Review: Ultima IV – Quest of the Avatar

Continuing right along with my playthrough of the Ultima series, we’re brought to the fourth entry in the franchise – the heralded Quest of the Avatar. To say that this game was groundbreaking is an understatement. Just as Ultima III set the bar for CRPGs for decades to come, Ultima IV took what was now a tried and true formula and dared to push the boundary even further. For what might very well be the first time in a CRPG, the goal of the game did not revolve around defeating an evil monster or rescuing a princess. Instead, the purpose of Ultima IV is self-improvement. Simply put, to be the best person you can be.

The game is set ages after the original trilogy. After the events of Ultima III, a time of peace and enlightenment graced the world of Sosaria. Now under the gentle rule of Lord British, the world has now been renamed, Britannia. Concerned that citizens of this world might grow complacent, British created a trial of sorts. A quest to obtain the pinnacle of virtue. Whomever could manage to complete this quest would be dubbed the “Avatar” – a model citizen for all others to emulate. It is this quest that the player will undertake.

The game begins with the player answering a series of moral questions. Players are encouraged to answer these honestly, according to their own moral compass. The game then takes the answers provided by the player and assigns an appropriate starting class.

To get the most out of the game, I highly encourage that players read and answer the questions according to their own personal beliefs. Too often, people will look up guides online to try to get the starting class they want. But, Ultima IV is a game that really focuses on spiritual growth and as cheesy as it sounds, you can actually get quite a lot out of the game by following it through to completion. With this in mind, I suggest going into the game as blind as possible (especially for first-time players).

So what does all this mean? Does this imply there’s no fighting or violence in Ultima IV? No. But for the first time in the series, actions have consequences. No longer can you mindlessly steal weapons and armor from shops, or mow down weak creatures for no reason at all. You must approach the game from a standpoint of virtue. Only attack evil creatures or fight in self-defense. If an evil monster tries to flee from combat, let it run instead of stabbing it in the back, etc. By conducting yourself in a moral way, your character will continue to rise in virtue. This is the only way to complete the game.

Like Ultima III, this is a party-based RPG. But you only create a single character at the start, the rest are NPCs that are recruited along the way. As you explore the game and talk to various townspeople, you will meet the rest of your party members over time. In fact, talking to NPCs is really the key to success in this game. Without doing so, you’ll have no way of learning where to go or what to do. Taking notes is a must in Ultima IV.

The game itself is very open-ended. Players are free to explore gameworld as they see fit. One huge difference in Ultima IV compared to other entries in series is travel. Yes, you can travel on foot and sail by ship. But one of the main modes of transportation is by “moongate”. Similar to the time gates from Ultima II, these are basically portals that appear in various locations according to the phase of the moon. Moving through a moongate will warp the player to a completely different area. Learning the locations and destinations of these moongates is also crucial to the success of the game.

Another big change to the series that was introduced in this game is the magic system. In Ultima IV, spells are cast using a variety of reagents. So players must always be sure to keep enough spell components on hand if they want to be able to use magic. Spells and the reagents needed are often learned by talking to NPCs. So again, note taking is a must for this game. This is a concept that is likely foreign to many younger gamers. But for us old grognards, this was a way of life.

Despite many of these new concepts, the rest of Ultima IV will feel familiar to fans of the series. There’s still monsters to fight, weapons and armor to buy, and dungeons to explore. But where this game shines is in its radical approach to character development and storytelling. As a result it remains my favorite entry in the original series.

When playing this title today, the GOG version seems to work best with modern hardware. But even then, it is highly recommended that you apply the patches contained in the “Ultima Patcher“. These offer a variety of improvements to the game, while still maintaining the original vision of the developers.

Difficulty: Hard –  When played as intended, Ultima IV is surprisingly difficult. Players will really need to think before they act, take extensive notes, and think outside of the box. Patience is required to master a game like this. That being said, if you sit down with a walkthrough the game is ridiculously easy.

Story: The storyline is the really where this game stood above all its peers. Throwing out all of the standard tropes and cliques really gave this title a unique and engaging story to enjoy.

Originality: This game is the direct result of Richard Garriott’s willingness to buck the system and do something different. Against the advice of many in the industry, he insisted on making Ultima IV a game that focuses on spiritual growth. By doing so, he created a title that will forever stand out as one of the greatest games of all time.

Soundtrack: As noted above, the vanilla DOS version of the game includes minimal audio. However, patches are available to add the midi soundtrack into the game. The game score is pretty simplistic and can get a bit repetitive at times. But, it is fitting and rather enjoyable.

Fun: If approached with a patient mindset and the willingness to learn, Ultima IV is a very rewarding and entertaining game. Younger players who are used to the hand-holding of today’s titles will likely have a tough time wrapping their mind around a title like this. But there’s a lot to love in Ultima IV if you’re willing to open your mind to it.

