The City of Alzan (1981)   20 comments

Planet of Death published by Artic was one of our candidates for First Commercially Released Britventure.

We’re going to look at another one, which is linked to Planet of Death in an odd and unexpected way.

In 1980, after the ZX80 computer came out on the 29th of January and caught the UK market by storm, there was a flood of books including Making the Most of Your ZX80, Learning Basic with Your Sinclair ZX80, The ZX80 Magic Book, and important for our purposes right now, The ZX80 Pocket Book.

The ZX80 Pocket Book, written by Trevor Toms and originally released November 1980 by Phipps Associates, got a revised version after the ZX81 came out, predictably called The ZX81 Pocket Book.

According to The Centre for Computing History, the ZX81 version of the book came out in July 1981 (source). The specific month is important, because the earliest we know of Planet of Death comes a magazine dated August 1981.

From Your Computer, August/September 1981. (Special thanks to Gareth who spotted a forum thread giving me this lead.)

Going by standard print lag times, it means that the original ZX80 version of Planet of Death likely came out in July, the same month as the ZX81 book did. The book was even advertised in the exact same issue as the news clipping above.

So, based on what I’ve currently gone through, the title of First Commercially Released Britventure is a tie between Planet of Death and The City of Alzan, a game Trevor Toms included in his book in order to showcase his adventure-writing system.

Being (apparently) released in the same month is not the “odd and unexpected” connection I was referring to earlier. I’ll get back to that after I’ve gone through the game itself.

Starting on page 88 of the ZX81 book, Mr. Toms lays out a generalized system for writing adventure games, with a Master program written in BASIC. To write an adventure, the user is supposed to add “room descriptions” and “text messages” with PRINT statements that just continue the code


and then use a “generator” to enter “keywords” and actions linked to them.

13 19 B01. B01 L. (take lamp – object 01
14 19 B01. C01 L. (drop lamp
13 19 B02. B02 E03 L. (take (lit) lamp – object 02 – also sets lamp marker 3
14 19 B02. C02 F03 L. (drop lit lamp – unsets lamp marker 3

The book then gives a “test adventure” which isn’t worth going in detail on, but here’s the map:

This is followed by the code for City of Alzan itelf.

No treasures to find here. Escape the city, escape the plague.

The ZX81 version is available online, and just like Planet of Death, the screen updates every. single. keystroke. I cranked the speed to maximum and the game became tolerable, albeit needing a flashing warning.

The “L” on the bottom is just the cursor.

The game is both very tiny and very frustrating; I was stumped on things like TAKE being understood but GET just getting a I CANT message.

Perhaps what’s most interesting is that there are (possibly) two methods to escape. Here’s the one I used.

Step 1.) Grab some WOOD from a nearby alley.

Step 2.) Go into the “Cinema” and TAKE TORCH that the usher is holding. (It’s listed as within the description of the usher; I tried GET TORCH and got rebuffed with an I CANT so assumed I couldn’t just grab it out of the usher’s hands, but I was just using the wrong verb.)

Step 3.) Use the torch to go down a manhole and get some NAILS, next to a “tomb” which has a BARLAYCARD.

Step 4.) Buy a HAMMER from a hardware shop. (They have a LADDER too but I wasn’t able to buy it, I’ll come back to that in a moment.)

Step 5.) Die.


Oops! There’s a time limit after visiting the tomb.

Step 5b.) Take the NAILS, HAMMER, and WOOD and BUILD LADDER. Use the LADDER to climb out.

Somehow you are magically cured of the plague if you leave fast enough?

There’s another method of obtaining money which involves going in a BANK and coming up with the verb ROB. Mind you, the bank has no description other than having some bored guards.

If you are carting around money you have a random chance of being robbed yourself by “El Grabbo, the local thief”. I tried to BUY LADDER whilst holding the money but I was told I didn’t have enough, so I’m confused if I’ve hit a bug or not; this is potentially an alternate way to escape.

Eagle-eyed readers (or at least superfans of Planet of Death) may have noticed I mentioned a I CANT error message. That error message is very distinctive, and we’ve only seen it in one other place: the Artic games. Of course, given Alzan and Death were published the same time, how could they have come up with the same message, other than coincidence? Well, they could have both been at least partially derived from the same original source.

