Microïds’ Syberia introduced gamers to a stark wonderland of mechanized beings and childlike wonder in the 2002 release from acclaimed designer Benoît Sokal. Representing her employer's takeover of a toy factory in a remote French village, corporate lawyer Kate Walker discovers the person she was sent to find has passed away and that only a single heir can sign off on the deal. The simple task of locating him turns into an adventure of epic proportions when she discovers the man she's after has abandoned his former life in order to seek out the titular realm where mammoths are rumoured to still exist. As Kate follows the eccentric but brilliant inventor’s obsession, she enters a magical world of talking robots, an elaborate wind-up train, an oppressed opera singer, and a slew of fantastic creations. The most important discovery on her journey through a world of wonder and dreams, however, is herself.
Noted for its lush visuals, colourfully eccentric characters, and immersive character-driven story – all of which are qualities that stand up to this day – the game's lasting impression was ensured right out of the gate. Everything from the jaw-dropping art direction to the rich sound design bring the world of Syberia to life, building a sense of wonder and hand-painted beauty that hadn't been seen before, and arguably hasn’t been matched to this day. Though criticized for its ease and lack of interactivity, the melancholic atmosphere enveloping these living postcards was almost palpable for those who took the time to absorb it. Initially released for PC only, the game was ported to the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and later to iOS and Nintendo DS, though the PC remains the best platform for truly admiring its incredible graphics. Benoît Sokal crafted a true masterpiece in Syberia, showing the emotional power adventure games can have, setting the bar so high that few (including its own sequel) will ever be able to equal.
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LucasArts’ Monkey Island franchise is perhaps the brightest shining star of the comic adventure genre, with Guybrush Threepwood its poster pin-up. Many players’ love of adventure games began with The Secret of Monkey Island, though it’s hard to believe it was released way back in 1990 when the SCUMM engine was in its infancy. Ron Gilbert’s brainchild helped kick-start the Golden Age of adventure games that would happily continue until the late ‘90s, including several sequels of its own. The public lapped up the hapless Guybrush's bumbling attempts to become a mighty pirate and oppose the ghostly villain LeChuck, which set the mould for other LucasArts adventures to come and gave the Monkey Island franchise a rock-solid foundation to build on.
What resonates most with players even today is the hilarity of the game – who can forget insult swordfighting, Stan the used-ship salesman or the piranha poodles? But it is so much more than that. Its puzzles are challenging, the tale is a surprisingly touching love story across the high seas, and Guybrush is an eminently likeable dreamer that we all relate to inside. And that’s not even probing the game's technical prowess, like the revolutionary facial art implemented during conversation or the complete overhaul of the SCUMM engine from its clunky beginnings to something far more intuitive and user-friendly. Everything felt like a breath of fresh sea air for the genre at the time, and even two decades later, the recent Special Edition makeover and episodic revival prove there’s still life in the old sea dog yet.
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The original King’s Quest may have made the list mainly due to its historical importance, but King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow is an excellent game that deserves a much higher placement on quality alone. A collaboration between series creator Roberta Williams and fledging designer Jane Jensen (who went on to dream up Gabriel Knight), King’s Quest VI retains the familiar fairy tale feel while introducing gameplay that’s better integrated with the storyline and more complex, personal stakes for the characters. Upon its 1992 release, the game showcased Sierra at its best – after a decade of innovation and evolution – and the company’s subsequent floundering and ultimate downfall over the following decade makes the magic of Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow all the more bittersweet.
Perhaps the most striking innovation at the time was its branching storyline. Partway through the game, the player makes a simple choice that determines whether Prince Alexander will reach the ending via a shorter, simpler path, or if he’ll experience the longer, more satisfying conclusion. This isn’t simply a matter of swapping out cutscenes; the puzzles and story progression are completely different after the branch point. King’s Quest VI was also one of the first so-called “multimedia” games, making good use of newly-available CD-ROM drives with a cinematic opening movie, high-resolution character portraits, and voiceovers that included Hollywood actor Robby Benson in the role of Alexander. When it came out, this game didn’t just exceed expectations, it set a new quality standard both for storytelling and production values. And thanks to its timeless love story, lush hand-painted graphics, and solid point-and-click gameplay, it’s still every bit as enjoyable twenty years later.
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While Zork may be best known for helping pioneer the genre with its early text adventures, the franchise’s best actual game was saved for last. After a brief foray into darker themes in Nemesis, the series wisely returned to its more oddball Zorkian roots for its swan song. And this 1997 adventure is a treat from start to finish. And by “start” we mean even the creative Frobozz Electric Installer that delightfully sets the stage for the zaniness to come. As you attempt to topple the megalomaniac Grand Inquisitor, who has forbidden all use of magic in his iron-fisted rule, you’ll see classic locations in living colour for the first time, from the little white house to GUE Tech to Flood Control Dam #3. Along the way you’ll encounter a bearded fish with a unicorn horn, a be-bop-singing home security vine, flickering and bickering torches, and an inflatable sea captain. And you can always count on being eaten by a Grue. It’s a rich, imaginative fantasy world unlike any other, the likes of which we arguably haven’t seen since.
Although played in first-person as the infamous AFGNCAAP, the Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventure Person, Grand Inquisitor is anything but a lonely game. You’re accompanied throughout by the wisecracking former Dungeon Master Dalboz, now trapped inside a lantern, and you’ll briefly get to control three helpers with unique gifts: Griff, the harmless pint-sized green dragon; Brog, the dim-witted but lovable blue troll-thing; and Lucy Flathead, a human female with lots of spunk, a funky hairdo, and an impressive heritage. Despite being outlawed, magic plays a major role in the puzzle design, as you must master a variety of off-the-wall spells like turning purple things invisible and making yourself more attractive. It may have marked the tragic end of Zork when it was done, but with the finale's combination of superb artistic design, whimsical humour, memorable characters, creative gameplay, and a terrific variety of fun puzzles, the venerable series certainly went out on top.
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Creating a game based on a beloved film franchise is a risky proposition, as evidenced by then-Lucasfilm’s varying level of success with the Indiana Jones movie tie-ins prior to 1992. But with no more silver screen releases on the horizon, the company branched out further with an entirely original story in The Fate of Atlantis, and the result still stands up as one of the finest adventure titles ever made. The tale sees Indy and associate Sophia Hapgood searching for the mystical lost city of Atlantis on a globe-trotting quest through dangerous situations, meeting a variety of dubious characters along the way. The game is much more dramatic than other LucasArts games of that era, but it's still sprinkled with humour and even creates some real romantic tension between the two leads.
Without the restrictions of a movie plot, the designers let their creative juices run wild, to great effect. It isn’t only the writing that stands out though, as the action sequences are truly exciting without ever straying from their point-and-click genre foundation. There is no Harrison Ford, but the title features an excellent voice cast and a rousing musical score that backs up the impressive visuals and groundbreaking cutscene animation for the time. Better yet, the game can be completed in three separate ways, using teamwork, wits or fists. The chosen paths are so different, it is almost like three full games in one, making this one of the most replayable adventure games ever. And with all the snappy dialogue, compelling puzzles and fun action to experience, most players are more than happy to start the epic journey again. Alas, The Fate of Atlantis was the last pure adventure for Indy, but it's a whip-cracking good time even today.
You might also like: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lost Horizon
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