I've done it! I won the jackpot!
There have been plenty of times where, unsure what I might want to play next, I've taken to spinning up a roulette of assorted files on the Museum to see if anything struck my fancy. I've gotten some impressive finds out of the method before, but this one is really on a whole 'nother level.
Walter's Quest 1: The curse unleashed may seem to be another pyramid exploring action game. Its title screen might remind readers of the aesthetic of the less exciting Nature's Revenge. However, it's so much more than either of them. While I was expecting a simple tomb raiding game in an Egyptian pyramid I got so much more. This has ended up being one of those games where I went in with no real expectations, and left feeling like I had just come across a lost gem.
Author Caspar is fairly unknown to me. A vague name I can recall from the mid-2000s for the award-winning Rotten Robots, which this game is technically a sequel to by virtue of starring the same character, though nothing of that game is relevant to anything that happens in this one. I loosely recall streaming Rotten Robots, finding it okay, but slow, and it's one of a handful of worlds that I've called it quits on after a single stream back in 2018.
That was Caspar in his early days. Unbeknownst to me, his skill at creating compelling worlds skyrocketed just a few years later. I tend to be loathe to turn any game into a number, but it's hard for me to not call this one of the all time best. (Kind of.) What Caspar made here is a game that knows what it wants to do, and excels at it. The story is your straightforward save the world globe-trotting adventure, with ninjas, cults, chase sequences, betrayals, and all that good stuff. Something is always happening and at no point does the pace ever slow down. This is matched just as well in gameplay with some great level design that offers significantly more variety than pyramid after pyramid. It's also combined with some impressive enemy design. (Kind of.) There's a lot of variety here, with no dungeon every getting tiresome or overuse of the same handful of enemies. This game is action done right (kind of), adventuring done right, and storytelling that is rather effective at making players overlook these parentheticals.
Trust me we'll get to the combat eventually. It's makes the difference between this being one of the best ZZT worlds I've come across to a merely incredible game.
But we've got to start somewhere, so let's get a look Walter and his compatriots and their struggles before diving deeper into what turned this random pick into one of the most enjoyable ZZT games I've come across.
The Dig Team
Walter - The game's protagonist. Walter is renowned adventurer famous for conquering a castle full of robots. Though he fights on the side of good, he's definitely not afraid to respond to any violence with lethal force, regardless of whether that be on bats, mummies, or drunks at the pub that took a swing at him.
Mortimer - An expert on Egyptian history and culture. He's running an excavation for the lost sceptre of Anubis. When things go south, he helps piece together the clues for where Walter needs to head next if he's to avert disaster.
Jazfet - A hired guide to help Walter navigate the underground tunnels in search of the sceptre. He's not one to buy into the supernatural or rumors of curses, and just wants to get his money. It seems like somebody else has paid him quite a sum to bring the sceptre to them though...
Winston - Another Egyptologist that believes the sceptre of Anubis will be found in his dig site. Recently hospitalized after a nasty scorpion sting.
Omar - A wealthy merchant from Cairo and friend of Mortimer and Winston. He's running a dig in Alexandria, though what he hopes to find isn't clear.
The Best Laid Plots
Walter's Quest doesn't neglect it's story, offering far more motivation than fame and fortune for Walter should he uncover anything in the numerous ruins he explores. It really feels like a popcorn flick, or I suppose a licensed videogame based on said popcorn flick.
The game is structured around alternating moments of story and spelunky, with Walter given a reason to travel somewhere, exploring its temple or equivalent, emerging with a new item, and then something coming up to necessitate traveling elsewhere. It's not exactly that cut-and-dry though, Caspar deceives players multiple times throughout the game with instances that should be safe and story focused turning into action sequences.
These range from bar-room brawls, to motorcycle chases, to a few genuine twists as the true motivations of characters are revealed. These surprises aren't anything completely out of left field. There's a pattern to the game that can be recognized, enough that while who or what specifically will be exposed can't be predicted, but most players will be able to tell that something is up.
