Closer Look: Dragon Woods

Good ideas and bad execution result in a fun yet flawed adventure in this self-described "comedy-rpg"

Authored By: Dr. Dos
Published: Apr 30, 2020
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Our latest poll winner is the new addition, Dragon Woods by Zenith Nadir. I added this one for a few reasons. Firstly, we've already seen Nadir's most iconic ZZT worlds with the Frost series. Secondly, this one seemed to be in a sort of sweet spot for the growth of Nadir's skills with making ZZT worlds. Dragon Woods is his third release, after The Kave and Blue Moon.

I've gone kind of all over the place when deciding to cover a ZZTer's worlds. Some authors like Commodore have had plenty of their later works covered with little of their rougher beginnings. Others, like MadGuy have gotten the short of the stick, having me detail why their comedy-adventures aren't funny while neglecting that he also made the game that was once the most common answer to "What is the best ZZT game of all time?"

So while Dragon Woods is definitely going to be significantly weaker in all aspects than Frost or perhaps even the conversions of various Dizzy games, it's pretty fun overall. Having played so many of Nadir's games already really changes the experience here. You can see how Nadir's style begins to form within Dragon Woods. I didn't go into this one expecting it to have so much in common with the original Frost nor Dizzy games, but both those series have clear roots in the design of Dragon Woods.


More than anything, Dragon Woods wears its influences on its sleeve. Nadir's iconic ZZT art-style doesn't really exist here and focuses on simple color fades and basic blends. This is an Interactive Fantasies release and visually it fits right in with the fantasy themed games the company was known for such as King's Quest ZZT.

It also opens with the sort of cinematic title screen that became a staple of ZZT worlds after Alexis Janson's Mission: Enigma. This is the first of several introductions to the protagonist of this game, Lindor MacWellianson, a wizard that's kind of a doofus.


As you'd expect from an IF release, the game opens on a menu offering a few chances to get to know the characters and basic story of the game. In addition, there's the usual "catalog" board that lists every IF member and their releases. We've seen these catalogs plenty of times and there's not much to say other than that they have convenient lists of upcoming games that never got released.


The character page has this honestly quite good depiction of the CATS resistance group. Although all four of them appear in the game, only Lindor really does anything. The rest all hang around the group's headquarters for the entire adventure.

Nadir's portraits, though far short of his later art, look quite nice. Cramming four full bodied characters on a single art board is no easy feat. Nadir manages to put a lot into the designs. Tseng is kind of an easy comparison to make as he frequently included drawings of his games' characters as well, but they tend to often look very stiffly posed and very similar in dress. There's far more variety here with Hasselhorf's vest, Salmonella's long dress, Aston's bulkier stature, and Lindor's starry robe and wizard hat.


Tseng remains an apt comparison as there's also a lot of words about each member. Hass is a spy who learned about the mind-controlling gem "the Minfannon" and the local blacksmith.


Princess Salmonella is the proper heir to the throne, and is assumed to be dead by the current ruler of Coastilvania.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
░▒▓█▌Millard Aston▐█▓▒░

Millard is the proverbial brains of the
outfit. Even though he's a simple farmer,
he's still pretty darn smart. In fact, he
was the one who got Lindor drunk by
slipping a little vodka in his drink. He
knew about Lindor's tendency to getting
completely smashed on a ¼ pint of beer,
and therefore realized that no-one would
suspect that anyone had spiked his drink.
He also knew that this would make Lindor
go on and on and on about how hard he was,
and how he would go get the Minfannon
since everyone else was... but enough
drunken ramblings. Someone had to do it.
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

Millard... spikes people's drinks? The other two seem to have a lot more going for them.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
░▒▓█▌Lindor MacWellianson▐█▓▒░

Lindor is the guy you play in the game.
Since Lindor is so short, he feels it
necessary to wear his pointy hat at all
times. Being short also affects his
alcohol intake- a pint of beer can get
him v. pissed. But this doesn't affect his
actual intake, hell no! This is why no-one
suspected Millard's underhand scheme to
get him drunk. Lindor is a wizard, which
makes him able to shoot energy blasts at
anything that attacks him. He is
intelligent, but in a different way from
Millard- Millard knows everything there is
to know about psychology (ie. he knows how
to mess up people's heads), while Lindor
reads books full of information he'll
never need to know.
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

Lastly is Lindor himself, who is more fleshed out than Millard. He's short and doesn't like it, has a very low tolerance for alcohol, and is a skilled wizard.


I would have assumed it would make more sense to learn about the characters and then watch the introduction, but all the talk of CATS and Minfannon and King Asphalt mean that it's probably better to watch the intro first.

