Heads-up, Dude!

I’m branching out, yo!

Specifically, I’m going to be writing posts detailing the basic history of random stuff.  I have some pop culture stuff, some unsolved mystery type stuff, and maybe some historical event stuff.

I’m excited about this, and just wanted to let all two of my readers know what’s up.

Subjects I’m pondering covering:

  • Showbiz Pizza/Chuck E. Cheese
  • Nancy Drew
  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • A Christmas Carol
  • Case updates from the show Unsolved Mysteries
  • Various creepy/true crime type things

If any of these things sound interesting to you, let me know!

And don’t worry, I’ll still be doing game reviews, so if you’re here for Nancy Drew games or retro-game reviews, that’s not going away.  It’s just taking me forever to play through my next game, and in the mean time, I want to keep posting things here.

I appreciate you all!

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King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow

*cue dramatic music*

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This review has been a long time coming.  It’s the reason I originally wanted to start doing other games besides Nancy Drew on this blog.  I love this game so freaking much, I needed to share my love with the entire world.  But, that love is also what made this game so dang hard to actually review.

Released in 1992, King’s Quest VI:  Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow is the pinnacle of the King’s Quest games.  It’s the best in the series, and was thought to be so even at the time of it’s release, with both critics and fans praising it.  The issues with the point-and-click interface from King’s Quest V were (mostly) fixed, and of all the Sierra point-and-click games I’ve played, I think this interface is my favorite.  It’s streamlined with options for talk, touch/pickup/use, look, walk, and an empty space for your most recently used inventory item.  The storytelling is stellar, crafting an increasingly intricate narrative around the new land Alexander finds himself in, and using the branching-path mechanic to the best effect I’ve ever seen.  The characters are better designed than the last game, and made even more memorable by the excellent voice acting.

As far as technological advancements go, the game was one of the first to use professional voice actors and have a fully voiced game.  It’s an element we see used all the time now, and Sierra was actually fairly pioneering in their use of professionals to do the voicework (instead of using people from around the office, as in King’s Quest V).

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This game also used motion capture technology to record performances of actors and use them to animate cut scenes and some in-game sequences.  This technique would eventually lead to the full-motion video (FMV) games released in just a year or two, and was considered quite fancy at the time.  This is also the last King’s Quest game to be released on floppy disks, a move which resulted in multiple versions of the game, including an un-voiced version for floppy disk users, a CD-ROM demo version with the voice acting layered over slightly improved graphics from the floppy release, and the “enhanced” version, with the full voice cast and upgraded character portraits released on CD-ROM.  I’m not a huge fan of the so-called enhanced version, as I find the character portraits land in an extra-uncomfortable section of the uncanny valley for me, and in general I find the hyper-detailed character portraits pull me out of the story, whereas the originals seem to match the overall feel of the game better.  I find this is especially so when you compare the cut scenes to the character portraits, as the enhanced version’s character portraits often don’t look very much like the characters in the cut scene (at least in my opinion).  I’ve probably talked a little too much about this, but this is one of the things I feel most strongly negative toward in the current GOG.com release of the game–there’s no option to run the earlier version via SCUMMvm.

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The voice acting is stellar, featuring such performers as Tony Jay, in several roles for the game (Captain Saladin and the Gates of Death being the most memorable), Robbie Benson as Alexander (most known for voicing Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast), and Bill Ratner as the narrator.  Even the lesser known voice actors and repeat performers from the previous game sound better here, perhaps because Sierra sprang for an actual director with some experience instead of cobbling things together themselves.

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The game itself is designed to feel (if possible) even more fantastical than the previous games.  The main narrative involved Prince Alexander of Daventry, recently freed from the evil wizard Mordack by his adventurer father, King Graham, setting forth on a journey to find Princess Cassima (a captive of Mordack herself), and . . . do something vaguely romantic.  His quest goes quickly awry, however, when a storm wrecks his ship on the rocks surrounding an island they’d been making toward.  His crew lost, his ship destroyed, Alexander sets off to explore the island, and discovers he’s made it to the Land of the Green Isles, the very place Cassima is from.

From there, Alexander can explore the islands at will.  His ultimate goal, of course, is to get to Cassima, but along the way he meets people who reveal more information to him, information that eventually leads him to infiltrate the castle and overthrow the visier, Abdul Alhazred.  How you do this is entirely up to you.  You can sneak into the castle in disguise, or you can magic yourself up a door.  You can even journey to the underworld and win back the souls of Cassima’s murdered parents.

