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

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ultima III, Day 4

Well, for fun I tackled Exodus Castle twice today. The first effort I was wiped out very rapidly, the second time I was killed off a bit less rapidly. The place is really packed with some mean monsters! The worst are probably the dragons, which spit flames across the screen at my party, hitting everyone at once. Ouch. Anyway, I thinkk I will make it through fairly easily with lots of stopping and resting and healing between battles (conveniently, enemies can't cross the energy barriers, so I will have manny opportunities to rest).

In the more serious sections of my gaming I more or less continued where I left off. First I went and hunted up the two remaining marks, Snake and Force, which I found in the dungeon of Fire. It was suggested that I go there by some random guy in the town of Dawn, I think. On the bottom level I noted two highly suspicious rooms which proved challenging to get to because you had to take particular ladders down on a much higher level. They proved to have the two marks I was missing, and I was glad!

The rest of my time was spent pilfering endless quantities of gold from the big treasure chamber in the island city of Death Gulch. I previously said that I had to use the open spell to get the cash, but this is wrong--just "getting" the chest does not attract the guards, and my ranger, Shamino, is sufficiently adept as to be able to survive without being blown up by bombs and snuffed out by poison. Cheses are very well-trapped in this game, more so than in most of the later games.

All that gold I gathered I spent in Ambrosia. Currently my strengths for my paladin and ranger are maxed out, as are their dexterities. My druid's wisdom is maxed and so is my mage's intelligence--one trick to beating Exodus castle might just be attack the enemy, cast mass kill, wait until magic points regain, repeat. That would be exceptionally tedious, but still. I'm not sure how much more I need to raise my stats. I think I need to get more dexterity for my mage and druid, and possibly strength for the druid so she can defend herself.

I have also made a point of raising my character's level (and thus hit points) by attacking guards at Lord British's castle. Not exactly noble, I suppose, but they're asking for it. I've raised by ranger and apaldin simply by slashing them to bits. I'll raise my mage with mass kill repeated over and over again, whereas my druid's improvement may need to wait until i raise her strength a lot higher. In retrospect, I wish I had chosen a cleric because casting the wimpy heals over and over again to regain hit points after battles is very boring. I also considered buying +4 bows for my paladin and ranger (actually, I think the ranger can only use up to a +2 bow), however, a regular bow seems more than enough for killing all enemies in one to three hits. Hmm.

Tomorrow I need to go hit the Time Lord, to tell me the order of the cards to INSERT into Exodus, in spite of the fact that I already know the answer. I look forward to Ultimas 4 and 5 where I am less certain of how to solve the games, lol. Today's gameplay amounted to about 2-3 hours or so.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Ultima III, Day 2 (and Day 3)

I skipped a day of blogging concerning Ultima III because there wasn't all that much to say. This game had a much slower "starting-out" period than any of the other games. We left off last time with me preparing to wander into a dungeon hoping that it held the Mark of Kings, and fortunately for me, it did! I also managed to pick up the Mark of Fire in the bargain, which means I can now walk across laval unimpeded. The cave I chose was the Perinian Depths northeast of Castle British, which also conveniently had a big stash of treasure on the 3rd level. In theory, you have to go down to the bottom and back up again, or so I surmise, but the use of the wizard's down spell eliminates the need to bother with that.

Acquiring those Marks and a few trips to Ambrosia were all I accomplished the past two days, despite maybe 6 hours of playing. The fact is that gathering gold, even when you have a dungeon trove and (and town, Death Gulch, which has a big pile of chests), is fairly tedious. I don't have a thief, considering them totally overrated, because casting the open spell (DAG UMANI or something like that...) is much more efficient, and it doesn't result in town guards getting pissed off at me, the way they would if I used the OPEN command.

I also collected a wide array of hints from various townsfolk. The most useful of them was a nice thief in Dawn (or was it a wizard?) who informed me that I can DIG on islands for Exotic weapons and armor. I did so and was rewarded (there aren't many islands to check, actually). I now feel compelled to raise Jaana the Druid strength, so that she can whack enemies with the Exotic Sword. Other clues reminded me to go find the Time Lord, to SEARCH shrines for cards, and so on. These words are in captital letters because they represent commands to be typed in conjunction with the O key, which allows you to take Other actions besides those listed in the reference card.

In order to raise my characters' stats, I have to sail my boat into a whirlpool, and appear in Ambrosia, which is a maze-like area that would be hard to navigate without gems and the willingness to take a screenshot of the game while viewing them. I don't consider this cheating, because if it weren't for the screenshot I'd just spend a minute or two copying the important parts of it to a piece of paper. The shrines are fairly stupid--if you offer 100 gold, you alwaysget 1 point added to an attribute (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom), but offering 900 gold does not seem to get you 9 points.

