Thursday, June 20, 2024

The definitive ranking of King’s Quest games

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Or at least somewhat definitive. This list will exclude the current, episodic King’s Quest, whose first chapter was released last July. Because it is yet to be completed, we’ll have to hold our judgement. But…it’s got Kuvira voice-acting in it, so how bad can it be?

If you were an 80s/90s child with nerdy parents or a Gateway computer, there was a fairly good chance that you grew up playing the King’s Quest games, by Roberta Williams. These games, set in the fictional world of Daventry (apparently also the same world where Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, Beauty, Dracula, and Little Red Riding hood live), centered on the epic adventures of the royal family: whether it was Prince Alexander escaping forced servitude and discovering his true identity, King Graham hunting for some tail, Princess Rosella trying to cure her dad’s heart condition, or Queen Valanice…being an overbearing mom.

The first four games were the famous “text input graphic adventure” (for lack a better term), a style that aged so poorly it was rather famously mocked by the wonderful with “Peasant’s Quest.” From there it switched to point-and-click style adventure games, each with their own set of flaws. Still, they were groundbreaking at the time, and apparently paved the way for all graphical adventure games. So to honor them, and the many bby-geeks they produced, I bring you the definitive ranking.

10. Wizard and the Princess (1980) / 9. Adventure in Serenia (1982)

I’m not going to lie to you: I just found out that these two games were a thing about 10 minutes ago. Apparently this is about the king who kicks it in KQI, which leads to Graham’s ascension. I gave Adventure in Serenia a higher ranking because at least I’ve heard of the damn continent. But come on, if you don’t have that “King’s Quest” title, you’re not at all worthy of our time. Get out of here!

8. King’s Quest VIII: Mask of Eternity (1998)

This thing barely qualifies as a King’s Quest game. In fairness, I think we see Graham in the intro? We definitely see him as a petrified stone statue, that’s for sure.

This gritty, poorly designed point-and-click/action-adventure game (if you’re wondering whether they work well as a hybrid, they don’t) was really just Roberta Williams’s attempt to suck money out of our pockets while she experimented with gaming mechanics by using a franchise title that was already recognizable.

I don’t remember much about it, other than the fact that there were multiple CDs, and the better part of my time was spent trying to get around multiple grey screens full of poorly rendered 3D objects with controls that felt about as smooth as attempting a swan dive with an elephant strapped to my back.

I have nothing good to say about it. I don’t want anything to do with Connor, his anachronistic name, or his dumb face. Booooo.

Also, this was released the same damn year as Baldur’s Gate (I won’t mention OOT because consoles are quite different). Let’s just take a minute to appreciate how truly horribly this game has aged compared to its peers.

7. King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne (1985/1987)

In some ways it seems almost perverse to put a game so quintessentially King’s Quest this low on this list. The lowest, if we’re talking about “true games.”

However, Romancing the Throne basically took KQI, added slightly different colored images, put in puzzles with even less logic, and called it a day.

Worse still was the story. Graham just became king, and apparently his first immediate concern is his royal lineage. Which…sure. Why not. Lucky for him, the Magic Mirror of Plot Convenience shows him that there’s a total babe locked away in a tower in some land that sounds disturbingly close to “Chlamydia.” And I guess she’s the only single chick around, because you’d think there’d be someone a touch more convenient to court.

Who could possibly refuse that?

So he just pops off his throne and leaves Daventry without so much as bothering to put anyone in charge. Fuck, even Anna did better in that regard.

Once in Chlamydia, he has to find a portal to the “tower realm.” So he aimlessly wanders around this forested place until he finds a locked door. Oh and we get a super helpful hint engraved on it: “make a splash.” Guess what? Graham then goes underwater to Neptune’s Kingdom, gets a key, and heads back. Opening the door reveals…a second door. This takes him, I don’t know, into the sky? Past some friendly ghosts? What the actual hell is going on here?

This checks out.

All I know is that if you thought Sierra Logic™ was slightly shitty in KQI, wait until you have to throw a goddamn bridle on a snake that magically turns into Pegasus.

Oh and that second door? Behind it is a third fucking door! Also, there’s a bridge you have to cross to go visit these doors in the first place, and if you do it too many times, it breaks. Just because. And then it’s game over.

I don’t even remember what the shit you have to do to open the third door. I think kill Dracula? Who by the way, didn’t do anything bad at all. He was just chilling in his home. But whatever, once you get that thing open, you’re transported to the beautiful tower realm where the water is purple and the ground is blue and the only difficulty is climbing a spiral staircase.

What’s at the top? Oh, it’s Valanice. She makes out with you and good game!

