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

Saturday, December 5, 2009

UW, again

Turns out I had a backup copy of UW in, not shockingly, a subdirectory called "backup" in the UW directory on my laptop. I think I had simply corrupted some files or something because the backup played fine. Playing as a mage wasn't terribly different from playing as a fighter, though--except that virtually every skill is obviated by magic. The exception is combat! Most of the offensive spells are ranged, and the others like flame wind and sheet lightning seem kind of random in their effectiveness. One thing to keep in mind during the game is that a decent number of the harder quests can be ignored until later in the game, when they become almost comically easy. My favorite example is Rodrick, whom I ignored until I'd fully explored levels 5 and 6. Then I took him out with two fireballs. The gazer in the mines was also very easy with a couple of lighning bolts.

Here's a few random thoughts for some of the spells:
--detect monster, much like the tracking skill, seems pointless when there's a save game feature. The rune of warding also seems pretty dubious.

--You get a lantern early enough in the game that there's not much need for most of the light and night-vision spells, unless of course you want to ditch the lantern. I might have late in the game when I had to lug around those talismans, but instead I just dumped them by the level 8 staircase.

--poison could be a good spell, but it's too hard to tell what its effect on the target is.

--Remove trap and the equivalent skill are the most worthless in the game. I can't even remember any traps that they worked on.

--By contrast resist fire may be the best spell in the game because fireballs are so incredibly powerful and those fire elemental in level 7 really blast you with them.

--Open is of limited utility when the only doors that open with it are ones you can bash to bits with your fist anyway. The same goes for picklock as a skill.

--gate travel could have made life easier in a few places (like going all the way back up to see Shak) but I never really bothered to use it.

--I could have sworn there was part of the game where telekinesis was required, but apparently I was wrong. Must be remembering most of the other Ultimas :-P

--ally and summon are cool in concept, but it's a bit of a nuisance that the creatures don't start attacking immediately. It's also kind of pointless since they attack you after beating the enemy.

--invisibility doesn't seem to be all it's cracked up to be. Monsters don't seem to have much trouble seeing me.

--reveal is a weird one. Is there anything invisible out there? It's hard to know where to cast it unless you know something is invisible!

--Fly is very helpful in navigating big areas quickly, especially on level 8 when I want to go back to the stairs.

-flame wind and sheet lightning seem kind of inconsistent. I enjoyed using flame wind to blow away a gazer and four goblins during the trek to the key of courage, but sometimes it didn't seem to do much of anything.

--Sheet lightning and tremor were even less effective. I don't think the few times I used them that they hurt anybody!

--roaming sight is a lot of fun but very hard to control.

This time I also played as a mace user, but there's a lack of great maces. Maybe I should play as a ranged weapons user instead! That might be impossible. lol, or maybe unarmed!

As I mentioned a year or two ago, when I first wrote about the game, the thing I wish most were different is that the major quest items, the talismans, are almost all useless. I don't know exactly what I'd have them do, but it's annoying to lug around a bottle of wine I can't even open.

Enough ranting! I enjoyed replaying the game. I think I'm going to go amuse myself with roaming sight. I can get the same sort of effect from the Underworld map viewer out there, but it's not as fun because roaming sight also shows the items and creatures.

Monday, November 9, 2009


I just spent about an hour and a half searching google to no avail, when I decided I should use the blog instead! I was feeling the urge to play some Underworld as a mage for the first time, but DosBox fails. The graphics on the "looking glass productions" screen are totally garbled, but the "Ultima Underworld" with the flaming letters looks fine. The next screen, with journey onward etc. does not appear at all. The sound works great and I can even select the intro and hear (but not see) my dream and subsequent visit to Britannia.

I haven't played the game or, as I recall, changed any settings since my blogging back in 2007. It's very strange that it spontaneously quit working. Any suggestions out there? I also brought the game to a different PC (I wanted to play UW on my 28 inch monitor just to enjoy the absurdity size mismatch) and had the same problem with v0.73 of DosBox as I had with 0.72 on the laptop. Perhaps the game itself is corrupted. Too bad the CD is a few hundred miles away at present!

Kind of sad I might not be able to play the game again. For what it's worth, though, UW2 works fine.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sigh! 9.

