Sierra's short-lived "Conquests" series - written and designed by Christy Marx, with artwork provided by her husband Peter Ledger - is fairly unique amongst its field. As compared to other adventure games, like Sierra's own Kings Quest, which is basically a mish-mash of medieval lore, mythology and fairy tales, the Conquests series strives for more faithful, scholarly retellings of these stories. The back of the box for Conquests of Camelot tells it pretty well:
Sadly, in the last half of the century, the Arthur legend has been recast as a cartoon and children's story. The mystic rituals and dark passions that colored the original Arthurian legends have been watered down to the soft and toothless fairy tales most commonly seen today.
That actually sounds a little bitter. You can picture the developers scribblying that with rage as they curse of existence of Disney's Sword in the Stone or Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
At any rate, the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood are just that - legends. It's impossible to be completely historically accurate, because most, if not all, of their exploits are regarded as fictional, and often have several different variations anyway. However, it does try its hardest to accurately portray the era of the legend, featuring accurate geography and an entirely believable, if still fictional, background. For instance, in the era of Conquests of Camelot, Christianity is portrayed as something of a competing religion against other gods, like the old Greek gods. That's not really something that's brought up in most modern mainstream Grail Legend literature.
It obviously doesn't go back far enough to use actual Olde English (which would have been neat!), but its writing is a bit more eloquent, utilizing a medieval style of early modern English without getting silly like the old Dragon Warrior NES translations, which simply replaced "I" and "You", with "Thy" and "Thou". Sometimes they used old-style spellings of the names - like Gwenhyver instead of Guinevere, or Launcelot instead of Lancelot. It certainly pulls it tricks well enough to make it feel authentic.
There are only two games in "Conquests" series, each focusing on a different British folk hero: Conquests of Camelot, focusing on King Arthur and his search for the Holy Grail; and Conquests of the Longbow, focusing on Robin Hood and his bandits' war with Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Perhaps not coincidentally, both were released roughly around the time as major motion pictures dealing with similar themes: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, which also focused on the search for the grail, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1991.
Both games have been released on Christy Marx's website, making it freely available to those curious. You'll need to grab the documentation to make your way through them, but that's not too hard to find.
Conquest of Camelot is one of the last games to use Sierra's SCI0 interpreter. It utilizes 16 color EGA graphics and supports sound cards, and uses a text parser. You can also control your character with a mouse, and can look at any item by right clicking it. The story begins with the kingdom of Britan in peril. The knight Lancelot is madly in love with Queen Guinevere, who in turn is loved by King Arthur. This tragic love triangle has brought a pestilence to the land, and the populace is suffering. The solution, says Merlin the Wizard (who also acts as the game's narrator) is to find the Holy Grail. A few of the knights - Gawain, Lancelot and Galahad - set off to find it, and fail to return, so King Arthur sets off himself to do the task right.
During the course of your adventures, you'll find three of your missing knights. It's up to you if you want to save them, and the game will progress if you decide to leave them to die. Of course, you'll lose points, and the grail will actually kill you once you find it, since you've been judged unworthy by its holy grace. You're actually scored in three different areas - Skill (for fighting), Wisdom (for solving puzzles), and Soul (for helping people out.)
Conquests of Camelot isn't quite as focused on puzzles, at least in the traditional sense. Most of the game is spent figuring out riddles or fighting through arcade sequences, and any time where you actually need to find and use an item to proceed, it's usually pretty clear. In the end, though, this makes the adventure way more frustrating.
Once you leave Camelot (which you can strangely never re-enter), you're presented with a map of Ye Olde England and a dozen or so locations. This is mostly a sham, though, because most of them just pop up with messages like "The grail sure isn't here!". The first place you need to visit is Glastonbury Tor, where a mad monk is supposedly hiding it. Your first encounters are against a pack of boars, before challenging the Black Knight for a jousting duel. Neither are technically very difficult, but both require that you learn a single trick to beat them, which can usually take several tries. When facing off against the boars, you just need to time your spear thrusts correctly, but there's no consistency and you'll often find yourself getting killed for seemingly no reason.
