Sierra adventure games had many flaws – the unpredictable parser that required instructions to be written ‘just so’, the unexpected and seemingly unavoidable deaths, the genuinely insane puzzle logic and not to mention the fact that it was frequently possible to die on the very last screen of the game because you forgot to pick up some innocuous-looking item right at the start of the game.
Despite all of this, they will always hold a special place in my gaming history. Police Quest was one of the first games I remember playing with my brother on an Atari ST, where with no walk-throughs and only a very basic of police procedures and the American justice system, we spent hours patrolling the streets of Lytton only occasionally stopping to look up what a 10-89 was, who Miranda was and just why she had so many rights.
I didn’t play Space Quest until much later in life. To my personal disgrace I am still yet to play through the King’s Quest series, and to further my disgrace I have played and completed Leisure Suit Larry. These games all had one thing in common. Well no, admittedly they had many things in common given that they shared a game engine, but they all had one thing in common that really, really annoyed me. Freelance writer Richard Cobbett described them as ‘the greatest enemy in all of Sierra gaming’, and I used to describe them by a choice selection of words that should probably never appear in print.
Players of first-person shooters will be completely flummoxed by the idea that stairs could be an annoyance. RPG fans will be wrinkling their heads in confusion, RTS fans will probably ask what stairs are, but any real adventure game fan familiar with Sierra adventures will probably now be going white as a sheet and experiencing horrific flashbacks. In an engine where movement was limited to 45 degree directions, background artists insisted on designing narrow, precarious stairwells that wound terrifyingly through their scenes. Stray too close to the edge and as with pretty much anything in a Sierra adventure you’d be dead faster than Sonny Bonds taking his clothes off in the middle of a police briefing.
Stair Quest is No More For Today Production’s salute to the great Sierra challenge of ‘just get to the top of a bloody flight of stairs without falling to your death.’ As famine, war, disease, and natural disaster wreck havoc upon the realm of Castle’s Wood, King Jonathan dispatches his bravest knight to obtain the ‘Orb of Stars,’ a legendary relic of great power that just so happens to rest at the very top of a ridiculous number of stairs. You take the role of a heroic knight or the King’s daughter and go forth, (or up as the case may be), to reach the Orb and save the kingdom.
Using the cumbersome and impossibly limiting Sierra control system of keyboard cursor movement, you must slowly, agonisingly slowly work your way up the stairs. Move a bit, (save) move a bit more, (save again) a bit furth…then fall to your death. If you think for a second you’ve got the hang of it and relax for a moment, your next step will send you careening back down the mountain to an inevitably squishy and painful end.
You will fail. You will fail again and again and again. You will fail so many times that you will think Dark Souls is a cheerful holiday spent at Butlins in comparison, and you will learn to hate the tumbling animation that accompanies your every failure.
Eventually, after a long and perilous climb (and a huge amount of save-scumming), you’ll somehow reach the summit of the mountain and the Orb itself. I won’t spoil what happens once you get there, but let me assure you that it’ll change forever your thoughts about those stairs and the time you spent climbing them.
I’d like to say my time with Stair Quest changed my opinion of stairs in classic adventure games. I’d like to say that I learned to appreciate their vital role in adventures, treasured my time on each and every one of them and savoured my journey upwards.
It didn’t. I fucking hate them.