Recently I was tagged in a tweet asking about the "must-play" ZZT games out there, both the "typical" and engine pushing. I wound up spending too much time on a list to reply with, and decided to turn it into a short article.
The worlds are divided up into three categories, traditional, impossible, and artistic (with some errata at the end).
TraditionalGames with mechanics that do what ZZT was designed to do
Town of ZZT / City of ZZT / Caves of ZZT / Dungeons of ZZT
by Tim Sweeney (1991)
The original worlds have sparse use of objects, very abstract locations, and a lot of iconic boards. All four of them are still excellent to play through today.
The Lost Monkeys
by Chris Jong (1993)
One of the most charming games I've ever played. Rescue two monkeys that ran away by traveling around the world, finding cool vehicles, and some of ZZT's nicest looking graphics for a game that doesn't use extended Super Tool Kit colors.
End Of The World
by Creator (1996)
A solid example of a reasonably short "wake up and save the world" game, where upon discovering a meteor is going to crash into the Earth, the protagonist ventures through castles and truck stops, and rescues the president in an attempt to stop it.
Flower Of Light
by Shujj (2004)
Most ZZT games (at least preserved) originate in either the US, UK, Netherlands, or Australia. This originates from (most likely) India and retells an old Indian story originating in the 1600s. This game is an excellent example of what was created by those who found ZZT without being involved in its community
Ned The Knight
by Jeremy LaMarr (1996)
Probably pushing the "traditional" here, but it's a straightforward adventure game about becoming an official knight of the king by completing various quests. What makes it stand out is that it is loaded with large animations that make it feel like a cartoon at times.
TechnicalGames with aspects that feel less like "good ZZT games" and more like "good indy games, that were made with ZZT"
by Mothingos (1995)
A huge number of ZZT worlds are centered around some sort of town, but Sivion stand out with how much it feels like it's populated by people rather than NPCs.
by MadTom (2002)
A game about breaking an entering, choose the right tools for the job in order to maximize profits and escape homes and offices undetected. Burglar! offers an unique style of gameplay, an elaborate pickpocketing contest, and a final mission which is genuinely really tense!
Psychic Solar War Adventure
by Commodore (2007)
The closest thing to a console RPG in ZZT. RPG battle engines were really popular but generally not well balanced. Commodore creates one which the same board can be used again and again for multiple battles. (Something very impressive!) The game has simple survival mechanics by requiring food that's consumed as you move through dungeons and the overworld: a ruined world dominated by unseen alien conquerers that a pair of twins with psychic powers are fated to defeat.
by MadGuy (1998)
A "simulation" of a fast food restaurant that plays sort of like an adventure game but with all the puzzles taking place in real time. The author cites "The Last Express" as inspiration. It turns 20 this year and I still haven't played anything outside of ZZT that I can compare it to. Considered by a huge margin of people to be the best ZZT game ever made.
Evil Sorcerer's Party
by Johnathan Wellington Wells (2003)
ZZT's grandest adventure, a four file epic containing incredible graphics and music, with an exciting political thriller (plus some dry humor) for it's story. Like many ZZT adventure games, it uses ZZT's cheat prompt as a method to let the player access their inventory.
ImpossibleGames that shouldn't be ZZT games but for some reason are
by WiL/KKairos (2001)
A procedurally generated (nearly) endless runner. The levels it produces are nothing more than jumbled masses of breakable walls, ammo, and lions, but having a ZZT game that never plays the same way twice was unheard of at the time.
by Jojoisjo (2001)
This game is actually all that fun to play, but the engine is a novel one which uses ZZT's rarely touched mouse control option and plays as a first-person point and click adventure game.
by Drake Wilson (2009)
Created by somebody who never interacted with the ZZT community directly, preposterous machines uses some very creative techniques to get ZZT to do numerous things thought to be impossible including Tetris, solving a Knight's Tour, and implementing Conway's Game of Life. Be sure to crank up the game speed!
by Masamune (1999)
An almost ZZT Tetris! It's a lot rougher around the edges (for one thing it has trominoes rather than tetrominoes) than the version in Preposterous Machines, but it was released a decade earlier and was generally thought to be completely impossible at the time of release.
