Meebzork is one of the more unusual prototypes for the 5200. With its unique mix of action and adventure, Meebzork is as close to an RPG as the 5200 ever got. However did you know that there were two completely different versions of Meebzork created? Meebzork was originally a fast paced shooting game before being retooled into an adventure game. This is unusual since many prototypes get retooled after play testing, but few ever get totally redesigned like Meebzork.
Most people are familiar with the adventure version of Meebzork since it's the one available on the 5200 multi-cart. This version isn't as complete as the earlier shooter version, but it's a much larger and better designed game. The adventure version is an action/adventure quest in which you play the role of Meebzork, a hero with a huge task ahead of him (or is it a her?). You must make your way through seven stages of deadly obstacles and make his way to the forbidden castle and recover the treasure hidden within.
From the title screen you're given the chance to either start your adventure or to practice each of the different levels. This is the only way you can play some of the later levels since the game isn't finished. Oddly the seventh level (the Stairs) isn't selectable from this screen, but more on this later. The player also has the ability to turn the auto fire feature on (this can also be done during the game by pressing the '3' key), or watch a short demo of the first level. Turning the auto fire on makes the game a little easier, but it may be linked to a bug which causes your character not to fire. If the Adventure option is selected, the game will begin with a short scene of Meebzork running out of a castle (drawn in some of the best pseudo 3-D graphics ever seen on the 5200) and off the screen.
At the bottom of the screen is your status bar which shows Meebzork's current energy level, the amount of lives left, and the total time you've been playing (it's unknown if this affects the game). Incidentally you may notice a gap in the status bar as if something is missing. This gap is where another display was located in the earlier version, but was taken out of this version. Pay it no heed...
Level 1: 3-D Gorgons
The goal of this level is to shoot all the gorgons while avoiding their dangerous poison shots. As you run around the pseudo 3-D landscape you'll notice that it is made of rotating bands. These bands were a major gameplay element in the first version of Meebzork, but are little more than eye candy here. Roaming around the screen is a little demon crab who's goal is to make your life miserable by chasing you down and shooting poison shots in your general direction. Unlike the gorgons, the demon crab is invincible, so all you can do is run away and avoid it. Incidentally, if the demon crab looks familiar it's because he was "borrowed" from Eric's earlier 5200 game Space Invaders. Nothing like a little bit of graphical reuse.
Each gorgon you hit gives Meebzork 125 energy units which are used on the other levels. The gorgons come towards the foreground and then retreat to the background (which makes them hard to hit), while the demon crab seems to home in on you no matter where you hide. Touching the demon crab is not deadly but his super fast shots are killers! There's even a glitch in this game which lets him get off a cheap shot right as the level starts unless you immediately dodge it by moving to the upper right. The trick to hitting the gorgons is to try and line up and shoot where their shadows are and not where the actual gorgon is. After killing 20 gorgons Meebzork advances to the next level.
Level 2: The Hedge Maze
There's a small glitch in the game which delays the start of this level for about 10 seconds. During this time Meebzork will just walk around a blank screen until the level appears. The goal of this level is to weave your way through a twisty hedge maze while grabbing as many energy dots as possible (each adds 50 energy units). The hard part of this level is that the maze slowly descends from the top of the screen while the entrances get narrower and narrower making it very difficult to navigate. Touching any part of the maze will cause Meebzork to loose a life, and he'll have to do the maze all over again. The non-centering 5200 joystick makes this level very very difficult so unless you're using a self-centering 3rd party joystick, you may find this level almost impossible to clear. After making his way through the maze, Meebzork will arrive at level 3.
Level 3: The River
After making his way through the hedge maze, Meebzork will arrive at a series of rivers. Each river is separated by a field of broken columns which may be shot for energy (50 energy units per column). The goal of this level is to find the key that unlocks the bridge over each river. The key is randomly hidden underneath one of the columns, so Meebzork must shoot them until he finds it. As was the case with the hedge maze this level slowly scrolls upward, so you only have a limited amount of time to shoot at the columns before the river appears.
