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.