Except wait, did we even know that she was trapped in this tower? It seemed totally unlocked, and the Tower Zone is definitely a sweet place to live. Did Graham just like, barge in on some chick in her home?

This was the *entire* game. Nothing but Graham’s quest to find a hot girl, who may or may not have wanted to find a hot guy.

There’s no villain at all, unless you count Dracula taking a nap. Compared to the others in the series, this one is a pass.

6. King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder! (1990)

So here’s the thing…like I said, there’s two types of King’s Quest games: the text-venture of the early four, or the point-and-click of the following three (ignoring KQVIII, naturally). Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder was the first to pioneer the second type, which I happen to find infinitely more engaging.

Unfortunately, KQV was a hot, hot mess.

Like, I’m being a bit unfair. The story was interesting…kinda. I mean the plot actually followed the events of KQIII, where Alexander accidentally pissed off a sorcerer. So the sorcerer’s brother exacted his revenge by stealing Graham’s castle. With his family inside. Literally. He shrunk everything and put it in a little glass jar.

So, you really do feel for Graham when he starts freaking out. But, here’s the problem: he then seeks out the help of Crispin, the friendly neighborhood wizard. And this old fart is like, “well I could totally help you, because I completely deus ex machina this thing at the end anyway, but instead here’s a wand that needs new batteries, and an annoying talking owl.” And thus begins Graham’s true quest, where you have to travel through Serenia to find Mordack’s castle and get your family back.

I’m not going to walk you through all the ludicrous things you have to do along the way; that is worthy of its own post. But the voice acting is just painful, and Cedric makes Navi seem pretty chill. It’s a poisonous snake!

Oh also, despite this being point-and-click, don’t worry…the puzzles still make no goddamn sense. You have to dump honey on the ground, and stick some gems in the honey to catch a greedy elf, or something.

You have to throw a pie into the face of a mothafuckin’ yeti.

Of course this is the answer.

And when all is said and done, after you have this epic magical showdown with Mordack (you found a way to charge your wand with cheese), Crispin just saunters his ass into the frame and with one flick of his own [fully functional] wand, frees your family from the glass jar. WHY DIDN’T YOU DO THAT BEFORE, CRISPIN?

The only good part of the game is when there’s a glorious minute in which you think Cedric might get eaten by a wolf, but the narrative forces you to save him. Ugh.

Still, this is hilarious to replay, which lands it slightly above Graham’s booty call.

5. King’s Quest I: Quest for the Crown (1984/1987)

You know, the thing is, I really don’t enjoy playing Quest for the Crown all that much. But at the same time, it’s what made the franchise what it is. And I’m told it was groundbreaking at the time it was released, so kudos?

The story itself is middling at best: King Edward just realized that the Land of Daventry consists of like, a goat and a rock. So he tells Graham, his best knight, to go grab him three treasures. Um…sure. Apparently they were “long-lost.” So Graham does as he’s told, and when he gets back, Edward caulks it and gives the throne to Graham. Probably because the only other option for succession was that goat.

The only taxpayer around

Along his travels, Graham also encounters a lot of randomly magical people who borrow mythology from a variety of fairy tales. Which is kind of fun. However, the ridiculously precise text inputs required to actually do anything, or that goddamn beanstalk where you need pixel-perfect movement can take some of the joy away.

Then there’s also some Sierra logic. “Guess my name?” says that dude who is obviously Rumplestiltskin. Oh, I know. It’s “Ifnkovhgroghprm, clearly.”

But like, it’s fine. Fun even, if you have a couple of hours to spare. And the fact that it so clearly aged horribly almost makes it age well in a weird way, you know? It’s like a game that belongs in a museum.

4. King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride (1994)

I’d say that of all the games in this series, The Princeless Bride was the most divisive. Tonally, it was far different than anything in the series. It was very…Disney-ish. And far be it for me to cry “sexism,” but I can’t help but notice it was also the one with two female protagonists.

Sorta reminds me of the pink Legos, though the “Poolside Paradise” set was perfect for reenacting Sunset Boulevard or A Little Night Music.

And then there was the camp, oh the camp. You could either fight it and roll your eyes at the fact that there was a literal bull working in a china shop, or you could just roll with it.

I recommend the second, people, because it’s downright hilarious. There is a town named “Falderal” in the “Nonsense Land of Eldritch” and you have to swallow a literal grain of salt to enter it. Where upon you meet the mayor, Archduke Fifi le Yipyap. Not sure what happened to his duchy, but I guess being mayor is a plum gig.