Graphics: The base graphics in the DOS version are very similar to what’s seen in Ultima Trilogy. However, there is a patch that provides enhanced VGA graphics.  My screenshots show the game with these enhancements applied. Patched tiles aside, the biggest change to the game’s graphics come in the form of opening and closing artwork. Even though it appears simply by today’s standards, the full color scenes that are displayed at the beginning of the game were absolutely cutting edge at the time.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to figure out. You control your character with the arrow keys and execute all other commands with various letters on the keyboard. Reading the manual is a must. But even with the game manual, the new classes and abilities make for a large number of awkward commands to learn. It certainly takes a little getting used to.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  You’d think that a game as legendary at Ultima IV might still command a premium price. But, you’d be wrong. In fact, Ultima IV is available free of charge to everyone. The easiest way to get your hands on it is through GOG, but it is also available elsewhere online at no charge. With this in mind, there’s no reason not to give this classic game a try.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Ultima IV is the Ultima game to play. This game was revolutionary in a way that’s hard to explain today. There was simply nothing like it. This game captivated me when I was young and I daresay it actually helped make me into a better person. I recommend this game to anyone who is looking for something different and willing to take the time and patience to master it.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

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Nerd Fuel: Donut Shop – Chocolate Glazed Donut

It’s been several months since I sat down and did a new coffee review. To be honest, that’s been mainly due to two reasons. First, I have a new work schedule that’s been highly unusual. Currently, I find myself waking up around three-thirty in the morning and heading to bed around eight in the evening. Second, there’s really not been anything interesting showing up on the shelves of my local grocery store lately. But recently, I noticed a new box sitting among all of the familiar faces! In fact, it was a new variety of Donut Shop; Chocolate Glazed Donut.

As you know, I’m a fairly big fan of the “Donut Shop” brand. The original Donut Shop and Donut Shop Dark are two of my personal favorites. So far, the only real miss I’ve encountered from the brand was from the “Vanilla Cream Puff” variety. To me, most flavored coffees tend to have a very phony taste. This was certainly the case with the other Chocolate Glazed Donut coffee I reviewed a couple of years ago. So needless to say, I purchased this box with the expectation that I might be disappointed.

The first thing I noticed about this coffee was the delightful aroma during the brew. It did indeed smell like the inside of a donut shop. On first taste, the coffee takes on a bit of a “chocolate syrup” sort of flavor, followed by a cocoa-like after taste. It does actually taste very much like a glazed chocolate donut. In many ways, it is very similar to Green Mountain’s “Donut House” Chocolate Glazed Donut coffee, only without the overly-strong artificial flavor.

Personally, I’ve not really a huge fan of chocolate flavored coffee. But out of all the different varieties I’ve tried, this cup was certainly the most enjoyable. So if you’re a really big fan of chocolate donuts and coffee… well, this is probably what you’re looking for.

Score: 3 out of 4

Would Purchase again?: Maybe. Chocolate coffee is not really my forte. But, this is quality stuff. For a flavored coffee, this is a top-tier offering.

 

Review: Ultima III – Exodus

My review for the third game in the Ultima trilogy is here! That’s right, today I’m going to be talking about Ultima III: Exodus. This is a game that’s important for a number of reasons (not just important to the Ultima series, but for the entire CRPG genre as a whole). Ultima III laid the groundwork for, and established a number of design concepts that still remain staples in modern RPGs today. It is arguably the grandfather of all modern role playing games.

When playing Ultima III there are a number of ports and versions to choose from. However, most players today will likely end up with the DOS version of the game. This, like all of the games in the series, is available on GOG. The original DOS release is probably one of the better looking versions of the game, but it does not include the midi soundtrack that is present on most other platforms. Thankfully, this is easily corrected via a popular fan-made patch “Ultima Patcher“. This patch offers a variety of improvements to the game, while still maintaining the original vision of the developers.

Ultima III is final title in the original Ultima Trilogy. As such, it brings an end to overall story of the two prior games in the series. In this entry, it is discovered that Mondain and Minax spawned a “child” – a mysterious entity known only as “Exodus”. Exodus has began its assault on the land of Sosaria from its lair. The player is summoned by Lord British to put an end to the terror.

Unlike the other games in the series so far, you do not control a single character. Instead, you now have a party of up to four player-characters to control. When creating new characters, there are a number of race and class options to choose from. Players can select between Human, Elf, Dwarf, Fuzzy, or Bobbit when it comes to race, and Fighter, Paladin, Wizard, Cleric, Thief, Ranger, Barbarian, Lark, Druid, Illusionist, or Alchemist for classes. Each class specializes in a certain style of play. For example, Fighters can use any weapons and armor, but have no spellcasting ability. Other classes, like Alchemist, have access to a limited list of weapons and spells. It’s up to the player to determine what combination of races and classes they find most beneficial. Of course, the key is to strive for balance when setting up your party. A good party will consist of attackers, support characters, and magic users.

Party-based RPGs were not a new concept. The Wizardry games are all based on this idea. But Ultima III was the first game to combine party-based tactics with the overhead exploration that the other entries in the Ultima series made famous. The end result was nothing short of amazing. Bringing together these two styles of role playing games marked the beginning of a new era and set the standard for years to come.

