ZZT was (is) an ancient shareware DOS game that runs in character mode, created and published by Tim Sweeney. Originally published by Potomac Computer Systems, a company ran out of the basement of Sweeney’s house, when it expanded its software selection it was renamed to Epic MegaGames, and later Epic Games, under which title it remains today, still headed by Tim Sweeney after all these years. He would go on to create the Unreal Engine, upon which the modern fortunes of the company were founded.
But back to ZZT, which is still a nifty piece of software, and a lot of fun to mess around with. It included an editor that allowed users to create their own scenarios, which spawned a modding community that survives to this day. Noted game designer and educator anna anthropy wrote a book about ZZT for Boss Fight and she continues to carry its banner today. ZZT scenarios both old and new can be found on the site Museum of ZZT, and every three hours Mastodon bot Worlds of ZZT publishes screenshots from random ZZT adventures.
Because it’s a character-mode game, ZZT modules are often confused with classic roguelike computer games. ZZT is not necessarily a roguelike, but it may be possible for someone to write a classic-style roguelike game in ZZT.
But running a DOS game nowadays is not as easy as it used to be. It requires the use of either a vintage computer system running a compatible DOS, a virtual machine like VirtualBox or Docker, or some DOS emulator, such as DOSbox, a tool for emulating a working DOS system that can run on current OSes, or Zeta, a DOS emulator with just enough features to get ZZT working.
ZZT was written in Turbo Pascal, but its source code had been misplaced by Tim Sweeney and was considered lost, until very recently (the past few days), when a nearly-complete version of ZZT 3.0 was found. Most of it can be downloaded from The Almost of ZZT, on Github, which is that version minus some parts of the source that are considered to be under third-party copyright.
Since it is incomplete it is not useful for compiling a working game, and is presented for historical reasons more than anything. Fortunately, there already exists The Reconstruction of ZZT, a reverse-engineered (with Sweeney’s blessing) version from 2020 that compiles to identical binaries.
ZZT is a subject that deserves much more detail than I can give it in an introductory post like this. Maybe later….
I’m an outspoken fan of interesting identification systems in roguelikes. You’re free to disagree with me, but I find that they add a layer of strategy to the use of items. In many games, when you randomly find a good item, it makes sense to immediately press it into service. Often there is no skill in its use; you use, wear or wield it, and from then on its powers are at your disposal. At its furtherest extreme it’s like the random number generator is playing you. There should be some decision-making involved to properly utilize the item once it’s found. Maybe items have limited durability that has to be managed? Maybe items change over time, so you must know when best to use them? Or, as with Rogue and Hack, maybe you don’t know what many items are at first, and must figure that out through some risky and costly manner.
Alphaman uses an identification system, but it works differently from Rogue’s. While there are items that can identify other items, for the most part you don’t identify things like that. There are two major classes of unknown items in Alphaman: berries and devices.
Berries are somewhat like Rogue’s potions. They’re one-use items that are generally consumed to activate. Alphaman has 35 kinds of randomized berries to discover on each play. While the game gives you insight into a few berries at the start of the game, most berries must be discovered by testing them. Like Rogue’s potions, there are good and bad berries, and like in Rogue, once you know the function of one variety of berry, you know it for all other berries of that type. Good-type berries might heal you, restore your fatigue, permanently increase your defense, or help you figure out how to use gadgets. Bad ones could poison you, cause you to grow useless extra limbs or blind you. And then there are the interesting cases, the berries that could be either bad or good, depending on its color. Most berry effects are temporary, although some, like the berry of blindness, last a significant number of turns.
An important thing to keep in mind about berries: known berries are marked with an asterisk, but their descriptions don’t change in-game. You must check your known items list to find out what a berry does. Flipping between the inventory and the discovered items list does get annoying after a while.
Alphaman’s innovation with berries is giving each a ripeness level. All berries have a color that tells you how ripe it is. The colors go through the spectrum, from red (least ripe) to purple (most ripe). Ripeness is kind of like the curse/bless system of NetHack, but all berries naturally become riper over time. More ripe berries are more powerful than less ripe ones.
You will probably have to consume some berries to identify them. If it’s a bad berry, you want to identify it by eating it unripe. If it’s a good berry, you want it to be ripe to maximize its effects. But some berries give bad effects when unripe and good effects when ripe. That’s especially the case for stat and experience effecting berries, which are very helpful when eaten when ripe. A few berries are also better off thrown at enemies than eaten yourself. Decisions, decisions.