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The five islands in the game are all themed around different stories or mythologies.  The Island of the Crown looks like something out of the 1001 Nights, for example, while the Isle of Wonder is very Lewis Carroll-esque.  The Isle of the Sacred Mountain might be my favorite, themed after Greek and Roman mythology, the island is inhabited by winged humans known as The Winged Ones, and you have to solve a series of copy protection puzzles (answers provided by the excellently written Guidebook to the Green Isles, aka the manual) to access most of the island.  There’s also the Isle of the Beast, a wooded island with many traps to spring before you can advance further into the island, and the Isle of the Mists, a legendary island shrouded in fog, and inhabited by druids who may just want to roast you alive in tribute to the Sacred Oak.

Perhaps the most notable thing about this game, though, is Jane Jensen.  Working closely with Roberta Williams, Jensen was able to help Sierra fully realize the storytelling possibilities of the point-and-click format, and was responsible for a lot of the writing and game design, although Williams was also very involved in the development.  Jensen thought of the game’s plot as a “string of pearls,” with puzzles unlocking new information and areas as you solve them, and making the story dependent on the puzzles.  They also used the magic map idea again, to great effect here, as an integral part of the story is that there are no boats running between islands, and therefore each island is isolated from the rest of the country.

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The branching paths are quite interesting as well, as the ending reflects what you did and didn’t do during the game–for example, did you meet Jollo and discuss the vizier with him?  Did you pick the right lamp from the lampseller?  Did you infiltrate the castle in disguise, or did you magic up a door?  And did you find your way into the treasury and secret passages in the castle?  Did you remember to give Cassima some tokens of your affection throughout the game?  If you take the shortest path (sneaking into the castle in disguise) you can still find hints and items needed for the longer path, which (when I finished the short path in high school) made me curious how the game would change and what else I could find if I tried solving the game the longer way.

When I was replaying the game for this review, I was struck by just how well this game does hold up, almost thirty years later.  The storytelling is a big part of this, and for that reason alone I would recommend playing this game.  It’s a wonderful game, fully deserving of five stars, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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A note:  I realized recently that I don’t actually own King’s Quest VII or VIII.  While not owning Mask of Eternity is no big deal to me, as I would like this blog to focus mainly on adventure games, not having The Princeless Bride means that, for now at least, this is the finale to my King’s Quest reviews.  Once I do have a copy, I’ll finish up the adventure game portion of the King’s Quest games, but for now, we bid Daventry adieu.  Next stop?  New Orleans, Louisiana, for some murder mystery goodness.

Images are from Google.  Please let me know if you would like your image credited or removed.

 

King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder

A kind-of spoilery, highly biased review.

Since 1984, Sierra On-Line had been releasing a game in their flagship series, the King’s Quest series, at least once every two years.  It was the proving ground for new technologies, new story ideas, new writers and programmers, and in general was one of the most lucrative properties in the Sierra catalog.  The fifth entry in the series was no exception, but this time the game was not entirely the success the earlier games had been.

King’s Quest V:  Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder moved from the previous standard of EGA graphics to VGA graphics, meaning the game and its environments could be incredibly detailed and painterly.  The game also moved from the text parser to the point and click interface.  Roberta Williams was quoted after the games release as saying that she approved of the change, and didn’t regret it, because she’d noticed her mother struggling to play the earlier games.  “My own mother couldn’t play my games!” she exclaimed in an interview defending the controversial change.  In response to the concern that the game would be too easy, puzzles that have since been accused of “moon logic” and unfair solutions were introduced to the game.

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In what appears to be an attempt at the branching paths from the last game, Graham can take or leave or ignore several items and events, and different solutions to the same puzzle could cause you to become stuck in an unwinnable state later on in the game.  While unwinnable states were not unheard of in Sierra games to this point, King’s Quest V seemed to have more of them, and more ridiculously obscure causes for the unwinnable state, including eating a custard pie (instead of some mutton, which you probably missed or didn’t think to look for), missing something in the desert (which requires you to basically map the entire desert area or find yourself in an unwinnable state), or entering the witch’s forest too soon in the game and/or without certain items.

Aside from these oddly designed, awkwardly presented, sometimes unfair puzzles, the story suffered due to Roberta Williams’ own, admitted shortsightedness when it came to the potential of the point-and-click interface.  Perhaps because she was so used to the text parser, she seems not to have realized that puzzles based around having to look at everything in the room would work very poorly when you didn’t have a pop-up telling you information about where to look next.  Yes, King’s Quest V has a narrator, but the narrator often stops at describing the room, and doesn’t add in things like, “There is a cupboard on the east wall,” instead maybe only mentioning cupboards in general, which might be in several places, or (as in the toy shop) only giving a general description of the scene and its inhabitants without commenting on things that you can interact with.

The game was released in two formats for PC, the traditional floppy disks, and a CD-ROM version.  The floppy release used the standard text boxes, although with character portraits that were more detailed than anything seen in previous games.  The CD-ROM version, on the other hand, had a full voice cast, and no text option.  The vocal talent used ranges from the good to the horrible.  Most of the main cast is pretty good, but Cedric, King Graham’s owl companion, is notably annoying to most people.  Most versions of the game currently available are the CD-ROM version, so do be aware of that when purchasing.  The game was also ported to several other systems, including the Nintendo (NES) and Amiga consoles, although these versions seem to have considerably inferior graphics.

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Graham was a hunky looking, former pro-wrestler, apparently.  I’m down, Sierra, I’m down.

The characters, particularly King Graham, are what really interest me in this game.  This is the first adventure game I’ve ever played, and as such, I have a soft spot for it, even though it is one of the more difficult games in the series.  I really felt like I got to know Graham, and I found the characters he interacted with fascinating, especially the ones with very little backstory.  Why is Crispin losing his magical abilities?  How do you get to be a wizard like him?  What’s up with Mordack?  Why is he so evil?  Was he always evil?  Did he start being evil because his brother became a cat, or was he always evil?  Why was his best idea for revenge to put everyone in a bottle?  And why didn’t he check whether Graham was there or not, since Graham is clearly the biggest threat to him as far as mucking up his evil plans go?  Did the weeping willow princess ever marry Herbert?  How can you take someone’s heart out of their chest (thank you, Once Upon a Time, for clearing that up for me, I approve)?  Why turn a heart to gold, wouldn’t it be more evil to just destroy it so the weeping willow is stuck as a tree forever?  Why can’t Graham talk to the fortune teller more than once?  Where does she go when she disappears?  Why are the harpies so mean (mythology was not a passion at that point)?  Are there more mermaids or just Pearl?  Who left that boat there in such a convenient place for Graham to find?  Why did Cedric end up as a wizard’s familiar?  Why does he then hang out with Graham for the whole adventure?

It’s obvious I have a bias toward this game.  I don’t even find Cedric all that annoying, although he’s often the first thing people complain about when reviewing or even just talking about this game.  It was the first adventure game I’d played, although not the first I played on my own, and my father and I spent hours before bedtime questing with Graham through Serenia, mapping out the desert (I still have the original, hand-drawn map my father did), and fighting the Yeti.  I love this game, and I don’t care that it’s kind of horrible with it’s logic.  I don’t care about its flaws.  I just don’t care.

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I am as baffled when people say they don’t like this game as the witch when she realizes she can’t ensorcel Graham.

But that said, while it’s terribly nostalgic for me, I one-hundred percent understand that this won’t be for everyone.  I’d even go so far as to say that maaaaaybe you should skip this one unless you’re a completionist or a major fan of the form.  But this is, to my mind at least, a terrifically fun game.  I enjoy it every time I play it, and find the graphics gorgeous.  It’s not the best King’s Quest game, but it’s fun, and silly, and if you don’t mind the “throw everything in your inventory at the problem until you get it right” method of problem solving, Graham’s journey as he quests to save his family will be a fun experience for you.

Despite my understanding this game’s flaws, I still give this game four out of five stars.

Images . . . *sigh* from Google.  I tried using ScummVM’s built-in screenshot function but something went wrong and none of them saved.  Alas.  As always, if I’ve used your image, please let me know if you’d like it credited or removed.

King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella

This review will be pretty spoilery.  Although I won’t go into puzzle solutions, main plot points will be discussed.

In 1988, Sierra On-Line broke ground once again with their release of King’s Quest IV:  The Perils of Rosella.  This game was the first for quite a few things, including having an actual soundtrack, using the SCI engine, having a female protagonist, and having some brutal copy protection.  The Perils of Rosella not only leaped forward technologically and sociologically, but with regard to story as well, having a well-structured narrative and branching endings depending on your in-game choices.

Probably the most important of these advances to me on a personal level is that Rosella is quite possibly the first female video game protagonist (although this depends on who you ask).  She certainly seems to be the first of the Sierra adventure game protagonists to be female, followed by Laura Bow the next year.  Playing as the very clearly female Rosella seemed somehow special, in a way that playing Laura Bow just didn’t.  Perhaps this is because Rosella is a character from my childhood, where she makes appearances in both of the next two King’s Quest games.  I’d always heard that Rosella was the star of her own games–finally getting to experience that, even as an adult, was magical.

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In fact, Roberta Williams herself has been quoted as saying that she thought having a female protagonist, especially for the King’s Quest games, was “the next logical step.”  She was also aware that her games had a fairly large female audience.  “I knew the female lead is just fine for women and girls who play the game, but wasn’t sure how it would go over with some of the men. And you know what? It wasn’t as controversial as I expected (from Roberta Williams Anthology manual, 1996, quoted from sierragamers.com).”  What was controversial was King Graham’s role in the story.

At some point before the release of King’s Quest IV (I couldn’t find a date cited anywhere, but it does seem to have happened), part of the plot of the game was leaked:  King Graham would have a heart attack and may even die as part of the new game.  A letter writing campaign was started, and many fans protested their beloved King being killed.  As anyone who’s played the game knows, Graham’s heart attack is central to the plot, but canonically, Graham doesn’t die–although this does bring me to another improvement the game made.  In KQIV, the player’s in-game choices directly affect the ending of the game, and the path branches off accordingly.  While this branching path mechanic would be brought to it’s full potential in King’s Quest VI:  Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, it’s inclusion here was delightful to see, and added gravitas and a little solemnity to the end of the game.  In fact, the tone of the game is actually quite a bit more serious than the previous games in the series, which is perhaps a good choice for a story that centers on the sickness and potential death of a beloved father figure.

On the technical side, the game boasted a new mechanic that was an interesting evolution of the in-game timer from King’s Quest III.  Instead of a visible timer telling you how much time you’d spent playing, in KQIV you’re given a twenty-four hour time limit.  There are a few clocks throughout the land of Tamir that you can check, one in the scary old mansion, another in the Seven Dwarves’ house.  Of course, if you complete your tasks before the twenty-four hours is up, time skips ahead, most notably when the game shifts from day to night after completing a side-quest.

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The game also supported the use of a sound card, meaning that instead of tinny, PC-speaker sound effects, we’re treated to actual music in-game during certain scenes and in certain locations.  The music is actually quite lovely, and truly does add positively to the mood of the game.  Sierra even hired a composer to write the music and perform the soundtrack, meaning that the music has some actual complexity, and there are themes for different characters and locations that are repeated over the course of game play.

Perhaps the most important technological achievement, though, is the use of the new SCI game engine, instead of the standard AGI.  To refresh for those of us (like myself) who have no idea what that means, AGI was the first game interpreter Sierra developed.  It was used for the first King’s Quest game, and had been what most games were developed with up until 1988.  While Sierra had pioneered the game engine, the Adventure Game Interpreter was designed with selling it to other game companies in mind.  It also was supposed to be pretty idiot proof, meaning that anyone could learn how to use it, even if you didn’t have any experience in programming.  The SCI engine (Sierra Creative Interpreter), however, was considered proprietary.  It allowed more colors to be used, and was considered quite advanced–so advanced, in fact, that Sierra released the game in both AGI and SCI versions, so that their fans who didn’t have access to the newest computers could still play the game.

The Perils of Rosella is a joy to play.  I will admit there were a couple of scenes where Rosella was treated like glass because she’s a GIRL, but they were fairly brief, and most of the plot seemed like any video game protagonist could have been slotted in without changing much of the story.  The story itself is a nice departure from the standard “saving the kingdom” plot, although Rosella does kind of save Tamir, if you think about it.  Her main aim, though, is to save her father.  There’s really something to be said for simpler goals like that, especially with the time crunch added in.

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The goal of the game is to get a magical fruit that can cure any illness, and to help Genesta, a good fairy, get her magic talisman back, thereby restoring her power.  The talisman is now in the possession of Lolotte, an evil fairy, who terrorizes the country of Tamir.  In order to gain Lolotte’s trust, we must do three tasks for her–three fetch-quests, actually.  These quests require you to interact with the residents of Tamir, including the undead ones.  You’ll lift a few curses, rob a few graves, and make friends with several characters from fairy tales and mythology, all as usual.

