King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella

Introduction

Like the two installments before it, King’s Quest III was a great commercial and critical success upon its release. Fans were initially confused as to what its protagonist, Gywdion, had anything to do with the adventures of King Graham. After a few months passed, they answered the questions for themselves, and began seeing King’s Quest III as the best game in the series thus far. Whether or not a sequel would be made was never a question, for Roberta Williams and her team dropped many hints throughout their game that King’s Quest IV lurked just around the corner.

Though the visuals had improved in subtle ways since the inception of Sierra’s Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI) engine, it was beginning to show its age. In 1987, LucasArts released Maniac Mansion. This unique take on the adventure game genre ended up being a grand success in its own right, impressing critics with its cast of characters and smart humor. Among those who praised it was acclaimed science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card. In the face of this fierce, new competitor, Sierra needed to step up their game to remain relevant. This led to the creation of the AGI engine’s successor, SCI. Interchangeably referred to as both the Script Code Interpreter and Sierra’s Creative Interpreter, this new engine was designed by programmer Jeff Stephenson

With the outdated engine ready to be replaced, there was no better game Sierra could have chosen to than the latest installment of their flagship King’s Quest series. However, as the engine was designed specifically for 16-bit little-endian computers, they realized longtime fans may not have the specifications required to run a game made with the SCI engine. On top of that, the engine had not yet been proven commercially. Therefore, Ms. Williams and her team opted to develop two versions of the game concurrently: one would be built using the AGI engine and the other upon the SCI engine. The former was intended as a fallback in the event the latter didn’t sell. Fortunately for Sierra, the series’ fourth installment, entitled King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella, ended up moving 100,000 copies within two weeks of its debut in August of 1988. Even better, the SCI version comprised a majority of those sales, eliminating the need for its AGI counterpart, which was discontinued mere months after its release. The commercial success of King’s Quest IV proved beyond any shadow of a doubt the sheer popularity of the series. Was the new SCI engine what the series needed to evolve?

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Jumper Two

Introduction

Fledging independent game developer Matt Thorson made his first significant mark on the medium in February of 2004 with Jumper. Though not quite his debut effort, it was the first one he felt worth mentioning in retrospect. This minimalization of the platforming games he grew up with was highly praised in the independent circuit. Shortly after the release of Jumper, he teamed up with another Game Maker-user who went by the name Dex. The game that resulted from their collaboration, Dim, drew a lot of inspiration from Jumper while also giving its protagonist the ability to hop between dimensions in a manner reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. This game also found an audience and would be referenced in later editions of the Jumper level editor. As Mr. Thorson gained more experience programming, he used what he learned to fine tune the physics in Jumper and create a sequel. This game, simply entitled Jumper Two, was released in June of 2004 – a mere four months after the release of the original. Being his third game in the span of a year, what does Jumper Two bring to the table?

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Jumper

Introduction

On November 15, 1999, Dutch computer scientist Mark Overmars released a piece of software named Animo. It was a graphics tool that featured limited visual scripting capabilities. Within the next few years, the tool was renamed GameMaker to reflect its specific purpose. Before the internet age, creation tools such as Mr. Overmars’s were difficult to get ahold of. You either had to specifically go out and buy them or work for a big-name developer. However, with advent of the internet, people could distribute such software far more easily. Therefore, it was no coincidence that when the internet became commonplace, gaming began cultivating an independent scene.

One of the people who utilized Mr. Overmars’s GameMaker program was one Matt Thorson. Going by the e-handle YoMamasMama, he began making games as early as 2002. After finishing his first game, The Encryption, in 2003, he moved onto a new project: Jumper. He completed the game in February of 2004 at the age of sixteen. Though not a viral success like Cave Story, which was released in the same year, Jumper managed to find an audience and is considered an admirable freeware title. Speaking retrospectively on his website, Mr. Thorson would consider Jumper the first game he was truly satisfied with. Was Jumper a strong debut for a budding indie developer?

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Eversion

Introduction

Following in the trail blazed by the word-of-mouth success of Cave Story in 2004, an entire scene for independent games began to grow. Many independently produced games had existed before 2004, but Cave Story showed the world that they need not settle for being lesser than studio-backed efforts. In the following years when digital distribution platforms became more commonplace, it wasn’t uncommon for these games to appear alongside AAA efforts on popular consoles. The year 2008 is considered something of a watershed moment for the independent scene. It was the year that saw the release of Braid and World of Goo – both of which were critically acclaimed even when held to the same standards as AAA titles.