Gadgets are also divided into two classes, small and large. There are 97 types of small device and 38 of large. Fortunately you don’t have to use-identify them! There is a command, F, to figure out how to use a device. You aren’t guaranteed to be successful, and if you fail your chance very badly you could break the device, or, if it’s a grenade-type item, cause it to go off in your hands.
Many kinds of gadgets are humorous, and some are useless, but a few apparently-extraneous ones have a secret function that can be discovered if you experiment with them. Like, a microwave oven can ripen berries, and toilet paper can be used as a weapon against dung beetles. Try using items, with the U key, to see what they do. A handful of items can also be “Unused,” with Shift-U: this is usually used to un-equip wearables, but that’s also how you get things out of a Backpack item.
Mutations and Fatigue
Two unique characteristics of Alphaman are the way it handles mutations, and its fatigue system.
Mutations are in other roguelike games, of course. They’re important elements of both ADOM and Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. Alphaman uses them as an extra couple of perks your character receives upon creation. Unlike many other games, starting an Alphaman character is very quick: you get basic stats in a number of D&D-like categories, and are randomly assigned one Physical and one Mental mutation. You don’t gain more mutations as a character progresses. The ones they begin with are the only mutations they’ll have through the whole game.
Mutations are used the same way as items, with the U key, for “Use.” Most of them have a short delay before you can use them again. All of these mutations are beneficial, but you don’t get any say in what you get, other than by start-scumming, quitting and restarting many times until you get your favorites. Some mutations immediately increase one of those middling starting stats up to epic levels. Most mutations are very helpful if you know how to use them correctly, but figuring out the best way to use them might take a few games. I especially found the Quills mutation, which gives you an innate missile weapon you can use in a pinch and directly damages monsters who attack you in melee.
Fatigue is a very interesting addition to the roguelike formula, in my opinion. Every action you undertake carries with it a cost in energy, which comes out of your fatigue level. Fatigue is shown on screen by a status that runs from Well Rested down through Pooped, and eventually Exhausted. Your actions become less effective as your fatigue rises. If this sounds burdensome, it needn’t be. It doesn’t take very much to restore your fatigue level. All you generally need to do is rest a few turns, with the period key, to get your level back up from Pooped to Well Rested.
What fatigue does is impose a limit on doing many things in close succession. Fighting large numbers of enemies at once, even if they’re attacked one at a time, will tire you out a lot. If you’ve being chased by monsters and are a little faster than them, you can probably store enough of your stamina by running until you’re one space away, then resting a turn while they catch up. Carrying a lot of things, measured by your on-screen Encumbrance level, or having a low Constitution stat causes you to become fatigued more easily. But so long as you think to rest a few turns after fights you should be okay.
This section is spoilers, but they are the kind that, at this late date, I think will help a player decide whether they want to play this unusual and interesting game more than actually give anything away. Still, if you want to go in completely fresh, you’ll want to skip this section. (I gave a few very minor things away above, but that’s pretty light.)
To win at Alphaman generally requires:
Finding Elvis’s Hideout, and getting the Blue Suede Shoes from the real Elvis (who is friendly, but won’t give you the shoes until all the Impersonators are defeated). BTW, all of these places are considered “castles” by the game.
Finding the Munster’s castle, 1313 Mockingbird Lane, which contains a map to reveal the location of the Grinch’s stronghold. The stronghold can be found without the map, though you’ll have to search around for it.
Finding the Castle of Those Who Came In Second to find Buzz Aldrin’s Space Suit, which confers radiation resistance. The Grinch’s place is always in the middle of a radiation zone, which will rapidly sap your health while you’re within it. It is possible to acquire radiation resistance by other means, so this may be optional.
Finding Trump’s Casino for the ID card to get into the Grinch’s castle. You’ll easily know the casino—most of the monsters and items found inside it are “Trump” monsters and items, as in, Trump Ghouls, and the Trump Cheese Grater.
Finding the Castaway’s Fortress to obtain the Keptibora Serum from Gilligan, which provides 24 hours of resistance to the Grinch’s nerve toxin. The Castaway’s Fortress is always surrounded by water, so a means of travel to it must be sought.
In the roguelike way, each of these steps contains many unexpected perils, and it may take you multiple attempts at each, falling victim to each major obstacle at least once, before you discover the way through. If you have the time, energy, and patience to put up with that, then Alphaman will supply you with many hours enjoyment. The pleasure of this may begin to diminish for you as you die more and more often, however.
