Closer Look: Dragon Woods

Good ideas and bad execution result in a fun yet flawed adventure in this self-described "comedy-rpg"

Authored By: Dr. Dos
Published: Apr 30, 2020
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I really appreciate Nadir's characters acting the part. Lots of ZZT worlds would go with "you're a wizard so you're shooting magic" and that would be the only way the magical aspects of Lindor would be on display. Having Lindor escape from being tied up via a teleportation spell reinforces his magical prowess while also putting some boundaries on just what he can do. After all, he wasn't able to teleport outside. He's still in danger, but his skills give him a chance to turn things around on his captors.

When I went back to record the video of this scene, I learned that Lindor actually needs to have 25 ammo to be able to cast the spell! If he doesn't... he dies.


There's a whole lot going on during this fight that makes things extremely difficult. This fight is definitely the game's low point as all three of the wildmen move very fast and act very aggressively. One shoots a lot, one turns bullets into stars (and then after a moment erases them entirely [thank goodness]), and one only fights in melee.


The issue is that it's very hard to tell who is responsible for what. After numerous tries I realized the blue one was the one saying they were immune to magic and that they'd be defeated by punching them repeatedly.

The other two were far more threatening though. The one that changes bullets to stars is meant to make it so the player has to shoot carefully and time things out in order to not have their bullets turn around as stars and chase Lindor down. Except the other wildman's strategy is "run around and shoot bursts of bullets" which means that if you're not shooting, there are still going to be a lot of stars.


The cyan wildman who does the burst attack is also immune to bullets, dropping a bomb when they're shot. He takes an excessive five bombs to defeat and so much of the fight is just trying to stay alive, but feeling like you have very little control over it.

Also the gems are protected from being collected by a forcefield, but the bomb explosions will still destroy the gems. Trying to protect the gems is a lost cause and will almost certainly result in your death for easing up on the attack at all.


I did manage to do the fight without cheating, and it was not worth the time and effort. The player is given 200 health and 100 ammo before the fight begins indicating Nadir was well aware how difficult this fight was.

Note that I'm almost completely out of ammo as well. If you don't at least buy some ammo from the shop in Coaster you're almost certainly going to be unable to win this fight.

Oh, and when the fight ends the forcefield doesn't go away. I figured it was a bug, but it's actually a cruel trick where several of the gems are actually objects that chastise you for cheating and kill you if you touch them. You're not supposed to be able to get them.


Next up is a short maze in the dark with some transporters. Fine.


Except for the multiple dead ends that result in the player being trapped and having to reload. Again, you can find this exact same thing in Tseng's Gem Hunter with Shuttle Mesa which has the same poor decision to have these game-ending dead ends.


Nadir is notorious for killing the player if they use the ?-DARK cheat. I hate him for it.


The maze is thankfully pretty short so even with the threat of a reload it doesn't take long to get through. Lindor exits the cave to this pleasant looking night-time scene, but he is quick to point out that it is neither pleasant nor night-time.

So...what next?
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Arghh. That wasted a lot of your time. But
where are you now? you wonder. As you step
out of the cave, you see that it's very
dark out.

LINDOR: WHAT!!? How did it get dark so
quickly? My watch says it's only 3:25pm!
Unless...uh oh. I'm in the part of Dragon
Woods where The Sun Don't Shine.


LINDOR: I'd better get out of here! This
is one of the most dangerous parts of the
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Walking down the path in the unnaturally dark part of the woods, things escalate quite a bit as bloody corpses and heads on pikes decorate the area. Five years later in Frost 1; Power, Penny would venture through a dark swamp filled with heads on pikes and shambling corpses on a board also using the same technique of a background sky taking up the top third of the board.


I laughed. Especially since Lindor had no problems digging through the pockets of a recently sacrificed woman earlier.


At least he's open about it.


The next part of the woods is indeed dark and indeed full of ZZT"s default creatures. Again you can draw a direct line from here to the swamp sequence in Frost with the structure of this board (collecting keys to open up other parts of the room) being replicated in that future game.


