I am starved for full-screen gaming here in this long-stay hotel room, so I sat down and played two old adventure games this weekend: Secret of Monkey Island (the first one) and King's Quest V (the fifth one to have a stupid pun in the title).
Of the two, Monkey Island is clearly better. For its time (1990), it was technologically inferior to King's Quest, I guess, but twenty years later, it still feels like a game. King's Quest feels like it belongs in a museum.
The difference is like the section of an art museum with the early renaissance Italian paintings. There are two types of paintings in this section; they're so different that it looks like a mistake to group them together, even though they were painted around the same time. The first kind of paintings show Mary and baby Jesus in weird detail with a funky perspective. Great if you like that kind of thing, weird and boring if you don't. Others just look like somebody sat down and made a picture of Mary and Jesus--they look like real mother and child. Both kinds were painted about the same time, but the second appeals to people in general. Monkey Island is like that second painting compared to King's Quest. I'm sure videogames will be in museums 700 years from now, if only as a weird footnote, but the ones people stop to appreciate will be the ones like Monkey Island.
Like the renaissance painting, Monkey Island succeeds because it ignores genre tropes to focus on quality. There are few to zero puzzles that require you to grab something long before it's needed, much less long after you can go back to get it. There are no cases that require you to die and reload in order to figure out a puzzle or a maze. Besides that, it just handles pacing extremely well; it never drags and never puts you in a completely bewildering position: you always have one or two things immediate goals, even if you can't figure out how to do it.
That doesn't mean I didn't consult GameFAQs a few times. I'm not very good at adventure games, and I wanted to get done. The worst parts were near the end, which probably was rushed relative to the beginning...you know the usual story. I noticed three times that I couldn't take or use something until triggering the correct preceding event somewhere else. Two of the times there wasn't even an hinting error message.
But out of the many puzzles and extra things to do, it didn't really matter. Besides the slightly clunky interface, Monkey Island has aged well. I can see why the XLBA release allows you to play through with the original pixels.
On the other hand, we have King's Quest.
King's Quest doesn't even CARE. It knows that you're playing for one of two reasons:
- it came with your fancy new CD-ROM/3-button mouse MPC (Multimedia Personal Computer) and you are so dazzled by the fully 3-D run-time scaling Graphics and Animation that you don't notice the medieval goodwives named Amanda, voice acted by a Valley Girl*, probably herself named Amanda.
- You played all the previous King's Quests, in which case you'll be disappointed if there isn't AT LEAST an endless desert which kills you after seven screens, usually right before you find the second crucial item lying in the sand. And a wizard's lair with cartoony guardians who kill you instantly unless you
I guess he meows really loudly and wakes the wizard**. Later, YOU have to sneak right up to the sleeping wizard and steal his wand, so I guess the cat is Super Loud. Like, a Dire Cat of Volume. Tap to inflict 25 dB of hearing loss and summon any malignant magic users to the room.
- grab the item to defeat guardian 1
- DON'T use said item (it's a bag of dried peas) to defeat the guardian (it's a hideous but klutzy chimera)
- get put in jail by guardian 1 (the hideous klutzy non-lethal chimera)
- use the fish hook to grab the cheese from the dingy and deceptively deep crack
- oh did you not get the fish hook? It was those three shiny pixels two islands ago
- Well, now you can't defeat guardian 2...
- But he's only a cat
But I digress. Since this is the future (1990, remember), you also get to suffer through a badly implemented 3-D Dungeon Experience. Twice. Three times if the hapless hideous klutzy non-lethal chimera manages to capture you again.
OK, I'm being mean to King's Quest. It's the keyboardless interface that makes me do it. The old King's Quests were aggravating, but in an entirely different way, thanks to the text parser. And unlike the later games, the first King's Quest was genuinely solvable by normal people like me, Ph D candidates in Computational Linguistics. Well, I solved the 1990 remake, which gets rid of the reverse alphabet cipher for the Rumpelstiltskin puzzle. I never would have solved that.
On the other hand, Monkey Island never had a keyboard interface for me to compare to. So even though the mouse interface is clunky, I can't muster the same annoyance. The difference is that Monkey Island's inscrutable points feel like the designers made a mistake, while King's Quest inscrutable points feel like the designer was being intentionally illogical/cruel. On the other hand, King's Quest V is still good surrealist humour, and the most susceptible of the series to MST3K treatment, thanks in large part to the Animated Owl Buddy who does nothing but complain. Seriously, he's like Clippy except he never offers to help you complete anything, and he has a high, squeaky voice actor.
So if you like adventure games, King's Quest V is worth playing. If you like games, Monkey Island is worth playing.
*By Valley Girl I actually mean West Coast American English speaker (female). Doesn't have to be from the Valley, wherever that is. (I guess LA?)
**Wizards are just like ninjas, but instead of all the time flipping out and killing people, they alternate sleeping all the time and threatening people through palantiri. That's probably why Christopher Lee never got more screen time in the LOTR movies.
***Not the good/evil midwives, but the mediaeval goodwives.