Review: Ultima VI – The False Prophet

My review of the final chapter in the second Ultima trilogy is finally here! Yes, it took a bit longer than initially expected. But I’m proud to finally share my thoughts on Ultima VI: The False Prophet. As mentioned above, this game serves as the final entry in what is often known as the “Age of Enlightenment Trilogy” (the sub-series that began with the classic Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.)

So far, every entry in the Ultima series has always managed to showcase some of the most cutting-edge technology of its day. The same is true for Ultima VI. But this time, we actually see the biggest advancement in the series so far. This is largely due to the fact that Ultima VI was developed specifically for the PC. All other games in the franchise were first developed for Apple and then ported to other platforms. The end result of this decision is a title that features full VGA graphics, a native MIDI soundtrack (for PCs equipped with soundcards), and even a revamped UI -Complete with mouse support! Like Ultima V, this entry also allows players to import their character from the previous scenario.

Back in the day, only the very best PC would be able to experience Ultima VI in all of its glory. At the time of Ultima VI‘s release, sound cards were not standard issue in PCs. So a vast number of players never got experience the game’s soundtrack . Thankfully, players today are able to experience the game as originally intended if acquiring a copy from GOG. As always, GOG does a great job of configuring DOS Box emulation so that the game is delivered almost flawlessly.

This game takes place several years after the events of Ultima V. Once again, players assume the role of The Avatar – a man from Earth who found his destiny in another world known as Britannia. Typically, The Avatar travels to Britannia using a magical blue-colored portal that appears not far from his home. However, one night during a mysterious storm, lighting strikes the site where the portal appears. The Avatar ventures to the scene to investigate and finds an unusual red-colored portal waiting for him. Upon emerging on the other side, The Avatar is accosted by a band of monstrous gargoyle-like creatures. Just as he about to meet his doom, he is rescued by companions from the previous Ultima games and take refuge in Castle Britannia.

The Avatar learns that the Gargoyles have only recently appeared in Britannia. In the short time since their arrival, they have captured several of the world’s Shrines of Virtue. The Avatar is tasked by Lord British to determine the reason behind the invasion and to help restore order to Britannia. Over the course of the game, they player will learn the truth behind the gargoyle’s presence and discover that not everything is as it seems.

As you can see, Ultima VI continued the series’ trend of excellent storytelling. As usual, this game takes what seems to be a black and white scenario and surprises the player with a level of insight and morality that simply just wasn’t seen in games at the time.

As I mentioned earlier, this game showcases a huge advancement in technology when compared with its predecessor. We now have a game world that is virtually seamless and maintains a constant scale. That’s right, no more zoomed-out overworld map. No more first-person dungeons. Everything is now presented in a colorfully rendered birds-eye view. But the enhancements are not just visual. There’s a number of revamps that make this Ultima much easier to play and control. For example, managing equipment has never been easier. Items possessed by characters now appear visually and can be clicked on and manipulated. This is important because for the first time in the series, we also have a new crafting option. Items can be combined and merged to create new, different items. Being able to do this via a point-and-click UI is a must. But that’s not all. Even talking to NPCs has been enhanced – there’s now an animated headshot of the character you are interacting with and keywords in the conversation are now highlighted and clickable. All of this may sound basic these days. But at the time, these were some really revolutionary advancements.

Since the game can now be controlled via mouse, the UI has evolved to accommodate this change. A panel of action buttons appears across the bottom of the screen. These allow players to execute any number of commands; such as drawing their weapon, picking up objects, inspecting objects, etc. Of course, players can still use the keyboard if they choose – and in fact will need to do so occasionally when talking to NPCs. But no longer will players have to memorize a slew of hotkeys and commands. This, in my opinion, is the best thing that could have happened to the Ultima series.

Like some of the previous games in the series, Ultima VI is largely an open world game. But this time, the level of “openness” is taken to a whole new level. Now, players can pretty much venture anywhere they see fit and experience the game at their own leisure. This is a good thing because Ultima VI is beast of a game. Being open-world makes it much easier to tackle a game of this size without it feeling like an endless grind.

All of these changes really make Ultima VI shine. Plus, it paves the way for what’s about to come down the pike with later installments.

