Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Adventure of the Week: King's Quest IV (1988)

This week, we continue working our way through Roberta Williams' classic animated adventure series, with King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella.

As one can surmise from the title, this time we are adventuring as King Graham's lovely daughter, Rosella.  The game begins with a lengthy opening cartoon, following immediately upon the ending of KQ III, with a few surprises -- so I'll save the details for the spoilers section below.

This was the first game released using Sierra's upgraded SCI (Sierra Creative Interpreter) technology, which doubled the resolution of the earlier AGI games, and supported sound cards for more atmospheric sound effects, enhanced by William Goldstein's orchestral score.  It was also released in an AGI version for computers unable to cope with the then-high-end requirements of SCI, and was the only Sierra game to be developed for both interpreters.  Unfortunately, it seems that the challenges of dealing with new technology (and two different builds) sent Ms. Williams back to her design philosophy for the first two King's Quest games -- once again we are exploring a squareish landscape, solving a series of three major puzzles before moving on to a more linear path to the climax.  There are more significant emotional moments in this game, as compared to its predecessors, but the impressive dynamic storytelling of KQ III is nowhere to be seen in Rosella's tale.

Still, it's a pleasant experience, and I urge you to play the game for yourself before continuing with this blog post.  Because, as always, there are bound to be...

****** SPOILERS AHEAD ******

KQIV starts to feel like a throwback immediately, as we are confronted with a copy-protection screen that requires us to look up a word in the manual based on page, paragraph, and word number.  I played the game as part of the recent King's Quest Collection, which ships with a PDF manual covering all seven games in the set -- it doesn't reproduce the original game manual, but instead gives us a piracy-friendly table of the keywords for each possible challenge.  It's a poor substitute for the more organic and subtle copy-protection of KQIII, which required us to reference spell recipes in the manual.

Once we've confirmed that we own the game or have access to the Internet, we are presented with a lengthy opening cartoon that reenacts the final scene of KQIII, with King Graham's throne room looking considerably more lavish in SCI.

****** REALLY -- SPOILERS AHEAD! ******

It was a big secret and rather a big deal at the time -- as the now gray-haired (but no longer yellow-skinned) King Graham throws his adventurer's cap through the air, he suffers a sudden heart attack.  Having played King's Quest V, we know he survives, but for the moment it's quite a traumatic event in the palace.  And it's time for the game to get underway -- Rosella's weeping is interrupted by the fairy Genesta, who appears in the throne room's magic mirror to tell us about a health-restoring fruit found only in her homeland of Tamir.

Of course, these kinds of solutions don't come cheap -- there's a substantial quest involved in getting hold of said magic fruit.  Genesta's land is terrorized by an evil queen, and her own power is fading; she will die in twenty-four hours unless Rosella can defeat the evil Lolotte, return Genesta's magical talisman, and restore order to the land.  A bit of transportation magic is invoked, Rosella is disguised as a peasant girl, and she's on her way.

William Goldstein's score for King's Quest IV is clearly an improvement over what the earlier Sierra games could muster, but truly interactive game music was still in the future.  Aside from the animated, non-interactive intermissions, which are generously supported, most of the audio consists of atmospheric sound effects and spot music tied to specific events.  The SCI technology was ready, but it would take some innovative design thinking to make dynamic game music a reality.

Ms. Williams' fondness for physical navigation challenges remains in effect here -- we have quite a few tricky trails to navigate and fatal falls to endure.  The newfangled mouse support makes it slightly easier to find a safe path, compared to tapping the arrow keys with split-second timing, but it's still very easy to send Rosella plunging to her death or into the deadly arms of an evil tree.  The only solution is to save frequently and move slowly -- the pitch-black cave room shown below is particularly vexing, as there's an invisible chasm we can't see at all.  All we can do is creep up to the point where Rosella died last time we were here, repeatedly trying to put a board down so we can cross it:

(And yes, we do have to come back the same way later on -- I found no handy magical shortcuts to speed the story along.)