Nearing the end of 2008, Zaratustra Productions, the alias of Brazil-born British developer Guilherme Töws, released a freeware game named Eversion. Thanks to two prominent internet personalities at the time, one a Let’s Player and the other a webcomic artist, Eversion began spreading over the internet like wildfire. Owing to how it made its way to hard drives around the world, Eversion could be seen as one of the earliest instances of a game being exclusively spread through the use of memes. What, exactly, about Eversion allowed it to enjoy this unexpected popularity?

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King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human

Introduction

With her successful series of adventure games that debuted on the Apple II computer, Roberta Williams proceeded to create King’s Quest in 1984. Once this game was ported to a greater variety of platforms, it became a bestseller. This paved the way for a sequel a year later: King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne. It too became a hit with adventure game enthusiasts. While she was satisfied with her games from Mystery House to King’s Quest II, she relented that they were “essentially glorified treasure hunts”. The plots served no higher purpose than informing players of what their end goal was. This began to change by the mid-eighties. With computer platforms such as the IBM AT, Amiga, and Macintosh boasting a superior processing power compared to the previous generation, many new possibilities opened up.

Ms. Williams wished to take advantage of these machines to set her sights higher in the form of a brand-new installment in her popular King’s Quest series. She found herself leading a much larger team this time around, though it consisted of many of the same people who worked with her on her previous two games. The lead programmer was one Al Lowe, who made a living as a jazz musician before joining Sierra. He composed the music of King’s Quest II, and saw this as the perfect opportunity to learn the ins and outs of programming before creating something of his own while his wife, Margaret made the music. The game saw its release in October of 1986 under the name King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human. Like its two predecessors, King’s Quest III was highly popular among adventure game fans. It is common for retrospectives to cite this particular installment as the one in which the series began hitting its stride. Was Ms. Williams able to use the new technology to elevate her series to a new level?

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King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne

Introduction

After porting King’s Quest to a greater variety of platforms, it quickly became an overnight success for Roberta Williams and Sierra On-Line. It provided a novel take on the adventure game formula. Not only was it played from a third-person perspective, the protagonist had a name and backstory. This was quite a contrast from contemporaries, including Ms. Williams’s first efforts. In the oldest adventure games, protagonists were a little more than a stand-in for the player. In extreme cases, the two characters were one in the same. By going so far off the beaten path, Ms. Williams ensured her work shaped the genre in the coming years.

Shortly after the game’s release in 1984, Ms. Williams began thinking about where the story should go from there. Sir Graham, now King Graham, rules the land and is beloved by his subjects. She then realized he needed a queen to accompany him. Envisioning him starting a family, Ms. Williams would have Graham take the first step towards making it a reality. Joined by two up-and-coming designers named Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, who vowed to make the game an even greater hit than the original, she began work on a sequel. It was released in 1985 under the name King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne. Despite Sierra’s best efforts to make King’s Quest II a killer app for IBM’s PCjr platform alongside its predecessor, it was discontinued the very same year. Much like the original, it became a bestseller once it was ported to a greater variety of platforms such as the Apple IIe, Tandy 1000, and standard PCs. Does this sequel successfully take the series in a brave, new direction?

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King’s Quest: Quest for the Crown

Introduction

In 1980, Roberta Williams and her husband, Ken, founded a company named On-Line Systems. Shortly thereafter, they released their first product: Mystery House. This Apple II title stood out from the pioneering Colossal Cave Adventure and all of the adventure games spawned in the wake of its success by featuring graphics. Before that moment, adventure games were like interactive novels – they conveyed stories and plot developments exclusively through text. The idea that one could interact with the environment and see the changes their actions had on it was groundbreaking at the time. As a result, Mystery House ended up selling nearly 80,000 copies worldwide over the next two years. Fueled by her success, Ms. Williams created four more games in the following years for the Apple II platform: Wizard and the Princess, Mission Asteroid, Time Zone, and The Dark Crystal. The last of these was based on the 1982 high fantasy film of the same name directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.

In the midst of these successes in late 1982, the famous computer company IBM contacted On-Line Systems, then known as Sierra On-Line, with an interesting proposal. They were putting the finishing touches on the PCjr home computer.

This new model was to retain the IBM PC’s central processing unit and BIOS Interface, but with an array of improvements, including enhanced graphics, slots for ROM cartridges, joystick ports, and an infrared wireless keyboard. With the opportunity to bring her work to a new platform, Ms. Williams accepted IBM’s proposal.

