Category Archives: Retro Reviews

Wolfenstein 3D / Spear of Destiny Review

Note: The screenshots posted on this page have been scaled up a little from their tiny native resolutions as well as had their aspect ratios corrected to proper 4:3 dimensions as they should have looked on CRT monitors originally. For posterity’s sake you can also click them to view the “pixel perfect” originals.

Introduction

Wolfenstein 3D
“Wolfenstein 3D”

...and Spear of Destiny!
“…and Spear of Destiny!”

I’d been whining to my poor parents about wanting a new PC for literally years. While it seemed like I might have finally worn them down, I’d do whatever I could to play with any and every kind of computer whenever the opportunity presented itself in the meantime. One of those few opportunities was my 8th grade computer class. The first ever class I had with semi-modern IBM compatible PCs. The class was okay, but the main event was what happened when the last bell of the day rang and our computer teacher’s newly formed ham radio club gathered. For one reason or another, the club almost instantly devolved into most of us just hanging out in the computer lab and screwing around most every afternoon, and we were absolutely fine with that.

Our computer lab was in a pretty sorry state. Other than our teacher’s PCs, which were more or less dedicated to ham and, soon, running our middle school’s official bulletin board system, most of the computers we had were some form of outdated IBM AT clone with zero notable upgrades to speak of. Us nerdy delinquents quickly discovered that one was a cut above the rest, though: a 386 with a VGA adapter and an soundcard. Soon enough, this uber PC got pulled out into the middle of the classroom so we could all gather around it, watching and taking turns playing whatever the latest random game someone smuggled in and managed to get working was.

A showdown with a Nazi guard.
“A showdown with a Nazi guard.”

One fateful day it was the shareware version of Wolfenstein 3D. This machine only had an AdLib in it, so no sound effects, but it didn’t matter. To see Wolfenstein 3D smoothly rendering its glorious violence in full 256 color VGA was utterly amazing. On that day, the obsession I had to acquire a new PC turned into absolute fucking resolve. Wolfenstein 3D was already a year old at that point, and I’d get to see the shareware episode of Doom running (rather poorly) on the same machine before the school year was over, but you can bet when my parents finally caved and spent a ridiculous amount of money on a new 486SX/33 for me that summer, one of the first things I did was drag my mom to Radioshack to buy me a copy of the Wolfenstein 3D shareware disk.

Loading it up for the first time, my AZTECH Sound Blaster clone pumping out that distinctive AdLib soundtrack as my cell door loudly rolled open and I cautiously crept around the corner, pistol in hand, a Nazi guard spotting me and shouting “Achtung!” as he sprang to action, is something I’ll probably always vividly remember, and something that still feels fresh whenever I revisit the game. I loved Wolfenstein 3D! Doom soon utterly overshadowed it, sure, but Wolfenstein 3D will always be the game that introduced me to the now ubiquitous First Person Shooter genre and its masters, Id Software.

I still have my original shareware version. 3 bucks well spent (even though there's absolutely no mention on the package that this is only the shareware version... shady!)
“I still have my original shareware version. 3 bucks well spent (even though there’s absolutely no mention on the package that this is only the shareware version… shady!)”

Id Software was formed largely on the back of John Carmack’s technically impressive smooth side-scrolling routines and he soon turned his attention to developing an equally impressive first person ray casting, 2.5D engine which first saw publication in 1991’s Hovertank 3D and a little later, Catacomb 3-D, both released by Softdisk. By the time Wolfenstein 3D was released in 1992, Id had greatly improved the engine, making the controls more accessible, upgrading from EGA to VGA graphics, and adding AdLib music and Soundblaster sound effects. Probably most importantly, they abandoned Softdisk’s subscription publishing model and moved to publishing under Apogee’s shareware model which was already earning them some success with the Commander Keen series. Releasing as shareware meant much, much more exposure, and the game went on to be wildly successful. A commercial only sequel (really, more of a standalone expansion pack) called Spear of Destiny, which I’ll also be covering here, was released by FormGen the following year in 1993, leading to even more exposure. Wolfenstein 3D was a bonafide hit.

Gameplay

Wolfenstein 3D established what quickly became the basic gameplay template for most of the FPS games released in the 1990s. Each level begins in a predetermined location of a self-contained area (usually called a “map” in FPS vernacular) and it’s your job guide your character to the exit. Some parts of the map are behind locked doors which require keys you can pick up along the way, adding a tiny bit of complexity to the exercise. Of course, there are also guards patrolling the map who will shoot you on sight and alert others to your presence if you don’t take them out first. There’s also weapons, ammo, and health scattered around to collect, and unusually for the genre, various treasures that can be gathered to increase your score. It’s a simple formula, and with Wolfenstein 3D’s beautifully performing engine, you can often absolutely blaze through these maps.

The end of level score tally.
“The end of level score tally.”

At odds with the blazing speed of the gameplay, the score tallied at the end of each mission rewards 100% completion, which includes enemies killed, treasure collected, and “secrets” discovered. These secret hidden areas became a fairly normal part of early FPS design, but Wolfenstein’s are particularly infamous for not being marked or otherwise hinted at in any way. This lead to the stereotype of players running up and down every single wall in every single room and corridor frantically tapping the open key, colloquially known as “wall humping” thanks to how absurd this looks and sounds. That said, without exploring quite a bit, you’re unlikely to get a 100% completion in any of these categories the first time through.

Exploration tends to be unavoidable anyway thanks to Wolfenstein’s labyrinthian maps. While the game starts out with simple designs seemingly based on vaguely realistic floor plans, it quickly goes off the deep end with some gigantic and thoroughly maze-like map designs, and with no auto-map to speak of, getting to the end of these take quite a while and be more than a little frustrating. Navigating the map in the correct order to find the aforementioned keys is the closest Wolfenstein ever comes to throwing puzzles at the player – there are no special trigger areas, switches, elevators, etc. as would soon become staples of the FPS genre. Lack of gameplay variety is not the only problem with Wolfenstein’s maps, as the maps themselves tend to be quite repetitive, with the engine only supporting simple, 90 degree angled walls on a single, level plane.

Ow. The mutants in episode 2 are fucking obnoxious.
“Ow. The mutants in episode 2 are fucking obnoxious.”

A bit more challenge comes from the enemies, which are often positioned to strike the second you open a door or go around a corner. While not quite “monster closet” levels of cheesiness, Wolfenstein can occasionally feel a little unfair when it comes to purposely devious placement of enemies, and getting caught by surprise can quickly lead to your death, especially on higher difficulty levels. There’s not too much variety in enemies either, with probably the most crucial variable besides their hit points and rate of fire being how quickly they draw on you in the aforementioned ambush situations.

The variety of your own arsenal is similarly a little slim, with the only thing being anywhere close to exotic being the minigun, which I tend to avoid using during anything but the end of the episode boss fights – the machine gun’s rate of fire is quick enough to effectively stun/stagger enemies but doesn’t chew through the ammo nearly as quickly as the minigun. This is notable, as ammunition can be a little sparse early on which can lend the game a bit of a survival feel, adding some much needed tension to the formula. This mostly falls to the wayside as you progress, assuming you live long enough to hang on to your ammunition supply between maps. These simple, hit scan based weapons do feel pretty satisfying though, which I have to think is a big part of what makes Wolfenstein so damn enjoyable.

As I said in my Duke Nukem 3D review, the old school style of FPS level design ends up feeling quite tedious to me, and in Wolfenstein the simplicity and lack of variety only exacerbates that feeling. As a kid, while playing through the first, shareware episode felt a little bit repetitive, it didn’t really overstay its welcome. By the time you add in the full version’s 5 additional episodes, and if you also play Spear of Destiny, which adds in another 21 levels, that’s a total of 81 levels, never mind the two GenForm bonus mission packs for Spear of Destiny, for another 42 maps, yeah, it’s a bit of a slog.

Probably the most popular map editor at the time, the aptly named MAPEDIT.
“Probably the most popular map editor at the time, the aptly named MAPEDIT.”

Surprisingly, a lot of people didn’t seem to think so though, as in addition to Wolfenstein 3D kicking off the FPS genre, it also introduced the world to FPS map making and modding. Wolfenstein’s data structures were quickly reverse engineered and map creation software was released. Given how simple Wolfenstein’s maps are, these editors were simple to use and a lot of people found themselves creating their own maps and campaigns, and a few even dove into editing the sprites and textures, creating some early examples of something close to resembling “total conversion” mods. Personally, I never played around with 3rd party Wolfenstein 3D maps and modifications back in the day, but apparently they were quite popular.

As a quick aside, some of the later console ports of Wolfenstein 3D do make tweaks to the gameplay, from the minor such as differently designed maps, to the more notable ones such as new weapons and even an automap feature. While it’s mostly the DOS version I’m covering here, I still feel this is noteworthy, as some of you might be reading this thinking “What about the flamethrower?” or “What? I used the automap when I played it!”

Story

Wolfenstein 3D doesn’t have much of a story, rather it sets up scenarios and throws you into the action, never really advancing anything resembling a plot. Nevertheless, in presenting you with excuses to be in these mazes, it does at least make an attempt at throwing some fluff in in the form of text introductions and endings to each episode.

