It’s always pleasing when a technological advance lines up neatly with a decade, and sure enough, computer games took a huge step forward in 1990. The latter three King’s Quest games feature 256-color raster graphics, point-and-click interfaces, and CD releases with full voice acting. But a game is more than its technical achievements. Were they any good? Let’s have a look at King’s Quest V-VII. You can read my take on King’s Quest I-IV here.
King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder
King Graham is back in the lead role in this installment. With its major technical advances, King’s Quest V made a big splash. Unfortunately, it didn’t take advantage of the expanded storytelling opportunities allowed by the new medium. It has the simplest story since the first two games. Did we really need a 10-minute intro to tell us “An evil wizard made the castle disappear and you need to get it back?”
King’s Quest V has lots of potential, but rarely lives up to it. You can talk to animals, but most of the animals in the game (the cat, the dog, the ox) won’t say anything to you, not even a throwaway joke. Cedric the cute-annoying owl follows you around for the whole game, but for the vast majority of it, he doesn’t say or do anything useful, either. And until the end, the magic wand only comes into play in occasional copy-protection events.
The threadbare parts of the franchise are starting to show at this point. King’s Quest V takes place in Serenia, ostensibly a different place than Daventry, but they both look like generic medieval Europe. There’s a big, empty desert area with that will have even the most dedicated players looking up a walkthrough. And while voice acting was a great novelty at the time, this voice acting, unfortunately, was all done by Sierra employees (listen for Roberta Williams herself, voicing the rat and the harpies).
The game finally hits its stride in the last act, when you get to the evil wizard’s castle. There are some clever puzzles, including a bizarre machine that recharges the magic wand, culminating in an easy but highly entertaining boss fight that I won’t spoil for you.
King’s Quest V isn’t a bad game by any means; it’s perfectly entertaining and fondly remembered. It’s just a rather ordinary game that doesn’t measure up to the level of excellence set by the best installments in the series.
King’s Quest VI: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder
We can’t talk about King’s Quest VI without mentioning another juggernaut of 90’s family entertainment: Disney. 1992 was the height of the Disney Renaissance and the release year of Disney’s Aladdin. In that same year, Sierra released a game with an Arabian Nights-inspired setting including a genie and an evil vizier who wants to marry the princess. If you’re ready for a shameless knockoff, you’re in for a surprise: King’s Quest VI is the most creative and original game in the entire series.
Prince Alexander (Gwydion got a name change) heads to the land of the Green Isles to find Princess Cassima, introduced in the previous game. But when he gets there, he finds the princess locked up and the islands on the brink of war. He must defeat the vizier and his genie sidekick in order to free the princess and restore peace to the Green Isles.
The fact that it takes more than a sentence to summarize the plot shows how substantial the game is compared to its predecessors. It’s a search for a princess, like King’s Quest II, but instead of overcoming a series of arbitrary obstacles to find a generic princess, Alexander already knows the princess (okay, he’s met her once, but that counts as backstory in adventure-game terms), and he must learn about the islands’ history and culture in order to figure out what happened and how to fix it. The characters are drawn with care, so that even roles like the obstructive castle guards have plausible motivations.
The rest of King’s Quest VI demonstrates the same care. The puzzles are clever and unusual, including a Hole in the Wall that allows you to look into adjacent rooms and an entire fabulous plotline that involves going to the underworld. There are multiple solutions to several puzzles, leading to a wide range of possible variant endings. The writing is tight and lively (don’t miss the shelf in the pawn shop stocked with plot items from previous games). There are real voice actors this time, thankfully. The scenery is lush and visually interesting, ranging from the whimsical Isle of Wonders to the gruesome underworld. For once, a game that takes place in a different country actually looks like a whole different place.
The flaws are few. Death by falling is still way too easy, and there are some 3D cutscenes that haven’t aged well. Cassima is a pretty egregious damsel, though King’s Quest II and III were both worse offenders. King’s Quest VI is the best game in the series by a solid margin. If you’re new to the King’s Quest franchise and wondering where to jump in, this is the place.
