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Stairs in Stair Quest Ranked

Stair Quest is a parody game that pays homage to all those memorable climbs in old Sierra games. It’s by No More For Today and if you haven’t played it, I really do recommend that you do. If you have any memory of Sierra games, you probably also have memory of at least one staircase (or beanstalk!). Stair Quest is a pretty quick game that you can play through in one sitting, and that’s part of its appeal. It’s also just plain fun. (get it here)

The first thing I did, of course, when playing this game was look at the manual. The manual is a beautiful execution of the genre of 1980s adventure game manuals (especially those in the fantasy genre). It’s beautiful—and fun to read—but ultimately not terribly useful for playing the game because the game’s mechanic is just so simple. Still, check out the manual first.

So, below I will evaluate each stair in Stair Quest in order. There’s a lot of spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t played yet and care about spoilers, go play it first (it’s short; I’ll wait). I’m going to rate each stair on two qualities, which plenty of research in game studies has shown to be related but not correlational variables: Fun and Difficulty. (For a good quick read on why we enjoy difficult things, I recommend Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure). I’ve also got some commentary on each staircase.

1. Volcano

This is the first room the player encounters after choosing whether to play as a knight or a princess in a character selection screen reminiscent of Quest for Glory with avatar options reminiscent of Mixed of Mother Goose (I’m using the knight for my screenshots, because I forgot to get screenshots on my first playthrough with the princess).

My first thought, because the Sierra series I know best is King’s Quest, was naturally the mountain in King’s Quest III: To Heir Is Human, but I don’t think that was the right association in retrospect. These stairs are pretty easy, and the menacing mountain landscape communicates the mechanic of the game immediately (climb the stairs, go through the door, try not to fall off the stairs because that is death). It sets the AGI style excellently, too. But it’s not terribly memorable beyond being the first staircase.

Fun: Medium
Difficulty: Easy

2. The Plaque

I love the art in this staircase! It’s just a very pleasing balance with the two sweeping curved staircases in a nice, organic helix, and a striking color scheme. And the staircases generally point to the most entertaining part of this stage: the plaque. If you weren’t sure before that this game was an homage, the plaque makes it clear, with Space Quest like literalism and humor, and overt reference to the Williamses. As far as difficulty, this is another slow ball, which lets you just enjoy the nostalgia and art.

Fun: Medium high
Difficulty: Easy

3. Red Cave

This staircase is the bane of my existence. It’s reminiscent of the many gem-filled caves you’ll find in Sierra games, which the “Look” response will make very clear. The graphics here are a bit more SCI than AGI. But the nostalgia alone wasn’t enough to make up for the frustration these stairs embody. It has some beanstalk-like issues, where it’s hard to tell where exactly the priority map lines up with the visible lines, but it’s not quite that bad (for one thing, it’s only one room, as opposed to the multi-roomed ordeal of the beanstalk).

Fun: Low
Difficulty: Hard

4. Mountain (Llewdor?)

I know I tend to compare everything to King’s Quest (it’s a running gag for me to say “Wasn’t this in a King’s Quest game?” about just about everything in my daily life). But this one REALLY feels like King’s Quest III with a nice surprise Space Quest twist (I’ll let you discover that one). I almost wish it had come right after the first screen; sure, in difficulty and mechanic, it’s in the right order, but the continuity from the first screen would have felt a lot like that darn mountain in Llewdor. Anyway, the color scheme and room design is perfectly Llewdorian (complete with the view of the sea), and the difficulty hits a nice sweet spot so that it’s fun while still feeling like the same kind of challenge as that notorious mountain, with spots where your avatar is entirely obscured, and so on. One almost expects Mannanan to appear with “the dreaded finger.”

Fun: Medium high
Difficulty: Medium

5. The Black Cauldron

The Black Cauldron was a Disney tie-in game by Sierra for a movie that Disney would really rather you forgot they made (probably because they haven’t been able to get exclusive rights to Lloyd Alexander’s books in order to control the whole franchise, but that’s just speculation on my part). It’s one of the less-often discussed Sierra games (although certainly not the most obscure). The game, though, was really innovative in some ways and actually quite fun. I am probably in the minority, but I really liked the hunger and thirst mechanics in it, and I loved how you could retrieve your water flask if you lost it (at certain places) by tracing it downstream.

But this staircase is not the Black Cauldron. It just makes you think it is! And the “look” response will make that quite clear. Bonus points for the beautiful layout of the room (again, aesthetically excellent). That second staircase, though, is a doozy after getting up your confidence with a pretty easy first flight.

Fun: Medium
Difficulty: Medium

6. CATS!

This is, paws down, my favorite staircase in Stair Quest. I cackled like a demon when I first saw this screen. I love everything about it! The music for this staircase is my absolute favorite in the whole game. I love the way all the cats have a little animation and the way the eyes on the door move (a little like the eye on the magic shop in Quest for Glory I). I could hang out on this staircase all day, even if all these cats won’t let me pet them (not even that unicorn, which the narrator is sure is just some kind of exotic cat)

There are a few technical problems in the staircase. I’m sure that the mechanic of “don’t touch a cat, because it’ll push you off the stairs” is inspired by Mannanan’s cat in King’s Quest III, but not one of the black cats on these stairs has yellow eyes like Mannanan’s cat does.

Finally, there’s some odd priority mapping in this level. It doesn’t affect gameplay in any way, but I found that you can get between the cats on the railings and the railings. Which winds up looking pretty weird, but doesn’t actually interfere with stair climbing, since most players probably won’t even go to the sides once at the top of the staircase.