I have encountered a decent number of annoyances with the game. Most annoying is the fact that the counter for gold rolls over if you have more than 9999 gold coins. I'm guessing stats may do the same. The second is that food is ridiculously expensive, at one gp per ration, each of which lasts about 4 steps outside. That means feeding my whole party with 200 foods--which lasts maybe 45 minutes of gameplay--costs 800 gold. Possibly most annoying about food and gold is that you must do the work of distributing them among your characters yourself--and the prompt that allows you to transfer gold and food between people has space for only two numbers! As a consequence, transferring, say, 6000 gold between two players requires about 360 keystrokes. Considering the vast sums required to raise stats and buy expensive weapons, what in the world was Garriott or his cohorts thinking?

Anyway, the gameplay has sped up a bit. I will spend today hitting Death Gulch and Ambrosia over and over, raising my characters' stats. With higher wisdom, Jaana can hopefully open chests more efficiently than before. Then I have to go choose some dungeons in which to find the Marks of Force and Snake, but without any particular clue as to which dungeon I need to go to. In addition I have to seek out the Time Lord, who interestingly is reachable only via moongate (which are quite pretty in this game, I might add). It will probably be a few more days before I'm done, because after all that I still need to hit Castle Exodus and kill all its denizens.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Ultima III, Day 1

Well, I played Ultima 3 for perhaps 4 hours, including the time to analyze the manuals, today. The game is frankly not very fun--There's piles upon piles of endless monsters, and every few seconds I seem to be stuck in combat. The biggest difference between Ultima III and the last two is that fighting monsters brings you to a strategic combat screen, in which you must slice and dice your enemies one by one This makes combat a bit more exciting--not just press A and hope for the best--but it makes it take much longer, probably a minute to several minutes per battle.

The first thing I did before ever plugging in the game was translate the spellbooks from the cute latin-like words and detailed but irrelevent diescriptions in the manual to something more useful. After that, I had to choose what characters to create. You get a party of four characters, unlike Ultima I and II, and you choose among eleven professions, each with disadvantages and in a few cases, advantages. I chose a paladin and a ranger for my main fighting characters, because they can use magic and can cast "open," eliminating the need for a thief to disarm traps in treasure chests. I chose a classic wizard, to get access to the high-damage attack spells, and a druid who can cast the important cleric spells--up, down, exit dungeon, and heal--rapidly because her magic points return quickly. I named them after future companions, namely Shamino, Jaana, and Mariah.

All the time I spent playing was basically taken up by raising my stats to 5th level for all the characters. Because the game is pretty damned hard, I used a conservative playing style, fighting enemies, going to town, casting endless heal spells, and going back out to fight. I also did a bit of clue-gathering from other towns, but I had no reason to save the game while doing so. Two additional factors make the game much, much harder. First, your magic points are based entirely on your intelligence or wisdom, and do not go up with your level. That means my wizard is stuck with his magic missile, and my druid can cast exactly one heal spell! Only your hit points go up with level, so I am harder to kill but as weak as ever. it will be ages before I can finally cast cure spells on my own, meaning that poison-spitting monsters are certain death. Even more annoying, your hit points cap at 500 until you delve into a dungeon and get a "mark of the kings," but your level keeps going up and mosnters keep getting harder!

I tried wandering into the dungeon, armed with my light spell...but it is so stupid it's unbelievable. It lasts about 5 steps, making it basically worthless. There also appears to be a mysterious bug in the game that causes me to "starve" and get weird goop on the screen when I hit certain traps in the dungeons. I suspect a broken disk of some sort. As long as the marks work, though, all will be well. I will be heading into a dungeon near the castle to map and search out marks next. I bought some torches to allow me to, well, survive the trip.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Escape From Mt. Drash: Day 1

As mentioned yesterday, the target for today's blog is the infamous rare game, Ultima: Escape From Mt. Drash. The basic plot of the game is that the Garrintrots, who apparently own Mt. Drash and have turned it into an arena, have captured you and put you at the top of the mountain. Your job is to descend it to escape, while avoiding various monsters including dancing demons, gremlins, phantoms and purple slimes.

The game is truly, truly awful.

First of all, the 3D map in early levels is accompanied by an overhead view which indicates where monsters and gems (needed to exit some levels) are. But these do not show up in the 3D view, making it impossible to know, in later levels, whether or not you have gotten the gem. This makes for frustrating gameplay, although it's not a big deal because the game is otherwise so easy. You have 3 magic spells to teleport, cause monsters to sleep, and to tear down walls--but they are only ever useful in stages 14 and 15, when blowing up walls and accessing other parts of the maze is required to find the gems and get to the exit.

