Review by Scott Stilphen
Digital Leisure finally brings the Thayer’s Quest arcade experience home… well, almost.
Thayer’s Quest was Rick Dyer’s follow-up to his first forays into laserdisc-based games, Dragon’s Lairs and Space Ace. The huge success of Dragon’s Lair ($30 million in sales in 40 days) allowed him to push the concept of his new creation, which resulted in the creation of a home-based laserdisc system, the Halcyon. Dyer invested heavily into making the Halcyon a reality (he reportedly paid Robert Best six figures for the license to use speech recognition and speech synthesis in a game) and assembled a team of programmers, engineers, and animators to create what was to be the system’s flagship title. From the start, TQ was designed to be a much more interactive and non-linear experience than its predecessors; Dyer estimated it would take a player 20 hours a week for 6 months to explore everything in the game! The Halcyon version was a double-sided laserdisc which contained the first 3 of 5 Kingdoms (Weigard, Illes, and Iscar). However, when RDI saw that the Halcyon system wasn't going to get off the ground (no doubt mainly due to its stratospheric price tag, as a complete system would have set you back about $2,500!), they decided to salvage what they had at that point and make the game into a conversion kit for Dragon's Lair machines. This meant cutting animation - albeit mostly related to back-story - in order to fit the game onto one single-sided disc (dual-sided LD players were either unavailable or too costly). The arcade version was released in 1984 but instead of typical joystick and steering wheel controls, it used a custom membrane-type keyboard, as it was originally designed to. The fact that it wasn’t a reflex-type game didn’t help its popularity either. It soon tanked, and thus the final 2 Kingdoms (The Far Reaches and Shadoan) were never created. Despite this, home versions would eventually follow.
In the mid-90s, Interplay released the first for several platforms (3DO, CD-I, Macintosh, and both DOS and Windows PC versions). Renamed Kingdom – The Far Reaches, it used the actual arcade footage (the 3DO and CD-I versions used the Halcyon disc), but unfortunately both the audio and video were altered/changed to reflect Dyer’s new vision for TQ (check out http://www.quandaryland.com/jsp/dispArticle.jsp?index=38 for a review of this version). A quick glance at the box’s artwork shows but a few of the major changes. Likewise, the gameplay was reconstructed to be less of a “quarter-eating” game to one more suitable for the home. Not only that, even though it’s called “Far Reaches”, it didn’t contain the last 2 kingdoms, and thus still didn’t have a true ending.
Enter Digital Leisure. Best known for its home DVD-video versions of Dragon’s Lair, Space Ace, and many other laserdisc games, DL announced last May what many TQ fans have been waiting to hear – a home version was planned for release, and with help from some Dragon’s Lair Project staff members no less! But wait a minute you say, didn’t DL already release their own home version just a few years earlier? Actually they released 2 of them: Reaches and Shadoan. Reaches is similar to the previous 3DO and CD-I “Kingdom” versions, whereas Shadoan was Dyer’s “re-imagined” version of the 2 missing kingdoms. Up until now, the only choice players had to experience the original game at home was to either get an arcade machine (which are hard to find, and usually quite expensive), get a Halcyon system (you’d have a better chance of winning the Powerball lottery), or use the Daphne laserdisc emulator on your PC (your only realistic option, but setting up the program can prove too frustrating for some). So when DL stated the new version would not include Shadoan, and with Reaches being discontinued prior to the announcement (why Shadoan wasn’t will become clear), it appeared they planned on giving fans the authentic arcade version they wanted. DL’s follow-up press release shortly before its release (found online at: http://www.digitalleisure.com/pr/pr051122.html) states that players would “control Thayer as he journeys through the Five Kingdoms” and that this new version "brings home TQ's unique arcade experience for the first time ever”. At last the game would be completed as originally intended!
Not so fast. Note that at the end of this release, it states "re-developed by Digital Leisure". I’ll explain what that means in a moment, but first let’s get into the game itself.
The game’s packaging is very-well done, and the manual gives a brief overview of the storyline (minor typo here – “Far Reaches” is misspelled as “Far Reeches”), along with instructions on how to play it. The description on the back of the case however makes it clear that this is only a 3-kingdom affair. Yes, DL was mistaken – the final 2 kingdoms are still MIA (the error is still online at this time, even though they were made aware of it last December…). The good news is there are several special features that are included on the DVD (many of which can also be found on www.dragons-lair-project.com site). Some of extras are:
○ Nearly 10 minutes worth of a wonderful text-with-audio recount of the background story to Thayer’s Quest, titled “Written History”, which was on the original Halcyon version (and is actually called “A History of the Five Kingdoms)
○ History of Thayer’s Quest, which is several text-only pages of information (and thus should have been called “Written History” – possibly a title mix-up with the two history pieces?)
○ A map of the 5 Kingdoms, with the option to zoom in on any part of it (very nice!)
