Ophidian Dragon blogs his way through the entire Ultima series, from beginning to end.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


Well, I didn't post anything over my vacation, but I don't suppose anyone actually believed me when I said I would, so perhaps it's all good. Tonight I'll talk about Ultima VI! I'm lucky to have extremely vivid memories of this game, not the least because I played it many, many times before my blogged experience of it. Let's talk about the more technical stuff first--this is a beautiful game on many levels. This was the first Ultima game to focus on its PC incarnation, and consequently there's a massive change in the look of the game. All previous games were limited in their pallete and the proximity of colors due to the limitations of the Apple II; in VGA mode, Ultima VI looks more vibrant and alive than any of the previous games. I think this creates a different mood--in the old games, there was this almost constant black background no matter where you were, whereas in Ultima VI the grasslands seem lush; I especially loved the animated flowing rivers when I first played the game! The perspective is also somewhat more logical--walls have a slanted appearance (though this is misleading since you can't walk under walls that are in perspective as in Ultima VII) instead of a square appearance, and other people are not always facing you as if they are lying on the ground. In short, the more realistic graphics really helped bring the game to life for me when I was first introduced to it.

Of particular note is the conversation system, which is made much more enjoyable by the large and attractive character portraits given to every person in the game. This is the first Ultima where I find it easy to attach personalities to particular characters, just because I can remember the face of, say, the dishonest ruffian who accosts you outside Lord British's castle, or the dog with a dish in his mouth, or the horse-seller south of Trinsic that inexplicably says "Later!" if you mention sex to her...

I didn't say anything about the music of Ultima V, which was foolish since that was certainly one of my most favorite aspects; that game had some great tunes, especially the Grayson's Theme and the outdoors theme. Ultima VI has some good ones--I especially like the combination of Gargoyle Theme and "Rule, Britannia!"--but in general, the score is not memorable because much music is straight out of Ultima V, and also particular pieces are usually not tied to specific locales. Hence, few stick out.

I think the game is most famous for its level of interaction and the wide array of objects which can be collected and use, and the seamless world which presents the cities and outdoors at the same scale, albeit shrunk compared to the (apparent) long distances of previous games. Of course, Ultima VII took the interaction to almost absurd heights, so I guess I don't need to dwell on it here.

Where the game doesn't work so well is in the plot department. The idea is very attractive--The gargoyles thought the Codex was theres and you just destroyed the Underworld--but it's pretty hard to fit the gargoyle realm of Ultima VI as the other side of a flat planet with the Underworld, which was obviously an underground realm on a round (actually toroidal...sorry for preventing a nitpick, nerds) planet in Ultima V. That confusion aside, pretty much no one in Britannia seems to care much about the gargoyle threat except Lord British and some groaning dudes in Cove (Why can't someone just cast heal on these guys, anyway?) The music hall director in Minoc even demands you go build some panpipes and play a tune before he lets you have the rune required to save the world! In another odd game design decision, you are given instant access to almost everywhere on the planet with the Orb of the Moons in the very beginning of the game, obviating the need for a huge bulk of the plot (namely the map pieces quest to get the pointless silver tablet). As a result, Ultima VI can probably be finished without cheating in perhaps under and hour! It also had the amusing effect, the first time I played, of confusing me when I teleported to the Gargoyle world, killed everyone, and didn't understand why the game hadn't ended. In any event, the game may be a bit too easy and I sometimes wonder if it was intentional or an error.

Among the more interesting and memorable events in the game are your interactions with the ghost of Quenton, which remains unresolved in this game, your submission to Lord Draxinosom (accompanied by a question, "Why?" whose answer took me absolutely forever to figure out the first time), and, most curiously, your strange, ambiguous interaction with the disembodied spirits of Mondain, Minax and Exodus, who speak of their atrocities in a bizarre, detached manner. I would say that was my favorite, and the most surprising, aspect of the game.

Overall, Ultima VI has a special place in my heart as the first game in the series that I played. It was a big step forward in a lot of ways, and I can't help but like the abandonment of the tiresome combat from earlier in the series, though I know a lot of people who were upset by some of the changes. Still, it remains a favorite, though it's not in as high esteem as it might have been before I went and played through the series over again...I think it would come in slightly ahead of Ultima Underworld I were I to rank my favorites, but behind VII, Underworld II, and Serpent Isle. However, I'm not sure, and those are all extremely stiff competition anyway, so the A+ I give to Ultima VI might be slightly below the A+ I'd give to the others, lol.

Up next are the spin-offs, Savage Empire and Martian Dreams. The former is so short I may combine the two into one entry. Soon I will also need to come up with something to say about the Runes of Virtue series, but that's going to be tough...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

In Which I Say Nice Things About Ultima V

Well, reading my comments indicates i totally failed to address one aspect of Ultima V that made it vastly superior to all the previous games--namely, the storyline. Ultima 1-3 had stories, but the events and impact of them were contained almost entirely within the documentation. Ultima IV was strangely plotless--it was a quest of self-improvement, but there wasn't really any compelling need for the world to have you as Avatar. I would summarize the back story of that game as, "Everything's going OK I suppose. Let's find someone to be the Avatar!"

In Ultima V, by contrast, the first thing that happens (granted, in a cutscene) is that you get attacked by a Shadowlord. They also take over towns, and Blackthron harasses you on a regular basis; guards demand bribes, and so on. Unlike the previous games, there's the sense of impending disaster and the well-being of the world hanging in the balance. The illusion breaks at points (like any game), but it's there for the first time. Ultima VI's major failure is in this regard; I still can't get over the moron that makes you build and play some panpipes before letting you save the world; moreover, hardly anyone cares about the Gargoyle threat in general. At least in Ultima IX, Katrina apologizes for wasting your time!

I would also disagree with a commenter who said Ultima V's combat was insufficiently strategic and thy preferred Ultima IV. I thing the opposite; for most battles at the end of IV, I just repeatedly hit the A key and the up arrow because the massive barrage of magic arrows and wand bolts and whatever pretty much cleans the board of all enemies. As for the argument that a Shepherd or a Fighter is the best character class in IV because you can ge them to level 8 more easily, I say there's no particular reason to bother. Even in the abyss, everything was dead before my uber-Shepherd gets in melee range, and besides, touching those orbs is tedious.

I also got some other comments! Someone said that the item in Serpent Isle which trades for the ice wine was "obvious" but can't remember what it was; I say that such an item does not exist. Finally I was attacked for not showing Ultima Underworld sufficient love, but I maintain that I was fairly positive in my comments :-P If I'm overly critical, it's only because criticism is more fun to read than positive comments.

Hope everyone has good holidays, or at least those of us in the United States. I am on vacation so I may publish more this week.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The time has come at long last to tackle Ultima V. I can probably cut and paste my last intro here--it doesn't feel like it's been long since I wrote the last one, time flies, etc. etc. At this rate I won't be done for another year! Then again, I'm not too concerned about that.

I have a pretty mixed view of Ultima V. When I originally played it, after getting the Ultima Collection back in 1994 or so, I found it extremely painful to play. The combat sequences are pretty long, and you get fewer hit points per level than in IV, and it seems monsters hurt more than in IV. Since generally I find combat to be the least enjoyable part of any of the Ultima games, I gave up pretty quickly. I did eventually see the endgame via cheating, but I think that doesn't count!

Since I'm already enumerating downsides, I'll mention another. I felt like the towns in Ultima V were a lot less distinctive than they were in Ultima IV, though it's hard to explain why. In Ultima IV, when I think of any town I can imagine its map in my head today--and the same is true for Ultima VI and VII--but this is not the case for Ultima V. I think it has to do with the fact that almost all seemed to have walls, which limits the space for character per town. Finally, the Underworld was intensely difficult, especially the section which involved very tedious blink spells to go from one small hole in the mountains to another--mapmaking in other parts of the Underworld was actually fairly entertaining, but here it was simply a chore and I never got distances quite right.

Now I can enumerate some of the points I liked. Dungeons were vastly improved, as was your ability to interact and affect changes in the world otherwise--you can move objects and use things, and monsters leave rational treasure instead of just the gold you found in most earlier games. Of course, I exploited game mechanics heavily! I noticed that invisibility rings have the curious side effect of bringing monsters' hit points to near zero so that one hit kills them. I also noticed that leaving one monster alive in a dungeon room brings them all back to life if you return. Thus, an easy way to amass treasure was to become invisible, kill a bunch of dragons in a room, leave one, then exit and return to the room, over and over again! This probably qualifies as cheating, but the game in its initial stages was difficult enough that I didn't feel bad about it. This was a bit of a side track from my main point, which was that the dungeons were vastly more interesting to explore than they were in Ultima IV, where I largely dashed to the treasure with down and up spells and then immediately exited.