After a brief hiatus the annoying demon crab is back, ready to make your life miserable once again. However this time Meebzork can shoot him, which will cause the demon crab to disappear for a few seconds. This level has a few glitches which can cause the key not to appear or the bridge to disappear unexpectedly. There's also a slight problem with the collision detection on the river which can cause Meebzork to safely walk through it (although this is not recommended since it doesn't always work). After crossing six bridges, Meebzork will move on to the next level.
Level 4: The Cave
This level is pretty straight forward, and fairly bug free. The goal is to guide Meebzork safely past the rising and lowering stalactites (at least I think they're stalactites). Each time Meebzork is hit by a stalactite he'll loose a life and get thrown back to the start of the level. The collision detection is a bit iffy here, and your hit zone seems to extend a little bit beyond the front of Meebzork. The speed of the last few stalactites makes this level very difficult, but it is winnable. After Meebzork reaches the other side of the cave he'll be transported to...
Level 5: Airworld
The goal of this level is to reach the top of the cliff where the glowing block is (a castle?). However Meebzork simply can't fly his cloud up there (that would be too easy), instead he has to shoot blocks to levitate his cloud. There are two different types of blocks; red blocks and blue blocks. If a blue block hits Meebzork he'll be bumped down a bit and lose some energy, but if a red block hits him, he'll loose a life in addition to being bumped down a notch.
Since Meebzork can only shoot upwards, there is no way he can dodge or destroy blocks to his left or right. Although it may seem impossibly difficult, the the level can be beat by abusing emulator save states or just plain luck. This level has a few bugs which can cause Meebzork to suddenly loose lives for no reason, and on occasion the blocks will turn into thin lines which glitch on and off. Once Meebzork reaches the top of the screen he ends up in...
Level 6: The Lava Pit
This is the final level you can reach using the practice option from the main menu. The goal of this level is to reach the other side of the lava pit by carefully jumping onto the tiny floating platforms. These platforms slowly move up and down the screen at different speeds. As Meebzork is attempting to make his way across the pit, he must also avoid and shoot the little flying blocks from the previous level. However this time Meebzork has some control over his shots and can move them left and right as they rise up. Each time Meebzork misses a platform or get hits by a block he'll fall into the lava and loose a life. This board is also unwinnable since there is no place to go once Meebzork reaches the final pillar. According to the programmer, once Meebzork reached the final pillar he would end up in the castle where he'd use all the keys he collected to unlock the door to the treasure chamber. Unfortunately this part of the game is missing from the current prototype, although a more complete prototype may exist...
Level 7: The Stairs
This screen was to appear after you completed each board, allowing the player to choose the next board he wanted to try (sort of like a level select). In the completed version of the game, Meebzork would have collected a key at the end of each board which would have been used to unlock one of doors at the end of each staircase. Unfortunately there are are no keys in this version of the game, so this screen does not appear during the normal course of the game and the only way to reach it is by using the '9' key to advance through the levels (debug mode).
Meebzork does not appear on the screen at the start of this board, but pressing a number on the key pad will cause him to appear and move to the appropriate staircase, after which the selected level will start. This board has major glitches and problems such as Meebzork's shots appearing in the middle of nowhere (if you press the fire button), and Meebzork doesn't always go to the correct staircase.
Although the adventure version of Meebzork was never fully completed, the prototype shows alot of promise. According the programmer, Meebzork was cancelled because it didn't do well in focus group testing. How could a great game like Meebzork fail to win over the hearts and minds of our nations impressionable youths, you ask? Apparently the version of the game they were given to test had a nasty bug in it that prevented the players from getting past the first level. This means they never saw the rest of the levels and based their entire opinions only on level 1. It's a shame this happened, because the 5200 could have used more original games like this.