Where can I get Burglar!?
Released: Aug. 10, 2002
Burglar! I'm not yelling about it, I'm just writing the exclamation point included in the title. Burglar!! Wow! What a game!
MadTom was a very prominent ZZTer in the mid-2000s and it was the release of Burglar! which brought him into the spotlight. There are ZZT worlds which are good, and there are some which are great, but there are just a tiny few which truly excel at creating something unique. Burglar! comes up a lot when asking ZZTers who were around after its release what their favorite ZZT games were, and for very good reason. Burglar! is easily one of the most innovative and fun to play ZZT worlds ever released.
Before I get everybody too excited, it's definitely not perfect. It has issues that make it less accessible than it could stand to be, and one scene in particular has aged very poorly when playing it in 2017. There are definitely moments where you can tell it was written by a fifteen year old, but the game overall is still strong enough that it can easily hold its own when compared to games outside of the confines of ZZT.
It takes some time, and can be punishing if you aren't liberal with making multiple saves, but whether or not you've grown up playing ZZT, you should absolutely try the game out for yourself.
With all that being said, let's begin!
Burglar! begins with a solid looking title screen consisting of the game's title and a drawing of (what I assume to be) Luke Steel, the game's protagonist who just so happens to be a burglar. Luke casually flips the coin in his hand playing a nice little ASCII animation of it rising and spinning in the air before it lands once again on his finger.
I just now realized that he's not wearing a black mask over his eyes, but sunglasses. Luke is just that cool.
In addition, the title screen also has a short song looping. MadTom was one of the dedicated few who came to grips with ZZT's crude musical capabilities and produced a lot of great music for his games as well as for others (perhaps most notably, the soundtrack used in Zenith Nadir's Frost series). The music here is a bit cheerful for the game's tone, but it sounds nice and is worth a listen and a good excuse to check out the coin animation as well:
One last point of interest is the [ FILE ONE ] in the corner. ZZT's limited board size (roughly 20 kilobytes) and world size (300 or so) meant that larger, more complex games would be split across several files. Burglar is maybe 50 boards in total, but broken into two pieces to ensure ZZT doesn't run the risk of crashing during play.
Upon pressing P to play, the player is taken to an interactive menu with an unmasked Luke pointing a gun at the menu itself. The menu comes off as more of a formality if anything. A large number of ZZT worlds start off on menus rather than jumping straight into the game. The about section contains a list of MadTom's previous ZZT releases, the forthcoming says that he's got more in the works but won't name specifics, and the credits is mostly just the usual list of titles all credited to MadTom other than the beta testers.
It also includes shoutouts in the form of IRC logs. This one here is the best of them.
The game begins proper with Luke walking along the street, though he'll be interrupted with the game's introduction very quickly.
burglar, thief, pickpocket, and all-
-around badass. You arrived here in
the larger city of Foddah about three
days ago, and some drunk dude in the bar
handed you a card for some kind of
organized `burgle-to-order' society,
based at BAGLARR AND SONS in the South
side of town. Your first meeting with The
Boss was successful; in fact, it being
9.30pm, you are now going to receive
your first order; hell, the pay's good,
and you know where your next meal's
gonna come from ...
leave on each of your missions, you will
be sent to an inventory room to pick up
what you think you will need. Choose
carefully; certain items may be essential
to successfully burglaring the ordered
location, while others may be utterly
useless. To see inventory, type ?+i.
You will be given a brief summary of
the place you are commanded to burgle
before you leave. If you're discovered,
hey, man, this is the big city, you're
either in the slammer or more likely
dead, and the society won't acknowledge
your existence. Worth the $1000 a night,
I know instant kills aren't popular,
but for a dangerous profession like
burglary, I feel it's necessary.
BIG TIP: DON'T save when you're
actually ON a burglary board. My
recommendation would be to save just
before you select your equipment.
'Sall. Enjoy, you badass, you.
• • • • • • • • •
Right away there's a lot to take in. The conceit of the game is a little strange. You're a hired burglar? The city's whole network of criminals is based around this front company and you'll be paid to steal stuff. Not on the level of bank robberies or anything, but somebody out there is paying Luke very good money to go to a specific address, and take a VCR.
Burglar!'s writing takes on a lot of ego-building for Luke. It'll often come off as teenage power fantasy, to be this cool collected badass who has no fear of danger and is irresistible to women. The framing of everything isn't the most compelling, but the actions the player gets to take are how the game hooks you.
Like the scroll says, Luke will have an inventory of equipment to help in his burglaries, and that failures are an instant game over. MadTom suggests saving only when it's safe, and not during burglaries, but in practice that would become very frustrating to do rather than make new saves constantly. It's a bit too easy to lose progress, but I'll get to that when it's more relevant.
On the streets is a sleeping man who looks just like Luke, and a "psycho dude" whose watch can be stolen. Luke is shameless and never shows any doubts or has any morals getting in the way of making a quick buck. Again, it's a power fantasy kind of game, and frankly I don't want to imagine a young teen trying to make the game into a drama over the ethics of theft. Luke's a burglar. You're playing as Luke. Go burgle.
The front lobby contains a guard, and the player can see into the next room with a few more people. MadTom added a bit of visual flair with the abstract background rather than opting to have the rest of the room match the brown walls or just have it floating in a black void. This is a simple visual flourish, but throughout the game MadTom will make the most of the space provided. To get into the building, Luke needs to first get past a security guard.
Power fantasy. There are no consequences for this, and flashing the card for the business lets the player in just the same.
Aside from the injured guard, there's a bit to explore here.
The first chair I looked at to see if the chairs had a message had 20 dollars on it. Lucky me.
The eastern passage is blocked and serves as the location the player will end their nights in. There's an event every burgling evening.
If you want to hit on the receptionist, you'll have to save it for the party.
"Mr. Steel? Oh, we've heard so much
(you wink at her dramatically)
"Ummm ... yes. Well, I'll let you in.
All the other burglars are tackling a
mansion on Richass Boulevard, but I think
that the boss has saved somethin' special
(she giggles bemusedly)
• • • • • • • • •
Teenage boys are so very very good at writing believable flirtatious dialog.
Lastly of interest is a map of the building. I'm kind of lying about this because the building is very straightforward. It's pretty unnecessary and doesn't mention the night club to the east as well.
You walk into the office and are
beset by a man in his late forties, with
white thinning hair, a cigar, and a
barely intelligible gangstah accent.
This, my friend, is The Boss. His name?
Few know it. To tell the truth, few care.
THE BOSS: "So, Steel, I understand you
wish to join BAGLARR AND SONS."
YOU: "Yeah, that's right, Boss."
THE BOSS: "Ahh. Very good. Well, your pay
will start at $1000 a night, plus bonuses,
which can be gained by stealing extra
stuff. Your base pay is determined by
stealing the ordered object. You'll get
two or three assignments each night; you
have to complete them all to get your
Hey, this is better than you thought,
that's a lot of money considering how
much you can steal in one night ...
THE BOSS: "However, as I'm sure you're
aware, the downside is that should you
get hurt, jailed or killed, which I must
regrettably inform you is quite likely,
the company will deny it even knows about
you. Understand and accept that?"
THE BOSS: "Good boy. Got some easy stuff
lined up for you tonight, to see what
you're made of. Make me proud."
YOU: "OH FO SHO!"
THE BOSS: "Wha'?"
YOU: "Uhhhm. Yessir."
THE BOSS: "Right. Go out to the briefing
room and start your work, the Bursar will
pay you at the end of the night, whatever
time you finish. Go get 'em!"
You obediently shift your ass and move
out of the office.
• • • • • • • • •
The boss gives his spiel and explains how the job works. Steal from a few places each night, then payment.
The briefing and equipment rooms are to the west and are where the player will be given some important information and have to make some even more important decisions based on that information.
Interacting with the very large computer brings up the relevant information on the first outing for the night. Simple stuff, an empty house with a basic security system. Nothing the sunglasses at night wearing badass Luke Steel can't handle.
The equipment room offers a selection of useful tools Luke can bring with him onto each burglary, but only three of them can be carried. So let's take a look from left to right of the eight available options.
