Thursday, August 7, 2014

Zorro - Taking the Plunge
A game about that masked swashbuckler from that old TV show? I don't know about this.

The curious part about examining my early time with the Commodore 64 is how my excitedly imbibing in its world stands directly in contrast to my largely unadventurous behavior during the eras that sandwiched it. That is, for a fellow whose narrow tastes were almost strictly aligned with fast-paced, well-defined action games and arcade-style platformers, I uncharacteristically took to the C64's array of arcane "action" titles, weird adventure games, and so many others whose concepts were so obscure and esoteric that I can't even satisfactorily describe them. 

Take Zorro, for instance: Here's a game whose subject-matter I didn't find particularly compelling, since I knew nothing of the property other than whatever barely comprehended images I took away from watching episodes of the 1950s Zorro series that frequently aired on channel 13 (a station my television dial rarely settled upon, since it had a martian vibe to it and was incompatible the other six standard broadcast networks, like that ridge-collared knock-off G.I. Joe figure you'd try to mix with the real ones).

The only thing I remembered about the character Zorro was his all-black costume--which included a Frisbee hat, a Lone Ranger mask, and a cape--and his apparent sword skills, but I didn't know what the game's story was or that it was Spanish in origin, nor could I guess as to the identity of his antagnosists, which I only guessed were somehow "Mexican" based off of their stereotypical attire.

Zorro seemed like one to skip based only on its name, but I loaded it up anyway and played through a bit of its early portion more out of curiosity--I guess to gauge whether or not I was correct that you couldn't make a good game out of any ol' subject! My first impression was that it was plodding and cryptic, a sense that usually served as warning that I was in over my head. But I didn't stop playing because there were some genuinely interesting moments; for one, I liked how Zorro could climb up trees and leap over to areas that were otherwise inaccessible as per the game's grounded nature. It was fun to bounce around on that oddly placed couch (always relatable to a kid) found in whatever building it was I was passing through. And it was always fun tense though dangerous to engage in abruptly triggered sword battles made more nerve-wracking by the sudden increase in the music's tempo during their elapsement.

The game started out with Zorro standing beneath his beloved's balcony and watching helplessly as the apparent main villain (who didn't look much different from every other sword-wielding enemy in the game) kidnapped her and carted her off somewhere to the right. In a nice touch, the game would tease you with false hope by showing the kidnapper's continued getaway anytime you'd advance over to the next screen, as if you had a chance of thwarting his scheme early; this continued until you reached his fortress, whose drawbridge would rise up and slam shut, cutting you off from your beloved who could only wave to you from atop its bell tower. 

I don't know why, but I got kick out of witnessing an otherwise-pointless programmer oversight: He didn't take into account that the player could travel an alternate route from the start, so he or she could return to a certain screen later on and view a now-inexplicable escape sequence even though the villain had already been seen safely reaching his fortress. It was dumb to find enjoyment in things like that, but these games were sometimes so tormenting and felt so unbeatable that you had to look for little victories where you could get them, even if it was just a perceived one-upping of a sadist creator. 

In fact, that very instance convinced me that I could somehow catch up to the villain and obtain a cheap victory if I traveled a specific path from the start, my zest to do so only bolstered by my friend Mike, who claimed to have done it. He was of course telling a tall tale (as I doubt he ever saw a C64 outside of my house), but how could I not believe the friend who supplied me such valuable information as Metroid's "secret meeting room" and inside info that pro-wrestler Tugboat was actually manager Jimmy Hart stuffed with pillows?

I didn't know what to call it at the time, but Zorro had a clear stealth element to it, and there was a benefit to taking your time and avoiding the game's only active obstacle--those persistent swordsmen who could be seen constantly patrolling the levels of any building that had multiple doors, which they would exit and enter in set patterns. I wasn't always patient enough to wait for the right opportunity to sneak by, so I'd try to rush through, initiating sword fights and pounding away at the action button in hopes of besting what were very capable opponents. Though, I can't tell you if any success I had was due to skill or some RNG (random number generator) factor, since the outcomes seemed completely random; sometimes I'd win immediately, and other times I'd tangle with a foe for a long stretch before suddenly dying. I couldn't say for sure without referring to the manual, which we didn't have.