The most impressive change between the games is the improvement in the way the world exists independently of you--there is a day and night sequence, characters have specific schedules, and I am told seasons also occur. There are also astrological phenomenon that cause Shadowlords to invade towns! I mentioned this change in independent existence of the game world as a key theme in how the games developed over the years; the other key theme is how the world treats you as a person, and how your actions have an impact on the world. There's less evidence of this in Ultima V, or at least I didn't notice it, but I did notice glaring problems. For example, a member of the Underground tells me to head to Blackthorn's castle to get Lord British's crown, which I do--and when I return to get a new quest, he doesn't acknowledge the completion of the old one. Similarly, if you give up the names of the Resistance to Blackthorn there's no effect; indeed, you can get trapped by him over and over again and no one seems to care. Most hilariously, you can wander through his throne room and so long as you don't touch anyone, they are oblivious to you. I attribute most of these flaws to the small size of the game, and they certainly exist in every other early RPG, but they are more glaring because the game is so effective in presenting a realistic "breathing" world in so many other ways.

Overall, I would say my memories of Ultima V are weak, even though it took me something like 35 hours to finally finish. It's hard to explain why, because my memories of Ultima IV and Ultima VI are fairly vivid--there's just something about this game that did not sear it into my brain; maybe some of your quests are repetitive (shrine quests *extremely* so), and maybe I didn't find characters as charming or memorable as in the previous game. Maybe the long conversations without portraits made keeping track of who was who a lot more difficult? In short, my impression of Ultima V has never been very high, despite a neat plot and a far more realistic world, yet I don't know quite how to explain why.

On to a few of the most memorable moments of the game! It's easy to start with the very obvious--killing the Shadowlords. Tossing the shards into the flame and yelling a name and they are destroyed; I like imagining how that would play out in some kind of cutscene. I am also quite fond of meeting Captain John in the abyss and learning the origin of the Shadowlords, which I had never understood prior to encountering him in his unexpected fort! Ultima V also contains one of the most bizarre and mysterious sequences in any of the games, too--the strange, backward-colored realm that Lord British is trapped in. Why is he totally lacking power here? Why is it furnished with a bed and clocks and books and all? British proposes it to be an ancient location, and thinking about how it got there and what it was used for is one of the pleasures of finishing the game.

That's all I've got on Ultima V. I'm curious if anyone else feels the way I do about it--On paper everything about the game is good, but the experience never really seemed that great to me.

Friday, September 12, 2008


Holy guacamole, I thought I posted my last one in August sometime, but evidently it was way back in July! Man, time is zipping by. So, I'm going to spontaneously write about Ultima IV without having though about it much in advance. Here we go!

Ultima IV is commonly considered one of, or sometimes the, best RPG video games ever made. The argument usually goes that instead of trying to kill Foozle, you are trying to improve yourself and become something greater. I always found this a little bit misleading. It's true, there's a basic theme to the game of being nice to people and not stealing their gold (a necessary tactic in the previous games!), but in terms of quests, the game is pretty much one long scavenger hunt, and although you don't kill any Foozle, you do kill an enormous quantity of orcs, dragons, ghosts, gremlins, zorns (or is the plural zorn?), brigands and so on. I'd go so far as to say that perhaps as much as 90% of the human population of Britannia consists of brigands, evil wizards, and other bad guy types. So in terms of actual gameplay, I don't think the thematic shift from killing lots of things to becoming a paragon of virtue while killing lots of things is a very big shift.

Instead, what makes the game work are the incremental shifts forward, which continue until Ultima VII, in two areas of immersive gaming experience. First, the sense that the world you are gaming in can exist without you. Second, the sense that your presence in the world has an impact. The first item is brought to mind by some of my favorite features of the game--the moons which, albeit comically fast in changing, guide your travels, and the new conversation system such that most characters spout off several lines, and you are forced to interact with them. For me this is a gigantic difference from Ultima III, where an NPC is just a signpost; here, the options for talk are limited but the fact that I am forced to treat them in a more human-like manner makes the game immersive; I don't particularly enjoy lying to them. In some ways I think the future version of this, where you pick a topic from a list instead of typing it, is an improvement, because I see insulting or cruel responses I COULD make, but which I actually feel kind of crappy making, even though I realize I'm talking to a few blocks of text in a computer program.

As a side note, I am a big fan of the style of conversation in this game. Everything you do in Ultima IV has a sense of importance attached to it, and the sparse, direct dialog add to that. The goofiness is limited to skeletons in the woods and the occasional ghost; everyone else is relentlessly serious.

The virtue system is the primary mechanism for the improvement in the second area of immersion. Although almost none of your actions in the game have a permanent impact (slaughter a town and they're all back when you return) on the game world, they *do* prove to be a significant impediment to your progress in the game. In short, the choices you make in the game, tied to a particular ethical system, matter. I guess in Ultima III, they mattered too--but in a more crass way. In Ultima III, you killed guards to improve your experience score, while in Ultima IV you give to beggars to improve your compassion score. On the surface these are pretty much the same--actions with consequences to your stats. However, I think the former is a huge breach of immersion because you can't take the game seriously when you are hacking guards to death by the hundreds. Giving gold to beggars, though, forces you to treat the in-game characters as more "alive" than those burly guards, and therefore your choices seem to impact them (even if they never cease begging). In the end you can take more pride (ironically, since you are supposed to be humble) in your actions in Ultima IV than in Ultima III, and it makes the game a more memorable and immersing experience.

The above paragraph is a bit meandering, mostly becuase the "you have an impact on the game world" only really becomes significant later in the series--Serpent Isle being the best, albeit flawed (and enormously depressing!) example. But...baby steps!

Well, what else can I say about Ultima IV? My favorite version is always the PC version for the improved colorfulness of its graphics (I'm talking the old graphics from the original PC release--same bitmap as the Apple II version, as far as I can tell, but with added colors). I especially like that the background remains black, which is key to the atmosphere of all the original Apple II versions of these games. The music patch also does a pretty good job--I say pretty good because at the time I played the game again, the best version of the music patch is tied to an annoying (to me) graphics upgrade, and I had to revert to an older, slower, slightly glitchy version to avoid the graphics upgrade. So anyway, when anyone plays this game I advise the PC version with music patch, as it gives you the "best of both worlds." I don't understand Garriott's faithfulness to the Apple II platform after Ultima IV...But I guess I still have a 5 1/4 floppy drive on my present PC, so maybe I can't criticize.

I really enjoy the music from Ultima IV, and in fact all the games until Ultima VIII where it mostly became "mood" music that did nothing for me. My favorites from Ultima IV are the castle theme and the outdoor wandering theme.

As always, I've reserved my final thoughts for the most memorable moments of the game, or the most "moving" elements, even if I feel odd using that word in the context of a video game. Probably topping the list is that strange moment just before the end of the game where you meet and slaughter a mirror image of your own party, except of course that the mirror Shamino immediately flees! Of course, the anticlimactic ending is pretty impressive, where you answer questions from a booming voice, see some nice line art, and are tossed back into Earth. I guess most of my favorite moments are centered around the abyss, aren't they? It's understandable...that IS the final quest, after all--and entry into the Abyss also appeals to me; some stolen ritual with the bell, book and candle (where was this from originally?) and tossing the skull of Mondain into the volcano. Wow!

What about some notable scenes outside the abyss? I guess since the game is mostly, as I mentioned, a scavenger hunt, there's not many plot events (or even much of a plot) to take note of. I would mention that speaking to the water in Lord British's castle is kind of surreal, and the grove in Empath Abbey comes to mind. Maybe the Ankh in the midst of the mountains? I remember being rather puzzled the first time I played this game and viewed a gem and saw a strange random dot hidden in the peaks...I'm also fond of the ruins of Magincia and the curious disparity between attitudes of the ghosts--some angry, some sarcastic...and help coming from the oddest places; a daemon and a snake who attacks you after you converse. Strange.

I think that's enough on this game, though I could probably go on (I barely touched on combat and I ignored character creation, which was shockingly different from the usual procedure we'd come to expect). In short, I think Ultima IV deserves its lofty reputation. I think playing it is still quite an experience, even if it's less fun now than it would have been in the past--I think this is because its ideas were expanded upon so much in later games in and out of the series; I see it basically as a gigantic milestone in video game, particularly as a game that can be taken seriously as a creative enterprise (e.g., art) rather than simple entertainment

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


So I thought my last post was a lot longer ago than it actually was. Barely a month!? I should wait a longer time before I talk about Ultima IV!

Actually, I've gotten a lot of comments lately. One person called me a retard for thinking "Pagan World" (whatever that is) is not a good game. This buffoonish insult made me almost skip several games and go ahead and talk about Ultima VIII, but it seems to me I can't offer any good reasoning without going through the previous five or six games and show why I think Ultima VIII went totally off the rails in terms of the direction the series had been headed.