King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride
Oh boy, this is a contentious one. King’s Quest VII embraced the Disney princess trend with open arms, from its cartoony graphics to the intro featuring an actual I Want song. Fans were not pleased at the drastic departure from the series’ established tone and aesthetic. Some of the other King’s Quest games are lackluster, but this is the only one with an actual hatedom. But let’s look past that and consider it on its own merits. It was advertised as a “heartwarmingly humorous cinematic adventure.” How well does it succeed?
It’s a mixed bag. Let’s look at the positives first. It’s refreshing to see female characters back in the lead role, and the neglected Queen Valanice finally gets some well-deserved screen time. And it’s a mother-daughter story, vanishingly rare not just in games, but in all media. The scenery is cartoony, but detailed and distinctive. In particular, Valanice’s opening scene is great: it takes place in a desert resembling the American southwest, a setting rarely seen outside post-apocalyptic games, and it includes some very interesting puzzles. And throughout the game, there’s a lot of fun humor. Who doesn’t like the mockingbird?
King’s Quest VII found an interesting way to incorporate 3D: When you examine objects, instead of a written description, you get a 3D view that you can rotate to reveal hidden details. This function is underutilized, but it’s a clever idea. I think accusations that the interface is too simplistic are unfounded.
Alas, there are some serious downsides. The lighter aesthetic leads to some tonal dissonance; it can feel like misplaced priorities to be on trial for moon theft in Falderal when the world is in imminent danger of being wiped out by a volcano.
And then there’s the plot. The evil sorceress Malicia tried to take over Etheria except Oberon and Titania stopped her, and now she’s kidnapped Edgar from King’s Quest IV, who turns out to be the son of Oberon and Titania, and she turned him into the troll king and mind controlled him so he could take the place of the real troll king, who she imprisoned, so he can use the trolls’ volcano to blow up Etheria, but while she was kidnapping him he grabbed Rosella and accidentally turned her into a troll too and took her with him and Valanice goes after her but ends up in the desert instead, and Edgar wants to marry Rosella but she doesn’t realize it’s him, so she has to turn herself back into a human and find Valanice and free the real troll king so he can stop the volcano from erupting and turn Edgar back and free him from mind control and find out what happened to Oberon and Titania and defeat Malicia.
And how many different families torn apart by magic do you end up reuniting?
The King’s Quest series isn’t just a bit of nostalgia for 90s kids. They’re well-designed, high-quality games that still offer a rewarding gameplay experience for anyone willing to step back and give them a try. Here’s to hoping that the new series sparks a renewed interest in the franchise so that the legacy of Roberta Williams will live on.
In honor of the new King’s Quest series now being painfully slowly rolled out, let’s take a retrospective look at one of the most seminal computer game series of the 90s: King’s Quest.
King’s Quest was the brain child of Roberta Williams, one of the three great computer game auteurs. It was a series of eight medieval-themed graphics adventure games starring the archer-hatted King Graham and his family. Released between 1983 and 1994, this series was an important touchstone still fondly remembered by kids of that era.
The series can be divided into two parts: The 80s games (I-IV), which featured 16-color graphics and a parser interface, and the 90s games (V-VII), which featured 256 colors and a point-and-click interface. (I won’t be addressing King’s Quest VIII, which I feel differs too much to be really considered part of the series.) Let’s jump right in with King’s Quest I.
King’s Quest I: Quest for the Crown
The king is dying, and Sir Graham must find three treasures to prove himself worthy of taking the throne. The story was simple, but the game was revolutionary. Bursting into a world of text-only games and static graphics, King’s Quest allowed you to actually watch Graham moving around and exploring a lush, expansive world. (Fun fact: To save memory, the first four King’s Quest games use vector graphics instead of raster. The visuals become incredibly impressive when you imagine the time it took to encode them that way.)
Unfortunately, the graphics and animation that wowed players in 1983 are almost unplayable now. Many of us of a certain age are fond of old graphics, but there’s old and there’s old. King’s Quest’s 16-color 200×160 vectors are so basic that it’s sometimes hard to tell what you’re looking at. The big open-format map that wraps on all sides (is Daventry a torus?) impressed contemporary players, for whom simply wandering around a map and looking at things were new experiences, but nowadays it feels poorly designed because many of the screens don’t feature any gameplay elements at all. Plus, let’s face it, both Daventry and Sir Graham are generic as hell.
