King’s Quest 5 Review: King Graham’s Back!

Back in 1990, Sierra On-Line were giants. They could do no wrong. Or, at least, they could do wrong that would probably be forgiven by their fan-base, because their fan-base was legion and exceptionally loyal.

By this point, it wasn’t any real surprise when they released the new King’s Quest – an event that marked a sort of re-birth for the company – and their entry into the gaming world of the 90’s.

Utilizing the then-nascent technology of CD-Rom, this new game would attempt to re-write adventure gaming rules.

Annnnnd I always thought it was so-so.

Sierra had slowly been evolving to this point – King’s Quest 4 took some steps in the direction of King’s Quest 5 by including an orchestrated soundtrack that would play through the sound card of your choice [assuming your choice was one of those listed in the configuration menu before you started the game] and in that game, they bumped the resolution up from their standard 160×200 to 320×200 [where they’d stay, again for several years]. They also began to employ the mouse in a rudimentary fashion as a pointing device. To be fair, there wasn’t a lot you could do with it in King’s Quest 4, but it was there and you could use it.

King’s Quest 5 took all of these technological advances, embraced them and added even newer ideas. For one, the parser is completely gone. You don’t type what you want the protagonist to do anymore; you point and click him there. Want him to pick up that boot that you’re seeing in the desert?   Move him over there, use the “hand” cursor and voila. An animation plays showing the person in question grabbing the boot, which is then added to your inventory.

And those animations? Wow. Did I forget to mention that the EGA palette is gone and banished in favour of 256 glorious colours? I forgot? Well, here, have some pictures:


A scene from the opening of the 1990 game King's Quest 5.  In the introduction, you fly over the land of Serenia.
Jaw-dropping colour for 1990.
In King's Quest 5 there are many dangers including a secluded swamp that warns you to stay away.
Beware! All who go there!

Back in 1990, I saw the future in this game. I saw that, from this point forward, few would bother with EGA anymore. And even fewer would want to try text parsers. The point and click Sierra system just made adventuring that much more accessible. And I was right: a plethora of games came out very shortly after that utilized both of these ideas.

However, it was the CD-ROM version of the game, I think, that pushed harder than any of these efforts combined. See, that version of the game contained actual speech. No longer would you need to read the dialogue, now, it was spoken by actors and a narrator who were selling you the story.

King's Quest 5 utilized the new CD-ROM technology, here we have a picture of the toy maker's portrait and lines from the disk version.
The toy-maker in the disk version.
King's Quest 5 utilized the new CD-ROM technology, here we have a picture of the toy maker's portrait from the CD-ROM version.  Naturally, there are no lines.  The voice actors act the parts you would previously have read.
The toy maker in the CD-ROM version.

The story itself is an intriguing one, too: as we start the game up, we’re taken on a little walk with King Graham, who is just after a pleasant afternoon’s relaxation. He looks around, picks some flowers and finally decides it’s time to head home, to his castle. Unbeknown to him, his castle is being whisked away by some evil magician looking guy. Fortunately, an owl – Cedric – witnesses the entire event. More fortunately still, he knows who did it and his employer Crispin happens to be a wizard. Perhaps these fine folk can help the King get his castle back.

With the introduction done, the game puts you into the world and here’s where I start having trouble. All of the technical wizardry on display really does go a long way to immersing you in the adventure. If you happen to have the CD-ROM version of the game, the narrator talks to you. People you interact with have fancy, new dialogue portraits. There are even some extra lines that are spoken that weren’t on the disk version.

But the whole thing feels a bit messy. A lot of this has to do with the Sierra implementation of a point and click parser. One of the great things about the LucasArts version of the same device was that it would tell you what you were pointing and clicking on. This is notably absent from Sierra’s version of the technology, and so, it’s a little hit and miss. You might spot the glint of a coin in the street, but you have to be pixel-perfect about sticking the hand cursor on the bit of currency to actually grab it.

Likewise, Sierra commits a handful of adventure gaming sins – not always warning you that some events only occur once and that if you fail to act right then and there, you are certainly damning yourself to a game over somewhere a little further down the road.

There’s also some plain lazy design going on in the background. We explored an endless desert in the third game, and this fifth iteration brings back that same mechanic. Only, where you just needed to briefly touch on the desert in King’s Quest 3, here, it’s a full-blown section of the game. Be prepared to make maps. Yes, it’s a maze. And it isn’t the only one, either.

Finally, for those of you who, later, went on to play The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and hated Navi? Well, you can blame Sierra. Possibly. See, one of the over-riding problems with a Sierra adventure is that it is hard-as-nails. Sierra recognized this and wanted to give the player a kind of walking hint-book, so they added Cedric to the game to nudge the player in the right direction, only, he ends up being more nuisance than help and, eventually, the player will just get frustrated and not bother listening to a word Cedric has to say.

But all of these sins can be forgiven. Or, at least, they can be lived with. King’s Quest 5 doesn’t entirely succeed in its mission to re-invent adventure gaming, but it doesn’t fail, either. There are many interesting characters to meet, and certainly, the advent of 256 colours makes the game appealing to look at. The pleasant sound-track is – while largely forgettable – mostly spot-on given the tone of some of the areas and you’ll mostly have a fun time exploring the land of Serenia.

Would I recommend it? Sure, but – and I cannot stress this enough – TAKE A WALK THROUGH WITH YOU WHEN YOU GO. Those mazes and tricky one-time-events will just ruin your fun, otherwise. Do I think it’s essential adventure gaming? From a technical standpoint, I’d say “it’s interesting” and from a story standpoint, I’d say it “nudges the plot along a bit” but this game is a grand experiment, and as such, I think it’s of middling value. Get it if you’re completing a set. Get it if you’re interested in the experiment. Otherwise, you can safely avoid this entry of the series.

Note:  I did a let’s play of the game and you can watch it here: