Sunday, September 6, 2020

Priority Adventure 2: The Wizard and the Princess (1980)

The packaging of the initial release of The Wizard and the Princess

The second game on my priority list - The Wizard and the Princess - is also the second game by Roberta and Ken Williams. I tackled Mystery House, their first game, a few months ago, and didn't exactly love it. It was visually impressive for its time, but the graphics were still crude and often indecipherable, and as a mystery game it left a lot to be desired.  I'm a fan of Roberta's later work on King's Quest, and The Wizard and the Princess covers similar fantasy/fairytale themes.  My hope, before I started it, was that it would be a step up in quality from their first effort.  As I write this, I'm still undecided about that.

The Wizard and the Princess was released in 1980 for the Apple II, through the Williams' own company On-Line Systems.  Mystery House was something of a side-project for Ken, who had initially formed his company to get into the lucrative business software market. He helped program the game to humour his wife, and test if there was any money in selling graphical adventure games.  It turns out that there was, so they set about making their second game a more focused, professional effort.  Most notable of all, they upped the ante on the graphics, taking the monochrome wireframes of Mystery House and adding colour.

Some later covers for the game. The left one is for the initial release on Atari 8-bit
computers, and the one on the right was used for a bunch of different platforms.

The game is set in the land of Serenia, where King George's daughter Priscilla has been kidnapped by the evil wizard Harlin, and taken to his castle in the mountains to the north.  The player is a wanderer who is just passing through, and hears a proclamation that the king will give half his kingdom to anyone who rescues the princess. And so the player sets off, armed only with a pocket knife, a blanket, a loaf of bread and a canteen full of water. All of this backstory comes from the original documentation, and is absent from the game itself.

I checked some later documentation, and the re-release for the SierraVenture line is interesting in that it's presented from Harlin's perspective.  He talks about how he's already been defeated, but that he has the power to reverse time, and try to win again.  It's a nice albeit unnecessary conceit to explain how players can keep trying the same adventure.  It also says that the obstacles along the way were placed there by Harlin's magic, which certainly explains some of the nonsense I'm about to get into shortly.

The version of the game I'm playing is copyright 1986, and was seemingly published
by Green Valley Publishing. Their main claim to fame seems to be an attempt to
monetise an unofficial version of Eamon.

Booting up the Apple II version of this game, I was instantly impressed by the graphics, as absurd as that sounds when you look at them in 2020.  But having spent the last six years playing through text adventures, blocky TRS-80 games, and mostly monochrome games on the Apple, they're a huge step up.  Of the games I've played for the blog, I'd say that only Akalabeth compares to it, and that only has colour in the intro sequence.  The big drawback is that the images are slow to draw if you're playing at authentic Apple II speed, but that's been true of most of the home computer games with graphics that I've played.

Starting the game in Serenia, which really looks like a dump to be honest.

The game begins in a village in Serenia, which is oddly devoid of people.  I started with my usual routine: SCORE gave no response, and HELP got me a reply of "no way".  Checking my INVENTORY showed that I had a pocket knife, a loaf of bread, a blanket and a water canteen, as indicated in the documentation.  This is a good start, as I'm always pleased when the manual matches what's in the game.

I went north from the village, and found my path blocked by a snake that, while not actively hostile, wouldn't let me continue further.  My knife was apparently too short to kill it, and I had no other ideas, so I took off exploring in other directions.  To the east I found desert.  To the south I found more desert.  To the west I found - get this - even more desert.  The desert is a maze, where the "rooms" have identical descriptions but slight graphical variations.  There are only two things in the desert that can even vaguely be interacted with: cacti, and rocks.  The cacti serve no purpose beyond decoration, and the rocks have scorpions hiding under them that will kill you if you try to take one.

The first obstacle in the game.  I can't walk around him for some reason,
even though I'm in a wide open, barren desert.

This was almost the entirety of the first post, because I spent almost three days - playing an hour each day - wandering the desert and getting killed by scorpions.  I don't think I've ever been angrier with a game on this blog than I was with this one.  Sure, I've been stuck in games before, but to be stuck right at the beginning, without having achieved one solitary thing?  That is unprecedented, and I honestly couldn't believe that Roberta and Ken thought this was okay.  It seems I wasn't alone, because apparently the help line for On-Line Systems (and later Sierra On-Line) got so swamped with calls for this puzzle that later versions of the game were packed with a little hint book just for this one section.

