ZZT is a PC game created in 1991 by Tim Sweeney, one of the founders of Epic Games (Yes, the same Epic Games that would later go on to make Unreal and the hugely successful and bloated Gears of War series). ZZT was a collection of a few rather bland little games made in its engine, all with generic names like “Town of ZZT” and “Dungeons of ZZT”. What made the game noteworthy, however, was the fact (probably a last-minute addition) that it included a level editor, allowing players to alter the built-in games or create their own. Instantly, fans were using the ZZT engine for far greater things than Sweeney ever did. They pushed the outdated little Pascal game to its limits.

ZZT has no real graphics, choosing rather to use expanded ASCII text characters presented in a fashion that resembles buildings, people, or whatever it was intended to represent. Here’s what I mean:

Crude blocks of text are molded into something resembling reality.

I first played ZZT after a spree of downloading games (Mostly demos) off of local BBSes in the early 90s. As a child, I made a few little childlike games, which endeavor was enough to put me off of computer programming for life. But I enjoyed the minimalist (Read: Undeveloped, underpowered) nature of the game. Stripped of all but the most minute aesthetics, the creativity of the individual game creators working with crappy little materials was all that was available. And it was fun.

It was also very easy to cheat through in-game codes, though some clever creators were able to put in to counteract these, such as recognition if the player had more ammo than should be available at that point or had destroyed certain walls that shouldn’t be destructible.

Programming is quite simple as far as computer languages go.

ZZT still has an active community that continues to create new games using an engine that was outdated and underpowered 21 years ago. ZZT.org has a big collection of games and the creator of indie game Seiklus offers his suggestions for noteworthy ZZT games for those who don’t know where to begin. I concur; “Kudzu”, “Escape from Planet Red”, “Merbotia”, and especially the highly creative “Nightmare” are pretty fun games. My favorite ZZT games, “Yapok-Sundria” and “Yindle” have a sort of surreal nonsense to their writing reminiscent of Dr. Seuss that makes them endearing.

There a few contests for creating ZZT games within a 24-hour period. These are noteworthy because they force the participants to (attempt to) craft something worthwhile within a short period of time. A little thing like a deadline is good for cutting out the fat, and game making is no exception (Though I have heard horror stories about crunch time).

ZZT, unfortunately, is plagued with little errors. When you load up a saved game, the game is temporarily paused. While this would normally be a good idea, there is the unfortunate fact that you can only unpause by moving your on-screen character, which is impossible in certain circumstances (Depending on whether or not the creator of that particular game was aware of this bug or not), rendering the game literally unplayable and forcing you to start over.

ZZT has a sort-of sequel in Super ZZT, which is mostly the same except for a resolution change and the addition of scrolling screens. It is rarely used today, even by ZZT enthusiasts. Also similar to ZZT is MegaZeux, a game creator inspired by ZZT. It offers a superior interface, far more complex programming capabilities and music, and the option to create your own little text characters for use in the games. Though it’s surpassed by tools such as Game Maker, MegaZeux–along with ZZT–is an fascinating part of do-it-yourself game creation history.

However, creative application of the primitive graphics is capable of creating interesting landscapes.

If you enjoy seeing what people can create when held under deliberate limitations, ZZT is worth a look despite its obvious handicaps. The pleasing charm of the cruddy little graphics and very simplistic programming were emblematic of what was enjoyable about early 1990s video games.

About Lee

Lee Laughead writes stuff about video games. Read his Twitter at https://twitter.com/Mesarphelous even though Twitter sucks.
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