The introduction to episode 1 (as taken from the in-game readme in the shareware version!)
“The introduction to episode 1 (as taken from the in-game readme in the shareware version!)”

Continued.
“Continued.”

I'll definitely tell me grandkids about this..
“I’ll definitely tell me grandkids about this.”

Directly inspired by the 1981’s Apple II action stealth game, Castle Wolfenstein, Wolfenstein 3D follows the exploits of allied spy Captain William J. “B.J.” Blazkowicz against Nazi forces in WWII. The most famous of these scenarios, the first episode, has BJ attempting escape from the dungeon fortress Wolfenstein where he was being held prisoner. After that, BJ heads into Castle Hollehammer to stop Operation Eisenfaust – a sinister plot that involves reanimating corpses in an attempt to create the ultimate super soldier. In the third and final episode of the original trilogy, BJ heads to Hitler’s massive bunker complex underneath the Reichstag to put an end to the Third Reich once and for all. This is the definitive set of missions, without a doubt.

The second trio of episodes, snarkily called the “Nocturnal Missions”, are actually prequels, taking place before BJ was captured, in which he attempts to put a stop to a chemical weapons program. These missions aren’t bad, but don’t really add anything essential to the story.

Spear of Destiny... now with more wall textures!
“Spear of Destiny… now with more wall textures!”

Spear of Destiny, on the other hand, is notable because it fully commits to fantasy Nazi tropes, having BJ attempting to stop Hitler from using the occult powers of the legendary holy relic, the Lance of Longinus. He infiltrates Castle Nuremberg and eventually retrieves it, but not before getting transported to hell and having to defeat a demon “Angel of Death” in order to escape. Yes, you go to hell to fight a demon! Wolfenstein REALLY dove into the deep end of the occult stuff here, foreshadowing the full on demonic assault of Doom a year later. Outside of that, again, these missions hardly feel necessary.

Mission specifics aside, the fantasy World War II setting felt fresh to me at the time, especially when combined with Wolfenstein 3D’s immersive first person presentation. Even today, despite how exhaustively the setting and its associated tropes have been mined, the particular combination of pulp comic book action, occultism, zombies, super technology, and real life World War II presented in the original Wolfenstein 3D games feels like a relatively unique blend. I’d guess most people would prefer either semi-realistic World War II settings or even deeper dives into these concepts (as presented in later games in the series) but Wolfenstein 3D’s take certainly was enjoyable.

Oddly, the SNES port of Wolfenstein 3D features a totally reworked plot in an awkward attempt to censor any association with Nazi Germany. All this really accomplishes is turning the antagonists (renamed the “Master State”) into a sloppy and rather obvious analog for Nazi Germany, with Hitler being named Staatmeister and given a shave. Humph!

Controls

Wolfenstein 3D’s controls probably feel totally alien to gamers that grew up after FPS games moved to the WASD + “mouselook” style of control, but what Wolfenstein 3D did at the time set the template for other first person shooters for quite a while: Both hands on the keyboard with your right hand moving you back, forward, left, and right using your arrow keys and your left hand doing everything else with the far left side of the keyboard – Left Ctrl, Left Alt, Space Bar, and Left Shift were typically used to fire, strafe, open doors, and run, respectively. I got used to this control style with Wolfenstein 3D and perfected it with Doom, and had to pretty much force myself into using the newer convention only after it became the norm across the genre.

Yeah, you shoot dogs in this game. Seriously vicious dogs.
“Yeah, you shoot dogs in this game. Seriously vicious dogs.”

Granted, part of what makes it work is how simple Wolfenstein 3D is. There’s very little going on outside of moving, firing, and opening doors. You don’t need to (and indeed, can’t) look up and down, nor do you need precision aim since there is a vague aim-assist (or maybe just big hit boxes?) While I’m not sure how it technically works, it’s definitely less pronounced than in latter early FPS games since there is no variation in verticality in Wolfenstein 3D to make it jarringly obvious that your shots are being angled outside of your control.

Still, attempts to get those simple controls mapped to my old Gravis GamePad back in the day never ended very satisfactorily. In the case of the numerous console ports, greater care was put into getting the feel of playing on a gamepad right and thankfully, most of them have various degrees of passable implementations. Again, the simplistic controls make that translation fairly easy. Newer console ports, such as the Xbox Live Arcade version, introduce the modern dual-stick FPS control style to the game, albeit with the right stick only used to look left and right. It sounds weird on paper, but it feels pretty normal and overall I found Wolfenstein 3D to be right at home on an Xbox 360 or Xbox One controller.

It's pretty typical to leave a trail of gore in your wake.
“It’s pretty typical to leave a trail of gore in your wake.”

While there is mouse support in the original DOS versions, it’s very rudimentary and won’t satisfy anyone trying to replicate modern control schemes. If you’re looking for that experience, the most popular of the Windows ports of the game, ECWolf, includes support for proper WASD + mouselook, and it works excellently. Like the Xbox 360 port, mouselook is limited to looking left and right, but it still feels fine. In fact, it’s my preferred way to play these days.

Graphics

While Wolfenstein 3D’s graphics aren’t typically the first thing I think about when I look back on the game, I have no doubt that they had quite a lot to do with the game’s success. As mentioned, the Wolf3D engine ran extremely smoothly, even with its VGA textured walls (an upgrade over the original Hovertank 3D) and sometimes large amounts of sprites on screen. Floors and ceilings remained untextured, oddly, but in playing the game this doesn’t really stand out as a deficiency. If anything, it helps the environment feel a little less cluttered than less skilled implementations of fully textured “2.5D” environments in some future games.

The death animations certainly give a hint of what was to come in Doom.
“The death animations certainly give a hint of what was to come in Doom.”

The real standout here is the artwork. An obvious precursor to his work in Doom, Adrian Carmack’s colorful, stylized sprite and animation work is a mix between the cartoony and (particularly in the death animations) dark and macabre, and is simply jam-packed full of character. As with in Doom, he really manages to nail the kind of “cool” that appeals greatly to teenage boys, without fully tipping over the edge into being embarrassingly cringy for adults to enjoy. Interestingly, I read somewhere that one of the reasons for Wolfenstein’s distinct, colorful look is that many of the textures and sprites were originally drawn with the limited EGA 16 color palette and then touched up with the engine’s move to VGA, which makes a lot of sense.

I will have to throw in just a little negativity here. While I mentioned the variety in weapons and enemies, as well as the simplicity of the maps already, the lack of variety in wall textures and environmental objects adds to this feeling of repetition to a large degree as well. While there are a fair number of different wall texture sets, it won’t take long until you’ve seen them all. This is huge factor in what makes the maps a little too maze-like, as well – when every room looks the same, exactly how are you supposed to tell them apart? While Spear of Destiny adds a few new textures into the mix, it really feels like a token effort.

Neat little details abound, like BJ grinning ear to ear when he picks up a minigun.
“Neat little details abound, like BJ grinning ear to ear when he picks up a minigun.”

Still, altogether, the look of Wolfenstein 3D is quite strong and holds up surprisingly well today, with this lack of environmental variety hurting the gameplay more than the presentation.

Interestingly, the graphics found in the original DOS release were not the only ones around. When the game was ported to the SNES some of the sprites were redesigned, most notably the weapons and your character’s head indicator on the status bar. When ported to the Macintosh, the rest of the graphics were redesigned, redrawn, and/or tweaked, including the enemy sprites and wall textures being drawn at double the resolution for cleaner scaling. The Jaguar and 3DO releases were also based on this version, though again with various tweaks of their own. Opinions on these facelifts vary but it seems like the new graphics in these versions are generally well liked and don’t stray too far from the spirit of the original work.

Sound

From the second the title screen loads and the AdLib rendition of Horst-Wessel-Lied starts blasting, you know you’re in for something different. Like with its graphics, it’s hard to imagine what Wolfenstein 3D would have been without its excellent soundwork.

Hitler delivering a serious beatdown.
“Hitler delivering a serious beatdown.”

First, you have Bobby Prince’s soundtrack which is one of my personal favorite examples of classic AdLib music to this day. He manages to combine the sizzling snare rolls of military marches, triumphant anthemic horn blasts, and the intrigue of a good spy thriller into tracks that somehow gel with the feeling of sneaking around these Nazi dungeons almost perfectly. While some of these tunes can get a little repetitive, as an overall package it is very strong.

On top of that you have the Sound Blaster digital sound effects. The first cell door you exit slamming shut behind you, a sound you’ll hear a thousand more times before beating the game, in fact, grabs your attention and puts you at high alert. The gunfire thuds nicely, and the barks of the enemies as they spot you and, with any luck, go down, are awesome regardless of their humorously loose interpretation of German phrases.

Officers draw on you in and instant, barely giving you time to react to their bark.
“Officers draw on you in and instant, barely giving you time to react to their bark.”

