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The Zachtronics catalog is a clearinghouse of beautiful machines that don’t exist: The elegant Alchemy Motors of Opus Magnumthe tiny conceptual robots of Exapunksthe sprawling contraptions created by the game of Infinifactory. And above all the computers – the utterly faux, lovingly rendered machines that appear throughout creator Zach Barth’s work, barebones visuals TIS-100through the various machines that dot Shenzhen I/Odown to the Sawayama Z5 Powerlance that exists at the heart of BBS last callapparently the last full game Zachtronics will ever release.
Zachtronics titles are niche games for niche people; puzzle games for would-be computer programmers of fictional computers, who thrive in a world where the player is given the bare minimum (and sometimes less) information needed to solve the problems they face. “Here are (some) of the rules,” Barth’s games tell their players. “Determine the rest yourself.” (Is it any wonder that Barth’s first hobby game Infiniminer was to, through a series of convoluted events, become the primary source of inspiration for Minecraftone of the ultimate expressions of emergent gameplay in modern games?)
In this context, BBS last call is the Zachtronics Playbook: Players are given a copy of an old Powerlance, running an emulated version of an old-school scoreboard, filled with hacked games that play like some of Zachtronics’ greatest hits. (So yes, you’re playing fake games from a fake scoreboard emulated on a fake computer; the meta headrush is a feature, not a bug.) As you solve the various puzzles , you get drops and drops of history from the person who gave you the computer, a melancholy tale of young enthusiasts slowly aging beyond their greatest ambitions.
It’s probably no coincidence that Zachtronics has released a game that is all about accepting the limitations of game development as a process, just as the company itself shuts down. (You can read an interview with Barth on the news of our partner site, Kotaku.) With its loving recreations of old crack warez screens and tiny tales of stunted ambitions, Last call is not a grand narrative or sweeping statement; instead, it’s a celebration of the muted pleasures of creating something weird and personal and then letting it float across the internet, where the sum total of your reward is usually the vague knowledge that someone, somewhere, hopefully enjoy it.
So if there’s a sense in some of the minigames that make up this collection to tread water or play the hits, well, call it both a practical and a philosophical concession. (Barth himself notes, in the interview above, that the company has struggled to make games that work outside of its “fake computer programming” niche, which is getting a bit old after 12 years of work. .) And yet the old highs are still there: Of bending your brain into recesses made of code, of tracking down the epiphanies that can only come from navigating an invisible maze. (Very literally, in the Sudoku riff Dungeons and Schematicsthe most accessible and least Zach-ish game in the collection.)
The most telling expression of the entire philosophy of the game, however, actually comes from a part of BBS last call which barely qualifies as a game: Steed Force Hobby Studioa fake model building simulator for a fake anime series hosted on a fake, etc., etc., etc. More than anything else in Last call, SFHS– with its meticulous cut of virtual plastic and the satisfying CLICK as the pieces come together – is a celebration of the process, of the joys of just manufacturing something, business impact or algorithmic appeal be damned.
“I was so impressed,” the game character writes, explaining why this non-game was included in the purse of programming titles on their virtual BBS, “By the effort this guy has gone into creating all this art and all, and all coming out for free just because he wanted to build models with his kid… I think it’s such a beautiful expression of creativity in this computer age. There weren’t as many rules or commercial pressures. You could just make a fun toy, and that was the whole point.
BBS last call is available on GamePass and Steam; the rest of the company’s brilliant, frustratingly beautiful collection of clock games is also still available for sale.