Smash or be Smashed

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Closer Look: Smash or be Smashed

Plans for an open-ended barbarian adventure get smashed to pieces by bugs and general incompleteness

Authored By: Dr. Dos
Published: Jul 31, 2022

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Stepping inside the temple the game switches to combat mode once more. Again Nivek uses grays and blacks to create some environments that are ultimately a bit bland. This time though, the combat shifts in a way that really benefits the game.


There's still a lack of detail. Stepping into the one populated (and unlocked) room in the entrance board causes them all to begin attacking in the exact same move randomly once, move towards the player once pattern that has so far resulted in pretty forgettable fights for a game named after a violent philosophy.

But this time it works! It works rather unexpectedly well and better than a ton of object-based action sequences I've played over the years.

The reason for this?

This may be the first time I've come across a game where the objects use bullets but the player does not.

It's a running joke how often when I play boards like this I just ignore the enemies entirely until they all shoot each other to pieces, doing 90% of the work (if not more) for me. Friendly-fire is a tremendous benefit for the player that undermines so many fights when the game is designed around both the player and their enemies shooting bullets (arrows, lasers, whatever) at each other.

The alternative, and what we've seen in the cave section earlier, is to make the player and objects both fight hand-to-hand. In close quarters the player usually can't get away with just ignoring enemies entirely and has to get their hands dirty. It's tried and tested, and while some authors do a better job than others, pure melee combat can definitely be an engaging experience. The dungeon crawler genre tends to swear by it, making ranged attacks a limited to resource to conserve or ditching ammunition entirely.

But this is the opposite of the norm. Here the enemies have ranged attacks while the player is forced to get in close. This is the barbarian style. This is smash or be shot. Since the player is never allowed to shoot bullets, there's no need to code objects to be shot by them meaning that friendly fire is simply non-existent.

The end result is that even against a few identical enemies in a dull room, it's a lot of fun to run around to anybody nearby and smash them good! Now when enemies go after the player the only one who will suffer if they're left alone is the player themselves. As Aghar finds himself getting cornered by a group of foes clustered together, he can't be sure who is about to move again and who is about to fire a shot. It makes the fight feel like you're really going on an all-out offensive push and are strong enough to take down all these guards armed with arrows or magic or whatever it may be.

So it's a lot of fun, it elegantly mitigates a major issue with countless action games, and it fits in perfectly with the game's theme. Of course this buff barbarian can take on a bunch of weaklings without breaking a sweat. Aghar strong. Temple warrior weak.


It's a shame that the clever design seen in combat doesn't carry to much else in the game. What does Aghar get for his troubles? Absolutely nothing. Despite the various locked doors in the temple not one of these warriors dropped a key or other item. It's all smashing for the sake of smashing, which is a totally valid way to make a pure action game (I would know!), but there is a story this game is trying to tell and all too often it doesn't get be a factor in anything the player gets to do.


The left side of the template is at least a little more developed. A door to a library has a nice animation of swinging itself open that I was expecting from a multi-character door versus the stock door object used in countless worlds.

Inside is a mountain of books to read with the intent being that just two of them have relevant information while the rest are disregarded by Aghar. Amusingly, due to the way ZZT's parser works, the extra books that are run #bind book wind up bound not to @book, but the single important book named @Book of Shadows. This results in one "Nothing Aghar need." message (from the actual book object) and a good twenty or more copies of the Book of Shadows.


Literacy comes in handy, even for a barbarian. This ritual serves as the hint for how to solve a puzzle on the other side of the temple.


And this diary gives a bit of information on what's going on in this template: rituals are being performed to summon powerful beasts. One has been summoned so far, but isn't enough to fully accomplish their unknown plans. In the meantime, an alliance was formed with one of the barbarian tribes (Tooth Bird obviously). So now at least it's clear why Tooth Bird has been attacking the other tribes as well as why there were people speaking in more complex sentences until they realized they were being overheard.


The other door is pre-smashed? I'm not entirely sure what the brown objects are meant to be. They can be navigated around (as all the walls above doors are just fakes to keep a clean shape to the rooms while allowing the player to step inside them).

More importantly are these sort of energy beams that endlessly bounce side to side. They're serving as some form of security as getting in the path of one results in losing ten health. There really isn't much you can do to get past them safely as they desync almost immediately. Luckily this game hasn't made health an issue, so a few beams aren't that threatening.

All of this is to get into a room with a lone enemy. You might think they're somebody important who might say a few words to Aghar, but no, it's the silent treatment time and time again. If you have a guess for what their combat loop is like then you're probably right. They differentiate themselves by being stronger, needing a whopping five smashes to kill before they drop a key needed to get into the rightmost chambers of the temple.


And here's the requisite element-based puzzle. The key is protected and the four surrounding rooms each hold a thing to represent the four elements.


Credit where it's due, this little text avoids the words fire, water, and air. (Should've used "ground" for earth though.) This isn't much of a head scratcher of course, but it means you do at least have to connect that these events map to the elements. The book of shadows meanwhile provides the critical information of which of these gray squares represents which element.

My complaint (there's always something) is the utter lack of feedback when you touch any of these elements. I get that having a tone play or the object change character when the proper one is touched would make it easy to just brute force. I don't get the lack of "you touch the slab" or whatever. It meant that until I touched the fourth object, I wasn't actually sure if I was doing it right.

Once the correct combination has been entered, the walls turn into fakes allowing Aghar to grab the blue key inside and head deeper into the temple.


I do want to point out that the blue key can only be used on this door as the other is arranged so the door element is on the inside. It's an easy way to communicate to the player that they can't actually get inside while keeping the door stylistically the same as the others. Still, I wish I could get at the goodies inside.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
What? Who in the mighty one's name are

Me Aghar! Me quest stop many big evil!

Oh. Really? Well then, Aghar. I guess
you're here to slay me then. You'll never
stop me. You see I've been summoning what
you call the "many big evil" to this land.
Each time I summon them they stay on this
plane for 24 hours. If you kill me they
stop coming... but I've made sure you

Aghar smash you!

Fool! I've told you can't! I am enchanted
with strength to match any of you savages!

You no match Aghar! Me big barbarian!

Hmm.. you are rather large there. But I
doubt you can stop me with your pathetic
axe. My ritual dagger is wickedly sharp.
You'll soon feel it's bite. Fool.
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

Finally, some dialog!

This unnamed individual is the villain responsible for the summonings. They're way too open about how killing them will solve the problems the barbarian tribes are dealing with. Lying would probably work, or at least buy some time. Aghar is probably not the sharpest crayon in the box, you know?

The big baddie instead runs off to the table and does grab their dagger off of it. A nice little touch before the fight begins.



Yes, after the fun of beating up a bunch of guards despite being severely outnumbered, Nivek returns to his roots with a very simplistic RPG engine.

This engine is arguably the least Nivekian thing about Smash or be Smashed. Compare these little guys to the lovingly drawn portraits of Defender of Castle Sin and you can see what a downgrade this is.


Sure, it's got animation. Aghar swings his axe and the villain stabs with their dagger. Blood splatters. It's just extremely samey. Every attack plays the same animation with the only differences being the odds of hitting and the amount of damage dealt. Again, this compares poorly to Castle Sin where a variety of spells are available with different accuracies, damages, and MP costs that do a much better job of offering up some choice in how to approach a fight.

This is just the usual low-accuracy + high-damage, high-accuracy + low-damage with the addition of "medium-accuracy, medium-damage". There's no healing, no status effects, nothing to make the fight feel interesting. It's specifically this engine that makes me wonder if Choco is indeed a separate person from Nivek.


When the fight is over, the villain just dies on the spot and Aghar leaves. That key isn't even important! It's just an object to have there be something else on the table.