More than just sounding cool, this is one of the first games I recall playing where the sound effects greatly affect gameplay. It’s easy to unwittingly attract enemies to your location while clearing out the map, and sometimes hearing a door open in the distance is your only hint that you’re being hunted. Likewise, almost every enemy “barks” at you the second it sees you, often giving you a few seconds to react before taking fire. Besides helping you avoid getting shot, this can also help identify which type of enemy it is, which can make the difference between life and death. That is, getting caught with your back to a normal guard isn’t nearly as detrimental as letting one of the machine gun wielding SS elite soldiers get a free burst off on you.

Returning to the subject of ports, it won’t surprise you by now to read that the music and sound effects in many of these versions have been touched up or replaced entirely. Most notably, the Mac and 3DO versions have their own, mostly totally distinct, orchestrated soundtracks from Brian Luzietti. While these have an entirely different feel from Bobby Prince’s original soundtrack, it’s hard to deny how great they are too.

Old Age and Alternative Versions

As usual, my primary method of playing through the game for this review was my dedicated 486 gaming PC. I didn’t bother disabling my cache or trying to slow my system down in any other ways, as I recalled it running fine back in the day on a machine only a tiny bit slower than this one. Other than running into some issues with the non-standard way I had my Sound Blaster configured at the time, I had no trouble running it, and it ran just as buttery smooth as expected. There is an issue with secret “pushwalls” sometimes moving further than they should on systems with extremely fast CPUs, but this requires some very specific conditions, thus isn’t a widespread issue.

As for playing it on a modern system, I also played through a significant amount of it in DOSBox. I used the pre-configured version from GOG, although I did have to increase my CPU “cycles” setting to make it run as smoothly as I’m accustomed to. Once I did that, I found that it played quite well. Given that if you acquire Wolfenstein 3D legally from places like Steam or the aforementioned GOG these days, you’re almost certainly going to be getting a copy bundled with DOSBox, don’t forget that you may need to tweak this and maybe a few other things to get the game running optimally.

ECWolf running smooth as butter in 1080p.
“ECWolf running smooth as butter in 1080p.”

ECWolf with the ECMac mod!
“ECWolf with the ECMac mod!”

ECWolf's automap, as basic as it is, is a godsend.
“ECWolf’s automap, as basic as it is, is a godsend.”

That said, I also played through a large amount of the game in the most popular Windows ports of the game, ECWolf. I had only intended on playing through a single episode in ECWolf, but enjoyed the experience so much that I ended up playing through the entirety of Spear of Destiny in it as well. Besides running just as smooth as the original engine, ECWolf natively supports widescreen resolutions, modern WASD + mouselook controls, and includes an automap. It’s hard for me to quantify just how much more enjoyable the game is with an automap at my disposal – it’s a huge quality of life improvement and goes a long way to nullifying my complaints about the the repetitive, maze-life maps. ECWolf also includes some pretty cool drop-in modding capabilities, and I spent some time playing with a mod called “ECMac” which overhauls the original game’s maps with the improved aesthetics of the Macintosh version. Extremely cool.

Finally, I also played through an entire episode in the Xbox 360 / Xbox Live Arcade port of the game (on my Xbox One.) Despite some well-known issues with the music and some very minor texture changes, I found this version to be faithful to the DOS original and a fair representation for new players wanting to check out the game without dealing with getting it to work on a PC. As noted above, playing it with dual sticks on a modern joypad is a little odd at first, but I got used to it extremely quickly.

The SNES version looks passable up close.
“The SNES version looks passable up close.”

But the scaling is extremely harsh. You can barely make out the guard here!
“But the scaling is extremely harsh. You can barely make out the guard here!”

The 3DO version, on the other hand, is mostly excellent.
“The 3DO version, on the other hand, is mostly excellent.”

There are, of course, other ports. I mentioned some of the original console and PC ports: SNES, Macintosh, Jaguar, 3DO, and oddly, the Apple IIGS. There were also later ports to GBA and IOS, and unofficial ports for a number of systems, almost reaching Doom’s ridiculous levels of ubiquity. Some of these ports include their own maps and other odd changes that could be worth looking into for the truly dedicated. There are also some hidden versions and throwbacks in newer games, such as the original Xbox port included with Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War, and the cool little appearances in Doom II, Wolfenstein: The New Order and Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus… too cool!

The original game manuals are available when purchasing the game and various other sources, though besides being a straightforward introduction to the game, they’re not really required. You can also find the official hint books that came with boxed copies of the games around too. These hint books aren’t too useful outside of having detailed diagrams of every map in the original game, but they’re fun to flick through and even include some bonus vintage pictures of the Id Software guys.

Sequels and Related Games

Id Software moved on to Doom almost as soon as Wolfenstein 3D was out the door, and most wouldn’t consider Spear of Destiny a proper follow-up. It wasn’t until almost 10 years later that Gray Matter Interactive put out Return to Castle Wolfenstein, rebooting the series with some success. It was almost as long for it to get a sequel, the Raven Software developed Wolfenstein in 2009. In 2014, we finally got the acclaimed Wolfenstein: The New Order which continues the series, and it’s prequel, Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, which is somewhat of a re-imaging of the events of the earlier titles. The New Order got a proper sequel in 2017 with Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Along the way there was also Wolfenstein RPG for mobile devices, though I never got to play that one before it dropped off the face of the earth.

While the guard is slow to react, the SS soldier is about to drill me.
“While the guard is slow to react, the SS soldier is about to drill me.”

There were also plenty of other games that used the Wolf3D engine and its derivatives. Besides its predecessors, Hovertank 3D and Catacomb 3-D, the sci-fi Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold and its sequel Blake Stone: Planet Strike are favorites of mine and I’ll likely cover them here some day. There’s also the much less enjoyable Operation Body Count and Corridor 7: Alien Invasion, and the infamously bizarre Super 3D Noah’s Ark for SNES. Using a heavily modified version of the engine, Apogee’s Rise of the Triad: Dark War actually started life as a sequel to Wolfenstein 3D, and some hints of that exist in the game as-released. Finally, straying off a little more, technically, the Raven Software developed Shadowcaster used what was a bit of a stepping stone between Wolf3D and the Doom engine, AKA Id Tech 1, kicking off a long history of association between the two companies.

Closing

The camera zooms out to show you in 3rd person as you exit an epsiode. Awesome touch!
“The camera zooms out to show you in 3rd person as you exit an epsiode. Awesome touch!”

It’s honestly been a treat for me to head back into the corridors of Castle Wolfenstein and to see just how closely my memories of blasting Nazis and hording treasure hold up. I think others who remember Wolfenstein 3D and other, similar early FPS games fondly will potentially enjoy playing the game too, at least until its repetitiveness wears out its welcome. That said, if you were brought up on newer FPS games with frilly extras like “stories” and “mechanics” its hard to imagine Wolfenstein 3D keeping your interest even that long. It’s a highly influential, well polished, fun, but at the end of the day, very limited game, and it was improved on in just about every conceivable way by Id Software’s follow-up, Doom, and the long line of first person shooters that followed it. Outside of the nostalgic and those interested in FPS history, it’s unlikely to entertain all that much, sadly.

Bummer of an aside: While writing this and reminiscing about my old middle school computer science class, I thought it might be fun to track down my teacher and thank him for being an influence in my own successful career in information technology, only to discover that he passed away in 2012. Pouring one out for you, Mr. Miller!

Neuromancer Review

Note: The screenshots posted on this page have been scaled up a little from their tiny native resolutions as well as had their aspect ratios corrected to proper 4:3 dimensions as they should have looked on CRT monitors originally. For posterity’s sake you can also click them to view the “pixel perfect” originals.

Introduction

Neuromancer!
“Neuromancer!”

One of the best part of being into retro gaming and, indeed, doing these reviews, is exploring all manner of interesting and bizarre games that I’ve never played and in many cases had never even heard of before. 1988’s Neuromancer is a standout example of this. Containing so many individual elements that I’m particularly drawn to, from its dark cyberpunk setting to its late 80s adventure game trappings, never mind that William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy are some of my favorite books, on paper, this is my dream game. Yet, it’s a game that I nor practically anyone I know had played, despite being based on a hugely influential novel, being somewhat innovative for its time, and even being considered a bona fide classic in certain circles.

The story goes that at some point in the mid 80s, counterculture LSD fanatic Timothy Leary read William Gibson’s Neuromancer and it changed his life. Not too much earlier, he had also discovered the captivating world of interactive fiction games, which had also changed his life. At some point the potential intersection became obvious, and Leary obtained the rights to make a game based on Neuromancer, eventually partnering up with Brian Fargo at Interplay, who ultimately designed, developed, and published the game. Unfortunately Interplay had just released cult-classic Wasteland under Electronic Arts, and were soon to release an absolute must-have at the time, Battle Chess, sandwiching Neuromancer into relative obscurity.

A robot? What game is this again?
“A robot? What game is this again?”

Adding to that obscurity, Neuromancer’s release fell in what was an extremely awkward period for PC gaming; a transitional time between the end of the 8 bit personal computer era and the beginning of the popularity of the new 16 bit computers like the Amiga and the Atari ST, and of course, the rise of the IBM PC as a popular gaming platform. IBM PCs took a little bit of time to catch up, however; low color but higher resolution EGA was still in vogue, and add-on sound and music cards such as the Adlib and Roland’s MT32 hadn’t begun to see widespread use yet. On the other hand, Neuromancer was somewhat of a tour de force on squeezing content into and power out of its lead platform, the aging Commodore 64.

