This Is What Happened
I saw Zombieville on a lower shelf in a game shop. I haven't heard about it before, which was the reason why it intrigued me. The box had an infantile, lame drawing on it, but the story and the screenshots seemed tempting. They promised a nice, haunted house story--something along the lines of Alone in the Dark, The Legacy, or Resident Evil.Something came over me, and I decided to give it a try. Now I can say that it teaches me not to trust me feelings, but only the reasoning ... sorry, Obi Wan Kenobi, you were wrong.
According to the text on the box, you play in a "pseudo 3D environment"--yes, Psygnosis seems to be proud of it, instead of hiding this fact in an era of Quake and Unreal 3D engines. Zombieville is a DOS game, which says something about its age. But if you think that being a DOS game means that Zombieville loads faster and crashes less frequently than a Win95 application, you are wrong ... this game is an exception. As a matter of fact, it's an exception in almost everything. And this is no praise.
The intro seemed interesting enough. A military base in an old "cursed" city has apparently been running illegal experiments, and, as usual, they goofed. Now there are zombies and all other sorts of nasty creatures running all over the place, and it is the player's duty to stop them.
Zork: Grand Inquisitor is Activision's third offering to the modern graphic adventure take on the classic Zork series. Their first game (which is actually labeled for Infocom, but they were part of Activision by the release) Return to Zork kept the humor of the original text games, but added the fun of visuals and sound, moving Zork into the world of point-and-click fare. Zork: Nemesis, the second game, is an intensely dark tale with some of the Zorkian quirkiness. But fans, like me, scratched their heads at why this game was so serious. It's a great game, but very out of character for the series. Then came ZGI. And all was right with the world.
Anyway, the zombies are too close, so, just like the manual says, I hold Ctrl and run, in hope to get to the base without the need to fight the creatures.
What ...? What's this ...? As I start running, the zombie sprites begin to move about 10 times faster than normally. They literally fly through the screen and have my character in their clutches in less than one second. Amazingly, their animation is still as slow as usual. As Mr Black dies, spurting ridiculously large amounts of pixelated blood around, I begin to wonder if what I have just witnessed is a bug.
Random, Random Everywhere
I'm starting the game again. This time I use the gun--hooray! The zombies are dead! Well, all right, they were dead already, but now they are dead for good. But wait ... the zombies reappear. Randomly. At random times. Sometimes they spill something that looks like confetti all over the place. Sometimes they don't spill--they just kill. Randomly. Randomness seems to be the favorite attitude of the game makers. Soon I discover that some vital objects that you must collect in order to progress in the game are also distributed randomly. A zombie I shot in the first minute had a door pass on him. Having collected it, I got my character killed; next time I had to run around for 20 minutes, shooting about 30 zombies until one of them dropped the pass. Actually, it was quite interesting; later on, I found the pass on a skeleton, and then again on a zombie, but this time in a different location.
The game is so difficult it's ridiculous. At that moment I start to suspect that its makers were afraid to allow the player to see the rest of their "genius," so they decided to kill him in the very beginning. I would use one of my good ol' cheatin' tools to get more objects and make the game easier, but I don't have any items at the beginning, so I can't even try. Damn.
Suddenly I recognize the music in this stage--a very nice MIDI tune, but somehow familiar. It sounds almost exactly like the main theme from an '80s horror flick, Return of the Living Dead. Coincidence? Or perhaps plagiarism?
Did You Miss Me?
Perhaps you have just thought, "At least there are no deadly bugs in this game." My thoughts exactly ... or at least they were, until I entered the army base. Bugs can be really annoying, but until they are so dangerous that they prevent you from completing the game, you can live with them. Zombieville has never crashed yet, nor has it caused any serious problems ...
... However, I have just started it. Inside the base, I decide to check the time I spent in this game. The manual says that the timer can be invoked by pressing "T," which is what I do. And then ...
Hmm. Either the guys at Psygnosis have a different understanding of the word "timer" than I do, or the game crashed because one of its files is missing from the CD. Apparently, I will have to avoid using the timer, then. All right. Having restarted the game, I continue, meeting two soldiers with whom I am supposed to have a conversation. Very well, then ... chit-chat, chit-chat, I choose an answer ...
That was rather unexpected. I run the game again, choosing different lines in the conversation. Success! The characters open a door, letting me in. I try to talk to them again, to see if they have any more info. At this moment I am transported to the door again, and have exactly the same conversation as before. Wait a minute! This time when I press "T," the timer appears and there is no crash! I won't investigate it, though, since the door is now open! I hear "All right, Sergeant, open the door," and then a sound of door being opened. Considering the amount of bugs I have found so far, I wouldn't be surprised if the door actually locked itself, or if the game crashed again. It doesn't happen! But I still feel I should exit the game and replay this fragment, just in case. I press "Esc" to invoke the main menu ... and am suddenly returned to DOS, this time with no explanation of the crash whatsoever.
Alpha, Beta, Gamma
At this moment I had enough and decided to take a closer look at the game's insides and also contact Psygnosis. Looking at the contents of the game files, I found a short text "Alpha 1.4." Things seem clear now ... an alpha version of an application is a pre-beta release, or, in other words, a version that has not even entered the stage of testing for bugs and other errors yet. Apparently, Zombieville is an alpha project that someone at Psygnosis released as a full game. Unbelievable? Indeed, Watson ... but when you have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however unbelievable, is true.
At that moment, I remembered another peculiar thing about the game--I have never seen any ad promoting it, or, for that matter, any mention about it.
"It Don't Be Me Child, Sor!"
A look at the Psygnosis web site reveals yet another mystery--Zombieville gets no mention there. It's not among released products, it's not in the project section--it does not exist. The parents disown their child. Gee, I wonder why? And why is there literally no mention of Zombieville makers in the game or in the manual? Only Psygnosis can answer that ... but if I learned that my company wants to release my product whose testing I have not even started yet, and which I suspect to be still bugged, I would not sign my name under it, either.
Psygnosis and Psychosis
After all the "adventures" that I had with their game, I have e-mailed Psygnosis about Zombieville and the problems with it, but they ignored the letter. I was actually expecting that--after all, just releasing Zombieville was an obvious act of ignoring the customers. Psygnosis should remember one thing, though--companies are dependent on their customers, and if they go on ignoring them, the least they should is a heavy loss of profits. Customers can choose their favorite company, and they vote with their money, after all.
Final Grade: F