This ends up being a great boon for the game though. When you know something is going to happen, you can't help yourself but keep going, waiting for the reveal. There's rarely a dull moment to be had here.
On his adventure, Walter will go from wanting to recover a stolen artifact to providing medical care to the thief. He'll be chased by ninjas on motorcycles. He'll set out for a casual meeting only to be greeted by dead bodies as the enemy strikes first.
And of course the initial motivation is merely the first step into something far grander. The supernatural plays a big part in the game's world, even though most of the characters would find it silly to believe in such things. By the end of it all, Walter will be visited by pharaohs in his dreams, and discover that the fate of the world is in his hands. A cult wishing to usher the world into in a new age of chaos plans to bring the ancient Egyptian god Anubis himself back into this world for him to rule. There's just a whole lot going on.
While most ZZTers were content to bookend the story around the game, especially in an action packed adventure like this, Caspar doesn't neglect the story at all. What could easily be mistaken for a cookie-cutter series of pyramids to raid is far more not just in dungeon crawling, but in terms of writing as well, making the game really one to remember.
Groundbreaking First Impressions
My initial foray into Walter's Quest quickly moved from being a potential game to cover, to one I had complete confidence in. The game has one of the most well-designed introductory chapters I've come across in ZZT. Caspar is quick to introduce a handful of the major characters, and get things underway.
The game starts with players waking up in a tent at Mortimer's dig site where an opening message tells them who they are (Walter) and why they're here (treasure). Several objects are scattered about to help set the scene. Some police on patrol to keep out would-be thieves, a hired guard protecting a small tent where some already discovered treasures are being kept, and a large tent with Mortimer sitting at his desk.
Caspar seems quite fond of small touches to make his game feel less static. Rather than have one of the many workers standing around say "Mortimer wishes to speak with you", Caspar instead has an object begin in Mortimer's tent before wandering out, and upon spotting the player via alignment, making a beeline towards them to deliver the message.
Then then's a bit of light-hearted humor. A pile of workers on break keep the player from skipping ahead by having them take up too much space. Politely asking them to move gets a stern message about they don't have to take any orders when on break. Once the game is ready for plays to continue after they've talked to Mortimer, the workers disappear save for one that still blocks the way.
The conversation with Mortimer helps establish both his and Walter's personalities. Most ZZT games stick to the just essential information, but Caspar conveys actions that can't be seen, with Mortimer cleaning his glasses before he speaks.
Mortimer admits they've been digging in the wrong spot to find the sceptre they're after, though he's optimistic that the tunnels they've uncovered will lead them where they need to be regardless. He asks if he's ever let Walter down only for Walter to smugly point out miscalculating where the sceptre is was indeed a let down.
Throughout the game Walter has a few zingers like this, but he never comes off as cruel. The incidental banter does wonders for bringing the game's entire cast to life.
Soon after, Walter meets up with Jazfet and the two get equipped to go underground. For Jazfet this means some flashlights. For Walter, it means a sword and a gun. Everyone has their own priorities I suppose.
It feels much more like a console game of the era than most ZZT games could ever approach. In the tunnels, Jazfet moves forward, commenting on the purpose of the tunnels, pointing out traps, and letting Walter handle the fighting of monsters.
Of course, Jazfet doesn't believe in that sort of thing. The only "monster" he sees is a nasty looking rat that he's happy to let Walter to take care of.
The rat is of course Caspar's introduction to the game's combat system. Normally I wouldn't complain about ZZT games being upfront about how to play them, but with how well everything up to this point has been explained in-universe, the scroll lying on the ground with a reminder that enemies can be touched or shot is comparatively out of place.
Details on the combat will come later, as it's quite a doozy in terms of execution. It's still very much the typical ZZT dungeon crawl design with melee and ranged attacks, making the scroll an even odder inclusion. By this point in ZZT's history, merely telling the player they have both a sword and a gun is enough for them to know exactly how to fight.
