[GAME REVIEW] King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride

Introduction

Despite not selling as many copies as its direct predecessor, King’s Quest VI was yet another success for Sierra’s flagship franchise upon its 1992 release. While King’s Quest V was a major step up from its own direct predecessor in terms of presentation and gameplay, King’s Quest VI ironed out a majority of its flaws. The untrained office employees were replaced by professional voice actors. Combined with more user-friendly design choices and sensible puzzle solutions, there was little question King’s Quest VI managed to be the pinnacle of the franchise as soon as it debuted. Even if making a sequel was the logical thing to do, series creator Roberta Williams had her work cut out for her.

During this time, Disney’s success after having fully recovered from a nearly fatal slump in the 1980s effected what is believed to be the studio’s renaissance. The film most commonly cited for starting this era was The Little Mermaid in 1989. This triumph was then followed up by Beauty and the Beast in 1991 and Aladdin in 1992. All three of these films are beloved classics by anyone versed in the medium – and even those who aren’t. Realizing just how much life these films breathed into the medium, the Sierra staff sought to capture that energy and transplant it into the next King’s Quest installment.

With the rising popularity of the CD-ROM format, Ms. Williams had begun drafting ideas for a game featuring heavy amounts of full-motion video footage. Its name was to be Phantasmagoria. As a result of her busy schedule, she helmed the development of King’s Quest VII alongside two other new directors: Lorelei Shannon and Andy Hoyos. Even so, Ms. Williams was enthusiastic about the project, often bouncing ideas off of Ms. Shannon. It was to the point where they were sad when the planning process came to an end, for Ms. Shannon believed they could have devised new ideas for the next two years.

In order to make as good of an impression as possible, Sierra’s co-founder, Ken Williams, had the idea to contact an up-and-coming animation studio known as Pixar. They had made a favorable impression on animation enthusiasts with their collection of short films, and were in the process of creating their theatrical debut: Toy Story. To Mr. Williams’s surprise, he received a call from Pixar founder Steve Jobs almost immediately after proposing a possible collaboration. Unfortunately for Sierra, the plan fell through when it became clear the Pixar team was far too busy to entertain making a short film for them. To bring their vision of an interactive cartoon into reality, Sierra contracted four animation houses: Animation Magic Inc., Dungeon Ink & Paint, LA West Film Production, and Animotion.

Despite the fact that most of these animators had limited experience in computer gaming, the development cycle proceeded fairly smoothly. The project eventually saw its completion in November of 1994 under the name King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride. Being the seventh installment of a long-running franchise, King’s Quest VII had no problems finding an audience, selling 3.8 million copies within the next eighteen months. However, while fans and critics alike were enthusiastic about the series’ previous entries, the seventh left them divided. Some disliked the Disney-inspired presentation while others had nothing but praise for it. Although many games to follow the franchise’s pinnacle gain a new lease on life with the power of hindsight, King’s Quest VII remains a divisive entry to this very day. Was it even possible for Sierra to successfully follow up a game as beloved as King’s Quest VI?

Continue reading

[GAME REVIEW] Kirby’s Dream Land

Introduction

The year 1980 marked the founding of a game developer known as HAL Laboratories. Headquartered in Chiyoda, Tokyo, one of the first things the company created was a peripheral that allowed computers to display graphics when they were otherwise incapable of doing so. From there, they developed what a part-time worker named Satoru Iwata admitted at the time was slew of rip-off of Namco’s famous arcade games such as Rally X and Galaxian. As copyright laws surrounding software was not clear in that era, they did not ask for Namco’s permission, though they did eventually obtain a license from them. In 1982, Mr. Iwata graduated from college and joined the company as a full-time employee. Following that, the company developed original games for the MSX and Commodore VIC-20 before focusing their attention to Nintendo’s Famicom console.