There is an irony not lost on me however that Dragon Woods actually handles its action boards better than Frost. The backlash against using ZZT's enemies is coming into full swing around this time and that sign about them is half a joke and half a sort of "ugh I know I shouldn't be using these", but in fact they work quite well!

This is further enhanced by invisible objects that disappear when touched to keep the monsters from roaming all over the place while Lindor explores the board. It means that the fights play out in a manner they're designed for instead of letting tigers slowly funnel down narrow halls where they become easy targets.


Something I haven't seen done before that works mostly well is hiding bears on fake walls so they appear to be solid walls only to attack the player when they get close. Here I was caught off guard by a bear to the north, and though this particular example is a bad one, it's used to greater effect later on.


Here it works a lot nicer since there's some breathing room to let the player react to the walls suddenly turning out to be bears. It keeps the player on their toes and puts them in a situation where they might want to try to shoot the walls from a distance before they're close enough for bears to strike, but risk wasting ammo shooting at actual walls.


A few more pockets get opened before this penultimate door where an object phases in just before Lindor can enter the inner chamber.


Alas the object dispenses trivia questions and the penalty for an incorrect response is instant death.

Question one requires you to be familiar with the ZZT community in 1998. So this quiz is bad is what I'm getting at here.


I guessed "Cantera" entirely because it was the only name I had never heard of before on that list.

The second question is about MZXers and is most impressive in that it (unintentionally, giving the year of release) immediately deadnames multiple trans ZZT/MZXers.


It's always a good sign when trivia questions turn into arbitrary guesses.


And for this one, the only name I recognized was BHirsch13 who was the definitive "annoying" ZZTer back in the day. Seeing as how I knew his name and not the others, I was pretty confident he'd be the correct answer.

And I was right.


This final question is arbitrary as well, but several of the options seem "weird" to me. Rabid bears is a reference to Burger Joint and got me to run to the Museum and break by brain to comprehend this game being released after Burger Joint.

I certainly don't know Tseng's drinking habits, but I'm sure he was still a ways off of the legal drinking age.

I don't know who Dark is, nor the meaning behind "Dal Gren"/"Phish Stampede".


It's "dobermans"! I don't think they were supposed to be feared among ZZTers though, just a ZZTer catchphrase of some old Engrish from a Final Fantasy game. Tseng included it in basically all his games so the influence of Tseng on this game is made a bit less speculative here with Nadir bringing him up multiple times in this quiz.


In addition to the last key and some gems there's also this excellent bonus.


Things return to normalcy somewhat. The action hasn't fully stopped, but the game ditches the more traditional ZZT board design and returns to the horizontal layout with a full moon backdrop.


To the west is this castle which Lindor refuses to enter. Just like the small castle in Coaster my assumption on seeing this one was that it was King Asphalt's, but it isn't. King Asphalt doesn't actually do anything in this game.


The board with some lions gives some information on the castle. It's Castle Ghastle and also gives Lindor some bearings by letting him get back to an area of the woods with sunlight.


What a cute little transition! I love the division between night and day here.


Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.


Oh my god there's so many of them. This is way too many cameos.

I'll level with you. There's almost nothing here relevant to the game. These cameo boards are fun to explore, but offer very little if I'm supposed to include dialog from more than 30 ZZTers. The best way to see this is to just view the board itself in the file viewer (or perhaps going to the board tab and playing this board in Zeta directly as well).

Here is a list of all the cameos in case you're on this board!

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MYTH: Welcome to the ex-ZZTer's table!
Everyone on this table used to do ZZT,
but does MZX now.

LINDOR: I loathe and detest you, Myth.

MYTH: <Taken aback slightly> Oh...why's

LINDOR: 'Cuz Fred! 2 is way too big to
play on anyone's computer!!!

MYTH: Zigactly. That's why I moved to
MegaZeux. You can do bigger games on it.

