Sid's Disaster

Aug. 11, 2002
26.8 KB
23 / 24
No rating

Closer Look: Sid's Disaster

By: Dr. Dos
Published: Dec. 31, 2020

Stalagtite platforming in a ZZT game? An engine that's rock solid copes with design that puts a few cracks in this spelunking adventure

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Still it's not particularly easy. Again, a lot of the challenge is simply understanding how Sid can move. He can move left and right as well as any other platform hero. His "up" is unmatched. His "down" though... well, there's not much he can do there. Sid can climb across the top of the board as it's considered a "blocked" tile just fine. It's kind of silly given the idea that this adventure is him climbing his way up a volcano so there should really just be more empty space above, but again, ZZT is going to ZZT. Some special objects that force Sid into free-fall lining the tops of the levels would be a quick fix, though I think Commodore mostly sticks with the approach of "you won't make progress if you do this", rendering the strategy moot. As in the video where this screenshot was taken, moving across the top puts Sid in a position where all he can do is drop. There is no swinging downward and it's impossible to perform any action while falling other than the "grab" command.


There's also the question of how to get the gold on this level. Even with this incorrect setup of ropes, it's at least possible to swing and work your way across the bottom and left sides of the first two ropes.


This arrangement actually works. A gold bar can be grabbed and the level can be exited.

But there's still a problem. Ropes are carried between levels and it's very very much possible to not have enough to proceed. I really want to like Sid's Disaster, and I honestly do enjoy it, but this is where the quality I expect from a Commodore release isn't shown. Again, this is one of his earliest releases. The reason that quality isn't to be found is that Commodore is still making his way towards achieving that level of quality in the first place. This is the rare instance of a game with some problems to address where I don't have to say "It's a shame they stopped making ZZT games" because Commodore did keep at it and became one of the names I most associate with well-made ZZT worlds. But for now, I have to go back to a previous save and try and shave off some rope usage.


Not that I don't appreciate the challenge! Returning here to level two I find an alternative path where a rope is thrown west and a leap is made to get the gold more easily. Finding these improved solutions is fun. It's hitting that hard stop when you realize an earlier mistake put you in an unwinnable solution that I begin to get annoyed.

Having a rope to throw lets Sid make his way to the rest of the level but there's still no more rope to cross the chasm. In the video, I make a leap from the top of level and fall too far to be able to use the grab command. Once you've fallen enough to begin taking fall damage (six or more tiles), the grab command stops working to simulate Sid falling so fast as to be unable to stop himself. I still need to go back and have two ropes. Well not really. In my playthrough here it hasn't really clicked that I could climb across the top of the screen even if the implication was that there was nothing above Sid to hold on to. It's possible to complete this level with a single rope, but it requires breaking kayfabe and walking across the air to do so. I'm unsure if this is meant to be a game mechanic, or if doing so goes against the intent of the game. A newer Commodore title would have doubtlessly disabled the mechanic on the ceiling or called it an "advanced strategy". Instead, I had two options. I could go all the way back to level one and be frustrated that all the time I had spent with the game so far was a waste as I started from scratch. Alternatively, I could just replay the previous level and skip the gold which felt more like it was a trap rather than a reward by this point. Had I thought about climbing on the ceiling, I absolutely would have. I wound up just starting over out of fear that I'd just make it to the next level and still not have enough ropes.


At least level four was clearly meant as a breather where all Sid had to do was climb up a steep cliff-side, swinging into some recesses to restore his strength in order to finish the long climb.

God. Damnit.


That's better. Obviously there was more to level four than just climbing up a wall. Clearly a far more challenging path was available with an alternate exit! Finally, the kind of thing I was hoping for in <insert Lemmings-clone here> was becoming a reality. Treasure and alternate routes to make the puzzles a bit more involved than just bashing a wall and building a diagonal staircase. For now though, I was content to just move ahead on the standard path. The alternate levels could come later.