Pretty much sums up my first few hours with this game.

Luckily, I figured it out, or this post would have been little more than bile and invective.  My first thought was to map out the desert, but I'm not sure I properly managed it; lots of the locations looked identical, and with only four items in my inventory the bread-crumb method wasn't super-effective.  Eventually I just got lucky, and picked up the one rock in the whole desert that doesn't have a scorpion lurking underneath.  Using that rock I was able to kill the snake, and continue on my way north.  Later on I discovered that typing LOOK ROCK lets you know whether there's a scorpion hiding underneath.  Knowing that earlier would have saved me a lot of grief, but I guess I only have myself to blame. Examining everything is just basic adventure game methodology, and I should be better at this by now.

North of the snake was more desert, but laid out in a much less maze-like fashion.  Exploring around I found a stick, a cracker (sitting inside a hole in a cactus for some reason), a locket, and two halves of a note (as shown further below).  The only dangers in this section are another snake (which appears at random, but can be driven off by hitting it with the stick), and thirst (which is solved by the water already in your possession).  The only other encounter is another snake, which is pinned under a rock.  Given the other dangerous snakes around this seems like a counter-intuitive move, but I picked up the rock and freed it.  The snake turned out to be the King of Snakes, and he gave me a magic word: HISS.  Saying that word turned me into a snake briefly, and could be used as often as I liked.

I also got another magic word from inside the locket: LUCY.  Saying that one caused all of my items (including the locket) to disappear, and I couldn't find them anywhere afterwards.  After that little test I was forced to go back to the beginning of the game.  It has a save feature, which requires a blank disk and some disk swapping, but I hadn't used it yet.  (A note on the disk swapping, if you end up playing this game: be careful not to save anything on the game disk.  I did that by accident, and a bunch of the graphics wouldn't load afterwards.)

The next obstacle came in the form of a chasm, with a house and some woods on the far side.  It was too far to jump across, and when I tried to climb down I fell to my death.  Slithering down the side as a snake wasn't an option, either.  I'm afraid to say that I already knew the solution to this puzzle, from dim memories of other blogs I've read (probably the Digital Antiquarian).  It involves the two notes I found earlier, which combine to form a password as shown below.

The two notes combined to form the word HOCUSThis might
be the best puzzle in the whole game.

The word is HOCUS, which causes a bridge to appear across the chasm.  This puzzle is actually pretty clever, and makes good use of the game's graphics, but I think it would work better with at least some indication that a password is required.  As it is, you're faced with a chasm that presents to all intents and purposes as a natural barrier, with no magic involved.  A magic password would have been the furthest thing from my mind as the solution, and I have a pretty strong suspicion that I would have had to look up the answer here.

Inside the house on the other side I found an apple.  I didn't get to keep it for long, because as soon as I went into the woods I bumped into a gnome, who nicked all of my gear.  I was worried that I'd done something wrong here, but I kept exploring just in case.  The woods were fairly small, about eight areas.  I found a stream, and north of that a tall tree that I could climb to get a view of the ocean.  I also found a parrot, who I suspected would respond to being fed a cracker, if only I could get it back into my possession.

Finally, I found a hole in a tree in one area and a crevice in another.  The hole was big enough for me to fit through, and it led to some stairs, but the door at the bottom of those stairs was locked from the other side.  The crevice was smaller, but by using HISS to turn into a snake I could get through into a tunnel, where I found my stolen stuff.  The tunnel led to the other side of the door, which I was able to unlock from this side without needing a key.

With my stuff back, I returned to the parrot and gave it a cracker. It rewarded me with a vial of green liquid.  I still hadn't saved my game, so I stashed it away rather than test it.

East of the woods was a beach, but the way forward was blocked by a lion.  I've played enough of these games by now to know that food is usually a good bet, so I threw it my loaf of bread.  (It wasn't interested in the apple.)  It took the bread and left, which seems like odd behaviour for a carnivore, but let's not bring science and biology into adventure games now.

It's a magically vegan lion. Let's go with that.

On the beach I found a coil of rope and a boat.  Getting into the boat I saw that it had a hole, so I fixed it by plugging it with my blanket.  I had my doubts as to whether this would hold, but it was apparently a water-tight seal.  (My approach to the puzzles in this game was starting to boil down to just trying the items I hadn't found a use for yet, regardless of whether it made sense.  I was lucky enough to get it right first time here, and it's an approach that served me well for the rest of the game.)

