Every form of media out there has people trying to decide what the "best" example of that media is. Most people are realistic enough to accept that there's no objective answer for this, but there's some fun to be had in trying to explain why Citizen Kane is a cinematic masterpiece or some antiquated garbage. Did video games peak at Ocarina of Time? Was Undertale the correct winner of a very important poll on GameFAQs?
Well, what about ZZT? What's the best ZZT game? Who can really say! Like any other medium, the sheer range of what's been created makes creating criteria for what the best example of that medium is pretty much impossible.
But today we're not looking at a contender for the Best ZZT game (listen, it's either Burger Joint or Evil Sorceror's Party anyway). We're going in the opposite direction! The worst game.
Even bad media these days has its benefits these days. An awful game can become the basis for popular Let's Plays. The Games Done Quick marathons frequently schedule "Awful Games Done Quick" blocks to showcase these games and are personally my favorite to watch. Movies have their riffs as well with Mystery Science Theater 3000, Rifftrax, and podcasts like How Did This Get Made all commentating and discussing films which when watched with expectations of quality tend to be boring, confusing, or just abysmal.
Many ZZT worlds were created by pre-teens and needless to say good game design has escaped them. You can find a lot of bad ZZT games on the Museum, whether due to poor balance, laughable plots, or buggy messes, but those games all were released, ignored/mocked, and forgotten.
School ZZT has a legacy. It had an impact on the ZZT community that carried on for years.
Stampede76's School ZZT actually has a pretty cool title screen. A gun set on an American flag background. You wouldn't get your hopes up from this title screen, but you'd definitely want to see what you were about to get yourself into by playing it.
The game begins in a classroom devoid of any students or teachers. The desks have been arranged to form small islands for the students to work in groups more easily. To the top left we see the teachers own desk, considerably larger than any of the individual students'. There's a large pile of ammo to supply the player with more than they'll need to defeat the dangers they may encounter while at school.
The player exits the classroom and into the basement level hallway. There are two more passages to enter, the yellow passage to the stairwell and the white passage which isn't necessary to proceed.
The white passage leads to the balcony of the elementary school's gymnasium. It's a small gym, but since the students are no more than 12, it's enough of a space for a class to play some dodgeball or kickball.
Of course, obviously the player isn't in the gym itself, that's the yellow solids in the center of the board. The green solid walls that surround it are the green railings of the balcony level. Both passages here lead to the hallway the player was on previously rather than to a more isolated room where the music classes are held and the 6th grade band has their practice.
As mentioned, the passages lead back to the hall and the player has to go through the door leading to the stairwell-
Oh wait a minute, I'm sorry. Absolutely none of these visuals have any meaning to you? You just saw some yellow blobs that I called desks? The balcony over the gym was just a green bordered rectangle? None of this makes the least bit of sense and how on earth am I getting this from such limited information?
Maybe I should explain! The reason I can tell you all of this is because School ZZT takes place in my childhood elementary school. Stampede76 was my best friend at the time and I introduced him to ZZT where he made all this!
I will say that despite knowing him and knowing it was supposed to be our school that I definitely still did not process what anything was until asking him about it and looking at it in the editor where I'd see board names like "gym". The opening board was our fourth grade classroom.
So let's finish our tour of the school so we can learn the impact this game had.
The stairwell is not something whose perspective was thoughtfully adopted to a ZZT board. I promise that it's supposed to be two flights of stairs that you climb up to the ground floor of the school.
Those stairs lead to the main hallway that runs across the building. To the south would be the corner where the K-3 classrooms were. At the time this game was made, Stampede and I would be going into the 5th grade the next year. Maybe that's why you can't actually go to the south here, since it was no longer relevant to us.
To the north would be the main entrance. The left hall is weirdly narrow since it was more of a front lobby than anything else with no classrooms connecting to it (just a copy room and the principal's office).
The yellow structure is supposed to be a set of double doors which opened to a short hallway that led to the cafeteria.
Okay, at this point even I'm lost. The hall to the cafeteria was a straight shot with only one door on the side where that passage is which would lead to the kitchen area. Suddenly we get some ZZT doors blocking progress, a passage to the kitchen, and several doors that just say door which I don't remember actually existing.
There's also a time limit on this board which I've never once noticed in 17 years.
Lions! Or students? Or lunchladies? I don't know what specifically you're fighting in here, but that ammo in the classroom at the start finally has a use as you get to the single board in which you can die in School.
