Trapped on remote planet Zaga-33 with a hostile alien population, there is only one way to escape.

The alien cortex must die. 

Level 1

This planet is a giant dance floor. An alien dance floor of death. This is your first lesson on Zaga-33.

To leave this planet, I must kill the alien cortex before it kills me. The brutal way is the only way. But the cortex is somewhere deep inside the planet… miles from here. Right now, I had better get my dance shoes on and learn some steps.

Here’s how this works. Once I take a step, the aliens will take a step. I need to choose my moves carefully, otherwise I’ll bump into my many alien partners all of whom respond with lasers and blades and hooks and heat rays and bites and spikes.

So this is the first chamber. I should be able to sneak through without interacting with the local populace. Also, I’ve only got one alien artefact to my name and need to stock up in preparation for the terrors that await. This turn-based dance should not be too stressful as the two guards are a bit robotic and the goblin is a little short-sighted. As long as I don’t snuggle up against one of the guards, I should be fine. I just hope the goblin’s beady eyes don’t spot me.

I sneak through the chamber, picking up the two artefacts. One looks like a bobbin and the other appears to be an Xbox. I have no idea what they do at this point. The goblin sees me but it’s too late. Despite his pursuit, I escape the room cleanly with three alien artefacts in tow.

This is a good start, but there’s no getting cocky on Zaga-33.

Level 2

This planet is sometimes a bit stingy when it comes to healing artefacts, so the one over there is like bloody treasure. I want.

But at what cost? I’ll have to face down the Shogg that skulks beside it and those bastards really go for you once they’ve got a bee in their bonnet. These guards have me pincered as well.

So I go down which turns out to be a good, wholesome choice. The guard veers away and gives me room to escape. I make my way to the corner with the beautiful healing artefact but things go bad. I’ve ended up surrounded by two guards and the goblin. My worry about the shogg was misguided; he’s now miles away.

Okay, this room is to become an artefact exchange. I’ll use one of my unknown artefacts, the one shaped like a bobbin, to hopefully make a clean getaway with the healing artefact. Let’s find out what it does.

It’s a repel artefact which thrusts the aliens back against the nearest wall. It’s not a great discovery all told and I’d rather it had turned out to be a laser, something with lethal characteristics. There are no moral choices here. The planet will not kill me less if I jostle rather than stab my way to the exit. I suppose it’s possible that similar short-sighted attitudes led to this place becoming so hostile. Whatever. Listen to me; there are no moral choices here.

I grab the artefact but the shogg finds me. Bloody shoggs are fixated on horizontal movement. This means I can’t sidestep around its formless mass, the thing just won’t play ball, tracking my movements left and right. I engage in battle because the outcome is preordained. There are no dice rolls here. Aliens only need two hits before they go down; I’ll suffer one blow during the exchange which will heal when I progress to the next chamber.

The moment of escape is always bittersweet. A rush of euphoria coupled with the dread of the next level, unknown and threatening. I said there are no dice rolls and I was wrong. Every time you walk out the door, you’re throwing some big fucking dice, with edges like razors.

Level 3

Did you hear the one about the guard, two shoggs and a goblin? Me neither, but apparently I’m the bloody punch line.

It’s a breeze picking up the Xbox artefact at the top of the chamber but the one down the bottom… that’s not looking too cool from where I’m standing. Not sure I want another repel artefact, anyway. I’m only three chambers into the labyrinth of Zaga-33 and we’re reaching the point where escaping a room undamaged becomes unlikely.

I cross into the right-half of the room and have not drawn any attention – but the aliens still form a blockade around the exit. Okay, alright. I’m going to use an Xbox near the exit which will hopefully deliver me from alien evil.

Except luck goes my way and I see an opening. I save the Xbox for another day and take a chance walking towards a guard. He slashes me but I waltz around him and make for the exit.

No one else trifles with me. The damage will heal.

Level 4

What you start to understand, though, is that all these creatures are here to protect the cortex. This isn’t some natural habitat. Everything is just a cog in the Zaga-33 bio-horror machine. The alien cortex wants you dead. That’s all that matters.

According to my Zaga-33 Zoology Handbook, the floating squids are called “anemos”. I call them squids and I don’t care if you want to call them jellyfish. I’m the one stranded on this godforsaken rock so I get to do the etymology.

Understand that these squids are pretty big and have these long appendages with hooks and everything but boy, are they stupid. They move like rooks on a clockwork chessboard; once agitated they won’t stop going until they hit a wall. Or soft flesh to sink those hooks into.

The squids, if you’re clever, can sometimes be used to cover your ass. More often than not, however, you tend to forget they are there, lurking in your mental blind spot. Suddenly they rush out of the dark to throw a tentacle into your perfect exit plan.

My plan here is to grab the disc artefact. And it does not go well.

The shoggs ambush me and one of the squids also pile in. I escape the room… after receiving four wounds. This is a catastrophe.

Level 5

Sometimes you can feel yourself caught on a downward spiral, that the planet is so determined to kill you that all you can do is play the role of redshirt and wait for the planet to eviscerate you. After the unmitigated disaster of the previous chamber, I need this one to go well.

So I am happy to discover there are no shoggs in this town! On top of that, the artefacts look like an easy grab, although I’m more uncertain about escape. That healing artefact looks mighty tasty.

