For this next Closer Look, I thought I'd finally get around to one of those little blind spots of ZZT games for me. Clysm's first released world, Crunchy.
In terms of ZZT output, clysm's number of releases is rather modest. Three worlds over a few short years. While his output may not have been prolific, I'd argue that all three of those releases were solidly successful. As a child Turmoil, his second game, was one of my all-time favorites, captivating me with its spaceship crew flying all over the galaxy performing all kinds of missions to help others. Back then, his final ZZT world, Kudzu went a bit over my head as a ten year old, but when I finally played through it live in 2021, I loved it.
Kudzu is by far the star of his three releases. Winning a Classic Game of the Month award in 2001 as well as being given the Featured Game status on z2 in 2003. It's one of the definitive examples of "trippy" ZZT games, with its strange puzzles, bizarre inhabitants, and dream-like atmosphere. Plus, the original release has what I would argue is the most iconic ending to a ZZT game of all time.
(Turmoil has its share of fans aside from me, but its Kudzu that you see show up when people are talking about ZZT's most notable and impressive works.)
But poor old Crunchy looks to have been forgotten. Fair enough, I'm not expecting anybody to have a 100% hit rate, but when you've played and quite enjoyed everything an by an author so far and have just one game left, it's hard to resist seeing what that final game is like.
Crunchy is clysm's first game, so the expectations are admittedly a little lower. It's pretty clear going through it this the game doesn't quite compare to Kudzu or even Turmoil. Even so, it's unmistakably a clysm game, and still one that isn't half bad. This is another instance where straight from game one you can easily see the road from early experiments to creating something truly memorable. It's surprisingly comparable to Jeremy LaMar's Castle of Zandia laying the groundwork for his own master class ZZT game Ned the Knight.
Which is still some pretty high praise. Just what is it about Crunchy that makes the game go down so smooth? Only one way to find out!
Clysm's games are some of ZZT's most recognizable. He managed to develop his own distinct visual style with a just a scant few releases. You can recognize boards drawn by clysm at a glance more readily than almost any other ZZTer's work. Most notably, the abundance of (generally) very angular rooms and hallways built out of solid walls. These spaces are then given a sense of depth by lining the underside with a different wall texture.
That technique on its own is hardly one clysm could call his and his alone. What separates most faux-3D ZZT architecture from clysm's distinct brand is his impressive commitment to incorporating varying degrees of height to his spaces.
Even with Crunchy being clysm's first release, players can see the basic implementation immediately. It makes his games look incredibly sleek and clean in presentation, which meshes quite well with the themes seen across his releases. Crunchy seems soft sci-fi, Turmoil is expressly so. Kudzu might not be particularly sci-fi, but the smooth surfaces and rigid angular designs embrace the surrealist aspects to ZZT, begging players to ask who built all this and for what purpose.
Early on, players are treated to some boards where the eye-pleasing designs clysm comes up with are shown to have more to them than just following a simple rule of solid with breakables.
The opening board, well, anyone can do that. Take Escape From Zyla Island as an example. Another game where players begin in a row of jail cells that follows similar rules for how walls are placed on a board. It looks clean, is clearly a man-made structure, but (and no shade to Raichu) that's not enough to make a board feel impressive. It's just a perfectly sensible looking board.
Clysm does so much more with his games' perspective to mark the difference between his more appealing architecture and the easily replicated faux-3D style. The cages running along the bottom of the screen feature a barred wall that blew me away when I saw it. ZZT is loaded with its share of zoos and prisons where such bars would be appropriate, but I don't think I've ever seen something like this before. Clysm's inclusion of superfluous decorative walls are what make the difference between a genuine clysm production and walls that are all function, no form.
When walls are placed solely as barriers for players to have to go around, you wind up with something almost brutalist for ZZT. At least as brutalist as a ZZT game can be when sticking to the default seven non-Super Tool Kit colors. Any oppressiveness has to come from elsewhere when dealing with such a bright paint job.
And while the story makes it clear that players are dropped in the middle of an oppressive society, clysm tries to add in enough visual flair that the world isn't quite so bleak. Even the littlest things can do so much in terms of uplifting the mood of the world. Some cubes in the distance here add enough visual irregularity to break the monotony, instilling some hope that the world might not be as miserable as it currently is forever.
But it's that water placed over some of the walls that to me are the pinnacle of doing a lot with a little. Suddenly the water itself is part of the structure. Multiple waterfalls pouring from the wall establish that these walls have a purpose beyond obstructing the player. This is a space where the design caters to those that live there, rather than to the players that are just passing through on their latest adventure.
