So, I Played A Version Of Thayer's Quest For Extra Life
For my contribution to the community streams during Giant Bomb's 2023 Extra Life charity drive, I developed a gimmick that I was confident would entertain the masses. My ploy was to take four games that were the subject of "classic" Giant Bomb Quick Looks or streams and determine if they were as bad as their reputations suggested. Thayer's Quest, Rogue Warrior, Bot Colony, and Roller Coaster Rampage were the four games in question. Of those games, Bot Colony was the most bizarre experience, and Thayer's Quest was the most significant surprise. In the case of Thayer's Quest, while I still feel Jeff, Vinny, Drew, and Patrick ended up reaching the correct conclusion, which is that Rick Dyer was high off his rocker and that his games represented an evolutionary dead-end, they also, at least in my opinion, did not paint a complete picture of what Thayer's Quest sought to accomplish or what Rick Dyer's underlying motivations were. I want to make clear that none of the staff engaged in journalistic malfeasance, nor do I think their perspectives as they experienced Rick Dyer's sales pitches on his creative vision are in and of themselves invalid. Jeff Gerstmann, in particular, has made clear that the people who worked in the realm of Laser Disc game development were not fun people to interact with and were bitterly resistant in heeding any criticism stemming from well-reported gameplay limitations to their products, and continually maintained that their direction was the "future" of video games. Luckily, that never came to be.
Nonetheless, Thayer's Quest is a game that exists in a category of its own, and what Unprofessional Fridays: 02/01/13 does not elaborate or convey properly is how it's not simply a Dragon's Lair clone. The game has incredibly complicated and intricate pathing and scripting and even has multi-step quests. Furthermore, as I played the game, I came to a startling conclusion. Thayer's Quest isn't that bad. Shocking, I know, but the fact the game is attempting so much more and is so creatively ambitious makes it a unique experience and a perfect manifestation of a single creator's mind. With the games of yesteryear and today primarily being works of compromise and internal negotiations between multiple figures with opposing ideals, games like Thayer's Quest, which provide an exacting snapshot into a single person's milieu and core design beliefs, are increasingly becoming a rarity. Was Rick Dyer building a video game analog to the Tower of Babel? Possibly, but no one can deny Thayer's Quest's ambition, and Dyer's eye for quality traditional animation is indisputable. Thayer's Quest is pretty, even if it displays in lower aspect ratios, and its gameplay structure is an interesting attempt at reforming common criticisms of Laser Disc-based arcade games.
I must fully disclose one disclaimer about my experience with Thayer's Quest. I didn't "play" Thayer's Quest. I played the repackaged home port of the game, spliced and remastered in 1995 by Interplay, a decade after the Halycon console failed to manifest. This game is called Kingdom: The Far Reaches, and it features re-dubbed voice lines, new animations, additional questlines, and a slightly modified mission structure from the original game you saw in Giant Bomb's UPF. This 1995 home port is legally available to purchase on GOG, which Digital Leisure touched up. Before anyone has my head or calls me out for not having the most "authentic" Thayer's Quest experience, rest assured, Rick Dyer assisted in the making of this 90s remaster. He even worked on the Interplay re-release to add more puzzles and interactive elements to ensure the game would better resemble a contemporary video game in the 90s. The odd thing is that when you play Kingdom: The Far Reaches, you can play the game as it was initially envisioned. To do that, you need to select "Apprentice Mode." While this easy mode still only provides you with a limited number of lives, it features a shorter experience lacking the additional animations, puzzles, and cutscenes added to the Interplay remaster. The "Wizard Mode" adds in that content, and while this has the consequence of providing even more opportunities for the game to end your playthrough at the drop of a hat, it's the version to play. In particular, including new scripting and missions is much appreciated when the original game devolved to Dragon's Lair quick-time events during its final act.
