Well, I finished up the game today. Actually, I finished it up twice! The first hour was spent with the classic Death Gulch to Ambrosia trip, in which I maxed out the dexterity and strength of my wizard and druid. Afterwards, I hit the dungeon of time to meet the Time Lord, and killed guards to raise my level to 25 for all characters. In the midst of the last part, though, I encountered a very frustrating bug: Basically, when I attacked an enemy, the main world map would be used instead of the combat map. The more I played, the worse it got, so i went ahead and finished the game (barely) "just in case" I were unable to ever finish it the normal way.
The dungeon of Time was challenging, but being able to cast spells to take me up and down dungeon levels made it much simpler--I just zipped down to the 8th level and met the guy, who has a moongate on his belly, and zipped back up. I guess the image of the Time Lord is some kind of proto cutscene, except the image is made up of graphics from inside the game! It's sort of like Ultima IX in that respect; i think a lot of the cutscenes there involved the same engine.
Exodus Castle when you are too weak to tackle it is EXTREMELY difficult--It's hard to regain hit points, because inside the castle random explosions blast you while you are passing your turn as magic points replinish in order to cast a heal spell. I gave up on that and simply used the wizard's mass-kill spell and lots of AppleWin save states to get me through. Later on, the bug I experienced seemed to spontaneously fix itself, and I was able to play the game normally. I raised my druid and wizard up to 25000 hit points (they were half that previously) and I was able to tackle Exodus' castle without much difficulty. The same strategy persisted, but I no longer needed save states. I would cast mass kill, then my paladin and ranger would simply march up and destroy the enemies with their exotic weapons. The most absurd part of the game comes towards the end, when the floor tiles in front of the Exodus computer terminals attack you. It was entertaining but not that hard, because one hit kills them. I simply got my chaaracters into a line and had no trouble finishing them off.
This brings me to the antagonist of the game--Exodus! First of all, ths is a stupid name for a demonic computer--exodus is a noun that describes a journey. Did Garriott choose this name just because it sounded cool? Second, it's not clear what he does or what he is--he's got terminals obviosuly, but is there some kind of intelligence here? I know he had a dark core and a psyche from Ultima VII, and in statues he is always presented as a demon. So the way I think of Exodus is as some very powerful demon trapped by Mondain and Minax within the computer that presumably they built using futuristic technology of the earlier games. Why a particular seires of cards destroys him, I do not know!
In the final analysis, Ultima III was a vastly superior game to its predecessors. The world itself is much more interesting, with unique towns, all of which have unique features or clues. Still, it suffers from a lot game balance issues. For example, I could spend 3500 gold on a +2 bow. But why would I ever do that? The regular bow kills things quickly once you have increased your strength and dexterity. The dungeons are also extremely difficult for their contents. That is, there's no point in doing anything but zapping down to the bottom, getting your mark or whatever, and zapping back up to the enterance of the dungeon, because there are so many random traps and monsters, and nowhere near enough treasure to justify sticking around. Ultima VII improves this a bit, with lots of unique details worth seeing. I believe the same problem is a part of Ultima IV and to a lesser extent Ultima V.
I also approve of the fact that Ultima III has no meta junk in its game, no characters say (as one did in Ultima II) "Isn't this game great?" Lord British is still a bastard, of course, but at least the game sticks to its genre. The combat was also not anything close to as tedious as I originally anticipated--Once I had a boat, the cannons killed the land monsters, saving me a lot of hassle. In all, I finished Ultima III in about 14-15 hours, I suppose. Sadly, AppleWin's sound emulation is awful and the copies of the disks that feature music barely work, so I played without music. In the case of Ultima IV, however, I will be using the DOS version plus upgrades, so I shall have plenty of music to go with it. It may take some effort to get it working precisely the way I want it to, however--I need DOSbox or another tool to allow screenshots, for example, but getting the music to work inDOSbox may be tough.