The ocean gives the illusion of being infinite, but in reality there's a pretty narrow path to another island that can be navigated via visual clues.  The beach I landed on had a great big X on it, so I figured I'd need to dig there once I found a shovel.  Elsewhere I found an empty cave, an anchor on another beach, and a tree house.  The tree house was too high for me to reach, but by tying the rope to the anchor and throwing it over a branch I was able to climb up. Inside I found the shovel I was after.

Digging at the beach I found a treasure chest, but before I could do anything a pirate showed up and ran off with it.  Despite some initial trauma flashbacks to the pirate from Colossal Cave Adventure, I quickly twigged to his obvious hiding place, and sure enough he had left the chest in the formerly-empty cave.  Inside I found a harp, which played a nice tune (described only via text, alas), but was otherwise unhelpful at this point.

The pirate's ingenious hiding spot.

I had no obvious way forward, but I did have an obvious item I hadn't tested yet, so I saved my game and drank the green liquid the parrot gave me.  It turned me temporarily into a bird, but only for a couple of moves. It seemed like a good bet, but I was skeptical that this short duration would be enough to get me over the horizon to an unseen island.  I needn't have worried; the land across the ocean to the north was very close, despite the complete lack of visual clues.  (This would have been a much better place to put the tall tree with the view.)

Heading from the beach into the foothills, I found a sapphire ring.  I tried wearing it, but it had no immediate effect.  Heading up into the mountains I encountered an old woman, who warned me about the local giant.  She doesn't serve any other purpose that I can tell.  East of her is an area with a rainbow, that disappeared one move after I entered the room.  I didn't manage to do anything with it before the opportunity was gone.  East of that was a bridge, and the game was very quick to tell me that it looked like it would collapse under my weight.

Having encountered similar puzzles in the blog so far, I figured that I'd need to get rid of my stuff to cross.  First, just to test it out, I tried crossing as a snake.  It didn't work, but it's the sort of thing that really should have.  Instead, I had to use the word LUCY from the locket, which made my entire inventory disappear.  With all of that stuff gone, I was able to cross.

(Can I just say at this point how much I appreciate that this game has no inventory limit?  Pretty much all adventure games have one at this point, and it's not always necessary.  There are games for which it creates a sort of logistical puzzle, but there are plenty of others where it's nothing more than an irritant that's seemingly only there because Colossal Cave Adventure had one.)

I suspected that the game would be quick to give me back my stuff, and I was right: it's in a cave very close to the other side of the bridge.  East of that is the aforementioned giant, who blocks passage onwards.  He's not otherwise hostile, and will leave if you play him a tune on the harp; doesn't seem like a such a bad chap, really.

North of the giant is the wizard's castle, which has a raised drawbridge and a moat full of crocodiles.  But before that, there's a peddler who's selling a whole bunch of stuff: a dagger, some boots, a jug of wine, a frying pan and a horn.  He's selling these items for one gold coin, which is something I didn't have.  I tried to sell him my ring, but he wasn't interested.

Harlin's castle, with one threatening crocodile.  Were crocodiles in moats ever
historically accurate?  Given that they're not native to Europe it seems unlikely.

The obvious place for me to find some gold coins was the rainbow from earlier, but that had vanished, and didn't look like it was going to reappear.  So I restored to a game before that, and this time when I got to it I typed GO RAINBOW.  This led to an area where I found a single gold coin, and not the pot of gold I was hoping for.  Heading back to the peddler, I had to decide which of his items to buy.  My first instinct was to buy the horn, which I then blew at the front gate of the castle.  The drawbridge opened, and I entered Harlin's castle.

The leprechauns have fallen on hard times.

Obviously, I got lucky here, or was perhaps guided by dim memories from having read about this game before.  With the wrong placement, this "guess the item" puzzle with the peddler could have been pretty rough, but as it is it's only two areas away from the problem it solves, so it's not too bad.  I did go back and test the other items to see if any of those provided solutions, but they're all worthless.  The only one that comes close to being useful is the dagger, which you can throw at the crocodile, but even that just results in you missing and losing the dagger in the moat.

I entered the main hall of the castle, and took some stairs leading up.  In a room to the east I found some shoes in a closet, one of which had the word "whoosh" written inside.  Saying this word whisked me all the way back to the start of the game.  I obviously needed to save this until I'd rescued the princess, so I restored my game.

West of the stairs was a room that with an enormous frog, but before I could do anything the wizard appeared and zapped me away.  I kept trying to go back to fight the frog, but the wizard was pretty insistent in not letting me stay in that area.  I decided to explore elsewhere, and come back here later.

Confronted by a giant frog.

West of the main hall I found a dining hall and a throne room.  In the throne room the wizard appeared again, and zapped me to a courtyard where I was menaced by a giant boar.  I fell back on my standard "feed the enemy" tactic, and gave the boar my apple.  The apple was poisoned, and it dropped dead.  (I don't know why I never tested the apple earlier than this myself. I think I forgot about it until I was searching my inventory for things to use on the boar.)

From the courtyard I went through a kitchen and came to a dance hall, where the wizard appeared again and zapped me into a cell.  The cell was bare, but I was able to escape without much fuss by using the magic word HISS to turn into a snake.  From the cell I explored south and east, and came to a locked door.  I was running out of unused inventory items, but I still had my pocketknife, and I used it to pick the lock.  It worked, and I gained entrance to a room at the base of a tower.  (By being zapped into the cell, I bypassed a pretty large and empty maze that led north from the main hall.  I mapped it later on, which didn't require any of the usual tricks; this maze is pretty trivial.)

At first the top of the tower was empty, but after I left and returned there was a bird fluttering about.  I tried to catch it, but every time it flew out of my reach, and none of the items I had seemed to work.  I was stuck again, and this time - after an hour or two of butting my head against it - I did look up the solution.  It turned out to be the sapphire ring, which is what I had suspected: it was the last unused item in my inventory, after all.  I'd tried wearing it and throwing it and waving it, and a bunch of other things, but the solution was to RUB RING.  This transformed me into a cat, and I leaped up and ate the bird.  (I really need to add rubbing items to my standard methods of testing them, it's been the solution to loads of puzzles.)

The gripping climax.

This seems pretty pointless, unless you know that the bird is actually the wizard Harlin in disguise.  The game certainly doesn't tell you this, and the only indication of it is that he stops showing up to zap you afterwards.  Regardless, this is the first game I've encountered where the hero wins via cannibalism.  I mean, it's presented as a cat eating a bird, but we know what's really going on here.  It also makes the backstory with Harlin reversing time after his defeat a bit odd.  Where's he doing that from, inside my stomach?

The only thing left to deal with was the frog, which in true fairytale fashion transformed back into the princess after I kissed it.  I have to say, though, that the graphics did a lot to obscure that this was the princess.  Scroll back up and take a look at it. That frog looks threatening, and when I first encountered it I was convinced it was an enemy.  I was actually mildly surprised that it ended up being the princess, which is hard to do with a "frog/princess" situation.

With the princess in tow, I used the magic word WHOOSH, and we returned to Serenia, where I won the game.  My reward was being declared a "junior-master adventurer"; I'll have to assume that I was given "half the kingdom" as promised off-screen.  Although, given that the kingdom is a hellscape of desert, rocks and scorpions, I'm not sure I really want it.

Some day son, half of this could be yours.

Having written all of that out, I'm still undecided on The Wizard and the Princess.  I'm glad I played it; it has historical significance, and serves as a sort-of prequel to the King's Quest series.  And to be honest, the middle portion was pretty enjoyable.  I made steady, constant progress through it, and that's where I like to be in an adventure game.  The ending has some issues, particularly the anticlimactic non-confrontation with Harlin.  I'm not sure how anyone would get to RUB RING except through trial-and-error.  Making it a lamp might have been a little obvious, but at least rubbing a lamp is something you might try in an adventure game.

The real problems with this game, though, are at the beginning.  When you end up having to create special documentation just for one puzzle, you know you've messed up somewhere.  It's impossible to get the numbers, but I'd love to know what percentage of the people who bought this game played it for half an hour and quit in disgust, never to return.  I suspect the number would be far, far higher than those who solved it on their own.

I guess I have to lump The Wizard and the Princess into the category of "flawed classic", but that flaw is pretty significant.  I'm interested to see where it ends up on the RADNESS Index, because I don't think I've yet had a game that's pretty good except for one terrible, almost game-breaking element.