Level five (referred to as 5 - 1 in the board title to differentiate the two paths) starts with an interesting design. Sid can't make it to the platform by just climbing across the ceiling as there's a spike in the way. This leads to a choice of using a rope or taking a risk and manually dropping Sid down just before the spike and timing the grab command at just the right time to save himself. Normally I'd say that's really good! The player is given multiple options, one being safer but using up a limited resource, and the other being riskier but letting Sid keep his supplies. Alas with the issues encountered earlier, Commodore has unintentionally conditioned me at this point to avoid using ropes whenever possible. If that aversion wasn't there, this would be great. What's also worth noting in this video is the mispositioned jump that causes Sid to fall quite a bit before grabbing a wall at the last moment. This turns out to be me abusing a bug in Sid's code that allows you to fall as much as you want without taking any fall damage. Normally after dropping more than five tiles the grab command will no longer function (by having the Sid object move to an alternate falling routine that also clears the "grab" flag constantly). However, if you grab at the air before falling too far, even if Sid can't catch himself his code will go back to the beginning where the :fal labels are restored. This isn't that abusable of a bug as it's so rare for you to want Sid to fall down in the first place, but if you're that worried that a fall will be fatal you can save Sid. This video also demonstrates another movement quirk of Sids, which is that the object #locks itself when you leap, meaning that while Sid can jump face first into a wall, he will move south at the end of the jump if possible in my case, descending straight onto a spike and dying.


Instead Sid needs to make a leap to land on that narrow ledge and descend into the... frog pit. Once he's there the rest of the level is a breeze as a hidden recess provides the two ropes needed to finish the level. The first being thrown to get to the top ledge and crawl across beneath it, and then the second to get on top of that same ledge.


Level six starts with some unusual behavior as there's a stray white solid on the board, and it happens to be next to some ammo which sees that it's blocked and is thus immediately collected before Sid can even begin moving through the level proper.


There's some mandatory rope usage, but the last level was generous enough to provide the two needed for this level at its end. Thank goodness. Level six gives some enemy variety, featuring bats, a troll, and bigfoot himself. The enemies don't do a lot to differentiate themselves. Bigfoot jumps up and down and shoots. The troll just shoots. Since both will only fire when they're on the ground there's really no difference in dealing with them other than bigfoot potentially leaping over one of your bullets.


After taking out the troll and grabbing some gold and bread as a reward, Sid still needs to find a way to the left side of the board. At first glance, the solution seems to be to once again free-fall and catch onto the ledge. This isn't a valid solution as it's just long enough of a fall for Sid to be locked out of grabbing (unless you spam grab mid-fall to reset the counter). Leaping will work, but mean mandatory fall damage.


My first attempt of using a rope wasn't very well planned. I had wanted to use it to reach the ceiling above, not thinking that it would still require Sid to suffer a very large fall. I had the health to survive and made my way past the bigfoot, using bullets to destroy his own rather than killing him outright. Then Sid suffered a sudden heart-attack and died? Very mysterious. At the time I had no idea what had happened, and for now I'll leave it as a puzzle to the reader because soon the true culprit will reveal itself.


The next time I made my plunge off the second rope from a far lower point (still enough to take fall damage though). The rest of the level went smoothly.


Looking at level seven those spikes along the top are standing out to me. They're clearly not part of the explorable level and do a great job giving the volcano a sense of space. It feels a lot more like Sid is climbing through a natural environment rather than the game being a series of boards of hand-crafted challenges. What's impressive is that if you jump ahead to level eight, you'll find that same spike pattern running along the bottom of the level! This is exactly the sort of attention to detail I'd expect from a Commodore release. The thing is, if you actually flip back through every level, they all do this! The start of every level is patterned after the end of the previous. It's very subtle when it's just a mess of brown walls, but the spikes finally make it obvious. I think this sort of thing is really cool and will definitely include a map of the volcano at the end of this article.


Commodore has one last trick up his sleeve, and that's to suddenly change the rules of rope. I do genuinely think the game suffers with the ropes being carried from level to level. Most challenges can be made trivial if you're willing to spend the ropes on it, yet you also never want to use them unless you have to as there's no way to tell what's going to come along and require some rope. This genie in a lamp is kind of a weird way to solve the issue midway through the game, but it gives Commodore a clean slate where he knows exactly how many ropes the player will have afterwards. Zero.