Once you pass and rescue Gawain, you'll end up having to solve a series of riddles posed by a group of stones. These are quite difficult, if these type of riddles aren't your thing (Q: "If you break me I do not stop working, If you touch me I may be snared, If you lose me Nothing will matter. What am I?" A: Heart). Upon conquering these, you'll have to draw your sword for a battle with the mad monk, and it's pretty clear the SCI engine was never made for action sequences.
After learning that the mad monk was indeed mad, and obviously doesn't have the grail, you'll travel to snow-laden Ot Moor. Here, you need to cross a frozen lake, with the help of a magical heart you found at Glastonbury Tor. This is one of those many obnoxious sequences where you need to move step-by-step through what amounts to an invisible maze. Move a few pixels off the path, and the ice will begin to crack. Move a few more pixels, and you'll face to a frozen death. There's very little room for error, and it goes on for a few screens, officially making it even worse than the tentacle monster maze from Space Quest II. Once you reach the center of the lake, you'll find Lancelot frozen captive by an ice queen. To save him, you need to answer a series of questions involving flowers, which is easily solved via the documentation in the manual.
You eventually learn that the grail is actually in Gaza, so you set sails to the Middle East. Once in Jerusalem, you need to walk around the bazaar, talk to the people, and solve their problems to continue, which is very straightforward. Before you find the grail and adventure through the underground catacombs, you'll need to answer some more questions, which, again, are easily solved by reading the manual. This is actually a pretty interesting method of copy protection, since it doesn't become essential until the final steps of the game. And since most of the questions amount to reading comprehension, you end up learning quite a bit about Greeks gods and goddesses in the process, even if you didn't mean to.
It's actually a pretty fascinating, well-written adventure, and while some segments are extremely aggravating, they're towards the beginning of the game, and the later half is actually a bit easier. Still, if there's any major issue, is that it's all a bit too dry. It's one thing to show things from a historical angle, but all too often, it ventures into "historical textbook" territory, and is missing a lot of the personality that makes adventure games so fun. The only humor comes from the traditional Sierra-style death sequences, which almost feel hilariously out of place. If you try to leave Camelot and forget to to pray to the gods (and give them cash), the castle gate will actually come crashing on top of you, killing you before your adventure can even begin. And, when you finally find the grail, a thief steals it. If you stand still and let him get away, Merlin chides you and sarcastically suggests that you may as well fall on your sword - Arthur then takes his sword and proceeds to commit suicide. That's... really over the top, there.
In spite of its problems - and there are a lot of them - Conquests of Camelot still somehow ends up succeeding in spite of itself. You just need the patience of the gods to enjoy it properly.
Some titles of the first game referred to it as "Conquests of Camelot I", implying that a sequel would focus again on King Arthur, or at least the Knights of the Round. Instead, Marx and company went a different route and jumped several centuries forward from Arthurian times, basing their second (and final) game off Robin Hood.
Most people are familiar with the basics of Robin Hood - while King Richard is off fighting the crusaders, the corrupt Prince John and notorious right hand man, the Sheriff of Nottingham, are unfairly ruling over the people the England. The outlaw by the name of Robin Hood, along with his faithful band of Merry Men, are devoted to robbing the rich, giving to the poor, and to all around work in favor of the general populace while fighting against a cruel government. Here, King Richard has actually been captured during his adventures and held hostage by King Leopold of Austria. The Queen is working to pay this ransom, but naturally, Prince John is diverting the funds for his own uses, so it's up to Robin, with the aid of his merry men and the lovely Maid Marian, to ensure the king's safe return.
The adventure consists of thirteen "days", which all focus around Sherwood Forest and the city of Nottingham. You must complete certain quests during each day in order to proceed, although a vast majority of them are fairly brief, and just involve accosting various travellers and finding new disguises for Robin Hood. The rest of the time is spent infiltrating the towns, castles and abbeys for vital information. Although you can technically walk through the forest screen by screen, it's much easier to just bring up the map to travel. The game uses the SCI1 interpreter, featuring hand drawn 256 color backgrounds, improved sound, and an icon-based interface. In addition to the standard Walk, Talk and Use icons, you also have a Bow & Arrow icon, whose use should be obvious, although you aren't granted too many opportunities to use it.
