The first and the last?

Zork zero logo

MEGABOZ the wizard, wearing a zap-me-quick hat, has cursed Lord Dimwit Flathead's Great Underground Empire. Your task is to remove the curse and claim a reward of half the wealth of the kingdom. After casting the curse, Megaboz disappeared in a cloud of smoke, leaving behind nothing but a scrap of parchment. Written on the parchment, which is contained in the pack of goodies that comes with the game, is what you need to do to remove the curse.

The pack forms the nicest kind of protection system you will find. The disc itself is quite unprotected and can be copied easily. But without the pack you will never be able to complete the adventure. One item is a Flathead calendar for the year 883 GUE. This contains all sorts of hints and tips such as: "Bottomless pits are the second-leading cause of death in Flatheadia". Needless to say you have to negotiate a bottomless pit, but make sure you have a light or you might get eaten by a Grue.

Grues are familiar things to anyone who has played an adventure written by Steve Meretzky, the 32-year-old New Yorker with a penchant for melted cheese. Who can forget his pizza in the toilet in Leather Goddesses of Phobos? Did you ever try to eat it?

In Zork Zero Meretzky has written an adventure which is light hearted and at times excruciatingly difficult. It takes a certain type of mind to dream up some of the puzzles. At one point you need to show the Jester something that has never been seen before and will never be seen again. The answer is to show him a walnut and then eat it. But to open the walnut is a different matter. With a magic wand and a lobster you should be able to find a way.

This is a new departure by Infocom into graphical adventures. The company always said it would never add graphics to games until it could do the job properly. In some adventures the graphics bear little relationship to the story, but in Zork Zero they are part of the puzzle.

There are several little games to play which rely on graphics. One such is Double Fanucci, a card game with weird rules. You play against the Jester. If the Jester discards the Three of Fromps, should you ionize your Two of Lamps or muttontate it instead? Do not forget, you have to win at this game!

To anyone who has played a Zork adventure the Jester will be a familiar character. He sometimes helps, sometimes hinders. He is fond of riddles and will often stop and give you one to solve. If you cannot fathom it he will not let you pass. An example of one of his riddles is:
One night four men sat down to play /
They played and played till break of day /
They played for money; not for fun /
With separate scores for every one /
And when time came to square accounts /
They all had made quite nice amounts /

What were they playing? I will give you a clue: They were not playing cards.

Graphics have been used to great effect throughout. At the top of the screen is the compass, so instead of tediously typing letters you can click on the direction with the mouse. This idea is carried further with an on-screen map.

Apart from adding graphics, Infocom has made improvement to the parser. It has always been a cut above the competition, but now it is even better with even more useful features.

One thing I am not too happy about is the on-line help. Type "hint" at any time and you can get full solutions to all the puzzles.

Infocom does suggest you do not make too much use of this feature, but it is all too easy to give up on a problem at an early stage. The first Infocom I played - Planetfall - took me more than six months to complete; I finished Zork Zero in less than a week.

It is hard to criticise Infocom adventures. They are so good. This one could do with more graphics and a better plot. Nevertheless, I enjoyed playing Zork Zero very much and have no hesitation in recommending that you buy it.

Zork zero logo Format Gold

Infocom/Activision take a step back in time to the days before the Zork series.

There are Zorks and there are Zorks, but now there is the latest Zork which is the first Zork: Zork Zero. Confused? Well, I certainly was. After the famous Zork trilogy came Beyond Zork, and now the game which acts as a prequel to the originals has arrived. Bigger it certainly is; but is it any better for that?

Zork Zero begins with a prologue set over 90 years before the start of the game proper. Megaboz the Wizard kills the royal family and sets a curse on the Great Underground Empire. One of your ancestors witness this and it is thanks to him that you have the vital piece of information which gives you an advantage above all the other glory (and treasure) seekers. So off you tramp, collecting the necessary objects, travelling the massive Underground Empire, facing some angst-creating puzzles, playing games and facing the soon-to-be-infamous Jester.

Remember the Wizard in Zork II? Well, the Jester must be his predecessor: he appears to give tricky puzzles and hindrances. Yet he also offers help and gives you useful items. Life is one big joke to this guy, but you would love to punch in the mouth when he turns you into something that would not be out of place as a really nice pair of alligator skin shoes!

On your travels through the Great Underground Empire not only do you have to deal with the Jester but also some murderous problems. These puzzles are reminiscent of the original Zorks and often just as tough. A nice break is the use of visual puzzles or games such as Tower of Bozbar or the Zorkian card game, Double Fanucci. These can be played as a by-the-by once they have been solved, simply for a bit of light entertainment.

The landscape in Zork Zero is quite huge, set in the time before the 'White House' which is the familiar starting point in the originals. In fact, many of the open ends eventually get explained by the end - an added incentive to play though to the end. The abode of the curses' original victim - Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive - contains everything from a massive underground lake, a 400 storey office and a closet large enough to sleep an army. Excessive indeed, making the Underground Empire finally appear to be 'Great'.

Graphics are minimalised in this particular Infocom 'graphic' game, limited to the occasional graphic depiction for the games, the portrait and pictorial descriptions in the Encyclopaedia Frobozzica. Not a full-blown graphic adventure, the text is enhanced by only a pretty border, so it retains the old feel of the older Zorks. However, it features the same rich, flowing text found in any classic Infocom adventure, and the graphics do actually enhance the game without spoiling the flow.

