“Want some rye? ‘Course you do!” Any gamer who played this classic from 1993 should recognize this hilarious quote from Activision’s Return to Zork, one of the most anticipated games of the early 1990s.
The Zork series was the pinnacle of the text-adventure genre, but as time and technology marched on, Infocom, creators of the Zork franchise, did not. Graphic adventures controlled by mouse commands replaced text adventures – with Sierra’s King’s Quest leading the way – but the Zork universe was left behind. However, with the 1993 revival of this venerable franchise came improvements in the graphics as well as the user interface. Gone was the text input, replaced by a click-through mouse menu of actions, including the ability to show your emotions towards characters as they talked. For example, during the visit to the blacksmith, a stern emotional response will help you avoid a restarting from a game save later. (No, I won’t tell you why.)
The intro was a fabulous nod towards the original game, with the obligatory visit to the outside of the white house and its mailbox, using the actual text from the beginning of Zork I. A hint of the mystery was provided, and then the player was faced with his or her first puzzle: the irritatingly stubborn vulture. Puzzles in Return to Zork were varied in complexity, some incredibly simple, while others frustratingly challenging. As the Zork universe is a magical one, simple logic does not always win the day and the player always has to be prepared for a non-sequiter solution. As an example, one of the situations requires you to drink along with Boos (where the first line from this blog entry comes from). The trouble is Boos has an amazing capacity for rye whiskey, and you don’t. How to stay sober while Boos gets hammered enough to pass out takes a little thinking “outside of the box”.
One feature that the original Infocom text adventures were known for were the “feelies” that they included inside each game box. Mock postcards, pocket fluff, a Zorkmid, and so on gave each game a unique feel (hence the name “feelies”). Return to Zork returned to the practice, including an official Sweepstakes Winner letter (with envelope) as well as incorporating the game manual into a mock-up of the 966 GUE version of the extensive Encyclopedia Frobozzica.
Return to Zork was released across several platforms, including MS-DOS, Macintosh, PlayStation, and Sega Saturn, and was a smash hit for Activision. It spawned two more games in the Zork universe, the ultra-serious Zork: Nemesis and the very funny Zork: Grand Inquisitor. There was also a new text-adventure released to coincide with Return to Zork, called Zork: The Undiscovered Underground, which you can still play, here. A multi-player game was recently released, Legends of Zork, but it did not seem to have the same spirit of zaniness that Zork games were known for, but that’s merely an opinion – your mileage may vary.
Don’t expect to run amok killing all the inhabitants of the Great Underground Empire or trying to burn it to the ground, for although you can try, you’ll soon find the modern version of the classic Zork thief comes along to punish you for your sins. Once he’s come and gone with all your possessions, the only way to win the game is to restore a saved game. After all, this isn’t a Doom clone!
Ultimately I very much enjoyed playing Return to Zork when it was released, and give it a strong recommendation to any retrogamer who is looking for some classic adventure gaming today. It was designed to run under MS-DOS 5.0, so you’ll need to run it under DOSBox or a dedicated classic retrogaming PC computer, but if you take the time to set up your system to run it, Return to Zork will reward you with some great gaming moments!