Quick info:
Title: Return to Zork
Platforms: DOS, Macintosh
Release Date: 1993
Alternate Versions: CD version has CD-quality music and more video; floppy version has MIDI music and little video
Format: Floppy, CD
Developer: Activision (under the Infocom label)
Publisher: Activision
Availability: Average rarity, IDSA-protected, abandonware versions exist
ESRB: Not rated (content is about T-level)

Detailed info and review:
Return to Zork was the first fully graphical adventure game in the Zork series. An interesting game to say the least, Return to Zork was unparalleled even today in some areas, such as interface, but sorely lacking in others, such as puzzle design. It was notable for being one of the first games to feature actual acting (the game has an IMDB entry at http://us.imdb.com/Details?0158150) and photorealistic backgrounds. While the puzzles ranged from mediocre to show-up-at-the-designer's-house-with-a-pickaxe horrendous, the game made up in style what it lacked in substance - the interface was excellent, the graphics and music were superb for the time, and the ever-present Zork ironic mystery and wit was everywhere.

RTZ's plot deviates from those of the earlier interactive fiction games. The player assumes the role of a lucky winner of an all-expenses-paid trip to the ancient land of Zork, seven hundred years after the collapse of the Great Underground Empire. Along the way, she discovers that the land is slowly being usurped by an evil sorcerer, Morpheus. It's not a very involved plot, and it's not supposed to be; it's just a setting for the typical you're-here-now-get-out-alive adventure game. Some Zork fans were disappointed by the lack of a more involved backstory, but the game never really suffers from the lack of a gripping plot. (In my opinion, Zork's story, with the Legend of the Flatheads and all, was never high art in the first place, but I digress...)

The game's puzzles are incredibly contrived and illogical. It's very difficult to finish the game, much less collect the full 225 points, without a walkthrough or at least a few hints. Return to Zork is also notorious for being unforgiving; it's perfectly possible to render the game "closed off" without knowing it until the player is required to use some item she forgot to pick up several hours ago. Warning: spoilers ahead; prospective players should skip to the next paragraph. To give an example: at one point in the game, the player is required to navigate her way through a dangerous mine on a runaway cart. The only hint given as to the correct path to follow (all others result in death, naturally) is a speech heard just before entering the mine, in which "Left," "Right," and "Straight" are said repeatedly in various contexts. Somehow, the player is expected to arrive at the illogical conclusion that the dwarves' random conversation contains the path through the maze. To make matters worse, the game caches the mouse clicks as the player navigates through the mine, making an accidental double-click a quick way to end the game. Another, much worse example: at the very beginning of the game (the first screen, in fact) the player is presented with a plant growing in the ground. Interacting with the plant brings up the option of "Pull up plant," which kills the plant in the process. Of course, a living plant is required later - just over halfway through the game, in fact, which is a perfect time for the player to discover that every single one of his saved games is useless. (To be fair, there is supposedly a way to obtain another living plant, but I have never discovered nor have I found a guide that details how to do it.)

Additionally, while the acting was original for the time, the actors are so laughably bad that many nowadays play the game just for the humor of watching the actors babble and stumble about on screen, MST3K-style. While much of the acting is made much worse because of the limited space and resolution the programmers were forced to work with, the acting is still cheesy. The graphics, too, look antiquated today - the game runs in 320x200 in 256 colors, a very common configuration back then that pales in comparison to today's millions of pixels and 32-bit color. The CD version looks somewhat better thanks to the use of optional "walk-through movies," short video clips that provide a smooth transition between areas of the game.

Nonetheless, many parts of the game shine and are even unmatched today. The humor, for instance, is perhaps the most fondly-remembered part of Return to Zork. The constantly drunk Boos Miller's "Want some rye? 'Course ya do," has even passed into video game history as a zany quote that sums up the game's wry humor well. In the same game locale, most players fondly remember the message "One-five-one proof, you hit the roof," that results from accepting Boos's offer. (Lighting a match in his house, by the way, results in the death message "One-five-one proof, you blew the roof.") And the normally dark and mysterious Zork setting is livened up with characters like Witch Itah, Alexis the half-poodle, half-hellhound, and the lighthouse keeper ("What's the password? Did you say the password? I can't let you in without the password, so you must have already said it, huh?").

The musical score, too, is repetitive but well-done and adds well to the overall mysterious feel of Return to Zork. Teri Mason and Nathan Wang composed this catchy music, which I still find myself humming occasionally.

The hallmark of the game, however, is certainly its interface, which was heavily advertised but lived up to its promises. Sadly, Activision never reused RTZ's unobtrusive yet functional interface. To add to the immersion, no status indicators were visible on screen, not even a points counter; this was unique before games like Myst and Donkey Kong Country popularized it. Right-clicking on the screen brought up a list of the items in the player's inventory. Clicking one selected it, at which point the player could click anywhere on the screen to use the item, or on another item in the player's inventory to use the items together. Also, unlike the Myst-like limitation of exactly one use per item and exactly one action per click, Return to Zork used radial menus extensively. Unlike, say, today's Neverwinter Nights, these were huge radial menus, with perhaps a dozen possible interactions for each object. Few players can resist the urge to see what happens when the knife is applied to the various characters in the game; sure enough, there's an option to kill (two, actually: "strike" and "stab"), which, perhaps disappointingly, results in forfeiture of the game.

In addition, conversation is uniquely handled in Return to Zork. Instead of the typical one-way conversation in which the player walks up to some character and somehow prompts him to begin speaking what's on his mind without eliciting a response, a la Final Fantasy, RTZ allows players to direct the conversation by selecting from various "reactions" available on the screen. These reactions, ranging from "Friendly" to "Threatening," often prompt the NPCs to respond to the player in different ways. The game also offers an excellent question-and-answer system, allowing the player to ask characters about map locations, items in the player's inventory, other NPCs, or even other conversations (through the "tape recorder" feature that remembers every interaction with an NPC)! Activision's designers deserve kudos for their success in making NPCs more than just hint dispensers and more like actual entities in the game world.

In short, Return to Zork is a decent adventure game that, while not quite measuring up to the original text adventures, remains enjoyable nonetheless. Excellent in some areas and dismal in others, the game is altogether a worthwhile purchase (or download) for any fan of adventure games and the Zork series in particular.

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