Thoughts on a studio closure – Zachtronics and their legacy

I’m Kinglink.  Let’s take a break. My channel for the last year has been Game Pass reviews, and Humble Choice reviews, and I’m not planning a major change, but something happened.  About a month ago I saw an article that shook me.  I’m not going to drag it out, it’s probably in the title and on screen, Zachtronics is shutting down. 

Zachtronics is probably not well known as a studio, but it’s a game studio I love, perhaps more than any other, and that includes RGG, who makes the Yakuza games.  Zachtronics is the studio that makes me feel seen, it’s a studio that makes games specifically for me, and while there are other games that I might be in the minority opinion on like Lawn Mowing Simulator, Zachtronics is just different. 

So with their closing, I figured I would try to eulogize them, similar to Kongregate, which is still running so eulogies are a relative term, but I’m not sure I can.  I could make this a long dive into who they are, but instead, I’d rather spend the time telling you about Zachtronics and getting you to check out their games.  

This isn’t a last-ditch effort to save the studio, they’re on the way out, they’ve said nothing will change that, and we’ll talk about that too.   But what I want to think about is why I care so much about Zachtronics. What makes them worthy of this video, which I probably won’t do for any other studio, not even the ones I’ve personally worked at?

Before we get into the meat of this video, I am going to say, I’m not going to focus on comparing  Zachtronics to other studios or other studios to Zachtronics, that’s not why I’m here, and in this case, I don’t think it’s worthwhile, I might bring up some games which I think are worthy of consideration for fans of Zachtronics, but this is more about their style of game development 

It would be really easy to simply say Zachtronics creates programmer games.  It would make sense why that matters to me, I am a programmer, and 40 hours a week I’m working on code or designs for programming. It’s been my job for at least 15 years or more now.  So Zachtronics makes games for programmers, and because I am one, that’s why I care.

Taking this video all the way back to TIS-100, I’ll say flat out, absolutely.  The reason I like TIS-100 is that it’s a programming game, where you write assembly.  I’ve said that if you want to be a programmer, and somehow beat this game you probably are one, or at least understand assembly far better than most, and technically I haven’t fully beat it myself.

But replaying the entire legacy of Zachtronics for this video, I’m not sure it’s that.  Yes, there are aspects of programming in most of Zachtronics games.  But other studios have made hacking games, like Hacknet, or even similar types of games like Seven Billion Humans, and neither has spoken to me as much. 

I’d also point out that while it’s a different form of programming, SpaceChem, and Opus Magnum aren’t programming, at least not on the same level.  There are instructions in the gameplay, but a lot of games are instruction based for puzzles, and yet it’s only Zachtronics that has grown my love. 

I think there are three key components to what makes Zachtronics stand out even among similar games.

The one thing I always notice on a Zachtronics title is how their puzzles don’t avoid complexity.  In the first levels of a Zachtronics game, you start with some simple ideas and prove you can handle the basic functionality of the game, but after a couple of hours, each puzzle starts taking a lot longer, not through repetition but by having to handle multiple concepts and combine them all at the same time as you’re approaching a new level. 

Many levels in Zachtronics titles can take me fifteen to twenty minutes if I’m lucky, and while some levels of a puzzle game might stump you like that, in Zachtronics games it’s more focused on active steps such as making, testing, and fixing an approach, finding bugs, potentially using a different solution if my first one failed.  There’s a lot involved in puzzles here, and it’s almost always an active step to solve the puzzle. 

Simply put, this approach to complexity makes Zachtronics a lot closer to programming than most puzzle games.  It can be a bit draining to solve a puzzle in these games, but that’s also what makes it stand out, as it pushes the player to rise to the occasion, rather than repeat simplistic steps ad nauseum, and the fact you’re building the solution instead of performing one time helps with the second piece. 

The second reason Zachtronics games stand out is probably the most recognizable feature of a Zachtronics game, it’s the histograms.    I mean look at these things.  Leaderboards have been a staple in many games, but in puzzle games, they’re a little out of place.  How would you add leaderboards to Myst or Limbo?  I’m sure people will start with time-based leaderboards akin to speedrunning but does that show how good you are at solving a puzzle?

These histograms, or just leaderboards, are purely based on the solution, how fast a solution runs, how many parts a solution uses, and usually some other metric such as the floor space of a solution or how many code blocks you need.  Each of these will push the player to optimize some part of their design. 

What I find fascinating though is each of these metrics is usually only able to be tackled by different designs.  Maybe your best cost approach needs more time to run, but your fastest design is remarkably over-engineered and you’ll need some strange slow optimization to get limited space usage.  The same puzzle may have to be solved in three different ways to match the best.  And it’s the complexity of the puzzle that allows these to be fun and engaging rather than a simple additional puzzle.

But also these aren’t Zachtronics challenges, rather than making you challenge some predetermined goals, Zachtronics offers you the best times of the community and gives you the chance to try to optimize your solutions to match or beat them.  The game itself gives no further recognition than a plot on these graphs.  If you just want to progress in the game, beating a level even with a frighteningly bad solution gets you full credit, and that means the titles aren’t taking a stand on if this is something required of the player it’s not. 

I can’t think of another puzzle game that does something like this.  There are a few that count the number of moves players will do or a scoring system, but it’s not the same without the extreme complexity and ability to optimize the solution.  

Even 7 Billion Humans, which is a similar game, gives you set goals rather than challenging you on a leaderboard, and that’s probably because most people will be able to optimize those solutions. 

