Closer Look: Gem Hunter 3 (Part 1)

In the final Gem Hunter game things are shaken up that are best not shaken.

Authored By: Dr. Dos
Published: Oct 14, 2023
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Orbital Station Kriticom (Meegalo)


The final dimension is another light on content world as most of them have been, with the saving grace of not being so focused on ZZTer cameos. Instead this is a Boys In Blue space station (I think?) which means getting to spend time with Tseng's original creations who are far more compelling even at their worst than the dated community in-jokes players have been getting everywhere else.


The space theme is a nice change of pace as the other locations haven't really taken advantage of the sci-fi aspect of the series. Save for BlueMagus's mansion, the previous worlds all could easily be dropped into just about any ZZT adventure regardless of when it was set.

At the same time, Tseng's previous releases never went all that in-depth with the sci-fi aspects. Space travel was more of an excuse to be able to justify whatever environment was needed for a location. Gem Hunter 2's Puerto Del Agua could just as well have been any ZZT game set in then-present day with its fast-food chains, tourist trap landmarks, and corporate office towers. This may very well be the first time Gem Hunter is seen in space outside of a cut-scene.

The final stage's issue is that it's yet another case though of Tseng not providing the details to bring these locations to life. The space station Kriticom splits the difference of the earlier worlds and mansion where there are clearly a whole lot of decorative objects and NPCs that players want to interact with, yet there's a refusal by Tseng to actually code those interactions. Here in the center of the station, only the signs can be interacted with, with all the crew members being left undisturbed in their sleep and the bathroom stalls being un-openable.

Put a gem in every toilet you coward.


It's not entirely wasted at least. The R&D sector lets the player look at strange electronics, observe engineers designing a new ship, and features recurring character Kudo test firing a giant weapon which results in him being turned to pulp. Don't worry kids, this character is famous for dying, the Tseng equivalent of South Park's Kenny.


The blue sector holds the offices. What a horrid life it must be to be on a space station and have to do clerical work. This seems likes an oasis in the desert with the sheer number of NPCs for Gem Hunter to harass just through that doorway. All those people clearly within reach...


You don't understand Gem Hunter. You don't need to go in there, but I do!

Instead the player is limited to talking to a lone person standing at the window that complains about his boss Elena, another recurring character.


What this game has lacked, that Kriticom manages to deliver, is the pure hostility these characters have for one another. Since so much of the game's writing has been put towards ZZTers instead of Tseng's original characters, you just don't get these kind of conversations where two people that hate each other are forced to interact.


The atmosphere in Elena's office is thick with vitriol as she excuses herself to answer the phone.


And in what may be the only plot development seen thus-far, it just so happens to be Gem Hunter's enemy Aric who would love to have a little chat. He brings the revelation that he's no longer in control of the previously mind-controlled Gem Searcher and Meegalo, suggesting that someone yet more powerful is really pulling the strings, and providing mind control as an answer for why Gem Searcher was trying to kill Gem Hunter.

From a practical standpoint none of this matters. At this point there are enough people out there that want Gem Hunter and friends dead that it's really hard to tell the difference between conquering Da Hood for power or conquering Da Hood to make Gem Hunter show up so he can be killed.

A second phone call follows, coming from downstairs, where some witch is frying everyone that gets near her. Gem Hunter identifies her as Meegalo and Elena gives up, providing Gem Hunter with the key to the lower level so he can do something about it, and also get him off her space station.


Access now granted, Gem Hunter can head to the lower sector Cyan where players get a second "lab" sequence. The obligatory person suspended in a tube of mysterious liquid greets Gem Hunter who responds by pointing and laughing at the guy.


No exciting chase sequence here. In fact, there's no danger at all on the station other than Meegalo herself.

Also, you may be wondering who Meegalo is. Good question. Searching text in the previous Gem Hunter games and other files in the anthology release provide nothing. Maybe she's from the Da Hood games? There's some art of her in Tseng's character art collection Stairway to Da Hood so she's been established somewhere by this point. As always, Tseng assumes you're already familiar with all these characters.

