Time Zone: An Ultimate Adventurer   17 comments

I finished Time Zone. And yes, the final hour count below is real. If you’ve arrived to this post from elsewhere, please read the prior posts first for this one to make sense.


The control panel of the time machine, in the Japanese PC-88 version of Time Zone, via Youtube.

There are already informal clubs and discussion groups of Time Zone players throughout the country. If you have a computer and a phone attachment (called a modem), you can check the Micronet Apple user’s group on the Compuserve network for details on such groups.

— The World’s Longest Game, Neil Shaprio, Popular Mechanics, July 1982

Time Zone was perhaps was a victim of its own marketing. Not only does it proclaim itself as the longest game ever made, but in the article I mention above, Ken Williams claims the size will be a feat never to be duplicated. The manual even says calls can’t be made for hints for several months but they won’t be needed until then.

Compared to monsters like Warp and Hezarin, however, it is easy. Items resolve obstacles in a simplistic way. Combinations are rarely needed. There are several tricky verbs but never at the absurd-to-find level of Ulysses and the Golden Fleece. Despite some unfair moments, the game takes care to be fair elsewhere. What makes the game take as long as it does is the staggering size, and more importantly, the sheer number of red herrings.

I think the most stuck I ever felt in the game was at the very start, in the Prehistoric Era. I kept returning over and over to see if I had missed something. I kind of did miss an Easter Egg; in a lake, the game asks you CAN YOU SWIM? and if you type anything other than yes or no, it asks I SAID, CAN YOU SWIM?

The prompting is to get you to type YES, which lets you swim ashore. Swimming also lets you escape the T-Rex adjacent to shore.

I spent an absurdly long time originally trying to chase away the dinosaur, thinking he was hiding some item, but I hadn’t caught the vibe of the game yet: if an enemy seems far too powerful to beat, and especially if any input seems to get intercepted (it doesn’t try to “understand” what you typed, and will react to nonsense just like regular commands) the right action is to let go and walk away.

There are a fair number of places where angry indigenous people want to murder you, and the best course is to leave them alone.

Catching this vibe was one of my major breaks in the game. The other, accompanied by literal breaking a window, was probably the only moment of complete lateral thinking, and it wasn’t too out-of-bounds: the window is clearly a separate object from the door, and the main understanding was that Ben Franklin being away from his print shop was an opportunity to be exploited. I was here to save the Earth, not to be nice.

The end goal of all the time jumping was not to resolve paradoxes, or plant trees meant to be used years later in a puzzle, but rather just to gather objects. It’s a scavenger hunt where every loose item applies at the end. In a way, it was very glorious and satisfying to see, say, a lance pilfered from a knight I murdered via boomerang (obtained from aborigines in Australia, thanks y’all) be used to clear away laser mines. Certainly it didn’t hold up to fridge logic, and the majority of the items from the time jumping could have been grabbed by the protagonist swinging by a store. I had to suspend any notion of object absurdity and roll with it, and then it was possible to have fun.

Mind you, there are still design issues aplenty, and I’ll mark some more off later, but let’s get into my final push, as I was close to reaching the last disk of the game.

Last time I was stopped by needing a military ID and a stone block. Rather quickly after I picked up playing again, I resolved the stone block, simply by virtue of typing USE followed by each item in my inventory.

I can’t say this was illogical, it’s just checking the possibilities was faster than thinking through it.

This led to a small sewer maze the requires the gas mask (for the last time). There’s a too-high grate similar to the one I saw earlier, but this time the ladder was able to reach.

Sneaking into the military base, I quickly found a disk change — the last disk side of the game! There was also a military ID in a desk, which allows passing back and forth the front receptionist (and shuttling over my big pile of items in order to be a bit closer but also so I wouldn’t have to keep disk swapping in order to test Just One More Item).

In addition to the ID I found a file folder with a diagram outlining the Evil Plan, which I think was just for fun lore.

Quite close to the plans I found … Ramadu, the Big Bad himself!

You can blast him with your laser gun but it is loud and guards find you. If you dally more than one move (or just try to leave) he screams and guards find you. This puzzle was technically solvable the moment I found it, but I saved it for later thinking I might find a stealthier weapon deeper in the compound.

Nearby in a different direction was a safe, whose lock yielded quickly thanks to Katherine the Great’s hat pin.

