Closer Look: Sid's Disaster

Stalagtite platforming in a ZZT game? An engine that's rock solid copes with design that puts a few cracks in this spelunking adventure

Authored By: Dr. Dos
Published: Dec 31, 2020
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This month's poll winner was Sid's Disaster by well-respected and at this point, well-documented, ZZTer Commodore. If you've been following these articles for awhile, or were yourself involved with the ZZT community in the mid 2000s, Commodore should be a very familiar name. His time spent ZZTing resulted in numerous worlds of very high quality. Previously I've praised him for going beyond the expected limits for ZZT in both the RPG genre with Psychic Solar War Adventure as well as in traditional action games with Angelis Finale.

Knowing that Sid's Disaster is a ZZT platformer that received a monthly reward back when it was new definitely got my hopes up. It goes without saying at this point that ZZT is certainly not a medium designed for the genre. Over the years there have been many attempts both in the traditional sense like Freak Da Cat as well as those that take a more puzzle based approach like the Zem! series (and countless other Lemmings clones). Even before dealing with ZZT's limitations in objects detecting other objects, there's the initial hurdle that all ZZT games are going to be alligned aligned to a grid. Combine this with the low resolution of this grid and you're going to really struggle to create anything that feels fluid. Still, if I could put money on any ZZTer of the era to find a way to take such a challenging genre and make something special with it in ZZT, Commodore would certainly be the safe bet.

Sid's Disaster is Commodore's third release to the community and second full game, preceded by an incomplete demo for a Ghostbusters game and a fairly simple (but still enjoyable) The Living Dead adaptation for ZZT. The file's date is less than two weeks after The Living Dead, and between the two, the quality jumps significantly.

Despite this however, Sid's Disaster has a few severe flaws that make it tough for it to share a spotlight with PSWA and Angelis. This is very much an in-between game that bridges the gap between Commodore's humble beginnings, to his rise to a powerhouse of ZZT programming. There's quite a lot to be impressed by here, but still quite a few sticking points as well.

All that having been said, let's get into the depths of how Commodore was yet again setting a new standard of quality for another genre in ZZT, even if that raised bar still falls short of his later accomplishments.

Quick note before we actually start: This article contains several video recordings of my playthrough. Sid's Disaster is definitely a game where going from screenshot to screenshot won't always tell the whole story. I'm also an idiot who forgot to set the correct resolution when I recorded all my footage, so I wound up playing ZZT at 3x resolution (1920x1050) centered on a 1920x1080 canvas which then got down-scaled to 640x350, but means there's some little black bars and it's going to be a tad smooshed. It's nothing unreadable, but uh, oops.


Its title screen is simple, but effective. Some lava is running down a volcano with smoke wafting out. It's a pretty nice volcano really. The text is straightforward, but legible. What's most distinct is the sky blend for the background which looks pretty different from most (eschewing the incredibly common "horizon" blend seen in dozens of tool kits).


As this is a Mirror Image Games title, the first thing after hitting "P" to start the game is this iconic company logo board.


And then a kind of dingy looking menu. In addition to a passage to start the game proper, there are passages both for a brief information board as well as a bonus game that's a Tron themed light-cycles minigame included as well.


The information board will definitely get your attention. The vocabulary for this game is surprisingly immense, and entering this board and seeing little Sids running around climbing ropes, walls, and swinging up ledges can be a little overwhelming. This is no basic ZZT platformer where up jumps and maybe down shoots. Sid is remarkably acrobatic and his skills in navigating the terrain around him make Sid's Disaster immediately impress.

  â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢

    In Sid's Disaster, you must use your
expert climbing ability to negotiate your
way up the volcano to freedom. Unlucky for
you, the magma is starting to churn. It's
only a matter of time before it erupts.

    You start with a limited amount of
ropes. You can find more rope (@) in
different parts of the volcano. You start
with a pistol (⌐) and can find ammo (ä)
usually along with rope.

    As you climb upwards you will need to
use a variety of climbing manouvres. To
bring up a menu of commands for Sid to
use, press the spacebar during play.
  â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢

There's quite a bit going on right from the start with the first scroll explaining that the game is (optionally) on a time limit before the volcano erupts, a rope system, a shooting system, and just outright having a menu to open up to issue special commands to.

