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Closer Look: Cowhead

An early action game that struggles with variety. No cows, just a one-trick pony.

Authored By: Dr. Dos
Published: Dec 20, 2022

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Today's game, Cowhead, is one that's been on the back of my mind for years now. I'm also pretty confident in saying that I am the only person who has thought of the game in years as well. Now that I've finally played it, it's kind of fascinating game. It has no reviews from the z2-era or later. The authors have one other ZZT world credited to them that also has received basically no attention. Under most circumstances this one would seem to be one of countless ZZT worlds out there that never really amounted to much.

The sheer number of ZZT games available means that plenty have been left by the wayside. Some such as Invasion ZZT Revision have been lucky enough to have the good fortune to be recognized well after release. Most have not, and as such a significant majority of worlds hosted on the Museum effectively exist in a vacuum, with no readily available information, commentary, reviews, streams, or anything else to suggest that people have played them.

Cowhead came to my attention back when the Museum of ZZT was so new that it didn't even have a proper domain yet. When considering what I might be able to do for the Worlds of ZZT Patreon, one early idea was to try doing a chronological look at ZZT worlds similar to Dr. Sparkle's Chrontendo series, going through Famicom releases from beginning to end. If I was going to take this route, I wanted to see what the first game would be. That is, what is the earliest ZZT world preserved that isn't an official one.

At the time, that was Cowhead, with its November 1991 timestamp. A tremendous amount of preservation work has been done since then, and that title no longer applies[1]. In fact, these days it's not even the earliest preserved ZZT world by this duo of authors, thanks to the discovery of Raymbo. Though what little claim to fame it may have had is long gone, I still kind of wanted to play it. ZZT worlds from 1991, though more common now, are still a rarity. They're always exciting to see as they offer a look into what kind of ZZT worlds were being created with basically no influence from other ZZT games out there. Many for this reason end up feeling very much inspired by Town of ZZT. Cowhead surprisingly does not. So what makes this early adventure feel unique? And can we figure out why this particular world from 1991 survived migration after migration, making it's way to the Duky Inc. archive formerly available on, on to the ZZT archive, z2, and the Museum of ZZT when all those others did not?

No. We can't.

Played Using: SolidHUD v06 via Zeta 1.0.0

But that won't stop me from showing off how this world actually plays.

Cowhead quickly begins doing its own thing with a title screen focused on plain text rather than any fancy logos or designs. I guess there's a big centipede. Also shoutouts to Robert Pena here who remained uncredited until 2022 in any database containing information on this game despite being listed on the title screen next to the Robert that was being credited.

Cowhead breaks away from the common trend usually seen by beginners who have only played Town that go on to create their own version of Town. It's not even a purple key game! Maybe, I shouldn't be too surprised by this. Quite a few of the 1991 worlds available already have begun to create their own rules for how to make progress in an adventure. The Crypt which would later be included in ZZT's Revenge is proof enough that within six months of ZZT's release, games were being created that had stories to motivate players rather than just challenging them to conquer a series of boards and make it out alive.

But if you think there are going to be strong parallels in story and gameplay to the quest for the Fountain of Youth, you're going to quickly be disappointed. The only real similarity here is that Cowhead is on a quest. The object of this quest is purposely kept hidden from the player in order to make the ending a surprise, and I can tell you right now that while the game does call back to the importance of this quest to try and build up some excitement for its reveal, that it won't be a very satisfying revelation when it comes.


It starts with some yellow borders because of course it does. How newbie-ish! Why, I bet the two Roberts here haven't even been ZZTing for a year! In this 1991 game! How dare they.

Goofs aside, the community doesn't exist yet to condemn such borders, and I mean, while they are a common sight in poorly designed worlds, having a yellow border doesn't mean a game is bad, and removing it certainly doesn't mean a game is good. The Roberts do tend to put in the effort of removing these borders though, so while this opening board looks like plenty of subpar works published in the AOL-era, they won't be a trend. There won't be another hint of yellow borders until the very end of the game.

