Time Zone (1982)   17 comments

There are some games that have loomed as dark, brooding hulks, games I have known about for a long time but have never touched.

I’ve been afraid of Time Zone ever since roughly I knew the All the Adventures project would be a thing, back in March of 2011.

“Audacious” is the right word. After Roberta Williams polished up her trilogy from 1980 (Mystery House, Wizard and the Princess, Mission: Asteroid) she wanted to make a game that kept going and going and going. From a Computer Gaming World interview, not long after release:

It’s not an easy game. And it’s not for beginners. It takes a really long time to get through TIME ZONE; even for someone who knows the answers. If I sit down to test TIME ZONE, it takes me a good week to go through it one time while testing it and I know the answers! Make sure you have GOOD maps. Use your imagination. Don’t give up. It’s going to take a LONG time.

I might get into details on the creation of Time Zone while amidst my playthrough, although Jimmy Maher already essentially has it covered. What I’m more interested in is the story of Roe Adams III, reviewer for Softalk, who (according to Steve Levy’s book Hackers) “went virtually without sleep for a week” to beat the game before declaring it “one of the greatest gaming feats in history.”

Just how plausible is this? Unfortunately, Hackers is a book that must be taken with several grains of salt (and as far I’ve been able to reckon, all later tellings of the story derive from it) but it does seem plausible to finish the game in the 150-odd hours that a week-with-very-little-sleep and no hints whatsoever would have entailed.

I’d like to test the theory, a little. Unlike most of my playthroughs, I’m going to keep a timer. Usually I don’t do this because

a.) I often play “off-and-on” and may dip in a game for five minutes to test a theory before leaving to do something else

b.) Sometimes an insight can occur “off the computer” so there is some element of “playing” even when the game is not at hand

c.) I don’t like time pressure in general

but I really am curious what the actual modern time to beat would be while avoiding hints as much as possible. Now, keep in mind I am using an emulator so I don’t have to worry about load times, but I also won’t have quite the “immersion experience” that Roe Adams III did, so maybe they’ll cancel each other out? One thing I do have going is that Roberta’s last substantial game, Wizard and the Princess, I managed to complete entirely without hints and found it basically fair, despite other accounts finding it much less fair. So possibly, I’m on the right wavelength for this.

The credits have a few more people involved other than just these, but apparently Terry Pierce did the lion’s share of the art.

I am still somewhat a sucker for the “pastoral opening” to an adventure game.

Let’s just go on a walk! And find out quite immediately after that we experienced a vivid dream.

Why we are uniquely able to defeat the evil ruler of the Planet Neburon I am unclear on, but I assume some technology like the TARDIS is afoot, where the time machine always goes where it needs to be.

It begins.

HOURS PLAYED: 0

Posted January 10, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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17 responses to “Time Zone (1982)

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  1. Yikes good luck Jason. I haven’t played it but hear it is quite the rabbit hole

  2. Oh I’ve been waiting anxiously for this moment ever since I learned of your blog.

    We owned this game. It came in an appropriately oversized box, and I believe it came on 4 or 6 floppies, which was unheard of for the time. I never wanted on my own, but I’m pretty sure I used the book of adventure games to walk through it. At the time, I was 8 years old and just thought it was cool to be able to use a time machine and travel around. I wasn’t so concerned about completing the puzzles.

    What makes the game so tricky (and so large) is that the time machine allows you to select from a list of predetermined locations and times/eras, in any combination.

    Although you can visit any location/time combination in any order, there’s only one correct way to play through (but there are many ways to break the game by putting it in an unwinnable situation, and very little guidance to help you know what to do and where.)

    If I remember correctly, if you take an inventory object to a time period before it was invented, it disappears forever. That at least narrows down the potential options for using certain objects in certain situations, but the game really doesn’t give you much help otherwise.

    Can’t wait to see how this unfolds. Save early and often with this one.

    • The manual does mention the technology not going backwards thing. I guess I’m starting at the earliest possible and working my way up.

      • There’s something of a “tutorial” for this concept because the time machine comes with a gas mask on board. If you don’t off-load it before traveling back in time, it disappears. That’s a good way of reminding you about this right away.

        Also the prehistoric eras do not change based on continent you select so that’s a further way of narrowing the broad scope of the game somewhat.

