In a fit of nostalgia, I installed DOSBox and downloaded Castle of ZZT.
For nostalgia, I couldn't have done better. A homage to the Tim Sweeney ZZT games, Castle of ZZT is a plotless formula piece, and proud of it. How closely does it adhere to formula? Well, in the first room, a scroll gives us the intro, which ends like this:
"[...] five doors lock behind you. I think you can see where this is going.
-= Welcome to the Castle of ZZT. -="
Yes, we can see where this is going, and if we don't quit right there, we've no right to complain later. This is OLD-SCHOOL, and good OLD-SCHOOL at that.
The most obvious improvement David Newton's made to the old-school formula is graphical. This isn't a believable castle - how could it be? - but it's pleasant to look at, and the color schemes are coherent and restrained. Newton knows how to lay out a fine-looking board.
The castle's architecture is equally effective. Newton (usually) avoids forcing the player to cross long, empty distances, re-uses space in fairly elegant ways, and maintains a continual sense of exploration. He has to - there's no plot to keep things moving. But there is that locked door you saw earlier, that intriguing chamber that you can't get to right now...
The gameplay is competent, well-paced, and, with the exception of one interesting maze -
- cheerfully unoriginal. It's not that Newton imitates the STYLE of the Sweeney games - he lifts entire sequences out of them. When pushing bombs around to blow up a field of breakables without opening a path for some star-shooters, I'm tempted to edit the board and clear a path with the spacebar. I mean, I've played this already, in Town of ZZT.
In one way or another, that goes for almost every one of the puzzles. The old-school formula can work if the puzzles somehow surprise us, but here we get, at best, a dubious "gotcha" when we render a slider puzzle unwinnable, or get ambushed by ruffians.
(Not that there's anything wrong with ruffian ambushes. The most fun I had playing involved duplicators, ruffians, and the realization that I was trapped in a mausoleum with fast, angry ghosts.)
Basically, this game throws fewer curveballs than the games it imitates. The slider puzzles are easy, one of the teleporter mazes is so linear as to be a ping-pong path in disguise, and the prefab enemies very rarely overwhelm us. A treasure hunt involves following literal directions precisely, a machine can be fixed by shooting breakable walls, a multiple-choice riddle game can be solved with basic ZZT knowledge, and a musical combo lock can be opened by - well, if you don't have working speakers, you'd better ?+zap.
Little thought is needed here. This isn't Barjesse's Nightmare, or anything like that.
Are there any original puzzles? A few. But generally, the ones that aren't from the Sweeney games can be found in later ones, though the resemblance generally isn't so perfect as to suggest direct imitation. More likely, there's just so much you can do with this formula.
All this said, I wish Newton had directly copied one more thing from earlier games, though. Converting ammo, torches, and health to score at the end would have been a good move, and rating the player's performance based on this would have been even better. It's too easy just to win, given how forgiving the game is.
Note: Most of the above misgivings might well be irrelevant if you didn't spend your childhood playing old ZZT games.
Long CONS section aside, this is a good game. Castle of ZZT is playable, colorful, and fun, and it's laudable that Newton wrote a solid game for such a limited audience. You've got to love ZZT to turn out a game like this when it's bound to get a grand total of two reviews. Newton, to quote a million hack reviewers, "respects the material." 5/5.
On the other hand, if this game had been released three years ago, it would have been regarded as solid, but not brilliant. 4/5.
So I'll put a 4, but if you're new to ZZT, add an extra point. I unhesitatingly recommend Castle of ZZT to new players.