Super Archaeologist SimulatorBy: Commodore
Released: March 03, 2013
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How would you describe Town of ZZT? Not just in terms of genre as to whether it's more "action", "adventure", or "puzzle". I'm asking what the experience is like. You start in the center of a strange town and can pretty much go wherever you like. The boards are frequently single room set pieces often named and by this point pretty iconic to the player base. You don't need to look at titles in the editor to know what somebody's talking about when they bring up the House of Blues, the Three Lakes, or "that awful board with the bombs and stars". The absolute earliest of ZZT games has these iconic boards, but they all exist in a vacuum. You can shuffle around the Zapper from Dungeons and exchange it with Ecch! Bugs! Look out! from Town and neither would feel out of place in its new home.
It doesn't take long in ZZT's history for this type of world where the boards are connected but not frequently cohesive with one another to give way for a more integrated experience. From the Dwarven citadel of Ezanya to the mountain climb of Aceland these games still offer gameplay that may not be out of place in one of Sweeney's original worlds, but are presented in a much tidier package. Of course this design evolves over time as well and by the late 90s it's more expected that a ZZT world is going to try and be a living place with gameplay elements and less of a theme park attraction where gameplay is paramount, and then things are decorated to fit whatever style is necessary.
Follow this path long enough and suddenly nostalgia becomes a compelling basis of design, and that's where this newly featured world Super Archaeologist Simulator by Commodore comes in. In 2013, just making a ZZT world is likely a nostalgic proposition. With the number of releases for the year being in the single digits ZZT is a medium solely for those who want to look back on their pasts. It's fitting then for this game to be so tied to its roots. Super Archaeologist Simulator isn't just looking back to ZZT's early days to emulate them. It's a game that looks to combine that classic set piece gameplay with a modern presentation.
Commodore is no stranger to looking at ZZT's history for inspiration. His 2008 release THE CHALLENGE is a score attack tuned to the high (often unfair) difficulty of ZZT games of the past. It goes for a purism in its design, committing itself to only use editor accessible colors. The thing with nostalgia though, is that our view of the past is rose-tinted. THE CHALLENGE looks to fit right in with ZZT worlds of the pre-STK era, rough edges and all. The text file includes the line "I am not apologetic about [the amount of prefab enemies] or the use of stars". It's true to its source material, warts and all. When it comes time to sit down and revisit the early days, replicating those long forgotten troubles leads to a reality check. It's not that the old is bad, just that seeing such strict accuracy to early game design makes you recognize just how much things have changed over the years. Who's got the time in the present day to spend an hour on a single board?
THE CHALLENGE looks to be almost a practice run for Super Archaeologist Simulator, a comparison I don't hesitate to bring up because it's not even the first instance where one of Commodore's games demonstrates the general idea and then a later release revisits it and polishes it until it truly shines. The same thing can be seen with his 2003 release Wasteland, an open-world (for ZZT) game with quests to obtain, a ruined world that requires resources to survive in, and a story about mankind's attempts to survive lest they face extinction. Fast forward to 2007 with Psychic Solar War Adventure, an open-world (for ZZT) game with quests to obtain, a ruined world that requires resources to survive in, and a story about mankind's attempts to survive lest they face extinction. Commodore learns from his titles and refines them in a way that few ZZTers bothered to do. Sure anybody with a several years long career in ZZTing will demonstrate improvement, but when Commodore's initial attempt gets a spiritual successor, you know you're in for a treat.
Super Archaeologist Simulator is Commodore's final traditional ZZT release. Unlike Psychic Solar War Adventure or Angelis Finale, he isn't elevating an established ZZT genre to a higher level. Here he's taking the core components of ZZT and framing it around a gorgeous presentation. You play the unnamed super archaeologist who ventures out to various treasure laden and trap filled environments, loots everything they can find, and sells it off to the local museum. This sort of Indiana Jones sort of adventurer is about as traditional a protagonist as they come. Parallels can be drawn to lots of fondly remembered ZZT classics such as The Ruby of Resurrection, The Lost Monkeys, or perhaps The Lost Pyramid among numerous others. Not to mention the appearance of such characters outside of ZZT in more mainstream gaming circles. Foundational early video games like Pitfall! and Montezuma's Revenge continuing their lineage to this day in titles like La-Mulana or Spelunky.
