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A Brief History of Zork

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Zork is a text-based video game, a genre also known as “interactive fiction,” whose defining feature is the absence of typical video game graphics. Instead, the game’s environments and the actions you take are described for you. For example, the first line of Zork is, “You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.” Using a series of simple commands, you direct the main character to do something, like “open mailbox.” To which the game will reply, “Opening the small mailbox reveals a leaflet.” Naturally, you would then “take leaflet,” “read leaflet”, and then maybe “walk east” to get to the house. The story unfolds from there as you collect items, like a sword, a lantern, rope, and other adventuring necessities, before entering a vast, underground cave where you’ll face enemies inspired by The Lord of the Rings, like elves, trolls, and the darkness-lurking grue.

How old is Zork?

Zork was written between 1977 and 1979 by MIT students Tim Anderson, Bruce Daniels, Dave Lebling, and Marc Blank.

The young geeks got the idea for Zork from the first text-based video game, Adventure (also called Colossal Cave Adventure or ADVENT, because the computer it ran on could only use so many letters in the command line). Adventure was created in 1976 by Will Crowther, a student at Stanford, as a simulation of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, with a few Tolkien-esque fantasy elements thrown in by fellow Stanfordite Don Woods. The MIT guys weren’t impressed with Adventure’s limited two-word command structure (“kill troll”), so they wrote Zork to understand complete sentences (“kill troll with sword”).

Most people didn’t have computers back then, so who played Zork?

Originally, Zork and Adventure were both written for the PDP-10, a room-sized computer mainframe that was popular with universities in the late-1970s. Adventure was written in a very common programming language called FORTRAN, so copies of the game spread rapidly among mainframe users. Zork, however, was written with MDL, a more specialized language that wasn’t as popular. So, for a while, the only way to play Zork was to log on to the MIT PDP-10 through ARPAnet, an early version of the internet, and run it remotely. Zork was never officially announced to the world; people just heard about it through ARPANet, making it an early viral sensation.

Just as home computers were becoming more commonplace, a commercial version of Zork was released by Infocom, a company founded by Anderson, Lebling and Blank. However, they didn’t initially intend to sell Zork. They set out to create serious productivity software for the home and business market, but when they realized they didn’t actually have any of those programs written yet, they decided Zork sales could fund their future endeavors.

Since the game was too big to operate on these early home computers, they had to break it into three parts: Zork I: The Great Underground Empire (1980), Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz (1981), and Zork III: The Dungeon Master (1982). Although Zork was first released for the TRS-80 computer, it was eventually ported to just about every home computer, like Apple II, Atari Computers, and the IBM PC. It was a pretty big hit, selling over a million copies.

The success of Zork compelled Infocom to forget their original plan of creating business software and focus on text video games throughout much of the 1980s, releasing over 40 games across a variety of fictional genres. Of course some of these games were Zork sequels and spin-offs, like the Enchanter trilogy (1983-1985), Beyond Zork: The Coconut of Quendor (1987), and the prequel, Zork Zero: The Revenge of Megaboz (1988).

What made Zork such a hit?

There are quite a few things that set Zork and other Infocom games apart from the competition. For one, Infocom games had creative, addictive puzzles and mazes that drove players batty. Some gamers even wrote Infocom letters, asking for a hint to help them get past particularly tough brain teasers. This became so common that Infocom created a monthly newsletter for fans, called the New Zork Times, where they doled out clues, but also told players about upcoming games. Later, Infocom sold Invisiclues hint books. The books were printed with invisible ink that could only be revealed with a special marker, so players could get clues as-needed without spoiling anything farther in the game.

Marketing was also a huge factor in Infocom’s success. In the early 80s, computer games were mainly sold through mail order or at specialized computer stores. Zork and other Infocom titles, though, also graced the shelves of bookstores. Readers weren’t necessarily concerned about the latest whiz-bang graphics, but they did appreciate the deeper storyline, descriptions, and characters available with Infocom titles. In fact, Infocom became so well known for its writing that when Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was approached to adapt his novel as a video game, he said he wouldn't work with anyone but Infocom. The resulting Hitchhiker's game, released in 1984, became one of Infocom’s biggest sellers.

