Playing King’s Quest 1 in the modern age is supremely weird.
The game presents in 160×200, a resolution that would seem crazy in this day and age, but which was revolutionary at the time. It sports sixteen colours, moving sprites, PC speaker music and a fairly non-linear quest.
For an adventure game, this non-linearity is probably the most interesting thing the game has going for it. You can, in fact, tackle any of the three major sub quests in any order you’d like, so long as you have all the puzzle parts for the given path you happen to be walking down.
Otherwise, the game seems fairly bare. There are only a handful of people to talk to and almost every interaction has its emphasis in collecting and redistributing by way of using x on y. But at the time, a lot of what was going on in the game was marvellously ground-breaking.
For one thing, it had “3d” – of a sort, anyway. What this meant in practical terms was that you could move in front of and behind certain objects. It informed the design a little – in quite small ways – but this first step toward the third dimension mattered. If Sierra could do it, so could other games makers.
The second thing was the game’s presentation. Yeah, 160×200 was a crazy resolution and sure, sixteen colours seems anaemic by today’s standards, but it helps to view this in terms of it’s contemporaries.
Many of the adventure games of the age were either text-based – like the Infocom ones, or they had static images that took up some part of the screen that would help the user to visualize what the text was trying to convey, such as the hobbit.
While various other game designers were trying to utilize the ideas of animation and a text parser, few of them married the two together as successfully as Sierra did for this first adventure.
From that perspective this is all win-win.
From a more modern perspective – if we look past the graphics, the scope of the game is pretty amazing. Being able to free-roam in this world and being able to tackle one of the big sub quests in any order was a great design decision that probably helped the game shift units. It is – also – one of the things that got stripped away from future iterations of the game. [And subsequent sequels.]
You see, Sierra moved into it’s “second age” during around 1988/1989 or so and it wanted to re-introduce these old games to a new user base. Five years in computer terms was an aeon, then and much had changed between 1983, when the game was released and 1989, when they wanted to re-release it.
For one thing, sound was now a definite possibility. You’ll note that throughout this review, I’ve been praising the graphics and the idea of the game, but the sound…well, the sound was abysmal. It was PC-Speaker, loud as all get out [because the PC-Speaker only had one setting: On/Loud, unless you physically disconnected the speaker’s connections on the inside of the computer] and completely obnoxious.
So Sierra designed a modernised version of the game. To do this, they changed around a handful of things, making the game far more linear, but introducing proper sound to the canvas of things that this game bought to the table. As far as it goes, the sound in the enhanced edition is rather pleasant, adding more [and certainly some beautiful] musical queues to a game that had been largely silent.
Some of this upgrade came at a price. The original game, as I mentioned, let you free-roam more-or-less wherever you wanted. It also let you tackle any “big” part of the quest in any order you wanted, so long as you had the pieces to do so, but the modernization strips some of that away. It also moves puzzle pieces around and – on very rare occasions – changes a puzzle solution to “being more modern.” [most notably, the gnome riddle puzzle. The original game had a far scarier and more elaborate solution than the one presented in the remake.
So, there are differences, but they’re not terrifically marked – especially when it comes to game play.
So, let’s actually talk about playing the game. Part of the biggest problem for a modern audience with King’s Quest 1 is that the game just dumps you into the world with no context and no direction. It blithely assumes that you’ve read the manual, and, further, assumes that you’re at least passably aware of how adventure games work. Some of the game functions – duck, jump and swim are, unhelpfully, tucked away in keybinds that are impossible to reset. They’re also hidden unless you read the manual, had one of the early versions of the keyboard template, had one of the slightly revised versions of the game [which presented you with a menu if you pressed escape] or happened to hit f1 out of sheer desperation [because f1 always got you help in older programs.]
This sort of design is pretty endemic to early adventure games, Sierra games notwithstanding. Don’t know what to do? Good luck. The game isn’t going to help you at all. This does have the unintended consequence of making every win against the game much sweeter than it should be. Did you guess the gnome’s name after solving the riddle? And you did it by yourself? You probably feel like the best person in the world right now. And back then, back in 1983, when the game was new and walkthroughs wouldn’t happen for a while, that was passable design. Now, though? Oh God, you have another thing coming. Impatient players will simply skip to finding a walkthrough. Or watching a video that explains the solution to the problem.
But, much like with King’s Quest 5, this game is worth playing for the experiment Sierra were trying. It’s also worth playing for it’s sheer historical value. So many games owe this [and a slew of early adventure games] so much that it’s difficult to put into words just how important they were to gaming as a whole.
But take a walkthrough when you go. Otherwise, you’re going to find that it’s ridiculously difficult going.
I did a let’s play of King’s Quest 1 in 2011 and you can find that here.