For this review I’m playing through the inferior IBM PC version, but honestly, this lackluster port probably only adds to the quirkiness of this already unique game.

Gameplay

Another side effect of this awkward, transitional period of gaming, is the gameplay itself. By the late 80s a lot of PC games were extremely creative affairs, including all kinds of new and experimental gameplay concepts, often forced together in unusual ways, and many of the genre tropes we take for granted today hadn’t quite been established. Unfortunately that meant that when those genres did get more established, some of these transitional, experimental games became evolutionary dead-ends, as it were. In my King’s Quest review I talked about the design and even UI differences between King’s Quest’s AGI and SCI versions. Neuromancer takes a lot of adventure game ideas from old AGI games and their contemporaries, but also tosses in a huge helping of roleplay, and then throws in this massive twist of online interfaces including exploring cyberspace itself. You could easily argue that Neuromancer has more akin to classic graphical RPGs than run-of-the-mill adventure games like King’s Quest. That doesn’t make it a bad game by most standards, but it does make it a weird one.

The end of the book would have been a lot shorter if Neuromancer was just chilling in the lobby.
“The end of the book would have been a lot shorter if Neuromancer was just chilling in the lobby.”

Neuromancer is split into several different, distinct gameplay systems, but for the sake of simplification, let’s reduce this down to two halves, which roughly represent the two halves of the game (though it is a semi-nonlinear game, so it’s definitely possible that you won’t have anything even close to a 50/50 split.) First, there’s the offline adventure section.

Neuromancer starts with your character standing on a screen representing a bar, where you’ve apparently just woken up after a rough evening of drinking and eating pasta. A text box describes the scene for you, and the bartender barks at you. From here, the game looks like a traditional adventure game, albeit an archaic, odd twist on some of the more conventional tropes of the genre. You can walk around these screens, navigating the city, and talking to various characters along your way, but that’s about the extent of it. Talking to people can get you some useful information, but it mostly serves as a way to upgrade your skills and equipment. In other words, almost every character is a traditional RPG shopkeeper NPC.

Your other options in the overworld are more interesting – you can access PAX terminals, which let you access basic banking functions, and read message boards, which work a bit like old school BBSes. The messages mostly contain background fluff but sometimes contain useful information too. You can even send messages, which is used once or twice as a solution to a puzzle, as it were.

You'll be entering a ton of linkcodes and passwords early in the game.
“You’ll be entering a ton of linkcodes and passwords early in the game.”

Finally, there are access ports, which is where things really start to get interesting. By using your cyberdeck in an area with a port, you can use a software application called “Comlink” to connect to various databases, or “bases.” Comlink is something akin to a terminal program, and bases are similar to old dial up BBSes: Small, closed off systems that consist of memos, files you can download, more message boards, and sometimes other special functions. As a BBS junkie from way back, it’s pretty fascinating to see a view of what the Internet might be like in the future looking through the contemporary lens of dial-up BBSes and mainframe systems. It’s also interesting to note just how much the users of these apparently futuristic online systems resemble those of the underground BBS scene of the 80s and 90s. This was an unexpected shot of nostalgia for me!

Anyway, to connect to a base you need to know its linkcode, which is something like an AOL keyword, if anyone remembers those. Once connected, you’ll then need a password to get access. Bases have multiple levels, each with its own password. Once you’re on, the main function of these “bases” is essentially to provide more linkcodes and passwords to other bases, or hints to find and figure new ones out, as well as downloads for improved software, to progress, with higher levels usually having some additional, previously inaccessible messages, downloads, or other functions.

In retrospect I'm not sure why I thought online banking would make a good screenshot.
“In retrospect I’m not sure why I thought online banking would make a good screenshot.”

Hints are important in Neuromancer, because, despite being fairly non-linear in terms of structure, progression is generally guided by a series of gates: Do you know a linkcode to connect to a base? Do you know the access code to get into the base? Do you have a high enough version of Comlink to work with a base? Do you have some other required software or know the appropriate level of skill to “solve” a puzzle? These questions are answered one by one in a fairly orderly way. The biggest challenge, generally speaking, is trying to keep track of the vast amount of information you’re given. You may have half a dozen or more of these micro puzzles progressing at any one time. This is a game that requires taking notes if I’ve ever played one. By the time I was halfway through I had a notebook that looked like the scribblings of a madman, filled with linkcodes, encrypted and unencrypted passwords, names, places, account numbers, etc.

Surprisingly, this stage in the game isn’t quite as tedious as it sounds. You don’t have to do too much walking around, the fluff is interesting and even a little funny when it works, and the act of juggling all of this information, manipulating people and systems, connecting to a base, snooping around in it, taking what you’ve learned to connect to the next one, etc. actually starts to feel a lot like something resembling legitimate, largely social engineering powered, hacking. In fact, at this point Neuromancer feels more like some odd twist on a hacking simulator than any sort of adventure game.

Welcome to cyberspace!
“Welcome to cyberspace!”

That, and the puzzles aren’t as frustrating as vintage PC gaming veterans are probably imaging from a 80s game where information gathering and solving puzzles is the order of the day. The fact is, for the most part, the different puzzles and their solutions are strung together fairly well, and there are never too many of these little mysteries sitting there, unsolved, at any one time. That might not sound like a big deal, but it’s far easier to figure out your next move based on a few distinct clues than it is to figure it out when you have 10s of them pointing you in every possible direction.

Eventually with all of the skills you’ve learned and software you’ve gathered, you’ll manage to make some extra cash from all of your hacking exploits, and can upgrade your deck to something “cyberspace capable”. Once you have one of these decks, not only can you use Comlink to connect to bases, but you can enter the Matrix, and thus begins the second half of the game.

Cyberspace is essentially a graphical representation of the back-end infrastructure of the aforementioned individual bases. As you move through the Matrix you can connect to the same databases in virtual space, but this time you can access them through their back doors. People aren’t complete morons in this imaginary future, however: all of these back doors are protected by ICE, or Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics, which means you need to perform some hacking to get in. Hacking ICE requires using a rotation of programs on your deck to damage or otherwise weaken the ICE, as well as occasionally repair your own systems. You select one of your available programs and wait for it to affect the ICE. Meanwhile, the ICE is firing back with its own damaging hacks. It’s honestly not incredibly thrilling, but you still need to be on your toes. Once the ICE is defeated, you have maximum access to the base. Sometimes this means newer information and software than you previously discovered access to, sometimes not, but generally speaking completing these hacks helps you progress your character’s ability to move deeper into cyberspace.

Attempting to defeat an AI.
“Attempting to defeat an AI.”

Sometimes when you defeat a base’s ICE you wind up not in the database, but staring down an AI. Unlike the Sprawl Trilogy this game was based on, their seems to be quite a few AIs running around the Matrix. Each AI has its own personality and take on and involvement in the overarching plot of the game. To defeat an AI you use your various skills in much the same way as you used your deck’s software; rotating through different skills to cause damage and healing yourself when required while the AI takes turns pummeling you back. A lot of these fights can be pretty close, but if you’ve been keeping your skills and warez up, you should beat any AI the game intends for you to be able to beat.

As to that intention, the different areas or “zones” of cyberspace, and to a lesser degree individual instances of ICE and AI, are gated by your level skills and software, which is essentially the gameplay loop of this last section of the game: access an area of cyberspace, hack all of the bases and defeat all of the AIs to upgrade your software and upgrade your skills, respectively, and then move on to the next area. Again, very RPG-like. There are some minor diversions along the way, but at this point the game turns into a bit of a slog until you eventually go head to head with the titular AI, Neuromancer, in one last, climatic battle.

Story

Sadly, despite being based on a celebrated novel, Neuromancer’s story is not one of its strong points.

For one, there’s barely any narrative to speak of. Instead, the game is a bit of a hamfisted execerise in “environmental storytelling”; it seems that you’re supposed to take a lot of context out of the presentation of the world itself, with what isn’t inferred from the setting found in text stashed on PAX and database message boards, crushed between various pieces of fun but perhaps ultimately distracting fluff. In fact, there’s so much of this other stuff that it can be hard to identify what is and isn’t actually supposed to be relevant to the plot. Honestly, I can easily imagine someone who hadn’t read the book being completely lost by this method of delivery.

Maelcum's cringeworthy faux-Jamaica is lovingly recreated. Yay.
“Maelcum’s cringeworthy faux-Jamaica is lovingly recreated. Yay.”

Hopefully you’ll eventually piece together that many of your fellow “console cowboys” have gone missing or have been “flatlined” in what sniffs of conspiracy. You then discover that a group of rogue AIs are responsible and defeat them one by one, leading to a confrontation with Neuromancer. Neuromancer then brags about having manipulated you the entire time into doing its bidding, including taking out the other AIs so that it could assume control of the Matrix. As reductive as that sounds, that’s the plot.

