Let's Blast #2: King's Quest III: To Heir is Human
When I first started this segment, I originally thought about alternating between Sierra and LucasArts every month. However, since Sierra produced far more games than LucasArts, that very quickly fell by the wayside and we're sticking with Sierra for a bit.
And that means King's Quest, because there's no way you can talk about Sierra and not mention King's Quest sooner or later.
Or Sierra's Mystery House, which was the first PC game to ever feature any kind of graphics.
King's Quest I was a massive breakthrough in gaming. For the first time, players could actually see and control the character, making him walk around in a gorgeously-rendered environment!
Yes, that black...thing is a hole. When I was a little gamer, WE only had text parsers and 8-bit palettes. And we LIKED them!
Okay, so the graphics haven't exactly aged well, but this was still incredible for the early 80s.
KQ1 was simple: you have to recover three of the kingdom's treasures.
KQ2: same story, but replace "three of the kingdom's treasures" with "princess trapped in tower."
KQ3...uy. Where to begin with this one? This was the first KQ where Sierra actually decided it wanted to tell a completely original story.
Okay, so a little more backstory here: if you read the game manual, you learn that Manannan's been doing this for a while now. Magical slaves are apparently too unpredictable, so Manannan goes for good old human labor. Unfortunately, his first slave started playing with magic shortly after turning eighteen, so Manannan killed him and grabbed another slave. Slave number two: same story. At that point, ol' Manannan gets a bit fed up and decides that he'll just kill his current slave on the kid's eighteenth birthday to save time.
The intro text says, "As long as he can remember," meaning Gwydion was stolen when he was very young. On the surface of it, that's fair: a slave who doesn't remember a time of freedom is less likely to rebel. In reality, it makes zero sense and I already have so, so many questions about this setup. So, without further ado, I present:
1. Long-term memory generally begins at two years. In other words, for Gwydion to not remember anything, he must have been snatched as a baby.
2. Babies are high-maintenance. Manannan's going to spend most of his time feeding and changing diapers, and the baby's going to spend much of his time sleeping, wailing and burping up. Manannan's going to be without a slave for a few years while his current one learns to walk and talk.
3. Little kids are notoriously curious and not well-coordinated. Manannan's going to have to put significant effort into child-proofing the house.
4. Little kids are, well, little. Manannan's going to have to wait another five or six years before Gwydion gets big and strong enough to really be of use. A three-year-old can't serve lunch at the table for the simple reason that he's not tall enough.
5. If Manannan can use magic to take care of all these problems, maybe by aging Gwydion up a few years, why does he even need a slave - who might kill him - in the first place?
You are the latest in a long line of slaves. Naturally, since you're the player character, you'll be the one to stop Manannan for good and escape. You do this by scurrying around, gathering up spell ingredients and turning his own magic against him.
This brings us to the next headache: copy protection.
See, in the 80s/90s, games were small and very, very easy to copy. So whenever you went to play at a friend's house, it was common practice to take a floppy disk with you.
Please let there be somebody reading this who's old enough to remember these too!
If the game was too big to fit on one floppy (which could take 1.44MB) you simply copied half the files onto one disk, half onto the another and put them back together when you got home. And if you didn't have a floppy disk, your friend would have plenty to donate. They were like ballpoint pens: everybody had a few at home and they were so cheap and easy to come by that you could spare a few.
So the games devised a copy protection scheme, meaning you couldn't play without the manual. LucasArts used things like the exit visa codes in Zak, other companies took the, "Turn to P12 and type Word 3 on Line 9" approach.
The faded light blue writing on yellow made it hard to photocopy. On the other hand, there was nothing stopping you from copying out the manual by hand, except for the little fact that you would have to copy the manual by hand.
But it's kind of a nice, immersive copyright, and it saves you from having to write everything down to refer back to later (one other unwritten rule of playing games was that you kept a notepad and pen next to you at all times to write down key points, thus developing excellent note-taking and retention skills. And they say computer games can't teach you anything!)
THIS game taught me how to build an all-natural grenade!
Some of the ingredients are easy to find, others harder. And Manannan teleports around the house at random and will kill you on the spot if he finds you with any of them.