Instead though, let's focus on the good here. The opening forest insulates the player from monsters until they choose to attack, allowing this initial board to be populated with enemies without forcing the player to immediately sprint towards the ammo.


An opening scroll repeats Cowhead's motivation, and tries to really get your curiosity going by describing the cure for "mankind's worst nightmare" as one that you'll wish wasn't merely a fictionalization for a ZZT game. Finding this cure will provide fame and save humanity. Wow!

It's notable as well that this game really assumes the player is already familiar with ZZT's various elements. While Town had to be sure to tell players what items and creatures they'd encounter in it on the title screen and provide an explanation on how health works as well as how to save the game, Cowhead just goes for it.


Disregarding the borders, the game quickly feels like it's much more smartly designed than many early ZZT worlds. Even on board one the Roberts recognize the advantages of using object to distribute items in bulk, supplementing the small pockets of collectibles to be vacuumed up with larger sources to keep the player moving along. Cowhead avoids a lot of the ZZT Syndromes that inexperienced developers stumble into. There are no rooms filled to the brim with ammo or gems to be found here.


Lastly, what I would have guessed was a skeleton by all the creatures running around is merely a not too friendly NPC, wishing Cowhead luck while simultaneously threatening him.


The fear that Cowhead will amount to little more than yellow bordered boards with monsters sprinkled on them is quickly discarded. This second board is all it takes to give players confidence that the Roberts are trying to come up with some fun designs, and not just bolster board counts. "Seeing Double" offers two mirrored chambers with some key collecting to force the player to run back and forth while duplicators slowly fill them up with tigers.

The danger is ramped up a little with the addition of ricochets allowing the tigers' (and careless players'!) bullets to remain a threat for longer periods. Fans of Caves of ZZT may recall a similar board that relied exclusively on centipedes. Admittedly the board in Caves works out a little better, but what's here is very much playable and still fun!


The gems and ammo piled up can be used as cover or collected promptly to replenish supplies this early on. Unlike Sweeney's official releases, the Roberts here are much kinder to players. The two question mark objects turn out to be pretty substantial health bonuses that allow players to clear the board with confidence as long as they were willing to take the risk of a slight detour to find out what the objects were.

You can of course also just tank the hits from the tigers being the duplicators and trivialize the board, but without the threat of tigers, it's going to feel a lot more dull. The authors also do a nice job balancing these encounters, a recurring and welcome change of pace from so many games. The room doesn't get overwhelming, but it never feels safe either. The tigers focus on getting towards the player which in open spaces like this is actually less dangerous than tigers that just roam aimlessly and fire from a distance.

It's a promising start.


The board is followed up with more action, and an unfortunate fake wall maze to collect a red key. There aren't any duplicators here so the maze does nothing other than delay players from getting to the more enjoyable regions of the board.


Once again the Roberts get the numbers just right. A few dashes past some spinning guns strike the right balance where it's possible to get through unharmed, but you'll have to wait patiently for your opportunity to do so. That wait, though RNG dependent, isn't likely to be very long, allowing the player to be willing to stop rather than just running in an hoping for the best.


The bottom region should be in a textbook on how level geometry determines how an encounter with enemies plays out. On the left path the path is straight and narrow making it trivial for players to rush in and start shooting. The ruffians on the left side are basically here to absorb the player's ammo with no realistic chance of hurting them. However, on the right side the path is instead winding.[2] Here the erratic stop-and-go movement exhibited by ruffians means that the player will likely miss close range shots, and be suddenly attacked when a ruffian manages to round the corner and be in the player's face seemingly out of nowhere.

When the wise man speaks... better listen...

...The wise man is about to speak...

...Hi, how are you?!

And wisely, this joke object is put on a path that puts no real resistance up against the player. No losing 50 health for nothing here. You'll basically shoot one bullet per ruffian and be on your with day. Players that opt to go right first might have a few of the ruffians on the easy path spread out a bit potentially into the zig-zags making them more dangerous than before, so even if you know the wise man is just a gag, it's still probably smart to clear them out, so I wouldn't even consider it a waste of ammo.


