Plankton: Undersea AdventureBy: gingermuffins
Released: June 06, 2007
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If you look at the spectrum of ZZT games released over the years, you'll find a lot of game concepts that take root for awhile and become almost expected for games of their vintage. There's almost a line to trace of games about collecting purple keys, to Barney the dinosaur (most likely being shot), to RPG inspired boss battles. You can definitely start to get a feel for when a game was released by gameplay mechanics just as well as pop culture references.
Without a doubt, the biggest dividing line in ZZT's history was Alexis Janson's release of Super Tool Kit in 1994, dramatically increasing the available colors for graphics. It is almost certain that a game without any STK colors is from before its release, especially when by the late 90s, zzt.org made it mandatory in order for games to be considered of acceptable quality to add to their archive.
But 1994 is pretty early in ZZT's lifespan. At most it's four years out of what is readily approaching thirty. While you won't find a moment so clearly marking the start of a new era in ZZT other than STK, I would argue that Gingermuffins's release of Plankton: Undersea Adventure in 2007 is the third era of ZZT, and our current one. Plankton, is a lovely little game, but it's not anything within ZZT that makes it the start of the latest epoch. It's how you play it. Gingermuffins created the first ZZT game which was designed to be played in ZZT using DosBox rather than running the game natively on an OS that supported it.
By 2007, it was apparent that whatever future there was for ZZT, it was going to be one directly tied to the use of DosBox. You could still run ZZT on Windows Vista (provided it was a 32-bit edition), but it was clear that the clock was winding down for ZZT. The community itself was entering its slumber in terms of releases. This is the time where you made a ZZT game not because it was the only tool you had to make a game, but because you wanted to make, explicitly, a ZZT game.
DosBox, as incredible of a program as it may be, doesn't quite get along 100% with ZZT. Neither of its methods of handling CPU cores are ideal for ZZT. Set the cycles too low, and the game will chug, something unheard of in previous years. Set the cycles too high, and hope your audio doesn't get distorted, causing things like stuttering footstep sound effects, and almost demanding you shut the audio off. Use the auto mode and let DosBox request as much CPU as it needs, and suddenly, board transitions and file loading somehow go from nigh-instantaneous to taking several seconds.
Gingermuffins has specifically tuned Plankton to behave the way he wanted with DosBox's default 3000 cycles and the game speed set to the maximum. Adjusting ZZT's game speed was almost never used (although a lot of engines smooth out a lot more at higher speeds). At the maximum, the limit is pretty much "whatever your CPU can handle", which obviously in this case is 3000 cycles.
One other unusual choice of how to play, is that Plankton: Undersea Adventure is designed to be played with a mouse. If you've played your EGA era shareware, you've probably run into a lot of games that offer mouse controls despite that being woefully inadequate, and ZZT is no exception to this. There's really only one other ZZT game out there designed to be played with the mouse, JoJoIsJo's 4. While 4 was novel if no better for using the mouse, Plankton would be drastically different without abiding by the rules decided upon for how it should be played.
I went into this game expecting the speed settings to be a sort of reasonable balance to roughly keep DosBox functioning as you'd expect MS-DOS to handle ZZT. The reality is that this game runs quite fast, and takes advantage of that with the loose controls of the mouse to give you fluid movement from board to board, and demanding the player navigates perils with precision that would be effortless with a keyboard. The system works here, and it works very well.
So what exactly are you playing here?
The story behind the game is interesting, if not really explored. You were aboard a submarine examining a mysterious hollow glacier, when suddenly the glacier charged it the sub. Obviously something weird is going on. The nameless protagonist has escaped from their wrecked sub, and has enough oxygen to last for a week. Their goal is to find a way back to the surface.
It's weird and goes unspoken for the rest of the game. There's a cool story that could possibly be told here, but really the story is superficial and serves as an excuse to put the player underwater and have them want to not be underwater. That there's a time limit mentioned of one week is an odd detail to include. The game has no time limit, and takes no more than an hour to complete. It could've been any old scuba gear just as well.
