Hi-Res Adventures #5: Time Zone (1982)

Hi-Res Adventures #5: Time Zone (1982), written and directed by Roberta Williams, developed and published by On-Line Systems

When you think of old, early 1980's adventure games, you often think about relatively small games, with a few dozen screens, especially if they had graphics like Sierra's early games did.  The last thing on your mind, especially considering the limited storage space of floppies, is a world that is huge and open to exploring with hundreds of screen. That is, you might not have been thinking about that unless you were Roberta Williams, thinking of her third game.

Let the absurdity of Time Zone to really sink in, a game made for early 1980's computers. Not only did the game itself have 1500 screens you could visit, but it also came stored on six double-sided floppy disks at a time when most games barely used one side of a floppy disk. And the storage capacity on those disks is only around 140 kilobytes. This amount of floppies used to store Time Zone made it one of the most expensive games ever released, as its original retail price in the USA was $99, which would be roughly $255 in today's money.

But making an expensive game wasn't what Roberta was after, she was trying to push the limits of the genre by making a huge, sprawling epic, that spanned over several different eras in human history. She was trying to make a game, that would not only be longer, but that would be difficult for the players to solve because of the sheer size of the thing. And while Roberta did pull off making the biggest adventure game of the 1980s and perhaps the biggest adventure game ever, Time Zone itself was a commercial failure, mostly thanks to the original sticker price on a time when games cost 30 bucks or less.

So now, that you are aware of the scope of the game and the ambitions behind it, how does it fare today? If you've read the rest of my Hi-Res-series reviews, you might be aware of that I don't really consider them as games that have stood time well because of multiple reasons related to technology, gameplay and game design. And here we are with the culmination of Roberta Williams' ambitions as far the archaic Apple II technology is considered. Is it a game, that really revels in its own sheer size or is the size merely smoke and mirrors, meant to convolute the game so, that the player gets lost and spends more time banging the wall rather than solving the game itself.

Let's find out, shall we?

You are standing in front of a house. And suddenly a narrative engulfs the screen by telling that you've seen dreams about a "terrestrial keeper", who has chosen poor old you to secure the future of Earth by taking care of an evil leader of planet Neburon. To do that, you get access to a time machine, capable of transporting you to different places and eras of the Earth. Makes sense, I guess.

One thing is clear from the getgo: because of the sheer amount of the rooms and the fact that certain items can't be taken too far back in time from their respective time of origin, the game definitely is long and difficult. Longest and hardest of the whole Hi-Res series to be sure at least. Basically, how the game is constructed, Time Zone is one, huge maze, which is made harder to solve with a specific set of rules that punish you from forgetting things like dropping items off before jumping in a different time. And you do spend a lot of time just walking around the different eras, most likely just mapping out the areas in the hopes of finding something actually interesting to do.

Thankfully the time machine has a limited set of places and time periods you can visit, so the time-hopping is at least to a degree reigned. The locations to visit are Europe, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, Asia, North America, South America and Interplanetary. The time periods are 400 million BC, 10000 BC, 50 BC, 1000 AD, 1400 AD, 1700 AD, 2082 AD and 4082 AD. So while there are limitations on where you can go, combining the different places and times, it's no wonder why the game has the staggering amount of 1500 scenes in it. And it might not come as a surprise, but some of the combinations are just red herrings with no real puzzle related activities in them unless you count aimless wandering as one.

To be fair though, the item transfer restriction does manifest itself very early on it the game, as a gas mask inside the time machine disappears as soon as you head to the past. Though logically speaking, I don't really know why an item INSIDE the machine would disappear, as I'd assume the passenger would be affected by this phenomena as well, not to mention their clothes. And if the time machine isn't fully protected against the phenomena, how can it survive the time transition? Then again, there are items that are immune against this as well, so go figure, I guess.

But in any case, even the maze-like structure of the game isn't the biggest problem it has. The big problem stems from the same thing that plagues the previous games in the series as well: it doesn't even try to give out any vague pointers for things to do. Just as it was the custom at the time, Roberta Williams expected people to just blindly stumble around the game world and try random things to other random things in order to proceed, at times figuring out one time only commands, like MAKE FIRE. And while that is at least seemingly okay in a game that is barely 20 or 30 scenes in total, a game with 1500 screens is more than pushing the line on what an average person can be expected reasonably to randomly do in order to proceed. And all this with a parser that is expecting a specific set of words to be used so that it can understand what the player wants.

Yeah, I get it. Roberta was ambitious. She was dead set on creating an adventure game that was, at the time being, unparalleled as far scope went and in that she succeeded. What she didn't take into account was, that she should have re-invented her own game design process for the game as well and go beyond what was the norm at the time and try to modernize that as well with the scope.

Time Zone was, in many ways, a bold attempt and for that, I do admire Roberta Williams greatly. She and Ken were willing to take a risk with this humongous game that became so expensive, that most people opted not to buy it. Then again, it was only third game Roberta had designed, so it isn't a wonder she hadn't yet figured out how to tie the scope with gameplay that would actually make it work. It's not like there was anything she could have compared her design to as far big, open-world adventure games go.

