Collected thoughts about King's Quest-series

When in 1982 IBM asked Sierra On-Line to develop a game for their upcoming PCjr, Sierra already was, in a then young industry, a veteran developer house thanks to several Apple II games they had developed. Roberta Williams had designed Mystery House, which her husband Ken programmed, back in 1980, which was a groundbreaking game as it brought in interactive graphics to games, which had been before that either text-based or had simple sprites graphics.

Mystery House was advanced, having rooms in which you actually could see items in, pick them up and see how they disappeared from the screen. You could drop items and see them appear and other people could move from room to room. It wasn't a story heavy game, despite you did try to solve a series of murders while collecting treasures.

But IBM wanted something more. Something with better graphics and puzzles which you could solve in a different manner. despite being in a financial slough, Ken Williams promised that game to IBM and while they were sceptical, they agreed to see what Sierra would be able to cook up. It didn't take long for Roberta to get the hang of what IBM wanted and they soon cobbled up a prototype that impressed IBM enough to let them complete the game, that became King's Quest, as well as the engine, Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI), that was used to produce games like Space Quest, Police Quest and Leisure Suit Larry.

Unluckily for Sierra and IBM, PCjr failed hard. But luckily for Sierra, Dandy 1000 computers, which were fully compatible with PCjr came out the same year, making King's Quest a hit, not just with the system is was originally made to. This was in 1984. In the following years, it was also released on other systems, like Amiga, Atari ST and Apple IIe.

Despite King's Quest was a groundbreaking game, being the first "3D-game", in which you could move the character around the objects on the screen, it still was a simple treasure hunt game. It had some story, but the meat of the game was on collecting treasures. Even the main quest was collecting three stolen magical items, a chest, a mirror and a shield. The story was told mostly at the beginning of the game and after that, there was just some descriptive text here and there with a very little emphasis on actual storytelling. So that was the next thing to tackle on Roberta's list.

From a modern perspective, King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne isn't much of a story driven game. Now a king, Graham sets out to the kingdom of Kolyma to find himself a wife from a woman he saw in a magic mirror. Valanice is prisoned in a magic tower to which Graham needs to get to by collecting three keys to open a magical doorway.

The story is sparsely told, but this time around most of it is told during the game. The puzzles you solve are almost always tied to the story in some way and you even meet characters you can interact with. Some puzzles still have multiple solutions, but there's a right and wrong way to solve them, at least if you think of getting a full score.

In 1990 Sierra produced a remake of King's Quest, but as it was a critical failure, they soon buried any ideas of trying to remake any other King's Quest games.

King's Quest II is a lot tighter game. The story is more linear with things opening up after you achieve certain goals. Most of the game is still available right from the start, but the key locations can be visited only after you've done certain things and they can be collected only in a specific order. it isn't as free of a game as the original is, but this structure also makes it feel a bit more story driven.
The story also has better intro and outro than the original had, so that adds to the feeling of a grander story.

King's Quest III: To Heir is Human is, in my opinion, an interesting failure. As a narrative-driven game, it is far above what King's Quest II managed to achieve by concentrating on a young slave Gwydion, who needs to escape an evil wizard Manannan.

While the premise is interesting, the game itself is designed in such a way, that it just wasn't very fun to play. The main culprit is the strict timer the game has, as you can do certain things only when Manannan isn't home. You can use this time to locate magical items you need to create spells, which you can then use to dispatch the wizard.

The spell system, which could have been the pinnacle of the games puzzle system fails to be fun, as it isn't really a puzzle at all. After you've collected all the items, you cast the spells by copying the correct text directly from the games manual. There's very little challenge about it and considering a number of spells you need to create, it is more frustrating than it is interesting.

While King's Quest III manages to improve certain aspects, especially what comes to storytelling and the visual quality of the AGI engine, it just fails at being an actually good game. In many ways, it feels like something that was designed to actively attack against the player and that is never a fun feeling.

King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella was again a significant technical improvement over the previous games. Just like with the original game, Sierra developed a new engine for it, Script Code Interpreter, or SCI for short. It did not only allow a user of higher resolution graphics, it also had a support for sound cards, which were just beginning to appear on the market. This was in 1988, only four years after the release of the original.

This time around, you play as Rosella, the daughter of Graham and Valanice. After the homecoming of Alexander, Graham suffered a heart attack, which made Rosella to wow that she'd do anything to save him. Fairy Genesta approaches her through the magic mirror and tells her of a magic fruit that can do just that, but at first, she has to defeat an evil fairy Lolotte. Rosella agrees to help and so her adventure begins.

Again King's Quest game was used as a testbed. Not only did it bring Sierra games to a higher visual fidelity, it was used as a tool to popularise sound cards. Sierra hired a professional composer to create an unparalleled soundtrack for the title to ensure that the early adopters would get a bang for their buck, be it an AdLib or Roland card they invested in.

The end result is one of my favourite entries in the series. The story is charming enough, filled with nods towards fairy tales, just like the previous games were and while the game is at time unfair, it also is very memorable with all the characters and locations you see.

Making Rosella the protagonist was a novelty for the time as well, as most games had mostly male characters in a lead role. Despite this, King's Quest IV managed to become a hit, even when it needed better CPU's than the previous games to run properly.

Sierra did, on the safe side, produce an AGI version of the game as well, just in case the SCI technology would backfire. While the AGI version was published as well, it isn't sold with any modern collections, but it is floating around the net. It is the same game with SCI version, only with lower resolution graphics and no sound card support.

With King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart go Yonder! Sierra made more technical improvements. They ditched their parser driven user-interface and introduced their brand new mouse-driven SCI1 engine. No more were the players asked to determine what commands the developers wanted them to use, as now they could use icons to click things on the screen.

Another, quite visible improvement, were the graphics, which ditched the old 16 colour palette and brought in whopping 256 colours, which was nicely utilised by having nicely hand painted background graphics instead. But that wasn't all. While there is a bit more modest floppy version of the game, as it was still the de facto medium most people were using to store their data besides hard-drives, Sierra also produced a CD-Rom version of it. The draw was full voice acting.

Again Roberta Williams and Sierra were trailblazing the industry. True enough, the voice acting was done by the Sierra staff, and sadly enough it sounds like that as well. But back then it was again unparalleled and that combined with the lovely graphics of the game, as well as an okay story of Graham trying to save his family, the new entry to the series was a huge hit, selling over half a million copies.

King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow improves many of the aspects presented in the previous game. It used a slightly improved SCI1 engine,  had nice graphics and voice acting which was this time around done by professional actors. The rise in quality is noticeable.

This time around Sierra did not only rely on handpainted backgrounds. They did some of the cinematics with pre-rendered CGI. On some in-game cutscenes, Sierra also included some small FMV bits, in terms of photographing real actors and using them as characters in the scenes.

Many fans consider KQVI to be the best in the series. Personally, I find it a tad too uneven, as it never really manages to mix up its several different styles coherently enough. At times it's extremely naive, at times it's a very dark game. This clash of styles stems from Jane Jensen, who had her hand in writing the story for the game. While the stuff she's written is good on its own accord, the atmosphere between certain segments of the game is a bit too different at times.

Another big thing is, that there are multiple paths to the end and some parts of the game can be fully ignored. This leads to different kinds of endings, which was something not previously seen in the series.

The game was, again a critical hit, selling over 400 thousand copies in its first week, proving yet again that Sierra was at the top of their game and the series that made the business what it is today, was still strong. This was in 1992 and a lot had changed since the release of the original King's Quest back in 1984, but the gamers were still hungry for more.

In many ways, King's Quest VII: The Princeless Bride, was a huge departure from what the series had shown before. Not only were the fairy tale inspired, but nicely painted background graphics changed to reflect more of an animated movie aesthetics. The same happened with animation as well, now bringing in more of a Disney inspired aesthetic. Another significant change is the user-interface, which simplifies the mouse system further. The previous games had multiple icons, KQVII has a smart cursor system.

As such KQVII was a divisive game: some people disliked the simplifications as well as the Disney aesthetic. Some liked it because of it and recommended it despite finding it much simpler game than its predecessors.

Personally, I find it fun enough of a game, but when compared to the other games in the series, it doesn't feel as significant technically or in the story.

The final Sierra entry to the King's Quest saga, Mask of Eternity, changes things even further. Sometime earlier Tomb Raider had changed the face of gaming for good. Not only did the first venture of Lara Croft bring in at the time fantastic 3D engine, it rose the bar on how 3rd person action adventures would be seen in the future.

At the same time, Sierra had noticed, that the sales of traditional adventures had reached their pinnacle, but the sales of other, more flashier genres had surpassed them. FPS games and 3D action adventures were where the money was, so they had to follow the business and do their own take on it. Thus Mask of Eternity was born, a technically clunky action/adventure/RPG hybrid, that didn't do anything particularly well in gameplay or in technology.

When Mask of Eternity was released in 1998, using technology far inferior in comparison to Tomb Raider that had come out in 1996, it was obvious that Sierra wasn't the trailblazer it had been only a few years earlier. Instead of innovating, they tried to follow what smaller, more agile companies were doing, but despite all their money didn't really got it right.

Despite that, Mask of Eternity managed to sell relatively well, making better than Grim Fandango from Lucasfilm for an example. Its reviews were mixed, some criticising the inclusion of combat mechanics, some praising it. All in all, it was a big departure from what the series had been and not in a good way if you ask me at least. Out of all the titles, it's the one I can wholeheartedly recommend everyone to just skip. What good it has in its atmosphere, it loses in bad level design and terrible controls as well as a clunky game engine.

And thus was King's Quest, a series that in its own way helped making Sierra the company, that made the game business what it is today.  Back in the 1980's and in early 90's, Roberta Williams was a pioneering developer, who brought new ideas to the new technology. She imagined digital worlds, where you could spend hours trying to solve puzzles while being able to move freely between locations. She ushered the use of sound cards and voice acting.

Sadly enough the later entries to the series weren't as groundbreaking anymore but thus is life and business.

The game box covers taken from MobyGames.