Is this an amusing moment or just silly? Again, this works if you’ve bought into the scavenger hunt construct, and it really is glorious having all the places you’ve visited come back, albeit in object form.

The safe had a password, which I was able to give to two guards further along.

Right before reaching the two guards was this empty shed, which will be important later.

The game still can’t resist giving rooms for color, and there was a computer room which was unnecessary and a telescope room which was there just to gaze upon the Earth.

Nice exoplanet lens!

The only other way through seemed to be a guard by a door where the game didn’t even let you try using KILL (it just states it would be a bad idea). I was running very short on items I hadn’t used yet so even though the next step sounds like a stretch, it took me only a few minutes of noodling to find.

That’s GIVE FLOWER, one found back in the main city with the man-eating plants. If this was a step that made part of a larger combination, or if the unused-item count was very high, this puzzle could be more distressing, but emotion at the time was just “hah!”

Getting past the guard led to a maze. Stepping inside, I was fried by a laser mine.

As I briefly mentioned earlier, the lance from the knight back in Sherwood Forest is useful — type USE LANCE and you’ll hold the lance out and use it as a tester, and then any subsequent mines will be set off by the lance rather than your body.

The maze had only two locations of note. The first was a circle with a button where standing within the circle and pushing the button teleports directly to the time machine. (You don’t even need the gas mask — you can ENTER MACHINE right away and not worry about the air being breathable.) I (correctly) assumed this was the escape route.

The other location was a door with a slot that required an ID, but the military ID wasn’t high enough level. So, I was at the end of the line — I needed to get at Ramadu who I assumed had a personal card leading to the last area.

The setup with Ramadu gives you exactly two turns to act. Knowing that the laser gun was too loud, I tried CLOSE DOOR, then KILL RAMADU, then WITH GUN as prompted.

By the time I reached WITH GUN I was already dead. I tried all the different weapons I had accumulated — boomerang, sword, knife, even just a rock — to see if any would work. None did. Finally I realized something that only comes naturally from playing a bunch of two-word parser games — would be possible to skip typing KILL RAMADU and just go straight to WITH GUN? It was.

Simultaneously the worst and most satisfying puzzle of the game? It was great to kill the Bad Guy, and interesting to think about the closing the door being useful, but this felt like a parser exploit. Typing KILL RAMADU shouldn’t have taken up any time.

The desk had Ramadu’s personal ID, so I booked it over to that maze … and got killed by the password guards who discovered my laser gun! D’oh. Fortunately, the solution there is just a matter of dropping the gun after the deed is done.

However, as I approached the flower-loving guard, there were footsteps approaching, and right before being able to dive in the maze, I was caught by a search party. I figured perhaps this was a matter of speed, and tried to optimize my steps, but no matter what I did, I was found one move before entering the maze. I tried hiding in a nearby supply room.

I finally realized a.) there was not necessarily a need to rush and b.) the empty shed I had seen earlier might make for a hide-out spot. I was right on both accounts:

Having evaded the search party, I was able to make it past the flower-guard and into the special locked room in the maze. There, I found the diabolical weapon.

Here I was thankful I figured out the dynamite puzzle at the last moment, and I knew exactly what to do. (Thanks also to Voltgloss for watching out for me on that one, even though I ended up figuring out what I was missing myself.)

Kablooey! You can’t go back out the maze the way you came in, but fortunately I already had the route to the teleporter and knew what it would do.

Back in the time machine, I jammed the “go home” button, and somehow everyone found out what happened in the past while I was busy saving the Earth.

In the old games, they were stories that you experienced from your own eyes. Like in Time Zone — you’re just walking through the trees outside your home, and suddenly there’s a time machine. It’s never been there before; it’s just suddenly there. What is this? You don’t even know what it is. This funny-looking machine… You look closer, then climb inside, look at the controls, and before you know it, you’re off on an adventure. But it’s just you.

— Roberta Williams, from DeMaria’s High Score! Expanded: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games 3rd Edition

It’d be a nice, clean moral to say Time Zone marked the end of an era, but it didn’t really — lots of games before had more expansive plot ambitions, and lots of games after went with the simplicity of throwing the protagonist in a scenario where their main motivation is exploring and gathering items. Certainly nobody else tried it with so many red herrings.