○ A Halcyon section with trailers for 4 unreleased games, and a video archive with news footage of Rick Dyer at RDI (including a promo clip for the Halcyon)
○ 2 image galleries – one with Thayer’s Quest-related items, and the other for Halcyon
○ A song DL created for the DVD now being referred to as the “Nigel rap” (those familiar with the song, “He’s My Guy”, from the Dragon’s Lair DVD will agree this is one extra you can do without)
Footage of early sketches and character designs can be found in the Halcyon video archive
The game itself features a wonderful new interface that happily does away with the awkward keyboard interface of the original. If Dyer had used a similar approach from the start, the game might have appealed to a wider audience. Aside from being in MPEG2 quality, the footage also benefits from improved brightness and color saturation, as noted in the comparison screenshots below:
On the left is a screenshot from the original laserdisc, while the identical scene from the DVD is on the right.
There are 2 different modes available for players, “Home” and “Arcade”. The arcade mode is what the name implies - you have 5 lives in which to solve the game, and thieves and magicians can steal objects from you. The home mode gives you unlimited lives and your objects can’t be stolen. Note however, you can be wounded during the game in both, which limits the number of objects you can carry.
After a few plays, experienced TQ players will note that the scene layout and choices for each scene have been changed to a certain degree (this would be the “re-developed” bit). Some of these changes relate to the missing Halcyon footage being added back in (ex. there are more choices in parts of Illes and Iscar). Now, the original game was far from perfect, and some of its logic flaws were awful. For example, you have to use the Cold Fire on the three Elementals that the Black Magician creates (getting wounded in the process) to order to reach the Temple. Most players got stuck at this point because it didn’t make any sense to get wounded. The Halcyon version has a similar problem with getting the Sea Dwellers to appear with the Chalice. Another example is a direct result of the game not being completed. In both the Halcyon and arcade versions, you faced Sorsabal after you crossed the bridge, instead of in the Temple of Cibar catacombs. Tacking on this last-minute ending destroyed the plot-point and logic of needing the Black Mace in Illes, allowing relics to be obtained out of chronological order. The conversion to arcade format created its share of problems. The Empty Crystal Room uses the same video as the Crystal Room that had the Black Mace in it after you had taken it. It’s a different room in the Castle, although it’s supposed to be the same (a lot of problems occur when moving through the castle). There are places in Iscar that you are told to look for a tapestry in the Palace of Iscar, and also to talk to someone in the Palace that is the rightful Ruler of Iscar, but the related footage was cut and the Spell of Seeing was instead used to make the Fairies appear in the Forest (this is an incorrect action on the Halcyon version, as the dialogue indicates). With the Tapestry scene cut, the arcade version only used 1 of the 3 spells in its proper place! The scene showing Thayer throwing a sword at Torlok was also removed, although it still appeared in the attract mode.
The picture on the left *should* have been the last scene players saw in the Halcyon and arcade versions. Instead, crossing the bridge actually dropped you into the catacombs underneath the Temple of Cibar to face Sorsabal.
The DLP team set out to correct these problems and restore the game as originally intended, using the existing animation and audio as their guide (although Rick Dyer is listed in the credits, he had no involvement in this process), while being careful to avoid making any visual changes. The last thing they wanted was yet another “re-design”, even when the opportunity to correct an oversight in the original animation presented itself.
The biggest problem I had was remembering how to find all the objects, and which ones were available for you to take. Often you'll run into a character that’s carrying an object. If they don’t offer it to you, you can still take it, but you might be killed for doing so. The DVD takes some of the guesswork out by the fact that if an object can be taken, it can be highlighted with the interface. Thankfully the team tried to make use of as many objects as possible. Even with all their efforts, there were a few problems confronting them that offered no solution. The Crystal won’t return to the Marsh Wastelands if it’s stolen, but it will if dropped or lost at the Black Keep. Even so, you can’t get it again because the spell needed to release it was already used, and plus the game will branch you around the option to choose all the different paths (oddly enough, an alternate audio track does exist for the missing Crystal scene). Just as it is in the original versions, it's possible to do things that make it impossible to finish the game. TQ was designed around that fact, and since other objects return if they’re dropped, the team left that way. You might wonder, do any of the objects and their placement in the game make much sense, logically? Yes and no. Some objects are required for a specific task, with a few having secondary uses that aren't. For example, you’re given 3 spells to use throughout the game. You can only use each spell once, and some of them can be used in more than one situation, but one of the spells is not needed anywhere. There’s a scene on both original LD showing Thayer using *two* scrolls at once on the Familiars that the DLP team had to leave out. The original programmers never figured out how to use it either and it was never used. One thing that was unintentionally left out was an alternate audio track in the Palace scene with Alita in the Thrown room (Alita] Thayer, when you complete your quest, you are welcome to return to Iscar and become its king, if you wish. [Thayer] I am honored. I will be back, Alita.). Here’s some of the other changes that were made:
○ Modified so that play is no longer based on time/money
○ Names of places were changed to match the original TQ map
○ As many ‘path’ names as possible were removed to make moving around easier
○ All of the confusing random screen selections created for the arcade version were removed
○ The Black Magician can randomly ambush you in the Forest, until you clear a specific path
○ The Foggy Path will be there, until a path is cleared for you in some way.
○ The Sands near the Moving Dunes is also a random occurrence in the Desert in Illes.