Other comments included yet another request to play the remakes, which if I were to do would need to follow my completion of all my per-game discussions, which will take another decade or so. But I won't rule anything out...Finally, someone asked what games to play without having to start at the beginning. To my mind, you should play 4, probably 5, definitely 6 and 7 and Serpent Isle. This assumes you're only interested in the "main series." Ultima III is a fun game, but hard to play today, and unless the situation has changed lately I don't think there are any really good ports. All of the games before VI may be more challenging, or at least more repetitive in their challenges, than any of the later games. A big chunk of my time in Ultima III was spent stealing from the same treasure chests over and over again, for example.

On a total side note, it seems to me that if video games are to be considered as art I think we should abandon the criteria of "fun." There are plenty of works of literature and music and film which are decidedly unpleasant or disturbing to experience, but which are acclaimed. So there's a lot not to enjoy about Ultima III, like many early video games, it can be repetitive and unrewarding, but I don't particularly care.

Oh yeah, I think someone asked about which versions to play. The DOS versions of II and III are trash so forget them. The DOS version of IV has much better (well, more colorful) graphics and there's a patch to add the Mockingboard music from the Apple version--although I would add that you have to go to work to get it because it's currently bundled with a dubious graphics upgrade that I find detracts from the atmosphere. The Apple version of V stinks unless you really get a kick out of disk swaps, and after that there's little choice. Someone said that the Sega Master System of IV was enjoyable, because it gives it 2D dungeons, but IMO you're not even playing the same game anymore after that sort of edit.

Now, let's talk about Ultima III! The most substantial change between II and III is the inescapable sense that Ultima III actually takes itself seriously. You don't have anachronisms like space ships and air cars, and the characters in the game seem for the most part to be in character, insofar as they can be with only one line of text to say. That being said, the world itself is pretty damned loony. Death Gulch is a typical example--It's a ridiculous maze of mountains and trees, and really the only thing worth doing there is looting the armory. This is such an efficient way to gather gold that most likely you'll end up repeating the process over and over again. Most of this gold ends up being spent at shrines in Ambrosia where, oh by the way, you inexplicably find the cards used to destroy Exodus.

Still, the much-decreased amount of silliness in this game is appealing--except for one item, the name ("Exodus") which is totally inapt and nonsensical, almost as if Garriott didn't know the meaning of the word. There are fewer stock characters who have nothing of interest to say, and the dungeons no longer seem quite as randomly constructed as they literally were in Ultima I and seemed to be in Ultima II. Most of the locales in the game also have some value in existing--the dungeons even if they lack marks do have fountains and gold in them, and some of them are themed, such as the "Time" dungeon in which (also rather inexplicably) the Time Lord resides. We also see an increase in the number of puzzles and quests to figure out--there's the hidden city of Dawn, there's the whole continent of ambrosia, and there's hidden commands such as BRIBE and DIG that you only learn about as you progress in the game. In Ultima II, it seemed as if the puzzles were almost undocumented. I don't recall any hint to anyone that you needed to give money to the old man for him to give you the ring to enter Minax's castle, whereas Ultima III is far more effective at providing clues to the solution of the game.

Ultima III also features a boatload of new features, including an extensive character creation system, lots of character classes (some being a bit dubious, like the Barbarian and the Alchemist), and other standard RPG features like the concept of leveling up, restricted armor and weapons, and so on. There's also a fresh new party-based combat system, much of which would persist (with increased complexity) until abandoned in favor of the much-derided real-time combat of Ultima VII. The layout of the screen itself (party on the upper right, commands on the lower right, and a game view on the left) would also survive that long. Finally, I can't write this commentary without praising the music, which give the game a more exciting atmosphere. I much prefer the Ultima 3 through 7 style of specific, non-atmospheric melodies associated with activities and locations; with a few exceptions I don't go around humming the music from Ultima VIII or IX, despite the fact that they get more praise for their scores.

There are also ways in which Ultima III reminds me of its predecessors. First, it's still hard to survive the beginning of the game. You start with few hit points, and though the food situation is not so tight as to DEMAND stealing the way it did in Ultima II, there were still times when I trudged back from some adventure basically starving. On the plus side, magic is actually worth having in this game; in fact, it is utterly essential once poisonous monsters begin showing up. By the final castle I was casting the various mass-death spells with every single combat.

All that aside, the best feature by far of Ultima III is that it's chock full of memorable moments for a game of its age. One of the things I love about playing the early games is that the primitive graphics force a vagueness to the artwork, and the lack of memory prevents the text from explaining things you see except in the vaguest terms. When I play these I feel like I'm experiencing the story through the lens of some old, fragmented text, like reading Sappho, or like deriving a society's mythology through images on potsherds and sculptures. By far the best example of this is the Time Lord, who resides in the cave of Time, shows up as a "?" on the gem-map, and who appears in his stick-man form for a split second to announce in distinctive ALL CAPS the order of the cards to defeat Exodus (with the warning, "ALL ELSE FAILS"), and then vanishes. Even knowing the future of the series and his role in Ultima VII, this was pretty jarring. I've written extensively, previously, about the endgame, the first of a series of fairly anticlimactic endings, but with this made up for by its distinctive mystery--answering the series of questions posed by a booming voice in Ultima IV and drawing a Codex symbol in the process, and the visit to Lord British's distorted underworld "prison" in Ultima V. Ultima III takes the cake though, bringing you face to face with a computer complete with a card-reader defended by the very floor around it. It was a weird twist that was fun even though I already knew about it from long ago, much superior to fighting some random powerful boss.

So in summary, I think Ultima III was the first in the series of five games that really define the Ultima series for me; we get our first look at some of the styles and themes that would develop as the series continued. Its sense of immersion and 'seriousness' set it apart from its predecessors; the charming and mysterious experience of the world of Sosaria make Ultima III a classic.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


So in response to the anonymous comment, no, it's not over. Or yes, it is. It depends on your perspective. I will not be posting much, but I do want to finish my slow review of all the games at some point. Most likely I'll post a new one whenever someone adds a comment saying, "Hey, where'd you go!?"

So with that in mind, a few words about Ultima II. To my mind, of the official, canonical games, this one is clearly the worst. I explained a lot of reasons back when I wrote the original blogs about the game, but in summary I think it's just the unused potential. The game world in Ultima II is much bigger than Ultima I, at least in terms of what I would call "density of interest," eg, how much stuff on the map is interesting to see and how much is filler. In Ultima I, the towns, for example, are largely clones of one another, whereas here they are distinct, often have special features, and contain at least a few distinctive characters. However, many of the towns are nonetheless superfluous to the game, as is the entire exterior solar system, which was one of the game's more interesting features!

It's probably necessary to draw a distinction between the wide array of irrelevent side plots in, say, Ultima VII and the towns and planets of Ultima II which are simply devoid of interest. Since Ultima II does not take itself seriously, most of the excess towns are devoted to some pretty silly gags--whether it's the town of Le Jester, where you find it hard to get in and out because jesters crowd you to the point of being unable to move, or the town of Computer Camp, which is one big 1982 joke. I spent a couple of hours exploring all those places, but gained nothing of value from it--no special weapon or item or even any plot hints, as I recall. The dungeons were equally useless, and since magic was only used in dungeons, the whole magic system disappears from view! I'm not sure I even entered a dungeon. I know you could get fuel for your ship there, but why, just to visit the superfluous planets in the solar system?

Another issue which isn't the game's fault is that Ultima I got remade sometime in the latter 80's, and it looks and plays like a vastly superior game as a result. So today, most people who play these games at all will end up playing the remake of Ultima I, and then move to Ultima II and wonder, "what the hell happened!?" because, as you would expect, the remake is so much more playable than Ultima II. But just to blast those illusions away, I will say that after struggling through hacking the code to play Ultima I, Ultima II is a dream! Some additonal changes--Ultima I had only one or two monster types (although the get various names), whereas II has something like eight; Ultima II's dungeons are not just clones of those of Akalabeth; Ultima II has bigger towns, distinctive conversations, some animated graphics, and other advantages over the first game in its original form.

With Ultima I I talked about how the final fight with Mondain is a distinctive "moment" in the game, one which I found very interesting because all the hype is built up, but then we see an all-black room and a little man with his little gem causing all the world's havoc. Neat. In Ultima II, I think the only similar moment is when you arrive on Planet X and talk to Father Antos, and get his blessing; there is the sense that he's the only real character in the game, sticking out like a sore thumb from the insanity surrounding him out in space. Then there's that old man under the tree who gives (well, sells) you a ring. Pretty much inexplicable. I suppose I am projecting excessive significance on these figures, but I have to choose something! I also like the violent and abrupt endgame; "ALL HER WORKS SHALL DIE!"

What else needs to be said?

I can throw in a comment or two concerning Escape From Mount Drash, though it's not really worth the effort. It's just a bad, amateur maze game, almost unplayable, especially in the latter stages where you're not even allowed to see in front of you the keys you are looking for to escape the maze. Because of the time limit and the seemingly random nature of the combat, the game is just an exercise in repetition, hoping that with the next iteration chance will go you're way and you will succeed. It's worse than Akalabeth, because you can take advantage of that games silliness, whereas here, it just gets in the way and makes playing tedious.

That's all I have to say. I'll talk about III and why I enjoy it in a few weeks or months or years! :-D

Monday, May 5, 2008


Today is a day of finally accomplishing things--I set up an appointment for an eye doctor after about three years, and now I'll talk about Ultima and Ultima II after about three weeks of nothing!

Of the first group of "learning" games I think Ultima I (technically the name of the game is Ultima, but that will just get everyone confused, so I'll stick with Ultima I) is the most successful. The game has essentially three components: Dungeoneering in the depths of various continents to solve quests, exploring the continents to solve quests, and flying into space to shoot down aliens! The dungeon section seems like it was ripped directly from Akalabeth, but with the addition of a few monsters, and a significant improvement of the gameplay and interface. The exterior world is a tremendous improvement, abandoning the goofy vector-drawn huge squares of the first game for a much zoomed-out view of the world, with distinctive albeit repetitive towns and castles.

The new graphics and the carefully sculpted world abandon the absurd randomization of Akalabeth and make the game world seem larger. In fact, that's the main advantage of the multi-scale game world that persisted from Ultima I to Ultima V, in that the world feels gigantic even if the size is essentially illusory (as it is, for that matter, in the single scale games...but we'll talk about that later). Ultima I also strives for a grandiose time scale, where as game turns proceed, new weapons, armor and modes of transport become available, beginning with horses and ending with air cars and rocket ships. Technologically, the game is almost impossible to play today without substantial hacking. On an Apple II emulator, it runs abysmally slow or incomprehensibly fast--I'm not sure how it behaved on a real system--and is prone to game-stopping bugs if you die or go into outer space. It's no wonder it was remade later into the game most people have played!

Bugs aside, the game is really quite attractive for its time; I especially appreciated the speed of the outer space sequences, which utilize a few assembly routines as compared to the shockingly slow BASIC of the rest of the game. I enjoy how Lord British crammed so much into this game at the very beginning of the series. All of the early games up to and including Ultima IV barely have a plot in the sense of a storyline that grows as you learn more; in Ultima I, what you know in the beginning is the back story (Mondain is evil, kill him) and this doesn't change at all. That's the main reason the early games get to feel so open-ended.

There are two really interesting moments in Ultima I, in my opinion. First there is the insanity of the princesses trapped in jail cells in the castles of the land. The requirements to beat the game are truly strange--you must kill a clown, rescue the princess (presumably the king's daughter, in spite of the total lack of queens), she tells you where a time machine is located (in plain sight, but apparently invisible before) and you go back in time to kill Mondain. Of course, the princess only does this...if you've shot down twenty ships in space! I think this is one of the more oddball quest sequences in any of the games, but yet there's something charming about it.

The second favorite moment is that final confrontation with Mondain. I guess a lot of people would view it as a total letdown, because his domain is just one big square with Mondain and a vaguely diamond-shaped gem in the center. Yet there are also random blasts of multicolored lightning about, and I enjoy imagining what the primitive graphics might represent. I prefer to take it very literally--an empty void of space, with nothing but you, Mondain, and a gem surrounded by nothingness. No doubt a contemporary version would render the final chamber as some cliché evil fiend's domain with blood here and there, some tasteful torture implements, maybe a skull...So for that reason I enjoy the Ultima I ending quite a bit! It's almost as mysterious a chamber as the one which Lord British resides in at the end of Ultima V...

I think Ultima I is clearly superior to Akalabeth as it contains all its predecessor's major features, and Ultima I feels like a much more complete game than Ultima II. In spite of the strangeness of some of the game elements like space tracel and time machines, it doesn't feel like one gigantic joke the way Ultima II does, and the game play and the path to victory while strange are not as counterintuitive as those of Akalabeth, and there's a much stronger sense of accomplishment once you finish the game.

I should get back to work on that port of the original version of the game. The remake borrows far too much from later games in the series and loses the sense of excitement Lord British obviously felt as he tossed all these interesting game elements into one big soup. It's not great game that stands the test of time, but it was a very successful experiment, so it would be nice to bring the original version back to life in a playable form.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Yes, I am lazy

Well, it's been a month since I posted a note about what I would do during the subsequent week! But I'm still alive, I have merely suffered from writer's block. I can think of a fair amount of things to say about Ultima 1 & 2 and the other early games, but I have not had the patience to put it into some kind of cohesive statement. As an alternative, perhaps I will just ad-hoc write about each of the games, and call that a review overview.

But for today I want to fill in a loose end, concerning Lord British's reward. Turns out I was merely impatient because a few days ago an attractive medieval crossbow arrived in the mail. I had forgotten that David Watson aka Iolo actually builds crossbows in real life! Here's some free advertising:

I have not *yet* shot any holes in my walls, but I've come close. I should probably find an archery range. I also got a nice certificate, which at some point I'll scan.

Well...I guess I'm here and I'm writing, aren't I? Might as well write about Akalabeth.

Ah...The World of Doom. Originally sold in a ziploc baggy in a local store, then eventually picked up by California Pacific. It's hard to think of much to say about Akalabeth for several reasons...First, it's so old and simple that it's almost like writing an in-depth discussion of Pong. Second, it was (and feels like) an experiment in game making; it does not have the feel of a game that was well-tested or which was designed with much game balance in mind. Finally, the game is pretty much entirely subsumed into Ultima I, which has much of the same dungeon interface, and the dungeons serve more or less the same purpose.

In fact, Dragon Magazine (not sure if they are still around--they're an RPG magazine) has a review of Akalabeth in one of their 1982 issues! They were pretty down on the game, complaining of its bad graphics and dubious game mechanics, and reading it I had to wonder whether to take them seriously, considering the fact that it was a couple of years old when it was reviewed and games on home computers were pretty much in their infancy.

In any case, in Akalabeth you see a fair number of seeds of the later series, especially of the first five games; there's some tile graphics in the outer world (albeit with gigantic tiles), and maybe you could even argue that the presence of irrelevant tree tiles is a premonition of not-plot-essential locations that show up in later games!

Or not.

One of the things that distinguishes Akalabeth from a random assortment of similarly-old games I've played is the sense that you can actually finish it. I've always found classic arcade games, for example, rather depressing because often they are just endless swarms of enemies that will eventually kill you, no matter how long or hard you try, and even the greatest has nothing left in the end besides a trio of letters and a number stamped on an electronic gravestone that will be erased as soon as someone pulls the plug. So they are ultimately an exercise in futility. However, you can eventually win Akalabeth, even if the game encourages you to keep playing.

The biggest problems with the game lies in its bizarre game mechanics, where absurdities abound--the most inane being the fact that thieves regularly steal weapons right out of your hand! This is enormously counter-intuitive. In the same ballpark is the shockingly enormous quantities of food that gremlins can eat, or the fact that dungeons are infinite. Winning the game then entails immersing yourself into the bizarre structure of the game, repeatedly following the exact same steps to acquire gold and weapons, and eventually you realize the game probably can't be won in your natural state, then note that becoming a lizardman makes you close to invincible, and boom! It's all over.

Akalabeth tosses you into an insane randomly-generated world, with the utterly primitive graphics accentuating the atmosphere, and the only way to survive is to take advantage of the way the world is rigged against you, and turn the mechanics to your advantage. When you win, in a bit of unintentional silliness, you are invited to call a disconnected phone number to report your deeds to a vanished company. In short, its charm today is as an amusing diversion, and much of the charm rests on the artifacts of its age.

Next time I'm home I'll dig up that Dragon magazine article and try and post some quotes. They also had reviews of Ultimas III, IV, VI, and VII I think. I seem to recall they were unusual in panning IV.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Review Overview!

Well, first some notes. I haven't posted in about a month. My original plan was to make a post about a curious surprise that a certain Lord British mentioned he'd send after I did as suggested by comments and informed him of my feat! However, he may have forgotten about it since nothing arrived, and if I wait too long to make a new post, it's possible no one will be reading, lol. So my plan is to make a few posts. One today will wrap up some responses to comments.

Then I'll write some summary posts going over each group of games. I figure overall they can be divided into several groups. The first is the earliest games, which were more experiments in programming and not anywhere near as cohesive (or worth playing) as the later games. The second is the sequence Ultima III, Ultima IV, and Ultima V, which to my mind seem like very similar games, although the late rone is far more sophisticated. I mean they seem to be evolving in one direction. I think there's a bit of a change in focus in VI, VII and Serpent Isle, as the style of gameplay changes significantly between V and VI and then massively between VI in VII. I'll also slide in three other discussions of the place of the spin-off games. I'll talk about how the Worlds of Ultima games in some ways were better than Ultima VI, the immersing gameplay of the Underworlds, and...um...I guess I'll talk about the Runes of Virtue games at some point. I'll wrap things up on a sour note by talking about why I think VIII and IX were failures.

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me my best Ultima experiences were in VI, Serpent Isle, and Underworld II. There are moments throughout the series that I think are highlights or just interesting to think about, and these three games had more than their fair share. Thinking about Underworld II also leads reminds me of how unrelentingly depressing that game is.