The addition of the ability to use a mouse to guide Rosella is a welcome one, although you can’t point-and-click just yet (that will happen soon, though!).  Stairs were much less difficult in this game, as were mountainous cliffs.  The infamous whale-tongue puzzle was admittedly frustrating, although it didn’t take me nearly as long as I thought it would from the way I’d heard it talked of by other reviewers.

I also thought it was nice that you could get the magical fruit at any point in the game, since obtaining the fruit is only one of your objectives in the game, the other being to retrieve the good fairy Genesta’s magic talisman.

My only real beef with this game is the unicorn.  I am still angry about having to turn that unicorn over to Lolotte.  WHY?  And while I know we can free it at the end of the game, I’m still mad that I went to all that trouble to coax it into being friends with me only to have to betray it’s trust!  That, I think, is the true beauty of the game–it made me think about the tasks Lolotte had given me, why I was unquestioningly completing them, if it would be worth enslaving innocent creatures in order to save my father, whether I truly had any choice in the matter.  I was invested in this game, and the personal stakes helped that feeling of needing to see the quest to its completion.

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King’s Quest IV:  The Perils of Rosella continues the series’ tendency to top itself with each entry.  I truly enjoyed this game, and found it both exciting to look at and enthralling to play.  Four out of five stars.

Images are my still from Google, let me know if you want your image credited or removed.  I am working on getting my own screen-shots for future reviews, but I don’t have a good way to capture in-game images at the moment.

King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human

Wow.  Just wow.  This game.  This game is . . . amazing?  Brutal?  Frustrating?  The most fun I’ve had playing a game in a long time?  Complicated?  All of the above?

Released in 1986 to much acclaim, the third entry in the King’s Quest series is . . . well, see the first paragraph.  Taking off from the technological achievements of the first game and the story achievements of the second, King’s Quest III is probably the best of the first three games.  Sierra clearly knows what they’re doing with the 16-color graphics, and the story is even tighter than in the second game.

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The most obvious progression of the story is that this game doesn’t star our beloved King Graham.  We’re not even in Daventry for the beginning of this game; instead we start out in a completely new kingdom called Llewdor, where our protagonist, Gwydion, has been held captive his entire life by an evil wizard named Manannan.

Gwydion, as it turned out, was quite controversial at the time (or at least, that’s what various sources of dubious legitimacy I found on the internet would lead me to believe).  Fans of the series were upset that this new, seemingly unrelated character was starring in a King’s Quest game, and since they didn’t have the benefit of walkthroughs, it took some actual time for Gwydion’s connection to King Graham and Daventry to come to light.  This is made even more understandable when coupled with the game’s ridiculous time mechanic.  See, in order to get out of Llewdor and find out who your real parents are (because obviously you’re not Manannan’s son), you have to sneak around while the evil wizard is off doing evil wizard things.  Which he’ll do for 20-30 minute chunks of time, depending on various factors that apparently include which version of the game you’re playing, the in-game clock, if Gwydion has done the things Manannan asks, and apparently just some random chance.  If you’re caught with anything that can be used for magic, you’ll get zapped into oblivion by Manannan.  If you’re caught out of Manannan’s house and grounds, same deal.  So you have to pay attention to timing and make sure you’re back at the wizard’s house, with everything put away and no magic items on your person before Manannan returns.

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The time mechanic actually makes the beginning of the game really tense and difficult, since you’re having to figure out what you’re doing, how long you have to do it, and how to find everything you need all at once.  Seriously, the time mechanic makes the first two hours of this game absolutely brutal, as does the precision the game demands of you when attempting to cast spells.  I probably spent over an hour just trying to get one, single spell right.  Once I figured out the game’s quirks about phrasing and typing precision, the rest of the spells were easy enough, but sometimes I had to try upwards of ten or fifteen times before I got the ingredients, directions, incantation, and spell storage right.

The spell casting sections of the game also served as a possibly unintentional form of copy protection.  Copy protection, and the lengths game companies would go to in order to stop piracy in the late eighties and early nineties, are the source of many a retro-gamer’s absolute frustration and annoyance.  Basically, the idea was to put something in the manual that you’d need in the game, so only those with the manual could play the game all the way through.  In this case, it’s believed that the very detailed spells were unintentional copy protection.  Most contemporary reviews seem to either not mention it, or to mention it as an interesting game feature.  Regardless, you’re going to need some form of manual for this game, since you can’t finish the game without doing magic.