Far away and long ago... there was a town
called Coaster. It was the HQ and
fortified town of the king, King Safnax.

The king ruled his kingdom, Coastilvania,
with a fair but firm hand for many years.

Then he died off.

The new king, King Asphalt, was nowhere
near as nice.

This is the kind of board that shows the edge Nadir has graphically even as early as 1998. Drawing a front-on view of somebody sitting, with almost no objects used is pretty impressive.

Not very nice at all. Mean with his money,
and continually pursuing cases against
(true) allegations that he murdered
his way up to the throne, he either never
had any time to run Coastilvania, or was
too much of a miser to invest in his
kingdom. Very unnice, even.

Again, I cannot stress the complexity of these poses enough. Hass's legs (in the center) give him a bit of an unnatural pose, but Millard and Lindor appear far more natural. Again Nadir is eschewing objects with the vast majority of the 39 stat-elements on this board being used to make the window. In contrast, looking at stat counts of art boards in Frost, the counts there frequently break the 100 mark.

Coastilvania, and Coaster especially, fell
into disrepute. Once prosperous towns
became more amd more like LA. Creatures,
who had, until recently, been confined to
Dragon Woods, began to invade towns.

Something had to be done. An underground
movement (no, not literally!), the CATS,
(Coastilvanians Against Tyrannical Saddos)
worked together to overthrow the king.

The only problem they had was the fact
that the king didn't take too kindly to
repeated attempted murders, so they all
had to find peaceable methods of either
getting the king to step down, or how to
get the lazy sod to shift his butt into
gear and do something about the kingdom's
situation. Trouble is, everything tried so
far has turned up a blank.

Then, a breakthrough occurred.

Hasselhorf Dunchvitz, the CATS spy, had
located a rare mind-control gem, the
Minfannon. It is deep in the heart of
a volcano called the Silurian Volcano.
With this, the CATS can get the king to
step down off the throne.

However, before he could get the thing, he
was captured and tortured by looney
soldiers out on a raid. He escaped, got
back to Coaster, and now one of the other
CATS has to go get the Minfannon. No-one
wanted to go. So they all went down to the
pub, where one of the members, Lindor
MacWellianson, (Phd in magic) got so
smashed that he said that he
would take the long and dangerous
journey to go get the Minfannon. Since
no-one else wanted to go, he (you!) got
the job, to go up from Coaster, through
the dangerous Dragon Woods and into the
Silurian Volcano to find the gem.
Because you're *hard*, was your reasoning.

Oops. Big mistake.

Here Nadir gives us some of the more vital information. Who the CATS are and the quest for the Minfannon.

The game's text file describes the genre as "A difficult mix- RPG and humour". Dragon Woods predates Knightt's Stupid RPG series and also Tseng's own November Eve. The comedy aspects of the game are certainly there, but the game feels a lot more like a light-hearted (usually) adventure more akin to Ned the Knight rather than a full on comedy poking fun at the RPG genre that Knightt and Tseng would later spend a lot of their efforts on.


With all the preliminary information understood, the game can finally begin proper. Lindor awakens and continues to sleep again and again to deal with his hangover before finally getting out of bed to find out what he did last night.


Welcome to Coaster! It's a very tiny town (at least what the player gets to explore). The first thing to do is get dressed before heading outside.


Lindor immediately wins my heart with his taste in art.

By opting to have the entire town on a single board, it makes exploring each location a lot more streamlined. This game will have its fair share of influences from Alexis Janson games, but gone are the giant multi-board homes you'd find in Nadir and Janson's earlier releases.

I'm very much in favor of not having to spend an hour talking about how there's a kitchen and a toilet and you can watch TV and there are ten options to select when you touch the computer and here are the eight different jokes when you touch all the books on the bookshelves and on and on and on...

You get some gems. You put on your robe and wizard hat. You have a dragon poster. You don't need anything else.


Outside there are just two townsfolk. One guy lamenting the shape the town's in, and a rude bum who laughs at you for giving them a gem.


In the lower left is the blacksmith/CATS HQ. They probably shouldn't print that on the sign, though it seems like the group isn't really considered all that threatening by King Asphalt.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
MILLARD: Wow. I've never seen anyone put
back so much alcohol without exploding. =)

LINDOR: Aw, shut up. So, what kind of
stupid things did I do last night then. I
don't remember, I was so boozed.

MILLARD: Nothing.


MILLARD: Unless you count barfing up all
over the floor, _and_ saying that you
would go get the Minfannon.

LINDOR: Holy...