        Roberta is really honest in that review, if a bit delusional about that impact the game could have in classrooms. I like how she admits what a frustrating experience it was to produce the game, and how they were just ready for it to be done and over with. I also found it amusing how the interviewer projects the game could be a classic one day in the future, and Roberta likes the idea (though I think King’s Quest took that trophy while Time Zone is largely forgotten).

  3. Good luck. I think you’ll find this one to be effectively insoluble, for all the reasons Adam just gave. What I love best about it is how hilariously confused it is about history, despite Roberta’s claim to have done mountains of research. This is a game that thinks cave people lived alongside dinosaurs, and that isn’t quite sure whether it’s sending you back to the France of Louis XIV or Napoleon.

    • I find it astounding Roberta Williams in that interview talks about using it as a history learning tool for schools. Maybe for having kids try to find all the mistakes?

      • Yeah I found it amusing that her research for Australia included a trip to the Los Angeles Zoo. She incorrectly included in the game a South American bird in Australia because it just happened to be in the kangaroo enclosure.

        To be fair, research in the early 1980s would have been a lot more time consuming than today, and after all this was not conceived of as an educational project. She admits to putting in 3-4 hours a day of game design work in. Does anybody really think a large chunk of that time was at the library poring over tomes of encyclopedia volumes to get the details right? That wasn’t really her job, nor was it the goal of the project to be academically rigorous.

        Also, it’s important to keep in mind that in the 1980s the world wasn’t so concerned with entertainment being presented “authentically”. Roberta would have been in her late 20s when she designed Time Zone. She grew up in an era where authenticity in entertainment wasn’t given much consideration. Her parents grew up in an era where Charlie Chan and Amos & Andy were mainstream entertainment. I get the impression in that interview that while she casually mulls over the idea of using Time Zone as a teaching tool she likes how it feels, but I don’t think for a second she entered into the project with the intent to do this. That would have taken a level of academic rigor far beyond what was possible in the relatively short period of development time. I’m sure she must have plotted out the game and then tried to smooth a few of the rough patches over by clarifying a fact here and there, but I can’t imagine she did a lot more than that.

      • By the way, did you know saguaro cacti existed in the deserts around both Egypt and Baghdad in 1400 A.D.? :)

  4. Also, even given that automated spell- and grammar-checking was not as easy then as now, they really should have made sure that long paragraph, which everyone playing the game would see at an early stage, was correct (“Terrestial” should be “Terrestrial”, and the last sentence should have the word “Made” at the start to be grammatically correct).

    • This is “version 1.1” even.

      I don’t remember any typos in the prior On-Line games, but they’ve been so frequent in the 80-81 span I have tended to let them whoosh on by. (Plus, if I call them out I inevitably make some garish typo of my own in the same post.)

  5. One of the things that’s fascinated me about this game ever since I first found out about it is its Japanese ports. You have an American game, which is one of the most expensive (to buy) titles of all time, very difficult, and went over poorly in its native country. Then the Japanese company goes and puts it out on more computers than the original, and at roughly double the price. (19800 yen) Its bizarre.

    While I think the game’s difficulty may be overblown, I’m sure the sheer length of it is going to make it maddening. Which makes me slightly suspicious about Adams story about finishing it in a week. If I spent that long at a game without sleep/little sleep myself, I’d probably not finish it and instead think I was Napoleon or something.

    • Please tell us more about the Japanese port of this game. Was it actually a success in Japan? If it was really sold for double the price, the game would have cost an astounding $575 in today’s money. Who would consider that a reasonable price for a game?

    • I said most of what I know already. It was done by Starcraft, you can check on Mobygames for what else they ported to the Japanese home computer market. I don’t know how well it did, since most of what I know comes from what little magazines are on the Internet Archive, and none of the ones available cover the systems it was on in that time. Couldn’t tell you how well it did, but according to one source I have, which is a spreadsheet someone went to a lot of trouble making, it wasn’t the first game to cost that much, and if it retailed at its original price it wouldn’t have raised a single eyebrow, because the average price for new PC-98 games throughout its lifespan was around 8100 yen, and most western titles were higher than that.
      I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere online in Japanese, but I admit, I wasn’t ever looking for it specifically, so I may have missed it.

  6. With regard to Roberta’s claim that it took her a week to play through the game even though she had the answers, there is a walkthrough on YouTube that completes the game in about 90 minutes.

    Unless I unknowingly viewed it whilst riding a time machine, I’d say her estimate was somewhat inaccurate.

  7. Pingback: Time Zone: 400MILBC | Renga in Blue

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