It's finally that time! Finally time, that is, to say some words about Ultima IX. The decade since the game's release has softened my opinion of it quite a bit. I'm going to zip through some of my biggest complaints about the game and at the same time mention the way in which my opinion has gotten softer over the years with respect to each issue. I'll start by mentioning the most-voiced complaints, ones which I can't say much to soften. First, the game is extremely buggy. I have no doubt this will unleash a torrent of comments saying "weird, I never had any problems" but I think such problem-less folk are in the minority. For me, on three different systems I've used over the years, there were frequent crashes to the desktop, especially in the Stygian Abyss and in Covetous. The game has the feel of a rush job, even though it spent something like five years in development; the multiple patches (even an unofficial patch!) help a lot, but are imperfect. I don't really care about bugginess in my overall view of the game (I try to think of what a non-crashing game would be like when I give these overviews) but I need to acknowledge that the quality was very low--Ultima VIII had serious gameplay problems, but I think there weren't so many complaints about crashing. The other main complaint is one I tend to dismiss--that it's too slow. All I can say is that it's not too slow anymore! Time heals all slowness issues, though I have to say their choice of the dead-end Glide API over DirectX definitely mirrors the old Voodoo memory management system from Ultima VII days..In short, Origin went a direction different from the rest of the world without initially realizing it, and now it's a bit of a pain to get U9 working perfectly. The Stygian abyss semi-cut scene with Lord British fighting Blackthorn and the earthquakes in the caves of Covetous are pretty much ruined by the need to repeat them over and over due to crashes, whether or not I used the Glide wrapper that was so effective with other game problems.

In any case, as far as the actualy game is concerned, there's really only a few things I don't like, but they're pretty major things! First, the world feels extremely tiny and very static. The sprawling city of Britain has shrunk, and I don't feel as if there are many landmarks surviving from the previous games. The towns seem completely off (especially Moonglow and Yew), and there's a strong since that each of them is just a set-piece, entirely disconnected from the rest of the world. They cities also seem utterly disconnected from the history of the world, especially the island of Minoc and Valoria, the city of like six people around a volcano that hadn't previously existed. The fact that most of the cities are on islands that you can't reach until certain points of the game adds to the sense of disconnectedness. The lack of some of the features we've come to expect from Ultimas such as NPC schedules and sometimes-over-dense conversation trees are also absent. In summary, Britannia of Ultima IX feels like set pieces populated by cardboard characters--almost the feeling I got wandering around the thousands of randomly-generated cities in Daggerfall (except in Daggerfall, most of the NPCs were also LOOKED like cardboard cut-outs). You could also compare the characters to those in Ultima Underworld I, most of whom were also generics.

I appreciated the efforts that went into referencing earlier games, but some of them felt like they were simply stapled on top of a game that was basically complete. Ultima IX was one of the only games to acknowledge that Ultima II took place on earth! I don't understand how the British museum managed to find Khorgin's fang, though. More absurdly, the skull of Mondain was sitting there! Paraphrasing Erethian from the Forge of Virtue, "I thought someone let that artifact slip into a volcano..." These 'skin deep' references to earlier games are good, but the big ones you would expect (cities and characters having some relationship to their past incarnations) are mostly absent.

So what do I like about the game? Well, the plot's pretty neat. It's no really as 'epic' as I might want in the final game of the series, but the whole idea of city-corrupting anti-virtue pillars popping up out of the ground is cool for several reasons. First, it ties back to earlier games and puts the shrines to good use. Second, it conveniently sets up a nonlinear dynamic, whereby you could travel around the world and fix each pillar whenever you wanted. And third, it provides a sense of graduated accomplishment, where each act you complete changes the area where you completed it. Serpent Isle was pretty good about this--when you did stuff, there were consequences. The plot as used in Ultima IX does a good job with the first idea, barely attempts the second, and tries for the third but falls short because cities of cardboard remain cities of cardboard even if the generic characters say nicer things. I've read the famous Bob White plot but I don't think the plot change is really the big problem--that plot overlaid with the game as it stands would still be problematic. The re-use of the original cut scenes for other purposes, does grate with me, though, especially the absurd summoning of Pyros to gain entry into the Stygian abyss. Ridiculous!

The visuals, on the other hand, were pretty awesome. I remember looking out over the ocean near the shrine of Compassion and thinking, "Wow." There are a few places like that in the game where you can experience a sense of Britannia in way you only might have imagined in previous games. And in spite of all the flaws and bugs, the game's pretty fun to play, with some cool puzzles and awesome, if misplaced, special effects. The real complaint I have is that it 'could have been' so much better, and I feel like the series went out with a whimper instead of a bang. The last few paragraphs seem really bitchy compared to my claim in the first sentence that my opinion has softened, but you should read all the complaints as sighs of regret rather than cries of anger.

So that's all I have in my head on Ultima IX. Sorry it took FOUR MONTHS to write this! I actually wrote part of it, shelved it for a few weeks, wrote a little more, shelved it, etc. until I reached this absurd point. However, this isn't the end because I still need to take some photos of the lovely crossbow Lord British sent me quite some time ago! Then I guess that will wrap up the blog. I have the strong desire to replay Ultima Underworlds I and maybe II as a mage (I never made much use of magic in those games!), but I'm not sure I'll blog about it when I do or not.

As a side note, I seem to have been spelling Khorgin's Fang wrong all this time because the only hits I get in Google are my own blog! But I trust everyone knows what I mean :-)

Till next time!


Sunday, May 31, 2009

U8 / ROV

So it seems I'm not going to make my deadline, as planned last month, to finish U9 by today. But I am not upset; I'll try to do it this week. Still, it's good to squeeze U8 in here while it's on my mind!

As I've always said, the Ultima series kind of went out with a sputter. The way I see it, there are two issues at hand--First, the desire to take the series in a new direction and increase its appeal to a wider audience. Second, the propensity for the games being rushed and/or interrupted by other issues. To my mind, the first is worse, but the second is more depressing. We see elements of the second clearly in the second half of Serpent Isle, where everything just seems to fall apart with clear hooks for a much grander plot left in but unutilized. The random bugs and problems that occur in that game also seem to my mind symptoms.

Ultima VIII suffers a lot from this as well, from the infuriating jumping system (before the patch) and the absurd quest in which you are sent to the birthplace of Moriens, which doesn't even exist (before the patch). Most of these problems can, well, be corrected by the patch! I think Ultima VIII's bigger problem--and importantly, not one shared by Ultima IX--is the desire to go in the new direction towards a more action oriented gaming experience. You can't fix that via a patch!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What were some of the neat ideas about Ultima VIII? Well, I liked the fact that Pagan is an island and thus the rest of its world is basically unknown. The plot is also fairly creative, with the elemental Titans each having distinct personalities and a distinct style of magic. I also enjoyed the shift of emphasis; in the earlier games, the goal is always directly attached to Britannia in some fashion, and is basically finished by the end of the game. Ultima VII was the first to have an uncertain ending, since the black gate's destruction did not also destroy the Guardian, but the immediate existential threat is gone. By contrast, Ultima VIII is mostly about getting off Pagan and at its end really nothing is resolved except for the almost incidental fact that you liberated Pagan, for better or for worse, from its elemental overlords.

So the question comes...how did the design choice mess up what could have been a good game, and how was this made even worse by the lack of testing and general sense of being rushed that pervades the last games? I can point to a few things I really didn't like about Ultima VIII...First, there was a heavy emphasis on the smoothness and realism of its graphics, which produced severe restraints on the possible variety. That's why we end up with, what, only eight or nine distinct monsters? How many did Ultima VII have, by comparison? What strikes me as even more disappointing is that I didn't think the graphics were that impressive. Everything seems dull, gray, and blurry. NPCs are particularly smudgy, and the absence of character portraits robs them of the distinctiveness that otherwise they would have had.

Ultima VIII is also short. Much of the game seems to have been torn out, including an exciting-sounding jaunt through an underwater city to find the Tear of Seas. It seems the game instead is padded with inane jumping puzzles and obstacle courses that while amusing in small doses, get old fast. The worst are probably the sinking-stone puzzles or the impossible "floating rock" puzzles associated with Stratos--they even have the old platform game standby, floating rocks that fall when you stand on them! Oy. I don't know to what degree these aspects were conceived of to begin with, but they feel like ideas that were added later merely to fill out the game which otherwise would take only a few hours to complete.

I don't feel like I have much to say otherwise. I don't like being too bitchy, and this entire post is bitchy, lol. But it's hard not to complain about Ultima VIII given what went before, even though it does seem to have some pretty intense partisans out there in favor of it. I can't even do what I will probably do in my Ultima IX discussion--talk about how the game could have been a lot better--because I think Ultima VIII's problems arose from some pretty fundamental design choices and I can't guess how a game based on its premise might have been otherwise.