MILLARD: Well, now that I've told ya, go
to Hass to get a map! &= )

LINDOR: Oh darn.
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

Lindor finally learns of the quest he accepted while drunk. This is all covered by the intro sequence and isn't really any new information. The other CATS members don't have a whole lot to say other than excuses for why Lindor has to be the one to get the Minfannon. Hass gives Lindor a map and the journey begins.


While most comedy-RPGs would make jokes about the player barging into people's homes Nadir instead locks the player out. Again this helps move things along. Though Nadir's commitment to keeping things brisk falters almost immediately after leaving Coaster.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
BARTENDER: Sorry, we're closed.

LINDOR: Why? The sign says that you're
open all hours!

BARTENDER: Sorry kid. We had to shut last
night because someone got drunk and
started jumping around screaming about how
he was the hardest cat or something. Total
looney. His friends dragged him off,

LINDOR: I wonder who that could be...
<heh heh...>

BARTENDER: Well, I wouldn't know. It was
pretty dark.

LINDOR: Yes... well, bye.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

The bar is currently closed thanks to Lindor's incident the night earlier. Again Nadir skips the obvious opportunity for some jokes of Lindor having to deal with a (rightfully) unruly bartender and instead lets him get away with not being recognized.

The only other thing in the bar is the still uncleaned vomit from Lindor. Yuck.


This is a good time to point out that I played this world (and likely most future worlds) on a modified version of ZZT. Thanks to Asie's Reconstruction of ZZT project, it's actually fairly easy to implement some new features into ZZT. The arrows on the HUD here have been added to list board exits.

Coaster is compact enough that walking to this edge is hardly a waste of time, but hey, in future worlds of lesser quality it means a lot less walking across barren rooms wondering if there's another board attached.

It does also mean that I may be spoiled of secret areas in some worlds, but I will take it.


The top-right building is the town shop. Rather unusually, the player is entirely in control of their supplies. The dresser had some gems and the player can choose to buy torches/ammo/health how they see fit.

It's a pretty risky system though, especially to start out like this. At this point I had no idea what supplies I could expect to find, how many dark areas I'd need torches for, or if I'd need my gems later on for something else.


I took a conservative approach and bought a little of everything, focusing on ammo.


The western part of town leads to the gate outside and again keeps things moving. The two homes are both locked and the tiny castle is also inaccessible, though you can sometimes see somebody walk past the windows as a cool little detail.


One thing that's really unclear early on is how aware King Asphalt is of the CATS. I have no idea if these guards are working for him or not, and no clue if I should be trying to avoid them or fight them.


I could go to the woods the game is named after, but that sounded dangerous. Beach it is.


The path to the beach begins with Princess Salmonella's camp. I don't know why she lives outside of town when she has the support of all the CATS members, but I guess she lives in a tent.

The previous boards all had this nice sunset in the background which worked fine while the boards were laid out horizontally. As soon as things go vertical, that same visual style can't really be used and Nadir disappointingly just has this very empty background.

The background is made even more strange by the river flowing through the void and the rather odd arrangement of inaccessible items in the corner.

Ah okay, the board with the castle has an unmarked fake wall on its southern edge that lets you collect these items. That makes more sense even if it's not hinted at in any way beyond "there are some items on this board".


For a much better secret, a tile on the other side of the river flickers like this, revealing itself for a short time. This at least put my brain in motion thinking about if I'd get something to cross the river or if there might be a shallow part made of fake walls instead or something.


One other thing communicated here is the locked door and passage to Salmonella's tent. Clearly there's a way inside.


The beach below has the usual fades you'd find in many toolkits. This makes the board look very cookie-cutter, with the sole exception of that really good bridge.


To the west is this cave that Lindor comments on as giving him the creeps.


Yet more west is the end of the beach where Nadir invests a little more time in the look of the board. The way the ground juts out into the water along with the smaller masses and the rings of shallower water around them make this board feel a lot more unique than the previous two.


The visuals scale back as the path leads north where a flashing pool of water and a few trees surround a white music note and a green asterisk. Can you guess what the music note is supposed to represent?


Why it's a magical unicorn! That's not a bad choice for a character actually, though I wouldn't have guessed it. The unicorn has a necklace for some reason and Lindor definitely wants to take it.


This leads to the game's first puzzle of how to actually get the necklace. Every time Lindor tries the unicorn runs away a few steps.


My first thought was to trap it in a corner like this, but to no avail.


