Why I Love King's Quest

King's Quest was my introduction to the wonderful world of computer games, and in particular adventure games. My parents, who can't even set the clock on the vcr, got a used computer from the hospital where my mom worked. They bought it because they were told a computer was a good thing to have. It never served them any real purpose but had a life changing effect on me. Anyway, just like with all electronics we owned we had to be very careful unless we break them. It seemed that breaking the computer could be very easily accomplished by typing in the wrong things. Some guy gave us some software to try out on 5 1/2" floppies. One of the titles was King's Quest. On the disk he wrote out the magical words to type to get the program to run (off the disk). He didn't give us any instructions on what to do afterwards though. My parents figured out that you could move around by hitting the arrow keys and we had hours of enjoyment falling into the moat, getting eaten by the ogre, and meeting that fairy (for some reason the fairy said "Good fuck, King Graham"), and getting jailed by the witch. One day as I was enjoying walking around Daventry and I stopped in front of the castle doors. I noticed that if you hit the letter keys on the keyboard they showed up on screen in front of the arrow prompt. So, on a whim I typed "open door". And low and behold the glorious doors to the Castle opened!! It was at that moment I realized I had surpassed my parents technical knowledge forever. From then on I became more addicted to computer games, and more importantly actually figured out how the computer worked (by reading the dos manual, wheee). That, my friends, is why I love King's Quest.

The King's Quest series was the brainchild of Roberta Williams, co-founder of one-time computer game giant Sierra On-Line. It is indisputably the best-known (and arguably most popular) of all of the adventure games and series that came out of the 80s and early/mid 90s, and was to some degree responsible both for the great popularity of the genre early on and for the genre's ultimate decline (to the point where adventure games are now a niche title that - with a couple exceptions1 - only a few small developers make.)

King's Quest began in 1983 when IBM approached Sierra, asking for a game that would showcase the capabilities of a new desktop model that was to go on the market in the next year: the PCjr. The new computer would feature a three-voice PC Speaker, and for a couple hundred dollars extra you could buy a new EGA graphics card that would display a whopping sixteen colors. Sierra agreed, and set about creating a new type of adventure game that would allow the player to move a character about in three dimensions, interacting with various objects and characters on the screen. This was a major diversion from the way adventure games had previously been played. Previously, most games were text only, and there was no "moving around" an area; Sierra's main contribution to the genre up to this point was adding pictures to go with the room descriptions.

Unfortunately, the PCjr flopped. Its odd chiclet keyboard and screen resolution2, proprietary ports, and (worst of all) broken compatibility with software written for XT and AT models led to its quick demise. By 1985 the PCjr was dead and Sierra was in a lot of trouble. They'd put significant resources into the development and production of King's Quest, and now they were going to be left with a lot of backstock. Salvation came in the form of the Tandy 1000, Radio Shack's intended competitor to the PCjr. Compatible with both the PCjr and previous IBM models, the Tandy line quickly gained substantial sales, and with those computer sales came sales of King's Quest. The game became quite popular, and a sequel was demanded.

From that point on, King's Quest became Sierra's flagship franchise. It also became the launching platform from which Sierra tried new things: King's Quest III utilized a new mapping system which allowed the player to move around the land with relative ease (which was left out of later games because players complained it made the game too easy). King's Quest IV, besides showcasing the new SCI game engine (with better graphics and MIDI music and sound effects), was possibly the first commercial computer game to have a female protaganist (a gutsy move in 1988, when the overwhelming majority of computer gamers were male). King's Quest V featured a new icon-driven interface and VGA graphics, but most astonishingly for the time, the CD version featured voice-acting for the game's entire dialogue. King's Quest VI went a step further; while the previous game was voiced entirely by Sierra employees (that is, programmers, artists, musicians, and Roberta Williams herself), Sierra hired several professional voice actors for the task in this game. It also featured an opening movie which weighed in at (what was at the time considered huge) 18 megabytes. Finally, King's Quest VII was the first of Sierra's "one-click-fits-all" games (where there are no icons at all and the click covers any of a range of actions), and King's Quest: Mask of Eternity, which was really more of a 3D hack-and-slash RPG than an adventure game.

