Review: Zork Grand Inquisitor

I'd give you the official URL at Activision, but it's all JavaScript, so the heck with it.

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Good, in a cartoony way
Fairly hard; too hard in places
Some good, some ill-defined
Writing and dialogue
Very good
Forgiveness rating
You can't get stuck. You can die, but fatal mistakes are immediately fatal, so save frequently
See below

This requires multiple apologies. (Quiz afterwards.)

First, I'm reviewing the Mac version of Zork Grand Inquisitor. Er, sorry.

As you probably know, and are probably screaming at your monitor this moment, there is no Mac version of Zork Grand Inquisitor. Logicware was doing the port, and Logicware seems to have tanked. (See Logicware's web site -- worth a chuckle, actually.) Word got out months ago that although they had finished the technical work, they didn't have the resources to push the damn thing out the door.

Perhaps it will be released someday; I have no inside information on that. However, for the moment, ZGI-Mac is a dead project.

But -- Activision did have the release candidate discs. And this and that happened, and I know a guy who knows a guy, and the guy was in a generous mood, and, well... I got some CD-Rs in the mail.

So to forestall your next questions:

And yes, I'm writing this purely to be smug at you. And I apologize for that.

(But it does play under Virtual PC, so I'm not being a total twit in posting this to

Now the next apology. See, I am prejudiced against Activision's Zork games. (I told you this a many years ago, when I was reviewing Zork Nemesis.)

Authors are not interchangeable. Different authors do things differently; and I think Activision does Zork badly. Their sense of whimsy is not that of Blanc and Lebling and the other Infocom folk. It just ain't. Their sense of the Zork universe doesn't match. Even less forgiveably, their visual interpretation is all wrong. That is not my white house.

(Of course it's not, you mutter. How could it be? Isn't their imagery just as valid as yours? Sure it is -- but part of the thing, the schtick of the written word, is that everybody's imagery is valid. Grounding it in real images is... not necessarily wrong, but a risk. It is at risk of being in bad taste. When you make a movie of a great book, it had better be a great movie -- or you deserve the razzing you get.)

(Let me make clear: In making three graphical Zork games, Activision has not acted illegally. They bought the copyrights and paid Infocom's price for them. I don't even say they acted immorally. I say... that they disappointed me, and let down the standard that Infocom had set forth.)

(I have to put three footnotes on that, no, four, goddammit, I can't figure out where this review is going, anymore, either. Primus: Zork Nemesis was a good game. I liked it -- because it ignored the Zork heritage almost completely, did its own thing. As its own game, it didn't disappoint me. Only when considered as a Zork sequel do I get annoyed. Secundus: Zork Zero, the last Zork game of the true Infocom era, also disappointed me -- I thought it also had the whimsy wrong, the setting wrong, and by the way the game design sucked. Tertius: But I quite liked Spiritwrak, a fan-written freeware text adventure set (with permission) in the Zork universe. Not the most polished game around -- but the author caught the Zork atmosphere dead-on. Quartius: In the long run, everything is public domain. I don't support the idea of eternal copyright. Every work goes back into the cultural mixing pot from whence it was largely drawn... but "long run" is on the order of a human lifetime. Zork just isn't that old yet.)

What I'm saying, after all, is not that I hate graphical games, or sequels, or Activision. But pick up someone else's work (particularly with them watching!) and try to repeat it, and fail; it doesn't make me happy.

So here I am, the ungrateful sod, gifted with the only copy of Mac ZGI ever released from cloistered halls, and I'm kvetching about it. Er -- sorry.

Surely I can give it a fairer shot than that? Yeah, yeah, I can. So, griping and whining, I wedged my mind open with a cinderblock and booted up.

Weirdly, it worked. Imagine -- an adventure, published by some other major game company; a spoof of the Zork universe -- the popular property of their friendly rivals, Activision. A very gentle spoof, mind you. Somewhere between parody and respectful pastiche. A different visual style, a separate work, certainly; they couldn't do a Zork game, that would be trademark infringment. But making use of the genre, while simultaneously having a little fun with the idea. Pointing out the sillier conventions, exaggerating the traits.

I balanced this image precariously in front of my eyes, and I was okay with it. I was able to enjoy ZGI. Maybe I'm nuts. (Notice that I was ignoring all the actual Zork references, just as I did when playing Nemesis. Some other magical university, some other white house, some other master wizard, some other seaside town. Heh, that university is a reference to GUE Tech, from the Infocom games! Okay, it was definitely nuts. But it got me through.)

