MegaZeux is not a game in the strictest sense of the term; it describes itself as "a game system which allows you to play almost limitless worlds". This type of program is more commonly referred to as a "game maker" and it couples together a ready-made adventure-esque game engine with a level editor and scripting language in a single user-friendly package. The killer-feature is not the game play that it provides but the ability for end users to create their own games and other content on top of it without the need for advanced programming or, optionally, any programming at all. This is not unique or even original with respect to this particular title but, arguably, MegaZeux is better than most of its contemporaries and has its own unique points of interest that make it noteworthy.
Through creative use of its internal programming language and other features this system provides, it is possible to create a wide variety of game play using the MegaZeux engine. User created content exists in genres such as RPG, platformers, and even rudimentary first-person, among others. The base engine provides a more generic top-down view of a map containing a player character that can be navigated around a screen in all four cardinal directions using the keyboard arrows. Games are essentially played on a grid or "board" where each position is either open space capable of being occupied by the player, enemy, or other creature or is some kind of wall. Walls obstruct player movement and can be of various compositions, colors, and patterns and they really make up the core of the layout and visuals of each level or screen.
The engine provides a suite of generic adventure-game-like concepts that all can be used to create customized game worlds without the need for any user written scripts. This includes a basic inventory system which keeps track of the amount of "ammo," "coins," "bombs," "keys," and other items the player can consume in game. The engine tracks the amount owned of each item automatically without the need for programming and such items can be placed into the game world using the game editor allowing the player to pick them up in game by simply walking up to them. An entire menagerie of pre-programmed enemies can also be placed which attack the player in-game through various means.
Sound & Video
MegaZeux is an entirely text-mode based application and the game editor and all games created with it are played in a pretty standard 80x25 text mode with 256 available characters and 16 colors. However, MegaZeux came very late in the DOS game era and so made extensive use of the abilities of late model VGA adapters to redefine the glyph for each character as well as the entire color palette. The default character set used by the engine was already heavily modified from the standard code page and each game could also completely redefine it.
The decision to use a customizable text mode rather than something more sophisticated like a full bitmap or spite editor was very smart on the part of the developer. This created an accessibility sweet-spot for graphics design between being locked into the default character set of the machine, which was a problem for MegaZeux's predecessor, and the complexity of having to draw full-color, full-resolution sprites and tile sets. Editing 1-bit, 8x14 charter glyphs is much simpler and much less overwhelming than the prospect of having to create a full graphics set. Since MegaZeux included its own character set (which replaced or redesigned many ASCII characters to be better optimized for use in games), creation of or editing of custom glyphs was also entirely optional and so this made the engine more accessible to would-be game designers who were not interested in also being graphics designers.
While the graphics might be described as limited, MegaZeux did more fully take advantage of the capabilities of sound cards available at the time. Custom sound effects in "SAM" format (similar to but simpler than the more common WAV) can be played by any game and entire sound tracks can be created using the "MOD" synthesized music format (similar to MIDI). However, creating sound effects and music was the one thing that MegaZeux could not really do natively directly in the application. All this content had to be created separately and MegaZeux was merely capable of consuming it. In general, this resulted in a lot of the user-generated content created using MegaZeux either being silent or just redundantly reusing content that was packaged with MegaZeux or from other common sources.
Fairly simplistic games can be created using just the pre-programmed elements of the engine but most games created to play in MegaZeux use at least some scripting. The most complex titles use it extensively to the point that it can completely obscure the underlying default engine. Scripts are written in a language called "robotic" named such because each individual script is tied to a "robot" in the game world. There is a single disembodied robot shared through an entire game world known as the "global" robot which can serve some special purposes but otherwise each robot is physically present in the game world and can respond to outside events like being shot or touched by the player. The original intention of robots was clearly to serve as NPCs and custom programmed enemies but the extensive abilities of the robotic language to manipulate the game world and the game engine are what really gave MegaZeux its teeth and allowed for the creation of much more interesting titles than would be possible otherwise.
MegaZeux is the direct sequel to Labrynth of Zeux which is more of a "game" in the traditional sense. Both titles however are heavily influenced by ZZT which is an earlier and equally (if not more so) famous game creation system created by Tim Sweeney of Epic MegaGames. Epic MegaGames, of course, begin the predecessor to the modern Epic Games which develops the Unreal Engine among other projects. While both Labrynth of Zeux and MegaZeux borrow from ZZT, MegaZeux does so more heavily to the point that its feature set is essentially a superset to that of ZZT. ZZT's influence on Labrynth of Zeux is apparent to anyone who has played both titles but Labrynth of Zeux is much more of a standalone game (although it does incorporate end user modding features) than its successor.
