In 1986, my Christmas list was written and submitted to my Mom and Dad the day after Halloween. There was only one item on it: The Nintendo Entertainment System Deluxe Set, which came with R.O.B. (the Robotic Operating Buddy), a Zapper, and two games: Gyromite and Duck Hunt. None of my friends had an NES, but we had all seen the television ads, gawked at the hardware behind glass displays at Toys ‘R Us, and believed it was finally time to be “playing with power”.
And it had to be the NES. Stock was low for the machine all over the country. I feared that my Dad wouldn’t be able to find it, so he would aim to please by getting me one of the other systems instead. If that happened, it wouldn’t be possible to get another machine until what would feel like forever. I had suffered during my earliest years of gaming by owning the Odyssey 2, a console incapable of playing Pitfall!, River Raid, or Yars Revenge. Never again would I settle for anything less than the most popular system on the market.
Christmas morning came, and there was no NES Deluxe-sized box under the tree. No NES Basic-sized box, either. This sent me into a panic. Would it be possible that my parents went off-script when they were Christmas shopping? As they rose from the bed and came into the living room, I thought back to the movie A Christmas Story. I convinced myself that the box I wanted was in the house, but it was hidden. Just like Ralphie and his Red Ryder bb-gun, I was meant to think I wasn’t getting it, only to become delighted when it was pulled out of a mystery hiding place and put into my hands.
Well, there would be no Duck Hunt, Gyromite, or Super Mario Bros. being played in the Einhorn household that day. I did get two video games, both for our new downstairs PC. But they were not ones I had asked for. I had never even heard of them. One was a mech-based game called Thexder. My Dad figured I’d like it, since the salesman at the Software, Etc. said it was kind of like Transformers. The other game was King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human. That box was more promising – it was gold. The cover image was of an evil wizard looking into a crystal ball.
I was disappointed, but accepting. Why Part III of King’s Quest, I asked my Dad? Surely I should start with the first? He explained that this King’s Quest was the newest one, and it was the game that the store clerk was personally most excited about. Dad knew how much I wanted the NES, but as I feared, it had proven impossible to find in stores. He and my mother had done everything they could to secure a machine, but they were not able to make it happen.
My Dad and I started the slow process of installing King’s Quest III from floppy disc onto our Tandy 1000 PC. I rubbed my hands together, and wrapped myself up in two blankets. The family computer was in the basement, which didn’t have a heater, and it was freezing cold that December in Illinois. When the game successfully booted, my Dad went upstairs, where there was coffee, cookies, and warmth. I remained glued to my seat, ignoring the cold. For the remainder of the holiday break, I ended up spending most most of my time in the basement. Since we had gotten that fancy off-white Tandy 1000, the basement had become my father’s special hobby space. But during this particular Christmas break, he let me take full control of the computer.
King’s Quest III was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Of course, it was much better looking than anything on the Odyssey 2 or the TI99/4A, the other platforms I owned. The graphics were vibrant, and you could move your character above, behind, and into objects and buildings. It was dubbed a “3D Animated Adventure”, which sounded much more sophisticated than “shooting game” or “sports game”. Super Mario Bros sure did look like it’d be fun to play, but I had to admit, graphically, King’s Quest III was more impressive.
The game pens you in tightly at the start. You’re Gwydion, a slave to a cruel Wizard named Manannan. One misstep, and he zaps you into dust. If you try to flee his grounds, he finds you, and kills you. Manannan’s castle is scary and oppressive, and the perfect place to start an interactive story.
When the Wizard needs to leave his grounds to run errands, you get an undefined window to collect items. The items will ultimately be combined to concoct a potion for poisoning his food. Some of the items you need are in the castle. Some are outside – those are scary to search for, because if he comes home before you’ve gotten back to the house… well, he finds you and kills you.
And kill you he will, many, many times. A Death-by-Wizard zap is always preceded by disturbing music – once the first note chimes, your stomach drops.
Little discoveries make a big difference as you play. You learn that you can hide your ingredients under your bed, so they don’t all have to be collected at once. You get a better sense of how long the Wizard will be out when he runs his errands, and exactly where the missing ingredients can be found outside. And man, that Wizard is such an imposing presence – think of the Sorcerer Mickey Mouse works for in Fantasia, but much more of an asshole. There are few things in games more frightening than entering Manannan’s secret alchemy chamber to create the poisonous brew. Can you follow all of the directions, clean up, and get out of there before he returns, demanding his dinner?
Of course, you’re not as sinister as your master, so when Manannan finally ingests his poisoned food, he isn’t killed, he is turned into a helpless tabby cat. No longer trapped, Gwydion can then continue on his journey, which includes misadventures with bears, a hike through snowy mountains, a battle with a dragon, and a deeply satisfying explanation for how this seemingly unrelated story ties to the prior King’s Quest games (no spoilers here).
There are no real action mechanics, and the few moments in which the game tests your reflexes are terrible. Many of the puzzles are not intuitive, and are very tough to crack without a hint book. But the story is truly grand. There is a lot of humor, some great narrative reveals, and authentic character development. I fell in love with King’s Quest because of the story, not the gameplay.
The game didn’t make me a PC gamer, and it didn’t ignite any love for the similar LucasArts games. But it did make me a Sierra fanboy. After King’s Quest III, I dug deeply into the company’s other 3D-Animated Adventure titles. I knew several other kids in school who were playing these games, so I would initiate a lot of trades – a Space Quest II for a Police Quest, for instance. My friend Patrick and I saved up our allowances and made a joint purchase at Electronics Boutique for Leisure Suit Larry and the Land of the Lounge Lizards without letting our parents know. We played through that together over several weekends, cracking up at all the jokes with got, and pretending to understand the ones we didn’t.
Eventually, I got the NES, and fell it love it with, just like every other kid in the U.S. But I ultimately enjoyed the King’s Quest games so much that when my grandmother asked me in 1988 if I’d rather have King’s Quest IV: Ther Perils of Rosella on PC or Zelda II: Link’s Awakening on NES for Christmas, I chose King’s Quest IV.
We have finally gotten back to a point in game development where emotionally resonant stories are being told, but to this day, I haven’t played through a narrative that scared and delighted me more than King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human. It doesn’t hold up in the way that a more action-focused title like Super Mario Bros. does, but I’m still so happy that this was one of my formative game experiences.
You did good that Christmas, Mom and Dad!