The combat system is where the game really falls flat on its face. In the VIC-20 version, it is a tedious process of hitting Z and C and waiting for the game to notice. In the Windows version, it's a tedious process of hitting Z and C over and over until you are told "IT'S DEAD!" Deadlier than the monsters is the 100-second per-stage time limit; the game ends on its expiration. Level 14, which is annoyingly large and full of enemies, is where I would usually lose. Thus, finishing the game took roughly an hour. It would take longer on the VIC-20 version due to its slowless, but you get the venefit of some nice music, making Escape from Mt. Drash the first "Ultima game" to include a complete soundtrack. Someone should certainly add it to the DOS port.

As you progress in the game, you progress through a series of rankings, beginning at Qwimby (!?!) and going all the way up to Questor. In my quest for the screenshot of the endgame, I played the game through twice, but I still seem to have screwed up. However, I am unwilling to play this piece of crap again just to get a shot of a green screen that says "You have truly earned the title of Questor," so I'll close with a shot from just before the endgame on level 15. Overall, it probably took an hour to finish up this goofy game which would have been totally forgotten save for the Ultima name.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Ultima II, Day 3

Ding, dong, thw witch is dead! Today I whacked Minax in her own castle, Shadowguard. There's not much to say about it, except that it was a bit easier than I had expected. Were there not a bug in the game that prevents you from raising strength, it would have been even easier! The most surprising thing about Minax is that she looks pretty much identical to Mondain, except for a thinner waist. In later games, she is depicted as wearing an exceptionally stupid hat. In this game, she's just another cloaked weirdo.

The challenge of beating Minax is one primarily of patience, because when you kill her in one spot, she simply vanishes and re-appears in another corner. It's really quite annoying, because every step yu take towards you causes you a few hundred hit points as she yells "DIE FOOL!" In the end, though, she succumbed to the Quicksword and all her works died with her, meaning that many black squares appeared from nowhere. I presume this resulted in the timeline being fixed.

The big question, to my mind, is what happened in Britannia/Sosaria during Minax's reign? I assume that Mondain's defea severed the four continents from one another, but it's not clear what transforms the world from the old shape to its newer shape. I'm alsonot sure if Minax attacked Earth as a means to stop the pre-Avatar from killing her later, or if she attacked Earth to prevent him from undoing the damage she had already caused. The game is highly vague on these subjects! In any case, I think it's best to assume that Minax did bad things to Sosaria, and British travelled to Earth to help you in two of the four timelines.

The next game is Ultima III, Exodus, which is apparently so different that it got inducted into CGW's hall of fame where U1 and U2 did not. I have not played it thoroughly, but I did get the impression that the game takes itself far more seriously than its predecessors, and that the solution to the game was notably more complicated than that of the previous two--you do fight through a big miserable castle to win, but you do not kill Exodus directly, and Exodus' nature is note entirely clear even in the end.

But before I get to delve into Ultima III, I must tackle that most obscure of spin-offs, Escape from Mt. Drash. It was released by a friend of Garriott's without his knowledge and is clearly non-canonical. Having just played it for a few minutes, I can assert without hyperbole that is one of the absolute worst games I have ever played. However, this blog may soon feature the first in-depth review the game has ever received! Right at the moment I am having trouble choosing a good emulator. MESS seesm a bit broken, for example. There is an MS-DOS port, but I don't trust it (at the very least it lacks the music) and I can't get screenshots from it anyway. Suggestions?

Oh yeah, finishing Ultima II took approximately 7 or 8 hours, I think. A huge portion of the time was spent slowly gaining experience as usual, but getting a boat made life so much easier. I don't think I will get this benefit in the later games, though.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ultima II, Day 2

So I'm noticing that the "days" of my titles have little to do with the amount of time actually spent playing the games in question--For example, finishing "day 2" of Ultima II has finished about 6 hours of playing, whereas the same time was spent in all three days of Ultima I. So In terms of how long it takes, to finish the games, you should note the hours rather than the days. My hypothesis is that the time for each game will be approximately exponential until ultima 6, and that and the rest of the games will take the same amount of time to complete.

Ultima II continues apace. Yesterday I rised my stats and I explored the solar system--with shocklingly little point. Much time was wasted trying to raise my strength, only to realize that there is a bug in Ultima 2 that prevents strength from ever going up! Oh well. I will get to some of the particulars of flying in space in Ultima II in a moment, but I believe they solidified my belief that Ultima II is a significantly inferior game to Ultima I. The reason I claim this is that Ultima II is almost completely devoid of goals. In its predecessor, you were assigned quests to fulfill, and clues pubs led to other particular quests. Granted, some of the quests were not related to Mondain really, and they could be fulfilled multiple times. Ultima II's major flaw is there is almost no direction, and there is really only one plot element: You have to get Father Antos's blessing. Well two, if you count "go kill Minax" as part of the plot. The remainder of Ultima II is about sailing around and blowing up monsters to earn gold and raise your stats and hit points--the screenshot shows me doing just that, blasting a long row of beasties in the Time of Legends in which Minax resides.

