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

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...