The tiger trap is a bit tougher to appreciate armed with the knowledge that conveyors plus tigers (or anything with stats really) is a recipe that can lead to the player being destroyed and having to restart ZZT. It's not supposed to be that scary, and as long as you don't get bit by the conveyor bug it really isn't. In my opinion, even when conveyors aren't tearing apart reality, they're still not super great. Like the zig-zag path with ruffians before, it's not so bad when there's a threat involved, but when that threat has been removed it just makes movement tedious.


Also tedious is this weird arrangement of transporters. Here the player is forced down a ping-pong-path for no real reason as they have to grab one more key and than traverse it again backwards or run through the spinning guns and conveyors a second time, something that's definitely going to be longer than ping-pong, although at least more engaging for the spinning gun part.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
This man walks into a bar.  As he drinks,
he notices a man with a head the size of
an orange sitting across the bar.  He
walks up to the man and asks him what had
happened.  The other man explains that
while he had been in the Navy, he ended
up shipwrecked on a deserted island.  He
then heard a noise coming from behind a
rock.  When he went to investigate, he
found a mermaid trapped underneath the big
rock.  So he pulled her out and put her
back in the ocean.  She was so grateful,
that she offered him three wishes.  For
his first wish he asked to be rescued.
She said that she would grant it, but she
would grant it last.  Then he wished to be
the richest man on Earth.  She said he
would have all the money he ever needed as
soon as he was home.  For his third wish,
he asked her if he could make love to her.
She explained that it was impossible
because she was a mermaid.  So then he
asked her, "Okay, so how about a little
Ha! Ha! Ha!
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

Boom! Gottem.

Players expecting another health refill after the question marks on the previous board instead get a mermaid sex joke. You won't find any of those in Town!

It'll keep the player on their toes at least. Cowhead has a sense of humor, and plenty of it comes from just outright telling jokes directly rather than subverting expectations like with the wise man.


The jokes spice things up at least. The next board already feels a little bit like the Roberts are rehashing what's already been done. Another dance through some spinning guns, as well as some key collecting while duplicators populate the board with enemies mean that this board isn't all that impressive. It's not entirely identical or anything. The spinning guns now shoot from two sides and require the player to wade through the gunfire as opposed to just crossing past the bullets as before. It plays out a bit like a crude form of Frogger.

To aid the player, two objects provide several hundred ammo and health to the player as well, which if anything makes this board feel a bit too easy.

The key collecting is also enhanced with conveyors and a source of ruffians. Once again the threat of player annihilation is very real, and makes what would be a reasonable bit of combat far scarier than intended. It's a shame since it makes grabbing identically colored keys play out differently with each trip. Sometimes a key can show up right away, and other times the player will have to really dive in, fighting for their life.

So while much of the board isn't really offering anything fresh, what's been demonstrated before hasn't worn out its welcome. This is still a board that feels fun to get through. Cowhead isn't entering the hall of fame anytime soon, but honestly, no major complaints yet. There's nothing wrong with pure action.


Well, there is one new thing. The Roberts have went and programmed up a little enemy to fight that guards the final key for the board. The object is named robot, though this information can't be seen in-game making it seem them just a generic little guy. To those familiar with the classics, this character has been designated Goober.

The robot isn't very exciting. The walk towards the player and shoot towards the player at the default speed. Two shots is enough to defeat them, with the first hit causing a single star to be thrown in retaliation. It's very minimal and forgettable.


Oops. I have a major complaint.

Mazes are bad enough, but I think most of them rate higher for me than shooting gallery boards. Cowhead has to shoot all ten targets from a considerable distance to open up the path to the next board. They just pace from side to side which is still better than when they move randomly as at least you can work on your timing and learn exactly when to fire.

It still takes forever, and ZZT's bullets taking up physical space on the board means there's no advantage to firing several at once since missed shots can end up blocking the target and causing them to turn around as if they hit the wall. On the bright side, the player has hundreds of ammo at this point so while there are several targets it's possible to just run across the bottom and shoot up once, hopefully taking a few targets.