Moments like on the Christopher Columbus ship where you blindly pick access to three areas (and only one is correct) are not good pieces of design. (Although it isn’t nearly as brutal as the choice from the very start of Ulysses where you find out if you’re right or wrong only near the end of the game.) The OPEN SESAME bit which requires just bringing in outside lore is not good design — although I logicked through it by thinking “would Roberta Williams require applying outside fairy tale lore without in-game prompting?” and coming up with an emphatic YES.

(By the way, the cave is optional! The gold is only useful for giving to the thief, but as I mentioned last time, you can let the thief shoot you. This also lets you skip finding the second item from the trader in Morocco.)

However, as I hope I proved through my own journey, that doesn’t mean the game was unreasonable to solve. Compared against Roe Adams’s solve-in-one-week-with-no-hints, yes, that story is perfectly plausible. (Even given the slower disk loading and Apple II draw time — the drawing in Time Zone isn’t super-slow but it still takes enough time I’d say the playtime needs to be tripled for a 1982 playthrough.) While I did check hints to see if some red herring zones were, in fact, red herrings, at no time during the gameplay did I check how to solve a puzzle — I did it entirely on my own.

The aura of un-solvability was helped along by the massive size and seems to have been created and encouraged by the Ken and Robert Williams themselves, but at a basic level, the game is all about reaching higher places with ladders or lifting heavy blocks with iron bars or making fire with sticks or trading perfume to Cleopatra for some Egyptian money which then goes to a fruit seller who explicitly requests Egyptian money and then taking the food and using to survive a trip that explicitly says you need food.

(The bit with Catherine the Great dropping a hat pin when enough moves have been given in the right location is a jerk move, though — any player who dithers around a few turns will find the hat pin, but if someone just happens to leave early there’s isn’t an explicit puzzle to solve, so the pin is incredibly easy to miss. I could see someone killing Ramadu yet unable to get into that safe.)

My allergy to declaring games good or bad is partly from an art-historical-analysis standpoint — I’d rather focus on the evolution of design trends than deliver concrete numbers. Time Zone gives a particular dilemma, because I can absolutely say nobody should play this, yet I did have genuine fun throughout, and red herrings (and the tinge of racism) aside, I can’t say my time was wasted. The game asked — what if you really could go anywhere at any time? — and tried to answer it. Open worlds need a bit more to do and as one of the first large-team computer projects, this was maybe too ambitious to fill content the way Roberta Williams really dreamed of, with a game that didn’t end. Deeper truths were yet to be revealed, but Time Zone at least glances off of them.

Don’t fret, Apple II fans: I’ll be taking a breather for a bit (for what I hope are obvious reasons) and will get off a few short entries on the still-chugging TRS-80 market before returning, this time in a game with good art (seriously!)

I do have one request: if you liked what you read, please share. Use the all-entries-in-chronological-order link. I’m just here for sharing the joy of adventure games, but I’d like as many people as possible to see.

Plus, to be honest, you’re perfectly fine skipping playing Time Zone and reading about it instead.

Posted February 27, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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17 responses to “Time Zone: An Ultimate Adventurer

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  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. This has been a thoroughly enjoyable read. As I mentioned before, I watched a YouTube walkthrough to refresh my memory of the game prior to your in depth playthrough and the game is actually better in several ways than the walkthroughs lead me to believe. For example, I was delighted to discover the E-vill “plan” to zap earth does have an in-game explanation; it’s not just in the manual. The walkthrough I watched went right to blasting the ray gun without going through the step of showing that detail. And the alternate history of Brutus and Caesar and swimming away from the T-Rex are all fun details that are all lost when all you do is go right to the solution. So again, thank you for going into such loving detail.

    FYI a couple of weeks ago I reached out to Ken Williams via his website kensblog.com and mentioned your blog, and he replied. Enjoy:

    Thank you. I’ll show this to Roberta. She’ll get a kick out of it. The game actually doesn’t look too bad given that it is 40 years old.

    -Ken W

  2. Congrats! One minor item of note on something that always bothered me on the ending screen – those weird looking guys on the left hand side. When I went through it myself recently, I finally realized that they were meant to be the Marx Brothers.

  3. I love learning via that initial YouTube link that the game’s PC-88 had completely redrawn (and rather nicer) graphics! Someone drew all that stuff *again*!

