PogeSoft's Love Letters
Kudzu is unique. Its presentation - massive monolithic buildings that look like they could have been made out of Lego blocks - and uneasy, dreamlike environment made a deep impression on me. Add to that a scoring system that apparently rewards an inverted morality, and the vaguely religious feel to its ending. I could truly think of this ZZT world as a world rather than a game.
Downloading it from a ZZT website found on Yahoo, where the author typed in all lower cases and was in Estonia at the time (and yet found time to reply to an email I sent them!), added to the feel that it was something truly esoteric.
When I first downloaded Escape from Castle Zazoomda from a Geocities or AOL webpage, this game's use of STK colours made it stand out to me from other ZZT games I had played up to that point. As did the use of Pascal's triangle in a puzzle, which I had just learned about in high school at the time. The myriad musical and graphical touches in this game allowed you to ignore the unfair gameplay and moon logic (you can watch Dr. Dos's stream to see what I mean) and made it memorable even compared to better games from the same time.
As an amusing aside, the title screen's music is a good shibboleth for those who hadn't beaten Town of ZZT before playing Escape from Castle Zazoomda.
Anna Anthropy's Love Letters
I don't know whether Invasion was inspired by Animorphs, the original teenagers-wake-up-and-save-the-world story, but so much about this ZZT world reminds me of that franchise: Young teens caught in the middle of a conflict between two alien groups, trying to deal with the consequences of war. The dialogue glitters with the teen author's personality and interests in the way the most memorable ZZT writing does, and the look of this game is like nothing else in ZZT.
Content warning: Violence against children and animals.
I came of (tween) age reading Young Adult novels that subverted the gender norms of traditional western fairy tales (often by making their princesses more interested in masculine-coded activities, and almost never the opposite). Princess Polyana is playing in that space, one that feels shallow to me now, but when I was a girl, it was the first game I'd seen that was doing so. Boxy neon ZZT boards conceal some genuinely inspired setpieces, like a trip to the astral plane where you can quit your adventure by rejoining the group soul that birthed you.
WiL's Love Letters
Anthony Testa proved his virtuosity with small, cramped spaces in the genre-defining Asmodeus. Sure, it was maybe a bit too tight on ammo, and the levels got a bit samey, but it was clear we were witnessing something different - Testa was forging a new relationship between player and environment, between environment and mechanics, between tone and structure that evoked presence. This was not a random slathering of enemies aping at genre, this was survival horror.
A year later, the protean masterpiece Dungeon Master's Gallery makes it clear that Testa not only could still deliver the magic touch, but that he could sharpen it, develop it, most importantly nourish it into something approaching perfection. In DuMaGa, you feel you fight for and earn every step from one stairwell to the next, but it never feels unfair. Every relationship to the player is carefully refined, from how entering a room reveals it, piece by piece, in the torchlight, to the way that every corridor and cranny has a story to tell. Many ZZTers at their best are charming, entertaining, diverting, illuminating. Testa is spellbinding.
Several times in ZZT's history, a ZZTer has taken a game made by someone else, stripped the paint off, cleaned the oil out of the insides, replaced some damaged parts, and rebuilt it in their own image, either to expand on something in the original they felt showed potential, or pay homage to an early, formative classic, or in the case of flimtown, to use familiarity with the source material as a backdrop to mess with the player's expectations. Four Seasons Revival was the first such game I played (that I know of - even before I played the graphical update to Code Red) and it's always stuck with me. There is a dreamlike quality that permeates the game, and the architectural elements of the original that come through serve to enhance this quality, like the familiar objects that float past Dorothy in the cyclone. The titular seasons are corpuscular and cohesive in equal measure. Overall it remains a true classic in my mind, one of the few games that transcends its medium and one of the best examples of why ZZT is unlike any other gaming community.
Ellypses's Love Letters
First of all.. damn world is saved on the wrong board. Save it to the first board on the file called "Objectives". This particular game has fascinated the hell out of me because it's not quite Warcraft... But due to ZZT's limitations, it's was turned into something completely unintentional.. Rune Factory. No joke. You are a solo worker and you farm and cut trees down, then go into a specific building once you unlocked them then go to each station step by step to process your resources. The mages will give hints about the map and the smithy will supply you with ammo and health once you stockpile food to the max. But once you leave your area, that's where the farm sim and town management ends. You go into a cave to fight for gold. And you have a fortress where you need to eliminate the 'white guys' the king's telling you about. But that's where it ends. You can see that despite the game straying from target expectations, it leads to new discoveries that ZZT is capable of.
It's inspires me that.. as Bob Ross puts it, "There are no mistakes, only happy little accidents". Even if the game is experimental, a deadend or a complete absolute mess, that bridge may become someone's stepping stone to cross for inspiration. Hell, the inventory board from Pepper Bolette is birthed from a non-functioning one that was made just to emulate a console game menu, but I made it functional and took advantage of it.
What this game has in common with old school cRPG is that it makes up its presentation with beautiful written descriptions. At a glance, it seems to be your normal ZZT game of gem and key collecting. But once you start the game, you are welcomed by its literature and instead of moving your smiley through solids and normal walls, you're traversing through caverns and ruins of a destroyed town. And later have your breast blown out by a lightning bolt but that's if you piss off someone you shouldn't but that's another story. There's so much power in both the imagination and in the written language, it takes you out of the visuals of the physical game into actual role play. This game taught me there's more to the experience than graphics alone. To bring out other senses and moods to completely draws you in, don't underestimate the power of literature.