Of course, Ultima III also stays true to many of core concepts that made the series famous. Players are still able to explore the overhead world, towns and various dungeons. This time, dungeons are not randomly generated. Instead they now consist of unique, pre-designed maps. Also, in this game, dungeons actually have a larger purpose! That’s right, for the first time in the series, players will find the practice of dungeon-delving beneficial. Several of the dungeons found in Ultima III contain special items that are required to complete the game. This means that exploring them is a must, but also rather fun. (Better get that graph paper out!).

For many, myself included, Ultima III was the first game in the series that really captured their attention. Of course, the game really shows its age these days. But its impressive just how well it holds up. It’s the perfect blend of dungeon crawler and overhead CRPGs. This is the game that started it all.

Difficulty: Medium –  Ultima III is not nearly as difficult as the prior games in the series if you’re willing to a do a little grinding. They key here is stick to overworld battles in the beginning – as they scale in difficulty with your character level. Then, once you’ve toughened up a bit, you can venture into the dungeons. As long as you’re willing to grind, you can stay ahead of the difficulty  curve.

Story: As always with the Ultima series, the storyline here is fairly well done. The big twist comes with the reveal of what “Exodus” actually is. I won’t spoil it here, but it really makes puts a nice little cherry on top of an already good game.

Originality: This game takes elements from other popular CRPGs and mixes them masterfully with the existing Ultima formula. The end result is a game that quite literally became the template for nearly all other RPGs for the next decade.

Soundtrack: As noted above, the vanilla DOS version of the game does not include audio. However, patches are available to add the midi soundtrack to the game. The game score is pretty simplistic and can get a bit repetitive at times. But, it is fitting and rather enjoyable.

Fun: For me, this is the shining jewel in the original Ultima Trilogy. It just doesn’t get any better than this. I used to enjoy experimenting with different class combinations, learning the ins-and-outs of everything. If you enjoy older RPGS, this is one that should provide hours of entertainment.

Graphics: The base graphics in the DOS version are very similar to what’s seen in Ultima I. However, there is a patch that provides enhanced graphics.  My screenshots show the game with these enhancements applied. The biggest upgrade to the game’s graphics come in the form of 3D-style dungeons. This time, instead of being black and white wireframes, the dungeon walls now features colors. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it adds quite a bit of atmosphere.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to figure out. You control your character with the arrow keys and execute all other commands with various letters on the keyboard. Reading the manual is a must. But even with the game manual, the new classes and abilities make for a large number of awkward commands to learn. It certainly takes a little getting used to.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Ultima III is included in the “Ultima I, II and III” bundle on GOG for a mere $5.99. This game alone is worth the six dollars.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Ultima III is nothing short of legendary. Even if you’re not a fan of the genre, its hard not admire a game of this stature. While it doesn’t hold up quite as well today as some other titles, it still stands the test of time fairly well. If you’re interested in Ultima, but find the first two entries a little too archaic for your tastes, Ultima III might be the best starting point in the series.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

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Review: Ultima II – The Revenge of the Enchantress

After the success of Ultima, the development of a sequel was a no-brainer. This time, Richard Garriott took the concepts that made the original Ultima great and tried to expand them even further. The end result is a very ambitious game, but one that ended up feeling like a bit of a mess in the end. (I’ll explain what I mean in a bit).

Ultima II is a direct sequel to the original. After the death of the wizard Mondain, it is discovered that he had a secret apprentice – a young enchantress named Minax. To seek revenge for her master’s death, Minax travel back to the origin of time and sends armies of her minions to various points in history. The twist here is that she does not seek her revenge in the land of Sosaria. Instead, she decides to turn her attention towards Earth (now revealed to be origin world of both Lord British and the game’s hero). As expected, the player assumes the role of a mysterious hero who agrees to enter one of the time doors in hopes of putting an end to Minax’s reign of terror.

When playing this title today, the GOG version seems to work best with modern hardware. But even then, it is highly recommended that you apply the patches contained in the “Ultima Patcher“. These offer a variety of improvements to the game, while still maintaining the original vision of the developers.

For the most part, Ultima II plays very similar to the original. The majority of the game takes place in the overworld map or in various towns/villages. All of the mechanics from the original game are present. But this time, the player can also travel to various points in history. This is done using special “time doors”. When a player enters a time door, he will emerge in another place and time.  The eras available to visit are as follows: The Time of Legends (the origin of all time), Pangea (approx 300 million years ago), B.C. (approx 1400), A.D. (1990), and The Aftermath (a post apocalyptic era).

The majority of game is simply jumping between eras to find various items. The overworld map is littered with various towers and dungeons, but for the most part they play a very little role in this adventure. Once you’ve reached a certain point, you will also be able to travel to various planets in the solar system. In fact, visiting “Planet X” is crucial to completing the game.  (Important note: a bug in the DOS version of game prevents players from visiting most planets in the solar system. However, this can be corrected via a fan-made patch.)

The one really unique thing about Ultima II is just how open it is. Right from the get-go players are able to explore a vast majority of the game and interact with NPCs. These days, this concept is not particularly unusual. But in 1982, it was almost unheard of.

All of this sounds like the making for a really great and innovative game. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Despite being based on some pretty groundbreaking concepts, Ultima II is largely a big fat dud. There’s just very little in the game that actually engages players. If anything, I think the game is actually TOO open and offers little to no guidance. Even reading the game’s manual doesn’t really point the player in the right direction to get started.