Zork Zero holds your attention, but never really pulls you in completely. Atmospherically, the old Zork is there, but seemingly dated: where are the other characters? Just a few scattered beings are present, who are solely an extension of the puzzle without trace of intelligence.

This is not a major flaw, as the game returns with a fantastic parser, on-screen mapping, and the incredibly useful mouse-controlled movement compass. It is so much friendlier than other Infocom games, and so damn good to look at, even without pictures.

Zork zero logo CU Screen Star

Price: £24.99

Adventure characters do not come more legendary, stupid, or dead than Lord Dimwit Fathead The Excessive. The latest in the line of Zork adventures, Zork Zero, opens with his execution - for building a statue of himself of proportions so gigantic that its big toe overshadows the favourite forest of the all-powerful and well-narked Wizard Megaboz.

Not only that but the malicious wiz has cast a demonic curse to obliterate the Eastlands. The onset of the curse has been delayed for some time - ninety-six years to be precise - but that time has elapsed and now, at the eleventh hour, you come into possession of the wiz's secret parchment which sets you off on the quest - and a chance to reverse the spell.

Zork Zero has puzzles aplenty, and they come in three distinct types: traditional adventure puzzles, riddles of pure logic and mini IQ-style tests. So, respectively, you could find yourself asking what use is a live lobster, what do you say for a last request, and how do you remove the last stone from a pile.

For the first time in an Infocom game the graphics play a part in the adventure itself. The screen is bordered by arches of different design, depending on whether your current location is indoors, outdoors, or underground. Full screen graphics are displayed as a result of a READ or EXAMINE command, and the map is a particularly good, mouse-sensitive example of its kind.

The hint system is pretty neat - not to say comprehensive - and surprise, surprise, can be accessed by typing in HINT. But a game for the impatient this is not: there may be as many as fourteen levels of hint for the same problem, starting with the least helpful, and revealed one at a time on request.

Zork Zero is a superb adventure, packed with problems of varying difficulty. It is very funny. Check out the fickle-natured jester to see what I mean. Here is one character who is sweet as pie one minute, the next he will try to smother you to death with a huge red nose! Do not forget to read the Flathead calendar. It is pretty wry stuff, and jam-packed with clues.

Written by Steve Meretzky, author of Planetfall, Stationfall, Sorcerer, Hitch Hiker's Guide and the high-selling smutware game, Leather Goddesses, Zork Zero is an essential addition to the collection of any serious adventure player, and equally recommended as a first time adventure to those who wonder what all the fuss is about.

Zork zero logo Zzap! Sizzler

Infocom, Amiga £29.99

For about ten years after being formed by some MIT boffins Infocom produced only business software. Then they saw the Colossal Cave Adventure. The Zork trilogy was the result and the company has not look back since. Not until now that is. Currently making some radical changes to its previously text-only format Infocom have decided to produce a Zork prequel in the new style.

Over 90 years ago the great wizard Megaboz cast a curse which destroy the ruling family: Lord Dimwit the Excessive and his eleven brothers and sisters. No-one cried any tears over this at the time - Dimwit behaved like a spoilt child, having a birthday every week and expecting a present from each of his subjects! And he did not earn his nickname for nothing: his coronation took thirteen years to plan and lasted eighteen months!

The problem was that the curse was to cause the destruction of the entire empire of Quendor in 94 years time. That apocalyptic time is drawing painfully close, so the current king, Wurb Flathead, has offered half the riches of the kingdom to the person who can allay the curse.

Included in the packaging is a scrap of parchment which one of your ancestors picked up after it fell out of Megaboz's pocket while he was casting the infamous curse (you actually play out this short scene before starting the adventure proper).

The scrap of paper tells how to stop the curse - put two items belonging to each of the twelve Flatheads in the Great Hall of the castle. So you know what items to look for, useful (and very humorous) information about the Flatheads is to be found in the 'Flathead Calendar' which accompanies the game.

The members of the family range from the artistic Leonardo Flathead to Thomas Alva Flathead, inventor of such useful items as the magic room spinner and a potion which allowed humans to talk to plants (I wonder if Prince Charles is descended from the Flatheads?!).

Living up to Dimwit's excessive reputation, the castle is huge, containing many secret passages and rooms. It is also full of weird and wonderful items including a lobster, a bag of flamingo food and (of course?)!) a flamingo.

To aid you (or sometimes hinder you) a jolly jester makes the occasional appearance, but he will only help if you are able to answer his riddles. Once you find a way out of the castle, there is a while kingdom to explore. For this, the on-screen mapping facility is a welcome feature, as are the in-built hints.

Graphics are few and far between, but when they do appear they are of a high quality - much better than having mediocre pictures for every location. Plain 80 column text (difficult to read on most TVs) is the norm however, although the detailed screen surrounds add a touch of polish.

Location and item descriptions are of a highly humorous type - author Steve Meretzky's previous work includes The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Combine the brilliant text with the typically friendly Infocom parser plus fiendishly perplexing puzzles and you have one great adventure game, easily living up to the superb Zorkian reputation. Hilariously funny and a considerable challenge.