by Benjamin Fitzgerald
I love role-playing games; I love adventure games. They are my two favorite genres of video game. Naturally, when I heard about the old Quest for Glory series by Sierra from the ‘90s, I was very excited. I bought the whole series in a single volume. So far, I have played the first two games.
The game began as another in Sierra’s long line of X-Quest games, such as King’s Quest and Space Quest. The game was designed by Lori Ann Cole, who envisioned a saga in four parts detailing the rise of a great hero – you! The game was initially released in 1989 as Hero’s Quest with 16-color EGA and was controlled by a text parser. Sierra’s failure to copyright that name led to the series being renamed Quest for Glory.
In 1992, Sierra remade the game with higher resolutions and 256-color VGA, with a simplified dialogue tree and full mouse support; the text parser so prevalent in ‘80s adventure games was by that time a thing of the past. As much as I enjoy and appreciate old computer games, I was simply born too late to be familiar with the text parser system, and I have a hard time stomaching 16-color graphics, so I played the VGA adaptation of Quest for Glory: So You Want to Be a Hero?
When the game begins, you are asked to pick between one of three character classes – fighter, magic user and thief – and to allocate fifty skill points between six primary and seven secondary attributes, much like a traditional RPG. Certain skills are intrinsic to different classes, but it is possible to “dual-class” if you will, choosing skills from classes outside your own to create a hybridized character. My primary class was a thief, but I gave myself points in the magic skill for a broader experience.
You play as a recent graduate of the Famous Adventurer’s Correspondence School. The town of Spielburg has need of a hero, so you come complete with weapon and red cape to answer the call. From speaking to the local townsfolk, you learn that the Spielburg Valley is a troubled place. Decades earlier, the local baron ran afoul of the ogre witch, Baba Yaga, who cursed the Baron von Spielburg and his family. Both of his children have long-since disappeared and the valley is plagued with bandits, goblins and other horrors. You soon learn that both of the Baron’s children were cursed by the evil sorceress, and it falls to you to rescue them. You must face the trials ahead of you alone. Only you can defeat the evil Baba Yaga and restore peace to the valley.
As you venture through the valley, you will encounter many strange places, from a field of magic mushrooms surrounded by a stone circle to an enormous frost giant who speaks in the poetry of another land. There are many perils too: a goblin camp where inexperienced heroes will quickly wear out and face their death; a mysterious cave guarded by a powerful ogre; a bandit camp guarded by fast-fingered archers. Proceed carelessly and you can meet your death in countless ways – even, indeed, from the multitude of monsters who roam the forested paths of the valley.
Although it was King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella which first introduced the idea of completing certain tasks at night, it was Quest for Glory that introduced a regular day-night cycle to video games, with certain tasks only able to be accomplished at one time of the day or another. In addition, your hero will need both to rest and to eat; failure to do either for long enough will lead to an early demise.
In fact, there are a *lot* of ways to die in this game. My friend Marshall recently compiled a list of the best game-over screens in video game history, and this certainly gives some of those titles a run for their money! Sierra was known for their frequent and varied means of death. It was, in fact, this frustration that led Ron Gilbert of The Secret of Monkey Island fame to avoid death sequences altogether. Although Quest for Glory was a bit easier than some of the games that preceded it, there were still many ways to die, so it is important to save and to save often.
I had to learn this fact the hard way. As a thief, it is possible to break into a little old lady’s house and rob her of her most valued possessions – very heroic, I know. Well, I made the mistake of saving the game – my only save file – in the midst of completing an action that led to a game over. There was no way to stop myself from performing the action upon loading the game. I was frelled through and through, and I had to restart the game. This time, I made sure I had a backup!
For a game that is part point-and-click adventure and part kill-and-loot roleplaying, the creators did a good job of balancing these two opposing elements. One thing I really enjoyed was the sense of discovery. Despite the low resolution (320×200), the game world is still a beautiful creation, and exploring it was a thrill. I appreciated the fact that you had different quests to go with each class, and that each puzzle solution was different depending on the class you chose. For example, one of the early quests involves fetching a ring out of a tree that a lizard-bird thing has stolen from the healer. A fighter solves this quest by throwing rocks at the nest until it falls to the ground with the ring. A thief will climb the tree and navigate the branch carefully to retrieve the ring. A magic user simply casts the Fetch spell on the ring.