To make matters worse, despite having a plethora of content to explore, hardly any of it is required to actually complete the game. Nor does the character benefit in any real way from participating in any of it. For example, aside from collecting a single item, there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever for a player to enter any of the game’s dungeons. The same is true when it comes to exploring the various planets in the solar system. Only one planet has anything of interest, and the player needs only spend about a minute of time there. It’s really a shame. There’s so much potential wasted.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the game just… sucks. When compared with the original Ultima, Ultima II just isn’t even on the same playing field. All of this really makes Ultima II a tough game to recommend to anyone but the most hardcore fans of the series.

Difficulty: Hard –  Ultima II is considerably difficult to complete without the use of a walkthrough or without abusing the save/reload feature. However, as is the case with other games in the series thus far, it’s quite simple to abuse the game’s mechanics – making the game much easier than it should be.

Story: As far as storylines go, Ultima II has a pretty interesting set-up. The idea of merging the gameworld with the real world is interesting. As is the concept of traveling through various eras of time. In my opinion, the story for Ultima II is better than the game itself.

Originality: Despite taking issue with the game itself, I have to admit that when it comes to originality, Ultima II is worthy of praise. So many unique concepts are introduced here, it’s really a travesty that the game ended up being of such poor quality.

Soundtrack: Like the previous entry in the series, Ultima II is limited to basic taps, beeps and bloops. Nothing much to get excited about, but this was par for the course in the early days.

Fun: Even the grittiest, most hardcore CRPG grognards are going to have a tough time claiming that they actually enjoy this game. The game itself is just not very entertaining. For me, I found the various mechanics and concepts introduced to very interesting. But the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Graphics: If you’re comparing the graphics in this game to the original Apple II version of Ultima, then Ultima II is a notch better. But when compared to the 1986 re-release of Ultima, it’s actually a step backwards.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to master. You control your character with the arrow keys and execute all other commands with various letters on the keyboard. Reading the manual is a must.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Ultima II is included in the “Ultima I, II and III” bundle on GOG for a mere $5.99. Despite being an iffy game, the price for this bundle is still well worth it.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – Ultima II is a game with some serious flaws. But, I have to give Garriott credit; He had a vision for the game and for the most part, he was able to achieve it. Even if the game itself is lackluster, Richard Garriott still managed to create something unique and interesting. All that aside, I must admit that Ultima II is a pretty bad game. I can only really recommend it to most dedicated of Ultima fans. Even then, it is a bitter pill to swallow.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

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Review: Ultima – The First Age of Darkness

Fresh off the heels of my Akalabeth review, I’m back with a look at the first true game in the Ultima saga, Ultima – The First Age of Darkness.  This game takes many of the concepts and design elements from Akalabeth and expands on them. The result is the fruition of Richard Garriott’s original vision; a computer-based Dungeons & Dragons style role playing game.

Originally released for the Apple II in 1981, Ultima was the game that launched an entire series of RPGs that would dominate the market for nearly two decades. It was released to rave reviews and due to its popularity, was ported to a number of systems. In 1986, a remake of the game (retitled “Ultima I“) was released for the Commodore 64 and the PC. Being the only official PC version, this 1986 release is the version I played for this review. When playing this title today, the GOG version seems to work best with modern hardware. But even then, it is highly recommended that you apply the patches contained in the “Ultima Patcher“. These offer a variety of improvements to the game, while still maintaining the original vision of the developers. .

The storyline behind Ultima is both a continuation of Akalabeth and also somewhat of a re-imagining. This time, the game takes place in a world called Sosaria – a land under siege by the evil wizard Mondain. Despite many attempts to overthrow him, Mondain has plunged the world into an age of darkness. Protected by a powerful gem of immortality, he is completely invulnerable to any attacks against him. As a result of his rule, beasts and foul creatures roam the countryside causing common folk to go into hiding. The lords of the land stay cloistered behind the secure walls of their fortresses. Only one leader, a king by the name of Lord British, dares to defy Mondain’s rule. In Ultima, you play as a young hero willing to answer the call and discover a way to defeat the infamous Mondain.

As I mentioned above, Ultima takes the core concepts introduced in Akalabeth and turns them into a much better game. For example, there’s still an overworld map and dungeons. There’s still bounty-style quests. There’s still a supply of food to worry about. But this time, there’s also a bigger story and much more to explore and do. The game begins just outside of the town of Britain (the domain of Lord British). Here, Lord British tasks the player with seeking out a specific location in the game world. As the player explores the land, they will discover other kingdoms. The rulers of these other lands will also provide various quests for players to undertake. For example, to descend into various dungeons and slay specific monsters (something straight out of Akalabeth).

Completing these quests will either net the player increases in their ability scores or they will be rewarded with magical gems. The collection of these gems is crucial to the completion of the game. (But I’ll avoid any potential spoilers and say no more on that subject…)

The overworld map, castles, and cities featured state-of-the-art graphics for the time. The first person dungeons are reminiscent in style to those found in Akalabeth. The main difference here is that the layout of the dungeons do not randomly generate each time the game is loaded (as they do in some versions of Akalabeth). Instead, they are static throughout the entire play session. This is true even if the game is saved and reloaded later.

