Wednesday, March 30, 2022

The quest for the original King's Quest

It's been quite a while since I've played a Sierra adventure. Almost two and a half years, in fact, in pre-COVID times, when I suffered through 1981's Ulysses & the Golden Fleece and declared it to be a contender, along with The Demon's Forge, as the worst adventure I've played in my life.

In the years following Ulysses, Sierra followed it up with two more Apple II adventures, Time Zone and The Dark Crystal, which I skipped as they failed to qualify for whale status, though Jason Dyer managed to bludgeon his way through the former monstrosity largely without outside help and I'm certain will manage the latter with comparative ease when its time comes. During this time they also published Ultima II and several arcade-style games on Apple, Atari, Commodore, and ColecoVision, a few of which I played and covered.

But in 1984, Ken & Roberta Williams, partnering with IBM to promote the upcoming PCJr, produced King's Quest, a landmark hit far more successful than the PCJr itself, one that would redefine the company, adventure games, and to some extent, computer games themselves. And what's more, it's good. No, really, it is!

For one, this was the first major commercial game to be designed around the abilities of an IBM computer, and took full advantage of its larger RAM capacity and high (for the time) resolution, 16-color video display without any restrictions on what pixels could be what color, which could only be matched at the time by the Apple //e, and only with expanded 128KB RAM. Sierra would design all of its subsequent games with IBM architecture in mind first and foremost. The "IBM compatible" would eventually become the standard, obsoleting its competitors, and Sierra itself would play a role in influencing hardware trends, but in 1984, basing a game around the IBM, and locking out the massively popular and decidedly more games-oriented Commodore 64, along with the majority of Apple II users with the RAM requirement, was a daring move.

King's Quest also redefined the adventure genre in a way that hadn't been done since Adventure lend its namesake in the 70's.

You could play this by mail.

Even with graphics, adventure games were still stuck in a design sensibility of time-sharing system interfaces, where the computer would communicate the state of the game to you, and then wait idly for your input. This was virtually a requirement of mainframe-terminal interface of Adventure's time, but for a personal computer, this seems a bit quaint and unnecessarily static. Graphics before King's Quest were just an extension of Adventure's textual room descriptions, and did nothing to enhance interactivity beyond ELIZA's back-and-forth standards.

Finally, something was being done with the millions of cycles per second that your personal computer could devote to you, and only you, on its single-process, single-user operating system. Your avatar walks around the scene in realtime, like an arcade-style game, and so could other entities, like the hungry alligators swimming in the castle moat. Things animate - the castle flags blowing in the wind, and the doors swinging open, which in earlier Sierra games would have necessitated a play-disrupting screen redraw. Crucially, there's a three-dimensionality to the scene, as objects such as the tree can be walked in front of or behind depending on your avatar's depth, though don't be fooled by the curvature of the barrel bridges, as so many players discovered when they attempted to walk in a straight line to cross them, only to be dumped into the moat.

Falling is the leading cause of death in Daventry.


King's Quest was the first adventure game that I ever owned and the first that I ever beat. The 1994 CD-ROM re-release of the series was particularly instrumental to my upbringing as a gamer, solidifying an appreciation for DOS-era adventures as experiences that just weren't available on consoles. I played and replayed every game in the series countless times, enjoyed the on-disc making of videos, documents, trivia, and other supplements (why don't retrospective PC game collections do this any more?), and in the later 90's I bought the Space Quest and Quest for Glory collections as well. I've played the official 1990 King's Quest remake, multiple versions of the series' fan-remakes by AGD and Infamous Adventures, and even the slightly obscure sound-enhanced Apple IIGS ports.

In short, I know King's Quest like the back of my hand. There's almost no point in me replaying it, except for one thing.

I've never played the original King's Quest!

The CD-ROM collection includes both the "original" and the "remake," as does the King's Quest 1+2+3 collection sold on GOG, but in both cases, this isn't quite the O.G., as Sierra re-released the game in 1987, updating it for the current version of the AGI engine, adding compatibility for DOS, EGA, and hard disks. Colors are a bit different, music cues from King's Quest II were added in - the original game had no music except for a nine-note fanfare - and the original sound effects, such as birds chirping in the background, are absent. This re-release quickly replaced the original, and remains the oldest commercially available version.

Even from just using the older version of the engine, there are two things we can see that link King's Quest to its Apple II predecessors, neither of which would be obvious in later versions. There's the screen drawing routine, in which you can see the lines and colors of the scene gradually applied as you enter a new room, just as it had in Mystery House. And there's the four-line text interface at the bottom of the screen, made completely separate from the graphical window above it, where all text output is seen, which is a vestigial design choice borne out of the Apple II's native hi-res hybrid video mode where this screen division was ubiquitous. Later engine revisions would hide the drawing routine with page-flipping, and would display text in popup windows.

The experience is streamlined in some ways, but also anachronistic, and is even missing some animations. When Sierra re-released the series on CD-ROM, it made sense to use the updated 1987 version for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the headache of compatibility, but consequently the original 1984 PCJr. experience is endangered.


So that anyone can have the nascent IBM experience, I've put together a care package of King's Quest 1 & 2, which both predate AGI, and differ in some subtle ways from their DOS-compatible incarnations. So that Activision doesn't C&D me, I've password-protected the archive so that you must own the DOS game to unpack it.

Download it here:

Buy it here:

This may work with Steam copies or even CD-ROM copies, but I have only tested with the GOG re-release. It requires Windows 10 build 17063 or later.

To use my package, go to the root game folder of King's Quest, where there should be a 195KB file called VOL.1. Extract the contents of my package - the files inside are "" and "unpack.bat" - into this root folder so that the two files are side-by-side with VOL.1. Then run unpack.bat.

Run unpack.bat. With typical security settings, you shouldn't need to run it in admin mode, but it can't hurt things if you do. You'll see something like this (the hash will not be as pictured):

Just select the hash you see on the first line, press enter to copy it into your clipboard, and then right-click on the command prompt to paste it (you won't see it). Then press enter to commit, and it should be accepted.

In the event that this doesn't work, or that you don't trust running a batch file, the password on "" is the MD5 hash on VOL.1.

Several files will be extracted into the game directory, and you'll want to run menu.bat.

PCJr. is the original version of the game, will not run on anything but an IBM PCJr., and is the least polished version, but does have some unique aspects, such as its own sound effects. DOSBox cycles have to be kept low to keep gameplay manageable, and you must use a blank floppy disk image to save without ruining the boot image - press CTRL+F4 to switch disks.

It's a little weird to see the IBM logo here!

The CGA version, which ran on the standard and very expensive IBM PC, came out next, and it lacks the PCJr's video and audio capabilities. Sound is downgraded to a one-channel beeper, and the 16-color output runs in a fuzzy composite mode rather than the PCJr's sharp TGA mode, though its palette may be more pleasing to some tastes, and the softness of composite output has a certain aesthetic quality of its own.

If you want, you can also play in 4-color RGBI mode, but I can't imagine why anyone would want to.

Speed is self-regulated now, and DOSBox cycles don't have to be set low, but you still need a blank disk image to save on.

The Tandy version, which probably saved Sierra as the PCJr. itself was a major flop, is the most mature of the 1984 versions. It has similar video and audio capabilities to the PCJr., and is PCJr. (but not PC) compatible, but uses different sound effects, self-regulates its speed like the PC version, and you can save to the boot disk without ruining it.

I've included King's Quest II as well, but this time there are not three separate versions, as the original release included PC and Tandy compatibility on the disk. The menu options are simply different DOSBox configurations.

Tandy/PCJr. mode for sharpness and better sound

PC-CGA mode for softness and composite colors

PC-RGBI mode for maniacs

Sierra's subsequent AGI games all targeted the Tandy's abilities, and had PC compatibility with reduced audio quality, which is how most players today probably remember them. DOSBox's Tandy emulation mode can play them all as intended, as can ScummVM, though the latter has no support for pre-AGI King's Quest 1 & 2.


On my next post I'll actually play King's Quest, but it will be a one-and-done. Like I said, I know the game like the back of my hand, and I'm mainly interested in seeing how it differs from the commercially extant DOS version.


  1. Ah, King's Quest was probably my first adventure game. We played together with the full family, and I remember we did not go well. Later, our dad brought a Leasure Larry Suite game, which was just as popular for us (I was probably around 10, my sister a young teenager), but we had to ask our dad to pass the "protection" against children playing the game. The game was in French, but the questions had not been adapted for a French audience, so even my dad was not able to answer to some of those very US-centric questions (who was the vice-president of XXX ?). We did not go far either.

    There were also a bunch of French adventure or adventure adjacent games, going from Zombie to Captain Blood - I know what the Digital Antiquarian says about the French Touch, but we still prefered these.

  2. It was always like striking gold when a new computer game supported the TGA modes on my Tandy 1000...

    Ultima IV and V... Starflight... they all looked much better than in the 4 color CGA, which was blech.

  3. I never knew the original version already had CGA graphics. When I played it as a kid, the options I had were grayscale monochrome or RGBI. Presumably, the monitor wasn't compatible? We had a Bull Micral 30 back then. If you know some technical details that explain this, I'd be interested.

    1. The only CGA modes that support 16 colors are composite mode, color text mode, and 160x100 mode, which is very rare and not supported by King's Quest. Composite uses an entirely different connector from RGBI and is meant for NTSC televisions. CGA composite doesn't work correctly with the PAL standard and it wouldn't surprise me if the Micral line omitted the composite output entirely (EGA & VGA did despite being otherwise backwards compatible with CGA).

      If you were using the RGBI connector on CGA hardware, then your only options would be 4-color RGBI and monochrome. You could still enable composite mode, but it would look completely wrong on an RGBI connector.


Most popular posts