Should I talk about the story? Valanice is being all Mrs. Bennet and trying to find a proper match for Princess Rosella. Or, consort I guess, because I’m quite sure she’s actually the heir. I mean, she was raised as the heir and certainly knows the most about it, and I think Alexander takes himself out of the equation due to the events of KQVI. So why Valanice is being this pushy is beyond me. To really secure the lineage? Obviously that was an issue Graham found extremely important too. Maybe there’s high child mortality in Daventry or something.

Anyway, to get away from her mom’s bitching, Rosella…how do I put this? She jumps into a pond. Reasonable. Unfortunately it turns out to be a magical whirlpool that she gets pulled out of through a portal by a troll king. But whoops! Now she’s a troll too. Valanice hops in after her, but gets spit out in a desert. So you play the game as both of these women.

Your missions are as follows:

  • As Valanice, you must search for Rosella. You are equipped with your daughter’s comb, which makes you cry when you look at it.
  • As Rosella, you must stop being a troll.

The game is told in chapters, with alternating point-of-views. And of course, you end up having to solve problems for other people around, like giving a mortician a spine, finding a rat to power a grave-digging machine, or helping Ceres, who was turned into a tree. There’s also an evil enchantress, Malicia, who is trying to gain control of the land by using the troll king. Or making a volcano erupt. I don’t quite remember, but it was vaguely logical—trust me.

The thing is, this was just downright fun to play. The puzzles usually had more than one solution, and made sense on a fundamental level. I personally think starting the game off in the desert was a mistake, because the lifeblood of it is really the rich and diverse cast of characters. Some are better voice actors than others, but they all had personalities and quips. I’d take that rando troll working the forge who was hilariously bad at hitting on Rosella over Crispin the stoned wizard any day of the week.

Where it loses points is the fact that Rosella is suddenly made into a whiner, unlike the proactive, self-sacrificing badass we knew her to be. Then, I’m sorry to say, Valanice as a protagonist is just lolsy. But dare I say it, at times this game was…oddly touching? I don’t know how to explain it, except that the quiet moments stay with you more than anything.

It also gets knocked lower due to Edgar’s Nice Guy™ routine. KQIV Rosella would have never fallen for it (she quite canonically didn’t, in fact). Just consider this game the Return of the Jedi of the series. It was good, you know, but there were definitely fuzzy wuzzies, and something was just plain off in the princess’s scripting.

3. King’s Quest III: To Heir Is Human (1986)

To Heir is Human was the first game of the series without Graham as the protagonist. And boy was that a refreshing change. Don’t get me wrong, Graham is…lovely. But being able to get away from Daventry and its goat for a little was rather nice.

This game centered around Prince Alexander, only SHHHH we don’t know it’s him. We just know this person as ‘Gwydion’, the boy-slave in the evil wizard Manannan’s castle. No, quite literally, the first few minutes of the game is you emptying his chamber pot and feeding some chickens.

The thing is, you were also (in secret) breaking into Manannan’s magical man-cave and baking a cookie that would turn him into a cat. You could only do this when Manannan would go to town, and woe betide you if you weren’t able to satisfactorily hide everything upon his returns.

Real talk: this game was hard. I’m not actually sure it’s possible to get through without a guide. I never bothered trying. Even once the wizard becomes a cat, you still have to solve some not-at-all intuitive puzzles (and do more magic shit) to secure passage to Daventry, across the ocean.

Then, upon getting there, you learn that there’s a princess that’s about to get killed by a three-headed dragon, and she’s your sista from the same mista! Yeah, the Leia to your Luke, and boy is that an apt analogy, because she up and sacrificed herself to this dragon to prevent the total destruction of her land and is just in general a BAMF.

But you save her, and even get a happy family reunion. Welcome home Alexander! I hope this sudden excitement doesn’t have any negative health consequences for your parents…

For the text-venture, the inputs required weren’t nearly as precise as the first two games, so it felt more accessible. There was also the fabulous tension with Manannan’s arrivals and departures. You really felt that stress as you did what you could to navigate Alexander out of his servitude. And even though getting through it without aid seems like a near impossibility to me, for that reason, the replay value is incredibly high. Add to that an overall logical plotline, and we’ve got a solid game here!

2. King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella (1988)

I think I’m going to get a lot of shit for this choice. Because whenever I’ve talked about King’s Quest to others, this game really is never mentioned. But boy should it be.

First and foremost, I’m quite certain that a female protagonist actually was super groundbreaking in video games at the time. And Rosella is the hero we both need and deserve.

Immediately following the events of KQIII, King Graham has a heart attack. Probably because he had spent the morning mentally preparing himself for his daughter’s death, only then to have not just her burst back into the castle, but also his long-lost son who they basically forgot about.