Beyond emptiness of the plot, the other big flaw of Ultima II would be its superficiality. There are lots of aspects of the game that could be used to make some cool quests or clue-giving devices or even just immersion, but they are unused. Outer space is the prime example. I explored all of the planets, wandering through whatever towns are there, and I was sad to realize there is absolutely no reason to ever visit any of them, aside from Planet X. Now, I did encounter some interesting things, but they are only in-jokes or only matter due to subsequent games. For example, on Venus I believe you encounter Dupre, whereas you encounter piles of other names that probably would mean something were I familiar with the video game personalities c. 1982. THose you generally find in "Computer Camp" on...Neptune?

The most insanity can be found on the town of New Jestre on Uranus, from which the screenshot on the right comes featuring me being surrounded by a swarm of violent clowns trying to kill me. What...? Planet X fares a little bit better, featuring Castle Barataria (reminds me of Ultima I) and Father Antos, who as far as I am concerned sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of his goofy suroundings. Father Antos' blessing is needed to get the ring from an old man under "a tree" in a quite literal fashion (see the screenshot), as described by the poem "Seers" in the town tell youwhen paid. I'm not sure exactly how you are supposed to know to bribe the old man with 500 gold before he gives you the ring, though. My guess would be that you are told to get the ring from him, and previous experience with the hotel clerk at Hotel California (gah!) teaches that giving money to people can be useful. I could say the same about Sentre, who gives you the quicksword, Enilno (Online as in Sierra Online spelled backwards...gah again); no plot point tells you to offer him money for the sword, but you see "quickswd" as an option for readying when you press R to ready a weapon, and he says "I have a quick blade." So I suppose that would be enough had I not already known what I had to do. In any case, I now have both of those items and once I raise my hit points I can go kill Minax.

I expect I will finish the game tonight, after another hour or two of play. The next step is to move on to a game I have never played, Escape from Mt. Drash! Will it stink? Almost certainly. After that game I will play Ultima III, which I have neer finished. I expect it will take much longer simply because combat is much more tedious in that game. I will close with a screenshot featuring a notable character in the game, who mentions the time constraingts that might suggest why Ultima II does not seem fully fleshed out...

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ultima II, Day 1

I am happy to report that the Apple version of Ultima II runs nicely without any notable bugs. I chose to play that version when I discovered the graphics update for Ultima II on DOS is rather unlike the original, and also that DOSBox doesn't like it. Plus, I have finally gotten used to using the enter key and backslash instead of the up and down arrows. Ultima III may be a bit more annoying on the Apple, due to more disk swaps, but I'll live.

So the second game, as I mentioned last time, takes place on Earth. Not the Earth we know, of course, but some wacky Earth where everything is way, way smaller and the world issparsely populated by computer nerds and wizards. The basic story is that Minax is pissed at me because I killed Mondain and came to Earth to corrupt the timeline. Why didn't she just go back in time and kill me before I killed Mondain? :-O Anyway, I am given the quest to stop her, and in typical RPG fashion, absolutely no help whatsoever in doing this. Lord British can raise my hit points but demands tribute to do so, for example. The instruction manual is amusing, and appears to be written by someone who was unaffiliated with Garriott--sarcastically commenting, for example, on Garriott's choice to make being male give you extra strength, while being female gives you extra charisma.

The game has both steps forwards and steps backwards from Ultima I. The huge leap ahead is the change from one-screen towns with different names that signify nothing to towns full of people who sometimes say unique things (even if many of them are inane--Note Robert Woodhead in the screenshot), and with unique subplots within the town (insofar as stealing a plane is a subplot). Another step forward is the creative use of time gates to link several different overworld maps that reflect different eras of the Earth. The game has some serious balance issues, though, notably the fact that dungeons and towers are irrelevent to the game, and mages and clerics can only use their spells in dungeons, making them also irrelevent.

My experience in the first two or three hours over the past couple of days was much like my experience with Ultima I and Akalabeth--The game is very slow, until you randomly find something very powerful, and then it begins to speed towards its conclusion. In Ultima II, aquiring a boat in any of the eras is practically wins the game, because it enables you to kill anything and rapidly acquire gold and experience. It took two hours for me to go from level 0 to level 3, but once I had a boat, I was level 10 in less than an hour! One appealing aspect of the game, slthough it's a bit silly, is that killing enemies nets you huge numbers of random items whose value you must eventually figure out. For example, it wasn't until i got a "blue tassle" that I was able to take over pirate ships and thus rapidly improve my stats.

This game is awfully hard to solve without being dishonest. In the screenshot on the right you see me pilfering food from the ride-thru window of McDonalls, for example. In order to get keys to unlock doors, you must kill guards in the towns,, too. In fact, one of the fastest way to get gold and keys and experience is to use a ship to slaughter all the guards in one of the towns! I think Ultima II is the game which made the Avatar desire to redeem himself so much when Ultima IV rolled around...