It's not satisfying. It's quite disappointing after the initial group of warriors gave me hope the game was finding its footing with some enjoyable combat.


I figured I should tell the chief that the day was saved, but there's no time to celebrate as Tooth Bird is attacking. I mean, they're not, the village board remains identical to how it was previously, but Aghar is needed at Tooth Bird's village to fight in a big battle over there.

If Aghar helped Tooth Bird earlier, there's an extra line where he's annoyed that they attacked his tribe after he helped them. There's just no pleasing Tooth Bird.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
Me kill Many big evil. It no bother you
no more.

This good. You friend Bear Smasher Tribe.

Tooth Bird Tribe attack Big Axe Tribe.
We fight Tooth Bird now, like Bear
Smasher Tribe fight them.

We allies now. Fight Tooth Bird together.
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

If Aghar didn't help Tooth Bird, and doesn't mind a brief detour, he can head west and speak with the Bear Smasher chief to arrange an alliance and help in the fight against Tooth Bird. This too is optional and Big Axe can fight alone just as well.


Heading to Tooth Bird's village will cause a group of previously hidden objects to reveal themselves and block the entrance. A passage is revealed in one of the trees (that this time can't be entered early) to advance to a battle cinematic. The alliance with Bear Smasher is reflected here by additional barbarians showing up, though their presence has no impact on anything here or afterwards.


The battle scene that follows is unintentionally hilarious. This isn't a big choreographed battle between two barbarian clans. This is a bunch of objects coded to move randomly and bleed randomly. Very rarely do they get anywhere near each other. You might be able to pull this off if the enemies were in a much more compact space. As it is, the illusion of fighting is not working at all.


There are the flat faces I'm so used to in Nivek's games. It's Aghar vs. the Tooth Bird chief for the final battle as everybody else is too busy bleeding.

Aghar's pants have a void behind them where grass was mistakenly not filled in.


The interpersonal drama isn't much to write home about. Though if Aghar did kill the Bear Smasher chief earlier there's a slightly more dialog about the betrayal and how Tooth Bird considered Aghar to be a pawn the entire time.


It couldn't end any other way really. It's the same engine seen in the temple, but this time the enemy has a bow and arrow instead of a dagger.

One tedious fight later and it's all over.


After the battle the village is empty except for one man, the chief of Big Axe.


This is the end of the game, which was mostly spend wandering around aimlessly. The only thing Aghar needs to actually do is talk to the chief, go clear out the temple, then fight this second RPG battle and the game just ends. There's at least an opportunity to keep on questing. I've barely seen half the boards in the game by this point so it's certainly appreciated, although once you ally with Bear Smasher everybody in that village vanishes to go to the battle, and obviously there's nothing to do in Tooth Bird's village now either.

Still, those areas are done with. I can get to the ending when it's actually time to end the game.


First thing's first: Buying a canoe. Despite having done everything that can be done without it, I'm still a gem shiny rock short. At this point I was more than happy to just cheat for the cash. In practice, getting the canoe legit requires either killing the Bear Smasher chief or getting every other shiny rock in the game. I believe in my case the issue was that I started the game over early on to see what happened if you went to the hunting grounds without the quest. That quest provides a single shiny rock. Other than that though, the platformer board where Aghar climbs out of the pit has two exits, one of which has a shiny rock next to the exit. There's no way to tell that there's any difference between the two exits so it's a 50/50 shot. (The right path has the gem.) The other seven come from finding Glokar's bones in the same cave.


Areas only reachable via the canoe are obvious enough for missed content, though in some cases I just happened to never go to certain boards. This place where the river splits has some bushes with berries that can be reached at any time. You can pick them for: nothing. No health, no flag, no points, nothing.

This is going to be an ongoing theme for what I missed in my initial adventure.