Like Akalabeth, it’s very easy to exploit the game by saving before attempting risky maneuvers (like stealing from shops), then simply reloading it if things don’t go your way. It’s relatively easy to cheese your way to riches in Ultima using this method. However, to really experience all the game has to offer, I highly recommend against doing this. Starting out weak and working your way up is big part of what makes this game enjoyable. Don’t be shy! Get out that graph paper and map those dungeons! It’s fun. Trust me.

For its day and age, Ultima was a groundbreaking game. Modern players experiencing it for the very first time today will likely find it to be rather antiquated and confusing. There’s certainly no hand-holding and reading the game’s manual before play is essential. Like Wizardry, Ultima is one of the grandfathers of all modern RPGs. With that in mind, it certainly deserves a look from any real fan of the genre.

Difficulty: Hard –  Ultima features many of the same challenges found in its predecessor. However, this time there’s hints and breadcrumbs provided by NPCs. That does make finding your way in the game a bit easier. Again, this game is really only difficult if you don’t exploit the save/re-load feature. Taking advantage of this technical loophole makes the game a cinch.

Story: The game features a fairly unique story. By having the game take place in a semi-apocalyptic world ruled by an evil wizard, Ultima manages to stand out among a genre typically filled with either “save the princess” scenarios or glorified treasure hunts. It is often difficult to create a unique narrative in the fantasy game, but Garriott was able to do so by combining his love for both sci-fi and fantasy and translating them into a digital version of a pen-and-paper style RPG.

Originality: At the time Ultima was released it was simply revolutionary. Fantasy games were not unheard of, but Ultima provided gamers with a number of new and unique experiences. It’s hard to imagine this by looking at the game today, but it was truly a cutting edge release at the time. Taking a fantasy world where everyone speaks Old English and mixing it with a space shooter? That’s pretty unique.

Soundtrack: Ultima is limited to basic taps, beeps and bloops. Nothing much to get excited about, but this was par for the course in the early days.

Fun: Fans of retro-style RPGs are likely to be the only modern audience for a game like this. But for those of us that enjoy such things, Ultima can provide a surprising amount of entertainment.

Graphics: These days Ultima looks almost laughably basic. But for its day and time, Ultima was state-of-the-art. It’s certainly a massive leap above what was seen in Akalabeth.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to master. You control your character with the arrow keys and execute all other commands with various letters on the keyboard. Reading the manual is a must.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Ultima is included in the “Ultima I, II and III” bundle on GOG for a mere $5.99. At this price, it’s worth a look even if you only have a mild curiosity about the game.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Ultima was without a doubt a groundbreaking game. But it isn’t perfect. Despite being designed with the intention of being a rather challenging title, it’s all too easy to exploit the game mechanics and turn the entire experience into a piece of cake. Despite this flaw, Ultima is a classic that paved the way for the RPGs of today. Older fans or even younger gamers with an open mind can still find quite a bit of adventure of they are willing to take a look.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

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R.I.P. Stan Lee

Today the world has lost a wonderful talent. Stan Lee, the creator of Marvel Comics has passed away. Stan Lee was the brains behind some of the most iconic super heroes and stories ever put to print. He had a way of standing up against injustice without engaging injecting partisan politics into his work. He will forever be known as one of the most sincere, kindest people in the business.

Rest in peace, Stan. EXCELSIOR!

 

Review: Akalabeth – World of Doom

Starting off my Ultima reviews with a game that’s not technically part of the series may seem a bit weird. But in the eyes of many, Akalabeth is indeed the prequel to very first Ultima game. In fact, it is often referred to as “Ultima 0” and was even labeled as such when it was included in the Ultima Collection from 1998.

Akalabeth was the first game published by Richard Garriott (aka: Lord British). Originally only available on the Apple II, a fan-made DOS version of the game appeared on the internet sometime in the mid 90’s. A few years later, an official DOS port of the game was included with the Ultima Collection. These days, the game is available for free on the GOG platform. However, players should be aware that both DOS ports of the game come with their own issues.

The default version offered by GOG is the fan-made port. In many ways, this is the version that is most like the original Apple II release of Akalabeth. However, this release of the game also includes a nasty bug that can make the game un-winnable. (Basically, players are never given a bounty to kill. Thus, have no way to complete any objectives. This breaks the game completely). Once upon a time, there was a patch available to fix this bug. But these days it seems to have been lost to the antiquity of yesterday’s internet. Thankfully, the official port of the game does not have this problem. But it does not maintain the randomly generated levels found in the original release. Also, the 1998 version of the game includes the ability to save and reload your progress. This makes the game very exploitable and takes nearly all of the challenge out of the title. Also, the official version of the game includes color and a midi soundtrack that was lifted from Ultima III. These changes make many purists, like myself, cringe. Thankfully, both versions are actually available on GOG. (The 1998 port is included as a bonus download.) For the sake of this review, I did play the default GOG version. But I generally recommend the 1998 version to most people curious about the game.