At various points in the game clysm hides a few secret exits to reward players for their curiosity. I only managed to find one of them originally, but they all center around this board titled "Nowhere". City of ZZT was doing multiple bonuses on a single board from the very beginning, yet look at clysm here! There's so much structure here for rewards no different than what you would find in a game from 1991. From its symmetry, to its bridge, to that sky in the background, this board alone would have been enough to make me want to play Crunchy. It just feels like it was made with so much love for making interesting spaces for players to roam. Hardly a trait associated with initial releases.
And don't even get me started on the stairs! All it takes is alternating between solid and breakable and suddenly the player can convincingly move up when they uh, when they move up. The 3D ZZT we all dreamed of as children is right here.
By far the best of it all can be found in the throne room. This gentle slope in wall height is something I never really thought I'd see in ZZT. Clysm is squeezing more out of ZZT's limited graphics with no extended colors and no objects than a lot of others (myself absolutely included) could pull off without any limitations.
Imagine being in a room like this in real life, it would be a cool room.
Bonkus of the Conkus
When clysm isn't making players think about how much more potential there is with solids and breakables than anyone would have imagined, he's setting up a mystery to be unraveled.
The game's story relies on that most classic of tropes: amnesia. Players wake up in a jail cell with no memory of who they are, where they are, or why they've been imprisoned.
All the player has to go on is a note left in their cell sent by "a green friend", telling them not to worry about the memory loss, and to just take the enclosed key and make a break for it.
Things get off to a strong start as players begin unarmed but have to make their way through the hall while avoiding a few ruffian guards until they can get a key to a closet filled with ammo. There's just something about not having any ammo when going up against ZZT's creatures that makes them feel terrifying. It feels very wrong to only be able to run away. Ruffians are particularly nasty for this as when they start moving, they can keep pace with players. If you're not moving at the maximum speed, you can very quickly go from being safe to being caught.
This moment of tension doesn't last very long. Once the ammo begins flowing, clysm is doles it out fairly generously until the very end, and as you can see in the screenshot, you're only actually dealing with three ruffians maximum, one of which will probably stay in one of the vacant cells the entire time.
The next scroll in the supply closet offers the player their first idea as to what kind of world they find themselves in as they discover a wanted poster for "The Green Maurader". Putting two and two together, this is the green friend that allowed your escape to be possible. With no memories though, exactly who this person is becomes one of many more mysteries to be solved over the course of the adventure.
As the game progresses, the player is pulled in to a thin story thanks to clysm's relentless tugging the player towards something that will hopefully provide answers. At first, it's a matter of finding the Green Marauder, but when you finally meet, he remains coy. After finding wanted posters for this man, when you do meet its not in some shadowy alley in the city, but rather a throne room where he has pronounced himself to be the new king.
Oooookay. How and when did this happen? It's another mystery for the pile. The next place on your list of stops to figuring out just what's going on is to head to a nearby cave where the Marauder promises you'll find answers. You're forced to trust him, and he hasn't steered you wrong yet, right?
Much of the game is really just giving the player the runaround as they desperately wander around looking for clues that never really arrive. The cave seems like a bust at first, being no different than a typical ZZT cave, dark, full of bears and bugs, and confusing to navigate.
Clysm can do a good cave though. Later on with Turmoil there's a rather impressive network of caves spread across a few boards, with numerous walls cutting across boards requiring players to enter the same board from multiple angles to see everything there.
In Turmoil it gets a little out of hand, spreading across a whopping six boards. Here, it's more manageable, yet not by virtue of its size. It's just as big, but is mostly divided into two halves, with the back half having some more of those decorative cubes to indicate that you're nearing something man(?)-made. Just as I was running out of hope of finding anything, I saw the cubes and knew I was almost to my goal.
Snake People, Or Sneople
The first big reveal isn't anything players would have been asking about. Deep within the cave system is a castle ruled by snake people. That's a fun idea sure, though clysm dramatically underplays it. At no point is it commented on by the player or any NPCs.
The only way to notice, is to pay attention to the names of the NPCs where you'll see things like "Snake Guy" or "Snake Guardian". I'm usually pretty good about looking at these names having been long since trained to look for gags in the name field when playing anything by Nadir, yet this time, was completely oblivious until the game was practically over.
It's easy to blame me for this, especially while the player's backstory remains unknown. Later though, you'll wonder why clysm didn't push this angle more given its ultimate significance to the story.
Beyond the names which are rarely of importance for most objects the player interacts with, there is at least one attempt made. A cave hermit talks about the struggles of living there with all the snakes running around, but there are also centipedes found in those caves, which any given game has a 50/50 chance of referring to them as snakes.
There's another struggle in realizing there are snake people due to the color choices. The snake people are green as expected. They're all in appearance. ...But back in the part of the city now ruled by the Green Marauder (who looks like ,) all the citizens appear as . When such a huge number of characters seen are the same color, you're going to have a hard time getting players to notice that some are friend and some are foe.