Fans will note the obvious departures from the plot of the novel. While sure, along with Wintermute, Neuromancer, is an AI who manipulates a hacker into serving its cause, there’s quite a bit more nuisance in the original story that is simply left out of the game. While there are quite a few details from the book mentioned in the game, including numerous references to characters, events, companies, technologies, and places, they mostly feel like very surface-level references, or even homages to the original story, than anything resembling an adaptation.

Dixie Flatline's ROM-construct also makes an appearance... for some reason.
“Dixie Flatline’s ROM-construct also makes an appearance… for some reason.”

Here’s my personal “headcanon” take on how the game’s story relates to that of the novel. First, if it’s not obvious, you’re not supposed to be playing Case, the main protagonist of the book, but a different character that just so happens to also be a down on his luck hacker living in Chiba City. Running in the same circles as Case, your character just so happens to interact with some of the same people and somehow wind up in some of the same places as he does. This character’s manipulation by Neuromancer, however, takes place before the events in the book, with Neuromancer attempting to level the playing field for itself before its more existential endgame in the novel. I think that works?

That all said, the story is presented as such an afterthought, that while it may disappoint those looking for a faithful adaptation of the plot of the novel, it didn’t have a major impact on my enjoyment of the game. It succeeds in giving us an interesting setting, at least.

Controls

In the more traditional offline “meatspace” adventure sections of the game, you’re presented with the typical third person view of your character in the immediate area you’re in. Navigating here is fairly rudimentary, with most screens only representing a single room with no scrolling or scaling as you move around. Moving is really only useful for navigating to an exit, as your character’s position is not typically a factor in being able to interact with people or objects. Similarly unsophisticated, each room tends to only have a single exit per side of the screen. Compared to most graphical adventure games, even much older ones, all of this might sound depressingly limited, but it somehow works just fine in practice.

Being able to sell your organs for cash should be a standard feature in games.
“Being able to sell your organs for cash should be a standard feature in games.”

Your ability to move around in the UI tends to be more important, as you’ll be spending much more of your time interacting with it than the world around you, especially as the game progresses and you spend the majority of your time face down in your cyberdeck. There are a handful of menus available at almost any time, most notably your skill and item inventories where the bulk of your actions derive from, as well as dedicated conversation and PAX access options that’ll you’ll be using a lot in the early game while still navigating the world. Anyone who is used to working in command line environments or other text based, hotkey driven programs should be able to pick up on it right away. While it’s a little archaic, the menu-heavy interface probably works better in the context of Neuromancer than other games from that era, and I found that it actually lead to feeling like I was really hacking around in these computer systems, adding greatly to my immersion in the gameworld.

Curiously enough for a game from 1986, I suppose as a nod to the newer, more mouse orientated 16 bit PCs, Neuromancer also includes fairly comprehensive mouse support. Along with performing some extremely basic “click to move” movement in the adventure sections, you can click menu and action buttons in the main UI overlay and most of the hotkey text options in the menus. Between typing in linkcodes and passwords and using the “Tell me about…” conversation option, which requires typing nouns into a simple text parser, I found it to be a lot more efficient just to get used to navigating the UI as well as moving my character strictly via keyboard so I wouldn’t need to keep switching back and forth between keyboard and mouse. Still, even if I didn’t use it, it’s neat that they decided to include it.

Graphics

Neuromancer’s graphics are a mixed bag. While it makes full use of EGA’s 320×200 resolution, packing a fair amount of detail into the world in addition to the descriptive text in the UI, and enough lines of text in the various interfaces to not feel too cramped, it’s default 16 color palette gives the graphics a harsh and primitive look that I, personally, don’t love. If you look carefully at the sprites and backgrounds, Interplay’s artists actually made damn fine use of the very limited palette, but that doesn’t stop the world from feeling drowned in otherworldly hues of cyan, purple, and green as typical of most EGA graphics. I admit, this is mostly a personal preference thing. While the animations aren’t anything to write home about either, the general art style and design of the world, despite not at all what I might have imagined when I read the book, have a distinct and enjoyable character for sure.

Waking up in Chatsubo bar: Commodore 64.
“Waking up in Chatsubo bar: Commodore 64.”

Waking up in Chatsubo bar: IBM PC.
“Waking up in Chatsubo bar: IBM PC.”

Waking up in Chatsubo bar: Amiga.
“Waking up in Chatsubo bar: Amiga.”

Obviously rendered at a lower resolution than its IBM and Amiga counterparts, the stylization in the Commodore 64 version is totally different and, in my opinion, actually superior. Your character has a different hairstyle, resembling the character in the title screen rather than sporting a bizarre flattop. In fact, everything is different, with the amount of detail they managed to squeeze into its few pixels of backgrounds and sprites, including more variety into the otherwise plain PAX and base menus, it’s so much more charming. In comparison to the IBM PC version, the addition of more suitable colors is a vast improvement over characters’ ghoulish white skin and the stark EGA neons on display throughout. The Amiga version rectifies the IBM PC version’s weird color palette, looking more akin to a 90s VGA game, yet the stylization issues remain. While many people probably consider the Amiga port the definitive version, I’d definitely cast my vote for the C64.

Sound

Speaking of the Commodore 64, by 1988 it was a mature machine; developers had figured out ways to squeeze every ounce of potential out of it, including its legendary SID sound chip. Neuromancer is a great example of this all around, but it’s sound is a real head turner. For a C64 game it’s quite technologically impressive, featuring probably the first licensed, digitized soundtrack in a game. Devo’s “Some Things Never Change” provides the opening theme music, and a reworking of it provides occasional loops of in-game music. Of course, it mostly sounds like trash by today’s standards, but compared to the IBM PC version’s (admittedly catchy) blip-bloppy PC speaker rendition, it’s a huge step above. Even the Amiga version’s chiptune composition of the track, while definitely an upgrade, is still a pale imitation of the C64 version.

A rare, not-so-subtle hint... for dumb wilsons.
“A rare, not-so-subtle hint… for dumb wilsons.”

On the other hand, despite each port of the game having some version of this track, it’s rarely played in-game and the rest of the sound effects are almost non-existent. Simple blips and blops for only a very few actions, and the rest of the time… total silence. Great!

Old Age

As usual, I played through the entirety of Neuromancer on my dedicated gaming 486, usually with my internal cache disabled to slow the processor down to 386-like speeds. There weren’t any major speed related issues I ran into with the game. Most noticeably, the scrolling text that appears in various menu interfaces throughout the game scrolls a little quicker than it should. I also ran into a problem where, with my cache enabled, my mouse clicks were often detected twice. This was an easy problem to work around by simply moving my cursor to a non-clickable part of the screen immediately after clicking a menu option, but it could still be annoying if you intend to use the mouse. Given those issues, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn of other speed related issues.

Beyond playing it on the real thing, it appears that the last couple of versions of DOSBox fully support Neuromancer, listing 100% compatibility with it. I never got around to trying it personally, but given its age and relatively simplicity, I’d certainly guess it would run absolutely perfect in DOSBox.

Honesty is the best policy.
“Honesty is the best policy.”

Obtaining Neuromancer is another matter, however. Neuromancer exists firmly in the realm of abandonware these days. I know of absolutely no way to acquire it legally without finding a second hand copy of the physical release, and last time I checked eBay, prices were fairly outrageous. Fortunately, you can find the game on various shady abandonware sites quite easily. The more popular versions, like the Commodore 64 and Amiga ports, tend to be even more widespread, showing up on various enthusiast sites. I should point out that the game does include copy protection, originally coming with one of those annoying “code wheels” that you’d need to use to look up a keyword any time you access a PAX terminal. Of course, just about any version you download these days will already be cracked.

I’ve already talked quite a bit about some of the other versions of the game, but in addition to the awesome Commodore 64 version there is an Apple II port which has the same graphical style though, running at a lower resolution, looks a lot worse. Of course, it doesn’t include the digitized music either. Unusually, there’s also an Apple IIGS port. Very similar to the Amiga version, this one has the same graphical style including the higher color graphics, and similar chiptune music and sound effects.

It's all just a game, after all...
“It’s all just a game, after all…”

Scans of Neuromancer’s documentation are fairly widely available. Reading the manual isn’t necessarily required, but I’d recommend it due to it providing a good introduction to the story and overview of most of the game’s various systems. As usual, ReplacementDocs and Archive.org are places to start. There are also scans of the official hint book floating around. It’s kind of neat, written entirely as an in-character narrative, but I can’t recommend it as more than an interesting artifact since it’s an extremely linear walkthrough that removes any and all challenge from playing the game. I’d recommend at least trying to solve some of these puzzles yourself.

Sequels and Related Games

For what seems like the first time in one of these retro reviews, there are absolutely none. There were no sequels, and to my knowledge there are no other games based on Neuromancer. While you could possibly point to some of Interplay’s other games from around this time as related games, to my knowledge, none of them are directly related to Neuromancer’s engine or play anything like Neuromancer. Yet again, living up to my statement about it being unique.

