I must first admit that I have never played any of the King’s Quests. This probably seems odd, since I do so enjoy my adventure games and the series is renowned for creating the animated adventure as we all know it. However, neither Static nor I really enjoy the whole sword and sorcery scene. I know that I looked at the previous compilations, saw the wizards and dragons and such on the box, and passed it right on by. But since we’ve each completely reviewed a Sierra Quest series and there are two left, it only makes sense for both of us to take on one more. Static has some love for Space Quest, so he gets claim to it. That leaves me to “suffer” through the King’s Quest series – but luckily they’re still adventures, and the first contains the beginnings of the genre goodness I’ve come to enjoy.
If you’ve never heard of it, or are somehow unaware of the significance, King’s Quest is the first of Sierra’s real adventures. It set the company up as “masters of the genre,” a claim only LucasArts could rival, and solidified the move from text or text with still window screens (see Deja Vu). Granted, this was a natural move anyway, but Sierra and its Adventure Game Interpreter drew up a blueprint of exactly how to do it. Gamers quickly grasped the marriage of moving a character while typing commands, and this was all the way back in 1984 to boot. The only remaining barrier to mass adoption was technology and cost, but if the massive number of graphical adventures and Sierra’s own blockbuster Quests show nothing else, it’s that the market was ready to accept these games and the idea that the computer can be more than “what Dad does his books on.”
King’s Quest went through a lot of releases, so you may be confused about which version you’ve ended up with. The game was originally commissioned as a showcase for IBM’s PCJr system, which attempted to compete with the educational juggernaut that the Apple II had become. This first release on Sierra’s AGI interpreter is notable in making great use of 16-color graphics (where available, like with a CGA card running a composite line to a television), and presenting the user with a moving, “live” character to explore the world with. The same version was re-released in 1987 to make better use of DOS instead of booting straight from disk, and to fully support EGA graphics (replicating the PCJr look on the newer hardware).
In 1990, the game was re-re-released with enhanced, but still 16-color, graphics under the SCI interpreter. The game remains virtually identical, but with improved detail in all screens and a few tweaked puzzles. It did, however, miss the 256-color version that other Quests received, but this was rectified by the fan-made, Sierra-blessed VGA release. That version is not covered by this review, but since I imagine it’s all basically the same game, much of what I say should still apply.
You’ll be playing as the gallant Sir Graham in the beautiful castles-and-magic kingdom of Daventry. The story – admirably told not just in the manual but also in-game in either version – hinges on the stupidity of the current king. He is quite easily duped, by no less than three completely unrelated individuals, into parting with the three most important items in the kingdom: a mirror that tells the future, an chest of endless gold, and an invincible battle shield. These items directly affect the prosperity of the kingdom. Without them, crops are dying, the country is broke, and invaders threaten the borders. In his last act, he sends for Sir Graham to travel the kingdom and return the lost items. By restoring the health of Daventry, you will prove your worth and inherit the throne.
Daventry is broken up into an 8×6 grid of screens. Traveling north from the top screen of the grid seamlessly transfers you to the bottom screen. The result is a continuous world no matter what direction you walk in. It can make travel a little confusing, since you will never encounter any borders. You’ll only be able to find your way in relation to landmarks on each screen. Luckily the game does not attempt to use this to confuse you, or create any maze situations; it’s simply a byproduct of stitching the screens together. This is most tricky on the AGI version, as you pass by endless repetitions of “lake” or “tree” screens that look only vaguely different.
Both versions use the text parser for input, while the objects you can physically interact with are defined by the placement of your character on screen. Compass directions are thrown out and you cannot use the parser to navigate. Instead of typing “go north,” you use the arrow keys to send Graham to the edge of the screen until the scene transitions. If nothing happens, it may mean you’re blocked by an unseen shrub or tree root and must shift around until the next screen loads. It’s more interactive than a text based system, while helping the world feel a bit more present. Still, it does mean you’re going to have to watch your little guy trudge around at a fixed pace and dodge him around simple obstacles.
This can get especially tricky considering this is Sierra’s earliest attempt, and the graphics here don’t always match up with the character’s world. All of the graphics use classic art perspective techniques to suggest the world has depth, while your character always walks on a flat plane. The best example is are the arch bridges in front of the castle. You can’t type “cross bridge,” so you’re going to have to walk across it, which seems simple enough at first. However, it has a 3D curve to it that you see, but the game engine does not. Instead of naturally moving up the bridge as the graphics would suggest, the engine considers the hump in the middle dead space and drops you into the moat. You’ll have to walk across the apex of the bridge instead – so the graphics suggest that you’re floating on air for a bit, but the game considers the land in the background as valid terra firma.
Similarly, the lack of parser control also creates needlessly frustrating moments where you cannot type “go down stairs” to just… go down stairs. You must instead inch your character down each individual step, or up each individual beanstalk branch, with a slippery death as your punishment for venturing too far outside of the graphical boundary. In previous text-based adventures, the game at least assumed that your character had the fortitude, experience, and sense of balance required to walk down a flight of stairs without breaking a sweat. Here, you’ll be struggling to keep your gallant hero within the lines.