Players are also introduced to a staple of the game's many temples: pull-able levers. First one down a hall to open the door and send Jazfet running towards the next room. Then a series of them that have to be set to a specific pattern, giving players a taste of the light puzzle elements Walter's Quest sprinkles here and there to give your trigger finger a rest. At times, these aren't really breaks at all, with many later temples trapping players in rooms with enemies to really encourage them to find a way through quickly.
I can see some of these puzzles not resting well with certain players, and I had my doubts about them as well at first. The levers can be toggled freely, with no indication if any of them are set correctly prior to whatever they're connected to activating. As a puzzle, it's really just guesswork. It's only through Caspar's good use of making sure there's something else for players to deal with or using them to cool down after a fierce battle that makes them a net positive in my book.
When doors aren't locked because of levers, there are often items that need to be used to open them directly. In this opening chapter, Caspar does a nice job adding some flavor, with players specifically collecting a golden eye. Later on, they get far more generic, often simply being referred to as "disks".
Picking up the eye serves as the next phase of the tutorial where a mummy bursts from the walls and begins to attack with the door shutting until they're destroyed. Walter is pretty un-phased, apparently having seen quite a bit of the unexpected in his life of adventuring. For players, now they know that they will be dealing with the supernatural here, so anything is possible.
More early instances of humor show up as Walter explains his mummy encounter only to be disbelieved. The skepticism of those around Walter leads to a lot of trouble for folks throughout the adventure. If you want to survive in this world, you better start believing.
Passages inside the next room take players to a cut-scene which takes an unusual form of just dropping the player in a larger than needed box in the middle of the room. It's so bizarre to not have the player tossed into a corner at all, choosing to cover up part of the board layout already seen earlier. I can kind of get the extra room though, as it means players can move in any direction to unpause and begin playing the cinematic instead of having to press a specific key based on what corner they'd normally be shoved up against.
More of Walter's personality is revealed, he does seem to be a genuinely good guy here, not wanting to take all the credit for finding the sceptre and he's happy to acknowledge the contributions of Jazfet. Mission accomplished.
But then, Jazfet betrays him! It's so hard to find good help these days.
Still, he's not so evil as to want Walter to die, pointing out that there's little need to panic since so many people know he's down here. Someone is bound to rescue him!
The plot kicks into high gear, and the training wheels of the initial introductory sequence come off. Walter is on his own now, in a dark tomb with his spare flashlight (so kind of Jazfet to hand him that second one).
Caspar does something else unusual around this cut-scene. The room Walter is trapped him has been moved from the bottom-right to the top-left of the board, panning the camera rather than having players find a passage or board edge to move deeper into the tunnels.
The action picks up with the first dark board making its appearance. As tends to be the case with dungeon crawlers, dark boards are quite common. Though whether it's out of realism or just for the gameplay benefit of being able to more effectively ambush the player is hard to say. Either way, Caspar doesn't make every board of every dungeon dark, recognizing moments where allowing the player to see is worth the trade-off of any pedantic players demanding an in-world justification for being able to see underground.
Darkness if just one of many tools Caspar has access to, and he wields it rather well. The game manages to differ from many similarly-styled games by not considering torches when it comes to resource management. Players are given one hundred to start with in each of the game's two files, and that initial one hundred alone would have gotten me through the entire game.
The tunnels split with two entrances to the next board where various gates need to be moved by turning the wheel of the same color. This is another puzzle of little thinking, requiring the player to just turn each wheel once. You could get a little confused however, as the limited light from your flashlight can give glimpses of gates farther down the tunnels which make it easy to second guess yourself.
Mortimer looks at you and sees the anger
and disappiontment in your face and asks.
Mortimer: Walter, what happend to you?
Walter: Where's Jazfet?
Mortimer: He came to me and told me you
had the sceptre of Anubis and you wanted
to search for more treasure in the
Walter: Jazfet stole the sceptre and left
me behind in a dark room. I escaped
through another tunnel.
Mortimer: Jazfet lied to me? That traitor,
that thief, that ..... that .....
Walter: Where did he go?
Mortimer: The workers saw him head for the
Walter: I'm going after him.
Mortimer: Can I help you?