ZZT Encyclopaedia 3C
by various, compiled by Chronos30 (1998)
An all purpose collection of various game engines and ZZT-OOP tricks submitted by the ZZT community and compiled across two worlds. This showcases a lot of things you can do with ZZT that go beyond just moving and shooting with the player.
ArtAll games are art, this category is a cop-out for games that feel "artistic"
by Benco (2017)
Combines four distinct and very basic puzzle concepts that wouldn't feel out of place in the original four worlds with numerous scrolls containing snippets of text messages, letters, and e-mails throughout a woman named Ana's high school and college years that form a compelling story with an ending that will give you goosebumps. The game also includes an original soundtrack, not as PC speaker songs, but as companion mp3s meant to be played as background music while playing.
by Commodore (2006)
ZZT has a lot of issues with action games since objects will constantly shoot each other while aiming for the player, and the bullets being projectiles make dodging often trivial. Commodore gets around this by designing the game to be played on ZZT's max speed which uncaps(?) the speed limit and through creative level geometry. (You'll have to tweak DosBox's CPU cycles to find something that feels right.) The game uses a custom font (run the .bat file) to modify ZZT's graphics and presents an action thriller inspired by Hideaki Anno, creator of of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame. (Be sure to click the .COM file first if using the Museum site's file viewer in order to render with the correct font)
Frost 1: Power / Frost 2: Ice
by Zenith Nadir with compositions by MadTom (2003/2007)
Two games by Nadir which tell the beginnings of a grand story that never really manages to get explained due to the incomplete nature of the series. In short, magic is banned, our protagonist Penny unintentionally kills a girl via magic she didn't know she had, and is exiled from the country all while something more sinister is beginning to kill some very important people. The game's cast is all anthropomorphic animals, incredibly well drawn despite ZZT's graphical limitations. The games also feature some of MadTom's music written for the game (a lot is unused and can only be heard by going to hidden boards via the editor) which gives it one of ZZT's best musical scores.
by Shane Nielsen (2009)
ZZT's biggest strength, and something which to this day nothing in my eyes has ever been able to compare to, is its ability to let children create games. Chowder is one (of many) games clearly made by a small child, who would not have otherwise had tools this powerful and simple enough were it not for ZZT, to create a fan game out of something they loved, in this case the cartoon series Chowder. Chowder stands out among these types of games (and there are tons of them of various quality throughout the years for various tv shows, video games, and other media), for being such an incredibly late release. This child made a game for MS-DOS in 2009.
by WiL (2001)
A CDs length of PC speaker music composed by WiL. This features a ton of original compositions for WiL's own games, songs written for others, and covers of some pop and video game music. If you want to listen to Celine Deon's "My Heart Will Go On" this is one way to do it.
OthersSome things to look for when searching for interesting ZZT worlds
This list is a compilation of games which have in the past received awards including "Game of the Month", "Classic Game of the Month", "MadTom's Pick", or just "Featured Game" status. GotM winners in dry months might not be so impressive, but you'll find a lot of ZZT's best here.
One of ZZT's most prolific group of developers, and responsible for a lot of quality titles in the late 1990s. At worst, you'll get something entertaining. At best, you'll get something truly amazing.
Easily ZZT's most influential developer, her titles inspired countless derivatives and feature very impressive programming for their time.
The ZZT community's unsung hero. Commodore joined the community just as things were beginning to die off, and most of his work while praised, never really became "iconic". His games are without a doubt some of the most impressive and still fun to play today.
Games based on media properties
If it was popular, somebody probably made a fan game of it. These are almost always bad, but you can definitely play ZZT games based on Doom, Quake, King's Quest, The X-Files, The Simpsons, Mario, Doctor Who, Pokemon, and a lot more. These are almost always worth checking out just to see how the conversion to a ZZT game went.
Anthony Testa, Draco, Flimsy Parkins, Hercules, Hydra, MadGuy, MadTom, Matt Williams, Quantum P., Tseng, WiL, Zenith Nadir
Software Visions/The Cookie Factory, Interactive Fantasies, Eaglerock Interactive, Mirror Image Games