Throwback Thursday - Return to Zork for PC
The early 1990's were in interesting time for video games. CD-ROM technology had just hit the market, and Full Motion Video (FMV) using actors was all the rage. Sega CD, Panasonic 3DO, the Phillips CD-i all focused on this technology as being "the future of video gaming" for home consoles. A lot of the titles developed focusing on FMV are straight trash, and at points are laughable excuses for a "game" (Plumbers Don't Wear Ties for 3DO is a great example of this.) However there were still companies that believed that a great game combines excellent gameplay with the current technology at hand.
Infocom was famous in the 80's for creating Zork, a text adventure game. utilizing no graphics at all, Infocom was able to transport a player into a realm of mystery by using only the narrative. Many sequels were created due to the success of the original. After many years, Infocom teamed up with Activision to develop a sequel to revitalize the franchise. Combining classic point and click adventures with full motion video, Return to Zork would bring adventure games into a new era of technology. Return to Zork features actors such as Jason Hervey from The Wonder Years and Robyn Lively who starred in Twin Peaks.
So why is Return to Zork notable? Well for one the puzzles throughout the game are pretty difficult, especially towards the second half of the game. There are also several scenarios that can that player can intentionally (and unintentionally) place themselves in that render the game "unwinnable". This has happened before in other games like the King's Quest series, but Return to Zork really sticks it to you if you haven't been paying attention to your notes and NPC dialogue. There also is a letter and an encyclopedia that originally came bundled with the game that provides some important clues that can be useful during some of the most difficult puzzles and serves as copy protection. (A hint book was also produced and was sold separately.) Puzzles can also have multiple solutions allowing the player to think outside of the box. Allowing the player to solve using different methods is something that wasn't really popular in the genre at the time. The emotions system allows you to interact with NPCs in many different ways, resulting in various different reactions from residents of the land. This was somewhat used in games like Sam & Max: Hit the Road, but Return to Zork gives the player many more interactions than a standard LucasArts adventure. And rightfully so, because threatening people all of the time can result in your journey ending in disaster.
But the one thing I love about Return to Zork, is that it is ridiculously quirky. Everything from the script, the actors, and the costumes make this game what it is. The premise is ridiculous, you won a trip to the Valley of the Sparrows which essentially is a wasteland. From there you must investigate why things are disappearing and the residents of the town of Shanbar are having reoccurring nightmares of an evil force named Morphius. Following bat droppings, performing at a comedy club, and playing a chess-like game called Survivor are all things that must be done by the player in Return to Zork. My absolute favorite character is Boos who you have to obtain a key from. By doing so, you can obtain a few critical inventory items as well as open up the passage to the underground city. So how do you get a key from a man named Boos? Drink (or pretend to) him under the table until he passes out. It's one of the most memorable dialogue interactions in adventure game history, and will not leave your conscious after watching. Take a look below:
The success of Return to Zork allowed a couple sequels to be made (Zork: Nemesis and Zork: Grand Inquisitor) but neither in my opinion retain the charm that Return to Zork does. Return to Zork is currently not on Steam, but can be purchased on GOG.com as well as a physical copy on Amazon. Do yourself a favor and check out Return to Zork, just make sure you download a copy of the letter and the Encyclopedia! Okay, and maybe the FAQ or walkthrough too.