Let's Be POKYFRIENDS

Closer Look: Psychic Solar War Adventure

May 24, 2017, 3:50 a.m.

Where can I get Psychic Solar War Adventure

Psychic Solar War Adventure is available on z2 as well as playable in browser via Archive.org.
You can also explore the world yourself on the Museum of ZZT Public Beta.

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Psychic Solar War Adventure

By: Commodore
Published Under: Mirror Image Games
Released: Aug. 16, 2007

When picking worlds to potentially feature for Closer Looks via the Patreon poll, I try to pick games which are notable, but not so much so that if they don't get picked for awhile, it won't feel like a huge loss. (Poor City of ZZT has been on there since the very first poll just waiting for its time.) When I decided on Commodore's Psychic Solar War Adventure, I had a hunch with its extremely over the top title screen consisting of two twins riding through the desert in a rocket car while one points both a sword and gun that it wouldn't have much of a wait, and I was right!

I don't think I played PSWA when it first came out, and if I had, I probably quit very early on, as it wouldn't have been the type of game I would have enjoyed back then. Looking at it now though, it's a very technically impressive game, but also definitely still a niche release. PSWA plays like an early RPG taking influence from Wasteland and Final Fantasy 1, with just a hint of thematics from the NES action RPG Crystalis thrown in for good measure.

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The title screen without context is different to really take any meaning from other than how cool it looks. The game's text file gives some background which makes its content a bit more understandable.

Story: A century ago the world was invaded by aliens. In the skies a huge black moon appeared and blocked out the sun's light. A ray of light was shot into the earth and there appeared what would soon be known as the Star Tower. The door opened and hordes of alien tripods swarmed out and destroyed many cities and killed many people. The aliens then returned to their moon to exert their influence through the life giving tower, the power and light of which helped replace that lost by the blocked sun. Sixteen years ago, twins were born. Having mental powers similar to the aliens they were cast out of their village as freaks, left to fend for themselves. Now the two, Jack and Jill, have started to become adults. With their growth their powers excelled and it was soon that they realised that they were the only ones capable of defeating the aliens. Meanwhile a distant thought pulls them towards Serpant's Hold, the castle of Lord Falron.

PSWA deals with a post-apocalyptic future in which the planet has been taken over by aliens who subtly control things from afar. The player takes on the role of two twins, Jack and Jill, helping them to develop their psychic abilities and return the sun back to humanity.

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The game opens on this oddly simplistic company intro for Mirror Image Games, probably the last notable ZZT company, and mostly because of Commodore's prolific work of exceptional quality. Many MIG titles have opening screens, but there's a standard one where the board is drawn with an actual mirrored board with the company name and an object that acts as the player's reflection as they move downward towards its exit.

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I'm a bit unsure as to why it's not here actually! It makes the game start off by feeling incomplete in a way. Still, I'm counting my blessings, as it's a bit annoying in every Mirror Image title to have to run down an entire board just for a slightly laggy reflection effect.

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The game itself opens with this wonderful art board from within the Star Tower. ZZT's tiles are all 8x14 pixels which makes depicting curves nicely a major challenge, but Commodore pulls off some stunning perspective here. The tower looks very round with a darkened background to help convey depth. In the center is some sort of portal with a depiction of a star shape within. There's also a glimpse from beyond the Star Tower, with a mountain range beneath a vivid night sky.

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A simplified version of the text file's introduction gives out the necessary information to jump right in.

map

Psychic Solar War Adventure gives the player control on the world map. The actual player is in the bottom right corner surrounded by objects which are used to redirect your input to the red @ which represents the party. The player will be spending a lot of time traveling across the map to various towns, caves, and the Star Tower itself.

The map also features an illusion of waves by constantly changing solids to invisibles, normals to solids, breakables to normals, waters to breakables, and invisibles to water repeatedly. It's a neat visual effect that gives the map a chance to pop out a bit more.

The reasoning behind using an object rather than just having the player move around the map is that Commodore opted to add some simple survival mechanics to the game. Every time the player moves (unfortunately, even if the @ is blocked), a single torch is taken away to represent food consumed. Jack and Jill need to routinely purchase or find rations in order to survive their journey.

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As long as we're on the subject, let's explore what the other ZZT counters are used for. Health is Jack's health, and if he perishes in battle it's game over. Ammo is Jill's health. If she dies, Jack needs to get her to a temple to be revived, but the game continues. Torches as mentioned are food. Gems are used as the game's currency. Lastly, score is the party's experience points. At certain amounts Jack and Jill gain a level and increase their maximum hit points which begin at the displayed 35/20 respectively.

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By walking up next to a location, the game prompts the player to enter, and if so the left arrow moves out of the player's way and opens up the passage to that location's board.

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The first location which the player starts almost next to, is the town of Fish. Each town is filled with NPCs who may offer some advice to the player, a temple to restore HP to maximum, and a food store to purchase rations from. Towns have their own distinct features as well.

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Like how Fish is full of cows.

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Actually, going by the name of the temple object, cows that are worshiped.

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Rations come in two sizes, small or large. Commodore was nice enough to make them both equally valid choices rather than making players always go for a bulk discount. This works in the game's favor as money can be extremely tight early on.