But some comments! First, I probably won't review any remakes. I've never been a big fan of remakes unless they are intended as ports or something sort of like ports (eg, Exult). To me, Ultima V isn't just a story about a kidnapped king, but it's also a spellcasting system and a combat system and a collection of tile graphics and some music, etc. That's not to say remakes aren't cool, but only that I probably won't feel the urge to play them as a part of this blog.

I was also asked about blogging other games...Probably not, lol. The most ridiculous thing about me blogging a year of video games is that I'm not actually much of a video game fan. I play Ultima. I also sometimes play Age of Empires online with a friend. That's pretty much it for me and games, besides the occasional NES jaunt (love that Solstice and Battle of Olympus). My next blog is most likely going to be on some other form of entertainment, e.g. a TV show, or maybe literature (but so many people know so much more than me about the latter). I've also contemplated going to every restaurant (alphabetically, via the phone book) in Lexington and discussing my thoughts on each of them. But for that I'd need a date or, possibly for some places, a bodyguard.

We'll see. But I'll make a note here on the off chance anyone is interested.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ultima IX, Day 10

Time to begin the last post for the last game!

Before heading off to Terfin to confront the Guardian, I had a brief chat with my Companions in castle British. This part of the game was notably more lame than I'd expected--a few made dubious claims about their past help to me (Mariah didn't do jack fighting Batlin...), but most just told me to keep in mind whatever virtue they represent.

From there, I hit Terfin. I was hoping to avoid a cheesy conversation with Raven, but it turns out her telling you about a secret cave causes a giant rock to move out from in front of said cave. From there it was into the dungeon! And what an amazingly longer-than-expected dungeon it was. This time I had to find a big stack of power cubes, as well as kill off a lot of monsters. The gargoyles towards the beginning were the hardest because they did a huge amount of damage with each hit. Later on, it was just endless Wyrmguard that get sliced down in one or two hits from my lightning sword.

I encountered three other people. One was a girl who was searching for treasure and asking for help finding the key to the treasure room. Of course, she never goes anywhere or does anything with the key. Another was an insane guy in blue who thinks I caused the Guardian to turn away from him. He tried to punch me but died rapidly. The third was a woman who was poisoned by some gargoyles in a torture chamber, and demands that I kill her; I politely refuse and tell her "just go cast cure." Well, it didn't give me the option of doing that, but that's what I imagined!

There weren't that many exciting sights in this place. There was a room full of aquariums that was kind of cool, and some severed heads, but for the most part it felt like a barracks, with weapons around and books you can't read. Eventually, I finally made it to the Guardian's entirely black chamber. I put the sigils around on some highly convenient pedestals, causing him to pop through the nearby black gate. Here he is! Boy, he might actually be a little shorter than me. And he does look like a muppet. The Guardian was much more threatening in Ultima VII, somehow, particularly because he puts his dukes up like a boxer when you attack him. Yeesh. In the end, I create a "barrier of life" and then cast Armageddon, destroying the Guardian and myself, and making an ankh appear in the sky. The end!

Well, that's it for 20 years or so worth of gaming. Ultima IX was not as terrible as I remember it, but it was just as disappointing in terms of what I would have expected from an epic conclusion to the series. The failure to emphasize the cool characters the series had developed is a prime reason for complaint, as well as the poor manner in which the various set pieces, mostly designed for an unrelated plot, were all tied together haphazardly with the modified game. I tend to think the complaint voiced in comments about the bad dialog is related to this. I understand the difficulty here--it is very easy to fall into a trap where every conversation is "insider" stuff, that only the guys who've played all the games will get. Ultima IX went the opposite way and we we end up with "What are gargoyles?" and other idiocy from the Avatar.

Still, it's clear that they had a pretty cool world-building tool to play with in creating the Ultima IX we have now. My thinking is that if they'd stopped development on the engine and spent, say, 6 mos or a year creating a world and filling it with people and stories, we would have had a much better game. However, it's unlikely this could have happened without budget being slashed or people yet again being pulled away to work on the internet version of Ultima.

Note my weird phrasing--I've discovered that if I say the actual name of that not-off-line version of the game, I get piles of stupid spam comments. So I'll resist. I particpated in both the pre-alpha and beta test of that game, and got the "charter edition," and you can even find Ophidian Dragon mentioned in the original version of the hint book! But I really didn't like the game at all, or any MMORPGs for that matter, so I've ignored it here.

Did Ultima IX invite you to kill children? A missing feature!

One fun thing to waste more blogging time might be to reflect back on all the games, and see if I can decide my final "ranking" of the various games. I am pretty sure the main canon would fall in the order of (worst to best) 2-1-9-8-3-4-5-6-7, but working the spin offs in would be hard. Except for Drash, we all know where it ends up!

Well, thanks for reading. Maybe someday I will have UW2 screenshots posted! The person I thought was interested in the giant screenshot collection was actually interested in pirated games, so no, I won't be providing those. I own all the games I played, save Drash and Akalabeth; if you really want to grab them illegally, Google makes it easy enough.

If you haven't gotten enough Ultima over the past year, someone else is running a similar blog, in a somewhat less purist manner (I think it's called "My Ultima Journey"). And if you like video game blogs generally, check out Blogging Zelda and Blogging Final Fantasy and other similar blogs; I don't read them (not being into those games or, frankly, any non-Ultima RPG) but it's cool to have started something of a blogging trend. Actually, probably someone did this before me, so I'll rephrase and say it's cool to think I began a trend I may not have actually begun!

If you just dig me, I'm probably going to begin some other totally unrelated blog project soon. My CageBlog was cool, and I learned rapidly how to (not) write a topical blog; I wish I had not finished it so soon. Blogging Ultima has been a big improvement over that project. I'm glad it took a year to complete; I almost wish I had dragged out the earlier games a bit longer, in fact! Hopefully the next one will be even better. It's been a blast especially due to the quality & quantity of comments I get, so thanks to everyone who contributed in that way!

I also encourage you to start your own blog on whatever peculiar topic interests you, since there's always a few other people out there. And if you're a nerd like me, nothing attracts dates and money like a giant video game blog. Just kidding. But it's fun anyway.

Go in Virtue!


Saturday, February 9, 2008

Ultima IX, Days 8 and 9

Well, the Stygian Abyss proved to be pretty hard! Well, some parts of it did, anyway. Getting there has to be the least coherent part of the game by a mile--you summon Pyros--PYROS--from a different planet (also, I thought he was dead), and he opens the Abyss for you.

Hey, wait, this is Day 9. I need to discuss Day 8. Let's backtrack...

In order to get to the Abyss, the final dungeon you have to clear, it is necessary to visit the now-destroyed (again?) city of Skara Brae. There, I spoke again to a statue of Shamino, who told me I needed to fetch the Bell, Book, and Candle and bring them back here, put them around him and use them to bring him back into this world. He also suggested that I fetch the Ankh of spirituality and visit the nearby Temple of Souls, a nice reference to the Well of Souls from Ultima VII. In order...

Book: Easy. I visited the oracle in the Lycaeum. It asked me who was to blame for Britannia's Guardian woes. I said the Guardian. The oracle told me to piss off. I reloaded the game, said it was me, and I got the book. Yay!

Candle: Off to the ruins of Empath Abbey, where a monk spouts platitudes and a dragon stands around on an ice floe about 50 feet away. A few ignite spells later, I have the candle, and swim back to Yew.

Bell: This proved more complicated. The ruins of Serpents Hold are, well, sparse. And much of it appears to be underwater. I swam through a force field (it took me forever to realize I needed to try this--I assumed I needed to do something to make the field go away), and faced an evil arch mage! He killed me rapidly with fireballs, and I tried again several times but could not reach his platform. Then I realized it was actually the swampy goo UNDER the platform he stoof on that was causing me such harm. From there I stepped outside the doorway and shot a dozen arrows into his head until he died. A lady who apparently never needs to go to the bathroom opened a wall she was hiding behind and gave me the bell.

Ankh: Ah, memories of Ultima V. The sandlewood resides on Lord British's desk in his bedroom. The king had since vanished to face off against Blackthorn, and I learned I needed to follow him. The box vanished after some harpsichord-ed Stones, and I got the ankh!

Back to Skara Brae, where I put the items around the statue of Shamino, and nothing happened. Hmm. Eventually I realized when Shamino says "bring them here and put them around me" he meant where he actually was, not where his voice came from. I leapt into the well of souls, chatted with some fairly cool characters about truth, love, and courage (though I never found the baby...) while in the background was some garbled, echo-drenched words similar to Robert Ashley's "Automatic Writing." I found Shamino in trance, then woke him as instructed.

