The Wizard and the Princess Review: A Portal Into Our Child Mind

The Wizard and the Princess is only the second graphic adventure game produced by the genre's creators, Roberta and Ken Williams, and their nascent company, Sierra On-Line.  In my eight-part playthrough fiction of the game, I presented a tongue-in-cheek reimagining of the protagonist's experiences, but don't be fooled by his sarcastic commentary -- I really enjoyed my time in Serenia.

Compared to its predecessor, Mystery House, the interface is actually rather friendly, and the story evolves organically.  I seldom found myself struggling to communicate with the game's parser, which is a credit to the developers considering the limitations of the hardware they were working with.  The graphics are still very crude, even child-like, but whereas the premise and tone of Mystery House clash with this graphical style, The Wizard and the Princess thrives on it.  In fact, at times, it feels as if the story were stripped right from a child’s daydreams.  Homages to fairy tales and children’s fantasy stories abound, including but not limited to “Snow White”, “The Princess and the Frog”, "Rapunzel", and The Wizard of Oz.

The logic of the game is idiosyncratic, what with its omnivorous lions and daft pirates, but again, these elements fuse gracefully with the game’s aesthetic.  It stands to reason that reason, at least the standard variety, would take a back seat in a fantasy story.  I certainly could quibble with the choice to start the game by having the player scour a desert full of identical-looking rocks, but aside from this, was surprised to find that I could complete the game without consulting a walkthrough.

By modern standards, the game is actually quite cruel to the player.  There are many instances where the wrong decision will immediately render the game unwinnable; most notably, the traveling salesman forces you to choose between items without any hint as to which one will be needed to finish the game.  You are allowed to save or restore your game at any point, however, so compared to the time I spent trying to unravel some of the game's puzzles, this was a very minor inconvenience.  Besides, this seems to me to be a perfectly valid design choice.  If anything, unraveling the complete story from a collection of alternate realities is more likely to stimulate my imagination than artificially preventing certain actions for the sake of the player's convenience.

Just be sure to save often.

Nobody is going to confuse The Wizard and the Princess for great art, but neither do I think we should dismiss it as an artifact or mere stepping stone.  The surrealist fantasy style that would end up as a hallmark of the King's Quest series is clearly being developed here, and there is evidence of Roberta beginning to find her artistic voice.  There are still a lot of gaps to fill -- quite literally in the case of the scene design -- but if you're prepared to use your imagination, the dreamland is there for the entering.


  1. This was easily my favorite of Sierra's high-res adventures. I didn't mind the traveling salesman part too much, simply because if you choose wrong, you'll get stuck not a minute later. Later King's Quests could be so much crueler, like how King's Quest IV has so many situations where there's only one chance to get a crucial item, but miss it and you could keep playing for hours without getting to the point where you need it.

    Where you playing the Apple II version? I remember the game being more vibrant.

    Can you actually HISS your way out of the dungeon cell like that? I assumed all you could do was load a save file. And how did you figure out how to defeat Harlin?

    1. I was playing the DOS version, unfortunately, and only realized about halfway into the blog entries that the Apple II version looked nicer. Also in retrospect, I probably would have applied a blur to the images like Digital Antiquarian did, to reproduce the dithering effect.

      You *can* hiss your way out of the dungeon. I didn't do that in my original playthrough, but couldn't resist including it when I found out.

      As for Harlin, that was one case where my fictionalized character did exactly the same as me -- I used process of elimination to figure out I needed to use the ring, then just plain trial and error on what to do to it. I was really stubborn about not using a walkthrough on this one, probably in part because I was enjoying the game world so much and didn't want to break from it. There were several spots where I had mull it over for a day or more before continuing and unlike in Mystery House, those eventual "Eureka!" moments were actually satisfying.

    2. I suspect Digital Antiquarian's blurred images aren't actually a good representation of what real hardware would have looked like. I only ever used Apple IIe color monitors, but you could see all those dots just fine on them. Current versions of AppleWin have built-in support for NTSC and Color TV filters, and the latter mode blends alternating vertical lines like a boss, but checkerboard patterns are just softened a bit, and not really blended away. Neither mode looks very much like Digital Antiquarian's shots, though.

      There's an interesting discussion on github concerning these modes, and though I didn't understand everything everyone was talking about, I feel confident that the AppleWin devs know what they're doing, and are valuing authenticity.

      Even then, authenticity isn't a straightforward thing, as there are so many variables in how a monitor or TV displays stuff. Dithering will look different depending on whether the screen has a comb filter or not, for instance, and accurate color emulation is always a thorny issue when the system doesn't use RGB values at any part of the display chain.

    3. Interesting. My main concern with "authenticity" is just trying to approximate what the developer intended, but it sounds like that's ambiguous in this case. If the dots were intended to be visible, it's certainly an odd aesthetic choice.

    4. I found this video of DHR mode graphics running on a real Apple IIe composite monitor, showing that the dithering is still plenty visible:

      In contrast, it's well known that Genesis games relied on dithering and NTSC color smearing to simulate transparencies and high color effects, and the effect is fairly reliable but not perfect. But Genesis is running at a much higher resolution and color depth than the Apple II even with DHR mode, and the composite video is infamously terrible.

      So I think these Sierra games would have had visible dithering on a composite monitor, but the intent may have been more to fool the eye into seeing extra colors than to hack the monitor into blending them.

  2. I found Wizard and the Princess to have much smoother gameplay than the vast majority of 1980.

    Are the animations are all yours, or are some of them part of the DOS version?

    Also, do you have a list of which adventure games you're tackling, or is the choice being done on the fly?

    1. The animations are all using images from the game, but any motion of game elements or changes in perspective are added by me in post-processing. The DOS version only shows still images and plays very similarly to the Apple II version.

      As for which games I'm going to cover, I do have a list, but I'm still not sure how many of them I'm going to fictionalize. In many cases, I'll probably just do reviews. Truth be told, I usually only have a rough idea of what my next entry will be about, let alone anything beyond that.


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