Image credit: The Infocom Gallery

Finally, during the development of the 1982 mystery game Deadline, the programmers realized they couldn’t fit everything into the game. So they created a portfolio of physical items, like mock crime scene photos and police reports, and included them in the box with the game’s 5.25” floppy disks. Players remarked that these “feelies,” as they became known, added to the overall game experience, so Infocom started including them with all their titles. Sometimes feelies were useful, like maps and blueprints, while others were simply there for fun, like an empty plastic bag in the Hitchhiker's Guide game that supposedly contained a microscopic space fleet.

Image credit: The Staging Point

To capitalize on the success of feelies, new editions of the Zork games were released with items like travel brochures to fictional lands, a guide to an underground amusement park, a history of the Great Underground Empire, shares of FrobozzCo stock, and even a Zorkmid coin, the official currency of the Great Underground Empire. As you might expect, many fans purchased the Zork series all over again, just so they could add the feelies to their collection.

Is Infocom still around?

Sadly, no. In 1984 they finally got around to working on serious business software and released a database program called Cornerstone. The company sank a lot of money into Cornerstone’s development, but it wasn’t very well received by consumers. On the verge of bankruptcy, Infocom accepted a buy-out offer in 1986 from Activision, the company behind video game classics like Pitfall and Chopper Command. Unfortunately, due to the increased emphasis on graphics in video games, as well as poor management at Activision, Infocom was shuttered in 1989.

After closing Infocom, Activision continued to use the beloved Infocom name and Zork brand to create additional sequels, like Return to Zork (1993), Zork Nemesis (1996), and Zork: Grand Inquisitor (1997). These games were a big departure from the original text-only gameplay. The new Zorks featured extensive graphics and even full-motion video scenes starring actors, like Dirk Benedict, Rip Taylor, and Michael McKean. Hardcore Infocom fans generally don't even acknowledge that these games exist.

What does 'Zork' mean?

The word 'Zork' doesn’t really mean anything. It's just a nonsense word the MIT guys sometimes used as an exclamation (“Zork!”), but also as a placeholder name for a program that was still being written. However, the game was briefly called Dungeon, until TSR, the company behind Dungeons & Dragons, threatened to sue. They reverted back to Zork and the name simply stuck.

Does anyone remember Zork?

Just about anyone who had a computer in the early 1980s played Zork or one of its Infocom progeny. In addition, because of its mainframe origins, it was a big hit with early hackers and programmers, who included references to the game in their own programs. Zork is also a major topic of the 2010 documentary, Get Lamp, an in-depth history of the interactive fiction genre, including interviews with almost all of the major pioneers of text adventures.

Perhaps one of Zork's longest lasting legacies is the grue, a “sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the earth,” whose insatiable appetite for adventurers is only tempered by its fear of light from a lamp. One of the most famous lines from Zork — “It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue” — can be found referenced all over the internet, in old and new video games, and in nerdcore rapper MC Frontalot's homage to Zork, "It is Pitch Dark" (the music video even has a cameo from Steve Meretzky, one of the lead game designers at Infocom).

Can you still play Zork?

Thanks to the internet, good video games never die. A quick Google search will lead you to hundreds of websites that host an online version of Zork, and some even have it available for download. If you’re a modern gamer with a copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops, an Easter Egg on the main menu lets you play Zork on your Xbox, PS3, or Wii. (Bonus: If you find it, you’ll get the “Eaten by a Grue” achievement.) You can also play Zork, as well as many new interactive fiction games — yes, people still make them — by downloading the Frotz app for the iPhone/iPad.

Were you ever eaten by a grue? Tell us your favorite Zork memories in the comments below!