On a more positive note, I'd like to stick in a comment about Runes of Virtue! I'm not sure how positive or negative my playing of those games came across, but overall I enjoyed them. They felt like a clever mix of elements from the first Zelda game and Lolo-type puzzles, plus a lot of humor tossed in. I still can't believe there was a pie factory. I also enjoyed the fact that ROV2 was so clearly an improvement on ROV1; I don't think there was anything at all that I missed from the first game. I guess that's the advantage of re-using engines! It's like the first and second Underworld games--there was nothing in UW1 that I missed in UW2, really. Sometimes I have wondered if some of the Ultima games might have been better had they been created with older engines; then again, half the excitement of a new game was seeing how Brittannia a new design.

Anyway, one downside of the way I wrote this blog is that I didn't experience some of the more innovative features of Runes of Virtue. I didn't need the save-game feature thanks the the emulator, and I wasn't really able to enjoy the game link multiplayer feature. In fact, I didn't even realize it had a save feature; evidently it saves to battery at every screen instead of having an explicit means of saving. The ROV series' team lead, Dr. Cat (whom fans might recognize for his various cameos as characters in Ultima games), posted a helpful comment to this effect to one of my blog entries:


Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Hello, world.

The best way to start an Ultima VII blog is probably by answering a recent question--what happens when you start if you don't have a mouse? As I recall, Iolo whispers to you advising you to purchase one. It's kind of an amusing and rare fourth wall moment.

Over and above any of the other games, Ultima VII is far and away the most immersing, in my opinion. It results from a combination of factors, many of which derived from earlier games. An obvious example is the NPC scheduling, which originated in Ultima V but by VII is massively expanded upon to include very detailed NPC activities. Upon first playing the game, it is pretty amusing just to wander around town and observe people going about their business--children playing tag, cooks baking or filling pots with mysterious green sludge, bureaucrats dropping letter openers and other sundry junk at different locations around their offices. I especially like the way NPCs react to the weather, opening shutters and making comments. The size and detail of the game world also aids immersion--from the wide assortment of different kinds of trees to the random corpses in the forest with magic items and the caves with imaginary walls. You can, and I think many of us did, just spend hours wandering the terrain, playing with the interactive objects, and collecting treasure from the endless streams of enemies (especially in the Great Forest, where I tended to hide my booty in the mysterious wisp castle full of books). There are also plenty of little details that I appreciated--the way your companions leave you or even attack you if you steal too much, or the way NPCs react when you move objects while you are invisible.

Other aspects of the game were a bit less popular. At first I was sad at the lack of typed conversations, but I have to admit it improved believability since characters no longer say "I don't know anything about that" to obvious queries. The most disparaged aspect of the game was the combat, and it's understandable considering your companions' propensity for killing you with their weapons (particularly anyone with a firedoom staff--ye gads!). It's true that there was no strategy involved, but frankly I found the older strategic combat tedious, and the fact that the game freezes when you open up your inventory makes up for it at least a little bit, since it's possible to take a breather and change strategy mid-course. Probably even more disliked was your companions' incessant whining for food, which I have to say got pretty annoying. It seems like it would not have been too difficult for your party members to feed themselves with whatever is available! I guess maybe the designers didn't want them eating your special food or something, but surely there could have been a way. Interface-wise, the randomly reorganizing inventory objects proved very frustrating, especially with respect to the inevitable Gigantic Bag O' Keys That All Look Similar. I suppose saving the exact location of every item in any container might have been challenging, but at least the game could have displayed them in some coherent order.

But that's about all the grips I have. The leap between Ultima VII and Ultima VI was at least as giant as the Ultima V to Ultima VI leap, which itself was very noticible. Even today I still am fond of the graphics of Ultima VII, which seem to have just the right mix of sharpness and detail--Everything was bigger in Ultima VIII, for example, but NPC faces and such just looked like smudges. They are smudges in Ultima VII too, but since they are also smaller it seems more appropriate. I also find the Ultima VII soundtrack to be perhaps the most memorable of any of the games. Unlike Ultima VI, each location has distinctive music, and unlike Ultima VIII the tunes are very individual and it doesn't feel like a movie soundtrack, to the point that I can enjoy listening to the music (as I am right now!) outside of the context of the game. LOL, I can even play part of the Fellowship Theme on the piano. Too bad all the recordings of this stuff seem to be MIDIs (even the nice soundtrack CD).

