Last Call BBS is a tour through a decade of Zachtronics indie development
Calling it quits
After over a decade of game development, Last Call BBS is the curtain call for prolific indie studio Zachtronics. Released only a month after the studio casually announced it would be disbanding, Last Call BBS will be the last game the studio releases. It's a bittersweet feeling for fans, but this final game is not just a goodbye, it's a retrospective dive into the studio’s ten-year-plus run making games. It also acts as a reminder of how flipping good Zachtronics is at making puzzle games, even if they do melt my brain into a puddle.
Last Call BBS is a collection of eight small puzzle games tucked away inside the desktop of a ‘90s PC. To access the collection, you need to navigate an old bulletin board system, named Last Call BBS, where you can download each one straight from the wibbly-wobbly online aether. As you might imagine from Zachtronics, the eight games are all focused on automation, programming, assembling, building circuits, and, of course, not one but two versions of solitaire. From brain teasers to brain bafflers, each game has a unique approach to logic puzzles, but all manage to still feel distinctly Zach-like.
The first, Dungeons and Diagrams, is a picross-style tile placement game where you map out monster-crawling dungeons by following a set of rules. It’s incredibly charming, and on the will-it-melt-your-brain-o'graph, it’s two skulls out of five. The second is 20th Century Food Court, a puzzle game in the vein of Zachtronic's first release SpaceChem where you are tasked with building a network of conveyor belts and machines to serve fast food orders. It's a great head-scratcher at three out of five skulls.
On the opposite end of the scale there’s ChipWizard Professional, a programming game so dense that I took one look at the puzzle’s interface, clicked around a bit then immediately noped out. It looks more like an actual coding programe than a game, and harkens back to TIS-100 and SHENZHEN I/O. I think I’ll stick to the cute dungeon puzzle game, thanks
The collection isn't just a bunch of throwbacks to the studio’s stellar puzzle design though. They also evoke what it feels like to play a Zach-like. No other puzzlers can give you the same instant whiplash of feeling like the smartest, most brilliant, most exceptionally gifted person in the universe, and then as thick as two short planks quite like a Zachtronics game.
The vessel for these downloaded games is the in-game computer (dubbed the Z5 Powerlance), which is itself a PC relic. The edges of the computer’s screen are slightly curved like a CRT monitor and the machine emits crunchy clicks and chirps as it carries out your commands. There's also the familiar digital grinding of the dial-up modem which is like a blast of pure nostalgic dopamine. Each game download can take up anywhere between five to fifteen minutes so you can explore the rest of the desktop or kick back with a game of solitaire as you wait.
It's a sweet trip down memory lane and guiding you through this wayback machine is the Barkeep, the owner of the Z5 Powerlance and creator of Last Call BBS. Leaving messages through the HandyMate note app, they provide commentary and background history about each of the games.
It's a story that ties in perfectly with the Last Call’s throwback. Many of the games you play feature copyright protection notes, meaning that you're illegally downloading pirated games. It's very in line with the attitude back in the ‘90s of just uploading incredibly obscure stuff online with the hope that someone, somewhere in the far reaches of the internet would enjoy it too. It wasn't about lifting games for free but rather people wanting to share the cool stuff they found, and you can feel that through the passion and excitement the Barkeep has about each of the games. It feels incredibly intimate, like finding someone's personally curated treasure trove of games, cracked and ready to enjoy.
In this way, Last Call BBS is a pretty introspective game. We’ve seen throwbacks to bygones of internet culture in games like Hypnospace Outlaw, Emily is Away, and Cibele, but this feels more personal. It’s a moment suspended in time, both for Zachtronics and PC history. As one of the memo notes sums up: “The story of this stuff is also the story about people”.
Last Call BBS is available through the PC Game Pass subscription or on Steam Early Access for £15 / $20 / €17, and while it will be the team's last game, we can also look forward to the upcoming bundle of all the solitaire minigames the team has featured in their games throughout the years. The studio may have split up, but founder Zach Barth and the other Zachtronic folk will still be kicking around in game development and I'm keen to see what they get up to next.