The Roberts don't want the player to do anything like that though. The player is punished for imperfect aim when they hit the blue objects lined across the top. Shooting one of them will actually reduce the player's health by five. Yes, that's awful, but it's still far more forgiving than shooting galleries seen in Dungeons of ZZT which throws six stars at the player for missing or the balloons with slightly randomized movement in The Silly World of Dan Shootwrong. For some unintentional leeway, these objects don't handle cases where the player has less than five health, so unless your health is a multiple of five, you can't actually be killed.

Normally, this is the kind of board I'd get sick of quickly, and cheat my way into the gallery to shoot from the side, but Cowhead has been surprisingly generous with the health and ammo up to this point. I was curious if I could get through without having to constantly reload from every missed shot, and just went in guns blazing.


I would not recommend "spray and pray" tactics, but I did actually get through with the sort of health you'd expect to have after a few boards of an early ZZT adventure. (Note that the board provided fifty ammo that I hadn't collected in the starting screenshot, so it was more like seventy shots to get them all, not twenty.) This tactic relies on the fact that the previous board was so generous about giving the player health. Without it, I can't imagine getting through without lots of saving and painful amounts of patience. It's definitely the sort of thing that would make me consider playing something else if I wasn't committed.


The Rio Grande board that follows is a lot nicer.

This is another action board full of duplicating enemies. By now it's pretty apparent what the Roberts' approach to action sequences is. Yet again, the player has to reach some keys tucked away somewhere to open up the next exit. This time, they have a lot of bombs to aid them.


Plans quickly go awry as the strange arrangements of tigers in the river begin throwing stars down towards me. This makes it a lot more difficult to push bombs around, making those tigers the new primary target.

I really like what the Roberts have come up with here. The use of tigers and sliders to protect them from bullets gives this a different feel than bombable objects that would have been the easier approach. The sliders act as a tiny obstacle for the stars themselves which makes it possible to try and hide from the stars being spawn closest to the player. Simply stay aligned with the sliders and its associated tiger will only be able to throw a single star that gets blocked. You could still do this layout with objects, but the sliders are clearly here for the purpose of blocking bullets. An object-focused approach would almost certainly not have bothered with them and make things a lot harder to deal with.


It also make it a lot harder to decide what to focus on. Ignoring the duplicators means a steady flow of new enemies, but ignoring the tigers means stars are going to be shoving your bombs around making it that much more difficult. Once you do clear out one set of targets, the other set follows quite easily. A little too easily given that the actual goal of the board isn't to defeat enemies but to make a few trips across the river to open the exit doors. I got rid of all the obstacles here before picking up the first key, making the extra trip rather pointless.

I also wish the theme was played up more. "Rio Grande" is a great name for a board like this, but under normal circumstances players would never see it. A little more in the way of decoration wouldn't hurt either. Cowhead isn't a very pretty game, even by 1991 standards, and really loves to have entire boards made up of nothing but solid walls for barriers.


Or at least it does until you arrive on this next board titled "You Spin Me..."! This board is way more pleasant to look out with its varied usage of color. The dynamic appearance of line walls make the board much more interesting in structure than solid swaths of one color. This is honestly the high point of the visuals of Cowhead to me. There are a few other boards that we'll see soon enough that do play around with color a bit more than the opening boards, yet they too cling to solid walls and solid walls alone that makes the aesthetic still look very rigid.

For gameplay it's still more conveyors and key collecting. Perhaps the Roberts thought this was the pinnacle of ZZT action. The duplicators that have been ever-present are gone this time, and with so few tigers in each of these corners, it's very easy for the player to just pick them off in the doorways to the chambers, depriving the conveyors of their purpose of creating chaos.


But first, a puzzle! Did you happen to notice a door leading to the blue quadrant?

If you didn't, you can just close the prompt and take a gander. The alternatives are just too good to be true sadly.


Not that it stopped me from trying to see if the game would give me 10,000 health. Both of the big wishes actually end the game when this object admits that you're not going to be able to proceed.

