If King’s Quest IV was big, King’s Quest V was revolutionary. This was the game which got rid of typing, and replaced the parser that had been a mainstay of the adventure game genre since Will Crowther’s Colossal Cave Adventure and Infocom’s Zork with an iconographic interface. This was the game which introduced 256 colour VGA graphics. It sold 500,000 copies, and was the best-selling computer game (in any genre) for the next five years. It was rapturously received by the critics (1991 Software Publishing Association Excellence in Software Award for Best Fantasy Role-Playing/Adventure Program; Computer Gaming World’s 1991 Adventure Game of the Year; Best Multimedia Fantasy/Adventure Game). (Thanks, Wikipedia!)
It may also be the single most widely criticised game Sierra ever made. (Codename: ICEMAN and Manhunter are hated, but they’re too obscure to be hated widely.)
These criticisms can be summarised thus: the game is technologically advanced but the game design is primitive, because you can die, you can get stuck, and the puzzles are illogical. (It also suffers from Cedric, possibly the most detested sidekick in the genre, and, in the CD-ROM version, amateur voice acting. Simple solution: play the DOS version.)
King’s Quest V is not (as its critics suggest) a triumph of style over substance, a technologically advanced engine and pretty graphics disguising antiquated gameplay. Instead, King’s Quest V is arguably a summing up of the genre thus far. It was produced in 1990, the year of Sierra’s decennary, a time when the company would naturally both celebrate and consider its place in computer history. What is more fitting than that King’s Quest V—the fifth game in the company’s flagship series, the most celebrated series in adventure gaming—should both look forward technologically, with its abolition of the traditional typing interface, and cast a glance backwards, to the early days of the company and its Hi-Res Adventures? Just as The Colonel’s Bequest was a revision of Williams’s first game, Mystery House, so King’s Quest V is a reworking of her second, The Wizard and the Princess. Both games are set in Serenia, and involve a snake blocking a path, a desert, a journey by boat (with a hole in it), islands, and a wizard’s maze.
The game may be seen as an attempt to create the ultimate adventure game. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, Sierra’s concept of the adventure game is experiential (story-driven, and with an emphasis on the player’s immersion in the story, as in a good movie), unlike the intellectual approach of Infocom and LucasArts, which emphasize problem-solving. Indeed, KQV was seen at the time as a relatively easy game. The puzzles are relatively straightforward (find object and give it to person / use it on thing), and lack the baroque ingenuity of Day of the Tentacle or Discworld, or the MENSA-type conundrums of Zork III or Spellbreaker. But it has an epic scale, a sense of scope, not before seen in a graphic adventure game. King Graham’s quest to rescue his family and castle from the wizard Mordack takes him from the picturesque valley of Serenia,
through a desert infested by bandits and with a temple straight out of the Arabian Nights or Indiana Jones,
and a dark forest with a wicked witch,
where he kills a Yeti and escapes from a roc,
across the sea, to the island of the harpies,
and finally to Mordack’s castle.
Even 25 years later, the hand-painted graphics are extraordinary: visually rich, with lots of detail.
The accusation that the game is unfair and frustrating because you can die, you can get stuck, and the puzzles are illogical can be simplified: it’s challenging, and it’s not LucasArts. Now, while Monkey Island, Sam & Max, and Fate of Atlantis are brilliant games, LucasArts’ approach should not be seen as a universal standard, the formula against which all other games either fall or stand. Sierra’s design sensibility is different from LucasArts; it should not be penalised for this any more than Infocom should be. The adventure game genre is (or should be) broad enough for different approaches.
Let us consider some of the most criticized puzzles in detail:
Throwing the custard pie at the Yeti
This is called lateral thinking. Large hairy monster rushing towards you. What do you do? You don’t have any weapons – but you could (if you were clever) think of temporarily blinding it with a custard pie, so that it falls to its doom off that whopping great cliff in front of you.
You don’t have a pie, you say? You’ve eaten it already? Oh dear. If you ate the custard pie in the mountains, you should look at your diet. You’re in the middle of the mountains, in the freezing cold; your body is craving fuel; and you stick a piece of sweet pastry in your gob. ‘I eat a healthy balanced diet of sugar, carbs, artificial coloring and flavors, and weigh 600 stone.’ Next course: elephant au gratin, a little fried hippopotamus, and cement pudding.
What, you ate it before climbing the mountains? This is an adventure game. Do you get points for eating the pie? No. Does eating the pie do anything useful? No. This is like eating the porridge in King’s Quest III or the magic fruit in King’s Quest IV, and then complaining that the game is unfair.
Mazes were a standard of the early adventure game. The best of these—e.g., the Glass Maze in Infocom’s Sorcerer—were ingenious and intriguing. In the average maze, each room had the same description (“You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike”), and the rooms weren’t connected For instance, you would go north from Room 1 into Room 2, go south from Room 2 into Room 6, go east from Room 6 into Room 1, go west from Room 1 into Room 2, and go east from Room 2 into Room 7. If you were unlucky, you would have a timer, so if you spent too long stumbling around the maze, you’d die of coal gas poisoning or be eaten by a grue. You solved them by dropping an object in each room (to identify it) and trying all the points of the compass. If you were very unlucky, the game expected you to do all the above, but didn’t give you enough inventory items to map the area properly. (See The Wizard and the Princess.)
Mordack’s labyrinth is, as mazes go, one of the better ones. It is a maze in the old school tradition; the way in which the perspective changes every time Graham moves in a different direction is clever.
The desert is fairly simple to map, but (as Scorpia in Computer Gaming World argued) would be better with boundaries, so you’re not stumbling across 130 screens.
Mouseholes and glinting things
Small objects (e.g., the coin, the key, crystal, the fish hook, the conch shell) all shine, so you should be able to tell that there’s something interesting there.
As for finding the cheese: