One thing I haven't played: King's Quest. Oh, sure, I've played the original--PC Gamer magazine included it on a sampler CD of classic games while I was still a subscriber back in the '90s—but aside from AGD Interactive's fan-made remakes of KQI-II (and, as of two months ago, KQIII), I've been completely ignorant of this sprawling series that legitimately defined the genre.
Ignorance is bliss, they say.
As discussed in my review of KQIII Redux, I'm not big into traditional fantasy and folklore. I don't enjoy aimless wandering. I like clear goals and clearly defined puzzles. King's Quest, by its very nature, is not my kind of adventure game series. The fan-made remakes have shown me that a smooth interface, a well-told story, atmospheric music, and polished graphics can distract me enough so I start to forget how little I care for the setting and gameplay. Thus, I'm pressing on through the series in the hopes that KQV and beyond will make this the second half of this endeavor fun, and not merely enlightening.
Just watch. I'll be the first person in history to like Mask of Eternity.
Of course, to get to KQV, the completionist would do well to first beat KQIV. Preferably with a sledgehammer. I've spent the last few evenings working my way through the game, leaning heavily on a walkthrough (more to speed me through the ordeal than because I ever got hopelessly stuck), and I've decided that King's Quest is only as popular as it is because most of the fans played through the games before they were old enough to know any better.
I've said this about Mega Man 2 as well. It's not just nostalgia that allows a game with such glaring flaws to garner such acclaim; it's the fact that most people played the game when they were young enough to have the time and attention span to fail endlessly without getting overly frustrated and impatient. By the time they started looking at games with a more critical eye, they were able to overlook or downplay the flaws as something they took for granted, or instinctively knew how to work around after so much practice. This is how the infamous Rumpelstiltskin puzzle in KQI can be written off as merely the hardest puzzle in the game, and not an asininely obtuse roadblock for normal-thinking people who can't even spell "Rumpelstiltskin," let alone translate it into Backwards Alphabet Moon Language at the cryptic suggestion of a far-flung note.
While even the most straightforward adventure game is prone to suffer from moments of zany logic from time to time, KQIV crosses the boundary between zany logic and downright poor design on a number of occasions. Random chance, lousy feedback, being denied things that work everywhere else, and being lied to by the narrator make for a deeply flawed game that is barely redeemed by the decent story, two or three decent puzzles, and the kind of gameplay in the final area that I'd been longing for all along.
Suppose you're standing on a pier. This being a text parser interface, you type LOOK, and are told there's nothing but ocean as far as the eye can see. Very well; you're going to swim out to sea anyhow. You're adventurous like that. On the next screen, you are promptly eaten by a shark. Clearly, there is no reason to swim west. The game says there's nothing there, and you can't even make it that far anyhow. Regardless, you reload a saved game and try swimming west from another part of the coast. Again, you are promptly eaten by a shark. Well, forget this.
Then you read the walkthrough, and find that you're supposed to swim two screens to the west, where you'll find an island with a huge mansion on it. Just reload and try again if you run into any sharks, it says. They appear randomly. So...I'm supposed to interpret getting eaten repeatedly by sharks as random chance, not a sign I'm not supposed to be going this way? And I'm supposed to interpret "there is nothing but ocean as far as the eye can see" to mean, "there's a modest-sized island with a humongous multi-story mansion in the middle of it just two screens to the west"!? Sorry, denizens of the King's Quest universe; anything farther away than "across the street" is totally invisible! Good luck watching that football game from up in the bleachers; the playing field doesn't exist!
As you've determined from playing the game so far, each screen is limited to one, maybe two things of any interest whatsoever. Interacting with anything else in any capacity yields a variety of generic responses from the narrator, giving you the the distinct impression that it's a waste of time to try to soak up the atmosphere and inspect all the unique tapestries and colorful flora. You are told time and again that it's a waste of your time to do this, that there's nothing special about that thing over there. Even examining the items in your inventory simply brings up a picture, which tells you nothing about weight, texture, smell, or any other details that aren't easily conveyed in 16 colors. Not even the death messages provide any depth to the action, or any clues about where you went wrong—it's the same old warning to be more careful, Rosella. For a game that's so heavily focused on exploration, there's not much joy in exploring anything you can't figure out by sight alone.
Furthermore, there are times when you cannot access your inventory screen. You've got, what, a dozen items stashed in that dress of yours? More? Let's hope you have them all memorized, because you're forbidden from seeing the list when you're on any screen the game considers to be an action puzzle—which is, of course, where you would most urgently need to look at all the options available to you.