In a non-euclidean manner, heading north loops all the way back to west Coaster. The sign on the previous board warns that it's a one-way connection, but I'm glad it's here. Nadir's Dizzy games frequently fall into a trap of having to backtrack a dozen boards or more with an item to solve a puzzle, seeing Nadir recognize the long walks back to town as a flaw in a game this early was kind of a surprise. With Dizzy, Nadir was admittedly sticking to source material (albeit one with platforming challenges and not long dull walks when heading back somewhere), here there's some recognition of the issue.

Sadly it won't last. This is another good spot to compare to Tseng's games where the first Gem Hunter has lots of one-way exits for speedy backtracking that open up throughout the game. The original Gem Hunter predates Dragon Woods by about eight months and I wouldn't be surprised if it was the inspiration for this kind of loop to be here.


Despite the loop, I still had to immediately return to the beach to cross the bridge and check out this one last board.

It's the fisherman off Savage Isle! Cool!
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

FISHERMAN: 'ello! Who are you?

LINDOR: I'm Lindor MacWellianson. Y'know,
before we carry on this conversation, do I
know you from somewhere?

FISHERMAN: Well, yes! I'm the fisherman
from t' first board of Savage Isle by
Hercules! Play it if yer 'aven't already!
An' all the other IF games! They rule!
Okay, end of commercial. I'm Graham Ness.

LINDOR: Nice to meet you, Graham.

GRAHAM: You too. Anyway, what c'n I do fer
ya, lad?

LINDOR: Well, I dunno!

GRAHAM: I c'n sell yer fish, or I c'n give
ya some info 'bout this place.

LINDOR: Yeah, I don't come down here often

GRAHAM: What do ya want, lad?

A fishy fishy fishy fish.


  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

This sort of cross-promotion is uncommon to see. Especially to have the cameo not be a protagonist from another ZZT game, but a random fisherman. I suppose it worked though since it got me to take a look at Savage Isle and it definitely looks like something that would be fun to play in the future.

You can spend 2 gems and heal 10 health if you buy some fish too.

It's the fisherman off Savage Isle! Cool!
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
GRAHAM: Well, I only know a bit-

LINDOR: Well, I wanna hear it!

GRAHAM: OK. Well, not much to tell, really
A few years ago, my friend Dresan went
into that cave west of 'ere. Now, the
darndest thing, the were torches in there,
and no-one's supposed t'ave been down it
for centuries! Anyways, 'e went in, an'
after he was in properly, the walls caved
in! After that, we could 'ear some sombre
music and a 'uge SCREAM. We never 'eard of
Dresan again. Strange thing, I've always
been suspicious of that place. Damn shame,
I miss 'im loads. Waa.

LINDOR: So I should stay out of the cave?

GRAHAM: <Lightening up> Well, duh! Don't
ya even go in there for anything.

LINDOR: You sure?

GRAHAM: I wouldn't know. Ya could go in,
but I'm far from advising ya to.

LINDOR: Hey, I _am_ a wizard. Wait a sec,
how do you know what happened? You never
said you went down with him!

GRAHAM: Uh.....<No answer>

LINDOR: Nevermind.
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

Graham has some information of "stay out of that cave". That same one that already had a message pop up about how it gave Lindor the creeps. Obviously it's my next destination.


The cave isn't dark! I was quite surprised.


This comes as no surprise to anybody. Stupidly, I saved my game after this without changing the filename despite intending to make it a new save.


Whoa. In the back of this cave is a large slab with a woman tied to it to be sacrificed. It's a pretty intense scene.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
As you walk into the cavern, you see
something kind of disturbing. A group of
druids are standing around an altar. The
altar has a young girl strapped to it,
who is struggling to get off. Across each
side of the cave you see a shrine with
some kind of ancient god inscribed into
it. You decide to stay in the cover of the
entrance to watch.
  After about a minute the druid at the
head of the altar raises his arms, and
the druids begin to chant. This must be
some kind of ritual, you think.

After a couple of minutes, the chanting
swells. You see the head druid raise an
ornate looking knife. The chanting gets
louder and faster, and suddenly the head
druid plunges the knife deep into the
girl's heart.
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •



In a rather wild change of tone, Lindor is promptly caught and sacrificed as well. It's a surprisingly gruesome scene that feels very out of place in a world with characters named Asphalt and Salmonella.

Anyway, as I said I messed up and ruined my save which meant I had to start over completely. Luckily I hadn't really accomplished anything. It also meant I had a nice short walk to the Dragon Woods instead of having to go back from the beach.


Okay. Maybe Dragon Woods is an ultra-violent comedy-RPG.


Lindor is a friend to all dragons.


The reaction to this whole situation is still a bit strange. The mother dragon died as well so it's probably not looking to good for her eggs.