The next part is, as I said in the beginning, totally off the wall. Shamino brings up Malchir for no reason (I think I missed a line of dialog somewhere), and I nearly scare him away. Shamino tells him his pain after death is a consequence of the hatred he holds for me after I caused Pyros to destroy him. I do not get the chance to say, "SHAMINO, YOU MORON, PYROS DIDN'T KILL HIM, I DID BECAUSE THE JERK ATTACKED ME!" From there it's off to the Isle of the Avatar, and the beginning of this post, summoning Pyros with a very conveniently placed demon skull on an equally convenient pentagram...

The Abyss itself consists of a long vertical drop, and four levels corresponding to the elements of earth, air, fire and water, bringing to mind Pagan. It would be cool if someone were to design a game based on our modern understanding of elements, with levels devoted to Hydrogen, Helium, Nitrogen, Boron, Lithium, and all the other hundred-something. I guess that would be a lot of work. In any case, you beat each of those levels, and teleport to some lands where you fight each of the elements to subdue them.

Air: Lots of floating pillars and a dragon. This one was tedious because it's easy to fall off the floating platforms, but the dragon is weak.

Fire: Hard! There's lots of daemons and even more lava. At the end, I faced a gigantic demon I must have hit with my lightning sword 100 times before he finally expired. I'm not sure what the issue was there; I may have needed to killed him inside the pentagram on which he appeared, because the final blow took place when he walked back in.

Earth: This was pretty easy. The big earth golem crumbled under my attack. I also picked up some nice armor.

Water: The plane of water was very attractive, with waterfalls everywhere, and raindrops splashing. The bad guy there was a big sea serpent, who flopped around a whole lot when I whacked him, but who died rapidly.

From there it was a quick walk to watch the extremely crash-prone sequence where British battles Blackthorn. I watched it about 9 times before I finally got through it without crashing, and the crashes dramatically lowered the drama. I found it amusing that Blacky's last words were, "Why won't you die!?" which is a question I think we've all asked about Lord British once or twice! I headed back to Raven, who took me to the Castle, and British sent me off to cleanse the shrine of spirituality.

So I guess this last dungeon was something of a Pagan homage. It seems like a lot of the Ultima games get a mention or two, or at least an homage, at some point during Ultima IX, from cleansing the shrines, the (granted, TOTALLY misused) gargoyle prophecies, Malchir, the well of souls, the sandlewood box, words of power, the bell, book and candle ritual, and even, dubiously, the city of Dawn. Too bad the spin-offs and earlier games don't get very much, especially U1 and U2. I was grateful to have an Ultima that finally acknowledge U2 took place on Earth, though!

To a commenter--no, I won't be listing all the pages dealing with a particular game on the right-hand side; it's easy enough to look at the archive listing below that. I just thought having the games by title or group rather than chronologically would make it easier to find the beginning of the posts dealing with each game.

Tomorrow, I will narrate the final visit to Terfin and the defeat of the Guardian. That, I guess, will end the blog. I'm not sure what I might do here after that...I could play the SNES Ultima VII at some point, but there's not much else. Sort of melancholy weekend I guess. For what it's worth, Ultima IX is not a 10-day game, unless you play an excessive amount during those 10 days. I estimate Ultima IX all in all took me 36 hours, basically as much time as Serpent Isle, which stretched out to 17 days. Take that how you will!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Oh yeah...

So I noticed a very old comment where I said, "maybe I'll add a list of links to each game on the right side of the page." Well--there it is! Enjoy.

Ultima IX, Day 7

Well, my blog is more interesting when I make random contreersial statements. But more on that later! First, I must cover the Ultima. Today's quest was to visit Destard. Actually, it was to visit the town of Valoria (I guess Jhelom was eaten by the volcano?), discover that I am not allowed to get in without slaying a dragon, and then going to Destard to do so. Getting to Destard was a bit of a pain. I tried to get to the ice-capped mountain with a secret entrance through an area west of Britain, but without a great deal of luck. It turns out that the easier way is through the city of Dawn, a ruined town southwest of you. The name Dawn amuses me--although everywhere on the game map is east of somewhere, I would have imagined dawn would be in the far east on the usual orientation of the map of Britannia. But maybe the sun rises in the west here? I never checked.

Anyway, Destard has one of the more bizarre quests around--like several dungeons, a major part of the quest is to gather items that serve as keys to unlock another locale. In this case...it's broken dragon eggshells. Glad to see dragons are still in Destard! Several of the pieces are scattered in a Wyrmguard hideout where a cult worshiping the giant dragon living in Destard is located, too. Her name is Taloria, right? Aren't Talorians the big headed mind-reading people who Captain Pike meets in the un-aired pilot of the original Star Trek? Anyway, the main thing you have to do is collect the eggshell bits, which I managed to do. One of the most memorable encounters in the dungeon was with this utterly gigantic zombie torso what I think yells "Boo!" and attacks me when I open a grave.

There's also a liche defending an eggshell chunk and some bone armor, a helmet I think. Throughout the game, I encountered several pieces of bone and/or blackrock armor, but it always bugged me because they always seemed to be either boots or helmets, but due to my swamp boots and my helm of radiance, I really don't want those kinds of armor, lest I lose the benefits of the old stuff. Oh well.

The end of the dungeon came when I confronted Taloria, who offered to join me and fight the Guardian to rule Britannia. You've got to be joking, right? This dragon is a fool. And I was very was not to agree to her terms, because I simply drank an invisibility potion, and killed her in like three slashes from my lightning sword. Weakling! After returning to Valoria, I was allowed in, and I saved the life of a wizard, whom the Guardian suddenly killed. This I found very confusing, because if he can just arbitrarily undo all my actions, why did he only undo this one? Weird. Anyway, I convinced the townsfolk to help be fight off a trio of demons, got the sigil as a consequence, and cleared the shrine. Tomorrow, the Stygian Abyss! And a weak "arch" mage.

Onto comments. With regards to plot construction, I guess I wasn't clear. I find the game highly disjointed, especially the Ambrosia->Hythloth jump, and the Buccaneer's Den->Deceit jump. Or the summoning of Pyros(!) that occurs tomorrow--the feeling you get from these is that chunks were sort of haphazardly spliced together to make a storyline, and that's pretty much what happened.

I disagree with those who say you get the main elements of the game working, then add the details. To my mind, what made Ultimas good was the style in which they were made--a world editor with lots of cool features, and then the world created to exploit those great features. Ultima 9 had several versions of this game world, it seems, and again, the game is spliced together from elements of all of them. Had they started with one world editor and then developed the whole game with it, I think it would have been great, even with something very close to the present story arc.

As to art...I don't believe I said art was operating within constraints, but rather that the desire to do that is a trait I associate with artists. In any case, the statement that "...it has virtually no validity when applied to other art forms" is just silly. I don't know anything about painting, but there are enormous numbers of very specific forms, structures, and systems in music that serve to limit the materials used, and/or the way in which are used, from large scale structures with required movements, to rigid systems dictating the ordering of tones or allowed harmonies. People experiment with new forms, new instruments, etc, but there is also a strong conservative movement in music.

But that's beside the point--The reason many people might not consider games as art is because gaming is an experience, in the same way that cards cards can obviously be artistic but solitaire, the process by which someone uses the cards, would not be art. Similarly, a play is considered art--but the experience of an actor as he performs in the play, is that itself art? To my mind, that's the root of the problem. Obviously I have a broad definition of what art is (see my John Cageblog; lots of Cage's music is in the form of processes to be carried out to structure and create a performance rather than objects to be performed). Using art as a value judgment is also idiotic; just because some piece of art is terrible doesn't make it not art.

I think that covers it all for today! Great comments. I guess playing a recent game draws people in more than the ancient stuff, though I enjoyed the oldest ones that rarely get airtime the most; I felt I was offering a service to them in some sense!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Ultima IX, Days 5 and 6

First of all, let's start with a link:
Games as Art

I'm generally skeptical of the concept. Games, to be games, are necessarily entertainment, but I don't generally expect art to entertain me. On the other hand, sometimes it does, and much art is made for ulterior motives besides just desire to make art. All the games it discusses are relatively recent. Which reminds me, one thing I think of when I think of art is the concept of purposeful limitation--choosing to write a sonnet because the limitations of the form forces originality. But to my knowledge, game designers don't normally choose platforms that are limiting because of the limitations.

Back to the blog! I've combined these two days because, like the last two, I can't think of anything really exciting about the dungeons involved. There were two--Wrong and Shame. Actually, there were a lot of neat details in Shame. Wrong was also pretty creative, in that being touched by a guard in this prison (quickie backstory--Raven's falsely accused; you must rescue her) sends you back to a jail cell without your equipment. Fortunately for me and unfortunately for said guards, it was not hard to sneak up behind them and kill them pretty rapidly! Wrong is overall pretty small in size, but there's large numbers of doors between the discrete chunks of the dungeon, and it is maze-like despite the small size.

Escaping feels sort of exciting, because Wrong has a fortress surrounding its entrance, and a gigantic bridge separates you from he mountains nearby, so looking over the edge of the fortress walls seeing a bridge disappear in the mist is pretty cool.

