Sunday, July 25, 2010

Backtracking: Zyll (1984)

This is one of several mini-reviews of CRPGs I missed in my first pass, which I explain here.

Of Zyll, Matt Barton (2008) writes: "Unfortunately, this highly innovative game is virtually unknown today" (p. 91). We need to change that, because--to a CRPG archaeologist, at least--Zyll is simple, pure pleasure. I started this blog to discover games like this.

In Zyll, you play a young warrior, wizard, or thief on a quest to recover the great treasures of your kingdom (the Land of Magic and Enchantment) from the evil wizard Zyll, who has stolen them. You also must steal Zyll's black orb--the artifact that gives him his power and has allowed him to turn your kingdom to a wasteland. There are other minor treasures to take, too, and the game isn't just about "winning" but rather achieving the highest possible score when you do.

The game is entirely text-based, with detailed written descriptions of all the areas. When you start out, for instance, you are told:

You are at a small shelf on the top of a cliff. There is a mist in the air, and you can see a magnificent waterfall cascading down the mountain. You also see:
  • The ledge continue to the south
  • A sharp downward slope to the west

This type of description sounds very familiar to anyone who has played Zork or the other Infocom text adventures of the era. But unlike these games, Zyll is a real CRPG, with different classes, an inventory of armor and weapons you can find and wear, random encounters with monsters, and combats based on statistics. Oh, you could quibble that the game lacks certain CRPG elements: you can't name your character, for one, and there's no character development. But it's at least a quasi-CRPG, and I like it.

CRPGs have made it impossible for me to explore abandoned wells in real life. I'm always disappointed when all I find is spiders and trash.

The game consists of exploring a castle and its surrounding area, finding treasures (which are randomly placed), solving light puzzles, picking locks, mapping, collecting inventory items you need to progress (like keys), and slaying wandering trolls and skeletons.

Combat in Zyll is text-based, but your chances of winning depend on your equipment, your strength, and random die rolls, just like a CRPG.

But I haven't covered the coolest part yet: the game supports a second player! Moreover, this other player can play in "competitive" mode, trying to find the treasures of Zyll before you do, or in "cooperative" mode, working with you to save your kingdom. Both players play in the same game window using the same keyboard--"in effect," Barton says, "a MUD playable on a single nonnetworked computer, a novel concept then and now."

The interface is a little cumbersome on a modern keyboard. Instead of typing in commands (as in Zork), you choose from a selection of commands using the function keys (F1-F10). Because F10 is "Other" and gives you another screen of options, there are as many as 19 different actions (not including sub-actions) available at any given time. The commands were mapped to the corresponding function keys on the IBM PC/XT keyboard, which were arranged in a group on the left hand side. With modern top-level function keys, you have to pause and count the order of the commands before you know what key to press. It's annoying but not fatal.

The IBM PC/XT keyboard.

The second player uses the number pad on the right. His commands and text description are also on the right-hand side of the screen. Thus, although both players had to use one keyboard, the game took advantage of the layout of the keys and kept them from interfering with each other. Ingenious, really.

Zyll in two-player mode. Note that player 1 (a thief) sees a wizard and player 2 (the wizard) sees a thief.

Mapping in text-based games can often be a challenge, and Zyll is no exception. With four cardinal directions plus up and down movements, passages that twist and bend, one-way tunnels, and other assorted challenges, you can start with maps like the one below, but you usually end up drawing them by hand.

The game occurs in real time, and damned if I could find any way to pause it, so you have to be careful about bathroom breaks, stopping to write a paragraph for your blog, or other time outs because you're liable to get eaten by a wandering lion. I really want to win this one, if for no other reason than it doesn't seem like it should take that long, but the interface keeps doing me in. I keep getting attacked and getting flustered figuring out what function key to use to fight back or run. More than once, I've gone to attack and ended up dropping my sword instead.

If I end up winning, I'll post the screen shot and a few other paragraphs, but I suspect I will give up before that. Nonetheless, I recommend Zyll for people who don't have a list of near 1,000 games in front of them.


  1. Some gaming keyboards provide enough function keys at the left side like Logitech G15 (old revision), G11, G110 and G19.
    All of them should be able to redefine the F1-F10 keys to them to make this game more comfy.

    A quick test showed that the G19 indeed works with the game running in DOSBox and the other Logitech keyboards should work as well (the software is practically the same) so that one could play the game in an authentic way.

  2. Wow, what a cool game. Thanks for blogging about it!


  3. Anyone who really wants to play this game should take your tip, Calibrator. Although I liked it, I wasn't into it enough to go buy an external keyboard (I do my gaming on a laptop) to supplement it, but I might if I really wanted to win.

  4. Ha ha! I also wouldn't buy a keyboard for it, let alone an expensive one like the G19!
    But *if* one already has such a keyboard it would be stupid to *not* use it in situations like above... ;-)

  5. Press CTRL-F1 in DOSBox and you get this handy screen:


    It's a keymapper! Why buy a fancypants keyboard?

    (NB, it can be a little irritating using it. I found deleting the original function first makes things go a little more smoothly).

  6. Dammit, Rocket. Where were you a few weeks ago? I think this will come in handy in some future games, though. Thanks!

  7. Regarding AFK in this game, if you're playing with another player, he/she could "stand guard" while you go about your other business. =D

  8. this game is so great. I have been looking for a review on this game for like forever. Thanks for the post up and keep plugin away at it. From what I remember from playing this in childhood, this game was pretty epic til the end. I seem to remember needing to play on co-op mode otherwise there was no way to ever beat that wizard. Pretty tough character. I think the wizard/thief combo was the best.

    1. This is one of those games I wish I'd give more of a chance. I was in a hurry to get through the "backtracking" postings, so I really just blew by it.

    2. Just responding to the could actually kill the wizard Zyll as a solo warrior if you got the magic shield and found at least one extra healing potion. I tried this by accident, had the shield, using a mace, and ran into Zyll unexpectedly. Decided to bash it out - won the fight but was so badly damaged I couldn't actually do anything once I'd killed him. As in even stripping and dropping anything, I was still too badly hurt.

      I *loved* this game as a kid and had some fantastic innovative things as above. The real gem was the two player option on a single PC.

  9. I was obsessed with this game when I was a kid. I know there was a way to change it so a normal keyboard would work with the F keys at the top.

    I believe it was Alt + K ?

    1. Correct! Wow. Alt-K it is. I am super-impressed you remembered that from 25 years ago. I took me a lot of memory wrangling to remember what this came was even called.

    2. Correct! Wow. Alt-K it is. I am super-impressed you remembered that from 25 years ago. I took me a lot of memory wrangling to remember what this came was even called.

  10. I remember watching my two older brothers playing the competitive mode when I was like 6. They even rigged a piece of cardboard with tape to the middle of the monitor, so they couldn't look at each others' screens!

    1. I didn't give this game nearly enough of a try four years ago. I was too interested in "catching up." I need to add it to my replay list and spend more time with in it when I get to 1984.

  11. DOSBox allows you to remap your keys. I simply mapped the F1-F10 keys to the middle columns of my numpad, with F1 being /, F2 being *, all the way down to F9 being 0 and F10 being .

    You really have to because contrary to what you said, the changed F-layout IS fatal, and you proved it yourself. Since it is a real time game, those extra couple seconds that you have to take EVERY time you make a commend can indeed be the difference between life and death

  12. I just came across your blog, and wanted to say "thanks" for the kind words about our game and for keeping Zyll alive.

    There is a "hot key" command (Alt-K I think - it has been a long time) that will change the keyboard layout for the left side to use letter keys, for anyone that doesn't have an antique keyboard.

    The "Pause" command is ctrl-numlock (or FN-Pause on a PCjr!)

    I'm not sure that the "Save" command (Alt-S) will work without a floppy!

    1. Marshal! Always great to hear from the original developer. But I don't deserve any "thanks" for this brief posting. I didn't know what I was doing back then (a longer explanation would get into the details of my blog that no one cars about). Rest assured, Zyll is going to get some proper coverage--with me playing a full game--sometime in the next six months. I hope you check back!

  13. My brother and I played this game a lot when I was 10 yrs old. We would always play co-op mode. I always had a mini heart attack when Zyll or the ghost of King Zanzibar would enter the room. I think there was a tough dragon at the entrance to the castle as well. We didn't need to make a map because we had it all memorized. From what I can recall, a good way to kill these guys was to throw all of your weapons and heavy objects at them - you could throw a bunch of objects quickly and it was quite effective. Swinging your sword took a long time. The game is slow compared to current games because you have to wait each time you walk to a new area. The thief could search different rooms and you could find secret passages that would give you unique objects. I need to try this game again. I wonder if this game could be made into an app somehow?

  14. This is/was such a good game. After reading Ready Player One made me all nostalgic for the 1980s, Zyll is one of the first games I thought of -- many afternoons spent playing this at my cousin's house. It was very well done for the available hardware at the time, and still fun to play.

  15. Suggestions on where i can download the game?


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