○ The Dryads audio was altered to fit the Castle door names and what they do in the Crystal Castle.
○ The Wood door in the Castle was removed and a Crystal door was added.
○ The spell of Seeing now has a purpose in the Palace.
○ Access to the Black Keep can only be done from within the Palace.
○ The Silver Wheat is no longer hidden, as it was in the arcade version
○ You can use 4 different items on Sorsabal in the Catacombs, all with varying results. This footage is being shown for the first time in the Temple of Cibar, where it belongs.
As luck would have it, a new set of problems now exist with the move to DVD, as there are incompatibility issues with some stand-alone DVD players, as well as some programming issues. Pausing the game when a menu is onscreen often creates problems. For example, if the game is paused when you first get to Illes, ‘Shimmering Oasis’ will automatically be selected when you resume play. Pausing/resuming at the Oasis scene will cause you to display the Scepter (whether or not you have it). The same thing happens when you first arrive at Cloud Keep; when you resume, you’ll hand over the chalice (which is impossible to have at that point). Similarly, going into your inventory screen and then exiting out may warp you to a different area. If this is done when you reach the Dunes People’s Feast, you’ll be transported to the Inner Sanctum (note that pausing/resuming the game at this point will take you back). If you try the inventory/exit trick when you first enter the Inner Sanctum, you’ll appear before the Dunes People and offer them the Onyx Seal. A more serious problem is that the game may suddenly reset back to main menu. It usually happens right after you’ve been killed, but sometimes it happens simply moving from one scene to the next. At least one specific action is known to reset the game - if you lose/drop the Crystal and try to use the Talisman Scepter to free it from the rocks. A similar problem happens with PS2 machines if you try to use an item on a screen that requires a different item (or no item) and you then click on ‘return’ or ‘continue’. Another set of commands will completely lock the game up (start a game on arcade version, and enter Village of Glendoe, Outskirts, Timberland, Marsh Wastes, Misty Path, and then go to your inventory bag). I tried this on 3 different stand-along players, as well as 2 different PC drives, and this crashed all 5. Clearly the programmers didn’t intend for players to stray too far from the list of intended correct choices.
What this means is, for fans looking for the exact same arcade experience (as promised), you’re going to be disappointed to some degree. Personally, I love the new interface. I wish something similar was done with the arcade version (it probably would have been a successful game, as I'm sure many players were turned off by having to use a keyboard). And I can appreciate and understand why most of the changes were done; however, it's different enough from the arcade that you can’t say it’s the same. Some have complained that none of the available home versions have attempted to include the Halcyon’s voice talkback feature. Whether or not that feature added much to the game (if anything) is of personal opinion, and although it would have been impossible to do so with the DVD version, a reasonable facsimile of it could have been implemented with the forth-coming CD-ROM version (though DL has no plans to do so).
For all its logic flaws and sloppy programming, the arcade version was still fun to play (and damn cool for the time); if it wasn't, there would not be enough interest for companies like DL to justify making home versions. I give credit to DL for making TQ and other LD games available to a new audience, but at the same time their marketing for them can be a bit misleading (which brings us back to their press releases). DL shouldn't be surprised if they get an angry letter from customers who ordered the game and played through 3/5ths of it, only to see an ad pop up telling him to buy *another* game in order to complete it. That approach isn’t going to win any new fans over, especially when the game they’re being told to buy (Shadoan) has little in common with this one. If their aim is to bring the arcade experience home, they should use the existing fan base and all their knowledge and experience and be open to their suggestions. Who knows, if enough people speak up maybe DL will come out with 'special editions' (i.e. fixed versions) of their games in the future. After all, it’s done with movies all the time! Overall, the DVD is a better, more complete experience than the arcade game ever was, but if you’re looking for a more faithful arcade version, the Daphne emulator is want you want. Now if only DL can be more faithful with its advertising, and hopefully give owners an updated version that’s bug-free. Until then, I suppose we can overlook this version’s flaws and enjoy it for what it is – a worthy effort to restore Dyer’s original vision of what Thayer’s Quest was meant to be.
As for the lost ending, the investor who bought Halcyon’s remaining assets from their bankruptcy liquidation sale later hired an attorney to help unravel the rights issues (although he bought physical items, it’s unclear whether or not he bought Halcyon’s IP assets). The attorney ended up purchasing everything the investor had about 5 years ago for the sole purpose of preserving what remained. Here’s what he had to say about it:
“I'm sure there is some stuff that was never put on the home or arcade laserdisc. I can state with certainty, however, that the animation for the rest of the game never got close to completion. There was a completed script and lots of concept stuff, but looking at the corporate documents, the animation department was laid off before this work could be completed. I have all the check discs for TQ and they are identical to the released versions. At some point I will make all these assets available to whoever wants to look at them.”
So there you have it. Although it’s possible (given the remaining TQ materials) to reconstruct how the final 2 kingdoms would have looked and played, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever be created. Which means Sorsabal will remain undefeated. I thought good always triumphed over evil at the end?
COMMENTS? Post them HERE
Return to Digital Press Home