Closing

Since, as mentioned, Neuromancer and its sequels are some of my favorite books and the game itself is a potent mix of a lot of my favorite elements, I’m definitely glad I played through this. On the other hand, unless you find yourself as similarly drawn to it as I was, it’s hard to recommend. The game is definitely interesting, with its unique mix of adventure, roleplaying, and hacking gameplay, and I haven’t played too many games that feel intimidatingly large and open, yet progress in such a fairly logical and linear way. Yet, the actual mechanics, from the simple implementation of the adventure game sections, to the repetitive and not particularly deep cyberspace ICE and AI battles, don’t quite stand out enough. Even though the Commodore 64 version in particular was technically impressive at the time, the game isn’t particularly historically significant either. If it’s simply the cyberpunk setting you’re after, there are games that pull off the atmosphere better, or you perhaps you could just cut out the middleman and check out the book!

I don’t usually cite sources when putting together these reviews due to the sheer amount of reviews, articles, walkthroughs, and other material that I read while working on them. That said, this awesome article about the history of Neuromancer’s development is just too fascinating not to share.

King’s Quest Review

Note: The screenshots posted on this page have been scaled up a little from their tiny native resolutions as well as had their aspect ratios corrected to proper 4:3 dimensions as they should have looked on CRT monitors originally. For posterity’s sake you can also click them to view the “pixel perfect” originals, which I especially encourage for the screenshots of the SCI version, as my conversion process made its dithering shading technique look all kinds of shitty.

Introduction

King's Quest!
“King’s Quest!”

Representing Sierra’s place in my retro reviews section has been long overdue, and I’ve decided to start close to the very beginning with the legendary King’s Quest. Probably the biggest single milestone in the birth of the “graphical adventure” genre as well as the game that truly started Sierra’s meteoric climb to the top of the industry.

Sierra On-line (then simply On-line Systems) got started when founders Ken and Roberta Williams coupled the text based input parser of earlier interactive fiction games with graphical renderings of scenes, trading written descriptions for crude, still images and decidedly less verbose text. Still, this “Hi-Res Adventure” series of adventure games was considered to be quite innovative at the time and turned some heads, including IBM’s, who offered Sierra a contract to develop a game for their upcoming PCjr system. With an actual budget behind them, Sierra developed the next evolution of their graphical adventure game concept by actually animating these screens, showing the player character’s real time movements and actions from a third person perspective, and thus in 1984 the King’s Quest series and the AGI engine that powered most of Sierra’s early landmark adventure games were born. If Sierra invented the genre with it’s first Hi-Res Adventure, Mystery House, it set the new standard for it for much of the rest of the decade with King’s Quest.

The original AGI King's Quest in all its glory.
“The original AGI King’s Quest in all its glory.”

I honestly couldn’t tell you when or where I was first exposed to the series, only that looking back, the name “King’s Quest” seemed ubiquitous within the personal computer gaming space, and certainly its style of blocky graphics and text parser input was one of the first things my young mind went to when I thought of gaming experiences I couldn’t experience on my consoles and longed for on a computer. Aside from a couple of brief sessions with the original AGI Police Quest at a friend’s house when I was a kid, it wasn’t until getting my first IBM compatible PC in the early 90s that I finally dove headlong into my first Sierra graphical adventure game. Actually, it was Space Quest, not King’s Quest, that I latched onto, and I’m still a devout Roger Wilco fan to this day. Despite being a fan of the fantasy genre, King’s Quest, to me, always seemed like Sierra’s stuffiest, most serious adventure series. Don’t get me wrong, I always wanted to get into King’s Quest, and I remember almost rescuing the budget CD-ROM release of King’s Quest V from the bargain bin countless times, but with my non-existent, teenage funds it just never happened.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the release of Adventure Game Studio in the late 90s, and a team of skilled AGS developers calling themselves, at the time, Tierra Entertainment, released a VGA remake of King’s Quest in 2001, that I actually played the game for the first time. For shame!

...and so the quest begins.
“…and so the quest begins.”

King’s Quest, like so many old PC games, was ported to all manner of different personal computers and saw a variety of releases and remakes over the years. With this review I’ll mainly be focusing on the 1987 AGI release of King’s Quest, by then renamed King’s Quest: Quest for the Crown, which was essentially just an update of the original 1984 version with a newer build of the AGI engine. I also played and will talk a lot about the 1990 remake of the game, which was done with the AGI engine’s successor, the SCI engine. The 2001 AGS remake I mentioned was based on this SCI version and therefore doesn’t require too much attention of its own, but since many people who decide to play King’s Quest for the first time in 2017 will likely play that version I’ll definitely bring it up as well.

Gameplay

King’s Quest is typical of practically all of the graphical adventure games that came after it: The player guides their character from scene to scene exploring the world, occasionally collecting items. Sometimes the character’s path into a certain area is blocked, an item is unreachable, or perhaps an enemy needs to be defeated. In any case, overcoming these challenges presents the player with a puzzle that needs to be solved. The vast majority of these puzzles involve using previously collected items with the environment. Points are awarded for certain actions, usually collecting valuable items and successfully solving puzzles. I’ll talk a lot more about the actual mechanical aspects of these actions under the Controls section.

Great. The only subjects of my future kingdom that I actually meet, and they're dying.
“Great. The only subjects of my future kingdom that I actually meet, and they’re dying.”

Unsurprisingly for such an old game, the puzzles are relatively simple. Interestingly though, there are optional items and multiple solutions to most puzzles. One big benefit of having multiple solutions is that the designers can have their bizarre, “moon logic” solutions alongside their more intuitive ones. Of course, it’s the more creative solutions that award the most points or, often enough, don’t requiring giving up an item to complete and losing you the points you received when you picked that item up originally in the process. I appreciate having the option of not bashing my head against my desk in frustration to finish the game, in any case, and indeed at the end of my first time playing through for this review I had completed the game almost entirely with the more straightforward but low point solutions. Constantly tracking and displaying your point total can really encourage a bit more experimentation or at least variety in subsequent playthroughs though, which I like.

One important aspect that differentiates King’s Quest from most later graphical adventure games: Rather than following any sort of highly structured, linear narrative, King’s Quest presents an almost entirely open world right from the start. Outside of a small number of items needing to be obtained and puzzles solved in a certain order, there are no restrictions on where you can go or what you can do. Fans of a more scripted experience might dislike this aspect of it but I find it to be liberating here.

If you don't hate this little bastard you've probably not played King's Quest.
“If you don’t hate this little bastard you’ve probably not played King’s Quest.”

There are negatives too, though. First of all, it’s generally very useful to have knowledge of the various classic fairy tales that Roberta Williams obviously drew heavily from. If you don’t know about the Three Billy Goats Gruff, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rumpelstiltskin, for example, you might not have a clue how to proceed during certain segments of the game. Second, some of those moon logic solutions are well and truly out there, almost to the point of being Easter eggs. The Rumpelstiltskin puzzle is infamous for this. Finally, let’s just say that the well known and often despised Sierra adventure game practice of brutally murdering the player character at every turn, usually without any warning, and with a frequency that makes the game seem almost mean spirited, apparently started nice and early. My advice is to save frequently and try to laugh at the absurdity of watching your character die in ridiculous ways.

Still, to the game’s credit I actually never got legitimately stuck on a puzzle. There were times I was positive that there were other solutions than the ones I had figured out. For example, I knew I had to be able to dispatch the dragon without throwing my dagger at him, losing it in the process, but the item I needed to do so, and indeed the process I needed to obtain it, simply weren’t nearly as obvious as the dagger solution. Likewise, it was far more logical to me to use the slingshot to dispatch the giant than the other, more peaceful solutions. Look, I know violence isn’t always the answer, but in King’s Quest it certainly holds true that it’s often the easiest solution.

A grand entrance. As an aside, I love the weird color palette of the caves in the SCI version...
“A grand entrance. As an aside, I love the weird color palette of the caves in the SCI version…”

Difficult, perhaps insane puzzles are one thing, but “dead man walking” scenarios are another altogether. These are situations in which if you miss an item or fail to do an action early on, which is easy to do, you won’t be able to solve a puzzle or get out of an area much later in the game. Missing the mushroom before entering the Land of the Leprechauns, for example, will have you solve your way through a few different puzzles and acquire a couple of new, point worthy items before you realize that you’re completely stuck and need to load a saved game from before you entered the area. Don’t have an appropriate save file? I hope you like restarting from the beginning. Not cool.

Personally, I played in a totally methodical way: mapping each screen, searching for any and all potentially hidden items, and checking into if not outright solving any puzzles as I came across them. Using this strategy I only ended up missing one of the non-gated items, and I didn’t end up absolutely needing it to proceed. Again, most of my initial solutions to puzzles weren’t the high point options, but I beat the game relatively easily with few hints.

Story

In the original 1984 PCjr release when you walk into the castle and talk to the King Edward you learn that he’s dying and that his kingdom, Daventry, is crumbling. He tasks you, Sir Graham, his finest knight, with seeking out three magical treasures that can help restore the kingdom to greatness. That’s pretty much the story. The manual itself sets up a better written version of the same exceedingly simple premise, but that’s about it.

...Expertly updated in AGDI's remake!
“…Expertly updated in AGDI’s remake!”