Walter: Tell the police what happend here,
I'll come back in an hour.
Mortimer: You think you can find Jazfet in
Walter: I know where to look.
• • • • • • • • •
Luckily the tunnels aren't that lengthy and by the end of the board daylight can be seen with Walter automatically returning to the dig site.
With no easy way to restrict the player, and given Walter's currently quite sour (and justifiably so!) mood over being locked in a dark tomb, another cinema ensues.
I was really curious how Jazfet was going to spin him coming up from the tunnel without Walter, and honestly, Walter looking for more treasure seems like a reasonable enough excuse as long as the person hearing it doesn't dwell on it for too long. Jazfet must have been walking real strangely with the sceptre hidden down a pants leg.
For a chapter one though, I really think this is some exceptional work. Players are given a great overview of combat, puzzle design, gameplay mechanics, and a real hook to the plot. Walter has a motivation now that's far stronger than finding treasure for treasure's sake. As the story develops, the stakes continue to escalate, and there's hardly a dull moment either. Caspar gets players interested in the events unfolding in a way that you rarely see in older ZZT titles, and while by 2005 the power of a good story was certainly well-established, it not something most could pull off.
9/10ths the Law
On Walter's travels to recover these apocalyptic artifacts and find a way to stop the world from being thrown into chaos by Anubis, plenty of tombs need raiding.
Indiana Jones is the natural point of comparison for Walter's adventure, in terms of geographic locations, his mannerism, and how the game reconciles his actions as a foreigner against the wishes of the natives.
In short, it's not examined critically by any means. Once the supernatural floodgates open, it's not very difficult to justify breaking into these ancient temples and hoarding treasures for oneself when the alternative is that somebody else does so and brings about the end of the world.
Still, the actual treasure hunting beyond your target is basically non-existent. In one temple Walter spots an unknown person's burial chamber loaded with gold, but he has no way in and more pressing concerns. Of course, if he had the luxury of not needing to save the world, he'd be much more interested in taking these items.
It would have been trivial for Caspar to give players the ability to loot. Gold coins and other treasures protected by deadly traps would make perfect sense for gameplay in a high-score (or money) chasing game. ZZT can even make it as low effort as possible to include through the use of its own gems. If Caspar wanted this approach, he absolutely could have, but not without changing the way the game would be perceived today.
We're fortunate that so much of the treasure hunting here is for world-saving purposes, and arguably, one could say that the reason the world is in peril in the first place is because some people just couldn't help themselves to wanting to take that which doesn't belong to them. That being said, Walter is still very much complicit, even if his interest lies more in the fame of uncovering these objects more than the payment he'll receive for acquiring them for what I assume are private collectors.
The same can't really be said of Walter's friends and business partners though. The basement of Winston's château is loaded with piles of precious gems and works of ancient craftsmanship, so some of them are more interested in hoarding more than preserving ancient artifacts.
Walter's Quest isn't really meant to be thought of as a game with levels. It's very much one grand adventure where the connection between one region and the next comes naturally through the story's development. For simplicity's sake though, and given how brief the non-dungeon crawling portions of the game between each level are, it's a pretty clean way to portion out the game.
It also helps the game significantly that Caspar is very much able to give each level a unique style, instead of going from small tomb to big tomb to bigger tomb. Caspar's ability to keep things fresh for so long is rather admirable, and without it I suspect the game wouldn't be nearly as captivating as it is.
Walter's Dig Site
Your goal, the sceptre of Anubis. In order to find it you need to, well, I guess the earlier section really covers what needs to be said here.
Pros: An excellent introduction to the game. Introduces Jazfet in a way where players will quickly take a liking to him only to have that affection turn to anger when he betrays Walter.
Cons: Visually, it looks like Caspar just scribbled on the boards. There's not a whole lot for players to do here, and running into a dead end if you choose the wrong path initially for the colored-wheel puzzle is a minor annoyance.
Winston's Dig Site
Your goal, the real sceptre of Anubis. A trap filled temple filled with living statues, bats, and mummies.