This new game was to be a departure from any of the ones she had developed for the Apple II computer. While her previous work consisted of static images presented from a first-person perspective, Ms. Williams sought to include animation. In her words, it was to be “the ultimate cartoon – a cartoon [the audience] can participate in”. To this end, programmer Arthur Abraham developed a prototype. Though he wouldn’t remain on the team by the end of the project, this prototype formed the basis for the game’s engine. Ms. Williams and her team of six full-time programmers worked on the game for eighteen months, official releasing it in May of 1984. Its name was King’s Quest.

IBM heavily promoted King’s Quest and their PCjr system, making sure to highlight its realistic animation and variety of sound effects. This made their ultimate decision to discontinue the product less than a year later all the more shocking to Sierra. As a result of the PCjr’s poor reception, King’s Quest itself didn’t sell well. However, Sierra wasn’t about to let their hard work go to waste. Using the development system, they were able to port the game to the Tandy 1000, the Apple IIe, and standard PCs. With King’s Quest widely accessible, it quickly became a bestseller. To historians, Mystery House provided the blueprints for the adventure game formula while King’s Quest perfected it. Does it still hold up as one of the greatest adventure games of all time?

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Nerves of Steel

Introduction

In 1993, a company named Rainmaker Software released their inaugural title: Isle of the Dead. It was released around the same time as id Software’s Doom. As both it and their previous effort, Wolfenstein 3D, codified the first-person shooter in the minds of gaming enthusiasts, Isle of the Dead was left to fall by the wayside. Computer Game Review magazine claimed it to be “the best knock-off of Wolfenstein 3D that anyone has created” – a quote proudly emblazoned on one of the boxes. Actually playing Isle of the Dead revealed it to be a less-than-satisfactory product, combining the worst aspects of early adventure games and pioneering first-person shooters. It is considered by the few who played it to be one of the worst games of the nineties.

Even with this setback, Rainmaker Software was not ready to throw in the towel. Two years after the release of Isle of the Dead, Rainmaker Software finished their sophomore effort: Nerves of Steel. Isle of the Dead fell into obscurity shortly after its release while Nerves of Steel immediately became a practical nonentity in the history books. Due to its poor commercial performance, Rainmaker Software ended up dissolving shortly thereafter. Could Nerves of Steel be considered an improvement over Isle of the Dead – for whatever that is worth? Continue reading

VVVVVV

Introduction

Shortly after graduating from college, a man from Ireland named Terry Cavanagh began working in a bank. He considered it a fine job, but he wasn’t happy with his work. Citing the games he grew up, he constantly thought about creating one of his own. He had experimented with the medium while in school, creating small QBasic games, but now that he worked a job, he couldn’t find the time. Believing he wasn’t ever going to achieve anything if he did nothing, he carefully began saving up money to fund a new project. His tenure with his company ended in a rather abrupt, unexpected manner. He became intoxicated at a staff night out and told everyone present that he wanted to quit and spend all his time making games. Mr. Cavanagh’s boss quickly found out, and when he asked him about it, he impulsively gave him his notice – despite not having saved nearly enough money at the time.

Mr. Cavanagh’s first title was a platforming game made playable through Adobe Flash entitled Don’t Look Back. This simple game, originally launched in 2009, combined two concepts. He wanted to create a “silly shooter” where the events were shown from a different perspective and a narrative in which the gameplay acted as a metaphor for the player’s actions. Though few formal reviews were written due to it not being a commercial release, journalists praised it for eliciting different responses from its players. In particular, the staff of the online video game magazine The Escapist found the game addictive and “a perfect example of doing more with less”, making sure to highlight its “wonderfully haunting aesthetic”.

Around this time, Mr. Cavanagh decided to participate in a game jam held by the website Glorious Trainwrecks. Every month, the site would hold a jam called the Klik of the Month Klub. The event was named after Klik & Play, a script-free programming tool developed by Clickteam in 1994 that allows its users to create video games of their own. Mr. Cavanagh sought to enter the competition himself with his own entry: Sine Wave Ninja. It was, in his words, “a simple action game that didn’t really work out”. Nonetheless, he had developed something about the character’s basic movements that he wished to explore. Specifically, this got him thinking about a gravity flipping mechanic, how it’s usually handled in games, and what new directions to which he could take the idea.