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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10 Unlikely TV Shows That Got Turned Into Video Games

Video games based on outside properties have come a long way since the likes of Atari’s E.T., which was so poorly received that it almost destroyed the gaming industry. Now video games based on movies and comic books are routinely among the best-selling and most critically acclaimed titles every year.

Video games based on television shows, on the other hand, are a different story—which might have something to do with some of the more bizarre shows that have been adapted over the years. Here are 10 unlikely TV shows that got turned into video games.

1. DALLAS QUEST (1984)

In 1984, the family drama, corporate intrigue, and 10-gallon hats made famous in Dallas found their way onto the Commodore 64 in the form of Dallas Quest, a text adventure that puts players in the role of a renowned detective hired by Sue Ellen to track down a mysterious map that leads to a South American oil field (and, of course, piles of Dallas-y oil money).

By inputting commands (such as “look” or “dig”), players can investigate the Ewing estate, traverse through hazardous jungles, or (in one spectacularly odd sequence) tickle an anaconda to get to the bottom of this mystery. Much like the show itself, Dallas Quest rewards the eagle-eyed player that pores through the mountains of dialogue that leave hints and clues for each puzzle. Though text adventures are long extinct, and likely can’t hold the attention of most modern gamers, the spirit of Dallas was a perfect match for the genre.

2. ALF (1989)

Remember ALF? Well here he is in video game form, complete with all of his loveable cat-snatching hijinks. The game revolves around ALF attempting to find the parts necessary to repair his spaceship so he can take a joyride to Mars to visit his girlfriend. Along the way, players journey through dank caves, city streets, and the Tanner family home as Alf fights off wave after wave of enemies.

The game does occasionally stray from the typical side-scrolling formula by introducing underwater levels and a section where ALF needs to ride a flying Segway to victory. The whole thing ends up with ALF on the moon, where his spaceship repair kit just so happens to be.

3. THE ADVENTURES OF GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (1990)

If the mere prospect of releasing a video game based on Gilligan’s Island wasn’t strange enough, consider that this 8-bit oddity hit shelves about 23 years after the sitcom had gone off the air. This crude action game puts players in the role of the Skipper (followed closely behind by Gilligan) as he traverses the island, completing a number of tasks, like building a hut during a storm or finding Mrs. Howell’s wedding ring after it is stolen by a bird (players are rewarded with a jar of caviar once they return it to her).

Much like the show itself, the game consists of a lot of walking around; overcoming the occasional obstacle like gorillas, tigers, and cannibals; and wrangling the computer-controlled Gilligan long enough to complete the game’s story. To its credit, the game tries its best to replicate the dialogue found in the show with some banter that feels authentic to the characters (though there's sadly no button to whomp Gilligan with your hat).

4. HOME IMPROVEMENT: POWER TOOL PURSUIT! (1994)

Remember the episode of Home Improvement when Tim Allen had to battle an army of velociraptors, mummies, and scorpions the size of Buicks? Well it had to exist somewhere, because in 1994 that was the entire premise of a Super Nintendo game called Home Improvement: Power Tool Pursuit.

The plot begins with a line of power tools going missing on the set of Tool Time, which obviously leads to Tim arming himself with a chainsaw to hunt vampires and other ghouls. The whole affair is a standard side-scroller, complete with power-ups (in the form of hardhats) and a choice of weapons like a nail gun and flamethrower. The game does manage to capture the spirit of the show in one way: There was no instruction manual included in the box. Instead, players were just left with a fake booklet with a sticker plastered across it that read “Real Men Don’t Need Instructions.” We’ll grunt to that.

5. DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES: THE GAME (2006)

Desperate Housewives doesn’t exactly lend itself to a typical gaming genre (though a Street Fighter II-inspired fighting game sounds intriguing), but this Sims homage is probably the most appropriate for the show. In this game, players are tasked with creating their character—the new Housewife on the block—along with her husband and children. In typical soap opera fashion, your new housewife also has amnesia and has to piece her life together (and stir up salacious drama).