The archaic game design really is the biggest obstacle of the Time Zone. Despite it is seemingly an open-world game, it still functions, in the same fashion traditional adventure games still function. A lot of time is used travelling between different points in a very linear manner. You need to go to location A to get the item A which is used in a location B in order to get to the item B that is used in location C and so on. And this is a shame, as some of the puzzles are actually pretty good, but locked behind a lot of tedious back and forth between different eras and places.

Here's one string of puzzling for your consideration: There's a sharp stick in the 400 million BC you need to get before you go to 10000 BC. There you pick up two wooden sticks and rock and venture worth to meet a sabertooth tiger, which you promptly kill by throwing that sharp stick from millions of years back. Here a more sensible player could ask why there aren't any sharp sticks in 10000 BC. You go forward and meet a hare you kill by throwing the rock. You pick up the hare and venture some more to find some cavemen, who decide not to kill you if you give them the hare. Like the regular god you are, you give them to fire by rubbing the two sticks together. For this, you are awarded a rock hammer. And the fire is actually made by using a command you don't use anywhere else in the game nor is it hinted in any way that those cave-dwellers are in need of fire either. And that rock hammer is an item you need until the end of the game, used in many places. Not that the game mentions that either, so don't drop it or anything.

The worst thing about this little segment is, that it alone covers far more screens than any of the previous games in the Hi-Res Adventures series. In fact, the most common thing you do is type in some prime direction to go to. It just isn't riveting gameplay, unless you are one of those people who are delighted to map things out. And then there's the lack of any in-game hinting. You just have to stumble on the solution by having been playing the damned thing over and over and over, which is somewhat fine if the game is reasonably sized, but less so when the game has over a thousand screens to distract you. It's no wonder why Sierra had to open a hint phoneline for Time Zone.

The size of the game is largely smoke and mirrors, as the sheer amount of visitable locations make it much longer than it would actually be if the scene count would be reduced into a more toleratable number. As far as puzzles go, Time Zone doesn't need most of those 1500 scenes in anything else but as padding between the points of interest. Don't get me wrong, the game is absolutely huge for its time and even if you are using a walkthrough it takes more than two hours to complete it. That is how much pointless walking back and forth it has as during those couple of hours with a walkthrough you don't even visit some of the screens.

You do have to question to point of making each of the game areas roughly as large as the previous standalone games commonly were. The final area of Neburu is complex enough to be a standalone game on itself as far the amount of puzzles and the scene count goes.

In contrast to modern games, I'd equate Time Zone to something like LA Noir, where 1950's LA was painstakingly re-created for the noir cop story to play out. But when you played the game, you soon noticed, that while the backdrop was drop-dead gorgeous, only a few locations of it were actually utilized in the game itself. Sure, you could drive on the streets, but you were constantly reminded of that there's a case going on. On the other hand, Time Zone doesn't really bother on informing you of anything so you can get to the end only to notice that you are missing a vital item. So save often.

Graphically speaking Time Zone is not the prettiest game even on the Hi-Res Adventures standards. It's not really that surprising considering the technology at the time and the limited colour palette. You tie that to the fact that all the graphics were done by two or three artists, it's not a surprise a lot of the throwaway rooms really look the part.

Just like all the other games in the series, Time Zone is also pretty much a silent experience, at least as far the Apple II version goes. Only the ending offers a little surprise in the form of a little fanfare it gives to you in order to congratulate you of a job well done. But considering that the game already was as larger as it is now, it's no surprise that there weren't any bigger ambitions placed on the sound and musical side, as the disk count would have been much higher.

There are versions of Time Zone for PC-88, PC-89 and FM-7, some of which offer a bit nicer graphics thanks to a tad nicer colour palette. I don't know if any of them are any more musically richer though.

Let's get back to the absurdity of Time Zone and by that I mean its size. Technically speaking it was a herculean task back in the 1980s. It would be a huge task even by modern standards, as far the amount of graphics go and tied to a fact that most developers would also want a soundtrack, sound effects, higher fidelity of art as well as voice acting for all the random people you meet during the game, it is actually very unlikely any current adventure developer would even dare to attempt making a game like this, especially with a 10 or so crew that it took to make Time Zone back in 1982. I don't even know it that many A to AAA studios would dare to tackle a game of this magnitude. A script for a modern take of Time Zone would be absolutely humungous. It really isn't a surprise that Time Zone was never remade by Sierra, despite they did do some remakes of their old library.

So, yeah. That's Time Zone, a game that falls flat on its own absurdity. It was a gigantic game at a time when gigantic games weren't made. It was an expensive misfire and despite it's not a great game, I am glad Roberta and Ken Williams took a risk of making it. While it did garner some acclaim at its day, I do think it is a game that should be given more acclaim now, in a time when open-world games have become a huge thing. In some ways, this is the mother, or at least grandmother, of those modern games, be them Assassins Creed or Tomb Raider reboot.