My strategy for the moment is to improve my stats until I can take on all the guards in the KGB and steal a rocket, which I will use to explore the various planets. I know what I need to do, but not the exact order--it's been 10 years since I last played this game. I do recall that the other planets are pretty useless, besides the infamous Planet X, but I want to explore them anyway.

When I finish this game, I have no doubt that I will be wandering around my house saying, "HEX-E-POO, HEX-ON-YOU," "UGH, ME TOUGH," and so on.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Ultima, Day 3

Well, I more or less finished Ultima today. My hacking proved futile for fixing the can't-kill-enemy-ships problem, but I was able to make myself a Space Ace and finish the game. However, I later found out about a bug in Ultima that was patched some 10 years ago by a fellow in the Apple 2 newsgroup: Basically, the assembly language space combat routines use an undocumented opcode defined by the original 6502, but not the 65c02. Applying the patch, I was able to become a Space Ace! But I was unable to land again--Because I get a "program too big" error that only seems to occur after I become a Space Ace. The joy of BASIC.

I will hereby never again complain about the bugginess of later Ultima games! So I finished all aspects of the game, just...not precisely sequentially ;-)

The last part of the game only took a few minutes. You enter Mondain's "chamber," which is a big box with cute multicoliored flashes all around (much better on the Apple II than elsewhere, due to the nice rainbow pattern), where he is chanting mysteriously. Then you walk up to him and shoot him with the phazor, over and over again, and eventually the guy turns into a bat. Shoot him yet more times, and he collapses on the ground...he gets back up a seemingly random number of times before finally expiring for good, and I am told to again report my deed to California Pacific.

So, why exactly did Mondain deserve to die? I wandered around the continents, and besides the assorted monsters, the only evil I took note of was the imprisonment of the princesses in the castle! How can we explain this? I hypothesize that the princesses were a cabal who stole the time machine from its original creator to sell on the black market, and they tell you where they hid it as thanks for freeing them. So you free a criminal for the greater good!

Alternatively, the kings are just despots, but British and Shamino reform later on. The third alternative is that I'm reading way too much into a simple game ;-) But I enjoy how the game tries to retrospectively deal with some of the weirdness of the early games. Serpent Isle, for example, deals with the fate of one of the vanished continents, and I am especially fond of the way they worked in aspects of the original game (for example, the "Sleeping Bull Inn" in Serpent Isle is on the spot that the town of "Bulldozer" was in Ultima). It weaves a plausible outcome from an originally silly premise. Thee next game I'll be playing, Ultima II. has some bigger problems in terms of continuity, since it takes place on an Earth totally unlike real Earth. Most of the later games don't really acknowledge that this was true, but I guess it makes sense--only a handful of the population would known anything but Minax's torment of their realm.

Overall, it took about 5 hours to finish Ultima, not counting time spent hacking--I think the remake is a better bet for most people--but I think an upgrade to the original game using Windows would not be very hard to do, since it originates in fairly simple to follow BASIC code, but retaining all the gameplay features, plot points and graphics while fixing the bugs.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Ultima, Day 2

I will probably finish Ultima tonight, but will only post about it tomorrow. I had expected the next session of gaming to be very boring--going back and forth to signposts gaining more attributes. I did this until the strength and stamina were around 60, but I still continued dyingextremely rapidly in the dungeons, and I didn't know why. Finally, I happened to check my character status, and my reflect armor (the best in the game--yet still very cheap...) had been stolen! No wonder I was dying. Anyway, solving quests give you progressively fewer and fewer extra skill points, so eventually I gave up and went back to dungeoneering--still a slow way to raise my hit points to survive at the depths needed to kill the liche and the balrog, my two final quests. I wasn't sure what else to do.

On a whim, I decided to rescue the princess. Perhaps the most absurd aspect of Ultima I is that to win, you must kill the jester in any king's castle (I chose the Black Dragon castle) and take the key from around his bloodied neck, then head down to the jail and release the princess. At the endgame, she tells you where to find the time machine to kill Mondain, so I was not expecting to free her until becoming a space ace. It seems that I forgot her other features, though--she also gave me 3000 gold and 3000 experience points, and I could do it over and over. That solved the problem! From there it was a simple matter to drop in the dungeons (via level-down spells), find the needed monsters, kill them, and head back up. I've included some images of the monsters--the liche and a wraith. I associate liches with dead wizards, so I'm not clear why it looks like a desembodied head. Anyway, with them dead, all I needed to do was go into space!