So now let's move on to the other side of the coin--Ultima VII Part 2: The Serpent Isle. It's amazing to me that originally Serpent Isle was conceived of as its own game--That would have been a truly gargantuan effort to play through. On the other hand, I would have enjoyed being able to equip my party myself! It always struck me as absurd that you show up in Britannia with some of the companions wearing no shirt! Or at least I think Shamino isn't. This is one of a wide variety of minor but noticeable problems that crop up in the game: It'd never clear what exactly the Ice Wine replaced; the serpent teeth owned by the Mages in Moonshade seem to just magically appear; after Monitor is destroyed Harnaa talks like nothing happened; etc. I attribute these problems, most of which occur late in the game, to its rushed delivery, a problem that also resulted in many issues with Ultimas VIII and IX and lots of other games.

But let's focus on the things I like! Serpent Isle took the 'real-worldness' of the game to greater heights in a few ways. Most obvious are the gigantic and very attractive character portraits; more subtle is the fact that the portraits largely look like the figures on-screen! On a related note, only rarely is the same figure used to represent different people in the same town, even though this entailed a large number of new types of bodies. The inventory paper-dolling was also very nice, and I was a big fan of the overall design of Fawn with its crisscrossing walkways overhead and so on.

I also appreciated the fact that the world changes upon y our interaction with it, sometimes for better or for worse. Ultima VII and earlier games always bugged me a bit because it was uncommon for someone to notice that you finished anything; an extreme example is the fellow who tells you to retrieve Lord British's crown in Ultima V and doesn't notice that you've returned with it. In Serpent Isle, however, even random people notice things you've done, including new conversation wordings that arise after your become a knight to the wholesale destruction of the towns by your companions. The world is decidedly non-static.

The Guardian...In general, I'm positive. His introduction was pretty impressive, speaking to you from a computer monitor! I loved how he'd make random comments in Ultima VII, especially. He's threatening yet also foolish, so some of the oddities of his plans didn't bother me much. Ultima VII was an especially effective presentation of him, because you only slowly learn the truth over time and it presents a fun mystery. The same is true in Serpent Isle, where you arrive to chase Batlin only to discover that what's going on is vastly more significant than chasing down one guy, even if I get a bit muddled on a few of the details of how the order and chaos serpents ended up where they are and how it is that particular actions solve the problem. The storyline in Serpent Isle was brilliant, tying an already epic quest (stopping the Guardian from destroying the Universe, more or less) with extensive or minor references to very many of the previous games, producing the sense of continuity that I loved so much playing the game.

The downside of such an effort is that it's hard to follow up on; there's the sense that the next game must necessarily be as epic, but in a lot of ways Pagan is non-epic and requires very pragmatic choices.

A few words about the add-ons! I consider Forge of Virtue excellent. It was coherent, the quests were fun, and it tied itself into the story of Ultima despite not strictly relating to the plot at hand (which is good; it needs to be self-sufficient). Erethian was a lot of fun to talk to. Silver seed also had a lot of fun quests, and the notable advantage of variety. Unfortunately, being structured as a time travel adventure leads to some confusing questions (where is this place in the modern-day Serpent Isle? Did planting the silver seed actually accomplish anything?) so plot-wise I liked it a bit less. I also got the sense that it was more of a rush job--which is the sense I get from Serpent Isle overall.

To end this meaty post, I'll just toss out some of my most memorable moments in the two Ultima VII's. There's plenty of them to go around, so I'm sure to forget a few:

-The situation of the Mages, comic but sad.
-Almost every aspect of the Skara Brae quest
-That strange serpent-shaped landmass on Ambrosia
-Destroying any of the generators
-Confronting Batlin with the Cube.
-Shattering the daemon mirror on the Isle of Fire

-The Mountains of Freedom, especially the dream-like sequence where a woman is killed by her nightmare and a man is struck by lightning after you put flowers on a corpse nearby
-The test in Furnace
-Confronting Rabinrath in the dream world
-Shamino and Beatrice
-Confronting Batlin and your companions' speeches
-Speaking to the dead Heirophants

There's plenty more. These are probably why the game has so much replay value, besides the fact that you can pretty much ignore the plot and have a great deal of fun exploring and interacting.

That's enough for today. I still have a few games to go! See you next time.

Monday, April 13, 2009


I apologize for disappointing the person who was enthusiastic about hearing my thoughts on Ultima VII, because today's post is going to be devoted to Ultima Underworld! Not one, but both.