See, considered as a spoof, ZGI was funny as heck. The lines were good. ("Yeah, yeah, pull out the old inventory! Something's gotta work!" I could quote many more, but I'd spoil it.) I laughed. And it wasn't a pure spoof, which would have been way too much of a thing. The laughs were on top of a solid base of a fantasy game -- a bog-standard quest plot, sure, but enough to keep you moving.

I won't even try to make the main storyline sound impressive. You Find The Stuff. When all the Stuff is found, you pluck the twanger and win. The fun is in the puzzles, the characters (including your trusty sidekick-cum-running-commentary) and the scenery.

The puzzles are, erm, good and bad.

(In fact I hit a bad start, getting stuck on the very first puzzle; but that turned out to be insufficient information due to a sound bug. Something was goofed up in the volumes of the background music, dialogue, and foreground sounds. I was, you recall, playing from "final candidate zero" discs -- unreleased. The PC version didn't exhibit the bug, and I probably wouldn't have gotten stuck with it.)

Past that, I did pretty well. I went to the walkthrough, um, count count count, ten times. That's a bit high. A couple of these were objects I'd missed seeing, but most, I think, were just insufficiently clear game design. I didn't always have a good idea of what the author thought was possible. (The commentary NPC forestalled this in many places, but not everywhere.) And a couple of puzzles failed the last-ditch test; even after I looked at the solution, I had no idea how I was supposed to think of that.

(The coconut sequence needed a lot more feedback about why things happened. Ditto a certain electrical field. And the prison security console, as far as I can tell, requires you to make a clever guess followed by a lucky guess to get through -- and if you guess wrong, you die. The learning-by-suicide problem.)

Yes, you can die. The visual gag used doesn't strike me as funny, and definitely doesn't make up for the timed deaths, or the deaths by bad guess. Bleah. Many of the dangerous areas were well-marked; but not all of them. I don't mind a quick try-and-restore, but inconsistent reinforcement of the save impulse is a problem.

The interface is the same panning view that Nemesis used, with a couple of additions. You have pop-up menus for your inventory and spell list. (Footnote: they don't pop up fast enough. The sliding animations take nearly half a second! Waiting is dull.) You also have a close-up inventory screen, which includes special items and a way to examine objects, use them on each other, use spells on objects, etc. (Footnote two: I really wish that "examine objects" tool would tell you what they are. A detailed image doesn't always help. You start the game with an electric mouse... well, I thought it was an electric mouse. Or possibly a cigarette lighter -- except that it wouldn't burn anything. I used it on everything. Turned out, in fact, to be a vacuum cleaner.)

(A vacuum cleaner?)

(Of course it's a vacuum cleaner. You're a vacuum cleaner salesman. For bonus points, you can tell me how I was supposed to know I was a vacuum cleaner salesman, and that was a vacuum cleaner. It's not on the game box. It's not in the game booklet. It's not in the game intro, or any on-line documentation. Did I miss something? Am I stupid?)

(Okay, wait, I think I found it. If you die early in the game, or use the score hotkey, your initial score ranking is given as "PermaSuck salesman". I guess that was supposed to be a clue. My eye skipped right over this, though, and that's why I was fooling around with an "electric mouse" for half the game. Argue if you like, but I think that's bad design. ZGI is not an amnesia game; your background should not be confusing. Nor your mice.)

I think the review part of this review is still shorter than the apology part. For balance, a scant handful of nits....

That's not how I pronounce "Frobozz". Or "Antharia". Sigh.

Oh, no, not the placemat-keyhole-letter-opener gag again...

And one of the death scenes purports to shows the command "GO BRIDGE". What? Infocom parsers don't buy that. "ENTER BRIDGE", certainly. "GO OVER BRIDGE". "GO ON BRIDGE" or "GET ON BRIDGE", perhaps. But not "GO BRIDGE".


Conclusion: An entertaining light game, with a sharp sense of humor. Don't expect either the storyline Nemesis had, or the universe of the Infocom Zork games.

System requirements: The PC version says 90 MHz Pentium, 16 megs memory, 50 megs free disk space, 4x CD-ROM, thousands of colors. The Mac version -- who knows? But on my 333 MHz Powerbook, it ran nearly full speed under Virtual PC, even with all the graphics options set to maximum quality. VPC should run it acceptably on slower Macs.

[Footnote: ZGI did come out for the Mac. Eventually. In late 2001. Sigh. --Z]

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