So Rosella gets upset and runs out of the room to cry, but fortunately the Mirror of Plot Convenience reveals a fairy named Genesta who’s like, “Yo Rosella. I live in this place called Tamir, and there’s fruit here that could totally save your dad, if you let me transport you here.” So the princess lets this happen, but once there Genesta is all, “well on one condition: I need my amulet that a jerk named Lolotte took from me.” Simple simple simple.

We then follow Rosella (who gets disguised in peasant clothes for some reason) as she traipses around yet another land full of fairy tail references to save her dad. I should point out, this is all while Alexander and Valanice do fuck nothing by Graham’s bedside.

No seriously, don’t trouble yourselves. He’s only mostly-dead.

Rosella, meanwhile, is running around Tamir (which by the way, is stunning, and there’s some sweet music for a change) with both middle fingers raised. She steals arrows from cupid himself and gives not a single fuck. She pulls a Jonah and ends up in a whale, but does she just accept that? Nah, she climbs up his tongue and tickles his uvula with a giant feather.

…why am I rating this game so high on the list?

Also Lolotte, as it turns out, is a total dillweed. She’s an evil green-skinned witch who has her skeleton flying minion-things do evil stuff. I think. I know you get captured, that’s for sure. And her homely green-skinned son Edgar falls for Rosella, and it’s kind of adorable.

Eventually, Rosella figures out a way to kill Lolotte, which means she gets the stupid amulet back for Genesta. Oh and she also picked up the life-saving fruit along the way. To thank her, in addition to giving her free transport home, Genesta also pimps out Edgar and makes him hot. But because Rosella is awesome and takes her responsibilities seriously, she’s just like, “nah, I have shit to do.”

“I’d just as soon kiss a Wookiee”

Then she comes home and saves her daddy! Huzzah!!

Seriously, I have nothing bad to say about this game, other than the fact that I personally prefer point-and-click to text-input. Play it. And start stanning Rosella with me, because no one seems to. It’s always Alexander, Alexander, Alexander!

1. King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow (1992)

But…there’s actually good reason why that’s the case, and it’s this game. As I said before, KQIII is a strong set piece in the series. But Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow makes this entire franchise.

I challenge you to look at this still and not start humming the Bookworm theme.

What’s weird is that the story is mostly shitty. Alexander became smitten with a maid/slave person that Mordack had in his castle in KQV. Her name is Cassima, and she’s the princess in the Land of the Green Isles. Alexander then just spent his days creepily pining for her (I’m telling you…Rosella is the heir, even at this point), until the Magic Mirror of Plot Convenience shows him a glimpse of Cassima’s land.

So he rushes to a boat, and accidentally smashes it in the voyage. I think his crew survived, but Alex himself washes up on the shore of the Isle of the Crown, the main island in the Land of the Green Isles. He heads to the castle, and tells the literal guard-dogs that Cassima is his friendo and said he could drop by anytime. But we’re told by the super trustworthy Grand Vizier, Abdul Alhazred (okay, there may be a few racial problems with this game), that her parents unexpectedly died while she was away with her own kidnapping, and she’s locked herself in a tower to mourn them.

Oh and she’s engaged to him ¯\_(シ)_/¯.

Alex is like, “whaaat there’s no way I misread her cues!” So either because he’s suspicious, or because he has nowhere else to go maybe, he decides to do some digging around. See? Shitty story.

But as it happens, he ends up uncovering this major plot of Alhazred’s, where he created feuds between each of the isles so that in that chaos, he could murder Cassima’s parents and claim control of the realm. He also has a magic shape-shifting genie who can disguise himself as Cassima for a sham wedding.

This is actually the short, short version. You have the option of bringing her parents back from the dead to expose this too. Yikes.

Then at the same time, Alexander has to, once again, solve a whole lot of problems for other people. But every facet of this is engaging. The puzzles make sense! Seriously, the biggest stretch in logic I can even think of is reading a boring book to an oyster to get a pearl (though you do need the CD manual to solve the Cliffs of Logic). And every single character you come across feels rounded, from the gruff-but-lovable ferryman to the stoic Lady Aeriel and Lord Azure, to the oddly feuding brothers, Bump on a Log and Stick in the Mud. Even Jollo gets a pass.

The music is good; the voice acting is great. I mean, we’re talking Robby fucking Benson as Prince Alexander. It’s funny, too, but serious where it needs to be. Ffs, it gave my four-year-old self a very strong mental image for what happens when you die.

There’s also a satisfying ending and a bittersweet ending, depending on which puzzles and paths you take through the narrative. So due to these twists and turns, it makes replaying a treat.

I don’t know if it’s just my rose-colored glasses. Perhaps people who didn’t play it growing up will find it stupid. But in my mind, this holds up quite well over the years, and truly made the franchise what it is.

Images courtesy of Sierra


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