There are many echoes of King's Quest I and II in evidence.  Lolotte is yet another evil green-skinned witch, and she presents us with three missions that take up most of the game. There are lots of give-this-to-get-that puzzles and classic fairy-tale scenarios that are supposed to give us a hint as to what to do next, and there's not much complexity on offer.  At least Lolotte is not a cannibalistic people-eater in this game -- that function is reserved for the ogre and his wife.

Something new in KQIV is that we see Rosella rendered in multiple scales, with a wider view used in the outdoor scenes -- it's a nice touch that lends the game a more epic feel.

A substantial portion of the game takes place in a spooky old house -- there are lots of doorways and rooms, but there aren't many useful items to find.  A latch in the parlor reveals a secret door leading to a stone staircase.  At the top is a pipe organ -- and in classic Sierra 3-D adventure style, we have to maneuver between the bench and the organ and type SIT ORGAN before we are allowed to PLAY ORGAN.  Nothing happened when I first tried this, beyond Rosella playing a nice organ solo, but later I found some sheet music that produced more interesting results.

Unlike almost every adventure game I've played, there are a couple of lamps encountered in the game that we don't need and cannot take.  If we try to GET LAMP in the home of the Seven Dwarfs, we are told It belongs to the dwarfs.  If we try take the one in the upstairs bedroom of the spooky house, we get the same response; it appears the dwarfs have some kind of monopoly on local light sources, perhaps leasing them out to the citizens of Tamir.  We have to attempt to return the dwarves' diamonds to be given one of their lamps from the mine; it doesn't really cast much light at all, but without it Rosella can't even begin to safely maneuver in the dark caves or avoid the creature that lives there.

As usual for the King's Quest series, there are some random character appearances and wait-it-out situations to deal with.  Cupid can be observed flitting about near a swimming pool, but only on occasion does he stop and go for a swim.  When that happens, we can scare him off and obtain his bow, with two very useful arrows.  We can shoot the unicorn to befriend the graceful creature, before cruelly handing it over to Lolotte; it's best to save the remaining arrow for later.

Rosella was the first female lead in a Sierra adventure, but unfortunate stereotypes still abound.  We can't get into the dwarves' mine until we spend quite a bit of non-interactive time cleaning up their filthy house and watching seven different animated characters arrive, eat soup, and leave, one by one, showing off the technology and leaving a small pouch of diamonds on the table as a tip, without so much as a word to Rosella.  And of course, Rosella is a princess, so she must be beautiful and blonde, attracting the life-saving attention of Lolotte's hunchbacked son Edgar.

At least the fairy-tale references are a little more obscure and interesting this time around.  A frog wearing a crown sits in the pond -- and if we try to approach him, he gets scared away.  We have to find his golden ball, which requires standing in precisely the right location so we can see it under the bridge, mostly so the animation will display properly when Rosella retrieves it.  Having found it, we can toss it to him -- when he returns it to us, we can KISS FROG.   I like that the transformed prince turns out to be kind of a jerk, turning up his nose at Rosella because she doesn't look like a princess at the moment.  But he gives us his gold crown, and we can retrieve the gold ball as well.

My favorite character in this game is the minstrel in the meadow, who's not very good -- he's a funny character, and makes good use of the new music drivers as he plays public-domain tunes, hesitantly at best, hitting a lot of wrong notes.  We have to find a book of Shakespeare in the spooky house and give it to him, inspiring him to become an actor instead, leaving Rosella with his lute.  We can then trade it to the nature god Pan to get a flute, because that's just how things work in these games.