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    Sid can climb any normal wall or rope
so long as he has the energy to do so.
Depending on how much wall Sid is
climbing on, the energy drain will be
faster or slower. So long as you have the
energy, Sid can "walk" on any wall. If
Sid falls, he can get hurt. However, if
he has energy and quick reflexes, he can
use the "Grab" command to grab the
nearest wall. If Sid falls far enough,
his speed will be too great to grab onto a

     ▓▓▓         ▓       ▓▓▓       ☻
      â˜»         ☻▓       ▓☻▓      â–“â–“â–“

  High Drain   Low      Slow    Recovery
  â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢

Without a doubt, the mechanic that's the most creative here is Sid's ability to climb. Platformers in the Lemmings-vein such as Scooter may allow for their protagonist to automatically climb up a single tile, but Sid can do so much more.

Anything solid that isn't pointy can be grabbed on to. Sid exerts energy when he's not on the ground, represented by a meter that on this board is replaced with the enemy list. The player has to move quickly and find safe places to rest for a moment when performing larger climbs. That Commodore went so far as to change the speed at which Sid's energy decreases or increases based on whether Sid is climbing a wall or hanging from a ceiling really makes you want to plan out your movements. Of course, normally you're also on a time limit so you can't dawdle for too long.

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    The "Swing up-right/Swing up-left"
commands allow Sid to grab hold of the
rock above him, and swing himself around
to the side. If he were not to swing he
would simply fall.

Swing Command:           Not:

       ▓▓▓                â–“â–“â–“
       ☻▓▓                â˜»â–“â–“

       ▓▓▓                â–“â–“â–“
      â˜» ▓▓               ☻ ▓▓

      â˜»â–“â–“â–“                â–“â–“â–“
      â†‘ ▓▓               ↓ ▓▓
  â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢

Perhaps Sid's most impressive skill is how effortlessly he can swing himself onto a ledge like this. Much of the game consists of swinging repeatedly to make it from the bottom of a platform to the top, laughing at gravity the whole time.


For as acrobatic as he is, Sid's jumping is perhaps he weakest skill. Because the game is so climbing heavy, the up arrow is used to scale walls, relegating jumping into a menu and a fixed arc.


When there are no platforms available, Sid can make his own, provided he's found some rope. The rope system is kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it's very generous. You can throw a rope straight into the air and it will float indefinitely...


...However, the spike objects are very naive. If a part of a rope should happen to be placed against a spike, the spike will detect that it's been blocked, assume Sid landed on it, and end the game immediately.

ZZT lacks a trivial way to tell what is blocking an object unless it's the player. This same problem shows up in Koopo the Lemming with the build command being capable of blocking dangerous electrical currents. In that game, Koopo (the author) has the electricity objects wait a moment and see if they're still blocked after telling Koopo to recoil away from it. If it's no longer blocked, it was Koopo (the protagonist). If it still is, then it's some bridgework.

Although that precise situation doesn't work here, there's still an alternative. By just placing something like a boulder on top of a spike and seeing if it's yellow (if a rope tile was replaced) or not (if it was Sid) would avoid the problem. The featured review of this game makes this same criticism as well. It's definitely a sticking point that really holds the game back.

(And yes, the Sid object would be destroyed and turned into a boulder with this method, but since it's an instant game over regardless there's no issue.)


The scroll ends with a diagram of just how long ropes are. This can be important to know, but Commodore is smart enough to avoid gaps that are just barely too short for a rope, so you can generally go by instinct and just know if a rope will be viable or not.

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⌐ ä

    Shoot enemies to kill them or to
break away certain walls. Ammo is sparce
(after all you are in a volcano) so use it

  " - Bat - Bat's drop rocks on you from
            above and then retreat back to
            their caves.

  â˜» - Hermit - Crazy hermits protect their
               homes with rifles and are
               a good source of ammo.

  , - Frog - Frogs spit poison and hop.

  â˜º - Bigfoot - Bigfoots throw rocks at
                you. They lives in
                confined areas.

  â˜º - Troll - Trolls protect their stash
              by throwing rocks at you.

  â˜º - Volcano God - Don't worry, he only
                    goes after virgins.
  â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢    â€¢

There's a short little bestiary included. The flavor is all there, but most of the enemies feel very similar to each other. I certainly couldn't tell you how a hermit, bigfoot, and troll are ultimately different. It very much might just be how much health they have.

The bats, frogs, and volcano god are much more distinct in action.


Finally, the goal arrow. This is the tile Sid needs to reach to advance to the next level.


Well, that's almost everything. Sid will also find gold and food in the volcano which is never really explained. The various foods restore health, and the gold simply gives bonus points, but chasing high scores means being far more careful with your rope management in order to get into more out of the way places and still being able to finish a level.


Now the game is ready to start. Sid Derbish has managed to crash his plane into a volcano. He survived, but with the volcano ready to erupt his only way out is a rather large climb.