Lindor has a very "If you're a jerk you deserve what you get" attitude throughout this game. It really helps give him some personality and feel like a character and not just a body for you to control while playing.


When Lindor investigates the eggs one of them hatches. At least the baby doesn't comprehend the meaning of the corpses all around it.


So now Lindor has two puzzles. Get that necklace from the unicorn and also find something to eat for his adopted whelp.


The path to the woods quickly ends as a roadblock prevents passage to the actual woods. It's time to start cracking these puzzles open.


Back in Coaster, I learn that shooting the bum after giving him a gem will cause him to spill out a bunch of gems and for Lindor to bring up his philosophy again.


Well that solves a puzzle I wasn't even counting as one. You just need to talk to Salmonella again and she'll give you the key to her tent.


Inside the tent we get this very ZZT style board where the interior gets its own perspective while the background represents the outside of the tent. And because Nadir doesn't have to worry about board connections it means he can once more do a detailed background. The tent colors blend in a little too much, but it looks good! I do appreciate the consistency where you can see the campfire and river here.

I have to say, for somebody who had to flee her home, she packed quite well. She took a desk, a mirror, and a full sized wardrobe (and it's the classic Nadir style wardrobe that seems to show up in all his games)!


It's very fortunate for Lindor that she took her desk full of leaves as they'll be necessary soon.


Examining the wardrobe offers this great line that's carried by the =D face at the end of it.


Returning to the beach I have an epiphany on how to reach that flashing spot on the ground outside Salmonella's tent.


It turns out to just be a bonus, but it is a welcome one providing 8 gems, 30 ammo, 5 torches, and 50 points. These secrets offer a good amount of resources if the player can manage to obtain them, while not breaking the game apart by giving too much (or worse, being mandatory in order to have enough supplies).


The unicorn puzzle is promptly solved thanks to the princess's leaf collection. It's still unclear what to do with the necklace though.


It turns out to let you survive the druid sacrifice. Alas, you can't save the girl which makes this game pretty damn dark.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

A DRUID: Hey, who's this guy?

ANOTHER DRUID: I don't know. Maybe our
next sacrifice??

HEAD DRUID: Well, I sure didn't expect
visitors today, so let's call him `Lunch'.

ALL DRUIDS: Hello Lunch.

LUNCH (or LINDOR): Hey! My name's not
Lunch! I'm Lindor MacWellianson!

A THIRD DRUID: Lindor, Lunch, they're both
the same thing really.

THE LAST DRUID: Do you know where the mayo
is, Hrundell?

As the druid says this, you spazz out
uncontrollably. The necklace you stole off
the unicorn seems to sense it, and the set
ruby begins to glow a dull red. You
suddenly feel a feeling of intense
happiness, and are whisked away to a
private Nirvana. You hear screams that
seem to be coming from a long way away,
but you just don't care anymore. After
about 30 seconds of this, you are brought
back to the cavern. You see that the
druids are gone, and only a few bones and
a little blood is around. You wonder what
happened to them...
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

I guess it's funny in the sense that you don't do anything and everybody gets killed by a magical necklace?


With the druids mysteriously reduced to blood and gore, Lindor can explore the room a little. There are two statues to "Mebus, shatterer of worlds", and of course the body of the sacrificed woman.


Yes, all of this was to get a piece of charcoal. Yes, the CATS headquarters are in a smithy. I am pretty confident that Hass would have some charcoal.


Lindor is free to never speak of what just happened in the cave ever again. It will not come up.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
DRAGON: Awight! Coal!! Yummy! <He takes it

DRAGON: Hoo boy. Me have hot cold... Aaa..

LINDOR: Oh man! That was a powerful sneeze
for a little dragon! <You look west> Wait
a sec...the roadblock was burnt down! Now
THAT was lucky! I'm off, baby dragon!

DRAGON: But mommy... WAAA!!!!!

LINDOR: Aww... sort it out yerself, you
sad little red git!

DRAGON: Okay. Me off to learn flying!

LINDOR: Okay, you do that. Meanwhile, I'm
off into Dragon Woods!
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

This was all a roundabout way of destroying the roadblock to the woods. Finally Lindor can actually set out for the Minfannon.


But first, the player is routed into a cut-scene. This game uses what was then a staple of Interactive Fantasies titles, having a hidden passage reveal itself and just waiting patiently for the player to enter it. This works a little better here than in other games where the player would get a chance to run away and do some shopping first when they're supposed to have gotten into a fight.

The Dragon Woods are as dangerous as expected, as some wildmen attack Lindor the moment his guard is down and drag him off somewhere.

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