The 1987 release sets up the exact same scenario in the game, but the manual completely revises the story, setting up a more detailed and darker account of what happened to King Edward and the Kingdom of Daventry that’s more akin to the fairy tales it borrows so heavily from. Instead of just randomly going out and finding these fabled magical treasures, it turns out that the artifacts actually originally belonged to Daventry and were the primary reason it had been so extremely prosperous in the past. With the King and Queen unable to conceive a child, and later with the Queen taken ill and eventually dying, the King let himself be scammed out of all three magical artifacts by a host of devious villains. Without these items, and with the King in a deep depression as a result of all of this tragedy and betrayal, the kingdom began to collapse. It turns out that summoning Sir Graham for this quest is actually King Edward’s final attempt to right his wrongs for the people of Daventry. Damn! He also, having previously seen an image of Sir Graham as the King of Daventry himself, offers up the quest as a way for Sir Graham to prove himself worthy of the crown, and he’s a bit of a dick about it too. Whatever, King Edward. Whatever.

The 1990 SCI remake takes a further step by actually adding some of this expanded backstory into the game. Instead of making you enter the castle and talk to the king yourself, the game starts as you exit the caste, and the whole scene with King Edward is depicted in an optional “introduction” animated sequence. While nowhere near as long and detailed as what’s in the manual, King Edward at least mentions that Daventry has fallen on hard times since losing those treasures, and that finding them will restore it to glory.

Possibly the only time I recall running into a legion of evil Leprechauns in a game.
“Possibly the only time I recall running into a legion of evil Leprechauns in a game.”

I greatly prefer the revised backstory, as sheds so much more light onto the Kingdom and gives Sir Graham real purpose in completing his quest. Sure, you still casually stroll in an out of dangerous situations and never get too far beyond the confines of the castle itself, but it takes a lot less headcanon to get immersed in, at least. If you’re planning on playing any version of King’s Quest, I’d recommend reading it first.

All that explained, King’s Quest has nothing in the way of an actual in-game narrative and, until the very end, has no real plot development to speak of. Unlike other some games that set up a scenario and plop you down in it, the previously reviewed Maniac Mansion being a great example, the environment you explore, objects you find, and characters you meet do little to help flesh out the Kingdom of Daventry or add to the story. Sure, there’s a lot of neat things to discover along the way, but they largely feel like exactly what I imagine they are: a collection of random references to other stories. With such terse text descriptions and narrations and no conversation system, the game relies almost entirely on its graphics alone to give the world something akin to flavor. Unfortunately that’s not anywhere as close to as effective as some well written text could be. The SCI remake goes a ways into correcting this by having both more detailed graphics and animation and more verbose text, but even so, don’t expect to go into King’s Quest expecting to fall in love with the Kingdom of Daventry or be whisked away by the game’s intriguing plot.

Controls

I realize that describing the controls in such detail might be unnecessary, but since King’s Quest more or less invented this style of game, I feel like it’s appropriate to go into a bit more detail here.

Your screen is dominated by a third person perspective view of an area with your character positioned on it. You can move your character around on this screen from left to right and, typically, back in forth with some degree of depth, depending on the scene itself. Scenery and other obstacles can block your path, narrow paths and stair cases have to be navigated, etc. When the character leaves the screen they are moved on to the next scene. All of this movement is done in real time akin to a more action orientated game. Again, this was pretty groundbreaking stuff.

A great example of the AGDI remake's updated visuals.
“A great example of the AGDI remake’s updated visuals.”

One common annoyance with this system is the fact that moment with the keyboard feels a bit imprecise, with pressing a direction starting movement and it not stopping until you manually attempt to stop it or you hit something. This can sometimes lead to falling off ledges or accidentally going too far and onto into another scene. It wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t need to move so often, such as positioning Graham next to certain objects in order to interact with them, as opposed to being automatically moved as in later games. From my understanding, movement was actually intended to be done with a joystick, with the stick only moving Sir Graham when it is pressed one direction or another, stopping him when it is re-centered. While this works much, much better, I suspect the percentage of people who played this way was minuscule.

Couple that with the sometimes pixel perfect accuracy needed for navigating obstacles and you have probably the game’s biggest annoyance. At the very beginning of the AGI version of the game the player needs to take Graham across a bridge going over a moat and into the King’s castle. Many players fail to line Graham up on the 3D plane correctly or fail to adjust their path for the odd shape of the bridge, sending him into the moat where he’s quickly devoured by alligators. Having your character brutally die at the very start of the game while attempting to do something utterly inconsequential is a seriously fucking rude introduction to a game, I’ve got to say. Luckily this type of thing doesn’t happen too many more times, with the only other extremely notable occurrence being the giant beanstalk climb. This scene is infamous for how goddamn frustrating it can be, with even the slightest moment of even a fraction of Sir Graham’s hands leaving the beanstalk resulting in an instant, terrible death.

Oh man, get used to seeing this goddamn screen.
“Oh man, get used to seeing this goddamn screen.”

The SCI remake of the game added mouse movement of the sort that would later become standardized as the engine (and the entire genre) soon became totally “point and click” which, while having problems of its own, feels quite a bit better than using the keyboard to navigate in my opinion. Unfortunately, it’s still imprecise enough to cause scenes like the above mentioned beanstalk climb to suck just as much as in the original, that, and I swear they actually made the other way to and from Land of the Clouds more difficult. It feels like artificial difficultly rather than any sort of engine issue, which makes it all the more frustrating.

As mentioned, all control outside of movement is done via commands in a text parser, just as with text based adventure or interactive fiction games. The text parser is simple, not understanding a lot of phrasing or a lot of synonyms, but in a way its simplicity makes it easy to use, and I don’t think I ran into too many issues with getting it to do what I wanted. It’s not great, but it’s something that isn’t too difficult to work through. The biggest problem with it is that when something doesn’t work it is usually extremely vague and unhelpful about why.

Not the hardest puzzle in the game.
“Not the hardest puzzle in the game.”

Another complaint I have about the text parser is the lake of a consistent “look” or “look around” type command, which means a lot of opportunity to give us a flavorful written description of an area, including the notable objects in it, is wasted. From a practical standpoint, this means that if you can’t identify a part of the environment or an object you may not know how to look at it or pick it up. For instance, I had no idea that I was looking at a four leaf clover in the clover patch, or that it was even a clover patch to begin with, because “look ground” hadn’t worked on other screens earlier on so I had abandoned trying it, assuming instead that those funky shapes were just a different sort of flower like the ones on almost all of the screens depicting the wilderness around Daventry. Thankfully the SCI remake corrects this, adding a general “look” command and appropriate, nicely written descriptions of areas. It also maps looking at an object to the right mouse button, making it far easier to discover significant objects in the world, or at least milk every tidbit of flavor text out of a particular scene.

Finally, another important aspect of this kind of a text based input is time sensitive action. That is to say that when the action picks up, quickly trying to type in a command in such a way that the parser is happy with it, without typos, can be a bit of a pain. This is especially annoying when combined with the above mentioned movement issues. Getting close enough to an NPC to talk to it before it wanders away being the most common example. I didn’t have any major issue with this in King’s Quest, but the fact that the SCI remake pauses the action while you type in a command is a noticeable and much appreciated improvement.

The Tierra (now called “AGD Interactive”) remakes attempted to copy the more modern “point and click” interface of later SCI games, particular the implementation featured in King’s Quest V. I won’t go into depth about all of the differences in this review, but it does of course introduce some major changes, including a much more limited set of verbs to use. I personally have always preferred the point and click style interface, so I welcome the change, though it does feel a little disingenuous after just playing the original text input versions.

Graphics

The graphics of the original version of King’s Quest, as with other AGI games, are quite crude, with massive pixels resulting in an overall very blocky aesthetic. I’d always wondered why, despite the AGI and the SCI versions both outputting in 320 x 200, SCI games always looked so much better. Well, after some research I learned that this owes mostly to the game’s origins as a PCjr game. The AGI version actually renders at a lower resolution (160 x 200) and the pixels are doubled to 320 x 200 in order to save memory while still outputting what was at the time, a vibrant 16 color palette. I’d imagine this also made porting to the game to a variety of other contemporary platforms easier, since screens wouldn’t usually need to be reworked to accommodate for lower resolutions.

Leaving Castle Daventry (AGI)
“Leaving Castle Daventry (AGI)”

Leaving Castle Daventry (SCI)
“Leaving Castle Daventry (SCI)”

Leaving Castle Daventry (VGA)
“Leaving Castle Daventry (VGA)”

The 1990 SCI remake of the game makes much better use of the resolution, with sharper, more detailed backgrounds and sprites, and uses the, by then limited, color palette much more effectively by deploying dithering techniques for more advanced shading effects, simulating more than 16 colors on the screen at once. While these early SCI Sierra games lack the beautiful, hand painted screens of later 256 color VGA games, they definitely didn’t lack the artistry that came with them. My main takeaway, having played both versions back to back, is that the improved graphics of the SCI remake give a lot more character to the world of King’s Quest, and given my above complaints about a lack of descriptive flavor helping define the game world in the Story section, is a welcome improvement. The more detailed animations don’t hurt either, even if they do to shift the game into a bit more of a exaggerated, cartoony direction.

