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Last Call BBS: A Curtain Call of Circuitry, Cards, and Crackscreens

spines

behold my godlike
(she/her, or something)

Anyone else been playing this since it came out last week?


It almost didn't occur to me when I first saw an announcement of the release that this would be Zachtronics' final "new game", but apparently "Last Call" isn't just a cute name. After 10 hours or so I think this might be my favorite thing they've ever put out though, which is saying a lot for a team that's impressed me over and over through the years. The retro computer interface is something I'm always into, even if it's pretty modernized compared to something like Digital: A Love Story, and it's used as the backdrop for an anthology of "minigames", a couple of which appeared previously in smaller roles in Eliza and Exapunks.

Of the six brand new parts, one is the new solitaire for this time around, a game close pretty close to the classic Windows Solitaire with a couple twists on the free cells mechanics that you can make huge mistakes with, one is a dungeon-themed nonogram where a big part of the solution process involves engaging with a second layer of rules specific to the game's theme and design (it sort of reminds me of a "Cracking the Cryptic" twist on picross-type games), and one is a chill simulator of...building Gunpla, basically. I think that one feels like the most "Early Access" at the moment out of all the pieces, since I feel like some of the features are a bit lacking or hard to use, but hopefully those aspects will see some improvements and it'll really shine, since it's already pretty fun as it is now.

The other three are the ones that are more recognizably Zachtronics games, albeit their size and the context of this game nominally being some old computer you're downloading pirated software is used to justify the fact that the games don't fully explain everything even as they ramp up in difficulty pretty quickly. I already cleared The Forbidden Path and thought it was fantastic, although the fact that its processes involve cellular automata makes it pretty cryptic to people who aren't very familiar with some of those concepts, and I'm slowly working my way through 20th Century Food Court, the object of which is to hook up PLCs connected to various appliances and robots and sequence them along conveyor belts to manufacture servings of food in an extremely simplistic way. It's kind of like Spacechem in terms of difficulty and the obvious absurdity of the abstraction, but instead of just deciding not to acknowledge that things don't work this way in real life the way Spacechem did, the game uses a convoluted and anachronistic metafictional framing to justify its bizarre concepts and satirical jokes about food service and American culture. It's hilarious.

I actually think Chipwizard Professional is also hilarious, but in that case it's because it goes so far in the opposite direction that it hits like an anti-joke. After a decade of prettied up puzzles which feel like they get closer and closer to setting up and operating a computer, here's a cad program with an absolutely minimalist aesthetic where the goal is to draft integrated circuits with various transformations, one of the lowest possible levels of a computer. I got to the third puzzle pretty quickly but then started having problems with signals backflowing to the wrong terminals because I do not understand how electronics function at this level, but someday I'll learn something. Or trick myself into thinking I've learned something.

Obviously, it's Zachtronics, and in some ways this one, more than any of their previous titles, is "for fans of the series" or whatever they say to that effect these days. On the other hand...I feel like the non-"core" stuff here is arguably good enough to be worth checking out if at least a few of them catch one's fancy, and then if someone who decides to check out Dungeons and Diagrams and Steed Force Hobby Studio also picks up Food Court and gets hooked on that, then it's all the better.
 

MrBlarney

(he / him)
I started playing this over the weekend, it's a neat collection of tasty Zachtronics morsels. I think that the description calling this collection "for the fans" is pretty apt: the compact presentation of each of the puzzle titles means that, much more than their previous games, there's not much onramp and tutorialization. You really need to be comfortable with experimentation and failing in order to understand how each puzzle type works. Well, that's mostly just so for 20th Century Food Court, X’BPGH: The Forbidden Path, and ChipWizard Professional, anyways. Dungeons & Diagrams is pretty straightforward, and wouldn't be out of place in a pencil and paper form. (Apparently, the game originally was conceived in that form, as a page of puzzles.) That'll probably be the subgame I finish first, 'cause man am I rusty on working my brain on the other puzzle titles.

EDIT: I forgot to mention, I am pretty excited to see if I can finish ChipWizard Professional. It's a clear re-implementation of one of their early-days Flash titles, KOHCTPYKTOP, and it was a game that I had no idea how to tackle when I first laid eyes on it. More than a decade later, I'm much more learned, and much more capable of understanding how to interpret what the program is giving me.
 
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spines

behold my godlike
(she/her, or something)
Yeah, I was reminded of KOHCTPYKTOP shortly after posting that as well, which I'd similarly found to be too much to really get my head around when I was first exposed to it. I finished the first column in Chipwizard before getting stuck on the Dual Oscillator, and I haven't had my computer set up for almost two weeks now to investigate further. It does seem like the space constraints come into play to a significant extent in this one (as they do in all three of the "Zach" puzzles this time...though in X'BPGH they relate to stuff like the starting seed point and the implications thereof), but it definitely has felt manageable so far, I think particularly due to Shenzhen (which I also never beat, but spent quite a while with) similarly making a clear focus on inputs and outputs as a process of modifying "pure" signals.

I'm about halfway through Food Court as well, the initial learning curve is pretty steep but it's surprisingly successful at building each level with what feels like just one idea changed up from a previous one, and it hits a very interesting mixture of Spacechem's tight spatial and syncing restrictions with some *incredibly* powerful tools. It's been really satisfying to feel like I came up with the worst solution ever but then learned a ton from it and get something really nice the next attempt or stage.

At any rate, I guess Steed Force got an update letting you start over from scratch, there's been some updates to the "BBS" part of the game, Forbidden Path has a set of new puzzles I haven't gotten to check out and a level editor, and apparently soon there's going to be a massive update of generated D&D puzzles that will basically turn that into an endless game. I already thought the whole package was incredible week 1, but I think these final EA touchups are really turning it into something I wouldn't hesitate at all to recommend, even with the lack of "real" tutorials.
 

spines

behold my godlike
(she/her, or something)
alright i figured out a lot of stuff in chipwizard, i'm at 16 out of what i assume is 21 puzzles cleared and on the last one i did ("and-or combo gate") i had, for the first time in a long time, one of those inexplicable revelations after fighting the space constraints on both layers for over an hour where my brain connected a ton of stuff faster than i could consciously understand what it was doing. this is...definitely something that happens in puzzle games for me, but it's a pretty unusual happening in these games where things often feel so deliberate. looking at it now i can barely parse it, i just remember all of the principles i was trying to fit together that my brain quickly tied into one deeply-interconnected mess

actually there was another puzzle where i was struck by a weird sort of inspiration for half of the stage, which i didn't really understand until it worked and i tested that the circuit i'd made didn't work if i changed any of the parts. i'm really fascinated by this game...

edit: ok! i finished, the space constraints start to get really interesting near the end, with most of the last column really taking me a while to figure out how to snake the two layers around each other successfully. the and-or was a huge eureka moment that helped a ton on the last level though, and the second to last one was pretty funny once i came up with a method (although there's somehow a much better one???). the actual hardest level for me was stepper motor driver, which i put off for last after running into it for the first hour. i didn't find the oscillating behavior very intuitive (even the "easy" introductory version took me longer than most of the other levels...), and even after realizing a lot of things that wouldn't work and hitting on a concept that only slightly failed it took a while of trying to figure out equivalent circuits to substitute and other hacky patching to close the final gap. it was a huge relief that my final edit fixed it and didn't cause some kind of locking loop because i would've had to backtrack hugely again if it hadn't...

really cool game, i remember when i was really young and almost everything we had for pc games was edutainment titles to varying degrees, my favorite of all was the island of dr. brain, which ends with a minigame of filling in logic gates to complete a truthful circuit. i learned and figured out every other puzzle in the game on the higher difficulties, eventually, but the logic gate stuff was pretty incomprehensible to me and i'd always set it to easy and trial and error to beat the game...obviously this isn't exactly the same thing, but building up a "vocabulary" of logical relations in my head in this fashion isn't something i've done at all after college, and it was so fun and rewarding.

back to food court next! or i'll see if my magical drop/money idol exchanger experience can make hack-match not too painful to beat...zach did cite those games on a podcast interview i listened to recently (saying that he'd been pulled into MIE in particular by an acquaintance) so maybe it'll be fine, but it's apparently the least completed game in the collection, hahaha
 
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