(Normally I'd do a Ports of Call here, checking out some other versions of the game, but for Priority List games I've decided that I'll save this for when the game comes up in my chronological order. It's my sneaky way of allowing myself to play the classics more than once.)


Story & Setting:  The story is a standard "rescue the princess from the evil wizard" affair, but what's surprising to me is how little that's been done at this point in adventure game history.  In fact, going through the list of games I've played, this might be the very first one.  (Castle had a princess, but no wizard.) I have jumped ahead in the timeline, given that this is a priority list game, but I've only jumped by a year or so.  It's weird to think that this could be the first adventure game to use such a cliched plot as its basis.

The game's structure is also notable, in that it's a pretty linear progression through a series of dangers and obstacles.  This feels familiar to me from later Sierra games (King's Quest V in particular, which now strikes me as something of a remake of this game), but it's unusual in the context of what's gone before.  Most of the games earlier than this have been quite a bit more open, and it does give this game more of the feel of an epic quest.

It's hard to rate this too high, given the well-worn fairytale territory that it's drawing from, but I was surprised at how different it actually is from the games before it.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The characters in this game barely qualify as such.  In true early adventure game fashion, they're obstacles to be bypassed, not interacted with.  The wizard does seem to pop in and out to harass you in his castle, but those events are tied to certain locations, so he's not as dynamic as he first appears.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The addition of colour does elevate this game above the graphics of its predecessor, Mystery House, but the actual drawing of the scenes and characters is similarly crude.  The writing is also very rudimentary, and there's nothing in the way of sound effects or music.  Despite the improvements from Mystery House, I can't quite bring myself to give this a 3, so it's stuck on the same score.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Puzzles: For most of this game, the puzzles are simple and effective, even if some of them don't necessarily make sense.  On the basis of those I might have given this game a 3 in this category, but there's the whole desert maze/rock/scorpion ordeal to consider.  For that puzzle alone, I have to knock this game down by a whole point. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: The parser is simple, but it does its job, and I never had any problems with it.  The only mechanical element I can complain about in this game is the painful slowness of the screen drawing, but its hard to criticise something that was innovative at the time.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: As with Puzzles, this is a hard category to judge.  For most of the game, the challenge level is really well judged.  But for one puzzle, it's the opposite of that, and it's also the first thing that players have to tackle in the game.  The vast majority of those playing this game at the time would have been adventure game novices, and the desert maze is not a novice level challenge.  I'd have been more lenient if this puzzle came later in the game, but it loses an extra point for its extremely ill-judged placement.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Fun: Had I rated this after my first couple of fruitless sessions with the game, I'd have given this the lowest mark without hesitation.  Once I got over that point though, I found the game enjoyable, but unfortunately I have to take those first few hours into account.  If I hadn't been playing this for the blog, I never would have continued with it.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 1.  I'm giving this game a bonus point for historical significance, and its status as a precursor to King's Quest.

The above categories total 15, which doubled gives a score of 30.  Add the bonus point, and The Wizard and the Princess gets a RADNESS INDEX of 31.  Out of 55 games, that places it equal 24th, and in terms of adventure games it's equal 13th.  It scored three points higher than Mystery House, which feels about right.  For the most part its an improvement, and without the desert maze puzzle it would have scored around a 37.  This would have been enough to put it alongside Adventureland, up among the more enjoyable adventures I've played so far.  But alas, this game was dragged down by venomous scorpions, like so many of those who have tried to beat it.  A fitting result, I'd say.

NEXT: The next game on my list is Journey, a text adventure for the Apple II.  I know nothing about it, except that it's standing in the way of me playing the first Ultima.


  1. So good to see you back! I strongly dislike this game but your take nevertheless makes it interesting to read about it.

  2. "serves as a sort-of prequel to the King's Quest series"

    King Graham actually wanders through the deserts of Serenia in King's Quest 5, though I understand there are fewer scorpions that time around.

  3. Wait, did you not map the opening desert at all? (I didn’t have too tough a time of it but I immediately starting by mapping it all out. Definitely would cut if I was writing the game, though.)

    You can read my first post on Journey for background, it is spoiler-free.

    1. I did start by mapping the desert, or at least trying to. I don't think I quite fully managed it, though.