Those #!@* infernal mazes!

or... The Case Against Zak McKracken


Zak McKracken, Zak McCracken, image

It has come to our attention that some people do not rate Zak as the greatest game of all time.

No doubt they are just trolling, but let's examine the claims.

or jump right to... the mazes


Most problems are caused by ignoring the newspaper that comes with the game. Read the newspaper! Zak is a news reporter! He thinks in terms of headlines! The game starts in a newspaper office! He passes newspaper stalls at every airport! A newspaper comes with the game! It's part of the game! Sure, you can play the game without the newspaper, and hardcore gamers do: there are also clues inside the game, but those clues are more fiendish. If you prefer games to hold your hand, and let's face it, most of us do, then for the love of all that's holy, I beg you, don't make life hard for yourself, read the newspaper! Please! What are you, some kind of Caponian? The newspaper is part of the game experience! How can you pretend to write a review if you have not played the full game? The newspaper is part of the game! It's full of clues! R-E-A-D--T-H-E--N-E-W-S-P-A-P-E-R!

The cash card

Many people complain about running out of money. (Hey, life's like that!) People - listen - this is a PUZZLE! That's P-U-Z-Z-L-E. As in 'Here is a problem, how can I overcome it?' People who say 'the lack of cash is a weakness of the game' underestimate the game's depths. < sigh > Zak is underrated again.

There is more than one way to get money in the game. Clues are everywhere. Read the newspaper that comes with the game. Look on the wall in Lou's Loans. Keep an eye on your cash card and the prices. Put two and two together. And if you're not sure, just save the game before making any major purchase. Then if you need to get money to Annie, think about what you can give her that has cash value, and where she can buy or sell it.

It's a puzzle, people!


The verb system

Zak McKracken, and its predecessor, Maniac Mansion, revolutionized computer games. Before these, adventure games were controlled by text parsers. Text parsers! You had to type in the instructions, and if you guessed the wrong word, then tough. Zak and Maniac Mansion changed the world! Today we take mouse control for granted. Since then, all other changes have been refinements. And in some ways, Zak's verb-based system is superior to many modern games. Modern games often allow just one action - 'use' or its equivalent. Or in the case of shooting games, a thousand ways to shoot somebody. Zak allows real choices.

The graphics and sound

Back then, 16 color graphics were cutting edge. For the first time, a 16 color palette allowed shading and some degree of subtlety. The jump from 4 colors to 16 colors was therefore greater than the jump from 16 to 'true color.' And the sound, in the days before sound cards, was the best that most people had ever heard.

Let's talk about perfection. The pictures and sounds that matter are the ones in your head. If you demand perfection, then even today's Half Life 2 is awkward and unrealistic. But if you demand food for your imagination, it doesn't get better than Zak.

Random deaths? Random?????

One reviewer complained of "random deaths." Random? Random??? Let's look at how you can die, shall we? You can run out of oxygen in Mars. But you can just go back to the camper van for more. And you get repeated warnings that oxygen is running low. Then you do nothing, allow yourself to die, and blame the game? If you don't want to run out of oxygen, and you can't be bothered to look for a new supply,  just stay in the camper van! Is that so hard? Then there is the deadly monster pit that you are warned not to go into. The only surprise death is probably if you jump out of the airplane and don't use your parachute. Despite the newspaper suggesting you look for a parachute. Look, I don't mean to criticize anyone, but if you jump out of an airplane without a parachute, what do you expect?

"The ability to play to a dead end"

A related criticism is the ability to play yourself into a dead end. This is caused by killing a major character. Really I don't mean to sound condescending, but what do you expect? You can't go around killing your friends and then act all offended that they are not around to help you. Similarly, If you choose to suffocate yourself by taping a bowl over your head and not providing any oxygen, Well let's just call that a useful life lesson. 

Another cause of a "dead end" is if you spend all your money and do not use one of the several options for getting more. I consider this a valuable life lesson, not to be ignored. Either use your original money carefully or earn more. Earning money can be fun! or if earning money is against your religion, you can even - shock - save the game occasionally, Just before you spend money, save the game in case you later decide to un-spend it. Just an idea for those of us who prefer actions not to have consequences.

Being trapped in the prison: you can escape if you're quick and have the nose glasses. Or if you wait long enough the aliens will come and let you out. This is not a dead end.