As Zorro, I was placed in a world of limited size that seemed far bigger to me because I was still wide-eyed and blown away by what modern video games were doing. Also, the game seemed much longer than it actual was due to its rather slow pace, and the act of solving puzzles sometimes required painstaking effort even when I already knew all of the solutions. I was still greatly confused by games with obtuse design mechanics like, say, accessing a certain room by exiting the prior screen from its upper level compared to an in-proximity lower exit that somehow led elsewhere. "How can two exit points placed a mere few inches away from each other lead to entirely different locations equal in size?" I'd wonder, questioning my grasp on logistics. There were only two such alternate routes in the entire game, but a confusing mechanic used even sparsely made me feel that Zorro might be impenetrable beyond what I originally figured.

Its adventure-game mechanics are quite similar to those in The Goonies (C64 version), actually, or what you see in Codemaster's ubiquitous Dizzy games: You locate an item and then search the entire landscape trying to find a use for it. For instance: You carry a bottle of alcohol over to a bar-goer, render him dead drunk, and then bounce on his beer gut to reach the otherwise-inaccessible platform above. Or you take a branding iron over to a manually heated furnace, drop it down, bounce on the adjacent billows to enflame the implement, and then jam it into the nearby bull whose frame was blocking a necessary artifact. The game's secondary goal, to which I would never pay much attention, is to attain the highest score possible--a task helped along by hurriedly snatching another item after the one currently in your possession has been correctly utilized (the "Bonus" timer in upper-right corner begins counting down from 9900 right immediately after the current item has been discarded). 

No--points were of no use to me because they weren't going to help me overcome Zorro's unseen villain: The controls. They worked in theory (push "up" to jump) but were difficult to use in practice, since Zorro's movements were clunky and it was required that you push diagonally upward to leap forward; my issue was that I had an awful time trying to execute diagonal leaps while on the move, since the game seemed unwilling to register the input unless Zorro's walking animation was in a specific frame. Considering how sluggishly the game moved, it was never fun to continuously drop three levels and have to sloooooowly climb my way back up each time, the space in between occupied by self-defeating thoughts of failure. It was the same control scheme as experienced in Bruce Lee (which was also made by Datasoft)--more forgiving due to less in the way of immediate threats but without the benefit of the fast speed. This would be a big issue later.

The center area, location of that bouncy couch, is essentially the game's hub, in which most of the major triggering items are found. Each new item appears sequentially, and there's a process you have to repeat every time you wish to work your way to the containing area: Grab the key, work up and around the bell tower on the next screen, open the perpetually locked door without falling, and then hopefully procure the item. In fact, there's an exceptionally tedious puzzle that requires snagging two bells in succession and making that same round trip twice, after which you have to return to the bell tower's top and place the bells in its twin arches; the bells' clanging will then somehow expose a secret entrance below a tombstone. A successful trek already wasn't much fun on its own, but what made it worse was whatever psychological hangup I had about the controls; it seemed standard that I'd flub the final jump and have to repeat the process all over again, multiple times per game.

Keeping me company during my drawn-out escapades was Zorro's one theme song, which started on the title screen and played right on through the to game's end; there was only a subdued, gloomy variant of it that played in the underground areas. That wasn't a bad thing--I considered it the game's most defining attribute, and it was nice to listen to as I trudged my way through the same sequence of events over and over again while getting lost in thought. It was the larger contributor to what I thought was an aesthetically pleasing world makeup; it was dressing to those images of Zorro's small collection of screens that became permanently embedded in my head as I ran about its landscape--left, right, and beneath its dreaded catacombs--in successively futile attempts to solve all of the game's riddles. I was content to roam about its world and drink in the setting even if I didn't necessarily enjoy a lot of the game's content.

In particular, I was always intimidated by the bleak, shadowy underground areas. In my earliest experiences with the game, I didn't realize that I needed a trio of items (a horseshoe, a trophy and a boot) in order to breach a specially marked barrier found somewhere around this part, so I had no idea what I was doing down there other than snagging a few money bags; it was easy to get completely lost, since there were several similar-looking screens in a row (at least it seemed that way). I could never reliably find my way out, and the jumps required to negotiate those horribly sequenced platforms were made even shakier by their strict sprite-detection. The depressed musical variant made it worse, since it tended to dampen my spirit as I was forced to painfully wait for the boney ladders to scroll up from my position after repeatedly missing jumps; the music supplied only a sense of hopelessness that I'd carry with me even back into the livelier overworld. I just wanted to get the hell out of there, which was obviously the intended effect.

