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by Kurt Kalata - September 24, 2014

King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder - NES (1991)

American NES Cover

King's Quest V was released for IBM PCs in 1990 as a showpiece for Sierra's fancy new adventure game interpreter. The hallmarks included gorgeous 256 color VGA graphics with painted, scanned backgrounds, a full point-and-click interface that removed the need for typing, and in the case of the CD-ROM version, fully voiced dialogue. It told the epic story of King Graham, the protagonist of the first two games, going through an epic journey to find his kidnapped family. It was, in short, a showcase for the emerging multimedia computer, and a huge step forward for gaming as a serious storytelling medium.

The name was big enough for someone somewhere to believe it deserved an NES conversion, and so it was done. The port development team needed to squeeze 9 MB from the PC game into a 512 KB cartridge, within the extremely limited tile and palette limitations of the aging NES, whose hardware was over eight years old by that point. Just from a numbers standpoint, it shouldn't be any surprise that the NES version of King's Quest V is a really, really bad port.

The most obvious element is, of course, the visuals. Everything needed to be redrawn, and the backgrounds range from putrid to comically disastrous. Some of the scenes are such an entangled mess of pixels that it takes an extra step for the human brain to take it all in, decipher it, then interpret the image as something that might exist in the real world. In that respect, there is a certain level of abstract art that results from, for example, this forest and its network of branches.

On the other hand, you have this fearsome looking snake sculpture from the PC version converted into this goofy monstrosity on the right:

Or this creepy gargoyle statue over the organ becoming some kind of Muppet-thing:

The backgrounds are the worst of it, but the rest of the game is ugly too. The text is presented in the low res default MS-DOS font, which makes the whole game feel like an elaborate error message. The tiny character portraits in the dialogue boxes have been reduced to indistinct scribbles, with King Graham's head looking like an action figure who'd been carelessly left beneath a light bulb. The sound suffers too, as there's barely any music, and what's sound that does come screeching out is painful.

The interface is sluggish, making it a pain to do anything. You can choose to directly control King Graham via the directional pad. You can also point and click using the arrow, but considering the game freezes for a second every time you do this, in order to calculate path finding routines, this is not preferable. It doesn't quite matter though, since you need to use the arrow if you want to look at, talk to, or interact with anything, and the arrow has a tendency to change speeds from "too slow" to "way too fast". There is a password system to restore progress, but by the game's mercy there are also two save game slots.

You're going to want to use those a lot, since there are tons of ways to accidentally get killed, and tons of ways to get irrevocably stuck without knowing it. In fact, that was a major issue with the original game's design, in that it was full of dumb design decisions before adventure game developers were even aware of how dumb they were. The most egregious puzzle is when Graham meets a yeti, which must be defeated not by magic, not by weapons, but by a custard pie. The thing is, Sierra's SCI interface on the PC was just inviting enough to make it seem well put together, which was enough to trick gamers at the time into thinking they were playing something that wasn't a disaster. Without that 256 color, fully voiced, easy to control sheen, the faults of King's Quest V become even more painfully apparent.

The thing of it is, there were a handful of computer-to-NES adventure game conversions that turned out really well. Despite Nintendo's censorship practices, the console ports of Maniac Mansion and Shadowgate are probably more popular (and more well regarded) than their PC originals. Even the original King's Quest saw a serviceable (albeit still very clumsy) port a few years earlier on the Sega Master System. But these were all less complex games from a technical standpoint, making their conversions feasible.

It's hard to blame King's Quest V's faults on the developers, because the hardware was never going to support it without substantial downgrades. So for that attempt, they at least deserve a salute. But take pity on the poor kid who spent his birthday money thinking he could get something anywhere near the experience shown on demonstration PCs or in computer magazines.

Quick Info:

Developer:

  • Novotrade

Publisher:

Genre:

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King's Quest V (NES)

King's Quest V (NES)

King's Quest V (NES)

King's Quest V (NES)

King's Quest V (NES)

King's Quest V (NES)


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