It's hard to remember now, but by far the most remarkable thing about the original Ultima Underworld was its free-flowing, smooth movement. It's hard to exaggerate how game-changing this was, pun intended, in terms of the variety of things you can do and ways of looking at the world. In the older Ultimas, where you had first person perspectives but were limited to "block by block" motion, the environment felt constrained. Even though Ultima Underworld's maps are small, the fact that you can wander freely throughout makes them seem enormous most of the time, especially considering the random secrets you find lying about. One of my favorite examples is in level three with the Lizard Men. One of the quests you must go on is to fetch the bones of Osaka--and it feels like a difficult quest to an out-of the way spot. Yet if you load up a map viewer and just look around the level, it seems horribly claustrophobic and small, and Osaka's bones seem literally within sight of the Lizardman who asked you to retrieve them! Somehow, when playing the world seems much larger and intricate. I feel that's a consequence of the challenge involved in getting anywhere, the ability to swim, the dark and opressive lighting, and the mood set through some of my favorite music in the series.

What's also exciting is the variety of ways in which you can play Ultima Underworld, due to the wide array of skills available. That also greatly adds to its replay value, because each type of play style results in a different experience. The 7th level, where magic can't be used, was certainly a breeze for me since I as usual had mostly eschewed magic! However, I expect other parts of the game would benefit for a more magic-savvy character, especially since at many points magic obviates the need for other skills such as lore and swimming. I have also never attempted to play the game as an expert in ranged weapons or fist-fighting, but it might be worth a try.

Ultima Underworld is highly divorced from the story of the rest of the series--you are captured by a Baron you've never heard of and have to save a Britannia that is unaware of your presence from a monster you never hear of again. This fact has its pros and cons; personally, I think it adds excitement because the game doesn't have to meet expectations with respect to characters and locations, and there is more surprise. Also, as any fan of almost any franchise knows, trying to retrofit the story to what we already know about the history of Britannia is entertaining all by itself. I particularly enjoy trying to determine the year of the events based on the brief clues provided by characters in the game, although sometimes these seems a bit inconsistent!

Some parts of Underworld don't fair so well in the end. I think the bartering system is overall fairly weak, and almost no characters in the game ever seem to have anything I actually want to trade for besides the occasional required quest item. I also find that, although every level of the abyss has its own personality, that fact seems to overshadow a unifying sense of place; that is, every level could practically be its own world or even a separate dungeon. I'm not sure how I feel about the combat system. It was pretty fun to run, dodge, run, dodge, but it's hard to tell if and when you're in range of your opponent, or when you are in his range. The fact that the 2-D opponents also move in a jumpy manner can also be confusing. To round off my small stack of complaints, in spite of being designed for free flowing movement, the world seems awfully box-like to me. In some places this makes sense since people tend to construct with boxes, but I enjoy the more natural seeming environments and wish there were more of them. Oh, and one more thing--I wish more of the virtue talismans actually did anything! The taper of sacrifice, the sword and the shield are quite nice...the bottle of wine and the standard of honor? Not so much.

So this brings me to about the end of my Underworld I comments! As usual I'll pick a few memorable moments, though there aren't a whole lot that stand out in Underworld I. Playing the flute for the cup of wonder is pretty interesting, as is that mad dash for the key of courage. To me, the Lizardman level is the best in the game, though it's tough to explain why. Whenever I think of Ultima Underworld, that's what comes to mind. And of course, there's re-burying Garamon, fighting off Tyball, and tossing away all your useful (and sometimes useless) tools in the abyss.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Ultima Underworld II when I played through it; I remembered liking it, but I didn't quite remember how fun exploring the wide array of worlds was. Not a whole lot changed from the original Underworld, but all the changes struck me as positive. Conversations are a lot more useful, and there's a much stronger sense of having an impact on the world, from the slow decay of Lord British's castle and the murders committed therein to the fact that you can free a friendly troll in the goblin tower, and feel both amused and depressed as he slaughters all the goblins who had been harassing you. There's also a certain bizarreness to the whole experience of playing--no one seems to notice that you literally just walk out of a wall and into their home, a fact that's especially glaring in Killorn.