An intriguing intricate puzzle game by WiL is an example of utilizing the puzzle engine to its fullest extent. You guide a ball through a maze by "painting" tools onto the map, spending your points to do so. Once you're done, you set the ball in motion. The bulk of the code in the ball itself tells it to move along the map and detect these tools and react to them according to the powers it supposed to give it. This engine evolves over the course of 4 files, packing over 95 levels til you reach the end of its story. But that's just the stopping point and it could easily continue to have level packs! That's because each of the mechanics remain useful and gets reinforced all the way til the end. When you get to the real challenges, you're already planning on how to complete the level because of how much that it trains you on its mechanics. Nothing is wasted which is in contrast of even current developers' mistakes of shoving a lot of one trick shit into their games and you learn nothing from it. Teach your player how to use a hammer and they'll find hundreds of uses for it. The game reflects that instead of forcing them to discard it once that one achievement has met.
WiL is known for his coding prowess and I think he did a damn great job with this release. In so much I wanted to try that same approach with my engines. That's how my unreleased game "Bust'n Shtuff" came to be.
The "Trippy" Genre
There maybe genres like these outside of ZZT itself, but I feel like this is pretty native to the GCS (or is it IDE? *Shrugs*). The world varies greatly from one another, like exploring an abstract world where you have to discover how things work and function, or leaving you to question WTF is going on... usually both. Or it can be a cohesive or conjoined world with only the randomness element. It gives the author great leeway in experimenting in atypical settings and creating something that goes beyond the concept of "games" and create art that invokes variety of emotions and things. It is then I wrote in my orange notebook one sentence. "What is ZZT?" A question many people have a different answer to, rather it's literal or philosophical. And to me... it's complicated. But it's a liberating question that has me searching beyond boundaries and limits.
I first started playing MZX for only one year and created Pepper Milkcap (the precursor to Pepper Bolette) before the School's computers got updated to Windows XP (which sadly still is today. Russellville don't understand priorities from upgrading shit or having the largest jumbotron in the state). They made sure that...well, kids like me don't load it up full of Diablo spawns, Legacy of Kain and Doom. A teacher there gave me a computer of my own. Dated, but it was full of my stuff that..she doesn't want to toss it. An IBM PS/1. IT DOESN'T RUN MZX. But holy cheese it runs Wolfenstein 3D in neck-breaking speed, and a text base game even FASTER. What stuff? ZZT, baby~ She was kind enough to let me use it while in class after I got done with the lessons before anyone else did. I tried out Super ZZT on other computers. It was windowed and....it was weird... squished and DUMB! It was a freaking downgrade when it was supposed to be super! It scrolls, so what? But it was on Windows 3.1 that I discovered how it was actually intended to play, on 40 x 25 text mode. With only that change I feel in love instantly~. It was just like the computers I had at home, like the commodore 64 and Tandy CoCo 3. And The Big Dragon is one of the many memorable worlds that had made me become an SZZTer (and create the Robby Joe game only to promptly lose it ;_;).
The game itself is... Mario 64 meets Proving Grounds? Each "level" is a challenge and you get a star- er..gem when finishing them. And yes, gems unlock worlds and bonuses on the main map hub and hidden things you can find it as well...
Mmm, I'll stop there. It's my last love letter and I saved it for the love of Super ZZT. It's a different tool and system from regular ZZT that has its own pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages. But I freaking adore it!
RT-55J's Love Letter
The House of Maullar_Maullar
Had this game not been inexplicably bundled with the Mega Man ZZT fangame I would have likely never experienced it. In the game you are visiting the author's house, but in order to meet him you have to brave his comically expensive security system, featuring a brainscanner, falling rocks, missiles, snipers, riddles, an RPG battle, etc, all funded by an advertising partnership with Toxicola (featuring real cyanide!). In the end, you meet the author, who's just some cool cat who likes playing Starcraft.The absurdity of the premise is not paired with a high degree of craft -- this world was thrown together in a day just as a silly joke and little more. Still, whether on account of its strange provenance or my young age at the time, the experience has stuck with me, and if nothing else taught me that a game doesn't need to be especially complex to be effective.
Snorb's Love Letter
The tail end of high school (graduated in 2002) and beginning of college was an interesting time for me: First job (sucked), first girlfriend (mother hated me), first personal purchase of a video game system (PlayStation, which was a good choice in 2003 ), first car (ran like shit), and my discovery that there was a whole community about this silly little game creation system from 1991 (ruled). And one of the games was this dumbass little cinematic game called Daemon Riff.
My then-best friend (drifted apart) and I hung out like, all the time in college (community college) and ZZT was one of our go-tos. This game was short, silly, and, more importantly, quotable. Like, seriously, we'd act out this game out-loud. Verbally. And my parents (both still around, happily) would ask us just what the hell was so funny. Typing this out now, I'm having wonderful flashbacks to acting out Daemon Riff. You know, when we weren't singing the dialogue to Parasite Eve operatically (Squenix ruined it), or blundering through Silent Hill (Konami ruined it), or river dancing to the theme song from Chrono Cross (another Squenix victim).
Our friendship drifted apart. He's a movie critic now (living his dream) and I'm a pharmacy technician (not living my dream) but I still hold this to my heart, because of the memories. It makes me smile. (Plus, "Isn't your mom gonna be pissed that we wasted all this ketchup making a pentagram?" is still funny, 23 years later.)