I quickly mess things up. The bridge spans the gap just fine, but climbing up it means being spiked.

Instead a very tight combination of falling and immediately grabbing a ledge is needed. Once that's complete the rest of the level is just a vertical climb, a moment of confusion, and then realizing that a horizontal rope will let Sid jump up to the ceiling safely. There is an alternate solution where Sid throws a second rope up from the first rope bridge, but this requires the bats to cooperate enough to let Sid be able to swing his way up. Then he needs to climb into a small alcove and shoot away some breakables to be able to climb across the ceiling for the rest. It's definitely harder, but having more solutions is a good thing.


Level eight! Notable because the two paths from level four merge once more putting Sid on this level no matter which way he takes. This one looks like there are a lot of options, climbing the right wall, taking the bottom path and climbing your way up some platforms, but it's actually pretty particular.

The lower route, despite all the spikes is the way to go. Attempting to hug the right wall you'll run into a snag where throwing a rope will block Sid from being able to climb across it. A few precise jumps along the bottom combined with some ropes thrown upward give Sid the reach to make it to the top of the level with a rope to spare. From there he can either climb across the open ceiling, or throw one last rope to the left and end the stage with a leap to towards the exit. The known rope count upon entering this one would leave me to believe that Commodore doesn't intend you to climb across the ceiling. There's still the matter of how to get the gold though. In my original playthrough I simply skipped it. It turns out this was for the best as the gold is bugged to only check if it's blocked west in order to pick it up. You can still manage to get to it with some yet more precise ropes starting with a vertical one not from the spot where it's thrown in the video, but by standing on top of the left facing spike that's next to it. This gives you the room needed to climb from there and throw a rope west, avoiding hitting a spike with it, and letting Sid safely leap from the rope to the gold and back. A final rope up can be climbed to finish the level with the same leap west. Obviously the gold only working from the left is a bug as it would be easy enough to just block it on the right if it wasn't meant to be collected from that side, but I was curious if Sid could somehow collect it anyway. Taking advantage of the terrain being made of breakable walls, it does look like you can burrow through the walls a little bit below the gold and climb up, but a single breakable above Sid prevents this. It would almost be a cool Easter egg that way.

Remember Sid's sudden game over in level six? The cause of that should be much more apparent now. Yes, having a bullet block a spike is enough to cause a game over as the game thinks Sid has been impaled. This is a nasty bug for sure! The volcano time limit doesn't matter nearly as much as the RNG timer for when a bullet will hit a spike. The good news is that the opening to this level doesn't require anything that can't be done quickly. It's pretty easy to get Sid in a position to shoot the frog that's shooting at the spike and be able to play the rest of the level without fear of dying due to something the player has no control over. It can be dealt with, but I'm amazed it's in here to begin with! Even without finding ways to improve the spike code, this could be averted by just placing a wall to block the shot and having Sid climb up a single extra tile.


But even with the frog out of the picture, this level still doesn't sit right with me. Upon reaching this point, the only way to get to the exit is to use another rope. The only way to have a second rope here is if you brought one from levels eight or seven. Both levels appear to give Sid exactly the number of ropes necessary to complete them unless you climb across the air-ceiling in level eight. I suspected this mechanic was a simple oversight, and realizing that the levels actually do connect with each other only furthers my case that you're not meant to climb in such a manner, but as far as I can tell, there is no other way to be able to finish this level. It's disappointing!


The tenth and final level plays with the formula one last time. This time, instead of an exit arrow there's a purple smiley face with a heart over her head. There's also a yellow smiley face that isn't as lovely.


Alright. This is how this game is going to end.

Despite the circumstances of the level. It does work quite well! There's been this timer for the volcano erupting the entire time and it's never felt relevant. Here though, Sid has to outrace lava to the exit. It changes the way this level is approached with no more carefully counting tiles before leaping or considering if throwing a rope will block something (be it the way forward or a spike). The level demands that Sid moves through it fast. Plenty of games before this one have had the player outrun slimes like this. Most of them have an object check for a lack of slimes remaining and use that as a way to be sure that the player must be engulfed and the level flooded. Commodore doesn't actually do this here, instead just relying on a soft-lock if Sid gets trapped in lava and letting the player quit manually. At least he does alter the spike code so that they'll try to shoot away a breakable wall before declaring Sid dead.

