Livestream of the ZZT world "4" by jojoisjo (2001). Originally streamed on March 24th, 2023
Checking out a "Historically Well-Received" ZZT game with another jojoisjo title: 4.
4 is a game of the month winner from 2001 owing to the unique engine that powers the game, something that sounds like ZZT shouldn't really be able to do. Namely, we're playing a first-person point and click adventure in this one.
The player hops in and out of some controls used to steer a cursor around a region of the board that depicts each screen in the game. These screens have to be made entirely out of fake walls so that the cursor can move freely which greatly limits what's possible graphically. Anything that can be interacted with is an object, activated by steering the cursor beneath it and ramming into it to cycle through the usual adventure game verbs ("S"earch, "O"pen, "U"se Item, and "G"et), with left click causing the command to be executed.
The engine, just as it was back in its day, is clever. ZZT's mouse movement has never felt all that great, but that's not a fault of the game. For this playthrough I upped the speed a little to make things feel more smooth which made for a better experience (though it seemed to sometimes break the engine, eventually I found a way to jostle it back to life at least). It simply works. It's a little surprising nobody else tried their hand at a game of this style as even with the graphical limitations, some boards still look quite nice.
Unfortunately, plenty of them are set on solid black backgrounds, making everything look dark and empty. Jojoisjo mentions in the end that he had trouble finding time to complete the game, and so it is a bit of a rush job, which definitely shows with the inconsistent visual quality.
The puzzles are not that great either. Nothing feels particularly creative. You either do something incredibly sensible, like use a knife to cut a rose from a bush, or something bizarre like throw a rock off a cliff at a dam in the distance causing it to explode.
There are plenty of other ways to improve the engine. There's no reason the cursor should only be able to interact with things only from the south. The cursor could honestly have just been replaced with the player rather than a clunky arrangement of arrows, and the board layouts mean that actually leaving one screen for another takes far more time than it should in areas with multiple exits. A review of the game describes it as "an engine in search of a game", where the groundwork is solid enough, but the actual adventure is incredibly lacking.
Then there's the story, which isn't explained at all until the very final board, and it's a doozy.
A game that's definitely unique, and understandably turned a few heads, but doesn't have a whole lot to offer beyond the novelty of the engine. A tech-demo of the game's first chapter might have ended up being more fondly regarded than the finished product actually was.
Note: As explained in the video, I was having trouble with ZZT's mouse mode registering too many clicks causing message windows to open and immediately close, so I had to fall back to DOSBox for this one at the last minute. Apologies for the not fullscreen gameplay here.