The City of ZZT

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Closer Looks: Six Games With Six Boards

All cop-outs are bastards as we explore Police Quest plus five other extremely short worlds of dubious quality

Authored By: Dr. Dos
Published: Feb 15, 2020
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And finally, our last game is Haunted House by Chris and Melissa Kohler. This one is notable as there are quite a few worlds out there by Chris, most infamously the Yoshi series of games. Asie found a few of his earlier games via and this is one such title. This game feels so heartwarming since it's a collaboration between two family members combining their skills to make one ZZT game.

Ultimately, it's still going to be very simplistic, but the list of items on the title screen does at least give it the appearance of being a more complex game. It's got marbles and a boomerang, and you have a bat so I'm already interested.


So yeah, we're still talking about a game made by kids here. Haunted House is going to look the same as anything else we've seen (barring Wayne's World Hockey's title screen), mostly consisting of big rooms with little inside them.


This game is completely sincere in a way the other games haven't felt. This isn't a mere bad ZZT game, this is a bad ZZT game where you hope the authors keep at it because they're very clearly figuring things out and can go on to do something great.

I was also saddened to discover that your pet bat isn't a pet bat, but a baseball bat to be used as a weapon against the ghosts in this strange haunted house you woke up in.


The game feels like a children's storybook (which I suppose is appropriate being made by children). You grab an item and then use the item to proceed. The ghosts walk in squares and do no direct harm to the player. Touching one with the bat will defeat it, but touching one without the bat will result in a message about the ghost killing you and the need to pick up the baseball bat. I didn't see the death message in my playthrough so I was surprised to see it jump to the player being "killed". It's a more violent framing than expected.

Once all the ghosts are defeated, the door out opens and the player can begin exploring the haunted house.


The house is a bit empty, but there are a ton of scrolls which tell the story in a way you don't really see in most ZZT games. The storybook feel really gets hammered in here where you read a scroll that tells you what the player does next and then you get to actually do it. It's really cute.


The bat is discarded for something a little more dangerous for a child to have.


It's great. The game is explaining itself for me.


Not only is there a haunted house, but there's also going to be a graveyard the player has to be brave enough to cross if they want to escape.


This is how you know somebody grew up playing a lot of 8-bit and 16-bit video games.

One time I convinced somebody that the NES actually had a "boomerang chip" in it to aid in the physics for an object being thrown, spinning, and turning back, lying through my teeth that this was the reason why so many games had boomerangs in them.


The scroll for getting up to the attic kind of doubles up on its narration as touching the window doesn't do anything.


Back downstairs picking up the key also causes a stairway to appear to let the player descend. Spooky.


The second floor has a very prominent object in the left room. It certainly looks important being placed up high like that. From the title screen we know that it's going to be the marbles.


But first the narrative demands the trapdoor be unlocked with the key from the previous floor.


Tired: Kitchen with marble counter-tops
Wired: Kitchen with marbles


Uh oh! This haunted house has been pretty peaceful for awhile, but now it's time to break out the bat, the boomerang, and the marbles.


This is an extremely good mental image. The monster isn't running after you and slipping on the marbles, they're standing still, have some marbles thrown at them and just collapse.

Like the bat for the ghosts, the monster is either defeated with their weakness or else they kill the player instantly (and the game informs you to pick up the item next time).


The protagonist escapes from the haunted house, but they're not safe yet. There's still a graveyard to cross.


Like any good game, the graves can be read. I wonder if James is meant to be a reference to an actual person or just a made up name.


Up top is a locked door that requires the 522 code from the grave to open. There's no inputting the password, just a flag for whether or not the player has read the grave.


This is where Haunted House kind of loses the plot a little.


The house is no longer a concern, and the player has flown off to a rather interesting looking town via a magic cloud. This feels very Dragon Ball suddenly.


There aren't any invisible walls or objects pushing the player to force them to descend with the cloud. You can just run around freely through the sky if you like.


At least there's a new goal now. Find the idol and make a wish.


It isn't a very long quest. The only thing here really is the wall and the bottom tile is fake.


Okay, so really it is still all connected.


Be careful what you wish for.


Like most things in Haunted House, problems are solved pretty much as soon as you learn about them. Your own home is far less nice than the haunted house was. I was glad to see family members show up after reading the last scroll and not just opening a door to an empty closet and calling it a day.

Final Thoughts

This one was really charming!

There's little to actually do in it, but everything feels significant. (Except the boomerang, which never gets used and doesn't even set a flag when it's collected.) This is a story told through ZZT first and foremost. It's not about shooting marbles and boomerangs, but about experiencing the strange journey of waking up in a haunted house and having to rescue your family from ghosts.

The game specifically crediting the story to Melissa and programming to Chris makes me suspect that this was an elementary school writing assignment (or perhaps a story written for the fun of it) that got turned into a video game. It's pleasant in a way that the other games really weren't. While Timmy overall had the best gameplay board with stealing from Joe's House, Haunted House is the game that feels the most cohesive. It's a playable game from start to finish with a few locations and trials to overcome. Sure those trials are conquered by just picking up the objects, but there's something to it that feels like the authors were proud of what they were making, a trait that feels absent from most of the other games.

I don't hate any of these games. Their short length makes them weird oddities rather than frustrating experiences. It's for the best that Death Basketball isn't a whole season that just adds more defenders each game or that Police Quest is content to give you one execution before claiming victory. Most of these games feel very experimental and the only thing questionable about them is how they got published. All of these games feel like the kind of worlds young ZZTers make when they first discover ZZT and its editor. All of them are stepping stones to something better as they begin to understand game design a little better with each new world they create. We're lucky to have these glimpses into those earliest moments of ZZTing as few ZZTers dared to release their true earliest creations. I know I made my share of games of this caliber as a child, and as awful as they may have been do think it would be cool to somehow see them again.

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