Another lost IF staple is the root Look command. In interactive fiction, typing “look” or “look around” was always understood to represent the initial glance/catalogue/impression you take in when entering a room in real life. It would describe the room and point out objects you can investigate further. That simply doesn’t exist in the AGI version. The graphics window is the look command.
This becomes an issue because the game still requires you to type what you want to interact with, which you are supposed to glean from the pretty pictures. Undetailed graphics instead result in not clearly knowing what areas on the screen are important. I can recognize a tree easily enough and type “look tree.” Finding the dagger hidden in the hole underneath the loose rock at the tree’s base becomes a bit trickier.
The classic Sierra humor hadn’t really been developed yet, so witty comments and descriptions aren’t present. Looking at a useless tree just displays a message “The trees of Daventry are beautiful.” Graham doesn’t suffer from any self-deprecating humiliation and deaths just result in a “thanks for playing” message and a comment on your score. Exploration for fun or secret messages will be fruitless. The entire game is lighthearted and pleasant, but hard to call particularly funny. Though fortunately, as this is their first Quest, it offers a rare game where you will not get wink and nudge references to buy the other Sierra titles.
None of the above are serious issues per se, but they do get addressed in the SCI remake. All of Sierra’s graphical talent up to that point was thrown at making each screen look like a unique location in Daventry. There were no longer just lakes, there were alpine lakes, small ponds, cliffs leading to an ocean. There were no longer just trees, there were scary trees, sturdy oaks, pleasant meadows. It made for a game that didn’t just look better, it looked more distinct. Travel around it becomes both a pleasure and a snap. You can now type “look” for a general description of the area, as well as noting important objects. This, combined with the extra visual detail, often give helpful clues for solving puzzles while cutting down on the aimless wandering. Finally, some gags appear, while all deaths get both an amusing animation and a cheesy line on the restore screen (“After the springtime, you had a bad fall.”)
My major complaint with King’s Quest I is that it doesn’t truly have a story of its own. The King and the missing trinkets are just a wrapper for a series of puzzles based off of Brothers Grimm, and other English/Norwegian fairy tales. There’s some charm to climbing a beanstalk to confront a giant in the Land of the Clouds, or running across a gingerbread house with cookie fences and candy windows. But ultimately it does feel like there’s a general lack of creativity, since the entire game is built with bricks of other, well-known stories.
As a great example, the legend goes that the main character is named Sir Graham because Roberta Williams likes graham crackers. That should give you the idea of the level of storytelling we’re at here. The story just doesn’t matter as much compared to the later Quest games, making it an extremely different title from the rest of the collection. This is really more of a sequel to Mixed Up Mother Goose than the beginnings of Sierra’s most enduring franchise.
I suppose these fairy tales are international enough to make the game playable for anyone, but they require a foreknowledge of the tales to beat the game. There are few to no clues provided within the game itself. The setup for pushing the witch in the oven is probably obvious enough to get by without knowing Hansel and Gretel. But you simply won’t know the gnome’s name without having read Rumplestiltskin. The narrator mentions, after you’ve already solved the particular puzzle, about how “everyone knows goats hate trolls” but you won’t if you haven’t heard Three Billy Goats Gruff. The game becomes less of an adventure, and more of a literature quiz for kids that you would find on a classroom computer tucked away in a corner. Which I guess is exactly what IBM requested for their PCJr.
The AGI version is limited to a handful of sounds coming out of the PC speaker, plus a few “danger themes” when enemies randomly appear on certain screens. These are fine for their purposes. The only particularly annoying point is a high-pitched chime that constantly plays when your fairy godmother appears and flies around. The SCI version brings sparse, but more impressive, sound card support. Organic sounds like splashes and fire sound great, some catchy, fable-y music is added, and the whole presentation goes up a few points.
If you’re like me, you feel a sort of duty to start a series of any kind at the very beginning. Or, if you somehow started in the middle, you feel like you really should get around to checking out “how it all started.” Thankfully, you can skip King’s Quest I. Unlike many of Sierra’s initial Quests, this one clearly wasn’t written with a septilogy in mind. It’s a fair game on its own, and an interesting cornerstone of the history of game development, but a fairly average adventure. You can see the seeds of greatness in the ideas and in the functionality and animation of even the AGI interpreter. But as far as the gameplay is concerned, only sign up if you’re particularly interested in the idea of playing through some classic fables. Otherwise, all you need to know to prepare yourself for King’s Quest II can be easily summed up in one sentence: Sir Graham saves Daventry, and becomes King.
The beginnings of an adventure standard that would carry games through the 80s and beyond.
Not much of a story involved, and is mostly just an interactive collection of classic fairy tales.
Roberta Williams looks down at her desk and sees a half-eaten package of graham crackers.
“Call him Graham!”