Zork 1: The Great Underground Empire

Developer:  Infocom
Publisher:  Activision
Year Released:  1982

Review by Rosemary Young (July, 1996)
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

These are the few words that must stand up and shout 'GUILTY' when I drag myself away from the computer after a prolonged sitting at my latest game acquisition, thinking of the dozens of chores I've expertly neglected. They are etched indelibly on my mind. Even if you haven't spent long hours roaming the Great Underground Empire (GUE) those words are probably quite familiar to you as well and, at the very least, you too are likely suffering in the wake of their crime.

Strictly speaking, Zork I wasn't the very first adventure game, I think Colossal Cave preceded it and maybe a couple of others did too, but, to the best of my knowledge, it was the first commercial success. It certainly played a huge role in spawning all the games we enjoy today and, even after 10 years or more, it is still a very good game and will guarantee you hours and hours of fun and frustration.

You are in the living room. There is a doorway to the east, a wooden door with strange gothic lettering to the west, which appears to be nailed shut, a trophy case, and a closed trap door at your feet.

Can you see the room? Is your curiosity piqued ... just a little? That wooden door with gothic lettering, it's interesting, but it's nailed shut -- or is it? And that trap door, it's begging to be opened. If the picture is clearly painted in your mind then I invite you to open it and begin your adventure. But, as you are no doubt aware, this is a text game, there are no pretty pictures, no music to set the mood, you have only your own imagination to see you through.

What lies beyond that trap door is a world just about as big and as fantastic as you want it to be, and there are a good number of locations above ground as well. But to participate in this adventure you have to rely on your own resources. You must type in all your commands to explore and interact with the gameworld and read all the responses carefully to pick up the numerous clues. There is no one to hold your hand, and this applies also to the mapping facility because there is none. Pen and paper for mapping is absolutely essential, and so is a good store of patience or tenacity, as the labyrinth of underground tunnels weave around and go up and down. Just because you go south to reach a particular location it doesn't necessarily mean that heading back north will return you to your original location. Nothing is quite so simple as that.

This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.

Yes, there is a maze in Zork I, in fact there are two of them, both of which will likely be a nightmare for any of you who hate mazes. For the rest of us, however, they will likely be a mixture of sheer frustration and sheer delight and, hopefully, capped with a great sense of achievement when they are fully mapped. Indeed, the fun in this game is pure exploration and puzzle solving. There is no story, and it doesn't really need one. It's essentially just a treasure hunt and it will test even the most experienced player of today's graphic adventures.

In the Great Underground Empire there are scores of treasures and other items to collect, far too many for you to carry around. Some you must leave behind till later, or you will need to build hoards of goodies that might come in handy. But choose the location of your hoards carefully as the thief has sticky fingers and he will relieve you of your goods and drop them off in another random location. It's a bit of a shock at first, when that crucial item goes missing, but all in all it adds to the fun when you must set out on yet another search.

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

Exploring in this game is anything but easy. You'll need plenty of equipment including a lamp, a rope and a clove of garlic. Without the lamp you won't go very far at all and you're likely to end up on the dinner menu of a starving grue. At almost every turn there is an obstacle in your path and working out the puzzles and collecting the necessities will keep you well and truly occupied. Here the puzzles are truly inventive and don't expect to find the necessary item nearby, or even to solve a puzzle at its precise location. Manipulating something elsewhere will just as likely be the answer.

Now I know that many adventure game players have been totally spoiled by today's graphics and point and click interfaces, and this one would certainly take some getting used to. It's worth the effort, and especially if you can resist reaching for a walkthrough at the first sign of trouble. Playing this game with a walkthrough would be sacrilege, it belongs to the days when you just couldn't get one at the drop of a hat and, what's more, it can't really be appreciated unless you go a little bit mad in the process.

Have a look at it, that's my humble advice. It just might surprise you. Even if you are one of those players who would never tolerate a typing interface, or if you simply can't survive without graphics, it's still worth a peek into the past just to see how it all began. rating:  

Copyright © Rosemary Young 1996. All rights reserved.