Released: Aug. 26, 2000
Released towards the end of Summer 2000, Anthony Testa's Deep December stands out amongst dungeon crawlers both within ZZT and outside of it primarily for its unusual setting for the genre. Rather than the typical Tolkein fantasy world of elves and orcs, Testa sets his game in what was then present day New York City's subway system. Of course, if there's one thing high fantasy and New York City have in abundance, it's a lot of rats to fight.
The game's title screen links to www.anthonytesta.com (which is no longer around), the Internet Archive has a few versions of the site, with not a whole lot there, but enough to learn that Testa is indeed a NYC native.
The game opens to all the background the player will be given. You're in a New York subway, and an urban hero to conquer the urban warlock Shigesato who has taken over the subway system. It's an urban game.
The player is given control in a tiny room with three essential items, a toilet; your baseball bat, which serves as your main weapon throughout the game; and a baseball cap, which you distinctly wear backwards.
The world of Deep December is compact, yet full of little details. Nearly every object can be examined by touching it. Seats, turnstiles, statues, and even Coke machines can be investigated.
Talking with a bum on one of the seats gives you the game's instructions. You can attack in melee with the bat by just touching an enemy. Once you find a gun, you'll be able to pick up ammo as well and shoot bullets like a traditional ZZT game.
The flashlight mechanic is introduced as well. Your torches represent your batteries. The rest of the game will take place in dark rooms, and the player is required to keep themselves stocked up on torches by finding batteries or a recharging station which will set their torches to five.
Moving along the path, the player will pick up a flashlight and then have to pay most of their money to enter the subway system. Even when it's been taken over by an urban warlock, NYC's got to be able to make money off it.
For the sake of readability, I'll be posting these pictures of the boards taken from ZZT's editor so that you can see the whole thing at once. In reality, you're limited to a tiny radius of light provided by your torch, and most gameplay looks like this:
Darkness is ZZT is usually implemented poorly, but I did play through the whole game with the lights out and the darkness works out nicely here.
The first room in the subway offers quite a lot. Firstly, a water fountain. The player can drink from these once to restore some health. Second, is the doctor. Pay them for a check-up and your health will be reset to 100. Lastly, the yellow arrows are battery recharge stations. They can be used an infinite number of times, but the game does a good enough job pacing batteries that you'll likely never actually be in danger of running out.
It's still quite a nice feature to include though! The player can ease up on how fast they try to get around knowing they won't ever be stuck in darkness.
A friendly homie (that's the object's name) offers you some advice for talking with them. Some basic rules to live by:
- "Shootin' oil barrels makes oil spill."
- "You need microwave to heat up TV dinners"
- "Give Asmodeus the rose to defeat him."
- "Stay cool, brother."
There are oil barrels throughout the subway system. Unlike most barrels in video games which would explode or spill flammable liquid, all shooting a barrel does here is creates some breakable walls. There's no real purpose to shooting them since you'll just need to shoot away the walls afterwards. Though, in theory you could trap an enemy in the liquid.
TV dinners are found in the dungeons and can be heated up to give you some health if you can find a microwave. You won't find any potions of healing in the New York City subway system.
Asmodeus isn't in Deep December, but one of Testa's other games. Good to know.
The turnstile spins when it's touched. A fun little detail.
Taking the southern exit leads to this room which immediately contains a statue shaped like a 7, a microwave, and some bullets that must be left behind until the player obtains a gun.
The player won't have time to investigate immediately, as a pack of roaches attack! They go down easily, a single hit defeated them.
In the lower left corner, the player can find a candy bar for 15 health.
The lower right corner contains a turret which moves up and down, shooting bullets to the west that the player will need to dodge in order to approach it until they can smash it with their bat.
Moving up ahead, the next enemy type is encountered: Urban zombies. They don't really do much of anything. They don't move until you touch them and get that same message every time, and then you can just touch them a second time immediately to defeat them. It very much seems to defeat the purpose since they wind up being almost completely harmless.
When you defeat one, they leave behind some green blood. This is done by placing a forest tile and changing it to a fake wall before the object dies. It's a weird technique required to get some of the non-standard ZZT colors created during gameplay.
The next room has a few more mechanics introduced. There's a broken recharger on the wall. These are found throughout the subway system and give a one time bonus to the player's torch count. This lets you get more torches than you'd normally be able to hold as regular rechargers set your torches to five every time.
A water fountain makes its appearance as well. Like the broken rechargers they can only be used once, though in this case it's not that the water is limited, just that the player states they aren't thirsty anymore.
Up ahead is the first mini boss, a subway shaman who sends roaches after you when you get close before he begins his own attacks which involve shooting at the player who at this point won't have a gun. Fortunately the shaman isn't that difficult to defeat despite their superior weaponry.
The player is well rewarded for defeating the shaman, receiving a TV dinner which can be taken to a microwave for 20 health, a wad of cash equal to 4 gems, and a pistol, albeit one without any ammunition.
Above the shaman's lair is a locked gate and your torch will provide just enough light to see some ammo and the elevator to the next level below.
Without the key the player will need to turn back to the very beginning and take the northern route instead. Unfortunately, during my fight with the shaman, a bullet was shot that managed to hit a barrel, spreading breakable walls when I didn't yet have any way to destroy them. This oversight trapped me and I had to cheat for ammo to break through.
Even when you have ammo, shooting oil barrels is pretty meaningless and their purpose in the game seems unclear. I suppose I'm only basing it on other games where "shoot the barrels" is a good thing, but it really does nothing but punish the player to use their ammo here.
Backtracking gives the player a chance to pass the microwave again, this time with a TV dinner in hand for some healing and ammo to now collect.
Heading north from the starting area of the subway leads to an ambush of rats sent by a strange man who then runs away from you to be fought later.
An alcove to the side offers another TV dinner and some ammo, along with this graffiti and an urban zombie sitting in a plastic chair until they player interacts with them. Interestingly, even if the player shoots the zombie, there's no reaction. If the player doesn't touch them, the zombies in Deep December will never wake up. I feel like the risk of awakening a zombie in some crossfire would've helped make them a bit more threatening at least.
The northern path opens with a smashed glass bottle which at first I thought was supposed to be a pile of bones. This is the sort of misinterpretation only possible with ZZT.
The western section of the board contains a bathroom area, with urinals and toilets scattered about. The player can also eat a tic tac found on the floor of a bathroom for one health. And of course, there's a zombie sitting on one of the toilets. If you examine the zombie's toilet, it's revealed to be clogged. Yuck.
The north eastern corner of the room offers an empty coke bottle, a match which gives one torch, and a gold watch which is appraised at one gem.
The northeastern board has quite a bit going on. The white on dark red right facing arrow object is in fact, a Coke vending machine, and one of the most amazing uses of ZZT's graphics I've ever seen.
Either that gold watch was garbage, or soda has gotten very expensive in New York.
Alan Wake eat your heart out.
Up slightly ahead is a bottle of booze with the choice to drink it. Doing so has a 75% chance of removing 5 health, and a 25% chance of giving the player 10 health.
ZZT has no way to generate random numbers, so the way this object actually works is by checking if it's blocked in a random direction (something ZZT-OOP can do), and if so, you get the bad outcome, otherwise the good.
Eventually the player makes it to the rat lord, defeats some more of their rats, as well as green mutant rats, and gets rewarded with the maintenance key to the level.
The key allows travel south, where there's a lone battery which can set the player's torches to five before disappearing, some cash, and a "fully licensed medical practitioner" who can set your health all the way to 100 for 10 gems.
Heading south the player comes full circle and into the room with the urban shaman again. It's possible for the player to miss the gun if they take the northern path first and opt to take the elevator right away. They can backtrack, but there's little reason to if you aren't aware that you did miss anything in the first place.
The second level introduces some new enemies right away, ghouls, which are much stronger than the rats and roaches faced on the first level. The ghouls take three hits from your bat and are knocked backwards when struck to prevent the player from easily scoring multiple hits in a row. The player will likely want to try out their new pistol here against these stronger enemies, but like zombies, ghouls are immune.
During my own playthrough I opted to head south, so that large western area will be covered later. The rest of the screen contains little of note, a marble statue, and some cash in another bathroom.
The next screen contains quite a lot of zombies, but unlike the ones found on the first floor, these ones are active from the start and have a chance to actually hurt the player.
A trap consisting of guns which shoot when the player lines up with them is up ahead. The player gets just barely enough time to realize what's going on and get out of the way. I thought it was a nice trap but probably because I didn't get caught by it. The guns shoot as fast as they possibly can, so if the player doesn't get out the way, they'll lose a lot of health really quickly.
In the lower right corner there's more cash and another surprise gun, but since the player doesn't need to line themselves up with the gun to get the money, it's pretty ineffective.
The southwest room on this level contains its boss and exit.
The boss this time, is a necromancer with several zombies defending them. The zombies go down easily enough, and a single hit on the necromancer is all it takes to end the fight, causing any surviving zombies to vanish. The player's reward for the fight is the elevator to the next level, a replacement flashlight battery, some cash and ammo, and a TV dinner.
Heading to the north to explore the rest of the level is another coke machine, and some more trap guns. Unlike the earlier ones, these fire more slowly and are recessed into the walls enough that the player has plenty of time to react. Plus, the tiny gap between the two offers a safe spot.
The last new board has a glass wall blocking access to the rest of the room. It can be shot to instantly destroy it, or bashed at with your bat, where it takes a whopping four swings to destroy. This glass is the toughest thing encountered in the game so far!
Then there's this neat little trap. A swinging blade spins around in circles and you have to time your movement carefully to not be struck by it. Some ghouls will likely get caught up in the blade and it has no effect on them unfortunately, but for all the little decorative touches of empty bottles and leather seats throughout the subway, having something like this that moves really stands out.
If you do get hit by the blade, it'll cost you a good 15 health, so be careful!
Speaking of decoration, there's an empty wrapper littered on the ground here, and right next to it is a still intact nutri-grain bar that heals the player for 10 health.
Looping back around ot the starting screen, there's little more than some cobwebs and a breath mint which restores two whole health.
But most importantly is this friendly ghoul next to a vending machine, surrounded with empty coke bottles. In the interest of transparency, I feel obligated to tell you that I am in fact drinking a can of Coke as I write this article.