Retro Review: Return to Zork (DOS)

Return_to_Zork_CoverartReturn to Zork was a sequel to the semi-popular series of text adventures in the 80’s, simply titled Zork. It was the first game in the series to actually have visual graphics, and was one of the earliest FMV games, sort of. The original floppy disk version (which came on a whopping 12 disks) actually only had animated GIFs of live actors, but the CD version added some actual FMV. It was the first Zork game I ever played, and is also still the only Zork game I’ve ever played, but I still consider it to be one of the greatest classic adventure games around.

DOSBox 2017-09-07 18-12-30-885
How do you defeat this spider? Why, you use a fear necklace on it! Duh!

Return to Zork was a rare type of game back in its day, deciding to have you navigate its world in first person. Usually if a game like this was in first person it would mean that it would be mostly made up of logic puzzles, like 7th Guest or the like, but Return to Zork stuck to a more traditional point-and-click adventure style for the most part. There were a small handful of logic puzzles, and even a maze or two, but most of the gameplay consisted of hunting for items to use in bizarre ways to resolve situations, and trying to get information out of difficult NPCs.

They took a rather different approach to inventory management though. Where most adventure games would offer you a set of icons for looking, touching, speaking, and etc., Return to Zork instead had only a single type of cursor that changed to the required function automatically when hovered over an interactive object, as well as different unfolding displays of interactive options for each individual item in your inventory. Many interactive objects in the world would have similar displays that offered multiple options for interacting with them too. This all seemed to be very ahead of its time and led to a huge amount of different approaches to situations, but this was still the early 90’s, so what this really resulted in was a lot of red herring options that led to nothing but dead ends, some of them even leading to the destruction of a key item or person, which rendered the game unwinnable. Thanks, 90’s. This game bothers to let you know when you’ve irreparably screwed yourself though, so there is that.

DOSBox 2017-09-05 16-18-24-439
Haha! Crippling alcoholism! Get it?!?

Other experimental additions to the classic adventure formula include emotion choices during conversations, a camera that you can use to take pictures and then question people about the subjects of your photos, and a tape recorder that automatically records every conversation, all of which only end up being used 1-2 times each throughout the course of the game. Oh well, it was a nice thought.

Most of these issues are pretty standard stuff for games of this era though. I only bring them up as a warning to the uninitiated in the ways of old-timey adventures. If you can forgive these flaws then you’re going to be in for one hell of an adventure. Return to Zork is a bizarre world born of the coupling of fantasy and modern day technology (circa 1990), and one that never takes itself too seriously.

DOSBox 2017-09-07 18-09-55-775
Yes, that IS that jerk kid from several shows/movies from the 80’s! He’s the biggest star in this.

This impressively large adventure world is packed full of bizarrely memorable characters, from the comically drunk Boos Miller, to the bumbling lighthouse keeper, to the trolls that no one could afford actual make-up for, and so are just dudes in big wigs. There are also dozens of weird puzzles of a large variety of types, as well as many, many ridiculous ways to die. The unique, goofy writing behind it all is what really makes this game stand apart from the rest.

Now, there are of course a few nasty extra obscure puzzles that will leave you wondering how anyone could possibly have figured them out on their own (just use a guide, I won’t tell), but for the most part the game gives you quite a lot of information on how to solve most of them, as long as you’re paying attention. There’s also an in-game notebook that automatically records any potentially vital information you come across. You may want to keep a piece of paper handy for a map or two to be drawn though.

DOSBox 2017-09-07 18-19-51-895
Orc Guard is not impressed.

This may all sound a bit intimidating, but there’s nothing here that comes close to modern brain-melting puzzlers like The Talos Principle or The Witness, it’s all perfectly do-able. So if this hasn’t scared you off already, take my word and give Return to Zork a chance if you ever find yourself with that strange urge for a fix of some early 90’s FMV adventure that’s remarkably and unforgettably ridiculous.