The story for the game is simple. Not long ago, the world of Akalabeth was razed by an evil wizard named Mondain. A hero by the name of British rose up and drove the evil Mondain from the land. Now, having been crowned king, Lord British seeks adventurers brave enough to help him cleanse the land of any foul beasts that might still remain.

Akalabeth is one of the earliest CRPGs games ever to be made available. And despite appearing to be very basic in its design, it is surprisingly quite complex. When first starting the game, you will be asked to provide a “lucky number”. The number entered here actually serves as a seed of sorts. It helps generate the game’s maps and the character’s stats. Next, you will be prompted to enter a “level of play”. This is essentially the difficulty level for the game. Next up, you will be given a set of stats for your character and you will be asked to either accept them or re-roll. You can continue to re-roll stats for as long as you like until you find a set that seems acceptable, there’s no limit to the number of times you can try.

The game consists of four main screens; shops, the overworld, dungeons, and the castle. After creating your character, the first thing you will see is the shop screen. Here, you can spend your starting gold on a weapon and food. Buying lots of food is crucial in Akalabeth because every step your character takes consumes a bit of food. If you run out of food, you die. Essentially, most players will continue to re-roll their stats until they are given over 20 pieces of starting gold. Then they’ll buy a cheap weapon and spend the rest of the gold on food. If you neglect to buy any food, then you will die the instant you leave town. Brutal.

After leaving the shop, you will find yourself on a very archaic-looking overworld map. The next step in the game is locate a nearby dungeon, enter it, and kill monsters for gold. Each monster you slay will provide you with a few gold pieces. Once you have earned a significant amount of gold or once your food supply starts to run low, you will want to hightail it to the nearest shop so you can replenish your provisions. Once you are able to amass a small hoard of food, it is time to explore the overworld map in search of Lord British’s Castle. It’s also important to note, that each time you leave a dungeon, your character’s Hit Points will increase in accordance with the number of monsters slain.

Finding the castle is where the game really starts. From here, you begin a chain of quests. Each essentially requiring you to venture deeper into a dungeon in search of a specific monster. Once that monster is slain, you return to the castle to receive a new quest. Once you’ve slain all the monsters on Lord British’s list, you win the game.

When first exploring the overworld map, new players are often taken aback by the large number of shops and dungeons. The dirty little secret here is, they are all essentially the same. It doesn’t matter what shop or dungeon you enter, the contents never really change. So the real trick here is to simply find a shop and dungeon that are in close vicinity to Lord British’s castle and use only those locations to complete the game.

The dungeons themselves are where the real action takes place. Dungeons are presented in a crude 3D view, very similar to what you see in the early Wizardry games. Depending on which version of Akalabeth you are playing, the layout of the dungeon may change every time you exit and enter, or it may stay the same. Either way, it’s really not TOO difficult to navigate. The grid itself and the ladders leading up and down are always static. Only the location of the doors and the walls vary from level to level. I always recommend that players map out their journey on a piece of graph paper when playing to avoid getting hopelessly lost.

Being an older game, Akalabeth will certainly seem crude and undesirable to many modern gamers. It is definitely not a game most people these days will want to seek out. Personally, I enjoy older dungeon crawls like this. But then again, I grew up with them. I suspect that for many, this game would only serve as a curiosity. But, if you are adventurous and willing to take the time and patience needed to explore everything this game has to offer, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Difficulty: Hard –  If playing the game as intended, Akalabeth offers quite a challenge. Food management can be downright brutal as can many of the monster encounters. That being said, anyone willing to invest a little time in grinding should be able to boost their character to a point that makes the game manageable. If playing the 1998 version, it’s easy to cheese your way through entire game by exploiting a specific save/reload loophole thus reducing the game’s difficulty to nil.

Story: The game features a very barebones backstory. But considering the entire game really nothing more than a programming project by an ambitious high school student, this is forgivable.

Originality: When Garriott began designing this game, it was 1977. Despite being largely inspired D&D and Lord of the Rings, the concept of an RPG-style dungeon crawler was almost unheard of at the time. Some people like to argue that Akalabeth might actually be the first graphical RPG game ever made.

Soundtrack: The original game is silent and has no sound whatsoever. The 1998 release does include some basic noises and midi music (ripped from Ultima III), none of which are particularly impressive.

Fun: For most, this is a hard game to recommend. It’s random and tedious by today’s standards. Old grognards like me might appreciate it. But for the vast gaming population, Akalabeth is a pretty hard pill to swallow. Regardless, if you have a love for old school RPGs like Wizardry and Zork. This game might be worth a look.