Difficulty: Medium –  I’ve heard it said that Ultima VI is one of the harder titles in the series. Personally, I don’t find this to be the case. To me, it seemed much easier than most. For example, one of the features in the game is being able to travel around via a magical item called the Orb of the Moons. With this item, its very easy to simply travel to Lord British’s castle for healing pretty much whenever needed. Plus, the game itself just seems to be much more forgiving overall.

Story: The storyline is again one of the best parts of the game. The introduction scenes are masterpieces and it only gets better from there.

Originality: Just when the series was starting to feel a little stale, the developers stepped up and provide an entirely new experience. Everything from the UI to the overall feel of the game is new and improved.

Soundtrack: Ultima VI has a basic midi soundtrack. As such, the quality can vary depending on how your sound card handles MIDI playback. Regardless, the music is catchy and timeless.

Fun: For CRPG lovers, it doesn’t get any better than this. This game has it all: classic RPG elements, engaging gameplay, an open world – you name it. If that’s your cup of tea, Ultima VI is one heck of a ride.

Graphics: Ultima VI marks a drastic upgrade in terms of graphics. Of course, the game looks pretty rough by today’s standards. But when compared to what came before, its easy to see just how far the developers came in such a short time.

Playcontrol: For the first time in the series we now have a point-and-click UI. This makes controlling the game much more intuitive. Unfortunately, the default emulation of DOS Box does seem to introduce a little bit of lag to the mouse on modern systems. This isn’t terrible, but it does take a little getting used to.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Fantasy violence.

Value:  Ultima VI is available on GOG as part of the “Ultima IV, V and VI” trilogy. The entire bundle is available for the low price of $5.99. For this price, three games of this caliber is an absolute steal.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Ultima VI is again, one of my favorite entries in the series. It was released in a time when CRPGs were reaching their golden age and it shows. Ultima VI takes everything that made the series great and blended it with a number of new ideas and design changes that really put it in a class of its own.

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

 

Review: Ultima V – Warriors of Destiny

Next on the list of Ultima titles is one of the most underrated entries in the series; Ultima V – The Warriors of Destiny. This is a game that often gets overshadowed by its predecessor. But in my opinion, it is worthy of just as much attention. This title takes all of the advancements that made Ultima IV such an enthralling game and continues the trend, evolving the genre even more.

In this game, the Avatar is summoned back to Britannia by several of his old companions. Some time after the events of the last game, Lord British has gone missing. In his absence, Britannia has come under the control of the nefarious Lord Blackthorn, a tyrannical ruler who has twisted and corrupted the eight virtues into rules of terror. He enforces his version of the virtues with the help of some mysterious beings called “The Shadowlords”. It is up to the Avatar to unravel the secrets behind Blackthorn’s rise to power, discover the whereabouts of Lord British, and bring Blackthorn’s rule to an end.

This entry of the series also marks the first time players can carry over their progress from a previous game. That’s right, if you’ve managed to complete Ultima IV, you can import your character into this new chapter. Doing so will grant you a bit of a boost, giving a small reward to loyal fans. (I should note that enabling this functionality can be a bit tricky with modern versions of the game due to the way DOS Box is configured by default. But it’s still manageable – more on this later).

As I mentioned above, this game takes much of what made Ultima IV great and improves on it ever so slightly. For example, there is now more interactivity with both NPCs and the environment, more commands at the players disposal (ie: search, push, jimmy, etc). Also, the game now incorporates an active clock. This means that time passes in Britannia as the game progresses. As a result, NPCs “live out their lives” according to the time of day. This adds a whole new dynamic for the the player to consider when exploring and gathering information. For example, some NPCs may only be available during certain times of the day.

The Shadowlords mentioned above also play an integral part in the game. They will appear at various times, often changing the behavior of nearby NPCs.  Learning their schedule and how to determine their whereabouts becomes important at later stages of the game.

All of these tweaks and advances help transform the world of Ultima V into a living, breathing place. This, combined with what might be the best storytelling in the series thus far, really make this game one of the more engaging entries in the franchise. I don’t say that lightly. On more than one occasion, I found myself in awe of what I was experiencing. This was true the very first time I played the game years ago, as well as with my recent playthrough for this review. Some parts of the game’s storyline were so far ahead of its time that it is literally jaw-dropping.

