when games offer a bunch of choices and produce different results if if they ultimately end the same way, though in ZZT that means lots of saving and restoring or (as I did) looking at the code later.


By the way. Did any of the scrolls mention
that he could blow HIMSELF up?



The other requests are just more ways to end the game prematurely. At least the details as to how the game would end were unexpected?


He's pretty chill about it at least, and hands over the.. red key. You know, the same color used at the start of this board. (Though with the cost of admission for a lot of things, you may still need to complete the board to get some gems.)


If you speak with him after getting the key you can end up getting a bunch of ammo and gems, so it's definitely worth actually playing through this board rather than trying to take the red key at the start and running off with it.


The third tent sadly breaks the consistency they've had with their interiors sharing the look of their exteriors, which comes at no surprise since pushers are going to use up stats and there's no way to make a decently sized room with them as a border.


This game really wants you to save and restore every time you make a mistake. The vault will destroy your health, and the shooting gallery demands some very high accuracy. The target moves back and forth at a slow and steady pace which does turn it into a game of skill as you have to figure out how to lead your shots to hit it as it passes over the center column.


I missed the first two shots, but actually managed to get the final three to land. I was quite surprised that I managed it. With a bit more leniency, either giving more shots or allowing the player to play again (at a less steep price), and I think this would be a reasonable, if not particularly entertaining, challenge.


The next sideshow actually has a proper barker. It looks like it's going to be another action gauntlet with some lions, duplicators, and tigers.


Strangely, this one has no admission cost. The "puzzle of death" can be enjoyed by all.


Aw beans. I suppose it should've been obvious that this was going to be an invisible maze since otherwise the lions behind the duplicators would have been moving around.


And this is when the cheats come out. Combat in invisible mazes is always such a pain.

It certainly doesn't help that all the tigers throw stars. They have a fairly low firing rate, so it's about as "fair" as it can be, but that doesn't make this any more fun to navigate.


A pretty good amount of cheating is needed to make it to the key and back to the entrance.

That's the last sideshow at least. It kind of ended on a bit of a bummer.

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