Bunyip 7/8/2004  

Recently I decided it was time to answer a question that had been bothering me for some time: Were the King's Quest games actually any good, or is the nostalgic fondness I feel for them born out of the fact that they were about the only games that actually worked on my old IBM AT with its monochrome screen and Hercules adaptor? To answer this question, I chose as my starting point Kings Quest 3 because a) it was the first to work on that old machine and b) it's generally regarded as the game where the series began to "blossom". Next, I needed to figure out how to judge the game fairly, without being prejudiced by the newer technology available to more recent games. In this spirit, I decided to judge the game against the claims made on the box.


I'm afraid I can't comment much on this, except to say that the claim of "bestselling 3d animated adventure game in history" in somewhat tarnished by the claim of an earlier edition that these games are in fact the ONLY 3d animated adventure games in history. In effect, they're saying this is more popular than any of the other crap they've pushed out.

The lowly farmboy, dreaming of adventure, is unexpectedly shown a vision of the princess he must rescue. (It turns out to be his sister.)


It's probably fair to say that the plot ito KQ3 is more sophisticated than that of either of its predecessors. However, when your benchmarks are "Find royal artifacts, become king" and "Find keys, get girl" that's perhaps not such a tremendous achievement. In any case, you start the game as a slave to an evil wizard, with the kingdom of Daventry nowhere in sight. Your true identity is the big secret. Apparently it's not that secret, however, as you discover a little later in the game after casting a spell that allows you to understand creatures. Random birds, squirrels and even the chickens that have presumably spent the entirety of their short lives on the same hill as you, happen to know all about your history and identity. This kinda removes any dramatic tension from the story. "His real name is Alexander", the chickens confide to each other, presumably in that smug tone that only a chicken can truly convey. This, then, is our hero: a man more clueless than chickens.

Pretty soon you find yourself visiting an oracle who reveals the true plot -- "escape wizard, get girl". In this case, the girl is your sister, the beautiful and talented Princess RobertaRosella. She's been captured by a dragon. That's... pretty sophisticated.

In another example of King's Quest innovation, we see here crate-stacking and jumping puzzles long before the age of first-person shooters.


Let's examine the 3 'big guns' of innovation here. Pull-down menus*: As far as I can make out beneath the Moby logo there, the *footnote says "not for you, DOS boy". This is a little perplexing seeing as it is the DOS packaging. The self-mapping feature is in fact a relief as it saves some tedious wandering about, but it doesn't stop you having to walk up the treacherous mountain path each time you use it: more on that later. I assume the improved text parser refers to the mechanism in place to support the game's true innovation -- spell-casting! This is the number one premise behind gameplay and in fact the sole motivator for all the game's action: you must find various ingredients and make spells. The text parser's contribution is to ensure that actually making the spells is a needlessly tortuous and unforgiving experience. You must phrase each step of each spell exactly right (including typing 4 lines of letter-perfect doggerel) or suffer the consequences. Naturally, you need the full list of ingredients and methods that may only be found in the manual, and even then it's up to you to discover the exact wording for some of the steps. An example: the final step in making magical sleep powder is to put the powder in a leather pouch for safekeeping. That doesn't sound hard, after all the actual magical part of the whole thing has been done, you've waved the wand and everything. So, let's try "get powder" -- oh, it goes on the floor and you die, you need a pouch! Very cute, okay, "get powder with pouch" -- I don't understand, you die. Um, "put powder in pouch"? Nope, dead. "Scoop powder with pouch" -- What's a scoop? "Using pouch, get powder": dead. Repeat until hell freezes. In case you were wondering, the sentence I eventually found to perform this arcane and difficult action was "drop sleep powder in pouch". The game then informed me that "you scoop the powder into the pouch". OH I GUESS YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS AFTER ALL.

Another innovation is the in-game clock at the top of the screen. It's not merely decorative! You soon realise that the clock governs the wizard's movement, letting you know when it's safe to walk around with his stuff, for instance. The upshot of this, of course, is that there will be times in the game when you have to wait 20 minutes, in REAL TIME, before you can try a particular action. Later in the game you're on a ship that you can walk around and explore, but in fact once you've picked up a couple of things you can't do much of anything except to once again wait for the clock. This time, of course, there's no indication anywhere that that's what you're meant to be doing. Instead you wander aimlessly about the ship wondering what the fuck you've missed. It's this kind of creative annoyance that gave these games their reputation for innovation.


The graphics and animation are, in fact, reasonable, and probably the reason I liked the game in the first place. "Well-choreographed music"? If 'Greensleeves' played through a PC speaker counts as well-choreographed, then sure, they can have that one too. "Funny sound-effects" I can't accept though. There's a kind of farting noise when Manannan zaps you, and when you fall down you shake your head and hear a BEE-boop, BEE-boop noise for about FIVE FUCKING MINUTES. That's about it. Here's a *SPOILER* for those having trouble: F2 turns the sound off.

The brave and noble Gwydion tortures a small animal. Not shown: arson; theft of women's underwear.

I believe the characters deserve a mention here. When I first played these games, I thought the idea of using fairy-tale characters and well-known legends was BRILLIANT. I still hold this view -- after all it's solved the problem of having to come up with any original ideas at all! The only characters to not come out of someone else's story are random stereotypes, the interchangeably noble protagonist, and various flavours of irredeemably evil villain. The wizard Manannan, for example, exudes evil in his every action and will exterminate Gwydion on a hair trigger. Zappable offences include: poking around in his study, not doing your chores, being discovered with his possessions, being discovered with spells, being discovered with spell ingredients (like jars, feathers, mud etc)... one wonders how Gwydion has survived so long when even picking up fly wings (as one might do when dusting) is worthy of death. One of your chores is to feed Manannan whenever he returns from a journey, with the food you find in the kitchen. I wondered vaguely what happens when the food runs out. Do you get zapped for that as well, despite the fact that Manannan doesn't appear to do any shopping, and carrying money around is another of the many capital crimes? Of course I couldn't be bothered waiting for the hour it would take to find out.



While this is not quite as extreme as the earlier claim that this is the most fun you'll ever have, it can still be disproved by playing another adventure game (any one really) and performing the following test. Am I having more fun than I was while playing Kings Quest 3? Why yes. TAKE THAT SIERRA MARKETING DEPARTMENT! The game's humour consists of "HA HA YOU DIED" with the occasional "You see porridge on the table. That's funny, I thought bears ate nuts and berries." Other features which are decidedly anti-fun are the obligatory cliff mazes (this game has one of these outside your front door which you have to negotiate each time you come back from collecting ingredients) and a pointless, non-challenging ending. You dig up a treasure chest (it will take you at least half an hour to find the exact spot, despite getting directions from mice), walk through a bunch of screens that have no point except to provide pretty box art, defeat a yeti by the most boring means possible, and reach the big finale. Well, let's see, I have two spells I haven't used yet. Let's try those...

Oh, I win, huh. Whee.