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Throwback Thursday - Return to Zork (1993)
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 04:08pm 21/05/15 | Comments
Throwback Thursday is a weekly column here on Ausgamers where Kosta opens up the proverbial gaming industry attic, has a poke around, finds dusty copies of games from a different time – and plays them!

Does Kosta want some Rye? 'Course he does.

The Game: Return to Zork
The Year: 1993
The Developer: Activision
The System: PC (DOS)

For those of you that have never played a Zork game, taking one look at the minimalistic cover of 1993’s Return to Zork and its tagline ‘An Epic Adventure in the Great Underground Empire’, you might have a few thoughts. One of those might be, “This looks pretty interesting, and mysterious. I bet this underground empire is probably filled with strange creatures and magic.” Or even, “Zork? Sounds like a place filled with elves and dwarves and ruins. And an ominous blue light for some reason.” Both are valid reactions.

And also way off the mark.

Return to Zork is an FMV-filled adventure game from the early multimedia obsessed '90s with puzzles and brain-teasers at every step. Its design is nonsensical, disconnected, and random in the same way that Myst’s was (both games came out around about the same time), but substitutes that game’s sense of wonder with goofiness. Like a wise old man who lives in a magical ball, a school teacher who looks like a porn extra, and a redneck who if you get drunk enough will give you keys to a door in his basement that opens up a passage to a parallel universe. None of it really makes sense, some of it is funny, but mostly it’s laughable.

And all this in a high-profile computer game from Activision no less.

"You know, George. One of these days computers will be so small they'll fit inside a single room."

The word “Zork” doesn’t really mean anything, it’s a nonsense word. It was coined sometime in the ‘70s by computer hackers to describe an unfinished program long before it was ready to be installed on a mainframe. In the world of computer gaming though, the name “Zork” is iconic. It has a sense of prestige befitting of a pioneer. But what exactly are the early Zork games about? Most people probably wouldn’t know, so there’s no need to feel all that left out. Or try to feel like part of the conversation with phrases like, “Zork? Yeah I remember that. It rocked.” And, “Sure I saw the game last night, it was quite the game. Go team.”

Turns out the Zork games were pretty crazy for the most part, and filled with the sort of absurdist sense of humour you wouldn’t expect to find in a fantasy property. Which played into their appeal. A text adventure with a sense of fun and imagination.

An excerpt from an early text adventure from Andreadisoft

The first version of Zork was called Dungeon, it ran on computer mainframes that took up entire rooms. This was the late ‘70s after all, and home computing was by no means popular. Or even a thing. Computer games were still created and distributed primarily by enthusiasts. But shortly after its creation, and after receiving a trademark violation notice from the makers of Dungeons & Dragons, the name was changed to Zork. The creators would soon form a company, calling themselves Infocom, and in a few short years become one of the biggest names in early computer gaming.

Infocom would become a software giant with Zork, and from there build up a vast library of text adventures dubbed ‘interactive fiction’. To get an idea of the scope and breadth of the Infocom text adventures, Zork had to be split up into three separate games in order to run properly on home computers in the early ‘80s. And this was for a game with no graphics at all. The first game sold in the tens of thousands and became a huge hit. In terms of today’s market share that would put its sales figures in the millions. And the series only grew from there.

Classic '80s fantasy art like this no doubt helped a little

Wait a second, if Zork was such a huge in ‘80s why wasn’t there a graphic version until the early ‘90s? And by Activision no less.

Well, to answer that question one has no choice but to summarise the downfall of Infocom into a few sentences that would consequently make them sound like the most misguided software company in the history of gaming. You see, by the mid-'80s Infocom had perfected its interactive fiction platform into a position where it could release a new title every few months. With minimal development cost. That meant they decided against investing in graphics because they felt that for the most part they weren’t needed, or too expensive, or that people didn’t really want them.

Instead Infocom invested heavily into the creation of business-grade database software, sinking millions into the world of object oriented data collation. Couple this with the declining sales of its text-adventures, and Infocom slowly went bust. So they were bought up by Activision.

Understandably Activision weren’t all that interested in creating new text adventures, but instead were keen on owning the Infocom back catalogue of titles, and franchises. Like Zork. Cut to a few years later and the dawn of the CD-ROM. Everyone is getting in on the interactive storytelling game, so Activision feels like the time is right for a new Zork. First, because it’s a well-known adventure game, second they own the name, and third, why not?

Ladies and gentlemen we present to you, the future of interactive storytelling, the amazing Return to Zork.

A world of fantastical landscapes!

And ticket counters!

And mayoral offices!

At one point in time, that being the moment of its release, Return to Zork was an impressive and awe inspiring creation. Vivid, strange, familiar, obtuse, and mesmerising locations to explore with intricate puzzles to solve. And all contained within this new storage medium called CD-ROM. It was sold as the successor to the Zork of old, but with the imagination on the part of the player giving way to cutting edge computer generated visuals.

Kind of like Jurassic Park, also form 1993, but a Jurassic Park that has aged terribly. Cutting edge computer generated visuals in the early ‘90s where live action and animation blended to form a single cohesive picture tended to look a lot different on the computer screen than they did on the silver screen. In other words, kind of terrible.

Return to Zork is no different, the heavily pixelated video, terrible acting, and pretty basic art looks completely dated now. Probably even more so than many text adventures, including the original Zork. And certainly a lot more dated than traditional hand-drawn point-and-click adventure games from the era. Games like The Secret of Monkey Island, which came out a few years earlier and still looks great today.

No shit.

But hey, that’s the early ‘90s FMV-game in a nutshell. Dated graphics, old-school computer art, and questionable acting. Which, at a certain point sounds pretty enticing. Games that want to be better than movies. By putting players directly in control of the on screen action and story, via puzzle interludes and dialogue choices, early ‘90s interactive fiction would be the first versions of the future of gaming. And cinema.

Well, not quite. But the ambition was commendable and led to many FMV-driven games worth playing. Return to Zork isn’t one of them. It’s a game more about puzzles than it is about story, setting, and immersion. After all the premise is that you've won a sweepstakes competition and are on vacation in the Great Underground Empire. So in that regard it pales in comparison to games like Myst or one of the Tex Murphy games. The distinct lack of narrative drive and story makes all the interaction with digitized actors feel like a bad stage production of 10,001 Brain Teasers -- the sort of paperback you could pick up at just about any news-agency.

Throwback Rating:

Best Forgotten / A Trip Down Memory Lane / Timeless

Previous Throwbacks:

Kosta Andreadis remembers a time when in order to get the best out of a console game you had to blow gently into it and whisper sweet nothings like "please work, I’m up to World 8-3, for fudgcicles sake". Situated in Melbourne, Kosta is a freelancer who enjoys playing RPGs, strategy, adventure, and action games. Apart from investing well over 200 hours into The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim he’s also an electronic musician with an album recently released.

Find him or follow him on Twitter - @toadovsky, Steam - toadovsky and Xbox Live - Toadovsky.

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Latest Comments
Posted 06:04pm 21/5/15
Want some Rye? COURSE yah do!
Posted 06:06pm 21/5/15
..etc...etc...AND THEY'RE ALL DEAD
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Posted 03:41pm 24/5/15
Want some Rye? COURSE yah do!

Oh this, so this.

"a new battery"
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