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Another source of some controversy around this game is the magic map mechanic.  Early in the game you are able to find a magic map that fills itself in as Gwydion explores the kingdom of Llewdor.  Once a place is on the map, Gwydion can teleport there using the map.  Apparently, some fans thought this made the game too easy, which makes me laugh because I probably couldn’t have gotten through this game with the time mechanic in place and the fairly expansive land of Llewdor without that map.  In any case, Sierra never used this particular game mechanic again, choosing not to use magic maps for the next two games, and eventually using a much modified magic map in King’s Quest VI.

I have mixed feelings about this game.  I really did love it, but most of my love is for the beginning, in Llewdor.  Once we leave Llewdor, the game seemed a little too predictable, and felt especially easy after the time crunch of the first two thirds of the game.  Also, when we get to Daventry it’s just sad to see the state it’s in.  We’ve spent a whole game in Daventry, and seeing it laid waste is just depressing, especially when we see a lot of the central set pieces from the first game in ruin.  To be fair, the supplemental material released for the game filled in a lot of questions about how the kingdom got to this state, and why, and what Graham and Valanice have been doing.  But even at the time I doubt most players would have read the companion novel, or any of the tie-in material.

Before I give a final rating, I would just like to mention that I made a mistake in my King’s Quest II review when I stated that ADGInteractive/ADG Studios made a shot-for-shot remake of this game.  The correct studio for that remake is actually done by Infamous Adventures.  ADG Studios did release King’s Quest III Redux in 2011, which, in much the same way as their King’s Quest II remake, expanded upon the story and wove in the plot lines that they’d begun adding to the games in order to make the entire franchise a more cohesive whole.  I have played the Infamous Adventures remake, and it’s quite well done, but I haven’t tried the ADG Studios version yet.

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So, what to rate this game?  Despite everything, I enjoyed it just as much or more than King’s Quest II.  But even with this in mind, I didn’t enjoy the final part of the game, and found the ending left me with more questions than it answered.  Don’t get me wrong, I do actually recommend playing this game.  It was an extremely rewarding experience to outfox Manannan and find my way out of Llewdor.  And critique it though I may, this is really a solid game with a good story and a real challenge for the player.  I really can’t let that ending go, though.  Three and a half out of five stars.

Images are from Google.  As always if you would like your image removed or credited, please let me know.

King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne

This review is slightly spoilery.  No major plot points or puzzle solutions will be spoiled, but general discussion of the game’s plot may include spoilers for some scenes, characters, and locations.

If it isn’t obvious by now, I adore the King’s Quest games.  They are absolutely my favorite adventure games ever created, and that is an entirely biased opinion on my part that has a lot to do with childhood memories and my own love of mashed up worlds that include literature and mythology.  In college, when my depression and anxiety were close to the worst they’ve ever been, one of the few things that got me out of my bed was this game–kind of.

King’s Quest II:  Romancing the Throne picks up where the first game left off.  Graham, now king of Daventry, decides it’s time to take a bride, and when no suitable matches are found in his kingdom, follows the magic mirror’s advice and travels to nearby Kolyma, where there’s a girl locked in a tower.  Clearly, it’s love!

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In a lot of ways, this game feels like the prototype for King’s Quest VI.  There are a lot of similar elements–the hero of the game travels to a distant land to find a bride, is left on his own when he arrives, has a face-off with a dark force, travels to a different dimension, before ultimately rescuing and marrying the “girl in the tower.”  As progressive as Sierra sometimes seemed, traditional narratives like this are really what they excelled at.  King’s Quest II is a quintessential fantasy quest story, with many familiar elements that seem dated by today’s standards.   When it first launched in 1985, however, it was (technologically at least) still on the cutting edge.

This game’s advances over the first are mostly in story elements.  It has the first introductory cut scene, a linear story progression that requires the player to do things in a certain order, and it incorporated music into some scenes, in order to evoke a mood–most noticeably in and around the mysterious castle in the middle of the poisoned lake.  It did, however, have one interesting technological advance–it was the first game to have one version that worked on multiple systems.  This meant that any PC user could buy a copy, and it would work on their machine without any adapting or patching, something previously unheard of in the gaming world.

The game was a critical and commercial success, earning rave reviews across the board.  The linear story line shines, and allows the player to feel much more involved in a story than the first game.  Like the first game there are multiple solutions to some problems, some which are more or less rewarding, and some which leave you in a near unwinnable state.  Those choices also influenced what happened in the game, opening and closing different areas of the map based on the player’s decisions.