Getting to and from Wrong is a bit of a nuisance, since there's a lot of mountains. On the way there I stopped and picked up the Quill of Justice (an odd sigil!) from a big static bird of some kind, who asked me some very dubious justice questions. The one that bothered me the most asked if it was just to hunt down a wolf who had killed a child; it claims the answer is no because it's unjust to kill a wolf merely for being a wolf. This seems incoherent, because since anything a human does is being human, it would seem that punishing someone for his crimes would also be unjust, for the same reasons. Moreover, if killing a wolf because it is dangerous is unjust, wouldn't it be even more unjust to kill, say, a corn stalk merely because you want some popcorn?

After cleansing the shrine of Justice (and clearing Raven's name, and handing off the gargoyle queen egg to Vasagralem), I hit the sea to Trinsic. The dungeon shame is one of the most fun in the game, but since it's all a series of puzzles (and lots of eyeballs with squishy eyeball noises), I don't think I'll go into much detail. The Trinsic quest proves to be probably the most compelling in the game--Blackthorn accosts you in Shame, and destroys the Sigil of Honor; however, you learn that the sigils themselves are irrelevent and merely embody the virtuous energy of the townsfolk. By risking his life to defend others, the cup of honor is re-grown. I have never much liked honor--it seems like it depends on the other virtues, such that something that is unvirtuous is necessarily dishonorable (I think U4 may agree with me here). But that is higher criticism! The way honor is used here is pretty good, though it would have been a bit more compelling had Dupre not shown up to explain everything in detail, like the guy at the end of a TV show who explains the moral of the episode.

Now, on to comments. I got some weird ones. Two people said that changing the name of the gargoyle city to something gargish instead of Ambrosia would be highly un-canonical. This I don't understand. Why would the gargoyles, acting out of racial pride, choose a name for their great city that has nothing to do with gargoyles? Mjs says that the blog was more fun to read before the U9 hate. I didn't think I was particularly hateful towards the game--in the last post I praised the music; in other places I said the dungeons were well designed. Most of U9's problems are based on the disjointedness of the quest (being rewritten at least twice definitely did not help matters here) and the fact that it's been dumbed-down to not intimidate new players.

If you discount the crashes and another annoyances, it's not a terrible game, it's just a dissapointing end to an otherwise (well, mostly) fine series. I don't "hate" the game, because it doesn't make sense to hate a video game.

Also, I agree with Justin, who says the original Guardian-homeworld plot would have been good. I agree, but I don't think it would have been appropriate for the final game in the series. At that point, of course, it wasn't conceived as being the final game! I tend to think the famous Bob White plot is way, way too epic to possibly work and be believable. You would have been stuck on a linear course worse than anything in the present U9 or Serpent Isle. The present ending is pretty good--the Avatar makes the ultimate sacrifice for Britannians who have realized they must be self-sufficient, British finally admits he really needs to get out and do things, etc. There are a lot of things that disappointed me (Blackthorn proving that mercy is stupid, for example), but even with something like the present plot the game could have been good with proper execution, and had it not been restarted so often.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ultima IX, Days 3 & 4

So the next two days of my game playing were not very thrilling, especially the second. They deal with my brief visits to the dungeons of Deceit and Covetous. After my completion of Hythloth, I headed to the dungeon of...Hold the presses. I feel the sudden urge to make fun of stupidity come on!

pride, leading to death by one's own deeds. Also one of the anti-virtues in the world of Ultima
"Hythloth caused many many deaths when Hitler tried to raise up the Nazi's, his master race."

Ohhhhh boy. Even if the writer were correct in the definition, the usage doesn't make much sense.


From Hythloth, I returned to Buccaneer's Den, where Blackthorn captures me and tosses me into a dungeon! Specifically, the dungeon of Deceit. Which, strictly speaking, isn't a jail. Escape involved the use of a phase spider statue, which allos me to enter a parallel universe exactly the same as the present one, but where I can pass through tables, chairs, gates, and other non-door items. Manipulating levers there causes equivalent gates to open in the real world.

I'll just let that paragraph pass without comment, because there's no hope in trying to make any sense of it. Just let it pass, because the rest of Deceit is fairly entertaining, with weird timed-arrow shooting puzzles, some lava draining and filling, and so on. Eventually I met Mariah, though y ou don't seem to be able to avoid her via conversation; instead, i just ran past her. Outside in Moonglow, I am sent on random quests by a wizard who wants me dead, and whose quests are simply wild goose chases. In the last quest he sends me to...a cave where I find the item to control his soul.



OK. Continuing...Another wizard wants Mariah's shield. I go into her house and down to her basement, and flip some switches to retrieve the shield. Mariah appears out of literally nowhere, tells me to watch out for the mage, then vanishes as if she never existed. Trading the shield for the sigil lets me cleanse the shrine, and I'm done! Oh yeah, I made the "Lycaeum," which is now a floating building with a dubious oracle in it, appear. It told me the mantra that I already knew...

Cove...erm, Minoc...uh...Cove...that is, Minove was next. It seems like Minove was the least-thought out portion of the entire game. Blackthorn is in the town hunting for the lenses with which he can view the Codex; when the townsfolk refuse to hand them over, he puts a curse on the town using some really ridiculous magic words (I think "klunk" was one of them), which I assumed to be fake because before he said it, he added "You folk are a supersticious lot..." But it turned out to be real! Ahh. The dungeon on the island was Covetous, where I retrieved a blackrock crystal ball which always tells the future, but which for whatever reason I can't use to, you know, help me in my quest. The dungeon itself was a fairly tiresome one, with multiple levels and some fairly tough monsters (Skeletons that come back to life unless you steal a bone--I had about a dozen skulls in my backpack at the end).

Oh yeah, it had the worst enemy of all--massive numbers of crashes. Maybe every 10 minutes. The experience was so thoroughly miserable that I used a walkthrough to get me through it in as little time as possible. That allowed me to find a powerful bladed staff which actually doesn't seem very tough, and a helm of radiance that there is NO way I would have found on my own! Maybe I'm missing lots of other magic items, too.

That done, I headed back to Britain, hoping to never set foot in Covinoc again. I did learn one random plot detail--Julia, the guardian of the glyph of sacrifice, is in love with me. Poor girl. Is that why she'd always be seriously mad at you when you asked her to leave your party in the previous games? Hmmm...

Moonglow also posed a lot of problems for me--saving my game there and then reloading did not work, so I had to go back into Deceit every time. This was quite frustrating. I also experienced crashes, but switching to emulated Glide let me get through without a problem. I anticipate finishing the game tomorrow, but the blog will continue for a few more days. This is a LONG game and I have spent an enormous amount of time playing it!

One of the troubles of this blog, of course, is that it's so goal centered that I don't feel compelled to spend as much time just exploring and seeing what's around in this or the other games. Actually, I guess I did in the beginning (I remember visiting all the planets of Ultima II), but this late in my effort I am honestly pretty eager to be done! I can't believe it's been a year.

I have written on my hand a note that occurred to me at work yesterday, while writing interrupt routines for some printer firmware and listening to music--The song "Hope Road" by Anne Clark has some cheesy electronic music that for some reason brings to mind the castle music in Ultima III for the NES. My brother played that game for many hours when I was much younger, and listening to the MIDI version of the game music now brings back a lot of memories. Plus, the tune itself is fairly wistful. Which leaves me to think about Ultima music generally. Ultima IX's is very nice; a variety of presentation, with each town involving the melodies of its requisite principles of Truth, Love and Courage...I need to figure out how to extract it. Ultima IV and V have some good songs as well, and I also like the "Bane" theme from Serpent Isle. The most cohesive music is probably in Ultima Underworld II, where there's this attractive recurring theme in all the music, most notably in the haunting tune from the Tombs of Praecor Loth and the one from the ice caverns...

I wish I had a better MIDI synth. In fact, I don't know why it's not possible to just go buy some gigantic wavetable, store it on your hard drive, and then let your PC generate extremely high quality waveform files directly from the MIDI. Or maybe it is easy to do that. Whatever the case, you could end up with some sweet versions of the Ultima music.

Oh yeah, Ultima IX's cutscenes have suddenly quit showing. Not that it's much of a loss.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Forgot a comment!

I forgot to make a note re: Hacki's Ultima Nitpicking page. I've never been a fan of it, largely because the description of all the Ultima games contains at least one dig on Ultima IX, which is sort of amusing because I don't think it's a good game, but which makes me almost feel sorry for the poor thing from the pile-on. Also, there's a lot of "just plain wrong" in there, e.g., I was "off to kill Malichir" in Ultima VIII--dude, he attacks you--or, "Erethian doesn't notice the magic problems" in Forge of Virtue, when in reality there is specific dialog for that very situation when he tries to magically create a forge. I am amused by the effort (I fondly remember a "Star Trek" nitpicker's guide of the same genre) but the way it's presented rubs me the wrong way.

