'Last Call BBS' Is a Brilliant Send-Off to Indie Darling Zachtronics

Through a collection of eight minigames and a terrific framing device, Last Call BBS manages to create a beautiful vision of the 90s internet.
A scre
Screenshot by Zachtronics.

Last Call BBS cannot stop saying goodbye. It is, after all, the final game to be released by indie puzzle darling Zachtronics, only a month after the studio announced it would be closing on its own terms. It is not, however, just a goodbye to Zachtronics, but is instead a reconstruction of a version of the internet that died before I was born.

Last Call BBS is a collection of eight small puzzle games, each of which feels different from the others. For example, the first, Dungeons and Diagrams, is a picross-esque game about building small RPG dungeons in accordance with a set of arcane rules about how space should be used, the second, 20th Century Foodcourt is a game about building fast-food assembly lines for an establishment which aims to recreate the aesthetics of the late-20th century for a far future populace. Each has a unique approach to puzzle mechanics, and all of them set my brain on fire.

Advertisement

To borrow an example from the aforementioned second game, an early level asks that you build an assembly line for making three kinds of ice cream in three different flavors. My first successful build managed to complete this task in 24 turns. To do this, it would read the size of ice cream that was being requested, which would set a counter for the number of soft-serve pumps each cone would receive. Then, it would move down the line to a stacker, which set the cone on the tray upon which it would be served. Finally, it would arrive at a sorter that would hold the ice cream in place while the correct flavor was selected by a barcode scanner, processed through a four step sequencer, and then output to the actual ice cream machine via a series of logic machines. To do this, it used twelve AND/OR statements in addition to the cone and ice cream machines, the counter, the sequencer, the sorter, and the scanner. It was clever, slow, and remarkably over-designed. 

A screenshot of an electrical board, next to a conveyor system.

Screenshot by Zachtronics.

It was at this point that I stood up from my computer to put eyeliner on for the day, during which I shouted: “OH MY GOD YOU DON’T NEED THE SEQUENCER.” I then began wandering around my apartment mumbling about said sequencer, while my roommate looked on in bemused concern. My second attempt removed the sequencer and seven AND/OR statements—all while cutting the time to make each cone in half. I did not shut up about this for around half an hour, as I began to feel unto a god.

Advertisement

However, stellar puzzle design is par for the course for Zachtronics—for as much as I love the game’s mechanics and design, that isn’t what I can’t stop thinking about. That honor goes to the game’s narrative design and framing device, which work in near perfect concert with every other part of the game in a way that I find remarkable. Last Call BBS opens on the boot screen of a fictional computer, gifted to you by a close friend who used to host a personal website (the titular “Last Call BBS”) onto which they uploaded shareware games. Included on the computer are a few memos about the history of each game, and of the website, written by said friend. It feels surprisingly intimate for this style of puzzle game.

This intimacy isn’t limited to the game’s writing, but extends to its interface which manages to be deeply evocative, albeit not an accurate reconstruction, of 90s computer technology. Opening the titular Last Call BBS greets the player with the distinctive grinding and beeping of a dial-up modem, followed by a keyboard-only interface from which you can download the 10 games contained therein..  Each download takes about a minute-and-a-half, during which you can read the previously mentioned memos, or get up to do something else. I knew the game had effectively set a tone when, while downloading the first game, I stood up to go refill my water and brush my teeth. I have never done this during a loading screen before. Upon finishing a download, you hit your bandwidth cap and cannot download anything else for 15 minutes.

Advertisement
Multiple pieces of a gundam-like mech sit next to an instruction manual written in japanese.

Screenshot by Zachtronics.

Through its interface, memos, and puzzle design, Last Call BBS actively rejects the feelings of instant gratification produced not only by most video games, but by the modern structure of the internet itself. The game’s writing, puzzles, and vibes are meant to be savored over time—approached at a pace that encourages careful consideration and personal connection. What makes Last Call BBS so unique is the specificity of the version of the internet it attempts to recreate. It is not the forum culture of the 2000s, nor the early social media landscape of the 2010s, or the shitposting, hot take, and Discord-bound culture of the early 2020s. Last Call BBS is deeply invested in a particular vision of the 90s internet—one defined by personal websites where people just did things they cared about for the sake of doing them, believing that, somewhere out there, other people would care too. BBS, or bulletin board systems, are where some of the earliest online communities were formed. It is an internet I never knew, but which I know existed (albeit in a less idealized form).

However, for all of its interest in reconstruction, Last Call BBS is not just a nostalgia trip—it is a meditation on how we talk, think about, and experience the past. In an early memo, the game’s narrator expresses some bemused discomfort around thinking about the games in Last Call BBS as “retro.” This establishes that the player character, what little we’re told about them, did not grow up with this version of the internet. So, for all of the ways in which Last Call BBS attempts to invoke nostalgia (and likely succeeds), it is a game designed with a modern audience in mind. 

Advertisement

These themes are not limited to the game’s memos, interface, or framing device, but act as an integral part of the puzzle design and aesthetics of the smaller games contained therein. 20th Century Foodcourt, for example, is a game about reconstructing the fast-food experience for a version of humanity that has all but abandoned food entirely, as part of a historical exhibit on the 20th century. You do not accurately recreate the very real, often inhuman, practices of the fast-food industry, but you do evoke them through faux-industrial design. In the post level reviews of your food, posted by far future patrons, the people of the late 20th century are referred to as “the ancients” and “raiders.” It is extremely goofy, and frequently very, very funny. But more than that, it is a direct reflection of the game’s own framing device—an imperfect reconstruction of an imagined past through game mechanics and supposedly retro aesthetics.

A strange figure sits atop a floating spire, writhed in plantmatter and meat-like roots.

Screenshot by Zachtronics.

Last Call BBS, through its writing and design, seems to argue that perfect reconstruction is impossible. Instead, reconstruction is an act of translation. It communicates a feeling, or fundamental idea, to an audience in the language with which they are familiar. It understands that any effort in archival work, no matter how accurate, will never be able to adequately recreate the original object because the technologies of its production, the culture in which it existed, and its very audience, have changed—it also believes that’s okay, even good. 

Last Call BBS does not, however, stop at a reconstruction of an early 90s internet—it is, after all, the final game to be released by Zachtronics. In this way, it becomes a reconstruction of the history of its own developer. The fictional studio which designed 20th Century Foodcourt is named Zachmatics. It is, quite obviously, a reflection of the game’s own developers. In an early memo about Zachmatics, the game’s narrator describes the studio as having been emblematic of the oddness of its era—that it was a studio which was defined not only by its particular puzzle sensibilities, which are obvious, but also by its total disregard of market forces in favor of the hyperfixations of its developers. The narrator writes that, while their odd humor and design sensibilities didn’t always land with a broader audience, they were consistently committed to making things they very obviously cared about. People loved them for that.

It is here that I should admit something: this is the first Zachtronics game that I have ever played. I’ve been familiar with their games for a long time, but had never gotten around to them. For me, unlike many others who will play it, Last Call BBS is not a nostalgia trip, or even a goodbye. It is, instead, a translation—one so effective that it has convinced me, a total stranger, to mourn, too. I cannot help but love it for that.