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

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.


Mickmils said...

No one is posting comment, but I subscribed to your RSS feed :D

This is actually very interesting in a retro-kind of way and kinda make me want to experience all the ultimas in order too, if I had the time&patience to do it.

Don't you give up !

-Moa Dragon

Anonymous said...

Hey, very cool stuff. I just stumbled upon your site, while on a break at work. I'm going through the blog now. It will probably take me a few days to read it all, but it brings back a lot of memories.

I love the Ultimas and Akalabeth was among the first games I played on our old Apple IIe.

Ultimate Carl said...

Air car, eh?

And eech, I hate that delicate balance between terribly slow and impossibly fast gameplay. Kudos on your hacking, you're a braver man than I.

Unknown said...

OMG! This is the awesomest blog in the world! I'm a huge secret nerd... my wife gets really emberassed every time I tell her that I used to play Dungeons & Dragons in middle school. Holy crap, I'm totally going to follow this.

Anonymous said...

Hey, just wanted to let you know that I'm really enjoying these. It's kinda funny how simplistic the early games were to beat, while still being miles ahead of other games that came out around that time.

Unknown said...

Great read. I stumbled upon your blog after searching for info on the Runes of Virtue for Gameboy game. Yoy just made a fan.

Weasel said...

Still been meaning to get around to playing this one some day, probably would go for the C64 version in an emulator though.