The slime not actually being dangerous means Sid can fairly easily block it off in a chokepoint and then play the rest of the level at his leisure. I didn't even intend to do this, and fully expected to die once the slimes disappeared. In the end though, Sid reaches the lady, has sex with her, and is saved from the volcano god. Right. Fine.


As an ending, it's kind of abrupt and not that satisfying. Fitting for his first time. Luckily, we still need to check out the alternate path and see how those levels fare.


The fact that there's an alternate path isn't hidden at all. You can see the second passage also get revealed when you finish the level normally. It's also clearly marked as being the more challenging path by virtue of the many many spikes in contrast to this level otherwise being the simplest. Of course, getting to the alternate exit requires some creative solutions.


When Sid finally reaches the spikes it doesn't take long to realize that there's no way to actually get past them. A rope will kill Sid on the spikes and block the path regardless. Jumping to the right side means dropping onto a spike afterwards. Leaping also means getting spiked. For a moment, I feared the worst and that this path was unintentionally impossible to access.


But then I saw it. By standing next to this water, Sid could shoot away a breakable and drop down into a lower part of the level. It's obstructed with more walls, but they're breakable and can be destroyed easily enough.


I'm very torn on whether or not this is actually clever. On the one hand, yeah, this is a unique puzzle where you have to acknowledge the fact that this is a ZZT game and what we call "shading" means using walls with properties beyond just obstructing the player/Sid. On the other hand, you have to acknowledge the fact that this is a ZZT game and break the generally accepted agreement that walls with properties beyond just obstructed the player/Sid are going to be used for shading instead! So many ZZT games will use breakables and water in a way that the player can still shoot at/through them, but that's the cost of having prettier looking games. It's usually just a minor nuisance and not a secret gameplay mechanic. There are certainly other breakable walls in Sid's Disaster that can be shot out, but as they're meant to be for shading it's expected that the player won't bother doing so. Admittedly, level five does have some ropes behind breakables, but it's made much clearer that you're supposed to do this. A player already willing to break the agreement even if it means cheesing the game might even notice this correct path, and think they outsmarted the game by finding an oversight, fully expecting that the spike-laden upper area of this level is clearable! Methodology aside though, this game offering up a few special levels is a nice bonus. In theory at least...


Welcome to level 5 - 2. Sid's got his work cut out for him here. He'll have to take out some bats, leap across a lava pit, grab on to a stalactite, swing around it, shoot a frog, throw a rope, and squeeze through a tight spike-lined passage. It sounds tough, but fun! A level that really uses all of Sid's abilities and slipping up doesn't mean taking a tumble and losing health, but an instant death from the lava.


Just kidding! There wouldn't be a way to get from the left side of the stalactite to the right. You just do the same gimmick of shooting through the walls immediately after doing just that. It's such a disappointment. It's not fun, and it's not clever to have the exact same solution as the previous level!


I don't even have a screenshot of 6 - 2 that doesn't have Sid already dead in it. That's because Sid doesn't do much in this level other than die. This is doubtless the worst level in the game and where issues with spikes/lava come into full effect. Three bats will randomly swoop and shoot, and if any happen to shoot over the three level tiles they're above, Sid will be killed. This was an inconvenience back in level nine, but a fast moving player could pretty easily shoot the frog there quickly enough to prevent the bug. Here there's no such luck. Sid would have to make a leap, do some climbing, throw a rope, shoot two bats, climb a ceiling, swing up, and then shoot the top-most bat. Is it possible? Probably. Did I try? Yes. I'm that dumb.

I mean, I had to make a time-lapse of all my attempts! It was a complete waste of my time, and it's entirely my own fault for not cheating sooner.