In terms of atmosphere, I'd call Underworld II perhaps the best in the series. Playing this game can be a very depressing experience due to the overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere virtually everywhere in the game, from the lonely wasteland of the ice caverns to the forgotten irrelevance of Killorn Keep or the emptiness of the Scintillus Acadamy. This all reaches a head in the Tomb of Praecor Loth, where you're forced to fight with the three companions of the dead king, who manage to be utterly self-centered in their unwavering loyalty. It would be extremely sad if the combat weren't so painful! The constant theme of the Guardian destroying everything ties all these worlds together, aided by a soundtrack in which the game theme is reapeated in a variety of ways throughout each realm.

Underworld II is also notable for its variety of in-jokes and game references, from the fake version of Akalabeth in which you fight stick men in the ethereal void to the random comment by Mayor Patterson that he found a key from "the days of Minax" or, on a related note, the comic references to Mondain having a nice wife by Pracecor Loth's wizard. Finally, Ultima Underworld II features one of only two references that I'm aware of to the World of Ultima series; you see yourself on Mars in a crystal ball in the Ice Caverns (the other is Spark referencing the dinosaurs of Eodon in Ultima VII). It also includes a forward reference to Dupre's death in Serpent Isle and even provides an item for that same game--assuming you do something totally unanticipated while playing by speaking to goblins you had dealt with in the beginning of the game towards the end.

In terms of memorable moments, Underworld II is pretty chock full of them--many of which I mentioned above. I also found reading the note planning a meeting to deal with the approaching Guardian by the wizards of Scintillus pretty chilling, as is the act of jumping into the Guardian's mouth in the purple section Ethereal Void.

As much as I like Underworld II, though, I can't pass it buy without one glaring, absurd problem...

Lord British, where the hell is your throne!?

I'm glad I got that off my chest. In a way Underworld II is also a bit dissappointing--I think it succeeds largely because its interface and game system was perfected to some degree in the first Underworld game, and the team building it could concentrate on the story, the atmosphere and so on. This also seems to be the case with Martian Dreams and Serpent Isle, which feel like more epic games than their predecessor using the same engine. Yet, the expectation of a whole new way of playing with each sequal drives the series. I guess there could be a happy medium somewhere.

Hope everyone's glad I finally posted! :-)

Thursday, March 26, 2009


FYI, I am still alive! But as you may guess I am preoccupied with other projects, mostly musical. Someone said the first days of U1 and U8 were messed up, but I don't have any trouble viewing them on other machines when I am not logged in. The probability of a Blogging Zelda is nil, but I will probably play that U5 remake one day when I feel inspired to play games.

So I did a pretty good job of updating this thing when my goal was to finish all the games in a year. I have done a less than inspiring job of writing my "final thoughts." Perhaps that is because I lack a goal. Therefore, all my Ultima final thought postings on the final eight games will be posted by the end of May. They will probably be combined posts for the Underworlds with a brief note for the Runes of Virtue games. Then I will write individual comments on the other four games; Black Gate and Serpent Isle will have brief notes concerning their respective add-on games. Faithful readers are welcome to take a "I'll believe it when I see it!" view of this plan.

Then I need to post photos of the lovely crossbow Lord British kindly had Iolo create for me! And maybe some photos of myself if I go to the RenFair this year. After that I have no idea what to do with this blog...I'm a bit sad that I don't think any of the blog-the-whole-game-series efforts finished. The other Ultima guy gave up, and I think the Zelda and the Dragon Warrior blogs died out, too.

An idea for someone else who, like me, is cheap and who hasn't kept track of gaming since the mid-90s and wants to create a blog...write a collection of game reviews of PC games released 10 years ago, as if they were released today. To my mind, they'd be as fun as "new" games because they are "new to you," and they would have the advantage of playing great on recent PCs and incorporating every patch made over the past decade, so you would see each game in the best light possible! Well, there's probably some that won't run correctly...but I bet there's workarounds. If U9 works, surely everything else does...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

SE & MD and some fluff

Ah, I really need to spend a week and finish the last few games up so I can start a new blog. It's pretty fun to recall my experiences with the Ultima games and comment on them, but it's hard to do it very frequently because it requires a degree of inspiration!

First I want to make some notes. One of the amusing things about blogging is that other people sometimes post comments about your blog, so I can go search for "blogging ultima" on Google and find that people are talking about me. Ah, the rush of Internet pride! Anyway, I wanted to address two comments I ran into on bulletin boards:

Someone commented, "You know, in reading through the "My trip through Ultima" blog and the blog for "Blogging Ultima", what struck me is that both chroniclers resorted to cheats at various points to get through the games."