Despite its popularity, the King's Quest series had many problems, which also managed to exhibit themselves in Sierra's other adventure franchises (and, to a lesser extent, in those developed by other companies). The first and foremost of these was the absolute inanity of many puzzles, an issue inherited from text adventure games. Many of them relied on your knowledge of children's stories and popular myths. Others required you to have in advance items you had no way of knowing you would need. It was also all-too-easy to lose the game without knowing it; you might eat a certain thing or jump at an inappropriate time or do some other seemingly insignificant thing which turned out to be crucial to the game. (Possibly the most infamous example of this comes from another Sierra franchise, Space Quest. Near the beginning of the second game, there is a point where you get the chance to kiss an alien woman. Should you do this, then thirty hours later when you're almost to the end of the game, an alien larva will burst out of Roger Wilco's chest. This meant you essentially had to start the game all over from the beginning, regardless of saves.) There were also a frustrating number of instant kills which were sometimes completely random - for instance, in KQ2, you might sneak into a dwarf's house, and whether he comes back and kills you before you leave or not is anyone's guess; you just had to keep trying until he didn't. And let's not forget the "mazes" in KQ2 (the brambles in front of Dracula's castle) and KQ3 (a multiscreen path down the mountain from Mannanan's house). One false move with the keyboard, or one misinterpretation of where the edge was, meant death.

These sorts of problems only got worse as time went on; King's Quest V, in particular, is infamous for allowing the tiniest mistake on the part of the player to spell doom (not to mention the "puzzle" which involved walking randomly through the desert until you found a boot). Furthermore, while there was mixed reaction to the icon-driven interface (some disliked the simplification and thought it made the game easier than it should be, others enjoyed it), just about nobody liked the one-click-fits-all interface of King's Quest VII, which somehow managed to make the game more frustrating despite oversimplifying the player's control. By this time, the adventure genre was dying, and in a last-ditch effort at relevance, Williams began work on an expansive, 3D King's Quest which came to be known as "Mask of Eternity". In the end, however, this became (as I noted) more of a hack-and-slash game intermitten with fetch quests, and bore little resemblance to its predecessors. The graphics were mediocre, the gameplay boring, the controls kludgy, the load times atrociously long, and the levels buggy as hell. Perhaps worst of all, though, was the fact that the star of the last King's Quest game was not related to Daventry's royalty at all. (Unlike KQ3, where it was revealed that the main character is really Graham's son, Connor of KQ8 really isn't related. I believe if you win the game, you become heir to the throne because Alexander and Rosella have married off to other kingdoms, but I don't know anyone who actually sat through the whole thing.)

It is doubtful that there will ever be another King's Quest game. The Williams, Coles, and the other designers behind Sierra's adventure games have all either retired or gone off on their own. Sierra's last development studio closed in 2004, and Vivendi (the owner of the company) shows no interest in reviving any of Sierra's old intellectual property, except when they feel like utterly raping it.

If you've never played the King's Quest games and want to see what all the fuss was about, or you're nostalgic for the games but sold off your disks years ago, there are three collections you can look for. The King's Quest Collector's Edition has the first six games, plus a few extras like scans of magazine clippings from Sierra's InterAction magazine and others. The King's Quest Collection collects games one through seven. Finally, the Roberta Williams Anthology contains games one through seven, as well as Phantasmagoria, the Laura Bow games, and some other Sierra adventure games.

Release List

King's Quest (1984) - Apple II, Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, PC Booter, Sega Master System
King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne (1985) - Apple II, Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, PC Booter
King's Quest III: To Heir Is Human (1986) - Apple II, Amiga, Atari ST, DOS
King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella (1988) - Apple II, Amiga, Atari ST, DOS
King's Quest I: Quest For the Crown (1989, remake) - Amiga, DOS
King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder (1990) - Amiga, DOS, NES
King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow (1992) - Amiga, DOS, Windows 3.x
King's Quest VII: The Princeless Bride (1994) - DOS, Macintosh, Windows 3.x, Windows 95
King's Quest: Mask of Eternity (1998) - Windows 95

1: The pipelink here is to a game that hasn't yet been noded, because it won't be out til September of 2005. Trace Memory is an adventure game developed and published by Nintendo for their Nintendo DS handheld. There is also a DS game by Capcom called "Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney" which seems to be in the adventure genre.

2: If you've ever wondered why Sierra's old games look so blocky and strange, it's because of this. Apparently AGI - the game creation system Sierra developed for King's Quest - was meant to operate at the PCjr's resolution, which made it look odd on normal PCs.



King's Quest (the game, not the series)

King's Quest takes place in the magical land of Daventry, which has recently fallen on hard times. The Queen is dead, and the old and ailing King has no heir to take up the throne. He calls upon Sir Graham, the bravest knight in the kingdom, to go on a daring and impossible quest: He asks Graham to search for the three magical treasures lost in the King's foolish youth: the Magic Mirror, which can foretell the future, the Magic Chest which is always full of gold, and the Magic Shield which renders whoever holds it invincible. So charged, Graham goes out with grim determination. (Well, maybe "grim" isn't the proper word - Graham always seems like a cheerful fellow - but anyhow, let's move on.)

The thing you have to remember about King's Quest is that it was the first game of its kind. No adventure game previous to it had characters walking around in a pseudo-3D plane, picking up objects and causing general mischief. Even after Sierra did it, they didn't really seem to know what to do with it, so much of the game plays just like any text adventure. Instead of typing GO NORTH, TAKE BASEBALL, GO SOUTH, GIVE BASEBALL TO TIMMY, you moved Graham to the next screen, typed "TAKE BASEBALL", moved onto another screen, and then got turned to stone by a wizard. Or beaten to death by a giant. Or eaten by wolves. Saves were very important in King's Quest, because random encounters like that (while only occurring on certain screens) were almost always fatal. While King's Quest was not linear in the traditional sense, it did have parts where you couldn't go back for awhile, which had the potential for making things very frustrating. There is, for instance, one part near the end of the game which involves getting stuck on a part of land split off from the rest of Daventry. (Or at least, from what you can get to in the game - if all of Daventry consists of what you see in the game, then there are about a dozen citizens, and well over half of them are wizards or witches or fairies or such.) From here you must use a time-limited object (which, I might add, you don't know the use of until you try it), have to give a specific object to an NPC, and then have another object on your person to prevent other NPCs from killing you. If for some reason you lack any of this, you either die or get stuck, and there's no way to backtrack.

The puzzles in the game range from logical to infuriating. On the one hand, it might seem natural to lure a goat with a carrot, but if you don't know the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff, you have no reason to consider it. One of my favorite "stupid deaths" in the game comes from pushing a rock from the "wrong" side. It rolls over you,causing you to resemble a pancake - but the way it's drawn, there's no indication that it is that big or heavy, nor that the ground is slanted.

I realize I may be giving the impression of someone making fun of something that was before his time, so let me be clear: I loved King's Quest as a kid. It took me years to figure out how to beat it (I stopped for long periods of time, and there wasn't anyone else I knew that had it), but I loved the exploring, the attempt to figure out what commands to use, and yes, the attempts to get the game to say dirty words or responses. (> EAT PUSSY. "The thought of eating that would make even the hardiest warrior faint!") But looking back on it, I can well understand why many people were frustrated with this game, its sequels, and its competitors. That said, it's a worthwhile game for those who've never played it, if only for its historical value.

RPGeek reminds me that a group of game designers called the "Anonymous Game Developers" has created remakes of the first two King's Quest games using the Adventure Game Studio. The first remake differs trivially in gameplay from Sierra's own SCI remake; however, it does use VGA graphics, high-quality music, and voice-acting. The second game heavily overhauled the storyline and gameplay of the original version (though they managed to introduce a couple new puzzles of questionable rationality). Both use an icon-driven interface similar to that of King's Quest V an VI. As of this writing, they're working on a remake of Quest For Glory II, but I believe King's Quest III is next on the agenda after that. You can find them at agdinteractive.com.

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