The good news is that "instakill" items are marked with an asterisk in your inventory. The bad news is that the game never tells you at any point that Asterisks = Instant Death By Randomly Teleporting Evil Wizard, so you have to figure it out. Every so often, Manannan vanishes or takes a nap, giving you twenty-five minutes to sneak off the mountain, grab what you need and sneak back. You'll do this a few times, and there are one or two little, erm, complications.
One wrong step and you die. The giant boulder in the middle of the screen sure doesn't help either.
Now, some of these magical ingredients aren't the kinds of things that Gwydion would have innocently, such as Manannan's magic wand. Other ingredients are jars that could only have come from Manannan's secret lab or can only be found at the bottom of the mountain, thereby proving that Gwydion's been out of bounds if nothing else. Okay, fair. Others, well, I refer to you:
6. One of the recipes calls for a "small feather." Manannan has chickens and frequently commands his latest slave to feed them, clean them etc, so feathers are easy to come by. Too easy, in fact, which makes me wonder how many times Manannan accidentally fried a completely innocent Gwydion who'd just happened to get chicken feathers on his clothes while he was cleaning out the run?
To cast a spell, you have to do everything mentioned in the text, and then type out the incantations word for word.
You do not want to misspell or skip any of these words, or miss out a comma. Trust me on this.
If you get it wrong, the results can be...interesting.
Needless to say, these result in an instant Game Over. I've seen other people protest at this, saying it shouldn't do, but it does make perfect sense. Heck with ingredients; all Manannan has to do is take one look at Gwydion to know he's been screwing around with magic and fry him on the spot. The only one that doesn't make sense for a Game Over is the invisibility spell, which will render you permanently invisible if it goes wrong (surely Gwydion could sneak away if he were invisible?)
Anyhoo, after much gallumphing around the countryside, you mix up a magic cookie that turns whoever eats it into a cat, feed it to the wizard and ZAP, he's done.
HUZZAH! Um...now what do I do?
And I'm going to take a brief pause from ranting about the crazy game design and infuriating cliff paths and nonsensical storyline to make up an Insult Sandwich. In other words, in between my gripes, I will say that Manannan is one of the most dangerous villains you'll encounter in any video game.
This guy holds all the cards. He can kill with his pointer finger, and he can teleport, so forget outrunning him. He has an impressive arsenal of spells as punishments for a rebellious slave; he can turn Gwydion into a snail, magically glue his feet to the kitchen ceiling and leave him hanging there for hours as the blood slowly pools to his head, or magically seize control of his body and force him to do high-speed calisthenics until he collapses from exhaustion. Unlike other villains, Manannan is very much not complacent; he knows Gwydion hates being a slave and so keeps him under constant surveillance and is prepared to kill him at the first sign of magical rebellion.
Carrying objects isn't all it takes, either; if you leave anything out of place, such as the entrance to his secret workshop or forget to replace his magic wand, he'll figure out in an instant what you've been up to. Consequently, as a player, you spend the whole time tiptoeing around, constantly looking over your shoulder and paranoid about whether or not you've covered your tracks well enough and praying Manannan doesn't appear at the precise wrong moment, just like the character you're playing.
There's also one final twist: once you have the cat cookie, it's not enough to simply give it to Manannan when he demands food. The guy's a wizard; he knows a magical cookie when he sees one. Even if he didn't, the description of it talks about it as a cookie that has clumps of cat hair baked into it and sticking out, so it's hardly appetizing fare. The solution? Well, obviously pay a call to the Three Bears, steal a bowl of porridge that's Just Right, mix the cookie into it and feed that to the wizard!
Oh, you thought I was kidding?
So the wizard's gone and you're free! At this point, the game is about two-thirds done and won't proceed until you pay a visit to the Oracle, who tells you the truth about your identity.
However, you may already have figured it out.
You see, one of the spells is Understanding Animals. Not talking back; just understanding them. It's completely optional and the only way it works is by hanging around on any screen with animals and waiting until they say something.
And here we come to the biggest, dumbest, most nonsensical part of the game's entire premise. Take a look at this:
So Manannan's slave boy, Gwydion, is really Prince Alexander of Daventry, son of King Graham from KQ1 and KQ2, and he has a twin sister. And the birds, the squirrels and the chickens know about it.
7. HOW THE HECK DO THE FREAKING BIRDS AND SQUIRRELS KNOW ANY OF THIS!? The Oracle, sure. Knowing stuff and making big reveals is what an Oracle does. I'm absolutely fine with a big reveal from an Oracle. Big reveals + Oracle = beautiful thing. But birds and squirrels who have never seen him before in their life?
8. How do they even recognize him? Forest birds tend not to live on bare mountains, and Gwydion's never come down before now. How do they not only know who he is, but that he has a secret twin sister?
If you put a gun to my head, I could just about manage to buy that they're migratory birds that travel from/through Daventry to Llewdor and so have picked up the news and passed it onto the squirrels. This, however raises a whole new subsection of questions:
8a. Gwydion was taken when he was a baby. Any birds who were present for the kidnapping and who understood exactly who Alexander was and what relation he was to the King and Queen of Daventry are probably long since dead of old age.
8b. Since when do freaking BIRDS know about the governing body of any kingdom? Gwydion and his sister Rosella are very much non-identical twins, which is a nice subversion but it means you can't even rely on the, "we recognize him because he looks just like Princess Rosella would look if she were a guy" angle.
But okay, maybe the blue birds are migratory and they happened to perch outside Daventry castle, and maybe Queen Valanice happened to bring Princess Rosella out on the same day and tell her that she has a twin brother called Alexander who has black hair and was stolen by an evil wizard, and maybe the migratory birds understand human language and were interested enough to remember this, and maybe when they returned to Llewdor they happened to meet mountain birds who talked about this black-haired boy who was enslaved by an evil wizard, and maybe the offspring of those migratory birds heard about it from their parents and grandparents who also told the squirrels about it, and maybe they put two and two together when they first saw Gwydion.
But that doesn't answer the next problem:
9. How - I repeat, HOW, in the name of little three-headed space monkeys - do the CHICKENS know anything about it!?
Chickens don't migrate. Those chickens have spent their entire lives on the mountain with nobody but Manannan and Gwydion for company. Manannan has never called Gwydion by his birth name. So in order for the chickens to know about this, Manannan would have had to take Baby Gwydion out to the chicken coop and introduce him.
MANANNAN: Chickens, pay attention! This is my latest Gwydion! He'll be feeding you and cleaning your run, just as soon as he learns to walk and stops burping up in my beard. But you should all know that he's really Alexander, Crown Prince of Daventry!
I mean, seriously? I get that Manannan might gloat to his beloved cat, but why would he tell the chickens? And why would the chickens tell the chicks? It's fantasy, so I'll believe that the migratory birds are a fantastical long-lived species, but any chickens present when Manannan introduced Baby Gwydion would be dead.
But wait! It gets dumber!
10. Why does Manannan kidnap Alexander? I mean, it's clearly established that he wants a child to train as a slave, but this is a fantasy world. If Mannanan wants a slave so badly, there are plenty of babies out there whose families DO NOT HAVE THEIR OWN FREAKIN' ARMY! The Old Gentlemen's remake of the King's Quest saga does at least address this by making Graham and Manannan old enemies from before, but we're given no such reason in this version.
11. Graham's track record with adventures is pretty good, as established in the previous two games. He's not a spoiled king who sits around all day; this is a guy who goes out and gets things done.
12. If Manannan steals a baby from a poor family, there's nothing that family can do even if they know who to blame. I mean, seriously, nothing. The king of a powerful nation? Yeah...it probably worked out for the best that Manannan got cat-zapped.
There is no reason for any of this. There is literally no logical in-game reason for why Manannan would choose a crown prince from a royal castle that's by no means undefended (he's not the only wizard in the world, after all) who is dearly loved by both parents and whose parents can make any kingdom or country very uncomfortable for Manannan. Diplomatically speaking, any kingdom that returns Daventry's long-lost son is guaranteed a massive amount of political brownie points. Graham and Valanice have the wealth, the manpower and the political clout to mobilize the whole freaking WORLD to search for their kid.
And this is the biggest problem: the entire backstory of KQ3 makes precisely zero sense. Not in the "suspend disbelief, it's only a game" sense like when you get nommed by Pinocchio's whale in KQ4, but in the "there is no planet in the multiverse where this makes a lick of sense" sense!
Or, as The Handmaid's Tale more eloquently put it:
"...what the actual f#$k?"