Regardless of where she comes from, Meegalo ends up being one of the nastiest fights. All she really does is run across the top of the screen from side to side as she shoots bullets, but by this point my health and ammo were in a rough state, and several attempts had me running out of ammo, despite actually using the stage select ammo exploit to give myself a bit more earlier.

Invisible water also blocks the sides so you can't hide behind the pillars at all, leaving you always in a column where Meegalo shoots. However, she can duck behind the corners herself, so you can't take advantage of the corner when it comes to lining up your shots.

This wouldn't be nearly as big of a concern if the resource manage in this game wasn't so busted. This was the final boss of the first file for me, so I was committed to trying not to cheat for the first time so late into the game.


By relegating all the plot development to this one stage, Tseng doesn't have to worry about characters talking about things players don't actually know about yet depending on what order they played the stages in. There's another hint at who is "behind all this", a trio of dastardly villains including Sephy Lee Roth the Sephiroth parody, Steve the Eve parody, and a still unnamed third villain that is saved for Tseng's big reveal. I'll tell you right now, it's not a ZZTer.


For completing the six primary stages, the player receives a single gem as an award. This is to make the total a nice clean 40. A final passage then opens up and the player can proceed to the end of the first file where you'll get your password to continue the game and be called out by Tseng for not having found every last gem.

To Be Continued

Hoo boy, all that and there's still another forty-ish boards to go huh?

The game's final chapter will be an improvement over what's been seen up to this point, though it still fails to reach the level of quality seen in the previous game, and that's really the crux of the matter. For all its flaws, Gem Hunter 3 is perfectly playable, easy to get through if you pay attention to your health and ammo, and has a few surprises in store for players. It's a game that suffers from Tseng's previous success, where an enjoyable enough game feels unimpressive after having seen better.

The first game has the luxury of having little to compare it to. A tropical island adventure that's both fun to explore for the sake of finding gems just as much as it is to see where Tseng will take the player next. Its sequel opens up the world to the player letting them go where the please, and is still firmly in my mind as one of the high points of quality for ZZT boss fights. There's a reason this series did so well, becoming iconic to ZZTers at the turn of the century.

The third entry needs to somehow take things even further, and it doesn't in any way. There's some smart ideas, yet nothing really sticks. The previous games both suffered from roadblocks where the gem hunting requires finding way too many of the things in order to progress or get a satisfying ending. Gem Hunter 3 provides an obvious answer here with its discrete stages. The hunting could have been the most accessible yet by tracking gems per-stage rather than as a lump sum, allowing players to cross entire areas of the game off their list of locations to take another look at.

Oddly, instead Tseng practically abandoned the idea entirely. The second file does have an alternate path through available to players that found all the gems in this file, but it feels so downplayed here. The fact that even the total isn't shared until the player has already decided to move onward to the second file is a huge misstep in my eyes. Gems feel like relics that just happen to still be here, replaced by endless cameos instead.

Gem Hunter 3 falls victim to issues the previous games had no trouble avoiding. The lack of health and ammo make it quite possible to find yourself stuck, as there's no way to return to the stage select without finishing the one you're currently on. Ammo can be mitigated officially with Tseng's quirky stage selection code, but this is an appalling way to give players resources. I strongly believe that a health and ammo reset between stages would do wonders for the game's playability.

The bosses, previously a highlight, are fairly same-y, both in the sense of being no different than anything you'd see in any other ZZT world and also in Lemmer/Scissorman and BlueMagus's fights coming off as rehashes of November Eve battles, sans the unique engine. They're all very much beatable, especially if you're entering a stage well-stocked, yet at the end of it, none of them are really memorable.

Things also feel quite dated thanks to the seemingly endless cameos. Previous games included plenty, with Tseng himself even showing up at times if you found hidden rooms. Here they're overwhelming in number, managing to crowd out Tseng's already giant list of characters and stealing the show while not being all that interesting. You don't have to have been around the ZZT community in the year 2000 to enjoy Tseng's previous games. For Gem Hunter 3, if you are an outsider, I feel like this is inscrutable.

Granted, historically the ZZT community has benefited from its audience being one and the same as its developers. It's so much easier to impress someone who knows the way in which ZZT is limited. It's equally simple to expect forgiveness from them when awkwardly making ZZT do something it wasn't really intended to.

There's a reason so many ZZT engines will immediately warn players about how easy they are to break. It's the reason why Tseng, upon discovering his stage select could give players more ammo, didn't fix it. By being upfront he could simultaneously ward off criticism about the bug, while also adding a sanctioned way for players to cheat. Realistically, the game probably does provide players with just enough health and ammo to get by, but not enough for the game to be as comfortable to enjoy as the others were.

The stages themselves aren't that great either. BlueMagus's is undoubtedly the star, filling the world up with exploration, action, and interactivity while also looking good to boot. If the entire game could meet that level of quality, then Gem Hunter 3 could have been the best in the trilogy. Yet nothing else even comes close.

Kriticom has potential, by finally letting players revisit some of the characters of previous games, though it fails to deliver in having all that much for the player to actually interact with. The fire and ice worlds both give players a little bit of action and some very light puzzle elements, with some good background details, but again feel vast and empty. In a more linear game, these stages would be reasonable early on, stepping stones to levels with greater complexity. Now they're half baked locations that would feel more at home in mid-90s ZZT worlds like End Of The World, as unlikely locations to explore on your important journey.

This is the third game. I feel like Tseng should have an idea of what works and what doesn't by this point. Surely its more average stages in the scope of ZZT releases shouldn't be the highlights? He's done better before after all.

The other worlds, #darkdigital and Knightt's island, are utterly uninteresting. Large empty spaces filled with ZZTers and ZZT characters. You cannot make a ZZT world on references alone, and this game is what happens when you try. Much of it boils down to how unimportant the specifics of these cameos are. The cameos aren't worked into the story in any way, stealing roles from more established Tseng characters for what I can at best guess is dodging negative reviews by including the would-be reviewer in the game.

Every cameo could be shuffled without issue. Zenith Nadir could be a boss fight while Knightt could be a part of the poker game. Lemmer and Scissorman could be the horrific mansion experiment gone wrong and BlueMagus could pilot a giant mech. There's no rhyme or reason for any of it, so it all just fails to keep you interested in what's going on.

I get the feeling that by this point is his ZZT career, Tseng was quite fatigued. After this game's release, Tseng's ZZT output cratered with a special edition of the previous game, a short action-focused November Eve sequel that's about as well regarded as Parasite Eve 2, and then a nice year long break before his final release The Misadventures of Mega Job broke away from the Da Hood universe used in nearly ever previous release of his. Of course, both the standard and 100% gem collection endings to the game still end with a huge cliffhanger and obvious plot hook for a never-made Gem Hunter 4 so it's hard to say for certain how done Tseng felt.

Of everything seen up to this point (and arguably the second file as well), there is just one thing that to me stands out as impressive. The animation. Each boss has a surprisingly elaborate looking animation for their introduction. The fire world's torture chamber has that great hammer swing. The door flying off the wall in the mansion. These are some of the most impressive I've seen in ZZT, and are just incredible for the time when the game was released. If Jeremy LaMar was the champion of animating oversized foes in Ned the Knight, Tseng is arguably his equal when it comes to making a little smiley face do something interesting. It's the one thing Gem Hunter 3 does that the previous games can't keep up with or surpass. Unfortunately, animation can't make a game fun to play.

We'll get to the second file soon enough, which is a pretty reasonable final stage with some iconic characters and boss fights that you might have a positive association with from the previous boards. It's all going to be far too late to save this game in my eyes, offering little more than relief that something as long as the second file remains enjoyable. Again, this is hardly an awful game, it's just not able to hold my interest the way Tseng's games have for me previously. The series just goes out with more of a whimper than a bang.

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