LINDOR: Oh, that's okay then.
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

This one's a good one.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
LINDOR: Hey there!

ZENITH: Yep, it's me. The author, that is.

LINDOR: Cool. So, are you going to play a
major part in the game, like you did in
Blue Moon?

ZENITH: Naah. I could, but today, I'm
hanging out in the ZZT Bar, where all the
bestest ZZTers go. Look! Cly5m and ZZTurbo
are over there! And over there! It's
Barjesse, getting as pissed as a newt!!

LINDOR: Could you give me a hint?

ZENITH: Yup. GRYBWCP. You may want to make
a note of that!

LINDOR: Wot?? Guhruyubwurcpuh? What do you

ZENITH: Remember it, you'll need to know.

LINDOR: Oh. Okay...
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

Nadir is unsurprisingly the most important person to talk to as he offers up the solution to a puzzle later on.

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BARMAID: 'ere, are you new around here?

LINDOR: Well, yeah. I'm passing through at
the moment, I'm on a quest to find a gem..
<You tell her the whole story>

BARMAID: Well, yer a long way from the
volcano you're looking're on the
wrong side of the woods! The volcano is
south of here. K?

LINDOR: Thanks for your help! I'll
remember that. Also, do you know where the
town of Grapemarket is? I could do with
knowing at the moment.

BARMAID: It's up those mountains to your
east. Be careful, though, there have been
reports of something living there recently

LINDOR: Thanks.
BARMAID: So, do you to buy something?
We sell various things here, not just

LINDOR: I'll buy-

A drink - 1 gem

5 magic charges - 2 gems

3 torches - 3 gems

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The barmaid is also worth speaking to as she provides directions to the volcano where the Minfannon can be found. (Remember that thing?) Plus she serves as a new shop since Coaster is inaccessible.

Buying a drink from her is a great deal as it restores 20 health for a single gem, but she immediately cuts Lindor off after one as if she knows how bad he is with alcohol.

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HM: Yo, I'm HM, the Jurrasic Park ZZT guy.
I've got a no longer random quote today:

"Only two things are infinite, the
universe, and human stupidity, and I'm not
so sure about the former" -Albert Einstein

LINDOR: Yes. Well, I bet you didn't know
that he also said this:

"Knowledge is wonderful: imagination is
even better" -Albert Einstein

HM: Wow...I never knew that.

   HM- The guy who never knew that.
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

And this exchange is just good.

After spending a lot of time talking to people it's time to get back on board with this Minfannon quest.


This signpost puts Lindor just outside of Grapemarket, which was supposed to be the first milestone before being ambushed by those wildmen. Everything so far has just been getting back on track! The quest has hardly started!


Getting to Grapemarket involves climbing the mountain, and I just adore what Nadir did with this. The weird juxtaposition between the slope the player walks up and the diagonal slopes of the mountain that make up the background make this actually feel steep. I'm not sure if it's the angles or that so little of the board is actually navigable space, but this board feels really unusual and in a good way!


Some games would make the player climb a mountain board by board. Nadir wisely takes Lindor right to the top after that single board climb, and good thing because as much as I like the diagonal slope, it does get annoying constantly alternating keys to more north and then east repeatedly in order to ascend. I would hate to do that for several boards in a row.


Grapemarket would be a pretty cool ZZT village with a great view from a mountaintop, but the serene mood is ruined by a person bleeding out and slowly approaching.

That clock tower though.

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LINDOR: Eww...what happened to you?

GUY: <gasp> I...I'm a traveller...<gasp>..

LINDOR: Here, you're bleeding! I'll help
you...I am a wizard...

GUY: No...<gasp>..I'm past help...but you
...<gasp> help...graaaaayy...


LINDOR: He's dead. Must help grey? The guy
must have hurt looks like
something's going down here, and it
stinks. Mmm...
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Despite the dying man's pleas, and his trail of blood originated from the black tower, Lindor refuses to go in because he doesn't have any business there. I guess he didn't actually agree to help.