The mouse controls for ZZT are used so infrequently that Gingermuffins is nice enough to explain them to the player. "To shoot, use the left clicker". Since ZZT is running at incredibly fast speeds, it is basically impossible to shoot just a single bullet, with even the smallest of clicks firing off a dozen shots. Ammo is plentiful (though Gingermuffins warns not to be too careless), and most enemies go down in one bullet. The rapid burst of fire makes Plankton feel unlike shooting in any other ZZT world I've played.
mouse button clicker can be held to lock the player to travel
only in the first direction they move in since it can be a challenge to move in
a straight line unlike with a keyboard. Due to the speed at which the game runs though, moving this way often
instantly zips the player across the screen until they hit a wall. The rate
they actually travel at is inconsistently tied to how busy the board is, so
it's a bit finicky. Gingermuffins says its use is optional, but I found a few
points where it definitely helped.
The gameplay is pretty simple in part due to the speed the game has to run at. Most boards consist of clearing paths through seaweed, navigating corners without bumping into spikes, and shooting at tiny enemies that will very very quickly rush at the player. Fighting them actually feels good since bullets move fast enough for once that attacking from long ranges is viable for your accuracy. The enemies swarm the player, but don't push them around which prevents the frustration of being pinned to a wall. At the same time, it can be tough to get away from them if they do get close, at least without zipping into some spikes. The combat works in a way that ZZT's combat typically doesn't. There's thought to put into the enemies, despite their ultimate simplicity.
And speaking of putting thought into things, since left clicking shoots and closes message windows, Gingermuffins was wise enough to make every message in the game require the player to select a hyperlink to close the window. It's very easy even at ZZT's normal speed to miss out on dialog when fighting bosses and not realizing you've won and don't need to keep shooting. The game is aware of potential downfalls and does its best to ignore them.
Plankton is pretty short overall. It would be of modest length normally, but the speed at which it is played makes it a lot quicker to travel from board to board. Even the backtracking isn't an issue when being played at such a high speed. There are still a few unique ideas presented throughout however!
Early on the player will begin to explore a sunken ship. There's a generic Sokobon sort of puzzle here with the object being to put boulders on top of fake walls to cover them all and do something or other. At such speeds it would be very simple to push a boulder into a corner and break the game. Gingermuffins gets around this by mixing things up so that the crates the player interacts with can only be _pulled_ towards the player, making it significantly harder (though still possible) to get stuck.
Another environmental challenge presented by the game is navigating tight spaces. One board consists of several bombs and requires the player to very gently maneuver through without touching any. Again, fast speed comes into play here as lighting one of ZZT's bombs results in a near instantaneous detonation rather than a drawn out countdown. Speedrunning ZZT games isn't really something that gets done very often, but the emphasis on careful and precise movement lend this game to it quite well.
Another board involves exploring the lower deck of the sunken ship where there is no light. This is done with an invisible maze, but not in either of the styles you'd typically see in a ZZT world. Generally these mazes are the unfun and tedious kinds of mazes with walls that reveal one tile at a time as the player bumps into one. The other, being the more tolerable variant which uses objects to cause the entire maze to become visible momentarily before fading out when a wall is touched. With the ability to very rapidly hit a dozen a walls, Gingermuffins took a third option, of having the walls reveals themselves like normal, but slowly fade out. At normal speeds this would likely be awful, but here it creates are very unique look as the fade is very slow in comparison.
Of course, for as unique and enjoyable the game is, it does have some issues here and there to pick at. At least one pair of adjacent boards doesn't quite line up properly, making it possible to not leave the board from certain spaces that look like they should be exits.
It's also very linear. This is pretty subjective as a complaint to be fair, but to me at least the ocean and the surreal story here brings exploration to mind, but it feels very restrictive here. You can never really go more than one board in the wrong direction. I think an open hub with some different locations to explore in any order may have fit the theme a bit better. There's a brief hint of such a thing at the end, where the player is tasked with getting several keys into order to finally reach the surface, but this involves basically traveling one or two boards over and they're rather empty aside from the areas with the keys themselves.
Still, Gingermuffins overall creates something that stands out and stands out nicely, incorporates the almost never used game speed and mouse features of ZZT, and does so quite nicely. It feels very good to play, and is one of those few ZZT games where it doesn't really feel like you're playing a ZZT game, but rather a game that stands on its own, outside of confines of the medium and community it was created for.
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