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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.