So it's not like there aren't lots of ZZT alternatives if you want to raid a tomb for gold and jewels. Twenty years later Commodore adds one more on to the pile. This one is special though: Its presentation is simply unmatched.
By not being afraid of mixing the old with the new Commodore shows us how to use a full color palette not to turn everything into a dingy grimy dungeon, but to build on the bright colorful older worlds and crank up the details. Our archaeologist friend begins in the local museum, picks up a small stipend to fund his first adventure and heads off to the airport where tickets can be purchased to Mexico, Egypt, Greece, and of course Atlantis. Mexico is your first destination thanks to limited funds and a cheap ticket. Technically every area is available at any time as a decent haul of treasure can bring in enough cash to skip a ticket or two, making things somewhat non-linear. The difficulty of each area isn't too far off from one another so if you've got a craving to explore Grecian catacombs over an Egyptian pyramid it shouldn't be too hard to accomplish.
Inside these levels you'll find Commodore has taken great lengths to make sure that these boards can't be simply shuffled around. This is especially true of the catacombs whose backgrounds are littered with statless player clones to represent the bodies in the walls. The Atlantian fane is filled with strange technology. The Egyptian pyramid has large depictions of pharaohs and jackal-gods. When graphical capabilities allow it, these tomb raiding games love to show off some of the splendors of the ancient world, and it's quite surprising just how much Commodore is able to capture that sense of wonder within ZZT. There's a sense of majesty in these boards that 20 years earlier would've mostly played the same as they do here just far more crudely with regards to their beauty. Without a doubt this is best showcased in Greece where after numerous dark and cramped catacombs the player will reach a massive statue of a woman that's nearly as tall as the entire board. Commodore nails the presentation further here by using a sideways perspective on the board, purposely preventing the player from moving anyway other than left or right which gives a great sense of just how large this statue is meant to be in comparison to a person.
There are some little touches that help build the aesthetic nicely as well. Lots of gray forests to represent cobwebs being brushed away or overgrown vines taking over the place. Commodore has a lot of fun with the non-playable spaces of the game. Backgrounds can be intricate patterns or some original scenery. One board in Atlantis features a school of fish in the background blissfully unaware of the silhouette of a much larger one lurking nearby.
Of course, the artwork is only part of the experience. The actual gameplay is quite strong as well. Most enemies are simple built-ins which Commodore demonstrates a mastery of. Ammo and health is adequate, but open spaces can make it difficult to actually hit your foes. Sometimes you'll be trapped in a room until all the enemies are defeated or a puzzle is solved. Most of the time if you're feeling overwhelmed you can head back to the entrance, hop back on the plane and return to town where a hotel can set your health to 100 or 250. For ammo and torches a nearby store can get you back on track in terms of supplies. One purchase of a large ammo pack will likely keep you set for the rest of the game.
That same store also sells some more unique equipment that could prove rather helpful. A translation device will allow the player to read any glyphs and comprehend any non-English speakers they might happen to run into. For those looking to tame the combat a little a magical amulet will turn any bears into gems. (Take note though that bears are the rarest enemies to come across.) Perhaps consider a holy cross to make sure the dead stay dead before delving into a skeleton-filled catacomb as well.
Perhaps harkening back to the score attack design of THE CHALLENGE, Commodore opts to use score rather than gems for currency. This has the advantage of giving the player cash for defeating non-object (and object) based foes, and provides a bit of a bonus incentive to try and collect every single gem. (A hidden board includes an object with a list of gem totals for each area and the grand total.) This is just an added bonus for those willing to go all out in their playthrough, though do be warned Commodore mentions in the game's text file that if you're too stingy with buying things that it is possible to roll over the score counter.
Super Archaeologist Simulator hardly takes itself seriously. Since the levels themselves are the main highlight of the game, the town in turn gets to be pretty silly. Before boarding a plane to each level you'll have to move through airport security. Your gun will of course set off the metal detector every single time causing a siren noise to play before each flight while the nearby guard sleeps on the job. The player has a love interest in the hotel who is simply named "Love Interest". She describes herself as "custom built to kindle implacatable desire in your fickle, testosterone-laden organs". Give her a present and a diamond ring and she'll become your wife. Romance. The less interactive NPCs around town can get even sillier. A child talks about the importance of loading up on supplies before heading out before quickly swearing that the person who runs the store is not his father. There's another great gag with an assistant at the museum you sell all your ill-gotten goods to when you buy a magic hammer from him and then end up selling him a freshly carved Venus D'Milo.
