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Closer Look: City of ZZT

June 19, 2017, 2:26 a.m.

Where can I get The City of ZZT

The City of ZZT 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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The City of ZZT

By: Tim Sweeney
Published Under: Epic MegaGames
Released: 1991
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After sitting on the polls for nearly a year, The City of ZZT managed to finally get its turn for a Closer Look! City is an official world, only released publicly in 1997 with the other registered ZZT worlds. City is the fourth and final of these worlds, and it shows in both the positives and negatives.

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As City is official, it gets its own special title in the ZZT world listing. It's listed there as "Underground City of ZZT", but nothing in the game itself mentions being underground.

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The game's title screen is pretty basic. In fact it's the only official world that doesn't have any form of movement on it. The other game worlds all have something going on with them, but City is rigid.

There's a disclaimer as well about the game not being shareware like Town of ZZT was. Registering ZZT cost $12.95 and included Caves of ZZT, with Dungeons and City sold for $6 each or $10 for both. So let's find out if $6 is a fair price for City!

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The City of ZZT is naturally going to have most of its comparisons to Town due to the similar settings. While City is still quite abstract, there is a bit more of an attempt at including things found in a City compared to Town which has a maze of bugs, a castle with a troll, and a large forest with a jazz singer at the end of it.

City is a bit more streamlined. There are only two paths to take from the start, and two passages to enter. Town offered four board connections and entrances to an armory and bank, plus the blocked off palace all from its opening screen.

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Town had a lengthy introduction as it was going to be the first world played by most people. City can safely assume the player knows the controls and mechanics of of ZZT. Town was also overt about needing five purple keys. Meanwhile to leave the polluted and crime filled city the player is given no real direction. There's no need to hold the player's hand now that they've paid good money to get here.

It's also worth noting Tim's portrayal of the city as a hostile one! Tim Sweeney's environmentalism shows up once in awhile throughout the ZZT series where trees tend to always be beneficial to the player in offering advice. The registration address for ZZT is for Potomac, MD which is roughly a half hour outside of Washington D.C. as well so if the decision for the city to be in a sorry state is meant to be based on Sweeney's actual city at the time we know where we're looking. (This is also why some of the earlier ZZT materials credit the game to Potomac Computer Systems rather than Epic).

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My first stop was the pawn shop. Despite being currently broke I figured it'd be worth seeing what was for sale. The pawn shop itself is a simple red interior with walled off ammo and gems to the sides.

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The broker explains their shop and lists what they can offer. The ammo works out to being cheaper here than in Town (where it was 3 shots for 1 gem which works out to 15 for 5). The player can buy health here when they couldn't at all in Town, but it's very expensive and the game actually requires amassing gems in order to complete it. Town's health supply is tight enough that it is definitely a challenge for new players, and City seems to realize this, but in a way that isn't actually very helpful unfortunately. The good news is that City is significantly easier than Town so the need for more health in the first place is reduced quite a bit.

There's also advice offered, which in Town was just some lyrics to Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven. Here it costs money, and is actually relevant as we'll see later.

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The mystery of where to go to escape from the city isn't a tough nut to crack with the game explicitly stating there's a train station to the west. Heading that way the player can also pick up 120 ammo just lying on the city streets. A flashing scroll leading towards downtown diverts my interest in the train however.

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ZZT has such a fun cast of characters. Dr. Bob lives downtown and the player should stay away from him?

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All that ammo was given for a reason as the downtown area is a winding path filled with ZZT's creatures.

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They have their intelligence cranked up making them opt to to move to the player more than they move randomly which makes it easy to get them to line up with the top wall and shoot away.

There are several yellow doors and keys downtown. The player can simply take one and follow the path to Dr. Bob's hideout, but if they're willing to face down a few more lions they can pick up some extra gems as well.

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Gems are destroyed when shot by the player's bullets. It's usually better to just accept the loss of a few gems than trying to let the lions get so close that the risk is instead that the player will get attacked and lose 10 health.

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The rest of the board gets cleared out (save for a cowering ruffian) and the player can proceed to the hideout.