Gameplay objectives include shopping, gardening, socializing, and housekeeping, all while navigating a story that involves finding out your neighbor’s deepest, darkest secrets. Oh, you can also have an affair with pretty much anyone on your block, including the mailman and your maid. In that respect, Desperate Housewives: The Game might be the most faithful game on this list.

6. THE OFFICE (2007)

Few shows were as big as The Office was at its peak, so it’s only natural that someone would try to squeeze a little more cash out of the show by turning it into a video game. The problem is: How would an Office game actually work? In 2007, developer Reveille came up with a gameplay model that mixed the show’s humor with fairly casual gameplay reminiscent of Diner Dash.

This PC title featured the main Office cast as exaggerated bobblehead versions of themselves, with players running around Dunder Mifflin, playing pranks and handing off different supplies (folders, cash, paperwork) to the appropriate worker. There are some memorable quotes from the show sprinkled throughout, as well as some Easter eggs from the series, such as Pam laying Michael’s Foreman Grill on the floor to prank him. It may not be the in-depth Office simulator you were hoping for, but it’s an easy way to kill an afternoon.

7. LITTLE BRITAIN: THE VIDEO GAME (2007)

It’s only fair that a TV show as crude as Little Britain gets a game that’s equally as rough around the edges. There’s no story to progress through in the game; instead, there are seven mini-games to play, all centered around different characters from the BBC comedy. This includes a rather nonsensical roller skating mini-game with Vicky Pollard; Lou and Andy in a diving competition; and Marjorie Dawes in a Pac-Man rip-off.

The idea was for the mini-games to mirror the sketch comedy style of the show. It didn’t quite work, as the game predictably received unanimously horrid reviews.

8. IRON CHEF AMERICA: SUPREME CUISINE (2008)

In this Nintendo Wii adaptation of Iron Chef America, you can grate, mince, and dice your way to victory through the use of the system’s motion controls. The game boils down to a series of mini-games that you have to complete quickly and efficiently as you cook the dish the show’s host gives to you.

With voice acting provided by the show’s hosts, including Alton Brown and Mark Dacascos, Iron Chef America: Supreme Cuisine is as faithful an adaptation of the show as you’re likely to find. However, that doesn’t necessarily translate to fun, as both the Wii and Nintendo DS versions of the game have been soundly battered by critics.

9. MURDER, SHE WROTE (2009)

If you think Murder, She Wrote doesn’t lend itself to the world of gaming, you’d be wrong. It just doesn’t lend itself to the world of modern gaming. Taking its cues from the point and click adventure games of the ’80s and ‘90s, this 2009 release features five murder mysteries, leaving players to find the culprit behind each. Clues are discovered by watching conversations unfold and then clicking around locations until hints present themselves.

Though the game sets up the type of plots that a viewer would find in the Murder, She Wrote TV series, none of the actors lent their voices to the game; the mere likeness of Dame Angela Lansbury is all you’ll get. The game must have done something right, though, because Murder, She Wrote 2: Return to Cabot Cove came out just a few years after the original.

10. GREY’S ANATOMY: THE VIDEO GAME (2009)

Part dating simulator, part surgery minigame, 2009’s Grey’s Anatomy: The Video Game attempted to squeeze all of the romantic dalliances, brooding, and occasional doctoring of the show into one cohesive title. During the course of the game, players take control of a number of Grey’s main cast, including Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang, as you guide them through the everyday drama that is being a doctor, including surgeries and flirting with your co-workers.

For Dr. Grey, you start the game out with a decision to make: Do you play hard to get with Dr. Shepherd, or do you go right at him and make some not-so-thinly-veiled advances on him in the elevator? As Dr. Yang, an early mission has you literally destroying bubbles of doubt as you build up your courage meter. Each decision dictates what graphic will appear afterwards (like whether or not you get to make out with Dr. McDreamy during your shift).

Some of these challenges do involve simulated medical procedures, but don’t expect anything harder than clicking and dragging your way to an easy victory (thankfully the Nintendo Wii graphics are as detailed as a WikiHow page, so you won’t get squeamish).

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