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Around 1987, Sierra announced their intentions to remake the first two King’s Quest games using the SCI engine, giving the environments more depth and updating the interface and graphics to give the series a cohesive look.  Unfortunately (or not, depending on your opinions), the update of the original game flopped, getting compared to the controversial practice of colorizing black and white movies, and generally being ill received by both players and critics.  The King’s Quest II update was scrapped as a result, and the game was reissued without alteration instead.

This is where my college experience comes in.  I was over twelve-hours of driving away from home, surrounded by people at all times, living in a college dorm and attending classes I didn’t like.  I was homesick, and ached for something–anything–to fill up my time without making me feel like I was imposing myself on someone else.  Desperate, lonely, and feeling more and more out of place, I found myself turning to the internet.  And in my searching, I found ADGInteractive (now ADG Studios).  ADG has very famously remade the first three King’s Quest games, giving the first and third games fairly simple updates aside from a few story elements they added in, in order to give the games a cohesive through-line and plot.  The second game they remade entirely, creating what is basically an entirely new game with new plot elements and side-quests.  It rekindled my interest in computer games, and it’s a rare year ever since that I don’t play at least one adventure game.

And now, a confession:  Until I played it for this review, I had never played the original version of this game.

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That’s right, I’d only played the fanwork version of the game.  I don’t know why, actually.  I’d played the original King’s Quest.  I knew how the game would work.  I think it was my early aversion to text parsers, actually; or maybe the much chunkier graphics, which seemed like such a downgrade compared to the ADG Studios version.  However, as I’ve grown in my gaming, I’ve realized that there’s an element of finesse to the text parser that I actually like.  Also, you can tell it to do things like “Eat Dracula” and that is always hilarious.

This game also takes you more fun places–like under the sea, for example–and uses yet more stories, adding in some Greek mythology and some elements from The One Thousand and One Nights.  Knowing these myths, legends, and tales will help you, as usual, but trial-and-error also work as a strategy when you’re not sure what to do next.  Another good tip for this game is that if you find yourself stuck, check back to places you’ve already been.  Sometimes a new area will be open, sometimes a new character will be there, and sometimes an item will have dropped.  Exploring the map multiple times usually yields some sort of reward for the player.

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Playing through this game, I found that the linear story line actually made it easier than the first game, especially if you’re familiar with fairy tales at all.  There were a few tricky puzzles, and one that made me utter really ridiculous grunting noises in frustration, but a working knowledge of adventure games and adventure game logic (and a handy walkthrough, okay, I admit it, I did use one for part of this game) finally got me through.

Overall, I really liked this game, liked it a lot better than the first one, even.  I think this one, due to it’s much more story-like nature, held up better over time.  I’d actually recommend this one as a pretty good starting place for those interested in the old text parser games.  Four out of five stars.

Images courtesy of Google, as always.  If you would like your image credited or removed, please just let me know.

King’s Quest (aka: King’s Quest I: The Quest for the Crown)

This review is mostly spoiler free.  Spoilers given will be minor and should not give away any major plot points or puzzle solutions.

In 1984, Ken and Roberta Williams released a game for the IBM PCjr, a computer that was sort of the equivalent of Apple’s latest technology today.  The computer was released with much fanfare, and King’s Quest was released at the same time, in a move designed to promote the PCjr’s graphics and sound capabilities.  However, the PCjr didn’t perform well, and it wasn’t until the game was released for the Tandy 1000 that sales began to boom.

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The Williamses, standing behind a monitor displaying the witch’s house from this very game.

King’s Quest was groundbreaking.  It pioneered the use of what was then called “3D animation” to give depth to the game screens, allowing characters to walk around, behind, and in front of objects.  It used lateral thinking, inventory object puzzles, and a sophisticated map so the player could complete tasks.  And it was the first game to use what is now known as the AGI game engine, which allowed them to release and market the game after the PCjr was pulled from the market only a year after it’s initial release.  In fact, sales of King’s Quest took off after the game was reprogrammed to work on multiple systems, and made the game a bigger success than the computer it was originally designed for.