You first games are likely to be short, so not much lost, but the further you get, the more you lose when an unexpected danger kills your hapless character. (“It’s a rosebush, how hard could it be?”) One thing that might help you, that’s not a tremendous spoiler, is that the various castles you have to explore can mostly be done in any order.
At the very end of the game you’ll face the Grinch, and he has one last nasty surprise for you. I am torn, a bit, about whether to spoil this, but it is in a chapter of spoilers, and it may save you a loss at the very end of your journey. So I will reveal this: Your final task is not to kill the Grinch. Think about who he is, what he came from, look around his castle for significant items, and thing how you might be able to find a way to appeal to his better nature. That’s all.
1995 was towards the latter days of the age of shareware. It’s easy to forget, but there were different types of shareware. There was the first-hit’s-free type, the kind that gave out the first episode but where the publishers released the others by mail order or or commercially. That was the model that Wolfenstein 3D and Doom used, and was probably the most successful. Then there’s the kind that lets you play up to a certain point, but to go beyond that you had to pay for a registration code, that unlocked the rest of the game. This often got assigned the moniker of “trialware.” Then there’s what we might call “true” shareware, where the game, in full, was distributed, and while it might nag you to register it, there was no need to to keep playing. If players enjoyed it, they were on the honor system to send in their payment. One of these true shareware games was Alphaman.
Alphaman’s creator Jeffrey Olson tells me he only ever received about 30 paid registrations for his game. At $15 each, that comes up to $450, which given the number of hours he put into it doesn’t seem like proper recompense. Perhaps it’s because of the prevalence of free, sometimes even open source roguelikes like NetHack and Angband, which were already on releases that current-day players would see as reasonably complete. Jeffrey doesn’t harbor any hard feelings, he says, he was just happy to meet people who enjoyed his game.
In the years since its release, Jeffrey has been doing quite a lot with his life! He graduated with a doctorate in Physics from Cornell University. He made hardware that will travel to the planet Jupiter on the Europa Clipper:
“[…]cooling a JPL infrared spectrometer to detect what chemicals are present on Jupiter’s icy moons, and to the asteroid Psyche, cooling a gamma ray spectrometer that will detect what elements are present in the metallic asteroid. I wish I had put a gamma ray spectrometer in Alphaman.“
Jeffrey also also been married for 30 years, plays soccer every week, plays the trombone, and makes his own beer to share with friends. A high-school friend of his, Peter Jessop, helped test the game, and has done voice work for a wide range of big-name video games, among them Destiny 2 and Red Dead Redemption! It’s always nice when one of our team does good.
I asked Jeffrey if he had anything to say to people who have played and enjoyed Alphaman over the years, and who might play it in the future. He said, “Thanks for taking the time to play Alphaman. I hoped you enjoyed playing as much as I enjoyed creating it, and sorry about all the jokes from the 1990s that aged so poorly. I’ll always be embarrassed by references to Dan Quayle, Mary Decker, and the Kevorkian Machine….”
Thanks for your efforts, then and now, Jeffery. We’ll meet again in the Adventurer’s Lounge someday, after the last quest is done.
Yeah, I’ve been ekeing a living out of these wastes for years, even since The Bomb ended life as we knew it. Life back then was simple. You might have had a soul-crushing office job, but you didn’t have to face off against vampiric warthogs or psychic blue jays. Just on the way here I was set upon by a stalk of asparagus with a chip on its shoulder and deadly radiation coming out of its leafy head. I had to run up close to it and whack it to death to make it stop zapping me. At least, I think it was dead. It wasn’t moving no more, but the same thing’s the case with normal asparagus. Maybe it’s just resting.
I’m on a mission here from out of state to find the source of a deadly nerve toxin with the power to destroy the rest of life on Earth. First I have to find my informant, Elvis Presley. Yes, that Elvis. The world’s always been a weird place, the nuclear war just made it a whole bunch weirder. But before I can find him, I’ve got to get to his castle. No, not Graceland, the one here in New York. I don’t got time to fill you in on how much you been lied to.
Look over there, it’s a gazelle! Looks harmless, doesn’t it? You see that laser gun on its back? DUCK YOU FOOL, get down behind this rock! Okay, here’s what we do. You run over there to distract it, and I’ll get up close and poke it to death with my pitchfork. We’ve only got once chance at this, we either take down this antisocial ungulate or the whole world, such as it is, is toast. It might suck, but at least we’ve got all these cans of Spam littering the ground to survive off of. You don’t like Spam you say? What do you think this is, a conveniencestore?
