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Closer Look: Zem! and Zem! 2

Newt's Lemmings inspired "ZZT games to pass time"

Authored By: Dr. Dos
Published: Aug 24, 2016
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Zem!/Zem! 2

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By: Newt
Released: Dec. 14, 1998 / Jan. 23, 1999

Zem! is a puzzle game created by Newt which has a sequel released very shortly after. With the sheer number of abandoned games started by ZZTers over the years, it's a surprise to see this one got one so quickly. It's a game I remember playing in my early years of the ZZT community, and one I can recall enjoying quite a bit. It's also pretty short, and as such I'll be covering its sequel as well. You'll soon see that there isn't a ton to say about the first game in the Zem! series.


The game's title screen features a very low contrast dark red on brown logo, but what does pop out is the additional options to learn about the game and how to play it by pressing arrow keys.

To get a little more technical, when you load a ZZT world, you don't begin playing the world immediately, and instead get to look at its title screen before pressing "P" to play. ZZT has some very peculiar ways of handling input, and on the title screen of each world, when the game is not in its play state, it replaces the player element with something called a "monitor", which is an invisible tile that reacts to the keys used on the title screen for things like opening the world list, or calling the high score table.

One thing that this means is that you're always going to have a blank tile on your title screen. (Such as the top left corner of the title screen from The Evil Saga.)

(It also means you can put monitors on boards in normal gameplay, and then if the player presses a key used on the title screen, they'll be yanked back to it, instantly quitting the game. It's very peculiar.)

So that player in the lower right of Zem!'s title isn't a normal player, but a second "player clone" as they tend to be called. Like monitors, they have their own strange behavior related to ZZT's ways of handling input. Essentially, ZZT always assumes that the first element on a board that has stats is either the player, or a monitor. Many functions of the game take advantage of this, such as when you have an object "#go seek" to move towards the player, it just moves towards the X/Y position of the first stat element.

At the same time player clones also use their own stats in certain situations. In this case, attempting to move up or left will make ZZT run through its list of elements with stats, something like this when you press left

  1. Monitor -- Do nothing
  2. Player Clone -- Try moving left of your current position, which is blocked, so try sending the element to your left to the ":touch" label
  3. How to Play object -- Receive ":touch" event and execute code from there

What ends up happening, is that despite the world not being "played", it can still be interacted with by using a player clone to touch objects!

A lot of more complex ZZT games take advantage of this behavior within the game itself. Some creative use of player clones allowing you to not only tell which directional arrow the player just pressed, but also detect which direction was just shot in as well.


Sorry for the whole mess of words about monitor and player clones, which in fact have nothing to do with how Zem! is actually played!

Zem! is actually a loose interpretation of Lemmings for ZZT. Rather than directly interact with the Lemmings themselves, the player instead controls a cursor which can place blocks for Zem to climb over, or be blocked by.


And here we see the incredible without context message about bird poop on bridges being mandatory in level seven.


A brief disclaimer that this game is in fact not a Psygnosis production! As for Creepers, reading up on it, it sounds more like it's a more child friendly version of The Incredible Machine. I hadn't heard of it prior to this game.


The author's website is advertised, but unfortunately is not available on The Internet Archive.


ZZT's limitations are on full display here. Messages of "Please don't do <X>, it's cheating" can be found in a lot of games where the behavior of ZZT means a lot of things can be exploited. In this case, ZZT only have a single layer means that the cursor can act as a wall like any other as far as Zem is concerned, who has no way to be able to distinguish what elements surround him. Similarly, nothing stops environmental hazards that kill Zem from being able to tell that Zem is what fell onto them rather than your cursor or a wall placed next to them.


There's still some rudimentary anti-cheat code! The game checks both that the exit portal is blocked in one direction, and then that Zem is blocked in the opposite direction to try and verify that you finished a level properly.

Unlike the Pond, zzt.net is partially archived! The domain's had quite a life, being used for writing about JavaScript, Ham radios, and of course ZZT. Here's the ZZT version, which itself seems like the site was never finished. But it does have a cool animated gif of some ZZT tigers.

The Picks section mentions their criteria to get your game added and threatens that it will be removed for excessive vulgar language!


And so finally, the game can begin proper. This game is non-traditional, relying on what ZZTers would call an engine, a system of objects that interact with each other to play ZZT in a way other than the standard "move the player in four directions" way of doing things.


You still control that player, but you'll instead be touching objects shaped like arrows to send commands to a plotter object which will move accordingly. The controls are a bit awkward in that you have to move down once to be able to reach the down arrow and the button to plot a bridge. It's easy to slip up because of this, but it's rarely anything that prevents you from completing a level.


Zem moves on his own, climbing over short walls, and turning around when he reaches a tall wall. He moves fairly slowly to make sure that the player has time to build their bridges. A lot of Zem! is finishing a level and having to wait for Zem to arrive at his goal.


Okay, get ready to speedrun Zem! because there is very very little to it.


Level 2 makes you use the plotter to create a wall Zem can't scale, making him turn around and head to the exit instead.


Level 3 makes you create a staircase for Zem to climb to get to the exit portal.


Level 4 makes you make two bridges.


Level 5 is interesting!

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Instead of plotting, you have to push boulders around to make the bridge for Zem.


Level 6 introduces a bird who "poos" by shooting a bullet down the screen. Since your bridges are made of breakable walls, they can be destroyed by this so you may have to repair the bridge.


It also forgets to change the exit message to the correct level number.


Level 7 is the level with required bird poop. Normally the game prevents you from overwriting non-empty tiles, but here you get to use the breakable bridges and the bird poop to dig.


By turning a tile into a destructible one, it can then be shot away, slowly descending Zem.


In the control area of level 8, the game's author makes a cameo. Zem moves so slowly that you're not wasting any time.


This is also the level with the entrance to the secret level. I had to look in the editor to figure it out. It's not actually tied to the gameplay. There's just a dark blue on dark blue passage in the control area you can stumble into with zero hints that it's there.

When I found out in the editor that this was the board with the secret exit I thought it might be something like getting Zem to that lower left area where there's a spot free of spikes.

There's also a Z that flashes once and never again? I expected it to spell out Zem or something, but it's just there for no real reason.


The solution, is stairs.


The secret level is a rehash of the first, with a cameo of one of the characters from another Newt game, "The Punctuation People". This isn't told in game, only if you edit the object is anything explained.


Level 9 has another cameo, this time of the player from the ZZT clone, Megazeux.


And then you build a bridge. I tried to write "HI" before the level was completed with all my spare time.


Aha! Some danger! Spinning red blades are scattered throughout the 10th level.


Build a bridge. Build a wall. Build a bridge.


And don't accidentally build a wall next to a chopper.


Level 11 lets the player know they're almost done.


And then demands long walks off some short piers.


The final level does speed Zem up, but also starts with him trapped behind a hill so you have all the time you need to create a path for him.


The brown bridge falls when something steps on it so you'll need to make your own.


And then, when you finally finished the final level, you'll discover that it's bugged! The exit object's code is blank so you'll never be able to finish the level.


You'll have to cheat by typing a ? to open up the cheat dialog box. From there "zap" will replace the four tiles bordering the player with empties, allowing you to escape into the exit.

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And that's Zem! It is not particularly good. The game moves very slowly, and nearly every level plays exactly the same way.

Something like bonus points based on how fast you can complete a level (and a button to speed up Zem), some collectible trinkets, or really anything to add a bit of depth to the levels would go a long way.

The good news is that Zem! 2 is a considerable improvement and gets rid of the plotter system entirely.

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