Ultima IX, Day 2

Well, my second day went pretty well, still no significant crashes. I have discovered that I *DO* get sound effects, but that they are inexplicably quiet. If I shut off music and speech and turn the volume on my receiver all the way up to the point I can hear static, then I can hear the Avatar's "Ahh" when he punches the air, and the sound of smashing barrels, etc. Very weird. On the other hand, that doesn't seem to add much to the game, so I am not upset at its lack.

Day 2 comprised four events--probably there was some overlap with Day 1 and 3, but shh, it's convenient to break it up by dungeon.

1) Buccaneer's Den
Raven takes me here to meet Samhayne, who wants me to go off to Hythloth and fix that column, offering the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom (!!!) as an incentive. I guess he just found it laying around somewhere. And why not? In Ultima VI, the vortex cube was possessed by a cyclops family! In any case, I leave him behind, and go to Magincia through the tunnel. The password through said passage was "keelhaul," which Raven considered to be a pirate joke, but which I don't get. Outside of the passage is this annoying ghost who wants rum--annoying because every time you come within several feet of him, he asks "Have ye got the rum?" Ahhh, it drove me batty trying to explore the area.

2) New Magincia
In echoes of some of the Ultima VI rune quests, before Katrina (the lone inhabitant) will give me the rune, she needs me to accomplish some inane quests. including setting fire to a buzzards nest and killing a wolf who guards a shepherd's crook, a weapon oddly more powerful than anything I have thus far, including my flaming sword. Did I talk about the flaming sword? It was in the hedge maze near Lord British's castle. I got it the easy way, by climbing attop the hedges, ignoring the maze, and leaping to the center. That's one of the nice things about Ultima IX--if some aspect of traveling in the outer world seems annoying, you can often ignore it completely and find a way to climb over the mountains or another way around. Anyway, Katrina finally gives me the sigil, and then I get sucked by a whirlpool into Ambrosia!

3) Ambrosia
This quest and the stuff in New Magincia proved to be very brief, as compared to some of the quests in other towns. In Ambrosia, the gargoyle city, all I did was turn on a crappy sculpture on a tower and shatter their underwater dome. Sorry, guys. I then killed the queen and disappeared with a queen egg using a teleporter. The city is one of the more attractive locales in the game, with lots of floating buildings and some guy who built a boat out of rocks. I forgot to rescue a gargoyle from a prison (a side quest I have forgotten the content of), but after I smashed the dome, he showed up anyway, and a rock fell on him.

4) Hythloth
After Ambrosia, for some reason I end up in Britannia's sewer system, which is, again "for some reason," located in the middle of the ocean. And it has scattered magic statues to open up the exit back to Magincia. I guess you could argue that the gigantic towers on Magincia (all since fallen) suggest that they might also have had an extensive sewer system...In any case, Hythloth is divided into two parts--the part that leads to the exit, and the part that leads to absolutely nothing of value. I did not take the second leg of the journey, and opted to head back to Magincia directly. I started on it, remembered the "use tiny levers to turn on colored lights" puzzle, remembered hating it, and then ran back to the escape teleporter. I remember you have to turn them in a certain order to get gates to open, right? Is there any hint as to the order, or is it all trial and error? I've noticed that in Ultima IX I tend to overlook books or signs that are hard to see and which offer tips and explanations for this sort of puzzle...If there was anything, I missed it.

Once I cleansed the shrine, that was that.

As to comments...

I feel OK criticizing Ultima IX for spontaneously inventing a giant tower, because in Ultima V I don't remember there being more than one floor to the Shadowlord's keep, and because Ultima VII had a book documenting its history--inhabited by cyclopses, knights, a mage, then overrun by a swamp. I don't mind the fact that it's in the mountains again--I guess the swamps receded, and the mountains grew back(!?!?)--but it was weird that the history specifically made for it in VII was tossed out.

I don't understand the complaint about the fan patch renaming Ambrosia. They obviously wanted a gargoyle name for a gargoyle city; why would they choose something that sounds like Ambrosia if the point is they think gargoyles wouldn't name something Ambrosia? I've never used the dialog patch, so I can't say how much I agree with the changes that were made.

Another commenter insists Zelda is deep, though I still don't see it. Things which are "deep" are things which can be understood on multiple levels, or whcih consist of multiple layers; Ultima VI had this because the situation as it appears when you arrive is not the reality you uncover later on. Although I can't think of any games that I would call deep throughout, there are many aspects of the Ultima games that think have depth to them, beginning with the ending of Ultima III, where you discover that the supposed child of Mondain and Minax is some kind of machine to be destroyed a punch card program. It's something that I find interesting to think about once the game is over. There's other things, too, like the inexplicable presence of the Time Lord in one location in one cave in order to say once sentence and then disappear. It seems as if Garriott must have made this person for some reason as opposed to just making it a sign or plaque or something telling you the order of the cards; presumably, he ties into the fact that Exodus is actually a machine, and the Time Lord is the only person around that understands it.

Of course, depth does not equal fun, and plenty of decidedly shallow things are quite fun. I consider Zelda, whether considered when I played it in 1987 or today, to be in the latter category.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Ultima IX, Day 1

Well, my gaming of Ultima IX has begun; in fact, it's continued for several days. It seems that in general I either am in the mood to play the game, or to blog, but rarely do I do both in the same day! In any case, the past several days I have made much headway, and I have to say I'm pretty eager to wrap this up. I'm hoping I can do so before Feb 14th, marking the end of a year since I started this effort!

This blog concerns day 1. With a few exceptions, it seems that I can cleanse a shrine in about 2-3 hours worth of gameplay, from my first arrival in the town to the cleanse. This first day is probably about 2.5 hours; Despise is short, but there's a lot of pre-emptive stuff you have to get out of the way. The beginning of the game is terribly incoherent, in my view--for some reason, you're back on Earth. At the end of Ultima VIII, you had just appeared on a bleak landscape with fire everywhere, right? I guess starting on Earth makes some sense (you have to learn how to play). but it's still pretty disconcerting. The game really begins when you are tossed into Stonegate (after a brief appearance on a mountaintop--again--you are whisked away).

Someone apparently decided to rebuild Stonegate into a freakishly gigantic tower, and also to create some Shadowlord statues from outside. So Stonegate hints at one of the things I find generally annoying about Ultima IX--it tries to pay homage to previous games, but it does so in ways that are just kinda disconcerting, like this spontaneously rebuilt Stonegate.

But before I rip on the game too much, I should probably mention some of the good points. I think the dungeons are, by far, the highlight of the game, the early ones, at least, are well designed and challenging without being frustrating. The puzzles are interesting and inventive, and make good use of the 3-D engine. The outdoor world is also interesting, with lots of nooks and crannies to explore with unexpected items laying around. However, the outer world is pretty darn cramped, and feels tiny. There's a brigand living right behind Lord British's castle!? The fact that monsters re-spawn forever, at least outside, can also be tiresome--I must have killed that thief near the east gate of Britain at least 30 times; you'd think the thieves would quit lurking there. I know the older games had this problem too. One of the interesting things about the cramped world, also, is that it's accentuated by the 3D view--because you can look in the distance, you can see the island that you won't get to any time soon, or the goblin on the mountaintop, or whatever' Ultima VII was also a pretty crowded game, but since you were stuck in the overhead isometric view, it didn't feel as much that way.

But that's a long digression from the plot points! Britain has been corrupted by the column and its inhabitants are not quite so compassionate as they might be, shipping the poor off to the swamp town of Paws. Things reach a head after you finish up Despise and the mayor's daughter is carted off. He eventually learns his lesson, as you would expect. What's interesting is that his compassionate-ness seems to improve even before cleansing the shrine. Each shrine requires the glyph from the column and a virtue-themed artifact from the town (in this case a big blue crystal heart--which seems to be as big as my head; how do I fit this in my backpack!?) to be cleansed, after which the music (sometimes) changes to a happier (and IMO a worse) tune. Despise is a simple dungeon to work through, but it has some interesting features, such as a non-essential magic shield quest (which I never completed--you need four crystals; I found three and learned all the shield did is improve your magic and gave up), and a lot of log books and other such things that indicate that Lord British has sent expeditions into the dungeon and has almost created a little town there, albeit a totally self-insufficient one (all the guard posts have been abandoned...)

In the bottom, you meet Iolo, who has been corrupted but who is a weakling. Fetching the glyph apparently cures him and he goes back to stay with Gwenno nearby.

So one of the more interesting places in the game is the big museum in Britain, which collects a wide array of miscellany from previous games, from the obvious like the cards that killed off Exodus (they are playing cards, but I envision them as more akin to old computer punchcards) and the vortex cube (which does not seem to be cubical) to the obscure, like Khorgin's fang from Ultima VIII and the blue tassel from Ultima II.

Once upon a time there was a website which had 3D representations of a bunch of the magic weapons from various games in the series; a similar effort at making representations of some of the interesting quest items could be worthwhile too.

A word on screenshots...I'm not posting any for now because they come out so terrible. I'm going to have to ponder what I will do about this.