Nuclear weapons have destroyed civilization. You’re a mutated human living in a valley in central New York. This looks like the end.
But maybe it’s not. The world is in bad shape, but life continues, in its way. But maybe not for much longer. An outside group has sent you in as its agent to investigate rumors of some entity that’s obtained a deadly and virulent nerve toxin that could wipe out what remains of life on the planet. You don’t have much information on this being or its location at the outset of your quest. Only that it’s some creature known only as the Grinch….
Alphaman is a console-based roguelike computer game released for DOS in 1995. This means it doesn’t qualify as an early roguelike, but it’s still pretty old.
1995 was the year of Windows 95, and at last the beginning of Microsoft’s push to eliminate MS-DOS. DOS wasn’t dead yet though, which was fortuitous for Alphaman, since it’s a DOS console program and can run in Windows 95’s DOS compatibility layer. Nowadays if one doesn’t have access to a PC from that era, they’ll probably have to run it on the emulation platform DOSbox.
It’s been a while since I’ve done an @Play, it might be worth it to go over some really basic basics of both it and classic roguelikes generally.
The smiley-face is you. Letters of the alphabet are monsters, most of which are trying to kill you. Walk into a monster to hit it with your currently equipped weapon.
The large green punctuation symbols (not the periods) represent foliage; you usually want to go around these things, but sometimes you might be able to break through.
Other colored punctuation and symbols are usually items you can collect. When you walk on an item, you automatically collect it. This might burden you a lot, if you are carrying many heavy items. When you’re burdened (check the Encumberance status), you tire more easily and get hungry faster.
The red border is the edge of the current section of the world map. Walking into it will give you a brief glimpse of the world around you, then you’ll appear in the next screen over.
You might find a purple symbol in the wilderness. These are lairs. You can go down, into the lair, with the < (Lesser-Than) key. (Note: This is the opposite from other games! In most classic roguelike games, > goes down and < goes up.)
You might find a large blue rectangle with an opening in one side. These are ruins or castles. Walk into the opening to enter and explore. These usually extend both up and down. You can find nice items and tough monsters there. To win the game, you will have to find and explore several castles.
If you press the Question Mark key, you’ll be shown this very helpful screen telling what the various keys do. A capital letter means to hold down Shift while pressing it. Especially note these keys:
u: Use an item, including wearing armor and wielding weapons
U: “Unuse” an item, taking armor off and cease wielding a weapon. This also gets items out of a backpack.
d: Drop an item (use this to become less encumbered)
f: Try to figure out a device
e: Eat food (Cans of Spam and Beef-A-Roni, mostly). Also press ‘e’ to eat berries.
. (period): Rest (to remove fatigue)
s: Search, checking the eight squares around you for hidden passages, useful in ruins and castles
p: Use your physical mutation
m: Use your mental mutation (the u key can also use these)
t: Throw an item. Use this with darts, shuriken and other missile weapons. You’ll be asked to pick a spot to throw at.
Z: Sleep. When the sun goes down you must find a quiet place and sleep through the night. Inside a cleared level of a structure or lair is good for this.
F1-F7: Changes the display to show more information. F2 brings up your inventory, F3 lists items you have identified, F4 shows a summary of your condition, F5 shows the overworld map, and F7 shows a list of symbols relevant to your current location.
As you play, you’ll eventually find better weapons and armor. For armor, Unuse the one you’re currently wearing with Shift-U (items in use are marked with an asterisk in the item list), then use the new one by pressing U. The effectiveness of your current armor is represented by your “Armor Class” in your stats. Armor Class affects how easily monsters can hit you with physical attacks. The game will seem a fair bit easier if you’re wearing good armor.
Alphaman uses the old D&D paradigm for Armor Class, in which lower numbers are better! It starts at 10 and goes down. Negative numbers are especially good! Leather and Hide Armor are weak, Ring and Chain Mail are better, Plate Mail is very good. How are you supposed to know that if you haven’t played a lot of D&D, or aren’t a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism? It’s just one of those little things that all RPG players must absorb, eventually. Some of it you have to figure out as you go. It’s part of the game.
Note, in Alphaman, protective equipment tends to wear out with use. Eventually as you take blows, you’ll be told that your armor is damaged, and then, destroyed. It would be good to have backup armor to put on when that happens.