Graphics: The graphics in this game are about as basic as you can get. But, for a game programmed entirely in BASIC, it’s actually quite impressive. The dungeons are white on black wireframe. As are the monsters and overworld map. Players on the Apple II get treated to the classic Apple II color palate. The 1998 remake also adds some basic colors to the text and wireframe models.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to master. You control your character with the arrow keys and execute all other commands with various letters on the keyboard. Reading the manual is a must.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Both versions of this game are available today completely free of charge.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – This is a tough one to score. Personally, I really like this game a lot. It reminds me of the games I used to play when I young. But understandably, it would be very difficult for someone accustomed to modern games to wrap their head around something like this. I first encountered Akalabeth in 1998 when it was released as part of the Ultima Collection and I found it enjoyable then. Revisiting it now, I can still appreciate it. But, even I can admit it has not aged very well. This fact, combined with the technical problems of the fan-created port that is distributed by default make it a pretty tough recommendation.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

 

Project: Ultima

For the most part, when I play and review games from my backlog on this site, I do so by generation. For example, some of my earliest reviews tackled classic NES games. Next, I moved on to Super NES titles, etc. Occasionally, I’ll go off on tangents as I did back in 2012, when I undertook the task of playing through the entire canonical Castlevania series in order of release. Then, in 2013, I did the same with the legendary Wizardry series (some of my favorite games of all time). This trend continued in 2014 with my “Final Fantasy Initiative”.

Today, I’m going to announce another playthrough project that’s been long overdue. I’m calling it, Project Ultima. That’s right, if there’s any classic CRPG series that can go head-to-head with Wizardry, it’s Ultima.

Both series debuted in 1981, but the development of the games couldn’t have been any different. Wizardry, created by two college developers, was thoroughly tested and received professional packaging and publication. While, Akalabeth, the precursor to Ultima, was written by a high school student and sold in ziplock bags with hand-drawn artwork. I suppose if we’re getting technical, the first game in the series, Akalabeth, isn’t an “Ultima” title, per se. But, it does serve as a prequel of sorts for the whole series.

The creative force behind Ultima is a man named Richard Garriott (also known as Lord British). As mentioned above, he began designing games as a student in high school. One thing I admire about Garriott is his drive to always better himself with each product he creates. For example, when he learned how some players were abusing certain mechanics in his games, ie: stealing from merchants instead of buying goods with gold, he then decided to include a moral/karma system in the next title to encourage honorable behavior. Concepts like this, have earned him a reputation in the industry for being a pioneer of sorts. Those curious about Garriott can read all about him in his biographical book, Explore/Create (which I reviewed on this site a while back).

My first encounter with Ultima came in the form of the Ultima III for the NES. While the early Ultima games were initially released on Apple computers, they were later ported to PC and other systems as well. This game made me into an instant fan. From there, I continued to gobble up each new Ultima port as they were released for the NES. Despite my love for the games, it would be several years before I would finally be able to properly explore the roots of the series. It wasn’t until 1998 and the release of the Ultima Collection, that was finally able to enjoy every game in the series up to that point. I am even a proud member of the Ultima Dragons, a special online club for fans of series.  (StainedDragon reporting in!)

For this project, I plan to explore every title under the Ultima banner. I’ll be starting with Akalabeth, and playing straight through to Ultima IX. My project will include the Ultima Underworld games, as well as a look at Ultima Online. The whole project will wrap up with a look at Lord British’s newest venture, Shroud of the Avatar.

To accomplish this, I won’t actually be using my old Ultima Collection disc. As the versions of the games included on that disc were designed for Windows 95/98 and still assume that an actual form of DOS is loaded onto the host machine. So instead, I’ll be using the versions of the games that are currently sold through GOG.com. GOG packages their games with built-in DOSBox emulation. In my opinion, GOG always seems to offer the best solution for those interested in playing legacy DOS titles.

So without further ado, I will begin my playthrough tonight. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Retro Rewind: PC Classics

I’ve discussed retro PC games a number of times on this site. In fact, some of my earliest posts were focused on games from the classic Wizardry series. But when I started discussing PC games, I quickly jumped ahead from the 80’s to the 90’s to take a look at titles like Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom. The truth is, PC games from the 80’s deserve quite a bit more attention than I’ve given them previously.

The very first PC game I ever played was called Castle Adventure. I encountered it when I was maybe seven or eight years old.  Now, at this point in my life I was no stranger to video games. I owned an Atari 2600, but I guess I just didn’t realize that you could actually play games on a personal computer. I remember walking down the hall at my friend’s house and seeing his older brother sitting at his desk. At this point, I always imagined computers were exclusively for data crunching and other obscure uses. When I noticed his brother was playing a game, I was a bit puzzled. I stood next to him and watched, completely enthralled.

Now, Castle Adventure was very basic sort of game. It had ASCII graphics so it wasn’t anything particularly exciting to look at. But it captivated me nonetheless. The point of the game is to explore a castle, find treasure, and escape. That simple. But despite it’s simplicity, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring every nook and cranny of the game. I was a fan.

Today, a faithful ground-up remake of Castle Adventure is available here for Windows:  CASTLE ADVENTURE .  It isn’t pretty, but if you’re curious, it’s the purest experience one can get.

Castle Adventure

When my family finally purchased a PC of our own, I naturally asked my father for some games. A few days later, he came home from work with a stack of floppy disks that a co-worker had copied for him. Now, back in those days, piracy was not that big of a deal. Making a copy of a game for a friend was as simple as having two floppy disks and knowing how to type “diskcopy” into the DOS prompt. The stack contained titles like Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Battle Chess, etc. All fun, I’m sure, but nothing I saw really caught my eye. That is, until I got to the very last game in the stack. A disk that was obscurely titled “ZORK”.