Modern players often complain about the parser, which requires players to type commands in order to control Graham. It was such an impediment that fans released free remakes of all four games with point-and-click interfaces (I didn’t like the remakes and won’t be addressing them). Coupled with the rudimentary graphics, the parser can be a frustrating experience when you find yourself trying to examine that blob of yellow pixels, but it has its advantages. Using commands like “jump” and “dive,” it requires players to think more carefully about their choices and take a more lateral approach than the “use this on that” mindset of point-and-click adventures. Still, I don’t fault anyone who finds the parser an insurmountable obstacle.
King’s Quest I introduced a beloved protagonist and introduced many standards of the franchise, like the incorporation of fairy tales, and of adventure games as a whole. If you can get past its limitations, it’s well worth checking out for a student of computer game history.
King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne
Just kidding. But honestly, there isn’t much to say about this one. Graham is king now, though he still wears his adventuring hat, and he’s off to find himself a bride.
Some of the awkward parts of King’s Quest I have been improved—there are no more big sections of map that don’t do anything—and, generally, the graphics-adventure format seemed to be hitting its stride, but like the first game, the graphics and gameplay that earned high praise at the time offer very little to the modern player. The story and characters are rudimentary and not very memorable. The puzzles are challenging, but also don’t stand out. There’s a visually striking (for the time) bit where you pass through a magic door into a bizarre-looking world with blue ground and purple water, but the princess you find there is disappointingly normal.
King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human
In terms of story and gameplay, King’s Quest III is a huge leap forward. King Graham’s son, Gwydion, has been kidnapped by an evil wizard. In order to escape, he must steal the wizard’s wand and cast various spells, eventually—and delightfully—turning the wizard into a cat.
It’s a great concept. How well it succeeds, though, is a matter of opinion. The wizard appears and disappears at regular intervals and he’ll kill you if he catches you in the act, so you need to take the wand, leave the castle, run around looking for spell components, rush back to the castle, put the wand back, and hide all the spell components under your bed before he returns, and that’s not counting the time spent figuring out that that’s what you need to do.
As a result, the ratio of actual exploring and puzzle-solving to walking to and from the castle and hiding things is rather low, and instead of the other games’ leisurely atmosphere of exploration, this game’s first act constantly feels in a hurry.
Once you transform the wizard, the plot switches to the journey home and becomes more conventional. The puzzles, which use the spells you learned earlier, are fun and creative, and some of the spells you cast are pretty awesome.
All in all, I have mixed feelings about King’s Quest III. The mechanics can be frustrating, but it’s innovative and features the most interesting and unique mechanics in the whole series. By all means, give it a try.
King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella
This is by far the most well-remembered of the first four games, and for one thing: It’s the one about a girl. Targeting a computer game at girls was an innovation at the time and no doubt contributed to its success, but how does it hold up otherwise?
While King’s Quest III began to focus on plot, in King’s Quest IV, plot is king. King Graham is sick and Rosella must fetch the fruit that can save him, along the way saving the life of a good fairy and defeating an evil one. “Can a computer game make you cry?” asked the advertisements. There’s a 10-minute intro animation, and the subsequent game features, for the first time, complex characters who aren’t all simple archetypes. Interestingly, Rosella spends most of the game forced to do quests for the villain.
Though it would be quickly overshadowed by King’s Quest V, the technical achievements of King’s Quest IV match its storytelling. It features higher resolution, mouse support, a better parser, and sound card support, and it makes great use of all of them. In particular, scary parts like the haunted mansion evoke a genuinely creepy atmosphere. It also features a real-time element: Day eventually turns to night, and certain quests must be completed before then.
The weaknesses of King’s Quest IV are mostly present in the other games as well, but become noticeable here because of the game’s overall high quality: Staircases where you can easily fall and die, items that break if you use them one too many times, and generally being overly punishing.
This is the game that’s worth mastering the parser for. As to whether it will make you cry…well, that depends on whether you manage to save King Graham.
But King’s Quest IV barely hinted at the massive changes that would overhaul computer games in the 90s. Next time, I’ll look at the franchise’s second generation: King’s Quest V-VII.
*The other two being, of course, Brian Fargo and Sid Meiers.