When Activision Met The Wonder Years

When Activision Met The Wonder Years
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Normally, the sequel to a popular video game remains largely the same as the preceding title (or titles). If the first one was a shooter, the second one is a shooter. In 1993, however, one series did things a little differently.

That series was Zork, a pioneering succession of text adventure games for the PC dating back to the 1970s that (with one exception) had no graphics. There were just sentences on a screen, and to get around the world, you in turn had to type sentences.

Primitive by today’s standards, yes, but for the time these were important, popular games, renowned fro their immersion and story-telling. So popular that eight Zork titles were released by publisher Infocom between 1980 and 1988 (or ten if you count two “interactive comics”), an astonishing number of games by anyone’s standards.

By the late 1980’s, however, the series – and its publisher, Infocom – were both running out of steam. Having been picked up by (of all companies) Activision in 1986, a drop in profits saw the House of Zork closed in 1989, with the mega-publisher retaining little but the Infocom and Zork brand names.

It was under this appropriated label, and five years after the release of the last “true” Zork game, that Activision decided to hit the reboot button on the franchise. It was 1993, the CD-ROM was revolutionising PC gaming, and it was felt that the best way to return this once-mighty series to the top of the charts was to…bring in a bunch of C-list actors and turn the game into a graphic adventure title, one with more in common with Myst than with its text-based forebears.

The end result – Return to Zork – was…well, not a disaster, since for the time it was visually impressive. It was also not a bad adventure game in its own right. But it didn’t really feel like Zork, not when there were icons and a soundtrack and a mouse cursor and you had the pleasure of meeting women in stupid hats and Kevin Arnold’s big brother from The Wonder Years.

For all its amateur missteps, Return to Zork did brisk enough business for Activision that three further games were released between 1996-97. The series lives on today with casual MMO Legends of Zork, as well as playable versions of the classic original Zork available for the Amazon Kindle e-book reader and within Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops.

There are lots of interesting stories centring around this game. How it’s an early example of Activision’s ruthlessness, how it’s an example of a game series that makes fairly radical departures from its roots. But the main reason I wanted to write about it today (aside from the fact I saw it pop up on Good Old Games) was so I could share this sequence, which for years was my friend’s stock response whenever someone had had a little too much to drink.

Want some rye? Course ‘ya do.

Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.


  • Didn’t Dune do the whole “radical change for a sequel” thing before this? Dune being an RPG, and Dune II pretty much setting the stage for future RTS games?

    Although I guess that’s not counted as a *true* sequel, in that they were made by different companies.

    • Zelda II? There’s no such thing as Zelda II. First there was The Legend of Zelda, and then there was Link to the Past.


  • Ooh, talk about nostalgia…

    I got RTZ as part of a package with my very first multimedia kit – a CD drive and Sound Blaster 16! It also had Star Wars: Rebel Assault and a Microprose collection that included the original Civilization and Railroad Tycoon. Good times!

  • Return to Zork was bloody awful – the puzzles were nonsense, and the tech was weak. It came out the same year as Doom, for god’s sake. But that line will be forever etched into my memory.

    Want some rye? ‘Course ya do.

  • It used to be pretty common for game designers to think outside of the box, back before the obsession with building a bigger version of the same game was established as the only way to create a sequel.

    How else could you explain Pac Land coming from Pac Man?

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