I also found the combat to be quite enjoyable, although it takes a bit of getting used to. Playing as a thief, I didn’t have a shield to block enemy blows. I lacked the strength and endurance of a fighter to withstand long battles, especially early on in the game. Equipped with only a dagger, there was only so much damage I could do. However, I could always run from the enemies, throwing knives at them as I ran, wearing down their health until they were weak enough for me to face them. With the small magic skill that I possessed, I was also able to blast the goblins, brigands or whomever with magic in combat to give me an extra edge. By the time the game was over, I was able to effectively handle just about any monster in the game in spite of my limitations.
Combat in this game requires good timing. You have to learn to watch the monster. Don’t attack when they block, or your blow won’t go through. Learn to watch for when they’re about to strike, and time your reaction – be it blocking or dodging – accordingly. If you’re a magic user, learn to use your arsenal of spells at the right time for maximum effectiveness. And don’t forget to run away if the situation gets hairy! I know that some players have criticized the combat, but I generally found it very enjoyable. It involves a degree of reflexes as well as strategy. You have to know your opponents, as they will fight and react in different ways. The combat isn’t perfect, perhaps, but I found it very satisfying.
There were some things that took a bit of getting used to. The first was navigating the world. There was no automatic map system, so to prevent myself from getting lost – which could prove deadly if my endurance ran too low – I manually mapped everything out on a word processor, documenting how many screens each location was from another. It was a tedious process, but it worked wonders until I was familiar enough with the locations to navigate on my own. You also receive a lot of information during dialogue, and there’s no journal in-game to record this information, so I had a second Word document to record any and all information that I suspected may be useful down the road. Such things may sound unusual for today’s modern gamer, but such practices were par for the course for video games of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and as such it provided me with a unique challenge.
As far as story goes, Quest for Glory is pretty solid. It is built thematically around fairy tales and folk lore. In this game, most of the source material is Germanic and Norse legends; the second game is inspired by Arabian Nights. Each of the games in the series takes a different culture as their inspiration, which helps to build a unique world experience for each and every game. Although some of the dialogue and interactions are somewhat silly or satirical, the overall tone of the story is more serious, and the writers handle this very well. There are a lot of different characters to meet. The climax of the game is handled very well, and the big reveals are well-executed. There are a lot of quests, and they are generally pretty fun to solve.
One of the things I appreciated is that you can play the game how you want. If you’d rather fight your way through the game, you can play a fighter. If you prefer more intelligent, subtle approaches, the thief and magic users each require a different play style. In one of the quests, you have to get past a rather obnoxious kobold mage to end a curse that has been placed upon a bear inside a cave. You can take him head-on in combat, sneak around him unnoticed, etc. During a second quest, you have to get past a very tough minotaur to break into the brigand’s lair towards the end of the game. Once again, only fighters need to face him head-on. While it’s certainly possible to beat him in combat with another class (I did), you can pursue a non-violent end to your goals all the same.
Before I wrap up with my final thoughts of this classic game, I want to say a few words about the Famous Explorer’s Correspondence Course that shipped with the game. Although it primarily contained supplementary information, it is hilarious! Skillfully written, laced with alliteration and awful puns, it is a hoot to read through and a real testament to the abilities of this games’ writers. It may not be required reading for the game, but if you ever play the game, you should definitely read it! Take as an example the following paragraph (meticulously transcribed from the PDF document for your reading pleasure):
Magic Users have a reputation for being mysterious, and much of their time is taken up maintaining this illusion. To this end, mirrors are useful for practicing facial expressions, and a repertoire of moods ranging from ‘Haughty disdain for fools who ask stupid questions’ (ideal for when you don’t know the correct answer) to ‘Complete and Utter Concentration So Don’t You Dare Disturb Me’ (perfect for catching forty winks, particularly if you can master sleep with your eyes open), will come in handy.
Like most of Sierra’s other titles, Quest for Glory isn’t a perfect adventure, but it comes very close. The artwork, combat, narrative, interesting characters and locales all help to make this game stand out from similar games of the time, and its innovative genre-mashing provides the game with a lot more replayability than many other adventure titles. The game was a major hit, but more than that, it was highly influential, particularly in its use of multiple solutions for the puzzles. That the game has had an enduring legacy can be seen in the number of fan-made and Kickstarted games that draw upon it for inspiration: Heroine’s Quest, Quest for Infamy and the upcoming titles Hero-U and Mage’s Initiation, all of which seek to combine point-and-click problem solving with the combat and stat-building of traditional RPGs.
The game ends with the hero and some of his new friends flying south atop a magic carpet to the land of Shapeir for the next stage of the saga: Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire. Despite its age, So You Want to Be a Hero holds up quite well, and stands as a promising start to what so far has been an epic quest for glory.
And if you ever wanted to know how to recognize a monster…
…don’t trust anyone that won’t eat their spinach.