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What happens next is a rather dismal story indeed. Activision seemed uninterested in publishing text games, preferring instead to exploit the popularity of games like Zork in graphical adventure games, starting with Beyond Zork in 1987, a graphical game by Brian Moriarty (Wishbringer, Trinity, and later Loom).
Beyond Zork offered players a crude automap and several random and RPG elements to theoretically enhance the game’s re-playability. Re-playability is always an issue with most adventure games, since once the player figures out the puzzles and solves the game, there is little reason to play it through again—though in my experience, a few years is sufficient time to forget enough of the details to make it fun again (I compare it to re-reading a favorite novel).
Steve Meretzky (Planetfall, A Mind Forever Voyaging) got in on the act with Zork Zero, another graphically enhanced game published in 1988. Zork Zero is a prequel to the trilogy, and offers several nice features like in-game hints, menus, and an interactive map.
“Zork Zero is a very well documented and user friendly game. Overall, it is a worthy addition to the Zork series and is, by far, the best one to date. It is a lot better than many animated ones.” – Dave Arneson in Computer Gaming World, Jan. 1989.
“Beyond Zork contains so many innovative features that if it weren’t for the richness of the text, you might not recognize the product as having come from Infocom.” – James V. Trunzo in Compute!, Apr. 1988.
The last game to published under the Infocom label was Return to Zork, a 1993 game released for PC and Macintosh (and later ported to several other platforms, including the Sega Saturn and the 3DO). Developed by Activision, Return to Zork is quite a different animal than the previous Zork games, even the graphically enhanced games described above. Return to Zork will no doubt remind most gamers of the far more popular Myst, which was released a few months afterwards. The parser is gone, replaced by a purely graphical interface that is surprisingly complex and multi-faceted.
The game also offers live action sequences, including performances by Robyn Lively. Contemporary reviewers seemed to mostly enjoy the game, though Zork aficionados were (and are) divided over whether to include the game as part of the Zork canon. Very few of the original characters show up in the game, and there will always be the issue of whether any graphical adventure game could truly compare to the great text-based classics.
“People accustomed to the speed and flexibility of a text-only parser are going to feel handcuffed.” – Jay Kee on Return to Zork, in Compute!, Sep. 1994.
Activision released two more Zork-themed graphical adventures: Zork Nemesis (1996) and Zork: Grand Inquisitor (1997), quietly dropping the name “Infocom.” Nemesis offers a much simplified graphical interface and a much darker atmosphere than previous games. Like Return to Zork, Nemesis was loaded with live action sequences—to the point that the game shipped on 3 CD-ROMs.
Most reviewers remark about the intense gore found in the game, including a puzzle requiring the player to chop the head off a corpse with a guillotine. Grand Inquisitor brought back much of the humor missing in Nemesis, and seemed to pay more homage to the series than the previous two games. Perhaps more significantly, Activision released Zork: The Undiscovered Underground, a text adventure by Marc Blank and Michael Berlyn. The Undiscovered Underground no doubt eased some of the bitterness that dyed-in-the-wool Zork fans felt towards Activision, who some viewed as merely exploiting the franchise to turn a quick buck.
Unfortunately, even a new text adventure was not enough to save Zork; Grand Inquisitor did not sell as many copies as Activision hoped. To date, there have been no more official Zork titles, though there have been several anthologies. GameTap also offers most of the games through its subscription service, but there are plenty of free (if not so legal) ways to play the earlier games online.
“Whether these games qualified as “exploiting” the brand, I guess I’d say so, but I don’t feel like Activision was sullying something pure and noble; we were exploiting the brand ourselves with games like Brian’s Beyond Zork and my Zork Zero.” – Steve Meretzky
“The major thing I would have done differently at that time would have been to try to involve the Infocom authors in the writing of the new Zorks, and to try to keep up the Infocom level of quality and polish; some of their efforts were pretty feeble.” – Dave Lebling
“When Activision was run by Bruce Davis (in the late 80's), I'm sure you couldn't find anyone at Infocom with anything good to say about them. But that's well in the past.” – Marc Blank