A final way to end the game early is just to send the girls home early. I won't go into all the reasons why this is a really bad idea, or all the clues that tell you not to, or the apparently controversial topic of saving the game before a major decision. It illustrates the great strength of Zak: the game actually makes sense! It isn't obvious on the surface, it all seems like delicious surreal anarchy, but there really is a logic to it: actions really do have consequences. Many reviewers have commented on how other games have "I can't do that" where Zak goes further. E.g. if you accidentally kill the goldfish then the guru will later comment on this, or if you try to get Annie to use Zak's bed she says "I'll pass." Real world rules do apply, and thought is required, despite the anarchy and mad humor. That's what makes the game so amazing!   

"It lacks the option to 'LOOK AT' something"

Have you tried the option that says 'what is'? The game also includes pictures on the screen, so you can see for yourself. I suspect that some reviewers play the game with their monitor turned off, and I accept that may cause some frustration.

A pitch black maze?

A reviewer complained that the Mars maze is in pitch black (it isn't in the 256 color version in case you're confused by this). He complains of wandering in darkness randomly clicking. Despite having access to both a lighter and a torch. I worry about this reviewer sometimes.

Not enough hand holding?

The same reviewer complained that the game involved "psychically knowing to use a yellow crayon on a scrap of wallpaper to write down the contents of a dream." Given that Zak begins the game by saying "I should make a drawing of that map I saw" and he is standing next to a piece of torn paper, and there is a yellow crayon in the next room (and the original map was in yellow, on old paper) I am not sure what more could have been done.

There is a slightly easier version of the game for people who want it to be even simpler - it's called YouTube: you press one video start button and somebody else plays the game for you.

Other complaints: "we don't like puzzles"

For the sake of completeness, here are the other complaints I have heard about Zak. Again I must stress that most people think that Zak is a classic, but you can't please all of the people all of the time. The following complaints only arose once in online reviews. Maybe the reviewers were just having a bad day?

I suppose I should confess my own deep dark secret here. The first time I played Zak, I also used a cheat sheet for some parts. But in my defense, I never had the newspaper - the newspaper has all the clues you need for the harder puzzles.



Mazes are puzzles. Like all puzzles, you either like them or hate them. Some people find them too difficult and hate them. Even David Fox agrees that the Mazes were not popular:

Question: Is there anything you would do different if you were making Zak again?
"Hah! NO LABYRINTHS!! That was the one thing I wish we hadn't have done so much of. But considering how much space we had on the floppy disk (wasn't Zak two sides of a C64 disk - about a total of 320KB?), that was the most space-efficient way to prolong game play. At least we didn't keep killing you off!" - David Fox

But other people enjoy the challenge. Actually, the mazes are much simpler than they seem:

Mexico - the Aztec temple

When you enter the temple, you soon find three things:

  1. Torches on the walls - these are easily lit with the lighter used earlier in the game.
  2. There are three sets of rooms: with six doors, five doors and four doors. There are four rooms in each set, and they join from left to right (see graphic).
  3. Each set has a stone pillar in the first room. Every room can be uniquely identified in relation to doors and pillars.

Thanks to the yellow crayon puzzles, you already have a pencil and paper. So it is a simple matter to make a quick map, as follows:


Zak McKracken, Zak McCracken, image



The most common maze is the jungle near various airports. These aren't what they seem.

Warning: spoiler ahead!

David Fox explains: 'These weren't mazes at all. There's no structure to the jungles. I'm just counting the number of new doors you go through!'


Egypt - the Sphinx

Actually, this maze isn't hard at all. Just go through the doors with a sun symbol, then finally the door with the eyes symbol.


Mars - the Great Chamber

Two of the Mars mazes are very simple, but the first one is a little more complicated. However, the passages are all different, so if you make a sketch map you can't get lost.

Zak McKracken, Zak McCracken, image


There, that wasn't too hard, was it?

In conclusion, I love the mazes. The idea of going deeper and deeper into an Aztec pyramid was exciting. I loved discovering the Martian air conditioner in the dark - especially in the 256 color version, with the great chasm, which reminds me of that scene in the film Forbidden Planet. The Egyptian maze seemed too easy at first, but the monster made it fun.

If you are one of those who hated the mazes, why not try them again? You might be pleasantly surprised.