Tired: The floor is lava.
Wired: The lava is wall. Once I erased the lava object and could actually play the level it went a lot more smoothly! Just that one rope is enough to get to the end, but after sinking so much time into this level I had to get the gold as well. This level also does a great job of illustrating just how good Sid is at climbing. He managed to make it from that lower rope bridge to this upper platform without having to stop and rest. It's another mechanic that just doesn't come into play. One more leap to get across the gap and the world's shortest rope throw later, and the nightmare was over.

The true final level is exciting because it's the first level I managed to beat on my first try. And it still uses the shooting through walls gimmick. For this final level though, shooting the walls doesn't grant Sid a free ride to the exit. You get to play the level still! This one does things right. The shooting is incorporated into the gameplay as opposed to just being the trick to winning, and leads to that really satisfying moment of Sid shooting away part of a wall while hanging on a wall before leaping off and grabbing onto the wall that's now behind him. The final area offers up two ropes, and a skillful player can get through with just one. (ie, not me.) While I haven't been fond of Commodore's strict requirements of carrying ropes from previous levels to make later ones possible at all, you can clear this level with a spare and be able to finish the rest of the game without weird ceiling climbing. The end result is that this one level is actually quite good! It's just a shame that it's dragged down by the other levels on the alternate path being a repeated gimmick and one that's just outright broken.

Final Thoughts

Does Sid's Disaster have problems? Yeah. It suffers from some major flaws in buggy spikes and a poorly handled situation of providing the player with enough ropes to complete the game. The final level takes a reasonably serious game and turns it into a sex joke. The menu based system of inputs isn't particularly elegant (though it's not one that could easily be fixed either). For lesser problems, the game isn't particularly fine-tuned in regards to balance. The global timer for the volcano erupting doesn't mesh with the flow of the game. It can be safely ignored, and if the time was tighter I think it would be too easy to run into situations where you'd have to restart to make up for lost time. The energy meter for climbing is another system that never really matters. Sid rarely needs to climb long enough distances for this meter to matter either.

Most of this could be fixed. I think Sid's Disaster would be better off if the timer and ropes were per-level, and the challenge could be improved by requiring smarter climbing techniques rather than having to guess how many ropes you'll need later on. The game's enemies are bland making the shooting mostly feel tacked-on. Shooting out walls to reveal hidden paths doesn't feel fun. I'd have loved to see shooting used more like it was in 7 - 2. Have Sid carve out resting areas for long climbs or clear some rock out of the way to make a leap possible. Maybe have some spike variant that can be shot to knock a stalactite down either clearing a way for Sid to move across the ceiling, or to use to raise himself up an extra tile from the ground to make a leap possible.

Playing Sid's Disaster definitely means dealing with some frustrations, but Commodore puts forth an impressive effort. Even when considering the game's flaws, Commodore really has created something special here. The way Sid moves through levels works great for ZZT, and this is hands down the best platformer engine I've seen yet. It's just rather than taking things to new heights, the bar Commodore is raising here is one that started rather low. This is a game that could have done with a sequel as I think the Commodore of a few years later could have easily cleaned up the bugs and really astounded with some creative level design.

When the game is working out, it's quite satisfying to play. Leaping from wall to wall and swinging your way up jagged terrain that in most games would be un-navigable makes Sid stand out. Its setting is fairly unique, and while it definitely gives Spelunky vibes as you explore the volcano hunting for gold and throwing ropes so you can better make your way through its levels, I want to make sure to point out that this game actually predates Spelunky by six years. You'll pick up those vibes before you finish the first level, and realizing Commodore wasn't trying to adapt something to ZZT but create something wholly original only serves to make its commitment to movement above all else that much more impressive.

So Sid's Disaster isn't the kind of game I'd call one of the greatest ZZT games out there, but it is definitely one worth checking out. The creative approach to ZZT platforming here takes one of its most challenging genres to do well and makes it clear that something better is possible. It'll leave you wanting more, with a clear recognition that there's something special here that just needs to be developed a little further to meet its potential. I would argue that this was definitely the game that put Commodore and Mirror Image Games on the map as rising names to look out for in the ZZT community.

Oh yeah, I said I'd include a map of the volcano. Ther are a few minor inconsistencies and the side passage can't quite connect flush with the rest of the levels, but it's really impressive to behold! (Click for full image.)

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