Thayer's Quest Is Lovingly And Intricately Made, And I Was Not Prepared For That
I mentioned earlier that one of the biggest misconceptions about Thayer's Quest that Giant Bomb's UPF perpetuates is that Thayer's Quest is a Dragon's Lair-like. That is to say that Thayer's Quest is just an animated movie with quick-time events spliced into it to create the illusion of gameplay. Now, there's no denying that Rick Dyer's priorities were with Thayer's Quest's animation, which, again, is good. I don't care if you think the game's hand-painted art looks rudimentary or overwhelmingly comical. I cannot help but get nostalgic looking at something traditionally animated on cells, and I could barely tell it was outputting at 12 to 15 frames per second. While there are not that many action scenes in the game, the ones that are here, when you successfully pull them off, are a delight to watch. Speaking of those action scenes, Thayer's Quest is far more generous about the timing when you need to pull off actions. While Dragon's Lair requires swift reflexes, which may pose problems for some, Thayer's Quest always provides an hourglass icon on the screen that communicates that you are about to die unless you try something new or different.
The game even has an inventory and magic system that is a step more complex than the combat in Dragon's Lair. Indeed, finding its spells and items in its environments can be a pain, but I was surprised to see the game challenge me to realize that its items were not permanent fixtures. You have to worry about managing limited-use items and need to go back to spawn points to pick things up a second or third time. On top of that, you can use items in non-story areas to find alternate scenes and animations, and there are a handful of scenarios where there is more than one correct solution to the same combat area. Finding alternate scenes and animations becomes a semi-side quest. However, you must be careful about that because some spells, like one that allows you to read ancient runes, have a finite number of in-game uses. You'll inadvertently screw yourself if you deviate too much from the game's main path and mess around in its periphery for too long. Again, there are light RPG hooks in Thayer's Quest that Giant Bomb's UPF does not relay at all, and when I encountered them, I was shocked.
Rick Dyer's works post-Dragon's Lair include Space Ace, Thayer's Quest, Time Traveler, and Kingdom II: Shadoan. When looking at that list, you might predict a theme with the gameplay traditions of his works. Thayer's Quest and its sequel, Kingdom II: Shadoan, which we will talk about, do not worry, my sweet summer child, only partially deviate from the then standard gameplay of Laser Disc arcade games. Most of your actions involve moving from one screen to the next and then progressing if you can quickly select the correct item or actions when there. There are a ton of screens and clickable objects that only exist to murder your character, and there's no more frustrating feeling than being stuck on a specific part or level because you forgot to pick up a sparkly trinket seven levels prior. Nonetheless, Thayer's Quest and its sequel were Rick Dyer's babies, and the one area where they deviate from the Laser Disc formula is scripting. Thayer's Quest's story and NPC scripting are INSANE! Vinny only messed around with the starting kingdom area. Still, the game features three distinct realms in its world, and Rick Dyer made sure that no stone or variable would be left unturned in his game that values animations and diverging outcomes over everything else. Don't believe me? Here's what the game's entire script looks like when you play it with 100% perfection!
Thayer's Quest is an animated movie at heart, but in practice, it is no different than most Mac and PC adventure games of the early 90s (i.e., Myst). It has branching paths, and instead of working on a linear structure like Dragon's Lair, you need to explore your surroundings as if you are playing an RPG. You need to perform fetch quests, and there are even optional NPC interactions to see depending on your actions in the story. The game employs an open-world format, as annoying as it may be in practice, that only some games sought to mimic at the time in terms of scale. You can do specific actions out of order to a certain extent, though certain questlines serve as gear checks. One of the more complicated questlines occurs moments before the game's final act, wherein you need to retrieve an angry god's missing goblet, and it is a timed mission with you needing to scour your surroundings to locate rest areas to restore Thayer's points of exhaustion so you can promptly use his fast travel spell. Also, the game has an exhaustion mechanic that seems lifted from tabletop RPGs. With spell burn and points of exhaustion, there's an element of strategy in how you explore your surroundings in Thayer's Quest that no other Laser Disc arcade game ever attempted. Seeing how much time and effort Dyer put into his passion project, as ill-fated and ill-conceived it may have been, was a marvel. He genuinely wanted this game to be in a class of its own, and in that regard, he succeeded.