Heading south from here leads to an infinite loop of river which has no real reason to exist. Even though the water cuts off some of the lower parts of boards along the river, they don't contain anything and a forest blocks off traveling to the east regardless. It's nice that the split prevents the player from going around the river to a lengthy dead end, but just one extra tree would have done enough to block off the region without this weird invisible barrier.


Follow the river east and Aghar can get inside the forest thanks to a nearby dock. Here a more natural barrier is used to dam the river and expose the riverbed. It's more aesthetically pleasing and feels like a far more natural way to stop Aghar from moving beyond a certain point.

The forest has its own share of berries as well, this time they're very colorful and come in a variety of sizes. Even though they're much more interesting, they too do nothing when collected.


Queue a few boards of forest. This one stands out as a hidden object sparkles on occasion requiring the player to find a way inside. The solution is a rather dull "oh some of the tree's leaves are made of fake walls". It's very arbitrary and not satisfying to find, much like the specific tree trunk that the rope could be tied to earlier in the game.


Aghar doesn't quite know what it is, though a flag named emerald is set. This does not count as a shiny rock.


The forest offers a little more if you're willing to navigate it's maze-like design.


More Tooth Birds! I can't complain about another opportunity to do some smashing.


Killing them all will cause another hidden item to begin sparkling. An animal claw that sets yet another flag.


Then there's the part of the forest east of the dam. This one has a few objects that are all visible, though not sparkling. It can be easy to overlook one of them.


Another item is Aghar's for the taking. The other two on the board can't actually be reached from this side of the forest.


Actually getting around to the other side of the trees is a pretty big effort. It requires paddling north to the canoe's initial dock, continuing, taking a path to the east, heading all the way out onto the lake and heading south to make it back to the same board. Except you can't actually do that, as a misaligned board exit means you can't stay on the river requiring some cheating to continue the journey.

Is this going to be worth it?


There's a fancy new blade hinting at a weapon upgrade, though without anything to attach it to it's of no use to Aghar.


A conveniently shaped stick nearby makes that possible.


New weapon? That could be of interest! I mean, the game is done at this point, but it would have been possible to get this before the temple raid and battle against the Tooth Birds.

Heck, this even calls back to another of the Claw Stick sage's stories. This is the great chief Kol's Hëll-berd that was thought to have been lost when he was killed in a tragic canoe attack! This legendary halberd is now Aghar's to... nothing.

Once again there's another instance of incompleteness. A flag for the halberd is set, yet not checked for anywhere in the entire game. It's a whole lot of work traveling the world twice to get all the components on this board only for it to be entirely pointless.


Still, it's not over yet. There's one other dock here in Claw Stick's village that can take the player to the north via river rather than the mountain.


In what I can only describe as absurd game-design, heading up the river leads to a board that's similar to the endlessly looping one to the south. Except this time, if you make your way north through three identical boards you're rewarded with some new content. This is awful. Nobody is going to find this without the use of the editor. Anybody would think the board is looping, and if they head south first they'll have already witnessed an actual loop.


Compared to the forest at least, there's at least some interesting things to be found up north. Another town with much more fortification than the simple wooden fence of the Tooth Bird clan.


There's some more dabbling in moral choices again. Aghar can choose violence, which will not just make this guard aggressive, but also cause a dozen more to appear from the walls. It's the usual smashing, though going on the attack like this will prevent the gate from ever opening rendering the journey a waste of time again.


This final and unnamed town shifts the tone of the game a bit. The people of the temple made it apparent that there was a more technologically advanced society out there so this is our opportunity to perhaps see how they live. Of course, there's nothing to say that this village belongs to the same people, just as it would be unfair to look at Tooth Bird and write off all the barbarian tribes as threats.

So with more tech and less sacrificial daggers, Aghar gets to check out the wares of various merchants. Hopefully they take shiny rocks.


They do! You can purchase pottery that does nothing. This should be no surprise.