As the 1980s drew to a close, Nintendo had just launched their Game Boy console and a young man by the name of Masahiro Sakurai joined HAL Laboratories. Nintendo’s portable console proved to be such a hit, that demand often exceeded supply and Mr. Sakurai was in the processes of developing a game for it. Naturally, in order to design a game, he needed to create a character for it. At the age of nineteen, he drew a blob-like character as a placeholder sprite until he could come up with a different model. However, as time went on, he preferred it over any of the other proposed designs he came up with.

During the development of this game, Mr. Sakurai’s team called the character Popopo before ultimately deciding on Kirby. In later years, Mr. Sakurai himself remained unsure as to how they decided on that name. Given that Mr. Sakurai gave Kirby the ability to inhale and spit out objects at enemies, fans speculate he may have been named after the Kirby Company, which famously manufactured vacuum cleaners. Another theory is he was named after John Kirby, the attorney from Latham & Watkins LLP who defended Nintendo against Universal Studios’ infamous copyright infringement lawsuit they filed in 1981. Universal alleged that Nintendo’s popular arcade game Donkey Kong was an unauthorized allusion to the classic film King Kong. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Donkey Kong, has gone on record saying this is the reason why Kirby made a list of potential names for the character, though he wasn’t named after the attorney.

Whatever the case may be, Kirby’s debut game was released in 1992 for the Game Boy. The game was originally titled Twinkle Popopo, but Mr. Sakurai’s team changed it to Kirby of the Stars to reflect the character’s new name. For its Western release a few months later, the game’s title was changed to Kirby’s Dream Land. The game proved fairly popular, selling a little over one-million copies. Critics were fairly receptive to the game, believing it provided a unique take on the platformer genre. With Kirby going on to become the mascot of HAL Laboratories, how does his first adventure hold up?

Continue reading

[GAME REVIEW] King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow

Introduction

Jane Jensen, the youngest of seven children, always had a fondness for computers. Attending Anderson University in Indiana, she received a BA in computer science, a quickly budding field at the time. Shortly thereafter, she found herself working for Hewlett-Packard as a systems programmer. She then felt inspired to enter the gaming industry after playing a classic adventure title called King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella. As fate would have it, her passion for computers and creative writing, led to her finding a job at Sierra OnLine where she wrote the scenarios for Police Quest III: The Kindred and EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus. Both games were successes for the prolific company, but she was about to receive a task of even greater and personal importance.

In the year 1990, company co-founder Roberta Williams placed the finishing touches on King’s Quest V. This fifth installment in the company’s flagship series became the single greatest-selling game in the franchise. The following year, Ms. Williams, impressed with Ms. Jensen’s work, had an interesting proposal for the then-newcomer. She had already begun preliminary work on the newest King’s Quest game, having conceived a rough outline for the plot. The two of them then began working alongside each other, brainstorming new design ideas in the process. Their goal was to retain the familiar tone of the series had established in previous installments while giving the game an identity of its own. Furthermore, Ms. Williams wanted players to connect with the game on an emotional level, deciding to fulfill this objective by penning a central love story between two characters.

With King’s Quest V having been a significant technical leap from its predecessor, Ms. Williams sought to set her sights even higher for its sequel. Co-director Bill Skirvin along with the artists began work on storyboards and character designs. One artist in particular, John Shroades, had sketched the eighty backgrounds that would end up in the final product. Taking advantage of the recent advent of motion capture technology, the team ended up transcribing the movement of live-action actors for the potential player decisions and subsequent character animations – of which there were over 2,000. Similarly, the game would feature over 6,000 lines of written messages. Handling this task was Ms. Jensen, who scripted the game, defining for programmers how it should respond to a given action.

Development of this game was completed by September of 1992. In an interview for The New York Times, Ms. Williams estimated the game’s budget was around $700,000 USD. The crew, led by her, Mr. Skirvin, and Ms. Jensen, consisted of twenty people and the project took fourteen months to complete. Although it was scheduled for a release in September of 1992, Sierra delayed it until the thirteenth of October. Entitled King’s Quest IV: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, the fruit of their labor was originally released on nine floppy disks for DOS and Macintosh. It was rereleased upon an emerging format – the CD-ROM – in 1993 for DOS and Microsoft’s newest operating system, Windows. Taking advantage of this new format, the team added a voiceover for every single line of dialogue and included a ballad named “Girl in the Tower”, which was composed by Mark Seibert. Sierra sent a CD containing the song to local radio stations and included a pamphlet listing them along with every copy of the game. In the pamphlet, they suggested fans request the song to be played. The owners of said radio stations were not impressed; they legally threatened Sierra as a result of the myriad requests with which they were bombarded. This prompted a bemused Ken Williams to label the stations the real criminals for ignoring their customers – “something [he believed] no business should ever do”.

Although King’s Quest VI didn’t sell as many copies as the series’ fifth installment, it ended up being the single best-received game in the series. Every single one of its five predecessors was similarly well-received, yet King’s Quest VI seemed to possess something they lacked: staying power. When parsing the first five installments in the series from a modern perspective, one is likely to conclude they don’t hold up so well. They were all, to some extent, trailblazers, yet any contemporary review will invariably include phrases such as “fair for its time” or “aged horribly”. This isn’t true of King’s Quest VI – even now, you can find it on lists compiling the greatest PC games ever made. Is this the installment that allowed the series to finally escape the genre’s early trappings and deliver an experience worthy of being called an all-time classic?

Continue reading

[GAME REVIEW] Super Widget

Introduction

Graphic Research’s attempt at adapting Peter Keefe’s environmentally conscious, animated show Widget for the Nintendo Entertainment system proved less-than-satisfactory. Not only did it sell very poorly, the few people who did purchase it immediately dismissed it as an inferior take on the run-and-gun gameplay pioneered by Mega Man. Even those willing to ignore the subpar controls were ultimately treated to an unstable mess of a game that threatened to crash at the slightest provocation. Nonetheless, a sequel to the game was greenlit. However, taking up the reins of the development process was the company that published the original game: Atlus.

The Setagaya-based developer had made a name for themselves in their native homeland due to their successful adaptation of Aya Nishitani’s Digital Devil Story. From this adaptation, their flagship series would soon be formed: Shin Megami Tensei. However, because none of these games saw an international release, Atlus was fairly obscure outside of Japan. As such, their adaptation of Mr. Keefe’s animated series, released under the name Super Widget in late 1993, was one of the very few games of theirs Western enthusiasts got to play during the fourth console generation. With its predecessor leaving much to be desired, does Super Widget manage to be an improvement?

Continue reading

[GAME REVIEW] Monster World IV

Introduction

With Ryuichi Nishizawa and the rest of Westone having created Wonder Boy in Monster World, the versatile franchise now had a presence on the Sega Genesis. However, while Wonder Boy had arguably been Sega’s premier franchise throughout the third console generation, the company provided its answer to Nintendo’s Mario with their own mascot in the form of Sonic the Hedgehog. His debut in June of 1991 garnered a lot of critical and commercial attention, moving millions of copies. Suddenly, the Genesis could stand toe-to-toe with Nintendo’s then-newest console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES). However, the success of Sonic the Hedgehog ended up being a radical paradigm shift for Sega. Because they had a popular franchise on their hands, they focused their attention on making Sonic as versatile of a character as Mario. This ultimately overshadowed their third-generation triumphs. Most jarringly, their previous mascot, Alex Kidd, was left to fall into obscurity when his Genesis debut failed to resonate with fans.

Nonetheless, Mr. Nishizawa and his team were determined to create a follow-up to their fifth Wonder Boy game. Realizing that Monster World was far more popular than the Wonder Boy franchise from which it had spun off from, it seemed highly fitting for Westone to drop the original title for the sixth installment. The result of their efforts was thus simply entitled Monster World IV and released in 1994. Although fans of the Wonder Boy franchise existed in the West, Wonder Boy in Monster World would be the last time they ever saw a new entry.

As the century drew to a close, the internet began rising in popularity. It was only natural for the first adopters to be savvy in the art of programming and, by extension, video games. Through using the internet, they learned of the many games that never left Japan – including installments of popular franchises such as Square’s Final Fantasy. In extreme cases such as Intelligent Systems’s Fire Emblem, entire series were never released in the West. Among the games Western fans learned of was Monster World IV. The use of the internet along with the widespread availability of the titles’ ROM images allowed enthusiasts to band together to translate these Japan-exclusive games – including this one. Thankfully for Western fans who weren’t knowledgeable about emulation, Monster World IV did at last see the light of day in May of 2012 on the Xbox Live Arcade, the Wii’s Virtual Console, and the PlayStation Network. Unlike most cases of a game not previously localized being imported, Sega went a step further and provided an official translation for Monster World IV. Unfortunately, in the eighteen years since its domestic debut, Westone had gone out of business. Monster World IV was the newest installment in the series in both 1994 and 2012. Was Westone able to end their most famous series’ initial run on a high note?

Continue reading

[GAME REVIEW] Widget

Introduction

In 1984, American television producer Peter Keefe launched a show known as Voltron. The show was about five pilots who commanded a robotic lion. When combined, they would form the titular robot. They would use their technology to protect Planet Arus from an evil warlord by the name of King Zarkon. During its three-year run, Voltron became the highest-ranked syndicated children’s show. Creating the show involved cutting pieces of Japanese animated shows such as Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. As a result, Voltron ended up being an unconventional gateway series for Japanese animation – or anime, as it is more commonly known. After the success of Voltron, Mr. Keefe would go on to create other animated series such as Denver the Last Dinosaur and Twinkle the Dream Being.

The year 1990 marked the debut of another one of his animated shows: Widget. The protagonist and title character of this show was a purple extraterrestrial being from a planet within the Horsehead Nebula. Making use of his curious shapeshifting abilities, Widget would team up with a group of young human friends to protect the environment from those who sought to harm it. Because of its themes, the show was often compared to Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle’s Captain Planet and the Planeteers. As a result of its environmentalist themes, Mr. Keefe’s show was recognized by the National Education Association, who recommended it for children. Sometime into the show’s run, a developer in Japan named Graphic Research was commissioned to create a video game tie-in. The fruit of their labor was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1992 – two years after the domestic launch of its successor. Did Widget provide one last classic experience for the aging NES?

Continue reading

Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire

Introduction

When the Game Boy Color was released in 1998, Nintendo’s competitors seemed to lack any kind of recourse. Companies such as Sega and Atari released portable consoles that featured color, yet Nintendo’s monochrome Game Boy had dominated the handheld market. When color was implemented for Nintendo’s Game Boy line, one of the few advantages their competitors had dissipated instantly. In fact, with the Sega Game Gear having been discontinued in 1997, the Game Boy Color’s sole competition upon release was provided by its direct predecessor. SNK and Bandai attempted to enter the market with the Neo Geo Pocket and the Wonderswan Color respectively, but neither console came close to dethroning the Game Boy Color.

Although the Game Boy Color sold very well, rumors had been spreading that Nintendo was in the process of creating a successor as early as the Nintendo Space World trade show in August of 1999. These rumors turned out to be entirely correct. Nintendo was attempting to create an improved version of the Game Boy Color codenamed the Advanced Game Boy (AGB) along with a brand-new 32-bit system slated for a release the following year. Renamed the Game Boy Advance, the system was officially announced in September of 1999. Nintendo initially aimed for a 2000 release, though it wouldn’t make its debut until 2001. Like its two predecessors, the Game Boy Advance was a commercial success with fans and journalists alike praising its significant technical leap from the Game Boy Color.

Within the short lifespan of the Game Boy Color, Game Freak had released Pokémon Gold and Silver. It wasn’t easy for Satoshi Tajiri and his team to follow up a set of games as monumental as Pokémon Red and Blue, but with the second generation, they proved they were more than up for the task. Featuring many novel concepts such as a real-time clock and the ability to pass down moves through breeding, Pokémon Gold and Silver would prove to be the Game Boy Color’s premier role-playing experience. Given the immense popularity of these games, it was only natural for them to create a third set, and the Game Boy Advance would seem to be the ideal platform upon which Game Freak’s flagship series could make a triumphant debut in the sixth console generation.

Unfortunately, this proved easier said than done. The Game Boy Advance was a large technological leap from the Game Boy Color. As Game Freak had been accustomed to developing games on simplistic hardware, they encountered problems almost immediately. Even the fact that the screen was slightly larger meant they had to develop with a different aspect ratio. On top of that, they had far more colors and sound channels to work with. Though the newfound freedom intrigued the team, accomplishing certain tasks became much more difficult and the entire process became highly resource-intensive.

They also had to deal with a factor they couldn’t possibly control: what their audience felt of the series. When Pokémon Red and Blue debuted internationally in the late nineties, it became a true worldwide phenomenon. Sometime after the release of Pokémon Gold and Silver, however, the novelty died down. Fans had dismissed these games’ popularity as a fad, declaring it dead. Junichi Masuda, the man who co-directed the franchise’s third-generation entries alongside creator Satoshi Tajiri, would describe the adverse atmosphere in an interview, believing there was an immense pressure to prove dissenters wrong. Combined with their unfamiliarity with the new hardware, these games proved to be the most difficult to develop out of any generation in the series thus far. Such was the extent of the stress Mr. Masuda felt creating these games that he found himself hospitalized at one point as a result of severe stomach issues. Despite these setbacks, he and his team persevered and saw the project through to the end. The night before games were released, the co-director had a dream in which it was a complete failure.

Deviating from the color themes of the preceding generations, the third set of mainline games were dubbed Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire. They saw their domestic release in November of 2002 before debuting aboard in 2003. How these games were received isn’t exactly straightforward. On one hand, Mr. Masuda’s fears were ultimately misplaced, for Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire moved sixteen-million units between the two versions, making them the greatest selling Game Boy Advance titles. Interestingly, the third most successful title on that console was Pokémon Emerald – an updated version of these two games in a similar vein to Pokémon Yellow and Pokémon Crystal. There’s no questioning that, from a financial standpoint, these games were complete successes. However, the fans themselves were divided on these games for various reasons. While fans accepted the changes Gold and Silver brought to the table, they weren’t as unanimously receptive of Ruby and Sapphire. What is it about these games that inspired such mixed feelings?

Continue reading

Wonder Boy in Monster World

Introduction

Westone’s Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, despite its lack of a domestic release, quickly became one of the premier titles of the Sega Master System library. With an inadvertent shapeshifter as a protagonist and a level design that forewent the traditional, linear structure of its predecessor, The Dragon’s Trap was among the first Metroidvanias to grace the medium after Nintendo’s own pioneering work. However, even with a game as impressive as The Dragon’s Trap, the Sega Master System trailed behind Nintendo’s juggernaut Famicom console. Fortunately for Sega, they were about to take a significant step forward.

October of 1988 marked the release of the Sega Mega Drive. Redubbed the Sega Genesis when it debuted in North America during the following year, the console was a significant step forward in terms of presentation and sound quality. As Sega Mega Drive fans upgraded consoles, many of them began waiting for new installments of familiar franchises. For fans of the Wonder Boy series, they would eventually get their wish. Almost exactly three years after the domestic launch of Sega’s 16-bit console, Wonder Boy V: Monster World III made its debut. This decidedly bizarre title demonstrated that it was the fifth game in the Wonder Boy franchise and the third installment in the Monster Land subseries following Wonder Boy in Monster Land and The Dragon’s Trap. This game was localized and subsequently released in North America and Europe in 1992 under the name Wonder Boy in Monster World.