I had expected speed to be a problem in space, but I was wrong--the game plays amazingly smoothly, and the stars flying in the background are a nice touch! That doesn't mean it isn't a buggy mess, because from what I can tell, the space section is unwinnable. I can fire at the ships all day long, and I never seem to hit. I must have "aimed" at every pixel! Aggggh! So I spent much of this evening hacking the source code, trying to fix the problem--but the BASIC code is interacting in mysterious ways with some spaghetti-like assembly language code, and it's hard to make sense of it all. The BASIC code checks a memory location to see if it's set to 0xFF to determine if I hit the enemy, but it is not clear what causes that location to be set as it is only set within the assembly. I tried adding a line of code to cause a "hit" whenever the ships's location was within my little target window, but this caused further bugginess. I have given up for now. If I don't figure it out tonight, I will simply set the "ships killed" value to 20 and become a space ace that way, and finish the game.

This post was badly organized, because after complaining about space, I will now describe the concept behind that part of the game and why it, were it not for silly bugs, would be pretty fun. It's substantially different from the 1986 remake, by the way. There are two views--top mode and front mode. In the top view, you dock your rocket ship (launched from the planet Ultima, which looks curiously like Earth from space) at a space station, and choose a fat or thin vessel. Then you scan nearby space, and head to a sector containing enemy ships. Switching to front view, you can track the enemy ships, which look basically like TIE fighters, and shoot them down (heh, well, in theory!) It's not a "real" space sim, since you are not moving and enemy ships never get closer to you, but it's pretty cool, and looks convincing. I included both top and front view screenshots.

I will finish this game off tomorrow. Akalabeth took about 2 hours to complete, and I expect Ultima I to take about 6. How long will Ultima II take? Probably a fair but longer in terms of play hours, but I expect it to take far less time in terms of extra work trying to fix stupid bugs in the program! I will be playing all of them in DOSBox, most likely, as long as the upgrades and fixes all work. That way, I can get screenshots and so forth, whereas in DOS I am unable to. Incidentally, if anyone has Ultima I but finds it unplayable, I can send you my modified version of the boot disk to make it fairly enjoyable (assuming I fix the space battle problem).

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Ultima: Day 1

First a quick note--I fixed the comments so now anyone who reads can post comments, not just people with accounts here.

I could write a very long post about my experience getting the 1981 version of the first Ultima, in which I try to save the world from the diabolical (according to the documentation) Mondain, to run on my Apple emulator. Yesterday I said that it was unplayable due to the rapidity with which time passes when the emulator is run at a high speed, and the unbelievable slowness of redrawing the screen when the smulator is run at a low speed. I looked at the debugger and found the code that would "pass" when it did not receive any input, and figured I'd need to hack some binary files on the disk. I downloaded an Apple II .dsk image viewer, and lo and behold, it's written entirely in Applesoft BASIC! Good grief, no wonder the game runs so infuriatingly slowly. I quickly found the routines that passed time and fixed them for dungeons, outdoors, towns and castles. Outers space is a difficulty I will deal with when I come to it.

I also encountered a bizarre problem--for some reason, making the waiting-for-action loop
infinite broke a monster display routne, causing it to leap to a routine that does not exist. I fixed
it, but I don't really understand how, nor do I understand why the variable I changed matters.
The net result is that I spent many hours yesterday on this, but only a couple of hours of gameplay.

It's interesting to note the difference between Akalabeth and Ultima, and the differences between this original release and the 1986 remake. The dungeons are essentially unchnged from Akalabeth, save for the addition of a bunch of monsters--big spiders, minotaurs, gelatenous cubes, and so on. The outer world has shifted to the tile display that would become standard in Ultimas 2 through 5, where tiles outdoors are basically icons representing the contents of that square. Towns and castles still exist, and have become more distinctive--they each have thei own name, and townspeople run around them, though they do not interact with you. Castles dot the for continents of Ultima, and their kings give quests to find various monuments or to kill monsters. Some screenshots of the town of Gauntlet and the castle of Lord British are in the screenshots.

The differences from 1986 are more subtle. To begin with, there is no animation on any of the monsters or water, and in fact there are no wandering monsters at all: If you get attacked, you get attacked and see the same guy-with-a-stick no matter what the monster is, and trying to move away from it is considered fleeing battle; monsters do not follow you around. You can also face several monsters at once, as shown in the screenshot where I'm attacking some orcs. I think this version is also a bit more balanced, because the first quests you go on to find monuments are in the same continent, so as your stats improve you slowly expand your horizons.

My progress in the game has been pretty good. The main strategy is to hit the dungeons immediately, and kill time gathering lots of gold, hit points and experience. The items in the game are cheap, and as time passes, better weapons become available, so by the time you have lots of gold you can go ahead and buy the reflect suit, the phazor, and the air car, at which point you can traverse the outer world with ease. I chose to buy a boat in the mean time and do some exploring, solving the find-the-location quests.