Of all the games my father brought home that day, ZORK ended up being my favorite. ZORK is an interactive text-based adventure game. It is actually quite a bit older than Castle Adventure. In fact, ZORK is just about as old as I am.  When I say it’s a text-based game, that means exactly what it sounds like. There’s no graphics, just words. For example, the game will present a scenario much like this:

“You are standing in a field in front of a large wooden house, facing south. There is a road leading to the east and west. A forest lies to the north.”

The player then has to type commands to drive the game forward. For example “Walk North” or simply “North”. The game then describes the next set of events. Players can enter command like “Open door” or  “take sword”. The entire game is played in this fashion.

ZORK

I couldn’t began to guess the amount of hours I spent with this game. And I wasn’t alone either, ZORK was extremely successful. Over the years it spawned a slew of sequels. I’m proud to say, I’ve played every entry in the series and despite being extremely “old school”, they are still quite enjoyable. These days, all of the ZORK games are available on Steam and GOG. I plan on reviewing them collectively at some point in the future.

Naturally, as technology continued to improve, this type of game would eventually be combined with visuals. One of the earliest examples I remember playing was a game called Transylvania. Oh, how I loved that game…  It took the basic gameplay elements from games like ZORK and gave you some crude graphics to enhance your immersion. There were three games in the Transylvania series, but sadly none of them are officially available on any platform today. For me, these games were just amazing. What I wouldn’t give to see some sort of remake or re-release. But, considering how I’ve never met another person who’s even heard of them… I won’t hold my breath.

Transylvania

It was games like these that prepared me for a game that might very well be my favorite game of all time, Wizardry. I’ve talked about the Wizardry games in detail on this site. So I won’t be rehashing them again with this post. But, any discussion of old-school PC games would be amiss without a mention of the series. In fact, when it comes to classic CRPGs, old grognards like myself usually fall into one of two factions. The Wizardry fans and the Ultima fans.

Like Wizardry, Ultima is a series of games that has also reached legendary status. Together, these two franchises set the bar for nearly all future RPGs. Games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest would not exist if it wasn’t for these titles.

I could spend hours writing about the impact these games had on me, and I will eventually. In fact, I plan to start a complete playthrough of the Ultima series in very near future. But for now, let’s move on. There’s so much more ground to cover.

The PC played host to countless classic RPGs; Bard’s Tale, Might & Magic, and King’s Quest for example. But RPGs were not the only thing that made PC’s great. Educational games were exceptionally popular on the platform. You’d be hard pressed to find someone my age who doesn’t have fond memories of titles like Where In the World is Carmen Sandeigo? or Oregon Trail. But the PC also played host to a vast library of action games like Commander Keen and Prince of Persia.

Where In the World is Carmen Sandiego?

As part of my Retro Rewind project, I plan to occasionally revisit some of these gems from the depth of the vault and hopefully introduce them to a new audience.  As I mentioned above, I’m going to start with Ultima. This is a game series that I’ve wanted to review for quite some time, but never took the time to do so. When I was young, I played through the first eight chapters in the Ultima saga, but I never finished the entire series.  The time to complete Ultima is upon us! Once I publish this article I’m taking a brief respite from both my Retro Rewind articles and my regular backlog list to focus exclusively on the series. I hope you enjoy it.

Retro Rewind: Sega Master System

When it comes to the 1980’s, I think it’s fair to say that Nintendo emerged as the clear winner in the home console market. Once the NES overtook the Atari, nothing was able to stand in their way. But every story has an underdog. In this case, it was the Sega Master System.

I remember seeing the television commercials and I even had a few friends that owned one of these systems. But personally, I never had much hands-on experience with the console. In truth, the Master System just couldn’t compete against the vast library and developer support that Nintendo was able to garner. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of your attention. The Master System did actually have a handful of games that would go down as classics. Games like Alex Kidd, Wonder Boy, and of course, Phantasy Star. These titles still rank up there as some of the best home console titles ever.

Phantasy Star

For me, Phantasy Star is of particular interest. It is an odd mix of first-person CRPGs like Wizardry and Ultima, and overhead RPGs like Dragon Quest. But despite having roots spawned from other classic games, it was groundbreaking in so many other ways. The game launched a whole franchise and it is still hailed as one of the most legendary RPG titles to date. As far as I’m concerned, Phantasy Star was THE only reason I wanted to get my hands on the Sega Master System. But to date, I still have yet to experience this legendary game. Thankfully, the game has been ported a number of times and is pending a digital release on the Nintendo Switch in the very near future. So getting a copy to review isn’t going to be very difficult.

If you’re curious about other games from the Master System, getting a hold on them may prove to be a bit challenging. While Sega has made it fairly easy to enjoy their older games historically, (almost every “essential” Master System title was made on the Wii Virtual Console), there’s really no good way to enjoy the majority of them on today’s hardware. Hopefully, this is going to change very soon. As I mentioned above, Phantasy Star is about to become available on the Switch as part of the Sega Ages collection and a few other Master System games have been announced as well. So, time will tell. I certainly hope to see some of these older games made more widely available, otherwise emulation will continue to rule the roost and Sega will lose countless dollars to piracy.