I Now "Get" What Rick Dyer Was Going For During His Career, Even If I Disagree With Its Objectives
The world of Thayer's Quest is MASSIVE! Indeed, there were traditional CRPGs and JRPGs with comparable or larger worlds and backdrops. Still, none of those games needed to animate every part of those environments painstakingly with alternate death animations and fail states considered. And it is worth mentioning that Rick Dyer's team was overwhelmingly a collection of animators and artists. The trial-and-error gameplay that makes Dragon's Lair and Space Ace a complete pain can also be found in Thayer's Quest. However, Rick Dyer understood the need to make his style of Laser Disc game more accommodating for a general audience. A hint system initially spoke to you in a robotic voice to mimic the Halcyon console's voice system. Currently, when you do die, you get a narration from a master wizard who summarizes what your next steps should be in case you are lost. I undoubtedly wished Dragon's Lair and Space Ace had this addition!
Likewise, the amount of mythology and world-building injected into Thayer's Quest is another significant differentiator between it and Dragon's Lair. Thayer's Quest has a lore bible, and it also sports some long animation sequences where named characters or NPCs speak to you about their culture or society, and what they have to offer are sincere attempts at selling you on the promise of a world in progress. One of the first things Thayer's Quest says to you is that you are on a continent with dozens of kingdoms, all vying for supremacy. However, in the first game, you only experience three of those kingdoms and a different assortment when you play the sequel. Dyer had plans for this universe, which speaks to his efforts' sincerity. Dyer puts so much lore into Thayer's Quest that it is hard not to appreciate what he was aiming for in the game. Yes, it is primarily Tolkien-lite fantasy stuff, but the number of times the game sits your character down to talk about its world's machinations is far more than you would expect, which shows someone at some point genuinely cared about this world.
At the risk of sounding like someone who has drunk the Kool-Aid, I don't think Rick Dyer is a bad guy. Rick Dyer got high on his supply after making gobs of money on Dragon's Lair, Space Ace, and even Time Traveler and thought he was sitting on a throne made of gold. There's no denying that his home console, the Halcyon, priced at two thousand dollars in 1985, was a folly. Nonetheless, after playing Thayer's Quest and its sequel, I don't agree with the notion that Jeff Gerstmann and others have posited that Rick Dyer was a huckster or inhabited the industry as a bad-faith actor. He went for it with Kingdom II: Shadoan, and you don't do that when you are in it for the money alone. If Dyer were running a Ponzi scheme or selling snake oil, he would have punched out after striking it rich with Sega following the release of Time Traveler. Instead, he proved that he genuinely loved what he was making and wanted to keep going. It's also important to note what Dyer did when his company went bankrupt. When the industry changed and turned its back on Laser Disc arcade games, he did what was suitable for his family by leaving game development and starting a real estate agency.
Rick Dyer Made A Sequel To Thayer's Quest, And It's Even Crazier In Scope And Production Values
Before I started my charity stream, I found out about Kingdom II: Shadoan, the sequel to Thayer's Quest, and immediately called bullshit on a few of Dyer's claims about its production. Dyer, still to this day, maintains that he spent over 3 million US dollars to make the game and employed 300 animators to work on it. The game was released in 1996, one year after Thayer's Quest's home release, which briefly revived Dyer's development fortunes. I am still determining exactly where the $3 million came from to bankroll Kingdom II: Shadoan. Still, as I played it, I went from being highly skeptical of Dyer's claims of the number of animators he employed to wholly convinced he isn't lying. Rick Dyer honestly shoots for the stars with Kingdom II: Shadoan. While it likely bankrupted his company and ultimately failed to move the needle on the fortunes of the Laser Disc arcade niche, it's still an incredible thing to look at and read up on as a historical piece.