In Practical Computing, August 1980, Ken Reed wrote an article laying out a system (using Z-80 assembler) to write adventures. It includes a database of events akin to Alzan’s.

The way the variables are laid out is quite similar; here’s a code comparison which shows how the non-available-directions are calculated:

The Toms system is in pure basic so had to have at least some originality. What about the Planet of Death? I haven’t got round to decomposing, but no less an authority than Graeme Yeandle, author of The Quill (the most famous adventure-writing system from the 80s) claims that the Artic code is based on the Reed code. So I think it highly probable both UK games sprang from the same source.

You may also be wondering if the August 1980 magazine came with an adventure of its own. It did, sort of.

I have managed to get myself lost in the forest on my quest for the seven golden keys of Waydor and don’t know what to do next. So it is up to you to help me.

Give me your instructions and I will obey. For example, if you want me to go to the north. Type “Go NORTH”, if we should come across some keys and you want me to get them, type “GET THE KEYS”.

There’s a few rooms, a lantern for light, and a part where you get bitten by a vampire and need holy water to cure yourself

Some one has lept out of the shadows and BITTEN MY NECK!!!!

but there’s no proper “ending” and none of the aforementioned golden keys, so this is clearly a partial demo. Hence Reed’s article is the progenitor of the ZX adventure market while not being the actual first game.

If you really want to get fussy and come up with an honorific, Planet of Death may be the first standalone commerical adventure from the UK — City of Alzan was on a compilation tape that could be bought alone or with the book. I find the confluence of games to honestly be more interesting than any kind of title; also we’re still not quite done yet investigating potential candidates for the Britventure throne.

Posted April 9, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Tagged with

20 responses to “The City of Alzan (1981)

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. The ZX80 and ZX81 couldn’t do apostrophes (their character sets just plain didn’t include them) so messages like “I CANT” could easily be coincidence.

  2. Yeah, that issue of Practical Computing with Ken Reed’s article is incredibly important and influential (particularly, it seems, here in the UK). Trevor Tom’s system was based on the ideas in it. The Quill was based on the ideas in it. Even The Graphical Adventure Creator from Incentive was inspired by Trevor Tom’s system; so again had shared DNA/ideas from that very same source. Ken Reed was no doubt examining Scott Adams’ games very closely, but his clever analysis and description of the machine independent database approach seemed to be crucial in spreading those sorts of techniques.

    Trevor Toms’ system went on to be utilised in various other games from Phipps. If anyone is interested in looking at the databases behind these games then they should investigate John Elliots’ excellent tools at

  3. I think L is for letters. The ZX Spectrum added a C mode for capitals and E for extended.

  4. “Practical Comp-μ-ting”, with a mu in the middle?

  5. That is really an computer-archeologic investigation!

  6. That cover looks like Rick Wakeman on speed. Tintagel circa ’75?

  7. Looking at the listing generated by UnPhipps, the ladder is a red herring – the cash serves as an alternative to the Barclaycard for buying the hammer, but neither can be used to buy the ladder.

  8. Oops, I missed this post, when it’s actually very important to me!

    I’ve been researching the early days of text adventures in French, and this came up a few times. Most notably, there is a translation to French of the ZX81 pocket book that features a translation of Alzan; it was published in february 82 in France. Then, in the summer of 82, a text adventure in French explicitly based on that listing is published in France’s biggest in-print publication at the time. Then nothing… until three Oric games are published in 1983 (one in May 83, another one in the summer of 83, then another one in november 83), all programmed in BASIC, and the source is very similar to Azlan. Problem: the authors don’t remember either Alzan, or the magazine… but it’s the same engine, no doubt about it.
    The release of the Oric, the creation of Loriciels, and shortly after Infogrames, pretty much mark the birth of the French videogame industry. Not all adventure games in French were based on Reed’s code, far from it; a tradition of graphical adventures started pretty quickly, and other adventure games not based on Reed’s code came out pretty much at the time. But it’s fun to see how one article spread everywhere and spawned many games :)

    • Wow, that’s fantastic! What is the name of the French game based on the Alzan translation?

      The Reed code also plays a part in the launch of the Japanese adventure industry, although I won’t be getting into that until next year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: