All hail blue tights.
PUBLISHER: Parker Brothers
DEVELOPER: Sierra (port by Microsmiths)
RELEASE DATE: 1989 – (US)
Even if you stuck to console games in the late 80s/early 90s, you’ve probably at least heard of the King’s Quest series. They were massively influential adventure games that elevated the genre from pure text-based creations to interactive graphical powerhouses. King’s Quest: Quest for the Crown started it all, providing players a fantastical wooded arena to explore, complete with leprechauns, ogres, dragons, and troll-hating goat companions.
Swimmin’ ain’t easy.
You play as Graham, a supposed knight who looks more like a gangly bard. The king has summoned you to his castle, informing you that if you retrieve three sacred items for him – the Magic Mirror, the Magic Shield, and the Magic Sceptre – you will inherit the throne. Sweet deal! You’re then thrown into the woods and given no direction; the world is your non-linear oyster. See that walnut on the ground? Pick it up, you never know if it’ll serve you well. That’s an abnormally large tree in front of you. Perhaps you can climb it? Oh look, a giant holding a large chest. How do you defeat him? You don’t. Let him fall asleep, then take his chest. This trial-and-error defines King’s Quest‘s gameplay. There’s no combat or platforming, just the selection of actions via a menu screen. If puzzle-solving and aimless wandering don’t float your boat, stay far away.
But you do get a fairy godmother, so that’s legit.
While I never played the games as a kid, I remember seeing the oversized game boxes at the store and thinking that the games looked and sounded statelier than the lowbrow fare served to us on the NES or Master System. That you needed a computer that cost a couple grand in 80s money just to play them cemented this notion. Programmers in their mid-30s making six figures a year played King’s Quest games. Kids who scraped together allowance money to rent some crappy licensed title from Blockbuster did not.
You want to cavort with leprechauns? You gotta pay the big bucks.
Console gamers were not entirely deprived of the series, however. In 1989 – six years after the original King’s Quest released for the IBM Pcjr – developer Microsmiths retooled the game to play on the Master System. The port was a success, for the most part. While not a graphical masterpiece, Microsmiths took full advantage of the Master System’s expanded color palette to make the game the best it’s ever looked. And the interactive menus are the most intuitive I’ve ever seen in an adventure game port. Rather than pulling up a menu and shuffling through your options with a slow-moving cursor, pressing Button 1 brings up a menu where you scroll through options quickly with the D-pad. The actions are separated from your items, but they are placed next to each other in separate rows for maximum efficiency; line up the action with the item you need and you’re off.
But not all is well in Port Land. One of King’s Quest‘s major flaws is the lack of a straight save system. Perhaps to save on space, Microsmiths provided an obnoxiously long password system instead. And while you can generate a password at any point in the game, the mere act of writing down these thirty-one unit passwords was mind-numbing then and unthinkable now.
Seriously, the hardest stairs you’ll ever climb in a game.
While not a poorly developed title, Quest for the Crown emerged at the worst possible time. A port of a six-year-old computer game to a console that hardly anyone owned does not make any sense. On top of that, the game was one of the few Master System games to see an American-only release. I could see Quest for the Crown performing moderately in Europe, but we American console gamers aren’t typically known for our adventure game appreciation.
While groundbreaking in its day, King’s Quest feels like a barebones adventure today. Many screens are nothing more than landscape stills with gentle brooks and trees, and while that does serve the atmosphere well, it also means that there’s just not a lot to do. A majority of the items you pick up along the way won’t be used at all, but you won’t know which ones you’ll need until you’re stuck. And as with all adventure games, some of the puzzles are needlessly obtuse. Why can’t you pick up the sceptre and shield in the leprechaun cave? You need to lure them out with the fiddle, dummy! But not in the king leprechaun’s room, no, only in the cave entryway. And if you don’t have a four-leaf clover, the leprechauns will attack and kill you. Quest for the Crown may be the godfather of this gangster ish known as the adventure game genre, but that doesn’t mean its medieval antics have aged well.