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Zork: Grand Inquisitor, Activision, 1997

Also on this CD-ROM: a text adventure entitled Zork: The Great Underground.

Finally! A Zork game with everything done right, possibly even close to perfection. There are a few problems with Zork: Grand Inquisitor here and there, but in playing this game, I was overwhelmed with delight. I've played such masterpieces from Lucas Arts like The Curse of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango, and I would put that Zork: Grand Inquisitor in that company. Best of all, it reduces the disaster known as Zork Nemesis (see notes following) to the barest mention in the timeline that accompanies the game. Activision plumbed the depths of anti-Zorkness with their first game in their new license, but then they certainly redeemed themselves with this effort.

Firstly, the fact that Activision included a text adventure on the same CD-ROM is very classy. Zork: The Great Underground might be too short for some people, but it was exactly the right length for a text-adventure-challenged person like myself. Kudos for this nice gesture.

Secondly, the Grand Inquisitor of the title is a complete and total goof. He has some dastardly schemes, of course, and the danger is real -- the gamer can certainly die in this game. But the snuff films and pseudo-horror of Zork Nemesis are gone, and instead we have a villain of the correct nature for Zork. The Grand Inquisitor fits right in with the Flatheads and company of the past.

Thirdly, I like how the game deals with the fact that the gamer can make a mistake and die. Lucas Arts has made it a mantra of their games that the gamer can do anything without fear of arbitrary death. I have always enjoyed that specific thing about the Lucas Arts adventures. But Zork, despite all the fun, has always had an element of danger. Logically enough. If you go into a dark room when there might be grues around, then you get what you deserve. Zork: Grand Inquisitor, in another classy touch, gives you a typical text-adventure answer to a foolish move that has resulted in your death. Frustrating, yes, but at least it captures the spirit of its first predecessors.

Fourthly, the graphics and the interface are superbly put together. As you move through the game world, this is what happens. At any location, you can move in a complete circle (and sometimes look up and down). Your mouse will show where you can go and what you can do. While this might be somewhat stereotypical for an adventure game (pixel-hunting, as it's sometimes called) and sometimes leads to problems (getting the exact right angle to be able to use something), at least the interface is intuitive enough to use easily in most cases. And the graphics are gorgeous. There's a demo available for download on the web, if you want to give yourself a taste of adventure. Activision uses some darker shadows in this game than Infocom did in Return to Zork, but the result is beautiful and textured.

Fifthly, the game has many little touches that make it a joy to play. The famous lantern known to all fans of Zork has some "carbon scoring." The famous white house, mailbox and all, makes an appearance, but not in the way that you might think. When you enter the mirror world, you had better remember to reverse your intended action. There's a hilarious anti-puzzle when you are fiddling with the controls of the dam -- it's one of cheesy button puzzles that plague most adventure games, but this one can't be solved by normal means. Travel between the different locations in the game is made enormously easy by the use of a handy teleporter (but this one is a Zork teleporter, so don't expect any Star Trek type noises or visuals). In one of the wittiest parodies I have ever encountered, the Hades Courtesy Phone Voice Mail System has been "recently revamped to be more inconvenient and annoying." Why would anyone want to visit Hades anyways? But you need to get there, and the only way that the boatman will come to pick you up (in his boat that blares bad 70's rock) is if you negotiate the voice mail and leave an appropriate message. I will never think about voice mail systems the same way again. Welcome to hell.

All in all, Zork: Grand Inquisitor is a triumph. There were one or two annoying puzzles (like the Spell Lab), but overall, the puzzles and the adventures and the story all fit together perfectly. Good voice-acting. Sly wit like Zork fans have come to expect. The Great Underground Empire has finally come to us in the way that we have always wanted.

Series Notes: The original text adventures that made the Zork name famous were available in a boxed set called The Zork Anthology from Infocom and are now sometimes available in various formats online. The CD-ROM anthology contained Zork I: The Great Underground Empire, Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz, Zork III: The Dungeon Master, Beyond Zork, Zork Zero, and a bonus text adventure, Planetfall. These text adventures were hard, and what's more, quirky, which made completing them much harder.

Return to Zork was released in 1993 a semi-graphical adventure, but with most of its text adventure roots still present. The trademark Zork humour is here. The game proceeds without much of a plot, although there are always interesting things to do. The interface could have used a bit of simplification; I laughed at a few places, and I had a bit of fun, but I also spent too much time fighting the interface and boredom. There's also the matter of a sequence at a witch's house which prevents you from going back to the earlier parts of the game; if you forgot to pick up the bonding plant before this, you're stuck when you try to get into the Chuckles Comedy Club. You get to begin the entire game over again.

Zork Nemesis is a full graphics adventure, like Zork: Grand Inquisitor, which was released by Activision in 1996. They picked up the Zork license and then gave us a truly atrocious game. Zork Nemesis has nothing to do with Zork. Instead it's something like a horror game, with the horrendously miscalculated use of the title of a comedy series. This game has plenty of gory deaths, including a puzzle that makes you guillotine a corpse and put the head on a spike to get a clue from the dead man's brain. Yuck. Grand Inquisitor gets the tone right, which makes the wrongness of Nemesis even more apparent.

And it seems like Zork has gone away, particularly in its big budget graphical adventure format. Adventure games have all but disappeared in any case, and this series didn't last. I wouldn't be surprised if the brand resurrects itself in text adventure format, considering its longevity.


First posted: February 9, 1999; Last modified: March 2, 2005

Copyright © 1999-2005 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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