A second merchant has a surprising number of items available, but doesn't bother with mere shiny rocks. The emerald found in the eastern forest actually gets to come into play here where it can be sold for rocks, a necklace, or a shield. The correct choice is the shiny rocks as the other items do nothing.

All those shiny rocks can be put to good use when buying from the other two merchants that sell animal skins and fruit. Both of which do nothing.


In the back of town is a rather large manor being tended to by a number of people and whose door is being actively guarded. This is the end of Aghar's little tourism expedition.


The final object that blocks the door speaks very uncharacteristically, and I'm more inclined to believe this isn't the character speaking, but the author saying to go home already.


I say this as it matches nicely with the tone on this actual ending board that is surprisingly chastising of the player, resulting in Smash or be Smashed ending rather bitterly.

As you can see, Nivek's name does not show up, only Choco. There's a remorseless confession that most items do nothing, and confirmation that there will be no followup. Go to hell.

Final Thoughts

Going by what I've seen Nivek's name attached to before, this one is a disappointment. It's teasing really. Despite the challenges of pulling off an open ended adventure like this, Nivek is a name I'd believe could pull it off, or at least, create something where the potential is clear. Instead, Smash or be Smashed is an adventure with a quite short critical path of heading to a temple and then heading to Tooth Bird's village, with a few suggestions of sidequests available to prolong the experience.

The dungeon crawling in the cave is bland. The hunting adventure is over in about ten seconds. The moral choices offered ultimately have zero impact on what's here. The lack of implemented items mean that much of the world map is meaningless to explore. The platformer is forgettable, which admittedly is more than a lot of ZZT platforming engines can say. The RPG combat is a significant step down from what was seen previously in Castle Sin.

Nothing about the experience will leave the player satisfied beyond perhaps that single fight in the temple that I genuinely enjoyed and got my hopes up for more of.

The game feels very incomplete. If this was tagged as a demo, or project dump I'd find it more favorable. For a game called Smash or be Smashed, there's actually very little smashing to be done, despite that being the game's most rewarding component. The overworld could definitely have used some more enemies to actually smash. Instead, the experience is a half-baked Dwarvish-Mead Dream. There's some variety in gameplay, but none of it really leaves a lasting impression. A handful of bugs and some obtuse moments of where to go next slow down the experience further, trying the player's patience and rarely rewarding them for sticking it out.

The seeds of something better are there. Going around gaining favor (or losing it) with other tribes is a neat idea that doesn't exist here. The weaving of the game's world into the sage's stories is a great way to make otherwise random events and items feel like they make sense and belong where they are. The character artwork is great, and Aghar's falling pose is a contender for one of the best looking art boards around, especially for a ZZT world from the 90s! The unique melee vs ranged combat doesn't get used nearly enough despite being a winner.

The story doesn't really go anywhere. Aghar is told to go north, does, and everything works out. Hints of the alliance with Tooth Bird as well as the difficult to see glimpse at the northern city do make this a world that clear has more thought put into it than the low effort "ME AGHAR. ME SMASH." kind of design the intro leads you to expect.

The overall lack of interest can really be felt here. I wasted plenty of time wandering the wilderness, but was still caught off guard at how suddenly the game ended. At the same time, upon seeing that I had only explored half the boards, I was quite tempted to call it quits then and there. Nivek's games in general have their troubles at feeling polished, with repetitive combat and repeatable strategies for his usual RPGs, yet they all feel like you're supposed to fill in the blanks with your imagination to do what ZZT cannot. Smash or be Smashed doesn't feel like the problem is ZZT's capabilities. It feels like the problem is just that the game doesn't offer anything of note that lasts for more than a single screen. All its good ideas are kept in check while the more dull ones get to be rehashed as needed to pad the game to a minimum length.

I hoped the shift from magic to might would let this game feel different from Nivek's other fantasy affairs, but this is ultimately a flop. Try your hand at Defend of Castle Sin for a better idea of what Nivek can do and a much better time overall.

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