A heavily altered port was also released for the Sega Master System in Europe where the console enjoyed more success than in the United States. Retaining their partnership with Hudson Soft, a version of this game was released on the Turbo Duo. In a manner similar to The Dragon’s Trap, Wonder Boy in Monster World was retooled into a standalone game called The Dynastic Hero. The main characters were modeled after insects with the bosses resembling their natural predators. Regardless, the base game was largely unchanged. Does Wonder Boy in Monster World manage to retain the impressive amount of momentum generated by its predecessor?

Continue reading

Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair

Introduction

With Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Westone Bit Entertainment had another hit on their hands. The idea of an arcade game placing a great emphasis on role-playing elements was something rarely seen before or since. If one wanted an experience similar to the one offered by Wonder Boy in Monster Land, they would need to pay for a powerful gaming computer or the latest home console. It was therefore highly ambitious of Westone to place such an experience in a scene known for fast-paced, simplistic gameplay.

By this point, Westone clearly had a flagship series, so it was only natural of them to continue the momentum by creating a sequel. The third installment in this budding franchise, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, debuted in domestic arcades in 1988. Though it wouldn’t reach international arcades, it was ported to many popular home consoles such as the TurboGrafx-CD. Strangely, this would be the only port North American gamers received. One was created for the Sega Mega Drive, allowing Japanese and European enthusiasts to play it, but a Genesis port never surfaced. With its two predecessors different as night and day, what did Westone decide to do for the third installment in their popular franchise?

Continue reading

Wonder Boy in Monster Land

Introduction

Escape’s debut game, Wonder Boy, became a hit when it was released in arcades in 1986. Because the publisher, Sega, only had rights over the Wonder Boy trademark, the company entered a partnership with Hudson Soft to have it released on the Famicom – or the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) as it was known abroad. Wonder Boy, retooled into Adventure Island, would go on to be a beloved classic in the NES’s library as well. As a result, the game managed to find a broad audience, being one of the few titles legally available on both a Nintendo and a Sega console. With this success, two members of Escape, Ryuchi Nishizawa and Michishito Ishizuka, began work on a follow-up. To mark the momentous occasion of having released Wonder Boy, they changed the company’s name to Westone, believing the name Escape made them sound unreliable. Westone is derived from the first kanji in these two artists’ names – “Nishi” meaning “west” and “Ishi” meaning “stone”.

In the same year in which Wonder Boy saw its release, a skilled programmer named Yuji Horii put the finishing touches on a game known as Dragon Quest. This title was a massive success upon release, introducing countless Japanese enthusiasts to the role-playing game. One person who took note of this game’s popularity and its subsequent impact on Japanese enthusiasts was none other than Mr. Nishizawa. Drawing upon his experience, he sought to create a game that combined arcade and role-playing elements.

The result of this experimentation, Wonder Boy: Monster World, was released in arcades in August of 1987. Although the original arcade version never left Japan, it received a port on the Sega Master System in 1988. This port, which was redubbed Wonder Boy in Monster Land overseas, is frequently considered one of the stronger games in the Master System library. Similar to the case with the original Wonder Boy and Adventure Island, it also saw retooled ports on the PC Engine and the Famicom under the names Bikkuriman and Saiyūki World respectively. Bikkuriman was based off of a 1980s franchise centered on sticker collecting. Saiyūki World, published by Jaleco, was inspired by the classic Chinese tale Journey to the West in which players assumed the role of the monkey king Sun Wukong – or Son Gokū in Japanese – on a quest to save his country. Of these various ports and retools, only the Master System version saw the light of day in the West. Did Mr. Nishizawa successfully use the increasingly popular role-playing genre to give Wonder Boy a worthy sequel?

Continue reading