This Makes No Sense. Oh, Wait, Yes It Does
All throughout your exploration of the snake castle, NPCs will be telling you how much the king wants to talk to you. You must go see the king immediately. Don't delay, head to the throne room.
The tone for this part of the game is exceptional. This is where clysm's writing shines brightest. The player isn't really in any danger save for a single board with a few ruffians on it. None of the guards are hostile in any way, but once players speak with the prisoners there's very much a seed of doubt planted that makes everyone's insistence of talking with the king go from "NPCs guiding the player forward" to something rather unsettling.
It becomes increasingly apparent that you do not want to talk to the king, and yet the only thing you can do it go forward.
And it certainly doesn't help that an imprisoned Green Marauder finally tells you the whole story. The big reveal is that the snake people have a mind control technology. The player was sent in as an agent from another planet to prevent the kingdom from taking over the galaxy. The player was given this mission as for some reason, the mind control device would not properly work on them.
The mission was a failure though, with the player being caught and subjected to the device repeatedly in an attempt to overcome their immunity. While the player maintained free will, the machine still had an effect on the player. The memory loss.
Despite the lack of memory, a daring escape was still made. After which the Green Marauder was then hired by the snake king to track the player down, offering him his own mind control device as payment. He accepted and after establishing his earlier fiefdom lured you into the snake people's trap after finding the player in prison.
Looks like the king went back on his word though, seeing as how this all comes out from him in a jail cell.
The amnesiac player's own stint in jail is explained as him having been found aimlessly wandering the streets with no memory. The police simply deemed the player crazy and locked them up, leading to the events at the start of the game.
It's easy to just see the word amnesia, and discount whatever follows as some same-old cliché, but as far as plots go for first ZZT games, this one is way up there. I'm used to first releases being about finding purple keys, goofy attempts at crime dramas, or killing Barney the dinosaur. This is really trying to create something unique, and though the details are a bit confusing, it's fairly well executed.
The biggest issue is that I can't for the life of me tell who controls that city where the game begins. It can't be the snake people, as they would have found the player the moment he was imprisoned by the police. It can't be the marauder, as that jail has wanted posters for him, and his reign with the mind-controlled followers was short lived. Players don't actually know that this game is meant to span multiple planets yet, so it's easy to think of this as a conflict between humans and snakes at first. Once you learn how far away the player was sent from and learn what the king is currently up to though, it's hard to come up with an explanation for the city.
At this point the player has yet to confront the king, who strangely enough upon finally reaching the throne room is out at the moment. The guards are now insistent that players wait patiently for his return. Even after getting some answers, there's still so much to learn.
The player, thankfully, isn't a very patient man and instead hops into a shuttle with no coordinates set instead! With the player's actual dialog or thoughts ever been displayed, it's hard to say exactly what's going through their mind at this point. Do they want to continue their mission to stop the snake kingdom's use of mind-control technology? Are they just trying to run away, no longer having any loyalty to the government they were working for?
It's left open to interpretation for a bit. Though there is confirmation later that the memory loss persists, so the possibility of memories returning upon having your past spelled out by the Green Marauder isn't in the cards.
What clysm does next though is yet another unexpected surprise.
The shuttle takes players all the way to a copy of the game's starting board, crashing into the wall of the prison. This really got my attention. Of all the places for the shuttle to take me, the last place I was expecting was right back to where I started.
There's more to the destruction in the city than just the jail. The central area of the town has also been heavily damaged. It's not only the player that's been arriving here lately, and not all the damage is your own fault.
To the east, the city now abruptly ends, with a giant mass taking up the corner of the board and a confused guard not understanding what it is that they're guarding. Only trying to decide whether it's alive or too big to be anything organic. Even this late into the game clysm is still throwing the unexpected at players. Though unlike most of its other mysteries, this one is never returned to.
I have no idea what clysm was going for here. Did this monstrosity breach the wall and flood the city? Did the snake king let it loose, or is it his target? We'll never know. Perhaps this is why clysm's ZZT page states that he had no idea what he was doing when making the game.
I was a bit worried about how much of the game I was going to have to retread. While it is neat to see the damage, there's considerably less for players to examine, removing much of the appeal of the city section and replacing it with a few ruffians.
Having the king's personal ship parked right on the city's walls is a fantastic way to put an end to tweaked repeats of boards. It's also another great instance of clysm's graphical abilities with the shadow being cast over the wall and water.
Regardless of the amnesiac player's interest or lack thereof in completing their original mission, the sheer number of snake guards shooting force players to take action and begin a counter-offensive, if just for their own survival. The only way forward is to board the ship and find the king.