A similar slope leads back down the mountain. I enjoy the three tiles of visible sky in the top right.


At the base of the mountain is another sign which points out Grapemarket to the west, the beach to the south, and Coaster to the east.

Lindor also has no business on the beach and won't go there either.


He will however go east and wind up wayyyyy back on this board that originally forced the player into the cutscene where Lindor was attacked by the wildmen. You can now travel through this board freely and even go back to Coaster if you wanted. There is a shop there after all, but after the ZZT Bar there really isn't much of a reason to do so. It's also a really long walk. The bar to Coaster is a nine board journey which then has to be done in reverse to get back to the bar and return to questing.


The barmaid did say the volcano and thus Minfannon would be to the south, but Lindor brought up Grapemarket and I made the poor decision of wasting my time going that way first.

This involves getting past a classic Interactive Fantasies bridge troll.

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A troll blocks your way.

TROLL: Duh, You not pass until I get gems.
If you no get gems me make you leak. Duh.

LINDOR: That sounds fair enough. How much?

TROLL: Duh, I make you give me 1,000,000
gems. Duh.

LINDOR: WHAT!? No-one can afford that!!
Well, I can't refuse this troll 'cuz he'd
kill me, and I need to get across, so...
<To troll> there anything else I
could get you instead?

TROLL: Duh...let me think...






TROLL: Duh, well, for a while, uh, there's
bin a mean old man, uh, in Castle Ghastle
wots bin killin' us trolls. If you get 'im
me let you um, pass. Duh.

LINDOR: Can you give me more information?

TROLL: Da man's corled Lord Cracula.

LINDOR: Thanks. Anything else?

TROLL: Me af-er-aid dat's all I know.

LINDOR: K. Consider it done!
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Of course the troll won't let Lindor pass and gives him a new quest. Backtracking to Castle Ghastle and killing "Lord Cracula".

My complaint about the ZZT Dizzy conversions Nadir made has always been how bad the backtracking was. I was always half-hearted about that complaint because that backtracking is a part of the Dizzy games so of course it's going to be in a recreation. Except this game has awful backtracking likely because Nadir grew up playing those Dizzy games and learning it was acceptable. Curse you Oliver twins. Curse you.


The Ghastle looks reasonable at first glance and has that spiffy Interactive Fantasies checkerboard background made out of inverted boulder colors.

Ahh! A wall!
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

WALL: Hey, watch it!


WALL: Duh.

LINDOR: what?

WALL: You need a password to get in, man.
You not know that?

LINDOR: Okay...

<Handy hint: you don't know the password
yet. Ask to the barmaid at the ZZT Bar.>
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

It's never that easy though. There's a very good gag where the player will likely hold right to get across the empty room and run smack into an invisible wall which plays the ZZT sound effect for the built-in invisible wall element.

But no, to get inside Castle Ghastle proper, the player needs to find a password. Time to turn around again.


The barmaid gets a new prompt to ask if she knows about a password and of course she sends Lindor off to Grapemarket.


Now Lindor is interesting in helping.

This whole sequence really sucks? I could've at least saved a lot of time if the game just gated off going to Grapemarket early. Have Lindor refuse to go east or south until he speaks with the barmaid. Have her direct him south. Have the troll say "Yeah save my people, but also you need a password and the person controlling the tower in Grapemarket knows it" and you get the exact same gameplay without constantly wandering in the wrong direction.

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The people inside the cage speak-

WOMAN: Help us!

GUY: Argh!!!

KID: Eek!


Finally, someone explains just what's
going on-

SOMEONE: Okay, you're probably wondering
what's going on here. Well, about 6 months
ago, A tribe of bogeymen came into
Grapemarket. They trashed the place,
captured all the townspeople (that's us),
and kept us for meals. Now, (obviously)
we need help! So save us! Please?!