  4. Impressively done! I agree this has been a blast to read.

  5. In much the same way a child raised on a planet with twice the earth’s gravity might be unaware they have developed superhuman strength, you are no longer an unbiased judge of what makes a text adventure easy. :)

    (By this point, you might have played more early-80s text adventures than any other human being?)

    • I think Carl Muckenhoupt may have still played more, but you have to expand to the entire 1980s. (He used to maintain Baf’s Guide to the Interactive Fiction Archive.)

      I’m not going to disagree I’ve gotten good at this! However…

      First off, I was saying easy compared to Hezarin and Warp, and if you haven’t read about those yet, you’re in for a ride:



      I also can tell when something is hard (to an extent) even when I solve it quickly. It really didn’t take me long to work out the WITH GUN trick, for instance (5 minutes?) but I fully recognize it counts as straight-up parser abuse.

      What I was saying is there are many moments like this:

      You’re in a pit, how do you climb up? -> ladder

      You are hungry, how do you resolve this? -> eat food

      You are facing an enemy attacking you, what do you do? -> kill them with a weapon

      Someone wants to trade with you -> give them an item

      There’s a locked padlock, how do you unlock it? -> skeleton key

      The difficulty for the most part with these is in finding the item in the first place (although someone might be in disbelief that Benjamin Franklin’s skeleton key works on a lock in 2082 AD; it works on a gate in 4082 AD too!) There are still exceptions, all of which I’ve written about, but in general the difficulty is more in the wide-possibilities smoke-screen as opposed to a complex combination, like the Babel Fish puzzle in Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The only real combo comes from tying rope to an arrow to steal cash in Sherwood Forest, which I admitted when I wrote about it I solved quickly due to recent experience.

      • I suspect the “non-abuse” intention with killing Ramadu is for the player to type USE GUN, given how often the generic USE verb works so long as you’re, well, using the right item for the problem at hand. (The walk-through I checked before uses USE for all “kill this foe with this weapon” moments, without any KILL or WITH commands.)

        (This doesn’t diminish the mild unfairness of the game’s prompting “with what?” in response to using KILL wwasting a “real” turn that gets you killed vs Ramadu.)

      • That’s correct.

        This walkthrough shows at 1:26:20 the correct two move Ramadu solution is “CLOSE DOOR” and then “USE GUN”.

        This is actually a really good example of Jason’s depth of experience working against him. He’s played so many games with better text parsers that it’s negatively affected his ability to find the correct solution for this one!

        I said it before that in my experience playing many Apple ][ adventures as a kid, USE was an essential verb for being so commonly used to solve puzzles. (And I played a lot more than just hi-res adventures in my day.)

      • Sorry the walkthrough URL I included was blocked. But you can find it on YouTube by searching “Sierra Time Zone Walkthrough”. It’s the video posted by user Yzzyxz.

      • It’s showing up.

        Part of the issue is that USE through the game is inconsistent. For example, earlier there’s a scene where yo do a jailbreak with a saw. But USE SAW gives a “that doesn’t work” kind of message. You have to BREAK WINDOW and then WITH SAW.

      • Ah yes, I can see how inconsistent implementation is parser commands would throw you off the trail. Maybe this was a function of my being 8 years old at the time but I never had the impression that these games were designed to be played as methodically and rigorously as you’ve been doing. Maps and notes, yes. But a comprehensive verb list carried across years of adventure games? I imagine that comes from perspective of someone playing these games 40+ years later, and not a contemporaneous adventurer.

        The real question is why would Roberta even implement a winning command (“WITH GUN”) that, by virtue of the 2-turn timer, can never actually be used without cheating?

      • Oh, I’m sure they meant USE and didn’t even think about KILL. This is a game where Sydney is spelled correctly in one room but not the one next to it, where the thirst check on Baghdad is glitched so you can get all the way to the cave without even solving the camel puzzle, and where every once in a while an exit goes the “wrong” direction and is clearly not meant to be for maze reasons.

        This is the company where in the published version of Mission: Asteroid, technically speaking the Earth is destroyed because they never bothered to stop the death timer after the victory message.

      • Are there other places in the game where KILL [NOUN] / WITH [ITEM] can be replaced by USE [ITEM]? I could see them having implemented “KILL [NOUN] / WITH [ITEM]” by having KILL be essentially meaningless and WITH just a direct synonym for USE.

      • I think you’re probably right on that? Would take some serious time to test, though.


    I’m glad in the end this proved funny. That was a fun reading!!!

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