Last Call BBS Review – Leaving on a High Note

Last Call BBS Review – Leaving on a High Note
5

Platforms: Windows PC, Mac, Linux, Steam

Game Name: Last Call BBS

Publisher: Zachtronics

Developer: Zachtronics

Genre: Simulation

Release Date: August 3rd, 2022

Last Call BBS by Zachtronics

Zachtronics is finished, alas. Game designer Zach Barth, possibly the first developer to get a subgenre named after himself, is calling it quits to move on to other things. Luckily for his fans, he’s gone out at the top of his game with Last Call BBS, a collection of Zachlikes greater than the sum of its parts and delivering everything you’ve come to expect.

BBS Brilliance

Like most of Barth’s games, Last Call BBS has me charmed and frustrated in equal measure. The framing device is superb. Like TIS-100, its core interface is a fictional vintage computer – in this case, the Sawayama Z5 Powerlance – and like Exapunks, it’s got a well thought-out hacking motif.

This time around, though, it’s less Neuromancer and more overt nostalgia: accessing the actual games – and there are games aplenty – involves a simulated connection to the titular Last Call BBS, complete with modem squeal. The attention to detail induced more than one cackle on my part. Each game has “hacked by” strings and shout-outs to fictional hackers.

Last Call BBS game screenshot, modem connecting

You even have to wait for your games to “download” from the BBS before you can play them. If you’re a computer game enthusiast of a certain age, this is going to bring back so many memories. (If you’re under 40 or so, it might help to think of this as a historic computing simulation; Zach Barth eschews the concept of “educational games,” nowadays, but you still might learn something, whipper-snapper.)

A Computer Simulation in More Ways Than One

Then there are the games themselves. Not unexpectedly, many of them revolve around programming and computer concepts, reworked as puzzles.

Equally unsurprising: not only are they extremely difficult, but many of them require experimentation just to work out the mechanics; there’s documentation, but it doesn’t hold your hand.

Last Call BBS game screenshot, ChipWizard Pro

Take ChipWizard Professional, for example. That one’s only a tiny step less abstract than the assembly language puzzles of TIS-100; masquerading as a high-end (for its time) CAD program, it tasks the player with building actual circuit boards. X’BPGH: The Forbidden Path is similarly complex but adds some mechanics from the Game of Life simulation and a heavy-duty Clive Barker body horror vibe.

It’s not all mechanical engineering and biochemistry, though! If you’re in the mood for something more lighthearted, 20th Century Food Court is a retro-flavored cooking game putting players in the chef’s hat of a future restaurateur recreating the snack foods of the ‘80s. Line up robot arms and conveyor belts to squirt liquified cheese onto chips. Infinifactory but for pretzels! How hardcore could it be?! I had to look up walk-through videos for the tutorial level. Multiple times.

Abstract, grotesque, or comedic, nothing makes me feel quite as stupid as a Zachtronics game.

Frustration and Fun Times

What’s great about Last BBS in comparison to some games is that while the most intense and programming-oriented puzzles might be an exercise in frustration for some of us, there’s plenty of other stuff here to provide breaks when you’re stuck on a particular circuit board design or restaurant automation (or have given up on the hardest games entirely).

There’s Hack*Match, an ‘80s simulation of Japanese arcade games with tile shooting that’s a bit like Tetris and a bit like Puzzle Bobble and requires absolutely no mastery of programming concepts.

There’s Dungeons and Diagrams, which combines the tile-based logic of Minesweeper with the numeric grid logic of Picross. (That one’s still tough, albeit in a different way that at least for me is less exasperating than programming and engineering puzzles.)

Last Call BBS game screenshot, Steed Force Hobby Studio

There’s even STEED FORCE Hobby Studio, which isn’t technically a game at all but rather a model-building simulator and an extraordinarily well-realized one at that. If you’ve ever looked at Gundam models in a comic book store or convention hall, briefly thought about picking up the hobby and then deciding the better of it due to lack of time, space, and/or patience, this may well be the next best thing. (I’m speculating because I don’t have the time, space, or patience for Gundam models in real life but had a blast with STEED FORCE Hobby Studio.)

Go Play By Yourself

There are also a couple different Solitaire variations here, including one using a deck of Japanese kabufuda cards, and I love Last Call BBS perhaps most of all for reminding me how much I actually enjoy Solitaire. It’s the kind of puzzle I love, requiring attention and mapping moves out ahead of time in your mind, but at the same time relaxing and low-stakes.

Last Call BBS game screenshot, Kabufuda Solitaire

Importantly, if you screw up in Solitaire, you reshuffle a new game. You don’t sit there stuck and frustrated until either inspiration strikes or you give up, swear under your breath, and think, “I guess I’m just too stupid” before looking up a walk-through video, which provides a solution so simple and elegant it only confirms your impression of your own mental shortcomings.

It’s…probably apparent by now that I have a complicated relationship with Zachtronics games.

Power Down

And that’s all right! Zach makes complicated games! Playing them is intense! It can be a frustrating experience! But what makes almost all of them – and Last Call BBS in particular – so wonderful is that they’re so good-natured and charming.

Barth isn’t a “hardcore” developer trying to make people rage-quit. He’s sharing something of himself, a gleeful enthusiasm. “Aren’t computers cool?” his games ask. “And aren’t the programs they run cool? Isn’t hacking culture and cyberpunk stuff and science and engineering cool?”

And he’s right! That stuff is cool! I’m not smart enough – and certainly not smart enough in many of the ways Barth himself is smart – to fully grasp the enthusiasm he shares right away, but the obvious love and glee and enthusiasm he infuses his games with makes me want to try.

He’s not going to be doing that with video game design anymore, and I’m sad about that, but I can’t think of a better – or more Zachlike – farewell letter than Last Call BBS to those of us who got to know him a little bit through his games.

Last Call BBS is available via Steam.

Watch the trailer for Last Call BBS below:

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