The one issue I do have with histograms is well, look.  As you go up the list of levels… Oh no… where are all my friends?   What happened to everyone?    Exapunks does seem to have lost some of my records but rerunning a level and suddenly I’m back in the list, but you can see as you progress in these games not everyone is going to make it. 

So I said three reasons, well the third is more subjective. I’ve found every Zachtronics game to be fresh and new.  I’m sure some of you might think TIS-100 was their first game. No, they already started with Spacechem, and then from there, made Ironclad Tactics, a card game that I’m not showing, and Infinifactory, before TIS-100, these are unique and different titles.  

And then after this pure programming masterpiece of TIS-100, it was followed by Shenzhen I/O and a little later Exapunks which are all programming games, they’re equally unique and different.  

TIS-100 is focused on pure assembly in a standard microprocessor. Shenzhen I/O deals with just that, I/O or input and output, and allows you to design chips. In the clip I’m using here, I’m doing the I/O of a video game controller.  Exapunks adds in a motif of mini robots running around a virtual world and even the player’s body.    But these three are the most similar, and each has unique concepts.

Then you have Opus Magnum as well which dealt with waldos combining elements, which again does sound like Spacechem, but these games look and feel so different. 

I don’t know, I just find each of these titles super unique and fresh to the point where I can easily switch games and still feel like I’m playing something new.

And that’s really why I love this studio, it’s a studio that always spoke to me in the type of games they made, well mostly. 

That’s not to say every game is perfect here.  Zachtronics tried a few different things, I mentioned Ironclad Tactics and I wasn’t a huge fan of that title even though I like card games.   Mobius 93 does get the Advance Wars style right, but I haven’t dived extremely deep into that one, and oh yeah, Eliza.  

I liked Eliza, but it’s such a radical departure for the studio. Almost every game Zachtronics made had a story, but in Eliza’s case, that’s what it was, an interesting visual novel, which came from an odd source.   However I enjoyed Eliza, I had fun with the parts of Mobius ‘93 that I experienced, and … well ok, Ironclad Tactics never really connected with me.

But ultimately I’m going to miss Zachtronics as I said at the beginning.  Their final game Last Call BBS is it for them, it feels like a collection of interesting unique mini-games that were left over from prototyping and like most Zachtronics games it’s extremely interesting.  But the title of the latest game is right, this is essentially the last call for Zachtronics, after this, the studio will close and all the developers will go their own ways and we may never see another Zachtronics game in any form. 

Or what I hope is more likely, the studio will close, everyone will go their own way, and Zach Barth the founder of Zachtronics and the namesake of the studio will eventually come out with another of his brand of titles, and if that happens, I’m going to be so excited, no matter what it ends up being.  

Even the studio closure still has until the end of this year, when they will compile all their version of solitaire into a single game, which I’ll buy because as I’ve said, they are my favorite studio. 

But you know this has only scratched the surface, there’s so much more to discover with this company.  In a strange link to my other eulogy, Zach Barth used to release games on Kongregate under the name krispykrem, and I do remember playing many of those when they were released, and they were good but strange, similar to every game here, just a unique experience.

I could also talk how the programming games have pdfs of their manual that have additional notes as if they are relics from someone else.  Each game has a unique story as well, that’s kind of impressive for a puzzle game.

There are also additional games I haven’t covered, again so you can discover something, Nerts Online, for instance, is a free title that’s worth playing with a group of friends, it’s a nice fast game of competitive solitaire, and it’s a heated battle. 

You know, I want to tell my favorite story or trivia about Zachtronics.  So I’ve been going on about this crazy game studio that is nerdy and probably only appeals to me and a few others.  There’s an alternate universe where Zach Barth worked on a previous game a bit more.  It’s a title called Infiniminer, and in our universe, the story goes that he stopped working after about a month when the source code leaked.   That title however inspired another developer named Notch, and that inspiration created Minecraft.

Now the reality is if Zach Barth kept with that game, players would probably have to code up each block individually or meticulous design structures in a way that only programmers would love, but I still love the fact that one of the biggest franchises has a link back to my favorite developer.  

So if for no other reason than he helped create Minecraft it’s worth taking a closer look at Zachtronics.  And if you’re a frequent visitor to this channel as I mentioned I usually cover Humble Choice and Game Pass, well if you have bought previous Humble Choice games, several Zachtronics titles have been available there, but I’d highly recommend starting with Opus Magnum as that’s probably the most accessible title from Zachtronics.  On the other hand, if you are a Game Pass Subscriber, check out Last Call BBS which is now on the service.  It’ll give you more of a buffet-style approach where you can try a little of a few different games. 

If however you just wanted to hear a fellow fan talk about Zachtronics, well I hope you enjoyed my opinions on it.  If so, you know check out Talos Principle or Baba is You.  Both of those games are fantastic and worth playing, do not miss out on them.

Let me know down in the comments what you think, if you’re a fan already, or if you’re now interested in Zachtronics.   Heck maybe just something I missed because honestly the more I learn about Zack Barth or Zachtronics, the more I’m amazed by this team. 

And if somehow this didn’t catch your fancy, well thanks for listening to me talk about a studio I look up to, and will heavily miss.  It’s always a bit sad when a major indie studio closes, but I can’t help feeling hopeful and this does feel like it’s closing under perhaps the best circumstances, it’s a time of their choosing, rather than insolvency. 

With that said, if you want to hear me talk about more games, click that subscribe button, ring the bell, and share this video with someone special, let them learn about one of the best game  studios. 

I’ll pop up my latest Game Pass video as well, where I directly talk about Last Call BBS, but simply put I’m having a good time with that one.  

See You Next Time.

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