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Sharp Edges and Sharper Difficulty


As obsessed as people like me have gotten over old text-mode-based games, such as ZZT, Kroz, and Caves of Thor, I would be remiss to ignore the reasons why some people like this stuff, and others don't.

Turns out, the reasons are often the same.

In CRT CGA: The Original Face of PCs, I said that locking everything to text-mode unit cells makes a game like ZZT focused, pertinent, measurable, and concise.

That's all good and well. But what are the downsides?

Enter: Labyrinth of Zeux.

Labyrinth was the first game in the Zeux series by Alexis Janson. Unlike most games built for text mode (save a handful of levels from Lost Adventures of Kroz), this game made use of gravity and even a rudimentary physics engine. Labyrinth existed purely in an action/arcade capacity with a few puzzle elements.

Having gone nuts over Kroz, I would have thought that Labyrinth of Zeux should have been something I'd really get into.

But no.

Here's why: the difficulty.

But not just any difficulty.

After this game's release, Janson probably realized the mistake of having such punishing difficulty that comes from poor play-testing. None of the other games in the Zeux series came anywhere close to the brutality of Labyrinth.

But what is difficulty? Arcade game developers of the past had it down to a science. They used a true scientific philosophy in their design, with many different tweaks and controls and sliding scales used to figure out how to properly tune the game until play-testers would rate it very highly.

Arcade-style gameplay is designed to be punishing in many ways. You had to move people along so that less-committed folks wouldn't monopolize the machine after a set amount of time. This was normally about 2 1/2 minutes--they actually psychologically determined this was an ideal length.

You also had to make it rewarding for pro gamers, who would sink a lot of credits into the machine getting good. Skill had to reward great players with greater challenges, higher scores, and sometimes even better endings.

But difficulty based on poor quality? This will turn off both casual gamers and pro gamers. Three things really kill people's interest in an arcade game:


  • Unresponsive or delayed controls.

  • Losses based on random events.

  • Ending the game too early (after only a few seconds, before there is any time to figure out how to properly play).

With these in mind, where does Labyrinth of Zeux stand?

Unresponsive controls: The unit cells of text mode make this into a huge problem. All movement happens on frame intervals that are either 100% taken or 100% not taken, with held-down keys (not press-and-release keypresses) resulting in unreliable movement.

Even if someone has excellent twitch reflexes and reduces the game speed to a minimum, singular movement sometimes flat-out fails to work. The moving-platform sections become ludicrously hard.


Losses based on random events: To some extent, it is the appearance of random events that makes Labyrinth seem unfair, such as with the precise timing needed for destruction of growing amoebas.

But there are also genuinely non-deterministic levels whose random missile spawn events can simply wreck a win for no other reason than chance, even if the player isn't blown up. If you have dealt with this problem, you know how serious it is.


Ending the game too early: Without a continue feature, one has to replay the same levels repeatedly, making mastery of the later levels difficult. Despite starting with many lives and giving many extras throughout the game, Labyrinth is set up to deny progress for all but the most dedicated of perfect-runners.

The one that hits the hardest is the unresponsive controls. Unit-cell locking made the game, in my opinion, unacceptably difficult.


The thing is, the sharp edges of these locked-to-grid cells don't have to be a difficulty dealbreaker. In fact, for most text-mode-based games, it isn't even a problem at all.

But it can be a problem in ZZT. Here are some examples.

Ruffians hiding around corners: You must move quickly and shoot quickly, never knowing when they'll suddenly accelerate and hit you.


Diagonal chasing: When you need to guide an object down a nonlinear path, with a small opening, how do you know when and where the object will move horizontally versus vertically?


Bullet purgatory: Let's be honest. ZZT has some good boss fights and bad boss fights. The bad boss fights require the player to move with incredible agility and finger speed, which is fine, but it stops being cool the moment when clearance is reduced to a minimum.

We've all seen bullet-hell games, but when the bullets are locked to a grid, the dodging process becomes a specialized skill in its own right (and not a very worthwhile one).


Hard cornering: Time-sensitive movement in some ZZT games might be difficult or even impossible, depending on the keyboard typematic delay.

Players have to be very good at "cornering" while keeping keys held down, often switching between holding one direction key and another perpendicular direction key at the perfect moment. If you are too slow, the universe-ending bomb explodes and you have to restore your game.


Making unit-cell locking work for a game, and not against it, really comes down to the talent and dedication of the world designer. More play-testing, more performance tuning, careful balance of strategy and twitch reflex.

I'd like to be able to propose a technical solution to this problem (for example, fractional movement with the #SMOOTHMOVE command), but the designer still needs to have the right design mindset.

And all things considered, it wasn't really that disingenuous for Janson to have given us a warning in the MegaZeux documentation about the issue of poor quality.

Quality isn't just about making the best game, or even the best gameplay.

It's about not making players category-9 furious at you.




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