Suppose you've discovered a secret area behind a waterfall, and pick up a helpful-looking wooden board that's mysteriously sitting around. Having found the only thing of value on this screen, it's probably safe to conclude that you've gotten everything you need from here. Still, there's a cave to the right, so you press on. It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by OH GREAT GENESTA WHAT ON EARTH IS THA—AAAAAAARGHHH!!!!! dead. So...scary cave gives you almost no time whatsoever to react to the horrible troll lurking withing. In a moment of brilliance, you remember you have a lamp. You light it, enter the cave again, and find that you are now flanked by big glowing balls of orange and yellow that...don't really do anything. They kinda look like the lantern is lit up...but they're not throwing any illumination. The only difference is that your character sprite now has these two spheres attached to her. Oh, and by the way, you've been eaten by the cave troll AGAIN while you were trying to figure out whether this was just a glitch.
The walkthrough instructs you to pick up the bone sitting at the entrance. Easy enough to overlook, what with being terrified of staying in the cave for any length of time. But wait...there's more. The walkthrough says for you to go several screens deeper into the cave—and not just in a straight line, either—to get to the mission-critical swamp on the other side. Meanwhile, IT IS PITCH BLACK, YOU KEEP BUMPING INTO WALLS, AND THERE IS A CAVE TROLL ON EVERY SCREEN. Oh, but the troll appears randomly. Just reload and try again if you run into it, the walkthrough says.
Funny, because the walkthrough you're writing in your head says, "The lamp doesn't work here, and you'll die if you enter the cave. Go do something else."
In the event that you make it through the cave—being sure to put the board down to create a bridge over the chasm you absolutely cannot see in the dark—you'll find in a matter of moments that you'll have to turn back around and do the whole thing in reverse, still in complete darkness, once you're done on the next two screens.
You will never complain about the root maze in Space Quest II again.
You will, however, complain about the unnecessary proliferation of curved staircases without handrailings. One or two, OK, fine. Six screens of navigate-carefully-or-fall-to-your-doom is pushing it. And that's not taking into consideration all the curvy and narrow cliffsides there are to fall from—try walking up and down the slope to the dwarf mine a few times and see how often you end up on your keister.
Once you're done with that, go swim in the ocean again, except this time try to get eaten. By a whale, anyhow; sharks are still bad news. Wait, no. Only get eaten by the whale if you have the peacock feather, which randomly appears on the island on the other side of the ocean. So you might get eaten by the whale on your way over to get it, assuming you know it's there to begin with. Anyhow, once you're in the belly of the beast, it's pretty obvious you need to tickle its uvula with the feather to get out. You can't reach it from where you're standing, and you're on a time limit until you die of noxious whale fumes, so scramble up the whale's tongue so you can reach the uvula. Wait, stop sliding off the tongue. Yes, it's slippery in some parts, but you're definitely supposed to climb it. No...not over there. Try the far side. Yeah. Now—stop, you fell down. Try it again. No, of course there's no way to tell which spots are slippery and which aren't. Hey, don't even think about reloading to before you got eaten by the whale. This is totally different than the random sharks. This is supposed to happen. Because once you solve the puzzle, you emerge near an otherwise inaccessible island that has the—STOP SLIDING DOWN THE TONGUE.
To its credit, this is the first adventure game I've ever played with a female protagonist. This is also the first adventure game I've played where day turns into night if you wait long enough (six hours, apparently), allowing you to solve more puzzles you didn't realize were dependent on the time of day. Yaaaaaaay. This important game mechanic isn't mentioned anywhere in the manual; in fact, the manual doesn't tell you much of anything—the "getting started" walkthrough, for example, instructs you to LOOK AT, TALK TO, or DRINK about two dozen different things, none of which accomplishes anything!
DRINK COFFEE. "You don't like coffee." WHAT AM I PAYING YOU FOR, WALKTHROUGH!?
Alternately, you can force night to fall by completing all the other puzzles available to you.
Somehow, I managed to finish the game with 230 out of 230 possible points—which means I never need to play this game again. The cave troll section alone is enough to discourage me from ever bothering with it a second time. I'm pleased to report that I was able to break free of the walkthrough for the endgame section, where most of the optional points are (I'm actually pretty good at adventure games when there are sensible challenges at regular intervals), so I can say I mostly earned my score. Locking Pandora's Box back in the crypt was all me. The fun, walkthrough-free hour I spent tonight is already making me forget about how tedious, frustrating, boring, and unpleasant various other parts of the game are.
I'm only four games into the series. There's still time for it to get better for me, right? Maybe KQV, with its VGA graphics and point-and-click interface, will be different enough for me to start seeing this series in the same positive light everyone else seems to.
Maybe it's time to bust out Deponia instead.