Fun: MEOW! (very high. most high)
Difficulty: challenging!

7. The Snake

This one is one of the most interesting staircases, as it has you going down and up in the same screen. It’s also the least stairy of the available stairs. It’s got a fun sci-fi feel with friendly (or so I hope) creatures popping up out of the sand/water/whatever below. It looks really hard, but it’s actually pretty direct in gameplay.

Fun: Medium high
Difficulty: Medium high

8. The Eternal Giant

This is one of the most interesting stairs. It’s got a bit of world-building lore, something the game is a little light on (it’s not really meant to be a deeply developed world, and that’s ok). The stairs are pretty easy, but the weather effect makes the whole milieu simply fascinating and pleasant. Definite bonus points for art in this level.

Fun: High
Difficulty: Easy

9. Llama

Despite the text suggesting it might be an alpaca, I’m pretty sure it’s a llama. This is a fun realm that’s pleasant to climb through. The whimsy of the llama is perfect. There’s just one thing that really frustrated me: there’s clearly a hole in that triangular wall before the upper door, but I couldn’t seem to get it to do anything fun. I was really hoping for a King’s Quest II plug for Space Quest style Easter egg—or a Space Quest style death scene!

Fun: Medium high
Difficulty: Medium

10. Obligatory Escher Sequence

What would a stair game be without the obligatory M.C. Escher style funhouse sequence? This is pretty much de rigueur for the genre, right? The pleasure of this one is actually how easy it is to navigate; you expect something really annoying, but it turns out to be one of the most straightforward staircases in the game. A word of warning: they aren’t quite perfectly diagonal, so while your diagonal directional keys on the numberpad are useful, they won’t get you out of this one perfectly.

Fun: High
Difficulty: Easy

11. Yeti

If you hate ice levels (as my brother does), you will hate this level. If you love ice levels, as I do, you will still hate this level. That darn yeti!

The sliding is a fun mechanic (for me, who loves ice levels). The yeti, of course, is necessary. Yeti appear in many Sierra games, so it’s a terrifying but nostalgic twist on what is already a difficult stair climb.

If you’re stuck on this level, don’t feel bad. It was actually my partner, watching me growl at the computer, who figured out the solution (adventure games are best played by the whole family!). The key to this level is to use the sliding mechanic to go faster. Once you get it down, it’s a bit like doing a waltz box step on the screen. A very, very fatal box step.

Fun: Medium/Frustrating
Difficulty: AAARGH!

12. Orb

This one is a fun homage to the four-color games. Oddly, my brain associates this color scheme more with Commander Keen than with Sierra games (despite having played Mickey Mouse’s Space Adventure a lot as a child). Still, it’s an iconic look that packs a powerful nostalgia punch. The stairs themselves are pretty straightforward (if a bit delicate), made easier by a backstop to the top of the screen.

Fun: Medium
Difficulty: Medium

Final notes

Despite appearances, Stair Quest is actually not using the AGI or SCI engines, and it becomes pretty apparent because there are some elements of the game that are simply not possible in the old engines. I’m not sure why No More For Today didn’t use these engines, but they did a good job of replicating them to the casual observer, and Stair Quest definitely achieves its goals in the nostalgia and mechanics departments.

There are, at a technical level, however, simply too many colors in the game. It goes outside the 16 color scheme it tries to emulate. There are too many shades of brown in the ego avatars alone, for instance, not to mention too many shades of purple in the Escher stairs. I’m not sure anything is really gained from these extra colors. In fact, the most critical part of me is a little disappointed, because using extra colors to achieve more natural skin tones in the avatars results in reinforcing a really toxic stereotype about old games. There is an old argument, in some of the earlier criticism of historical games, that they tended to avoid playable characters of color because the limited color palette wouldn’t allow it. However, in the original 16 color palette used in the AGI engine, there was no suitable Caucasian skin tone, resulting in your options being jaundice yellow (Graham) or sunburn pink (Valanice); however, because of the general usefulness of a medium brown, dark yellow was replaced with a pleasant brown that was much closer to a natural skin color, and was frequently used in the more realistic games, such as Police Quest (and even Mixed Up Mother Goose), to represent people of color. Yes, there’s only one brown available, but it’s a good brown because it was actually tweaked at the engine level to be a suitable all-purpose brown.

By cheating on the color scheme, Stair Quest inadvertently reinforces the myth that early games didn’t feature people of color because of the color palette. It falls into the trap that a lot of retro games do, of using an arbitrarily limited color scheme for aesthetics. However, knowing what I know about the creators of Stair Quest, I find it hard to believe that No More For Today didn’t consider the problem of color and simply choose, for the sake of fun, to ignore it to a certain degree. Still, I find myself wishing that the close-up shots of the two possible avatar character were detailed portraits the way that old Sierra games would do for cut scenes, rather than expanded versions of the small avatars. Perhaps there will be a Stair Quest II with enhanced consideration of color and historical pixel art practices.

None of these issues with pixel art practices or color palettes actually detracts from the enjoyment of the game, and they’re the kind of thing that generally you only notice if you’re stepping back and paying attention to craft in a way that most players do not. For the purposes of having a laugh at all those frustrating stairs of the past, the game more than meets expectations.

If you haven’t played Stair Quest yet, I really do recommend it. It’s a fun nostalgia blast and a nice quick game you can get through in one evening, and since it’s free, there’s not really any reason not to play it.

One thought on “Stairs in Stair Quest Ranked

  1. Greetings! I’ve been following your blog for a while now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from New Caney Tx! Just wanted to say keep up the excellent job!

    Like

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