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This path so far follows the pattern from Town where a branch begins with an action board and ends with a puzzle. Town's puzzles were definitely more fiendish than anything City offers.

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The puzzle here is one where pushing these purple buttons will toggle the position of the cyan walls throughout the board. The player can simply touch the button a second time to go back to the first position so this first room which traps the player serves as a safe introduction to the mechanic.

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Later rooms offer danger in the form of creatures in tight spaces the player needs to defeat in order to safely press the button. This can be a challenge due to the limited ammo the player has here. If you're not careful you can run out entirely.

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Eventually they'll reach a room with some ammo which makes clearing the rest of the board safe as well as a key to get deeper into the maze of rooms.

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Finally the board is placed in a state where the player can reach Dr. Bob and the red key he guards.

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Despite any warnings of danger Dr. Bob gladly aids the player by revealing a secret in the park, left of the "XYZZY", whatever that is.

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One cute touch is that solving the puzzle to get to Dr. Bob means blocking the exit passage, so the player will have to hit buttons a few more times in order to finally get out of the room after having obtained their goal. The red key they picked up meanwhile has an unknown purpose.

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With the downtown area complete it's time to head off to the train station, a rather barebones depiction if there's ever been one. A purple key is visible and purple keys are always the most important. An object is blocking it however.

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Ok, so the player needs a ticket to get on the train.

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Talking to the other employee reveals the need for an ID card as well. This is a step up in complexity from the other worlds which are all purple key based. By City, Tim has begun to realize that a lock doesn't have to mean a key, and the one on this board is more symbolic than anything.

There's nothing else to do for now, so I opted to head to the pawn shop and explore the eastern half of the city.

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For 20 gems the pawn broker will answer a question. Other games have had similar hint mechanics to this, and they're a pretty decent way to let the player get information they need without just handing it to them.

Or at least they are in games that don't let you save your game at any time. It's trivial to save before purchasing advice and then reading all of it without actually spending the money on the save.

How do ya get into City Hall?

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What about the train station?

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But I can't find any torches...

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The information is helpful enough to give the player some goals, and let them know that torches are something to be sought rather than just found lying around like in the previous games. Here they're turned into a rare resource that are essential to escaping the city.

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The pawn broker also has a useful bug in their code. One time years ago while playing City I had wondered if Tim put any safety mechanism on this screen for if the player closed the scroll window without selecting a question, either refunding the player's gems, or having the window reopen repeatedly.

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He opted for a refund, but the player gets 30 gems back instead of 20! Whether this was a typo or the advice was originally 30 gems and the refund was never updated is unknown. The good news is that the player can abuse this mechanic to buy all the health and ammo they want.

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City hall is my next destination, and it is of course full of centipedes.

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City hall is also off limits without a HALL PASS. City is much more restrictive than Town and all these roadblocks haven't been from locked doors, but rather people. The opening scroll's mention of excessive bureaucracy was no joke.

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The eastern path splits in a few directions with two exits and a passage to the jail. The city is noticeably less colorful than Town, with lots of sparse and empty feeling boards. Is it a rush job? Is it meant to convey the city as a place you don't want to stay in? There's no real answer to such questions, but the contrast is really blatant.

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The park is to the north and a very basic action board with some lions wandering aimlessly for the player to shoot. One interesting decision City makes is for its action boards to allow for the player to shoot at much as they want. Town was more restrictive in this sense with many of its action boards only allowing a single bullet at a time which would add to the challenge and make aiming essential in order to not get overwhelmed by a bullet that misses its target and keeps going and going, preventing the player from taking another shot until it hits something.

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After cleaning up the park, there's still a citizen to speak with.

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The city doesn't take care of its own, and a homeless person is asking for a donation.

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Giving the bum some money elicits a happy response, but the player receives no benefit themselves.

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Alas, violence is the answer here.

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The bum is in possession of a pass for city hall, but won't part with it for any less than 20 gems.

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This is definitely real.

Figuring out the homeless person needs to be shot isn't the most obvious solution (though there aren't a lot of verbs in ZZT). The pawn shop broker does let the player know they can get a pass from him. The lions running around the park also makes it possible that the player might accidentally shoot the bum unintentionally which helps them stumble on the solution as well.