The lighthearted nature of the town makes it fun to poke around in. Commodore is also quite happy to reward exploration and interactions as well with secret boards not just in temples, but around town as well. You'll be quite surprised at some of the more esoteric things Commodore was willing to program in for players who really want to try everything. The game provides two endings, but each of them have a little bit of variety depending on certain actions the player takes which is a fun way to encourage an extra playthrough over just taking a look at the internals and seeing everything you missed in your own playthrough.
Secrets within the levels themselves are handled nicely as well. There's quite a bit of getting "out of bounds" so to speak. Keep your eyes peeled for anything that looks out of place. This is a ZZT game more interested in using fake walls to hide hidden passageways rather than relegated them to the role of a floor tile. If you have a moment to breathe during an action sequence, you may even catch an enemy revealing a path for you. What's really great is on occassion when some path is closed off behind the player only to make you discover that there was a fake passage the entire time. If you know these passages are there you're free to take them, but because they blend in it's easy to not notice until you're forced to.
There's more to the design of Super Archaeologist Simulator than just classic action and puzzles with some excellent artistry. Being from 2013 Commodore knows plenty of tricks and uses them, often subtly enough that if you're not looking closely you might not think twice about them. Several boards use the trick of putting a player clone on the border of a board to warp the player to a specific point when entering a board. Some boards will try to make use out of tweaked built-ins, most notably a board full of diagonal blinkwalls. The Greek catacombs are mostly dark, and make use of the Kangaroo Effect to let the player see a rough outline of where they're heading. Attention is never called to these details, and to those not familiar with ZZT's mechanics its very much possible to think nothing of them.
As you'd expect from a game about looting ancient temples, the architects of these places are not amused at the idea of their culture's treasures being pillaged. Beyond the direct approach of enemies to shoot Super Archaeologist Simulator is loaded with a variety of puzzles to really make the experience a unique one. There's the "Traveler's Curse" in Mexico where each tile stepped on turns into a solid wall forcing you to find a route an collect numerous keys. In Egypt there's a very clever puzzle where different colored boulders are turned into conveyors and you have to find a way to route another boulder to a target. It's a lot of fun, though a bit inconsistent as which conveyor gets priority will depend on what game tick you activate the device on. Puzzles feel fair and aren't overwhelming. Careful though! Commodore takes the more traditional approach of providing warnings to save before taking on a puzzle and isn't afraid to just let the player soft-lock themselves and have to restart if they make a fatal error. Some puzzles could have done with a reset button instead, but not all of them could potentially reset easily.
These are more of the bigger puzzles. The kind of things that have an entire board dedicated to them. The temples aren't without smaller traps to disarm either. Often times setting them off is mandatory to proceed so don't be too surprised if you need pin down a moving sentry gun, outrun a spiked wall, or just defeat all the enemies in a room. A lot of these are pretty traditional temple-fodder you'd expect in any game with this theming which makes many of them pretty obvious. You'll never believe what happens when you pick up a key off a pedestal in a room full of statues that look like lions and tigers. The basic elements of ZZT lend themselves quite nicely of course to mazes of boulders and some simple pusher and slider mechanisms to untangle. You should always tread carefully through the temples lest you get yourself stuck! For those who get queasy at slider puzzles there's no real need to fear. They're all pretty small contraptions. Any rube can get through them without too much effort. They're a small component and never will you find yourself spending the entirety of a board unraveling one.
Overall, Super Archaeologist Simulator is an exciting adventure from start to finish. Commodore is no stranger to quality ZZT games and for those who want to scratch a nostalgic itch without being reminded of the blemishes common to early ZZT worlds, this one is a no-brainer. If you don't have any nostalgia for older ZZT worlds don't overlook this one! Combining classical design with modern sensibilities, Super Archaeologist Simulator provides plenty of fun and can just as easily serve as an introduction to the appeal of early ZZT worlds even if you won't be reloading a saved game as frequently.
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