The game took eighteen months to make, and cost the Williams’ start-up company, Sierra On-Line, $700,000, most of which was provided by IBM.  King’s Quest launched a series of sequel games, novels, tie-in merchandise, and a surprising number of fan games, some of which can be found as online freeware.  In America, the King’s Quest franchise is the best known of all the Sierra games, and holds a special place in the hearts of many retro gamers and video game nerds who grew up in the eighties and nineties.

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Of this, the original game, and the concept behind it, Roberta Williams has been quoted as saying “it’s the ultimate cartoon–a cartoon [the player] can participate in.”  In fact, the aesthetic of the game is quite cartoony.  Everything is brightly colored and cheerful.  Sir Graham, the player-controlled character, wears a jaunty blue hat and red tunic, and if he falls from a safe height, an 8-bit crash noise plays, the screen shakes, and a pop-up message reading “OUCH!” appears.  Despite the game’s cartoon-like appearance and spirit, there are a few places where I get genuinely tense.  On certain screens, a witch, wolf, ogre, wizard, or evil dwarf will appear; at a certain point in the game, you are chased by a giant (and must find a way to deal with him in order to progress forward).  The game is never truly scary, but the suspense element of “will I get away?” remains, even if you’ve found an easy way to cheat the system (stay near the edges of the screen and you’ll always be able to leave quickly if a monster appears), or have the magic items needed to protect you from the monsters.

The actual plot of the game is simple:  King Edward, the elderly king that you serve, has realized that he’s nearing the end of his life.  He tasks you, his bravest and most faithful knight, to prove yourself worthy of inheriting his throne.  The king tells you about three treasures you must find to restore prosperity and peace to the kingdom, a magic mirror, a magic chest, and a magic shield.  You can collect these treasures in any order, and once you have all three you should return to the castle to present them to King Edward.  Along the way, you have the opportunity to discover many other more minor treasures (which begs the question why, if golden walnuts grow on trees, is the kingdom suffering so from poverty?), some of which you will need in order to complete other parts of your quest.

This first game is a simple game, from narrative structure to game design.  Once you know what you’re doing, it’s easy enough to finish the game in a matter of hours–by my calculations it took me around three hours of easy, often interrupted game play to finish this time.

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One of the biggest features of this game (which is a feature I love, and wish more modern adventure games would start incorporating) is the multiple solutions to the same problem.  In this game, regardless of what you choose, the outcome is the same, but in later games, your decisions would directly affect the ending of the game.  The best example of this comes in King’s Quest VI, where depending on who you’ve befriended, how you deal with certain magical problems, how you infiltrate the castle, and how much of the castle you explore, your ending will vary accordingly.  In this game, the only thing affected is the points you receive, but the various ways to deal with giants, witches, leprechauns, and the other creatures you meet do have some effect on in-game events.  For example, early in the game, you can make the choice whether or not to bow to the King before beginning to speak to him.  The outcome of the game won’t change, nor will your quest, but the king’s attitude is different when you bow, and that score goes up a little.

Of course, one of the many things Sierra On-Line is famous for is the ridiculous number of things you can do that will get you killed, and the narrator’s sassy descriptions or responses to them.  In this game, most of the things that are deadly are fairly obvious, but taking to heart Sierra’s own advice to “save early, save often” is never going to be a bad idea.  However, I didn’t find the in-game deaths particularly outrageous, frequent, or annoying.  My tolerance for them may be higher, however, since I grew up playing the later games in this series, and am fairly used to the way Sierra deaths work.  Of course there are some puzzles that are highly annoying, and result in death if you aren’t exactly perfect at them, but saving multiple times throughout the challenge will help make things less horrible and frustrating.

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The final thing I wanted to touch on here is the game’s mechanics.  This game is controlled via arrow keys.  Commands are entered using a text parser.  And, this being one of the earlier games to use text parsers, the available commands are fairly basic.  You can get through this game without using much more than your basic “look,” “take,” “talk,” and “use” commands.  The parser isn’t sophisticated enough to understand much more than that, and for the most part you don’t need many other commands or actions (exception being, perhaps, “climb,” which I used a few times in various situations, to varying degrees of success).

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King’s Quest remains one of my favorite text-parser based adventure games.  With a little knowledge of fairy tales and literature, and the patience to keep trying over and over again, it’s still a fun game, and worth playing if you’re interested in text parser games or in early Sierra titles.  However, it’s quite dated, and has such little plot in it that I can’t universally recommend it.  Three out of five stars.

Images found via Google.  Credit to sierragamers.com for the picture of Ken and Roberta Williams.  Most screenshots from ign.com.