This kind of thing is dumb, and even more so when you're introducing the object ten paces away from the blue door, to not even begin to say why anybody would fall for it in the first place. The fact that the object is named "Menu" makes me wonder if this is really just the Roberts teaching themselves how ZZT's hyperlinks work on the fly.


Calling the blue key supplier a puzzle is being generous. The board does end with something that fits the definition a lot better. Sliders! Pushers! A knot to untangle to reach the white key and then bring it to the exit.


It... leaves a bit to be desired.


The action may be a bit repetitive, but it's still action. This puzzle needs a lot more time in the oven before it offer any challenge. I tried going back to this one a second time with the goal of screwing up, and I'm honestly not sure if it's even possible. This may be the worst slider puzzle ever built. Not that I'm complaining about an easy slider puzzle, it's just impressive in its own unique way.


The next action room, "Double Barrel", named for its pairs of spinning guns plays around with its colors a bit, so there's something going for it. The guns on the bottom have an arrangement of ricochets set up so that a continuous flow of bullets means the player will have to keep an eye out for gaps to cross certain rows/columns safely. Beyond that it's mostly just another key grabber. Ole' reliable returns as the middle section of the board will fill with enemies over time, encouraging the player to move quickly.

For a new addition, various red circles slowly chase down the player. They move at cycle three so it's usually easy to keep ahead of them as long as you're not having bad luck with the spinning guns' shots. They move via #walk seek, which means they simply stop when next to the player rather than pushing them. The scroll at the start of the board warns the player that these circles are invincible, and you need to make sure that you don't get pinned in a corner.

This to me is another case of dubious design. Forced restarts feel so much worse than just draining health and letting the player get a far more natural feeling game over. In practice, it hardly matters. The only point the player might have the slightest difficult is by the cyan keys that are both in the bullets' paths. If you let the things get close while waiting for your chance to grab a key, I guess you could wind up pinned by just one of them. That's a pretty big if, and while the new foe is a good demonstration that the authors of Cowhead do want to have some variety in their game, they really don't make much of an impact. They're too slow and the board is too open which results in Cowhead running circles around these circles.


They do react when touched at least. It's all a game of tag to them.

For something more positive to say, about the room, the spinning guns, also being indestructible, means that unlike several of the last few boards the player is never entirely safe. Sure there are a lot of spots where the bullets can't reach, but even a trivial challenge is better than dead-air gameplay where the outcome for the board becomes 100% certain. Maybe you'll sneeze and accidentally walk onto a bullet or something.


"Round N' Round" finally frees us from solid walls, and thanks to the use of blink walls ends up looking cool in action as the two columns mirror one another. Even so, it's another key collecting room. Cowhead is falling into a rut.


The pattern for the blink walls is also slightly off? It's still properly mirrored, but typically these kind of layouts have a top-to-bottom "scrolling" of the rays. This isn't quite the case here which means players do have to be a little cautious when crossing the beams. The timing is pretty generous though so once more there's not much of a threat here.

There really isn't much to say. Thankfully this style of board is on the way out now, with some variety coming up shortly. In the meantime, the board does provide another joke to those that survive!

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
Here's another one for you...

This man walks into the doctor's office
complaining about his elbow.  The doctor
explains that his new machine can diagnose
anything from a simple urine sample.  So,
the doctor asks the man to bring him some.
The man goes home determined to make the
doctor's new machine fail.  He gets some
urine from his wife, his daughter, the
dog, and finally a sperm sample of him-
self.  The next day, the man returns to
the doctor's office with his family
coctail.  The doctor takes it and goes
into another room.  After a few minutes,
the doctor comes back with the results.
The doctor says, "Well, according to this
report, your wife is having an affair,
your daughter is pregnant, the dog has
rabies, and if you don't stop that, your
elbow is never going to get better."
Ha! Ha! Ha!
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

The funny part to me isn't the punchline, but the idea of a guy who gets so mad at his doctor that he gets his entire household to provide urine samples. What an incredible conversation to imagine.

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