Pros: Some nice traps. Spikes and swinging blades show in many of ZZT's dungeons, but they often kill the player for so much as brushing against them. Caspar requires the player actually be struck by one for it to count.
Later on a long hallway has a few spinning guns placed into the walls asking players to take caution when crossing by moving to the opposite wall. This in turn requires crossing the middle of the hallway where another spinning gun is also slowly firing. Even when trying to be careful, you run the risk of an unexpected bullet suddenly showing up in your torch light.
Cons: Some not so nice traps. Picking a wrong switch can send a giant boulder after the player, which while certainly an appropriate obstacle, starts so close to the player that escaping it is unlikely. No hints are given as to which of the switches is the right one, making it just guesswork and a likely "gotcha!" upon being crushed and instantly killed.
Temple of Karnak
A temple with a unique aesthetic that showcases Caspar's knack for finding ways to make similar locations distinct. You've still got plenty of levers to pull and traps to avoid, only now you're in an outdoor environment. The unsealed temple means the only instance of a dark board is when Walter winds up falling into a pit. With the entire board now visible at all time, Caspar instead focuses on adding water features, palm trees, and obelisks to decorate the place. It's some nice scenery while searching for the location of the staff of Anubis.
This level is the first to feature poisonous enemies in the form of scorpions and snakes. When Walter is bit or stung, he has to find troughs of antivenom in order to stop a steady health drain.
The poison mechanic works out nicely as players can head directly to the antidote thanks to the natural lightning. In dark rooms with winding corridors like those of the previous levels, you might lose a lot of extra health fumbling around looking for the right way to go. Although, the dark pit does have some snakes and thus can run into the issue.
Karnak also introduces some wonderful "ancient ZZT" motifs. Throughout the temple players will run across large smiley faces with glowing eyes that are usually hooked up to a puzzle input to make the eyes start or stop glowing when something has been activated. It's a charming look and lends itself well to the smaller ASCII statues that inevitably come to life as Walter does his work.
Pros: The visuals. It's so nice to have an Egyptian temple in ZZT that doesn't look like all the others. Only Commodore's own Egyptian pyramid in Super Archaeologist Simulator comes to mind as surpassing it, and that game took another eight years to arrive.
This stage also has several of the game's more original puzzles. A few boards have massive boulders with a clue to discover a key within one of them. There's a board that blends action and puzzle with a series of switches that manipulate objects elsewhere that need to be operated while being assailed by mummies.
At the end, a final puzzle involves draining an oasis to open an exit. This requires interacting with a number of things on the board, crowbars, pick axes, loose bricks, boulders, and even has a red herring where a coconut can be seen on one of the palm trees. Touching the bottom of the tree can shake it loose, which doesn't matter for the puzzle, but does offer some health back, which is a great way to make it not be a trick on the player, but an optional component instead.
Cons: That puzzle room with the mummy and the numerous levers isn't very well designed. The switches cause corresponding objects to fire a bullet in a room filled with a few obstructions and breakable walls in each corner. To complete the puzzle they all need to be shot, but the objects themselves are constantly moving in random directions and hitting the switch will cause them to only fire a single bullet in a random direction.
This makes it a huge pain to actually hit the targets as it requires the objects to be wander into the right part of the board, and then pick the right direction to shoot. Getting the last of these switches took me so long that I defeated all the mummies and with no danger left for me, opted to just cheat my way into the structure and shoot the breakable wall myself.
Making the obstructions destructible, having the objects shoot in all directions, and/or giving the player some way to manipulate their movement as well would have made this puzzle one of the game's better ones. I loved having the chance to escape from so many enemies if I could solve the puzzle of the switches fast enough, but so much of it comes down to dumb luck that the execution just isn't there.
-  Despite being split into two files, the game isn't all that massive, only about fifty boards in total, which isn't nothing, but isn't really multi-file material. The first file has a corrupt board and then everything after it removed from the world entirely. I suspect Caspar split the game in two after running into corruption and opted to move everything after that point to a second file without needing to worry about losing any data.