LINDOR: Okay. It doesn't look like I have
a choice...
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This dialog here is gold and needs to be put in screenshot form for posterity.

"Oh. Sorry."


Despite my grumblings about the run-around Nadir's been putting me on, the black tower is actually a really cool part of Dragon Woods. The actual story is silly enough, but the "Bogeymen" (Whoa hold up, apparently both "Bogey" and "Boogey" are accepted spellings) are a refreshing change of pace for this game.

So just what do I do?
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

LINDOR: So what do I do here?

A VOICE: In this part of the game, you
just go around shooting the bogeymen. K?

LINDOR: And..?

VOICE: A door'll open at the end...


VOICE: By the way...look out for the
bogeymen. They're very fast and very
strong, and they like the taste of human
flesh! No pressure. But you might want to
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

A voice not that Voice explains how the next board works and also does a good job of establishing the bogeymen as being horrible creatures.


This screenshot might not look all that scary, but that's because I had already killed four bogeymen before I had a second to BREATHE and take a screenshot. The bogeymen are as fast as the player, and roughly half of their code involves moving towards the player, with the other half moving randomly.

Technically, this isn't very good enemy design. In fact, in most games I'd absolutely hate these things.

Bogeymen take thirteen shots to kill!

This should be an awful board, but somehow it works. The kind of excessive holding down of the firing button is normally something only seen in ZZT boss fights. Probably more through luck than being a genius, Nadir struck an incredible balance here where the player has the ammo to fire an absurd amount of bullets at these enemies, but not enough for the player to have confidence they'll be able to get through this.


Part of it has to be the layout of the room. Lindor arrives from the south and will be firing east and west in the lower portion of the circle. When the Bogeymen are shot, they're coded to move counter-clockwise away from the direction the player is in. This means they'll probably want to move north and be blocked which lets the player get away with spamming bullets, but it's a really frantic scene, despite the fact that I got through it on my first try and only lost twenty health.


One thing I'm not huge on though is Nadir kind of just giving up and having pop-up messages explain what to do in each room. In this room a message explains there's a hidden switch to find.


Nadir is reasonable and there's not really anything to touch in each bedroom other than a desk.

Touching a bogeyman will wake them up and as Lindor would say, people who do stuff like that deserve everything they get.


Some of the drawers have some pretty good gags honestly.


Finding the button (in the top right room of course) will make Lindor press it and also wakes up all the bogeymen. "Hah!" I thought to myself "They're all trapped in their rooms. I'm safe."

Then the doors were scripted to open and let them loose on me.

Dragon Woods may qualify as the best survival-horror game ZZT has to offer.

On my second try I took advantage of the delay between the button being pressed and the bogeymen being alarmed to get halfway out the door because they could leave their rooms.

That one's on me because of course Nadir would script the Bogeymen running up to their doors and opening them. This is the same person that would have characters pull out chairs in Frost 2, and then have them push them back in when they were done sitting. That kind of dedication doesn't come from nothing.


The dining room/kitchen area is more of the same. A message explains that a hidden lever needs to be pulled. The dining room is the standard fare aside from a whole lot of ugly bogey plants.

The kitchen is notable for being the first instance of the iconic Nadir oven. Nadir is the master of ZZT household fixtures.


The microwave holds the hidden lever, and to no surprise, several bogeymen reveals themselves that were hiding in the plants.


Like the bedrooms, the smart thing to do is start running as soon as Lindor activates the device. Here though the layout of the room makes it a lot more likely that the player will have more things they might want to explore before they reach the lever.


Which is absolutely worth it for this instant game over joke with a custom message that displays endlessly in death.

The final room of the tower is this beautiful looking thing with a single button resting atop a large pedestal. Touching the button causes Lindor to debate whether he should or not, having been trained to associate such things with bringing in bogeymen.

In the end, all that happens is a click, and...


...the password for Castle Ghastle.


The click meant a happy escape to freedom for the captured villagers of Grapemarket.

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