Both Labrynth of Zeux and MegaZeux were created by Alexis Janson, then Gregory Janson, and distributed through the normal shareware channels in the mid-90s. Both programs can be considered to have grown directly out of and then really expanded into the existing ZZT communities. Some of Janson's earlier ZZT based work included templates and utilities to help address some of ZZT's shortcomings. MegaZeux more fully addresses all those same issues with ZZT and so may very likely had been the major impetus behind the eventual development of MegaZeux.
MegaZeux and ZZT are both popular for the same reason which is that they both provided a creative outlet to aspiring game designers and did so free-of-charge. Both titles' shareware versions included the full version of the game editor; paying the registration fee for either title only resulted in access to additional content created by their respective authors using that editor. ZZT however had several serious drawbacks which included its fixed extended ASCII character set, lack of sound card support, and limited palette of wall styles, among others. From this perspective it's easy to understand how MegaZeux would have taken the ZZT world by storm in that it included all the capabilities of ZZT and also fixed its worst pain points more so than any add-on, utility, template, or mod could effectively do.
From its inception, MegaZeux was developed as a closed-source and commercial product based on the shareware business model that allowed for anyone to freely distribute the program but asked users to pay a registration fee to support the project and receive access to additional content in return. Labrynth of Zeux also used this same model and somewhere along the way Janson formed a company called Software Visions to serve as the unifying brand name for the Zeux series and other projects. All of this was done while Janson was a student in high school (and possibly earlier). Through these titles Janson demonstrated a wide range of talents from programmer, game and graphics designer, script writer, and musician that I think is quite impressive and rarely seen in a single individual. The level of general quality and polish is quite high and easily rivals anything ever disrupted through shareware, let alone something from a high-school aged developer.
Under the Software Visions moniker, MegaZeux and its predecessors spread through the existing ZZT communities on the Internet and dialup bullet board systems which were still popular at the time. Perhaps the largest single community for either title was America Online which was around its peak around the same time that MegaZeux was around its own. AOL provided an easy means of distribution for not only MegaZeux but also for all the user generated content created with it and played by it. It should be easy to imagine that the quality of the content distributed through AOL and other channels varied widely. Certainly, a small group of dedicated individuals did produce a volume of high quality content for both ZZT and MeagZeux during this era but the largest volume could probably be considered amateurish and unremarkable at best.
If there is a single game that can be considered to be "the" game that MegaZeux is then it's most certainly Zeux II: Caverns of Zeux. Caverns is the direct sequel to Labrynth of Zeux and is the default game that plays as soon as the MegaZeux program is executed. It was distributed freely as shareware as a package with the MegaZeux executable and other accompanying files. The last three entries in the Zeux saga were not shareware and only available to users who had paid the registration fee through mail order. Nothing beyond the honor system prevented users from distributing the registered games though and they could be played with the unregistered version of the program which only differed in the registration request messages that is displayed.
Caverns is followed by Zeux III: Chronos Stasis then by Zeux IV: Forest of Ruin and finally by Zeux V: Catacombs of Zeux which concludes the entire series and story line. In terms of overall size, each of these installments is smaller than the original Labrynth of Zeux and so can probably be thought of more of a single episodic sequel to Labrynth rather than four individual games. Nevertheless, the jump from each title to the next always incorporates a noticeable shift in tone as well as the style of graphics and design and to a lesser extent the style of gameplay itself. Caverns and Forest have a kind of fantasy RPG backdrop where as Chronos has more of a sci-fi shooter bent with Catacombs sorting of combing elements of both.
Overall, I'd say that the entire series is fun and entertaining to play and worth the somewhat small time investment needed to complete them. Clearly, the style of the graphics and gameplay will only appeal to a certain subset of gamers, though. Each game also has its own small but original sound track which are pretty catchy but wouldn't otherwise standout much from other games except for the fact that it was the work of a single developer team. Unsurprisingly, these games fall toward the higher end of the quality scale of what is available throughout the MegaZeux universe and they certainly are iconic MegaZeux games given their position in its early history and their author.
However, they can also be thought of as unremarkable in that they use the engine in basically the most straight-forward and expected manner. Despite Janson's rather effective efforts to vary the style and experience of each episode, all four games still rely heavily on core the top-down adventure game mechanic (it's worth noting that Labrynth was a side-view platformer). All four also make significant use of robots but again they, for the most part, do what you'd expect a robot to do and they don't really push the envelope when compared with what was to come next. I don't mean this to be overly critical though since Caverns does represent quite a leap forward from what ZZT was capable of and it's hard to push the envelope when you do not yet have any contemporaries to push against.
As the Janson era progressed, the sophistication of MegaZeux games generally increased as users within the community devised new and more creative ways to push the limits of what the basic engine and the robotic scripting language were capable of. Janson's own work also evolved during this time—perhaps influenced or just inspired by end-user innovations—and began development of a new episodic series of games known as Weirdness. As the name implies, the series was intended to have a more whimsical and fun style and tone that emphasized wacky humor but still with a clear underlying premise that drove the episodic plot. Disappointingly, only the first episode was completed before Janson quit the community and so where it was really headed remains unknown to this day. For certain is that the general quality level of the first episode rivals and probably exceeds what was seen in Caverns through Catacombs and, coupled with the more creative use of the platform, Weirdness would have been an excellent if not groundbreaking addition to the MegaZeux anthology.
The first episode of Weirdness continues to make basic use of the underlying adventure engine to display the player character and game board in an overhead fashion and allows the player to navigate in the four usual directions. However, the major game play style for the first episode is an inventory based system where the player must work through a series of puzzles in a manner that I think is similar to other inventory based games (Myst comes to mind but without the point-and-click elements). This is not the only game play mode; there also several puzzle based subgames and a short combat section as well. The most impressive part of the episode though probably comes near the end where the player must navigate an underground maze using the first person (pseudo 3D) perspective through creative use of the "overlays" feature. Although easily considered crude by most outsiders, at this point in time nothing like this had been seen before in a MegaZeux title. The game also made extensive use of cuts scenes and other animations created using robot scripting which were both entertaining and serve to drive the plot forward in a meaningful way.
The first and only complete episode of Weirdness itself promised that the episodes to follow would span many different types of game play styles. This appears that it would have been the case as Janson did release the abandoned and mostly incomplete second episode before completely quitting the community. While the first episode relied heavily on the inventory and puzzle mechanics the second episode appears that it would have focused more on an action platformer style of game play. The graphical style does appear very similar to the first episode though.
In the second half of the 90s Janson quit the MegaZeux community and released MegaZeux and all the related content into the public domain as freeware including the source code to MegaZeux itself. Janson initially cited leaving for college as the primary driver behind this decision but in later interviews revealed that personality conflicts with the general population of the MegaZeux community was also a contributing factor. In my opinion, MegaZeux's ease of use created such a high level accessibility that it allowed less serious and less cordial individuals who wouldn't otherwise have had the patience to participate to remain active in the community for extended periods. Ironically, what made MegaZeux so successful may have also been a major contributing factor to its downfall.
The main stream appeal of MegaZeux began to wane in the period following Janson's departure slowly consolidating into a smaller community of more dedicated enthusiasts. The community remained active to some extend all the way up until the present, centered mostly around the DigitalMZX homepage. DigitalMZX maintains a collection of many MegaZeux games and other content that is available for download. As before, and as this is all user generated content, there is a variety of quality levels represented. However, in general, in my opinion, the community has managed to, on the whole, generate a volume of content that is marked higher quality than was produced, on average, in the preceding era. This also includes content generated as part of various competitions that have been held throughout the years. In just my personal skimming of these archives I have encountered some rather impressive creations that I think are worth digging through.
At the same time that the community was continuing to evolve, the source code for the MegaZeux application itself had become available but was left without an official or even de facto maintainer. This resulted in several other developers picking up the mantel at various points and resolving to develop their own forks of the project each with its own new features. Most of these occurred at different points in time and created a fracturing problem since the independently developed versions and features weren't generally intercompatible. Eventually, an SDL (Simple Direct-Media Layer) port was created that also consolidated many of the newer features and this is now the variant that is generally used in the present. The use of the SDL abstraction layer now also allows MegaZeux to be played natively on a variety of modern platforms without the need for a DOS emulator and the addition of features that otherwise wouldn't be possible in a DOS environment.
MegaZeux is more than any single game but there are several default titles that serve as its standard bearers. Any player familiar with MegaZeux itself will be familiar with this default content and while it is rather good quality content it's probably not terribly remarkable and has limited appeal when compared to other games outside the MegaZeux ecosystem. That said, this is not what attracted or kept anyone playing MegaZeux to begin with, it was the promise of what you could do on your own with it that created it popularity and maintained it to this day. This has resulted in an ever evolving library of user-generated content buried in a small corner of the internet from some never-the-less talented designers and it definitely worth spending some time checking it out.