Town of ZZT - Remixed

Posted on January 5, 2021 by Jack Kelly
Tags: zzt, coding

TL;DR: ZZT is now 30, there’s still a community, we’ve remixed the shareware world, it’s pretty fun, and you can play it online.

Thirty years ago, on the 15th of January 1991, Tim Sweeney released his first game to the world: a little arcadey game called ZZT, for the IBM PC and compatibles.

Original TOWN.ZZT Title Screen

Despite being technially dated even when it came out (Keen 3: Keen Must Die! came out a month before, and Commander Keen 4 - “Goodbye Galaxy” would come out at the end of 1991), it sold well enough to fund Tim’s next game, which funded the one after that, which… ends up with Tim and his company Epic Games trying to build the Metaverse, apparently.

But back to ZZT. ZZT came with an editor, and the game’s simplicity meant that nearly anyone could make their own games with it. My friends and I had a lot of fun making crappy games with it back in the day (sadly/thankfully lost to time), and I kept half an eye on it over the years. A thriving online scene in the BBS and AOL era declined slowly through the “forum era” of the WWW (2000-2010?). In the late 2010s, the community had an unexpected renaissance thanks to the Museum of ZZT, the Zeta x86 emulator (which can even run in the browser) and a reconstruction of ZZT’s lost source code.

During 2020, the Discord of ZZT community decided to remix the first world, Town of ZZT. People claimed one or more boards (screens), and reworked them as they saw fit. I snagged The Mixer. With a bit of a push during November/December, everyone submitted their boards in time for a new year’s release, to kick off ZZT’s 30th birthday celebrations:

Remixed TOWN.ZZT Title Screen

This thing is seriously impressive. Most boards had a substantial visual upgrade, some really push ZZT’s capabilities, and others reference the game’s long history. The result somehow feels both fresh and familiar, and I had an absolute blast seeing what everyone else created. Tim Sweeney also retweeted the release announcement; it’s cool to see that he noticed.

Tim Sweeney Retweeted Release Announcement

The community was a delight to work with, which helped the project feel really coherent in ways that a less-organised remix wouldn’t. People would say “I have this idea, who wants to be the other half?” and someone would run with it. This coordination also meant small details were done right, like matching colour fades between boards and having NPCs drop hints for other people’s puzzles. This does a lot to tie the world together, and there are also a couple of longer cross-board links and gags that are just too fun to spoil.

The museum has a ZIP file explorer and can run ZZT in your browser, so give it a go or just have a poke around. You could also explore the original Town at the same time, if you want to see what’s been changed.

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