The game's most frustrating navigation puzzle turns up when Rosella takes a dip in the ocean and gets swallowed by a whale.  The beast's mouth is full of noxious fumes, not to mention inaccurate dental anatomy, and she can't stay in there for long without suffocating.  We have to grab a bottle, and have a peacock feather found on a nearby island in hand.  We then have to maneuver Rosella up the single, invisible path to the top of the whale's tongue, so that she can finally TICKLE UVULA WITH FEATHER.  It took me lots of trial-and-error and several saves to get to this point (note also that the background graphics in this room don't appear to have been much improved over the AGI era):

Once we are out of the whale, we have to swim directly north, or Rosella tires and drowns, and/or gets eaten by a shark.  There's a note in the bottle seeking help with King's Quest I, and I originally thought it was some kind of puzzle -- perhaps, I thought, we would have to send something to a past version of Sir Graham using the bottle.  But repeated readings reveal that the note just makes random references to existing Sierra games -- The Black Cauldron, Police Quest, Mixed-Up Mother Goose, Space Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry are all mentioned. As it turns out, we went through all of that business with the whale to obtain the bottle itself, and the note is just a promotional device.

Rosella also encounters a fisherman and his wife, two of the crankiest oldsters I've ever met in a game.  The fish aren't biting, but the fisherman doesn't want the worm Rosella has in her pocket, and we can't seem to discreetly PUT WORM ON POLE in his house to help him out.  There might be alternative solutions, but I opted to give some diamonds to the man, obtaining his pole in return and making his wife much happier.  We can now put the worm on the pole and catch a fish from the end of his dock, within seconds of casting the line.  How this guy survived to reach old age as a working fisherman, apparently with no knowledge of the arcane and mystical concept of "bait," remains a mystery.

There is a waterfall in the game, which means exactly what we think it does, but we can't just walk through it to the hidden room beyond; we have to use the frog prince's crown to turn Rosella into a frog temporarily so she can overcome the currents.

The higher-resolution graphics afforded by the SCI engine allow Roberta Williams herself to put in a cameo appearance -- each and every time Rosella dies:

Having found a shovel, I spent some time trying to dig for interesting items.  In most rooms, the game simply responds NOT HERE; in the graveyard, it says You don't know what to dig for... yet.  Later, a number of materialistic ghosts materialize in the spooky house, each pining for some item buried with his or her earthly remains.  We must read the tombstones carefully, and save often, as we are allowed to dig in the wrong place at the wrong time, not finding anything should we do so, and the shovel breaks after a limited number of uses.

There are a couple of puzzles where we can easily anticipate what sort of item is needed, and the difficult task is to find it.  The worst item hunt puzzle in the game occurs on the desert island west of the dock.  I knew Rosella needed a bridle with which to lead the unicorn, but had gotten stuck and resorted to a walkthrough to learn that I must have missed it during my first trip to the island.  But it's not visible onscreen, and there's not so much as a telltale twinkle to indicate its presence.  We have to stand in a specific spot amid some boat wreckage and LOOK GROUND; otherwise Rosella completely fails to detect the unicorn-sized golden bridle.  Chances are that by this point most players will have found all of the other interesting items, and the remaining errands will be finished off in short order.

After Rosella turns the noble unicorn over to the forces of evil, Lolotte next asks her to steal a golden hen owned by the ogre and his wife.  The Ogres' front door is open now, though we can randomly (and fatally) encounter either the ogre or ogress approaching the house.  There's a big dog inside who can be fobbed off with a bone, allowing Rosella to steal the ogre's axe, hide in the downstairs closet and watch as the ogre eats dinner and the hen lays a golden egg.  We have limited time to sneak out, grab the bird and escape -- at which point the chicken squawks, the ogre gives chase, and we have to maneuver Rosella offscreen as quickly as possible.  Neither Cupid's arrow nor the axe is of any use against the enraged ogre, but he can be outrun without too much trouble.

Rosella's third assignment as Evil's errand girl is to find the fabled Pandora's Box; to that end, she has to get past the evil trees, and can CHOP TREE with the axe to frighten them all into permanent submission.  In a clearing, we find a cave inhabited by three witches -- they mutter verse a la Macbeth, but behave more like the Graeae of Greek mythology, sharing a single eye between them. It's another tricky physical/timing puzzle -- we have to maneuver Rosella as one witch chases her around the cauldron, snatching the eye at the moment the other two witches pass it between them.  We can then get them to give us a scarab by leaving and returning, putting the fear of Zeus into them before throwing the treasured eyeball back (and not hanging around for dinner!)

Past the dark cave mentioned earlier, Rosella has to JUMP TO GRASS multiple times to get across a dangerous swamp without sinking in the quagmire, then PUT BOARD again to cross the final gap, which does not look much wider than the others.  We can then PLAY FLUTE to hypnotize the snake, but the effect does not last long at all; Rosella has to grab the magic fruit and head back as quickly as possible.

At this point, darkness falls in Tamir and the ghosts come out in the spooky house.  It's interesting to see the landscape after dark, but we don't have to traverse much of the world after hours, having explored it pretty thoroughly during the day.  There are zombies rising from the graveyard, but the witches' scarab sends them back into the ground as soon as they approach Rosella.  We have to appease a baby ghost by finding its rattle; satisfy an old miser by finding his money; salve a weeping woman's pain by finding a treasured locket; restore a treasure to the lord of the manor; and finally locate a toy for a little boy ghost.

This sequence goes on for a little longer than seems strictly necessary, but having pleased all five spirit residents, we at last obtain some sheet music from the chest the little boy ghost has been sitting on.  Playing this on the organ yields a skeleton key, which allows us to get into the crypt where Pandora's Box resides.  A mummy emerges, but fortunately flees the scarab as quickly as (and more logically than) the zombies.

After we take Pandora's Box to Lolotte, of course, we discover that Rosella's promised "reward" is horrific -- she is to be forced to marry Edgar.  Ewwww!  Locked up in Edgar's room and stripped of her belongings, Rosella is fortunate that the lovestruck young man brings her a rose with a key attached.  Finding that out, however, is a bit of a trick; LOOK ROSE consistently returns You see nothing special.  We have to use the visual inventory screen and look at the rose, which is (I believe) the only item to come with a text description in addition to the illustration.

Rosella can now escape Edgar's room, but morning comes fairly soon, so there's no time to waste.  Most of the guards are asleep, but we have to be careful to skirt around them and recover Rosella's belongings from a cupboard.  We eventually get to Lolotte's room, finding her asleep, but if we try to KILL LOLOTTE, we are told It's tempting, but you don't have it in you.  Which isn't exactly true -- what we have to do is SHOOT LOLOTTE WITH BOW:

This fatally overwhelms Lolotte with positive emotions, causing her to collapse in a dead heap.  Roberta's text here claims that Rosella thought Cupid's arrows shouldn't have killed her, so that apparently makes it okay.  These adventure game royals and their high-handed attitude towards the lives of others!  At least Edgar doesn't seem too broken up about it, and Rosella has come to think of him as a friend.  Anyway, with Lolotte dead, we can retrieve Genesta's talsiman, recover Pandora's Box and the golden hen, then free the unicorn, undoing much of the evil Rosella has perpetrated.

Getting back to Genesta's palace requires Rosella to traverse yet another series of tricky staircases; this part of the game feels like it's unnecessarily padded.  Padded... with death!  I also ran into a bad save during this section, a fairly rare occurrence with Sierra's engine -- I think I saved during an animated sequence, when I probably should not have been allowed to, and that caused the game to freeze after restoring, forcing me to backtrack to the previous save before I was able to continue.

The revived Genesta turns Edgar into a handsome fellow in repayment for his kindness to Rosella, which is another one of those fairy-tale cop-out endings replacing what might have been a far more interesting romance.  At least Rosella has more important things to do and rejects his offer of marriage, for the moment.

With all the quests wrapped up, Rosella returns home and gives the magic fruit to her dying father.  Suddenly King Graham is hale and hearty once again, and ready to star in King's Quest V!

When game technology is rapidly advancing, game design sometimes stagnates, and King's Quest IV appears to have fallen into that trap.  So it was a bit of a disappointment for me personally -- too much of the same thing we've seen in earlier King's Quest games.  But it's still quite playable and fairly challenging.  Bigger changes were in the offing a few years later, with King's Quest V.


  1. Wow good stuff I remember these games back when I was a kid and sporting the only EGA monitor on the block (everyone else had CGA)

    Good work!

  2. Best KQ game ever. Nice blog man :)