The Gingerbread house looks... okay? (AGI)
“The Gingerbread house looks… okay? (AGI)”

Now that's a little better! (SCI)
“Now that’s a little better! (SCI)”

Masterfully updated. (VGA)
“Masterfully updated. (VGA)”

The more recent AGD Interactive remakes replace all of the art of the SCI version with new artwork. While the original releases included modified versions of many backgrounds and sprites taken from other Sierra VGA games, the current 4.x versions feature all new, hand painted art work. Interestingly, while the AGD Interactive remakes are often referred to as KQ1VGA, the graphics actually make heavy use of a full SVGA color palette. I actually prefer the look of the 256 color limitation of VGA when working with such a low resolution, as I find having so many colors on screen with so few pixels looks a little too “busy” but you can force the AGS engine down to run in lower color if it bothers you too much. Other than that, the AGD Interactive version of King’s Quest is quite nice, even if I personally prefer the art style of the SCI version overall.

Sound

The AGI version of King’s Quest unfortunately suffers from the poor sound support that all IBM PCs tended to have in the 80s, with only a sparse selection of harsh, PC speaker generated jingles and effects. The music was a little better on some other ports, like the Apple II version, but all of them are as equally sparse. Oddly, the original PCjr version actually had quite a few more sounds, even ambient effects such as birds chirping in the Daventry wilderness. From what I’ve heard these were pretty terrible though, and would probably quickly grow to annoy me to the point of turning the sound off, so maybe I should be content.

The infamous (and breathtaking) beanstalk.
“The infamous (and breathtaking) beanstalk.”

The SCI remake features music and sound effects using Adlib or Roland MT32 sound. During most of the screens when you’re wandering around Daventry you have no music, only ambient sound effects like the ones I described on the PCjr, only they don’t suck this time around, and actually help with set the tone of exploring alone in a deep wilderness quite effectively. Music does queue up whenever anything interesting happens, like when you enter a special area or a particular event kicks off. There are a number of different songs, nearly one per each of these scenes, which, when combined with the addition of sound effects, add quite a lot to the presentation. I don’t think this King’s Quest soundtrack is necessarily one of the best ones Sierra ever put together or anything, but it does feel appropriate to the tone of the game, matching well with the remake’s bright colors and the game’s overall fairly tale fantasy vibe.

The AGD Interactive remake features more or less identical sound and music to the SCI version, with the music simply being a digital recording of the MT-32 soundtrack. The biggest difference here is that it includes a “speech pack” to add voices to practically all of the text in the game. This is a bit of a mixed bag in my opinion: I think giving a voice to narrator only adds to often enjoyably sarcastic text in the game, which is pure vintage Sierra by the way, and is mostly well executed. Many of the other voices are good, or at least passable as well. The worst offender is probably Sir Graham himself, which is a pity considering he’s voiced by Josh Mandel, who originally voiced Graham in the CD-ROM versions of King’s Quest V and King’s Quest VI. That said, Sir Graham barely talks in the first King’s Quest, so…

Old Age

I played both versions of the game on my dedicated gaming 486, often without worrying about disabling my internal cache or slowing down my machine further via any other method. I didn’t encounter any timing related problems apart from use of the engine’s “speed” setting – with speed on “fast” the game seems to run as fast as it can on your hardware, so while with my cache disable it can be useful for speeding up the process of backtracking, without slowing down my machine the feature is a recipe for an accidental death since I lose practically all sense of control. Not only that, but the speed setting effects everything, not just Graham’s walking animations, meaning all of the animations look hilariously fast too. The bigger issue you’ll need to work around to play King’s Quest on a proper DOS machine these days is disk copy protection. Thankfully most newer releases of the game, including those in most of Sierra’s collections, new and old, have been pre-cracked.

Castle Daventry off in the distance.
“Castle Daventry off in the distance.”

Playing it on a modern system is straightforward. DOSBox is, of course, an option for both versions. I only tested it with the AGI release, but it ran totally fine that way. As an added bonus you can also set your DOSBox to emulate Tandy sound which gives the PC speaker music sound a bit better. ScummVM is also an option, though currently it tends to work a lot better with SCI games than the older AGI ones. Some people have also made their own AGI interpreters updated to work on modern systems, probably the most notable of which is NAGI. You can, of course, emulate other ports and versions of King’s Quest on your platform emulator of choice too.

Thankfully, King’s Quest is easy to legally acquire these days. First of all, GOG has all of the King’s Quest games available in bundle (preconfigured to run with DOSBox) for relatively cheap. My only complaint is that the King’s Quest 1, 2, and 3 bundled doesn’t include the SCI remake, for some odd reason. The King’s Quest collection bundle available on Steam does, however. You can also track down the original disks on eBay, of course, but from what I’ve seen the original game seems to go for quite a lot of money. The various official King’s Quest collections Sierra put out are surprisingly much more reasonably priced, however.

A err... fearsome... Dragon? (AGI)
“A err… fearsome… Dragon? (AGI)”

There we go! (SCI)
“There we go! (SCI)”

I'm not sure which I prefer, really. (VGA)
“I’m not sure which I prefer, really. (VGA)”

As mentioned, there is also the AGD Interactive re-make, which is freely downloadable. This re-make uses the excellent Adventure Game Studio engine to recreate the SCI version of King’s Quest while emulating the interface of King’s Quest V and providing updated, high color graphics and full speech as an added bonus. While there are some minor changes here and there, by and large this is a faithful recreation. AGS can be a bit temperamental when it comes to different graphical settings in particular, but with some experimenting you should be able to make this version work perfectly on a newer Windows machine. Personally, I ended up having to replace the main executable with one from the latest version of AGS to get the game to display with the correct stretched out, DOS style aspect ratio on my 5:4 monitor under Windows 10, and I never could get those settings to play well with the option to reduce the color palette, but your mileage may vary.

King’s Quest was ported all over the place to practically every popular personal computer out there at the time. Graphical output issues aside, these versions were more or less identical to the PC counterparts I reviewed here. The biggest differences were probably on the sound front, with so many older personal computers having wildly different sound chips. Other than some different music arrangements and quality of output, none of them were exceptionally different, however.

Placeholder
“King’s Quest on an 8 bit console. What an oddity.”

Believe it or not, there was actually also a port of King’s Quest to the Sega Master System, which is by far the most unique version. The puzzles and scenes are more or less the same as in the original AGI version of the game, but as you might expect, going to a system with even more constrained hardware specs the graphics and sound are entirely different. The control scheme in particular is pretty funky, using the controller’s digital pad to move, but using a verb and noun assembly menu, not totally unlike that in the original LucasArts SCUMM games, for performing other actions. It sounds nice, and with some minor tweaks it might be, but as-is it gets a little clunky when you have more than a few items in your inventory. For an 8 bit console port, however, it’s actually not terrible.

King’s Quest’s documentation is available in PDF format with any legit version of the game. Reading it isn’t at all required but, as mentioned before, I’d highly recommend you read the expanded backstory to give your quest in Daventry a little more flavor. Due to the King’s Quest series’ status as an absolute classic the manuals, original hint books, along with walkthroughs and other fan compiled information is also readily available at various sites online without too much searching. The Sierra Gamers community and Sierra Help are great places to start.

Sequels and Related Games

Sierra released two more AGI sequels, King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne and King’s Quest III: To Heir Is Human before moving to SCI and releasing 4 more titles in the 1990s, cementing King’s Quest as perhaps their biggest franchise. The original series finally game to an end with the controversial 3D action/adventure title King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity. I’m sure I’ll end up reviewing some, if not all of these games in the future. Sadly, it wasn’t until The Odd Gentlemen released their episodic King’s Quest reboot in 2015 that we finally saw another official game in the series. I’ve talked a bit about the 2015 game in the past, if you’re interested.

Did I mention it tells the future? Let the sequels begin!
“Did I mention it tells the future? Let the sequels begin!”

While Sierra’s other “quest” games are often grouped together, it’s probably more fair to say that every single game based on the AGI engine, of which there were many, is related to King’s Quest. By extension, SCI engine games were as well. It suffices to say that if you like King’s Quest, either version, you’ll probably like at least some of Sierra’s other graphical adventure game offerings.

Closing

Given that it seems like I’m so often touting the historical relevance of a game when I’m concluding one of these retro reviews, I suppose I need to immediately give King’s Quest a recommendation on that merit alone. Without this game one of the my most beloved computer gaming genres, the graphical adventure game, might have never come to be. Sure, some of the later King’s Quest games go much further into giving you exciting narratives with opportunities to fall in love with the Kingdom of Daventry and it’s heroes and villains, but overall, despite the deaths and dead ends, I actually think the simplicity of King’s Quest could make it a great introductory adventure game for new players to sink their teeth into. Personally, I’m most fond of the 1990 SCI remake’s blend of artistic and technical presentation and it’s hybrid keyboard and mouse controls, but any version you can get your hands on, including the AGD Interactive remake, is a worthy diversion.