There are three yellow doors but only a single key available. The player has to make their choice blindly.
Going north or south results in a copy of the title screen where Stampede laughs at the player for making the wrong choice and results in a game over.
But if you continue east, you instead are treated to:
Fire? I think you burn the school down. You're told that you win and there's no game over. You just sit here until you quit. Also a single piece of ammo.
And that's School ZZT. Typically regarded as the worst ZZT game ever made.
Without the context of personally knowing the layout of the elementary school the game is based on, it's an almost completely incomprehensible mess with zero explanation for what you're doing or why. A single room of lions and a one in three guess of which door to open is the only danger the player faces. There's just wandering incredibly abstract rooms which can just barely be read as a school even with that context.
z2 offers a hard limit of ten reviews per file and School has a rating of 0.55 out of 5 after ten reviews. The critics nail it on the head:
"When I first played this game I really thought it was a joke. However, after closer examination on the Z2 website I discovered the genre was in fact 'Adventure', not 'Comedy' 'Joke' or 'What not to do in a ZZT game'"
-- My Liver Hurtz
"What has this world come to???"
"advice: do not play this game ever. comment: if there was ever a game that deserved to get less than zero, this is it."
"Okay, to start off it sucks."
"Never waste time even thinking of playing this game"
But of course there's always the running joke of it being a fantastic game. It does have a single 5 out of 5 very very sincere review by Commodore:
A refreshing social commentary.
This game is drenched in political messages. Just from the opening title can you see the message is already clear, featuring a gun superimposed over an American flag. The design of the school itself is marvelously accurate in an abstract way. It's not that it's a "school". It's a symbol of our school experience. There is little direction given to us as we procede. instead seemingly insignificant choices lead to our successes and failures, and (as the game poigantly illustrates) failure occours more often than success. Then we get to the shooting. the only actual shooting in the game is hardly a challange. You go into a classroom, and kill students, who are all alligned in a row waiting and come at you pretty much one at a time. no skill is required to get to the room, or even kill the students. in fact, if it's only the first time you've played the game then you usually think that you've come to the room accidently. And you're probably just as surprised as the students in the room.
this game is a strong statement in a universal package. The graphics are abstract, and could concievealbly be any school. A remarkable piece of work indeed.
It's definitely a fun way to look at it.
Usually with a bad ZZT game it just gets thrown onto the pile and forgotten about. Maybe in some more extreme cases do the worlds become a go to example for a bad game. Names like Evan Darrow and BHirsch3 remained notorious for their lack of quality still remembered years after they had left the community.
School ZZT meanwhile, resulted in policy. If you take a look at z2's submission page you'll find a few rules there which weren't added until shortly after the release of School ZZT. These new rules included mandatory use of non-ZZT standard colors (so Super Tool Kit or some other color kit), and a minimum filesize of 10 kilobytes for the uploaded zip file. School's influence on the adoption of these rules was never officially stated, but I do recall asking staff about it some years later and being told that it definitely played a major role in the change.
Those requirements might not seem like much, but suddenly this meant games being rejected from z2 for not meeting these criteria and never receiving a widespread release among the community. By the time these rules were put in place, they weren't very difficult bars to clear, nearly everyone would already be using STK colors, and 10KB filesizes didn't take much to reach, but like any system of rules it had some flaws.
There would be things rejected for being under 10 kilobytes that were demos or engines rather than intended as full games. Usually the z2 staff would be wise enough to realize these warranted exceptions, but sometimes things would slip through the cracks. You'll find a few zip files which will have extra garbage text or ZZT boards with a single object loaded with code to bolster filesizes to hit the minimum. Perhaps the most extreme example is in Great Pyramid of ZZT by David Newton, part of a series of games intended to play like Tim Sweeney's original ZZT worlds which goes as far as including a second STK version of the game to ensure that it would be uploaded!
The STK rule was a bit more controversial. It was meant as a way to ensure a minimum amount of effort and quality, but it's not the use of dark green grass instead of bright green fakes that make a game good. There was definitely some pushback against the new rules at the time, but since they impacted basically nobody who was actually active within the community they stuck around.
If you look at z2's news update history you'll find plenty of files that were never added to the archive and thus never preserved because of these rules. Who knows what got lost?
If you plan on actually playing School ZZT it won't take you long at all, and you won't enjoy it at all either. It really is a bad game, but it's a bad game with a legacy.
The Worlds of ZZT project is committed to the preservation of ZZT and its history.
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