That's the thing: There are times when the emotions a game evokes from you transcend even the game itself. In fact, the more of these Commodore 64-aimed pieces I put together, the more one thing becomes evident: The C64's games may not have been the best-looking compared to those on other 8-bit systems, but their simple, imaginatively rendered depictions and whimsical music combine to create lasting images so amazingly distinct that it almost feels like they emanate from some other world. Or at least a place in time when this world seemed full of wonder and mystery. No other platform has ever made me feel that way.

I'm not saying that all such exemplars are necessarily glorious. Zorro, as previously discussed, certainly commits its fair share of crimes against game design; and the worst of its offenses, actually, is the genesis of my term "rough spot," which I first put into text in the Vampire Killer review I did fourteen years ago. That is, you can access from Zorro's starting point the innards of a well, which has a reserve with three logs floating on its surface; there's a ladder hanging just past the first log that offers a safe upper route into the darkened underground, but to grab onto its bottom rung requires that you bounce on the log from the correct distance and rebounding momentum while remembering to continue holding up. This assumes you originally jumped onto the log from the very edge of the precipice and landed on nothing short of the barrel's midpoint.

Easy enough, right?

There's a sequence later in the game, after vacating a weight-based puzzle area that houses the important trophy, where you find yourself on the well's right side; if you hope to escape, you have to make three such jumps in a row, each requiring timing and momentum that's difficult to peg down even after a whole lot of experimentation. It's so easy to screw up even one of these jumps that it's a likely scernario to burn through your entire stock in a matter of seconds. That was my main bugaboo: It's here where I'd frequently misplan my leaps and lose all five lives in a clump, the result of which was game over. I'd wonder, "What's the point of spending an hour at a time (or so it felt) doing all that busywork if it's all going to keep leading up to this--a series of terrifying jumps that I'm probably going to miss and subsequently void the entire effort?" What made me more fearful was that I didn't know if I could trust the controls to function properly even if things lined up.

Even if I performed well up until that point, the well's feared barrel jumps always did me in or left me in such dire straits that I'd be picked off by an unexpectedly appearing swordsman, randomly bested in duel in which I was too numb compete. I didn't know what "game design" was at the time, but I knew that I had an immense dislike for lives-based games where the first 90% of it was easy to navigate, if not entirely tedious, but the final 10% could succinctly wipe you out. All I can say is that it's a damn good thing that game-makers have long since shunned that kind of archaic design philosophy, right, 1001 Spikes?

I gave Zorro a pass because I had taken to its puzzle-solving mechanic and liked how its deviously understated aesthetic qualities immersed me in its calm-but-threatening world. Otherwise, yikes.

Like Cliff Hanger and other highly difficult C64 games, I only recently finished it with the help of an emulator, which allowed me to see the ending but didn't provide any real sense of satisfaction. I'd like to try finishing it legitimately, but I'm afraid it's solidly in the class of Impossible Mission as a game whose conclusion I wasn't meant to see as per my own available skill, and I'm not sure I want to subject myself to its brand of torture at the current time. For now, I'll regard it as another example of a "one day" game, as in "one day I'll try to finish it without any in the way of modern-day fail-safes." For me, it's not even about earning the typically abbreviated C64 ending; it's about recommencing and completing a mission that began a long time ago.

Cruelly, when you reach the end, Zorro's woman will reject him if his rescuing efforts don't include bringing her a rose, which means you, the player, have to go back to the hub room, grab the flower, and retread through the underground and endgame areas just to trigger the looping 5-second ending (the programmer must have been a fan of Ghosts and Goblins, which I'm happy to avoid). Had I not looked up a walkthrough, I would have assumed that her rejection was the true ending, a sort of metaphorical representation of the game itself. Remembering all of this now, I find it amazing that I have such an affinity for Zorro considering that it combines many of my least-favorite game-design tropes. I guess there are some things that just defy logic.

I hadn't yet developed the aptitude for them, but I would eventually become a big fan of adventure games, including those point-and-click based. Though it inflicted much pain upon me, Zorro helped shape my gaming tastes, helping me realize how cathartic it was to solve puzzles and unravel the twisted cords of a world seeped in mystery. Indeed, it was exciting to finally figure out the proper use for an item after spending so many hours fruitlessly wandering about the same seemingly unyielding locations; it was like disovering a whole new continent when I'd figure out, for instance, that I could play the trumpet to enchant a patrolling swordsman, who would then jump down onto the unoccupied side of a see-saw and propel me upward to platform I never thought I'd walk upon.

That was the power of Zorro and the Commodore 64.

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