Conquests of Camelot gave some vague pretensions of choice by letting you decide whether to rescue each of your knights. Conquests of the Longbow takes this a few steps further and gives you more opportunities to make your way through the game. In most cases, this is the difference between convincing people to aid you - either through bribery or persistence - or merely threatening them. Obviously, it's better to avoid violence where you can, but you can choose to be a jerk, if you wish. There aren't any immediate consequences up until the end of the game, where your actions will ultimately decide Robin's fate. If you acted like a thoughtless rogue, you'll be hanged. If you acted decently, and earned enough points, you may even possibly wed the Maid Marian herself.
There are a few cases where you'll need to plan an attack - you'll listen to suggestions from your compatriots and decide which to act on. These are unfortunately a bit arbitrary - choose "correctly" and you'll complete the sequence with minimal casualties, but pick a wrong one and you'll lose some of your team. This only really affects your point total, as well as the number of outlaws, as tallied at the top of the screen. You can also find ways to increase your treasury, and thus the king's ransom. It has an effect on the ending, but it still doesn't quite feel like it's lacking.
There are also a couple of instances where you can "fail" an event, by letting Maid Marian get killed, messing up when trying to save some hostages, or losing the archery contest. The game will still progress as normal (most of the time), but you'll be setting yourself up for a crappy ending, guaranteed. These alternate scenes set up the game for some extra replay value, as you can play the game a few times, intentionally screwing up just to see what transpires.
Although the adventure isn't quite as epic as Conquests of Camelot - you never leave Sherwood Forest - its does have quite a bit more personality. Robin's merry men add a bit more of a light-hearted tone to the adventure, as they taunt and tease Robin (or each other) about their misadventures or romantic transpirings. Most of the death sequences also have unique sequences where your band laments your death and basically talks about what an idiot you were to get killed. It also contains more fantasy elements than the traditional Robin Hood story, as you find magic rings and cavort with tree spirits during the course of your quest.
Longbow takes the same general approach to puzzles as Camelot - there isn't much of the usual lock-and-key type stuff, but there are lots of riddles, arcade sequences, and other arcade-style minigames. They're less prominent here, concentrating a bit more on the adventure - literally, for the first few chapters, all you need to do is stumble upon the event trigger, and you're set. As you get further, you'll need to fight in staff duels, enter archery tournaments, and play a game of Nine Man's Morris. Most of these are skippable if you turn down the Arcade difficulty setting (though it's odd that the only time you ever get to use your bow and arrow in the first person is the archery contest - why not get to use it some other time?) The only time you need to play a mini-game is with Nine Men's Morris, which is an ancient strategy game that's kind of a mixture of tic-tac-toe and chess. Despite its initial difficulty curve - the CPU is not forgiving to beginners - it's a pretty cool game, and the packaging even includes a board for you to play in real life.
There are also plenty of word riddles to solve, and again, most of them come from reading the manual. Since there's no text entry, the game makes you spell out certain solutions through the use of "druid hand language", where you click on various parts of your hand to signify different letters. It's a clever workaround, even though you need to make sure you write it down when you first discover it, otherwise you'll be in for lots of trial and error once you need to use it.
The developers wisely learned from the mistakes of its predecessor, so there's not nearly as many frustrating situations. There are two aggravating occasions where you're being chased through the woods by the Sheriff's men, requiring that you stumble from screen to screen until you find a safe place to use a magic spell. In the vein of that those annoying chase sequences from Space Quest IV, you'll usually need to some trial and error to figure out which way to go. But it's nowhere near as bad as the frozen lake sequence from Camelot, at least.
Though it's one of the most obscure of Sierra's point-and-click adventures - it never received a CD release, didn't make it on any compilations and is a bit pricier than most on the aftermarket - Conquests of the Longbow definitely deserves better, especially considering what a huge improvement it is over its predecessor.
Conquests of the Longbow makes a brief humorous cameo in the VGA remake of Space Quest I. During the escape pod sequence, if you press the "Do Not Press" button, you'll accidentally warp right out of the game and into the side of Nottingham Castle. (In the original version, you transported into Kings Quest.)