I also killed two of the creatures I was instructed to kill, but right now I am still too weak to take on the liche or the balrog. Fortunately, find-the-location quests increase your stats and can be done any number of times. Thus, the next step in my quest is to raise my stats (fairly easy but still tedious with my air car), and then hit the dungeons and then go out into space. Doing anything in space will probably require more game file hacking--I don't remember how exactly it works, but at a high speed I expect it to be way too fast. I may suffer through the slow-speed version, though, because not much time is spent there anyway.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Akalabeth: Day 2

Technically, this blog is for "today" even though I played late, late last night, around 2 AM. The short news is--the game is over! I win! Woo hoo! The long story is probably more interesting. Using an Apple emulator has the huge advantage of save states, although the game can be finished without them pretty easily, I suspect--the only time I ever needed to re-load was when a gremlin was attacking me and I failed to notice until my food had all vanished.

Akalabeth is organized around a series of quests given to me by Lord British. On the right you see the initial encounter, the first introduction of the king in the series, where British oh-so generously raises my stats by one point. At this point I expected the game to take awhile, so I mapped the outer world again, chose a dungeon to explore. All the dungeons are infinitely deep (actually, I bet once you get to level 1024 or so they will roll over and scramble the game), and all contain the same sorts of critters. My first quest was killing a carrion crawler, but I felt I should make some maps of the dungeon to help me navigate. That's boring, and I decided to just leap right in--at which point I discovered that chests regenerated every time you go up or down a ladder! On level 2 of the dungeon I chose, three chest and a giant rat were near the door, so I simply gathered hundreds of gold pieces and lots of hit points, as well as dozens of magic amulets, by repeating "go downstairs, get chest, turn left, get chest, turn left, get chest, kill rat, turn right, turn right, go upstairs, repeat."

It was after this that I made my first mistake--I bought a bunch of weapons. However, in Akalabeth weapons are practically worthless because of all the thieves which somehow steal them right out of your hands while you are using them! I could wander around the dungeons with 20 axes (I was a Mage, and couldn't use rapiers), and they'd all be gone quick. Moreover, using the amulet to turn into a lizard man doubles (and more) your stats, allowing you to essentially never be hit again, and can stand there attacking with your hands until the enemty dies! I also realized that mapping the dungeon is a waste, because I could just use amulets to cast "ladder down" and "ladder up" to move between levels rapidly. If I ran out of amulets, I just need to revisit that spot in level 2 and get as many as I need. Once I had done that, the remainder of the game was a laugh--well, after the next quest: the gremlin.

Possibly the most absurd aspect of his game is the food. Outside, you eat one bite of food every step, while in the dungeon you eat a fraction of that every step. it's like you have a gigantic bag of potato chips on your back, and are constantly munching on them, and when the bag is empty you instantly die! Once I had turned into the lizard man, I was iffectively immune to attack, and even if I did get hit, with thousands of hit points it would be a piece of cake to escape before anything killed me. The exception is the gremlin,
which doesn't just steal your food, it instantly steals a bit less than half of your food, with every attack! I had to attack it slowly, using the amulet to escape if I got down below 100 food. After a few tries, it died. My next quests were the Mimic (which looks just like a chest), then the daemon and balrog, pictured on the left. The game was pretty anticlimactic after this point, because all I had to do to kill them was stand there attacking them. The image of me standing there punching a giant Balrog in the belly until it dies is pretty funny, though.

The endgame gave me my wish last night--a phone number to call! I did a quick reverse phone number search, but didn't find anything. Evidently it's not being used anymore. I would be amused at calling it to see what happens, but I suspect I'd just get a "disconnected" notice. Additionally, if you want some amusement, search for the number (including parenthesis and dashes, all in quotes) on Google.

I will now speak briefly about some issues with Ultima I. I have been trying to play the Apple version, the original creation, but I am having severe problems. The game plays extremely poorly--if I play at a normal speed, it is as slow as molasses; particularly infuriating is the way in which the screen is constantly redrawing in the dungeon, making me feel ill. In Akalabeth, I solved this by kicking up the speed--but it doesn't work in Ultima I because the in-game timer causes me to pass my turn too fast and I cannot get any commands in. I start the game, and I am instantly killed! I can see why it was re-made and the other Ultimas were not: it's basically unplayable. When you die, you are sometimes resurrected on the water or on a mountain, and after several resurrections, the game lost all my stats and I am no longer able to hit anything. It appears I may be forced to play the remake after all!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Akalabeth: Day 1

Today I began my Ultima journey with a non-Ultima, Akalabeth: World of Doom. Lord British is featured in the game and it came out in 1979/1980, depending on who you believe. I consider it to be Ultima 0, and its importance requires that I play it. It features a 3x3 grid display for the overhead map full of meaningless trees, shops, and dungeons. It also has first person dungeons, where you fight hard monsters like balrogs, as well as total wimps like the skeleton on the right.