From this line of thinking, his next project began: a platforming game in which players had to constantly reverse gravity and avoid hazards. Admitting he didn’t have a knack for naming things, he settled on VVVVVV as a title. This decidedly unconventional title is a twofold reference. It alludes to the spikes that serve as the primary hazard players have to avoid as well as the names of its six main characters – all of which begin with the letter “V”. There was one key difference between Don’t Look Back and VVVVVV; the latter would be Mr. Cavanagh’s first commercial release.

Understandably, going from using the Flash model wherein his woes ended when he found a sponsor to deciding how much he was willing to charge people to play his creation terrified the new indie developer. In interviews leading up the release of VVVVVV, he was taken aback after making a blog post asking for donations to help him submit his work to the Independent Games Festival. He never suspected that in the first few days, he would have dozens of donations, exceeding what he was asking for. He had over one-thousand dollars by the end of the week. As it turns out, these donations were well timed, as his finances had been dropping rapidly. He admitted that he was only a week or two away from having to beg his friends and family for money to get him through Christmas.

Despite these numerous setbacks, VVVVVV was released in January of 2010 for personal computers everywhere. Though it didn’t quite amass the universal acclaim Braid and Limbo enjoyed, VVVVVV is considered one of the premier indie titles that helped the scene blossom into a formidable force in the 2010s. Did a gem arise from the decidedly tumultuous development?

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Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire

Introduction

The impact of the 1993 PC game Doom was such that it led to a swath of imitators. Though they would become known as first-person shooters, these kinds of games were often referred to as Doom clones. One title to emerge from the scene was LucasArts’s Star Wars: Dark Forces. Originally released in 1995, it was a commercial success, selling over 300,000 units and enjoying fairly positive reviews. The developers named the custom engine on which the game was built Jedi after the franchise’s heroic faction. The game stood out from Doom by having no limitations on the Z-axis. Levels in the older game only existed on the X-Y plane, meaning areas could not overlap vertically – even if floor and ceiling heights varied.

Shortly before the debut of Dark Force, LucasArts began work on another game in 1994. The team wished to create a multimedia side story to the films entitled Shadows of the Empire, setting it between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – a time period that had not been explored in any Star Wars novel. The idea was to create something that could be considered a film without actually making one. The video game adaption of this project was to be released on Nintendo’s upcoming Nintendo 64 console. This decision was made because, though LucasArts enjoyed a lot of success in the PC circuit with classic adventure game such as Maniac Mansion, they felt they missed opportunities for extra revenue by ignoring the console market for so long. Therefore, by being an early adopter for Nintendo’s newest console, they could make a lot of money in this venture while also getting more people interested in it, forming a mutually beneficial partnership. In order to give themselves more creative control over the story and the gameplay, they decided against using any of central characters from the film. Instead, they elected to cast a minor character from the Expanded Universe in the lead role.

The development cycle for this game proved to be an interesting experience as the team was allowed access to the hardware months ahead of its launch. A prototype Nintendo 64 was not yet available when work began, so the developers used a Silicon Graphic Onyx visualization system. Eighteen months later, a nearly complete sample of the Nintendo 64 was given to LucasArts. Thankfully, two developers in particular had extensive experience with the SGI platform and prototyped the game using the Performer 3D API. This allowed the team to port their coding to the Nintendo 64 hardware in only three days. They were even given a prototype controller with which to test the game. It was actually a modified SNES controller with an analog stick and Z-trigger designed by Konami. To ensure complete secrecy, the LucasArts team signed a strict nondisclosure agreement, disallowing them from speaking to anyone about the hardware or the project. Furthermore, the controller prototype was concealed in a cardboard box that they could place their hands into, but prevented them from removing it.

Though the development cycle wasn’t plagued with any major setbacks, it ended up taking its toll on the team. According to the game’s director, Mark Haigh-Hutchinson, some team members were regularly working 100-hour weeks for the better part of a year. Compounding the pressure was the fact that they had to release their game shortly after the console’s launch. To make matters worse, when the game was demonstrated at the 1996 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the audience’s reactions were mixed. In response, LucasArts canceled their original plan to have their work coincide with the Nintendo 64’s launch so they could take extra time to polish the gameplay. Despite this, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire was postponed a mere three months later, finally seeing the light of day in December of 1996. After the Nintendo 64 debuted with Super Mario 64 being one of its launch titles, the 3D craze of the mid-nineties had begun in earnest. The idea of a real three-dimensional Star Wars game was truly exciting for both old and new fans at the time. It was one of the console’s first big third-party successes, and played a role in the 3D revolution’s continued momentum. Can it claim to have held up as well as its pioneering contemporaries?

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