I did? Well, I guess it depends on what he means. If save states are cheating, than I cheated all day in U1-3, especially 3 because its natural savegame system is so punitive. If that doesn't count then I don't think I did. I never even used a hex editor to change double-capital letters in my character's name in Underworld II (ZAchary)! I did consult walkthroughs on a number of occasions, when I was hopelessly stuck (usually it turned out I failed to set some game flag somewhere). Maybe I did do some other cheating somewhere along the line, but I don't recall it.

Someone else said, "Heh... when Ophidian Dragon gets to it, he'll probably complain at first. Then after he finishes 9, I bet he says "You know, in retrospect, Ultima 8 was actually pretty decent." We'll see if I'm right, eh?"

For what it's worth, I think I complained about both Ultima VIII and IX (and all the rest...it's easier to complain than praise) but in the end I believe I had a much more positive attitude towards IX than VIII. I am unsure if that is reflected in the blog.

PS: If you wrote those comments...I apologize for my failure to give you attribution!

Anyway, now it's time to talk about Savage Empire and Martian Dreams! Because these are fairly peripheral, I expect my discussions to be pretty short.

Savage Empire is most notable for incorporating more "adventure" elements. These come in a few specific ways--the puzzles that require specific, non-obvious solutions (such as tossing a bomb to knock a tree over a chasm), the comedic elements (the Three Stooges tribe), and the brevity of the game overall. I really liked the more realistic scale of the game; you are in a very tiny part of the forest rather than supposedly wandering across an entire planet. I also enjoyed the emphasis on ancient cultures, even though it was sort of confusing to have such a mix of times and places in one spot. On the other hand, the combat was pretty rough, or rather, it was too frequent and that prevented me from wanting to do much exploration outside the roads, and I missed a lot of interesting features as a result. It was also disappointing to see so many "generics" wandering around, all saying the same thing. Overall, I also found the end of the game, specifically wandering through the underground city and then enterying the Myrmidex caves, to be frustrating, mostly because both feel like a "whole lot of nothing," e.g., gigantic maps with little of interest to see or do. I guess the underground city did have some cool elements, but I had to make extensive maps, which didn't seem to jibe with the otherwise-simplified structure of the rest of the game. Except for those extended sections, I thought it all tied together well, and some of the world interaction, such as mixing chemicals to create gunpowder, was impressive. I found it a light diversion, for the most part, with an inventive back story. I guess there weren't any particularly striking moments. Perhaps when you shut off the power to the underground city and your golden robot friend expires? That was pretty cool.

Martian Dreams is similar in a lot of ways. It features some of the same characters, has the random appearance of guys that look and act like Iolo, Shamino and Dupre, and it has a strong science-fiction background. I thought the diverse elements of 19th century characters, H.G. Wells-style fancy and alien life on Mars were brought together extremely well in this game. If someone were to tell me, "Hey, I've got this game where you save Mark Twain from his own nightmares on Mars" I would have thought it absurd, but the way the game is presented it actually makes sense. Kudos to the storyline team! I also thought the music in this game was spectacular, especially the character creation sequence and some of the outdoor music; far superior to the Savage Empire music which I barely even remember. This one was also a bit combat-heavy, and I got really sick of those damned jumping beans! Finally, I was especially impressed by the dream sequences; they were well-attuned to the characters involved and I particularly loved the Shadowlord sequence. The Avatar's conversation with Astaroth, the Shadowlord of Hatred, is particularly memorable. I even got a bit of a tear in my eye as the game ended and all the characters were lined up in a row to wish me well (or to tell me to hurry up...). A very vivid game! It actually bothers me some, too--one of the things Lord British always did with each new game was to recreate the engine from scratch. But Martian Dreams and Underworld II were both, in my opinion, both much better constructed in terms of story and its relationship to the engine than the games from which their engine derives. The same could be said of Serpent Isle (if you imagine it in its completed state). So does one of the most fun aspects of the Ultima series, being surprised by a brand new presentation of (usually) the same world, detract from the quality of the game? I think it probably does.

Well, those are my late-night comments for these two games. It's harder to scrounge up enough interesting thoughts with the spinoffs, I'm afraid! I should have better luck with the Underworlds, though, since I was very fond of both of them. Do not expect insightful essays when I discuss the Runes of Virtue games, however...