Up, Down, and Around
As mentioned, Alphaman is set in the future, after a nuclear war that ended civilization, instead of the usual D&D-inspired fantasy scenario. This puts it in the ballpark of D&D’s neglected sister game Gamma World, and its ancestor Metamorphosis Alpha. Instead of magic spells there’s advanced technology and weird mutations, and replacing the monsters from myth and folklore there are deranged versions of animals and plants. Because the setting is on Earth, just in the future, it is less anachronistic to include places, devices and even people from our planet’s history. Alphaman really carries this aspect to extremes with its many pop culture references, as we’ll see later.
The most popular roguelikes from the time had a “vertical” structure. They were made of a series of single-screen dungeon levels extending deeper and deeper into the earth. Rogue, Hack, NetHack and Larn all do this. ADOM was also like this in its original form, before it got an overworld. Moria and Angband have vertical dungeons, but each dungeon level took up multiple screens, and those games flip between them when the player gets near one of the edges of the viewable area.
Alphaman has vertical dungeon areas, that extend conceptually either down into the ground, or up into above-ground buildings, or both. But it also has an “overworld”: a wide above-ground region that sprawls out many screens north, south, east, and west. There is both an overworld screen that reveals the large-scale lay of the land, and individual screens contained within it, each representing one square of the overworld. At the start you’re shown the overworld and your location within it, but you’re immediately taken down into your current screen. When your character moves to an edge of that screen, the overworld map and your location are again shown for a moment, then it’s replaced by the map of the new screen your character has entered.
In most roguelikes it is standard practice, in vertical dungeons, that the game stops counting the actions of creatures off of your current level. If you’re adjacent to a monster on the previous level it might be given a chance to follow you, but otherwise it cools its heels while you’re away, assuming you’re not playing one of those games where dungeon levels you leave behind aren’t forgotten about completely.
Alphaman works like that when you’re in a location that plays by vertical dungeon rules, but on the overworld, monsters on screens that you leave are not forgotten about. They continue to receive turns, even while they’re out of sight of your character, and can follow you across a substantial portion of the overworld map. It is very likely, as you flee, that the new screens you enter will contain monsters of their own who will happily join in the chase, until you’re leading a whole cloud of angry letters across the leafy landscape of post-apocalyptic New York.
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Apocalypse
As you might have picked up from the introduction, Alphaman has a lot more pop culture references than the typical roguelike. NetHack, a game that some consider to be excessively burdened by jokes, is reserved compared to Alphaman. In addition to ultimately fighting the Grinch:
Your first major destination is a castle of Elvis Impersonators where you must find the real one,
You may visit castles belonging to the Castaways of Gilligan’s Island and the Munsters, and could even end up exploring a Trump casino,
A lot of miscellaneous monsters may be found throughout the game, like the inhabitants of the castles, as well as: Mr. Potato Head, a “Bush,” who if defeated summons a “Quayle” (this game was published long before the era of Bush 45), an “Algore” that plants grow around, King Kong and Godzilla, “the Blob,” and others.
A wide variety of wacky devices and objects, some of which are useless, including (just a few) a Chia Pet, a Cheese Grater, and a mask of former Democratic Speaker of the US House of Representatives Tip O’Neill, which blinds you but scares off monsters.
As the Bush/Quayle and Tip O’Neill jokes suggest, the humor of Alphaman is of a distinctly 90’s flavor, and so as time passes the jokes age further and further out of currency. Some people reading this may not even have been alive during the reign of the first George Bush. On the other hand, slaughtering your way through a castle-like Trump Casino carries a special vicarious thrill that people from the 90s probably wouldn’t feel nearly so deeply as today. An important item to collect there is Trump’s “Presidential ID Card.” Did Jeffrey Olson know something then that we didn’t…?
We have so much to tell you about Alphaman, and its creator Jeffrey Olson, that we’re saving more of it for next month. See you then!
The site with the last remaining original mirror of Alphaman is ftp.funet.fi. Alphaman there is alpman11.zip. It can also be found on Abandonia. Alphaman was not the kind of game to get a physical release, and the end screen requests that you distribute it far and wide, so there are no legal issues there.
To play Alphaman now, you’ll need a means of running MS-DOS. You could spin up a virtual machine that runs DOS, but most people will just want to use DOSbox. DOSbox requires a little configuration, but can be used in many different platforms, including Windows, Mac and Linux.