However, it's been a technical-problem filled day. I began, as i said I would yesterday, with the old DOS version that's been floating around the net. I made an outer-world map and a map for a dungeon (after deciding that my "lucky number" was 10 in order to create a character), only to discover that every entry of the dugeon is different--the locations of doors and ladders downward are screwed up. Ahhhh! I also discovered that Windows XP won't let me take screenshots of fullscreen command command prompt programs, and I cannot put them into a window. Double ahhhh!. Finally, i discovered that if I tabbed out of the game, I would be unable to get back to it. Triple ahhhh! At that point I gave up, and jumped to AppeWin and an the original version for the Apple II.

This game went a bit better, but not without its share of bugs--specifically, I discovered that for unknown reasons I quit getting gold from killing enemies or gaining hit points. Maybe I hit a hit point max? (In this game, you gain HP by entering dungeons, killing monsters, and leaving.) I also discovered annoying quirks in the visuals, so that sometimes I appear to be next to a door that vanishes when I turn. Oy. I believe tomorrow I'll be ready to play a full-length game, and I will use save states to avoid annoying glitches!

The goal of the game is straightforward--kill whatever British tells you to kill. My strategy is to begin with great stats--over 20 in all attributes, except maybe Wisdom which does not appear to do anything, and gold, which is easy to acquire in the dungeons. The next important thing to do is immediately buy a magic amulet and turn into a Lizard Man--preferably twice--because Lord British is one seriously stingy bastard with the attribute bonuses. I should be more acurate and say that I am using a magic amulet and casting the "xBad???" spell, which has the effect of turning me into either a lizard man or a toad.

I've never beaten this game on level 10 before, and I remember why I quit back in the day--In order to kill some hard enemies and appease His Laziness Lord British (his castle is on the left), you must delve WAY down the dungeons to find them, with thieves stealing the weapons out of your hands and gremlins gorging on massive quantities of food. However, I am desperate to see that level 10 endgame! I hope I am told to call and report my deed.

Welcome, Avatar!

Welcome to what will presumably be a long-running Ultima blog. The purpose is to blog the experience of playing the now-defunct Ultima series by Origin Systems (plus a few other names here and there) from beginning to end. I will be including all the non-remake spin-offs that I am aware of, under the theory of "If I'm gonna do it, might as well go all the way." I am not blogging as if I am a character in the game, or giving reviews. I'm going to write about the process of playing, the annoying things, the fun things, and the assorted mental musings that arise from any long-term activity.

How long will it take? I have no idea. I am jobless right now, but I probably won't be for terribly long, so I intend to set limits that will be reasnable for a year or so. I'll begin with between 6 and 12 hours per week, and see how it works. I'm not aiming to complete them as fast as possible. Ideally, games which I really get into will generate lots of interesting comments, whereas other games will not.

Concerning Versions
The Ultima games have been released n a lot of different formats over the years, with plenty of additions and remakes. I am not going to play them all! Instead, I am going to try to balance closeness to the original experience, the quality of the experience, and modern convenience. as many aspects of an "original" experience (like swapping disks) are not fun at all. I will be using an emulator when needed, to facilitate screenshots.

In general, I consider the Apple ][ versions of the oldest games to be the "originals." However, I will play ports if they are somehow better and do not lack anything significant. For Akalabeth, I will use the MS-DOS port that's been floating aroudn the Internet for years, while for Ultima (the original) I will use an emulator combined with the first version of the game, because subsequent versions changed the gameplay too much. Ultimas II and III, I will use the DOS upgrade by Voyager Dragon (and Micro and Moonstone) to make the colors better and fix all the myriad bugs in the port. This isn't ideal, due to the modified graphics, but the gameplay should all be the same, and Ultima III includes the music, which is essential to an authentic experience.

I will also use the upgrades by Aradindae and Wiltshire for Ultima IV (sans the VGA graphics), and the upgrade by Voyager for Ultima V. This experience combines the DOS and Apple versions: good graphics plus great musical scores. Mt. Drash, if I can find the rip of it again, will be played on emulator, as will the Runes of Virtue games for the Game Boy. The remainder of the games will all be the orignal DOS versions, probably played on DosBOX if they are not happy with Windows XP.

I will avoid cheating, but there is a fine line between manipulating dumb game mechanics and cheating. I will be backing up saved games (I learned my lesson with my last attempt to play Martian Dreams...), but I won't be editing them. I will also not consult walkthroughs, hint guides, or anything else except comments posted to the blog from helpful readers. I've played all of these games before and beaten most of them, but I've surely forgotten a whole lot.

I hope it will be enjoyable for everyone. I encouraged you to subscribe to my RSS feed!

-Ophidian Dragon
PS: My user name is "cageblogger" because I used it originally for the John Cageblog at http://cageblog.blogspot.com .