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The park continues on a second board which is reminiscent of Town's forest which also consists of forest and pockets of enemies. This board contains more than enough gems to bribe the bum with so the player shouldn't have to worry for long if they don't have enough just yet.

The bright blue background is an odd choice to me. Town used torches to get some browns and create a woodsy appearance, but here the background doesn't really look like much of anything.

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There's also the Xyzzy mentioned by Dr. Bob and sure enough a fake wall near it.

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The secret passage leads to the hideout of the ZZT Bandit. Unfortunately it's locked by two keys, but the player can see there's a train ticket inside. It's clearly important to get inside and get the keys from Dr. Bob and the Bandit as well.

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We were told the Bandit is currently in jail so that's the next stop.

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The jail opens with a series of pushers to trap the player inside if they decide they wish to enter.

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The jail itself has a few cells which are occupied and locked with green keys which conveniently are located inside the cells as well. Until the player can get their first green key they can't interact with the prisoners at all.

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The southern portion of the jail consists of a puzzle board which leads to a maximum security area. The player can't shoot on this board and instead needs to use the limited bombs to blast open a path.

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This is done by positioning some boulders and sliders to catch a pusher which moves a bomb when one of the bottom left sliders is moved. The player can then touch the bomb to light it, and push it towards the breakables before it explodes.

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Except it's not quite that simple! There's just barely enough time to get to the tip of the breakable walls and even then the player will be caught in the explosion and be hurt.

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The proper way to proceed is to just catch the pusher with the blue sliders and then use the boulders to push the bomb around without lighting it.

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This lets the player get the bomb in as deep as needed before setting it off which gives ample time to run away from the explosion as well.

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The puzzle can be a bit tedious as it requires constant backtracking.

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It is possible to catch two bombs at once by using one of the boulders to make sure things line up properly, but then it becomes a lengthy process to take the corners. The puzzle is pretty decent, but could have done with removing one of the corners to get around to speed things up so it doesn't outstay its welcome.

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After blasting the last of the walls, there's still the mysterious X and O objects to examine below.

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They appear to just be meaningless, but in fact mark a secret passage to the south!

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The bonus reward is an easter egg worth some points and a few gems. This is one of those boards which is shared between another point in the game as made apparent by the closet below. The closet can make the way to this easter egg easier to discover since the X and O also appear as text here.

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City has a few boards like this which are just connectors to whatever board is supposed to come next. This is the problem with designing puzzles and then trying to connect them. You wind up having to make corrections in which way the player is moving or restructure the puzzles to work from a different direction.

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Next is "The Headache Room". It's a transporter maze with several white keys to collect to open the door.

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Pointing out your puzzle is annoying isn't good game design. Fortunately, the puzzle is actually pretty easy. There are only a few branches and no dead ends that don't end with a key excluding this lone scroll which you can get to from the very start of the puzzle.

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It really doesn't take much time to get through, and the constant transporter sound isn't annoying so it's actually kind of fun zipping around all over the place so rapidly.

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Finally the player reaches the end of maximum security where the Bandit is locked in by a slider. They are promptly freed.

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The Bandit gives the player a green key and leaves. The player can then loop back around to the jail cells and ram into another green key that they can't pick up because they already have one.

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The strange key situation of the jail means the player can now open up each cell and collect the key inside for the next one, having one left over to open the door in the ZZT Bandit's hideout.

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ZZT gets its first non-English speaker who is a convicted criminal. They call the game boring and let the player know that if they understand Spanish then they know that the programmer doesn't know how to write it correctly.

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The prisoner on the bottom right just runs away when touched and doesn't speak to the player at all.

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The last prisoner just wants the player to leave. None of the prisoners seem to have any interest in leaving the jail.

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The spare green key opens the exit which itself has one last green key so that the player can access the hideout.

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With both of the keys available the player can get into the hideout and obtain the train ticket.

Picking up the train ticket causes one of the blink walls to move south. ZZT is weird.