As I mentioned earlier, the race against the clock is an optional component. I would personally recommend playing with it on. The timer is a global one so you need to beat the entire game in 750ish seconds. Honestly, it's fairly generous, but having it there does add a little to the tension and got me to try to avoid pausing and planning a route as it felt a little cheap to do that rather than do it live.


With that one last piece of story, it's time to get out of this volcano. Sid must have done some impressive piloting to crash at the very bottom and not into a wall. There's the smoking mangled wreckage of his plane on one side, and him stuck on the other.

You can also see the game's actual interface. Most of the time the player will be nestled between three arrows for quick access to basic movement and a button to climb upwards. If the actual player element takes a step down they'll instead be able to shoot left or right with the gun buttons and have access to a downward climb as well.

This is admittedly a little clunky having to manage to remember whether the player is in the high position or the low. On more than a few occasions I'd start shooting Sid's gun rather than moving.

Lastly, we also get a good look at the large meter for Sid's energy used when climbing.


If things weren't complex enough, pressing the space bar will open a menu with additional commands for leaping swinging, grabbing, and throwing ropes in three directions. It can be quite a bit, and it's rather easy to find yourself opening the menu thinking you need to open it up in order to shoot when that action has dedicated buttons on each board.

Being thrust right into the game, it can be a little overwhelming at first and quite easy to misjudge how the game works. Unlike most ZZT platformers, Sid's jumping and air control are very bad. He can move a single tile vertically which is meant more to start climbing than it is to jump in the air.

Once Sid leaps via the commands, there's a fixed arc that's crucial to memorize. Early on it's easy to swan-dive into lava until you realize that the majority of Sid's movement is going to be based on climbing rather than jumping.


A second attempt fares slightly better. Another early challenge is getting a read on how much rope you'll need. On the first level there's no idea exactly what role ropes play. Are they get out of jail free cards that are wholly optional? Are they common and intended to be used frequently? Does each stage reset your ropes or carry them forward?

Until you've mastered Sid's abilities, you'll be unsure how open-ended these levels really are.

In this case, I recognized the need for a rope to get back on track after collecting the ammo, but I'm still not expecting the leap command to move Sid upward a tile when he's clinging to a rope or wall. Sid bumps into the overhang and begins to plummet.

This is also where Commodore could score some quick tutorial points by altering the level a bit to provide a free-falling Sid a foothold to grab onto with the grab command. Instead he takes the more punishing approach and if you try to get back without a rope, you're doomed.


Eventually the components click enough to make me way through the level, climbing up the right wall to get more ropes, and using some ropes to get to the platform with some root beer.

Food items don't give score, but do restore health. It's another system that isn't too much of a concern as more often than not, if you jump or fall unintentionally the result is instant death rather than just some damage. Later on enemies can also hurt Sid, but they're hardly a threat unless they're knocking him down from a wall.

What this level does do is introduce the player to the idea that there may be multiple ways of getting through a level with some rewards for taking more difficult paths. At least, I suspect this is what Commodore was going for, but as we'll see, it's not handled that well.

The second level starts promising enough. What would be an impossible chasm in your typical sidescroller is quickly tamed as Sid effortlessly makes his way across the ceiling, swinging his way up as needed to get up where he needs to be.

The second level introduces our first two enemies: frogs and bats. The frogs sit in one place firing on occasion or jumping up into the air and shooting from there. The attacks are random, based on calls checking if they're blocked in a random direction. Their tiny hops make it a little tougher to shoot back at them as Sid can't fire in the air and with some bad luck a frog can leap right over his bullet.

The bats are significantly more dangerous, swooping sporadically from side to side and shooting south as they please. Sid can only shoot to the side, so he has to get up on a wall, ceiling, or rope to take out these foes. The real danger comes from the fact that while Sid will likely be on the ground when dealing with frogs, being shot by a bat often happens when he's on a wall, and being hit will cause him to lose his grip.

If you're fast, the "grab on" command can be used to prevent a fall from becoming fatal.

The bats also help make it obvious that you're playing a ZZT game and not a platformer coded from scratch. It's easy to wind up with a bat directly above Sid, blocking his climb. No problem though. an object is a solid tile as much as a wall is, so Sid can deftly swing himself on a bat just as easy as the underside of the cliff at the start of the level. This is the sort of thing that could be turned into a deliberate solution to a level, requiring precise timing, but thankfully Commodore keeps away from mandating anything this difficult.

In my playthrough I've fallen into groups of bats, but never had the good fortune to land on top of one mid-swoop and get an opportunity to throw a rope or make a leap of faith to halt the immediate fall.

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