After almost a half dozen games, Dyer's team FINALLY made one that has an interface that doesn't suck complete crap. On top of that, in a stunning act that likely only made sense in the head of Dyer, every item in your inventory has a unique animation that plays out fluidly every time you use them. It is a design decision so exorbitant and excessive that it is the textbook definition of a man flexing. Also, of his many disparate works, this is the one that feels like a traditional home console or PC graphic adventure game the most. The premise is simple: the evil goblin wizard from the first game is back and destroys a magical amulet into pieces, and your protagonist needs to track down these pieces before putting them together to prevent an ultimate evil from ruining life as you know it. It is not a novel or exciting premise. Luckily, the NPCs and characters you come across do a lot to carry the experience, and with each of them being fluidly animated and decked out in intricately-colored garb, you want to meet as many people as possible. As before, your cue for when you can participate in the game's cinematics is when the action suddenly stops, and an hourglass appears on the lower portion of the screen. The cinematic continues if you have the item to deal with your challenge. If not, you see one of the game's MANY death animations.
Similar to Thayer's Quest, the game starts out presenting an open world, but ultimately, when quests start to pop off, you need to follow a mainline path that opts you into quest items and trinkets that allow your character to progress through death-dealing gear checks. In fact, I would hazard to say that Kingdom II is more linear than Thayer's Quest's console and PC port. At least with Thayer's Quest, you can do things out of order or even explore nonviolent screens for ten minutes before you feel like you get railroaded down its main path. The structure of Kingdom II involves the collection of MacGuffins. Unfortunately, this isn't Mega Man in that there's a "correct" sequence of events, but you can still approach things in whatever order you see fit. In Kingdom II, you need the Dagger of Arnes to uncover items and clues that provide the location of the Crown of Malric. The good news is that Kingdom II improves the exhaustion system in Thayer's Quest and offers ample opportunities for your character to rest, restore lost health points, and engage with NPCs without fear of reprisal.
All that aside, the scope of Kingdom II is absurd when you consider every part of it was animated by hand and without the assistance of digital paint. Dyer was a stickler for doing things like it was the 1970s, and while he updated the look of his art to try and keep things "hip," his techniques stayed in place. Even by 1996's animation standards, that was an ill-advised decision but not unheard of. Nonetheless, you end up with a game that looks and animates, unlike anything you have ever seen, with an attention to detail that will never be matched. No Kickstarter is trying to fund an homage to this slice of Laser Disc game that will promise to hire 300 animators. No one is burning three million to make a traditionally animated Dragon's Lair-like, especially on the indie scene. And the excesses of Kingdom II make it worthy of a cursory examination. Disney adults have been furthering a revisionist movement to reframe the 1970 to 1988 era as not warranting its usual "Dark Ages" label. I have seen no less than two forty-plus minute video essays in my YouTube feed claiming to have a thesis on why The Black Cauldron isn't bad. If such a creative rut is determined by a vocal minority needing a second look, I cannot help but wonder if the same cannot be afforded to Laser Disc arcade games. Contrary to what Gerstmann sometimes claims about this evolutionary dead end in games, it wasn't that harmful to the industry and, in fact, injected a wave of animators and artists into the industry, which inevitably improved production values across the board.
Regardless, None Of These Are "Good" Games
So, this blog obviously has to end with me imploring all of you to buy Kingdom: The Far Reaches on GOG, right? Well, not really. Thayer's Quest and Kingdom II are not fun to play. Both games still rely heavily on punishing gear checks, often leaving you bewildered when you think you have a logical solution to a problem or puzzle, and the game seemingly disagrees. Some solutions and scenes you encounter have vague hints and context clues, whereas others are about as direct as a freight train. The average "puzzle" in both games barely warrants being called as such because they almost always amount to clicking on something in your inventory and letting the game do the rest of the heavy lifting. The results are even more annoying and frustrating when the game tries to increase its complexity. I mentioned the final questline in Thayer's Quest, a multi-step adventure wherein you must retrieve an item but have limited resources to spend to reach where you need to go. This mission took me multiple tries because the timing is punishing, and its exhaustion mechanic only allows for one use of spells before you need to rest. Unfortunately, there are only two rest areas in the entire game. And that's still only a possible task to complete if you have scrolls of spells you did not waste to get optional scenes. You can soft-lock yourself into a failed scenario, and the game doesn't warn you even the slightest bit.
Also, the repetition with each game is soul-crushing, which you even notice during Giant Bomb's UPF coverage. Meeting people the first or second time is fine, but hearing them drone the same lines the third or fourth time is incredibly aggravating. What's worse is that you need to engage with backtracking to complete these games because almost everything in your inventory has a limited number of uses. For example, you need to meet with the evil king who usurped the throne of a kingdom, and before you retrieve the sword necessary to beat him, you must give him coins to avoid him killing you. Those coins are one-time-use items, and three screens from where you use them. Worse, you need to use a secret passage next to the evil king at least twice and, as a result, need to remember to have a handful of coins to give to him each time. The overworld is incredibly frustrating to use, especially when you are attempting to get to locations quickly. For whatever reason, even when you see a new location to hop to, you can only move to adjacent tiles or screens from your starting position, which means you end up seeing the entering and exiting animations for every level way more than you would like which leads to one of the reasons why this game feels like it is packed to the gills with filler.
And both games revel in killing you when you least expect it. It's immensely worse with Thayer's Quest, as there are at least a dozen screens that only exist to kill you. Yes, seeing the weird and wacky death animations is part of these games' appeal, but both of them giving you a limited number of lives makes their penchant for murdering you all the more frustrating. Additionally, Kingdom II has a weird downside that is specific to it. In an attempt to maximize the game's possible audience, Dyer aimed Kingdom II for kids. That means the comical and graphic death animations that made Dragon's Lair, Space Ace, and even Thayer's Quest entertaining are more limited and far tamer than ever in Kingdom II. Dyer's attempts at emulating RPG-like questlines are far from perfect as well. One of the most significant shortcomings stems from his games relying on one-off cutscenes to communicate crucial information on what players must do next. A notorious example occurs when you enter a crystal palace and touch a magical orb, which relays in a riddle how to find a safe passage to the game's second kingdom. You have about fifteen seconds to write that riddle down, and interacting with the orb a second or third time does nothing. There's another time when you need to defeat a trio of elementals, and when you leave the battle site and return a second time, a corpse directs you to where you can find the angry god in the clouds for the penultimate quest. That cutscene is also non-repeatable and utterly missable if you don't know what you are doing. These are all incredibly difficult to process faults if you decide to have Thayer's Quest or Kingdom II as your first Laser Disc game rodeo.
And yet, even with these quibbles in mind, I still do not hate Rick Dyer the way others might. To every one of you reading this right now with even a slight interest in entering game development, I see very little to fault Dyer for doing. The man struck the iron when it was hot and overstayed his welcome before finally getting the hint that the market wasn't interested. No matter what, he did something everyone who works, even tangentially in the game industry, hopes to do at least once: he made the game of his dreams. No one is ranking Dyer as a "legend" in the history of game development, but I have to give him some points for maximizing the "happiness factor" during his time making video games. If you are someone like Dyer, who only wants to make one type of game and you are not interested in compromising, I think being able to shoot your shot at least once is enough to be happy, and in Dyer's case, he got to follow his dreams twice. Maybe there was a time when he was guilty of being permanently unsatisfied with his station, but when has that ever been a Cardinal sin?
Shit, be happy, right? Have any of you had that feeling where you are working your ass off, and someone finally noticed and said something nice about it, and that felt good? I have! Seeing Dyer give it one last go and essentially say, "Well, shit. I guess that's it. There's more to life than making video games," is maybe the most relatable thing I have discovered this year. I don't know what I want from my video game figureheads, but parts of Dyer's career could be a model for others. Dyer isn't suffering because of what he's not. He did what he promised he would do with everything he touched, maximized his happiness, and then left. And when I look at that, I cannot but respect him for it.