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One of the cows out in the pasture is none other than Commodore himself wearing a cow costume. I think he's talking about how he is not going to have sex with a cow. Alright then.

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Some of the NPCs are there for flavor while some offer useful information such as how the nearby cave is optional, but has some treasure inside the player may be interested in obtaining.

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And the Final Fantasy reference.

Also scattered around are a few crates which can be looted for a few free gems and rations.

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The party has no real leads as to what they should be doing. They were drawn towards Serpant's Hold, but the world map is open to explore provided the party can survive.

Of course, there's more to survival than just managing food! Psychic Solar War Adventure also incorporates a random battle system! A re-usable RPG battle system. Something that despite the glut of RPG engines created in ZZT, including many of its most renowned coders, is almost unheard of elsewhere due to the challenges it brings to the coder.

Getting into a fight causes the party controls to lock up and forces the player to make their way into a passage for their encounter.

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The encounter board has a lot going on. Up top we can see Jack in green and Jill in red. The terrain is a thoughtful mix of brown dirt, green grass, and yellow desert, attempting to deal with the fact that every single overworld enemy encounter will be fought on this board and thus all terrains depicted on the overworld have to be accounted for.

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When the player steps into the lower area, the passage out is blocked, and a set of commands are made accessible. FIGHT, DEFEND, and RUN make up all of Jack's options. Despite the twins both having psychic powers, only Jill is capable of harnessing them in combat, and even then not until reaching level two.

A monster will also reveal itself, comprised of a few objects connected to each other. The art for these creations is very abstract, and you'll never really know what you're fighting until it attacks.

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After selecting to FIGHT, the commands are blocked again, and a rather nice sword swinging animation plays out.

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If Jack or Jill score a hit, the damage will be displayed beneath the battle scene with each boulder representing one damage to the enemy. Once criticism I have of the combat is that there's no indication of how much health enemies have. The damage variance is also pretty wild which can make it difficult to tell if you're getting anywhere or not.

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While Jack swings in an arc, Jill thrusts forward with a spear. It's very easy to do zero damage to an enemy, especially with the default equipment.

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The enemies have animation as well for their own attacks, but this is almost always the rightmost portion of the object moving a step to the right, then a step to the left.

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The enemies on the overworld are the weakest which means the least payout for winning a fight. An insectoid offers just a single point of experience. According to some tips provided in the text file, Commodore suggests that the first thing to do is reach level two so that Jill can use her psychic powers in combat which include healing. This requires ONE HUNDRED experience. Unfortunately Psychic Solar War Adventure opens with a hefty grinding session which is likely to turn away many players.

As an aside, usually when I play games for Closer Looks, I simply start them up and finish them in one sitting without doing anything else while playing to keep myself focused on the game itself. For PSWA I had to break this rule and opted to listen to podcasts while playing which helped reduce what would otherwise be tedium drastically.

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Back on the overworld I head towards the swamp cave as it's the only location that I know of. I make it a reasonable distance, but just two fights is enough to make my party fairly wounded and unable to heal without retreating back to Fish. So I turn back.

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And of course I run into another enemy on the very entrance to Fish which suppresses my ability to enter it.

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The psychic rabbit is the next enemy to fight!

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It's very easy to lose a lot of health in combat due to the very limited damage output the player has at the start of the game. If an enemy randomly focuses on Jack the player is almost certain to have to run back to Fish. If Jill is focused on the results aren't much better as a dead Jill means Jack will be taking all damage from that point and that the party's already low damage is essentially halved.

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Still, I make it back to fish and spend my five gems to restore healing. The temple thankfully doesn't charge to revive characters and then charge again to heal them as is common in early RPGs.

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Another enemy is soon encountered, the humble slime. Here you can see its head detaching for its attack.

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Eventually I manage to make it to the first dungeon, the swamp cave. They might be a bit difficult to see, but there are three brown chests scattered around the cave for the party to collect.

Dungeons are vastly preferential to the overworld for obtaining resources. The treasures mean large rewards for reaching certain points on the map and the different scale of the environment means that food is only consumed every five steps rather than one. The reduced food consumption allows the player to get into more encounters and keep a bigger portion of the money earned from fights.

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It's not long before I encounter a swamp ape!

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In addition to basic attacks, Jack and Jill can opt to defend themselves for a turn instead. This reduces damage taken if attacked, and while generally not worth using outside of boss battles, can be of some value to just keep a character alive slightly longer. In this screenshot having Jill not attack may drag out a fight, but the longer she stays alive, the longer there's a second target for enemies to attack. It beats a dead Jill and having every attack aimed at Jack at least.

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Also this enemy is called a Buzzbuzz.

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My strategy works? By the time the fight ends Jack is one hit away from death and Jill can also be seen dead. Multiple saves are kind of a good idea for this game.

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I am so boned.

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There's a run option, but there's only a 25% chance of it working. It's almost never worth attempting and only becomes less of an option as the party gets stronger.

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I get my first of many many many game overs.