In the end, most of the denizens ended up moving down the chamber while I went around them. I had to brave the squid – got smacked again – but I think it was the safer route out.

Not too shabby.

Level 6

Oh sweet mother of fuck. Mawths.

Next Week: “Beaten and bruised, but alive.”

Michael Brough’s procedurally-generated Zaga-33 can be downloaded free for the PC or purchased for the iPhone and iPad.

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18 thoughts on “The Alien Cortex Must Die, 1

  1. Fecking mawths. I have Zaga-33 on my to-do list, even though I haven’t played any of the 32 games before it. Will keep a close eye on the diary…

  2. This looks absolutely delightful. Downloading now. Work: not gonna happen today. HM, you’re hilarious. Can’t wait for the next installment!

  3. @Ketchua: This little story will be a little spoilery – part of playing Zaga-33 is learning how to succeed and what tricks and twists are at your disposal. But I don’t think it will automatically convert readers into Zaga-33 masters because a big part of it is developing expensive Zaga-33 infrastructure in your brain.

    @Steerpike: I’ve been playing Zaga-33 off and on for months and months. Once I beat it, I knew immediately how I was going to write about it: a journal, because the game is intensively cerebral. I wasn’t intending to beat the game again for the Electron Dance journal, just get far enough to have something to write about.

    Obviously, I’m not going to reveal whether I made it or not. You’ll just have to wait until the end…

  4. I made it to level 20-something my first try. I did not on my second try. Ever get the feeling that life is all downhill from here so you may as well give up?

  5. Matt, you make me sick. I couldn’t get to level 10 on my first go, although I didn’t realise until I’d played a few times that I had so little “slack”. i.e. you need to be saving for the future from level 1 rather than squandering resources.

    (Probably on your fourth attempt, you might not even get off level 1.)

  6. Well, I decided to give it another try, and my next three attempts went 4, 8, victory. Hee hee.

    (Helpful: getting lots of heals and drones randomly dropped, and picking up a freeze and a drone on level 24 which really helped with the mother cortex’s army.)

  7. Matt, I think you just went from making me sick into raging hatred.

    There’s something about the luck of the draw in the game, of course. Drones and heals are probably the most useful artefacts that allow you to be “relax a little” instead of micromanaging every move. Repel is… somewhere down the bottom of the useful artefact list.

  8. It’s a roguelike; unconventional in some ways, but general roguelike skills translate over. @Matt, I imagine you’ve played other roguelikes quite a bit before? It’s pretty fair: you can get an easier/harder run due to luck but it’s possible to win most of the time; @rocketcatgames got a streak of 20+ wins.

    @HM: Thanks so much for the article! I look forward to the next one.

  9. I’ve had this one sitting on my computer for a while… I guess I’ll give it a go before you spoil anything more in a hilarious and sarcastic fashion.

  10. @Michael: Great to hear from you! You’re right, I’ve played roguelikes a reasonable amount (ascended Nethack a few times with the wiki constantly open, beat Lothlorien in the free version of Desktop Dungeons — that really was all about getting the right items/spells/gods — made it to level 25 of Brogue once and experienced massive failure due to a character build that had no chance of dealing with dragons, and some considerably less successful play in other games). I tend to be a big packrat in roguelikes which I think helped me here, since as HM said you need to not waste anything.

    (Tiny feature request, though: Can you include an option to turn off sound? Or maybe there is one but I didn’t notice.)

  11. @Michael: Yes, Matt has most definitely has played a roguelike before. He has a story about a cat he cared for in Nethack, if you click on his name. I made the decision not to refer to Zaga-33 as a roguelike, so as to discourage pre-judgement, although I suppose the great hulking @ is a giveaway there.

    @BeamSplashX: I’ve been reviewing my own Zaga-33 play style and realised that, at the start, I just pottered around with it, like the way you’d play a game of solitaire/patience. It becomes a lot more interesting once you invest yourself in it and think about how to win.

    @Matt: I will admit I’m not a great player of roguelikes. I was into the Temple of Apshai trilogy back in the day but I’ve played little in recent years. I have never played Nethack.

  12. I’ll second Amanda.

    The moment I saw the @ symbol I thought: roguelike. On paper, I like roguelikes, but I can never stick with them. It doesn’t help that I get progressively worse with each consecutive go as well! My first couple of sessions on The Binding of Isaac and Dungeons of Dredmor remain my best. My last session with DoD saw me die in the first room. Eeeesh.

    I’ve got to say, I dig the pixel art in Zaga-33. It’s got a certain, I dunno, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots vibe about it. Anyway, a great read HM!

  13. Amanda, Gregg B — one thing that helps is that it’s way short and has a very easy interface (all you do is move and use items). Considerably shorter and easier than Desktop Dungeons, even. You don’t have to dig out very much time.

  14. @Amanda, @Gregg: I second what Matt is saying here. I deliberately dropped the roguelike description because I think this feels decidedly different. Its casual in the sense you can pick up and play. Seconds to learn, a lifetime to master. (Actually, well, a lifetime is an exaggeration.)

    @BeamSplashX: Probably never if Badger Commander can get 20,000 pts on qrth-phyl.

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