But whatever. You're Alexander. Your home kingdom of Daventry is also under siege by a three-headed dragon and your aforementioned twin sister, Princess Rosella, has been chosen to be its latest sacrifice.
Guess where this is going?
Yeah. You rush to the docks and buy passage on a ship that turns out to be crewed by pirates who, naturally, steal all your stuff and throw you in the hold. And actually, I'm fine with this decision on the game's part. Gwydion's never left the mountain before; I have no trouble believing that he's naive as they come.
Anyhoo, you escape the hold, sneak around, reclaim your belongings and then go back to the hold to wait for the ship to arrive.
I hope you like this image, because you'll see it a lot in the game.
See that timer at the top? Sierra decided it would be a fun mechanic for Manannan's absences, and it was. The player knew how long they had, it built a sense of tension and helped make the game a little fairer.
Unfortunately, they didn't know when to leave well enough alone, and some bright spark decided that it would be cool to use it on the ship as well. So you're stuck on that screen, or its neighbor to the right, until time runs out. You can't speed it up. You can't do anything in the game. Worst of all, the exact amount of time is randomly decided. I've known it be 10 minutes; I've known it be 30, or 50. All you can do is wander around in the hold being bored, until:
Thank god for that! Wait...what year is it again?
I think this was implemented as a way to avoid people breaking the game. You can only board the pirate ship after you've spoken to the Oracle, but you can speak to the Oracle without defeating Manannan, so technically it's possible to escape Llewdor without doing the whole turn-wizard-into-cat thing. I guess Sierra wanted an artificial method to run down the timer, as Manannan will also appear on the ship and zap you.
I would be okay with that, except even in the 80s, it wasn't difficult to program in a little loop that would let the player zip straight through if they'd done what they should have (Has Player got all their inventory from the captain's cabin? Check! Is Manannan running around on all fours? Check! Okay, two minutes from now, we reach land!)
Leisure Suit Larry 3 faced the same problems where you had to work out in the gym. Sometimes the game demanded 10 crunches; other times, the number would be in the hundreds. The most I had to do was 1700. That's 1700 times of just pressing the up and down arrow keys.
Now get on those other two machines and do the exact same thing again!
But Gwydion's off the ship thanks to a Sleeping Spell he casts on the pirates, he zaps past the Yeti using a magic stone (on about the 48th attempt) and dashes to the rescue of a complete stranger who's also his twin sister.
Well, sort of. And yeah, you can and usually do fall to your death here as well.
After that, it's pretty routine hero-stuff: find the dragon, turn invisible, kill the dragon.
I can't tell if she's screaming because she's scared of the dragon or my magical storm that just fried all three of its brains.
Gwydion introduces himself to Rosella, saying he's her long-lost twin brother. Rosella, in a surprisingly realistic take, is skeptical of his crazy claim.
"I'm a gentle, refined, ladylike princess. Now drop your pants and show me your ass, hero-boy."
But this review wouldn't be complete without a final visit to:
13. How does Rosella know what the "cute birthmark" looks like? She was only a baby when Alexander was taken. I mean, I'll buy that her parents may have mentioned it, and sure, it would be too much of a coincidence for Gwydion to have a birthmark and not be Alexander, but even so...
14. How does Gwydion know about the "cute birthmark?" It's a rather acrobatic feat to examine one's own bottom without at least one mirror. There are precisely two mirrors in Manannan's hut. One is in the wizard's room, and I doubt he'd let Gwydion moon his dressing table, and the other is in Gwydion's room.
There is no way he can balance on the dresser and squint at his own butt in that broken mirror without falling off.
This also begs the question: why the heck would Gwydion want to examine his own butt in the first place?
Well, whatever. The game's torturous story is almost over and you go back with your sister to Daventry, where you're reunited with your parents.
Now do-si-do with your partner, and everybody swing!
For those of you wondering, no, you don't end up mooning the King and Queen. At least, I'm pretty sure you don't. I kind of imagine the ending with Graham being like, "Meh, I don't know for sure if this guy's actually my long-lost son, but he saved my daughter and killed a dragon, so what the hell. Welcome to the family, kid!"
And that was King's Quest 3. Illogical story, plot holes out the wazoo and some of the most tedious, frustrating gameplay ever devised, balanced out by a powerful villain seldom equalled in story or gameplay.
Next time: Rosella takes center stage in KQ4!