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I also do my best to avoid cheating when I play ZZT games to write about, but I backed myself into a corner here. Using a cheat to clear the FIGHT flag makes the game think combat is over and that I can walk into the dungeon controls again. How kosher this is versus the alternative of saving and loading repeatedly until I can make it out of the cave without triggering an encounter in the first place is an exercise for the reader.

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It doesn't stop on the overworld either. It's a long walk to Fish.

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After healing however, I have some fantastic luck and make it all the way to the swamp cave without a single encounter!

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I manage to reach one of the chests as well which gives some decent treasure.

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One thing of note is that some enemies have chances to just not attack at all. Once psychic abilities are unlocked these are excellent times to try and heal.

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The other chest isn't as impressive. A few more fights have brought Jill to the brink of death, even defending she probably won't be able to survive an attack at all.

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Retreating again to fish is tough, but I manage to make it back with Jack still okay. There's one more chest still in the swamp cave, but I need some variety. After healing up I try to explore more of the world map a bit.

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Serpant's Hold is the next location that can be reached. The game's text file mentions the twins having felt as if they were being pulled towards the castle.

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Entering the location brings the player to a side view of the castle. There's a lowered drawbridge, and a suspiciously visible amount of underground, along with a green object that seems to be digging their way through it.

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Serpant's Hold is the next town for the player. The castle town features the usual inn and food stores, albeit at higher prices than in Fish.

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There's a cat!

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But most importantly, there's a weapon dealer offering a steel lance for 150 gems. That's quite a lot of money but it's definitely something to save up for.

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One of the NPCs talks about a captured alien being held in the dungeon. This is definitely something to check out.

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There's this fountain animation which really surprised me. It makes excellent use of ZZT's charset and looks very fluid in motion.

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The rest of the Castle is lord Falron's throne room and living area.

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King Falron (whether it's lord or king seems inconsistent!) has been expecting the twins and believes that in order to reach the metallic moon that blocks the sun's rays that the twins will have to make it into the Star Tower.

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As an RPG, you can absolutely loot the castle. There are no consequences for doing so. You're the heroes!

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A guard blocks access to the jail. Until the player can find a way to get past the guard, they'll have no way to make it deeper into the castle.

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The princess is promiscuous. The NPC in the adjacent room to her chamber mentions how you can hear everything that goes on in there through the wall.

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On the right side of the room is a small library with a few short books that can be read.

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The first is "Commodore's Tips For Playing". It offers some basic advice. Multiple save files is definitely essential if you don't plan on fudging your way around bad encounters when fleeing a dungeon.

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There's a joke book?

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Some lore on the Black Moon that prevents the sun's light from reaching the planet. It mentions the one day where the Earth's natural moon eclipsed it, preventing it from seeing the Star Tower.

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And that was the same day Jack and Jill were born.

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The Star Tower is having an effect on humanity, rapidly changing its physiology. Aborted pregnancies is probably not the right term here. Perhaps it should be miscarriages? It's getting into grisly territory here.

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There's some music by MadTom here that I don't quite understand? It doesn't look like standard sheet music to me at least, but I am pretty illiterate when it comes to musical notation.

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Another scroll talks about the alien attack on humanity that destroyed civilization. It sounds like something out of "War of the Worlds" without the aliens all dying from Earth diseases. The Star Tower itself is a bit reminiscent of Half-Life 2's Citadel as well.

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Lastly, is a strange document written in an unearthly script.

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Lastly is the seer, Quiznot.

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Quiznot's own psychic abilities led them to predict that the twins would arrive at Serpant's Hold and are destined to save humanity from its extraterrestrial rule.

That's everything the player can do in Serpant's Hold for now, but the game has been given some more explicit goals. Getting to the Star Tower is no longer a thing to do because of a text file, but because of a seer's vision. There's some motivation for the twins now.

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Back on the world map it seems like a good place to head next would be to the top left corner of the map. This is another village known as Robert.

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Robert is up in the snowy peaks of the northern mountains and certainly looks the part! The visuals here do a great job portraying such an environment, and the buildings partially obscured by other buildings help make the town feel like a larger settlement despite being just one board like Fish was.

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One of the townsfolk talks about where to get a rocket car which we saw on the title screen. They also let us know that Hale is the village on the eastern side of the map. It will be a bit before the player really has a good opportunity to travel there.

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Another NPC mentions a volcano that may have aliens and great treasure. Mr. Riley is the ruler of Robert and collects strange artifacts such as things brought to the planet by the aliens.

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This girl offers her own vision of the future, but can it really happen?

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Mr. Riley is a nice man at least. It would be easy to make a post-apocalyptic game like this run by cruel people who can strongarm others into doing their bidding, but Commodore avoids it. The world of PSWA may be a tough one, but it seems to have brought humanity together. At no point in the entire game will Jack and Jill fight a fellow human.

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The largest building in town is where Mr. Riley lives, but without any reason to speak with him, the party can't enter.

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There's another weapon store here, but the owner can't make any weapons after monsters have taken over the mine by extinguishing its magic torch. Jack and Jill receive their first quest! Light the torch to let the blacksmith get back to work and sell weaponry once more.

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:rimshot:

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Within the town itself is the entrance to another dungeon, the Robert mines.