Puzzles in the game are rarely difficult nor complicated, though taking notes is definitely recommended. A lot of the puzzles revolve around the codes and markings used to access previously unavailable areas. A diagram found in some remote corner of the world will provide the means for unlocking some other far-flung treasure trove -- rinse and repeat until all the requisite areas have been accessed. Most of the other puzzles are of the inventory variety. This game differs from many others in that Zak isn't just a kleptomaniac who roams around thieving anything he sees; he actually pays for some things. There are a large number of items available for purchase in a pawn shop in Zak's hometown, all of which come in handy, even if they're not all essential to succeed. Zak and the other three use their CashCards to pay for such things, as well as air fare and other travel arrangements. It is actually possible to run out of money and become stranded, but if you keep an eye on your CashCard's balance, this isn't likely to happen. It's always possible to make money by hawking your stuff in the pawn shop, or by other means, so this money system acts as another puzzle. Splurge wildly without paying attention to your bank balance, and it's game over (or at least becoming stuck with no means of escape).
Zak McKracken follows the LucasArts tradition of containing in-jokes, though these were naturally limited at the time. In addition to Chuck the Plant (who first appeared in Maniac Mansion and went on to appear in several other games), there are other MM references as well. At one point in the game, one of the characters comes across a can of chainsaw gasoline with no apparent purpose; the joke being that in MM there was a chainsaw with no fuel. There is also a poster in Lou's Loans pawn shop advertising Maniac Mansion. Conversely, there is a poster advertising Zak on the wall in the games room in the enhanced version of MM (which was released slightly after the original version of Zak). It's not a major part of the game, but it's always a nice treat and a fun diversion to look for these bonus gags.
As with a lot of old games, there exist a number of different versions of Zak McKracken. Most of them we've probably all heard of -- PC, Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Apple II -- but only real obsessives have probably ever heard of the Fujitsu FM-Towns release. This PC/console hybrid wasn't widely bought outside of its native Japan, so this version of the game is understandably rare.
There are three main versions of Zak, each released on a variety of platforms: the low resolution, 16-colour original edition; the higher resolution, 16-colour enhanced edition; and the 256-colour, hi-res version only on FM-Towns. With the wonders of ScummVM, it's now possible to play almost any version made for its respective platform (aside from the impossible-to-find Apple II version) on just about any machine imaginable these days. If at all possible, I would recommend the FM-Towns version with its vastly improved graphics and CD-quality music, but given its rarity, this review is based on the far more readily available enhanced PC version.
Below are screenshots from the various versions. The graphics are similar on all supported platforms for each version, with only minor differences in the colours.
Commodore 64 version:
PC enhanced version:
The music in the original versions used the PC speaker or equivalent. This resulted in a primitive range of sounds, but Zak still manages to have enjoyable music, with the main theme being a personal favourite. The blips and bloops of the speaker are used in varying tones and frequencies to create great electronic tracks, despite the obvious limitations of the hardware. There are also sound effects throughout the game, and although equally limited technically, they do well to emulate such things as footsteps, animal sounds, doors opening and closing.
The game's interface is the LucasArts point-and-click standard of the time. For those unfamiliar with this, interactions are performed by selecting a verb from a choice of 15 (walk to, pick up, open, close, push, pull, etc.), then clicking on an object in the game world upon which to perform that action. Plenty of possibilities, you might think, but unlike most adventure games there is no 'examine' or 'look at' option. This means hotspot interactions are often fairly limited, with none of the witty descriptions most comedy games would provide.
Those fortunate enough to have a boxed version of Zak get the additional benefit of a paper copy of The National Inquisitor. This comes in handy for tips to the solutions of quite a few of the game's puzzles. That's not to say the puzzles are impossible without the paper, but it definitely helps. Even if the hints aren't required, the paper is well worth reading for the kicks alone, being packed with amusing shock-news type articles and still more headlines such as "Alien Amusement Park Found on Mars" and "Bigfoot Wins Kissing Contest".
All in all, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders is a very quirky, amusing game, with a wide variety of locations, an engaging story, and unusual characters. With better characterisation, more dialogues, and perhaps fewer mazes, it could have been even better. Still, it's a very good game with much to offer even today, and one deserving of a lot more attention that it receives. If you've played through the more celebrated LucasArts games and are wishing they still made them like they used to, Zak and the gang might be just what you're looking for.