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

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Yes, I am lazy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or not.

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

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

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

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