- A pistol with 20 bullets
- A grappling hook with 50 feet of rope
- A flash pellet to temporarily blind somebody
- A sticky goo adhesive that dries almost instantly
- A Pokémon card somebody left on the rack
- A pair of pliers
- A set of lockpicks
- An electromagnetic disruptor to break small alarm systems
So what would you take? Check the briefing again if you're unsure.
Did you choose the lock picks, disruptor, and gun? If so, congrats, you can rob the house and get some optional items.
Did your selection not include both the lock picks and disruptor? Whoops! You're destined to fail and will be unable to proceed with the game. Reload your save now. The all or nothing approach to Burglar! is what prevented me from enjoying it when it was a new release, but though it's got some very punishing design it is at least something that can be worked around. MadTom was at least kind enough to include the correct equipment choices in the game's text file.
There are some other weird quality of life issues here as well. If you pick up three items and go to another one it tells you that you're carrying too much already, which is fine, but it doesn't pop up the description of the item so you won't even know what you're missing.
More of a pain is the fact that despite the objects for each item not disappearing once picked up, you can't touch them again and opt to put them back down. If you're trying to play without using the provided solutions, it's critical to make a save before picking any equipment.
Once everything's been taken, the player can talk to the person in blue who will open the door to progress to the first mission.
And now onto the meat of the game. Missions are presented as single boards like this one where it's up to the player to figure out how to get inside and take everything that could be of value.
First thing to do is activate your disruptor to disable the home's alarm. You can trip it if you move more than a few tiles into the home where the tiny blinking red dots on brown are. They can be tough to see sometimes which is fitting I suppose.
The front door is locked as well, but can be picked by standing next to it and using the lock picks.
With that, the player is in the home.
The VCR is quickly recovered and reveals an exit passage to return to Baglarr and Sons to drop off the goods. Of course, there's still more to swipe.
It's important to realize that your tools don't disappear once they've been used. Luke can keep on picking any locks.
The first mission contains more than just a pair of earrings and a VCR, though they were all I could get. The TV was too big to carry, and the garage door was dead-bolted preventing access.
What this mission does well though, is tying everything together. The player can shoot the lock off the garage door (but only after closing the front door to help muffle the noise!) and then load the TV into the car, hotwire it, and drive away.
The optional items are probably handled best in this mission. Most missions unfortunately require all three items to be able to complete them, which leaves no room for error and mostly turns collecting items to steal into a matter of finding out how to get the player next to them to snag them. Still, it's a nice introduction to the game and how it works. The first mission is more of a tutorial if anything where the only danger comes from the player's lack of foresight.
Back at Baglarr's, the player can now interact with the bursar to pawn off their stolen goods and make some more cash. The earrings sell for $100, the TV $500, and the Mitsubishi Lancer, $5,000. The VCR, and all future target items are never mentioned again, presumably going to the boss, who has a client who asked for this specific VCR to be stolen in the year 2001. (Here's a Best Buy ad from 2002 that sells DVD players for $60-180. Perhaps a DVR would've been a more valuable item to use instead.)
In addition to selling stolen goods to the bursar, the player can also purchase flashlight batteries represented by torches. This is essential (and the game even tells you as much) that many missions will be dark. I opted to purchase ten of them which was plenty. There's no need for money for anything else so it's quite easy to afford them as needed.
"Very well done, Mr. Steel."
"Your next job for tonight is another
simple one. A small family, the Wallaces,
are living in a small apartment near
this building, couple of blocks down in
fact. They have two kids, five and eight.
It's all dark, though, so please
make sure you have necessary lighting
"The apartment is locked, and has no
other security systems. The family should
all be asleep by now."
"Sir, we are a burgle-to-order society.
Irrespective of the level of difficulty
involved, we must steal the ordered item
within six hours."
"Compared to tomorrow, bub, He was
right. Get a move on. The item requested
is Mr. Wallace's wallet."
• • • • • • • • •
Entering the briefing and equipment rooms gives the player a chance to hear about their next mission and pick up a new set of items to bring with them. Again the briefing offers hints towards the correct set of items: Lockpicks, Pokémon cards, and pliers. The pliers are the guesswork of this operation, and while "kids exist" doesn't scream "bring Pokémon cards", knowing that the item is available as a choice, it would sound like this is the situation where it could actually be useful.
Like the computer said, the apartment complex is dark. The only thing visible is ironically, the hidden exit passage for when the mission is completed.
Almost immediately, Luke is put into danger as janitorial staff approaches singing We Ain't Got a Barrel of Money
Foddah's a rough town.
MadTom opted to implement anti-cheating mechanisms by having the same object that calls the #endgame command also #change basically everything on the board into empties. You're doing the game's missions without dying or you're not doing them at all.
The solution is to race pretty quickly towards a supply closet and don a disguise. The timing is so tight that if the player wastes any time they probably won't get to the closet before being killed, especially if they opt to try to rush through the apartment door, so a death here is almost unavoidable for a new player. It's so early on into the mission that it doesn't really feel very punishing at least, and the only other thing in the room is the closet so it's not much of a challenge to get right the second time.
With the cleaning woman out of the way, Luke can safely take the time to pick the apartment's lock.
I don't get very far before one of the kids wakes up and needs to be kept quiet.
There's another time limit again, with the kid talking more and more until eventually the parents do wake up. It's much more forgiving than the previous one however, giving the player ample time to head to the kids' room.
The yellow smiley face child needs to be placated.
This is not done by talking to him.
Luke Steel, Pick-pocket, Burglar, and Pokémon Angel
This is enough to let Luke keep on burglin', and there's some more items to check out in the kids' bedroom.
Kids with their own computer! Lucky them.
There's also a diary for one of the kids. I won't post it here because it's just some of that classic early 2000s humor of "Ha ha I'm implying a ZZTer a pedophile, but you know I'm just kidding. This is very funny". So let's just move along.
The requested wallet can be found resting on the kitchen counter. Again these target items are weird. $333 to steal a VCR and another $333 to steal a wallet. Of course, like the first mission there's more that can be acquired.
Firstly is a tv that's been mounted onto the wall. This is where the pliers come in. Shortly after grabbing it, the mother of the house wakes up to get a glass of water and Luke is forced to quickly hide himself.
Unfortunately, the game is very picky about hiding. If the player is anywhere other than next to the arm of the sofa in front of the television, they'll be spotted and instantly lose. I tried hiding in the bathroom where there's no line of sight, but it wasn't good enough.
With everything taken that I could grab, I headed through the passage to return to Baglarr and Son's. The hidden passages in the rooms themselves is a bit strange versus just leaving the way the player came in. It would've been simple enough to not allow the player to exit without the requested item rather than suddenly walk into walls to get out.
I had a better haul this time. I completely forgot to screencap picking up the paintings, those were hanging on the walls outside the apartment. They sell for $300, the old computer for $100, and the regular old tv for $50. I'm not sure why they were described as rich exactly.
"Well done again, Mr. Steel."
"Your third and final mission for
tonight is a small office on the
outskirts of the main city where a
couple of accountants work."
"They are presently not in the area,
but there is a small security system
"A wedding ring."
"Don't bother about locks ... it's on
an upstairs level, so you'll need to
find some way in ... maybe open or break
a couple of windows."
• • • • • • • • •
Onward to the third and final mission for the night! Do you know what items you'll need? This time the answer is grappling hook, flash pellet, and the disruptor. The disruptor and grappling hook are reasonably hinted at, but there isn't really anything to imply the need for the flash pellet.
Things are a little different this time by virtue of not being a home this time. More importantly is that it's also the first mission which begins outside the building without any interior shown.
One issue that does come up with Burglar is demonstrated here. It's pretty obvious that the player will need to grapple up to that ledge, but it isn't made clear where they need to stand to be able to actually get Luke to use his rope.
Once used successfully, an object moves upward and creates a rope made out of brown fake walls (by first putting a torch to get brown) that the player can then climb their way up. It's a cute effect that's used in a lot of ZZT games.
As simple as ZZT's graphics are, MadTom does a great job here making it feel like the player is balancing on a small ledge outside of the building.
Creeping across the ledge, Luke opens the window from the outside, and then it happens.