On the technical side of things, Ultima V also brings a graphical boost to the franchise. But oddly enough, the DOS version is still absent a proper soundtrack. Thankfully, the fan community rectified this with an unofficial patch. As mentioned in my previous Ultima reviews, the “Ultima Patcher“ restores the MIDI soundtrack found in other versions of game. It also contains optional fixes for bugs that were never corrected by the game developers. Plus, this patch was designed specifically with the GOG version of the game in mind. This means that is provides an easy solution for importing your previous Ultima IV file.

All in all, Ultima V is a great evolution in an already legendary series. But, for all its advancements, the interface still stays stubbornly rooted in what has come before.  The alphabet-soup control scheme is starting to feel even more cumbersome with the addition of so many new commands. But, in the grand scheme of things, this complaint does little to detract from just how good this game actually is.

When it comes to classic CRPGs, I hold Ultima V is just as high esteem as the legendary Ultima IV.

Difficulty: Hard –  Out of the entire series so far, I’d say Ultima V is by far the most difficult title. This is especially true in the early part of the game. Players who import their character will have a slightly easier time, but the challenge still remains. Taking notes and drawing maps is a must. Even then, the game can throw some pretty mean curveballs.

Story: Again, the storyline is where this game shines. I really like the direction Richard Garriott decided to take with this title. The concept of someone corrupting Lord British’s virtues and perverting them for their own gain is both original and exciting. Players who enjoyed the earlier titles in the series will also find some nice ties to the original trilogy (but I’ll say no more or risk spoiling it).

Originality: By this point, the Ultima series has settled into a time-tested formula. Yes, there have been advancements made to the game. But, we’re starting tread into territory that feels familiar. So far, this is not really a big complaint. But it wouldn’t take much for things to start to feel a little tired.

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: For gamers who are not used to old-school CRPGs, Ultima V will likely be a tough pill to swallow. But, for those of us who absolutely love the genre, Ultima V is one of the finest examples of a game done well.

Graphics: A step up from prior entries in the series. The game looks ancient when compared with modern offerings – but in its day and time the graphics were bleeding edge.

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, there’s a large number of commands to learn. It certainly takes a little getting used to.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Ultima V is available on GOG as part of the “Ultima IV, V and VI” trilogy. The entire bundle is available for the low price of $5.99. For this price, three games of this caliber is an absolute steal.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Ultima V is one of my favorite entries in the series. Like its predecessor, I consider it to be a classic that belongs in the library of any serious CRPG fan. To me, this game defines the classic old-school role playing game experience.

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

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, there’s 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

Shroud of the Avatar

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

Shroud of the Avatar

 

 

 

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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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

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Review: Night Trap (25th Anniversary Edition)

You didn’t think I’d let the month of October go by without posting a review for a horror game did you? I know I usually review something spooky and paranormal. But this year, I decided to change things up a bit and go full-on campy with Night Trap.

If you’ve never heard of Night Trap, you’re not alone. It wasn’t exactly a big seller. To start with, it was released on the Sega CD, which was an add-on product that didn’t see very big sales in the first place. Second, it was extremely rare to find on store shelves due to a nearly unprecedented level of controversy. You see, Night Trap was labeled as one of the most morally offensive games of all time. Any parent who allowed their child to be exposed to such filth should be locked up! It was called pornographic and filled with excessive violence. The negative buzz around the game actually got so bad that many retailers pulled the product and refused to sell it. So what was the big deal? Is Night Trap really as disgusting and violent as its critics claim?

The answer is no. Not at all. I’m actually a pretty conservative guy when it comes to what I allow my children to be exposed to, and I’d let either of them play this game. I mean, there’s literally no concern. So what was the big deal? Well, to start with, Night Trap is not your regular video game. Instead, it is made up of actual video footage. It is very much like an interactive movie. I suppose having an interactive game featuring REAL scantily clad women in fictional peril was just too much for some. It stirred up so much hullabaloo that  Night Trap was one of the games directly responsible for the formation of the ESRB.

The gist of the game is simple. There’s been a rash of mysterious disappearances around the house of a very prominent family. It’s been determined that the house is equipped with a slew of traps and security features. To get to the bottom of the mystery, the police have sent in an undercover officer into the home with a group of teens. They’ve also been able to hack their way into the home’s security system, thus giving the police access to all of the traps remotely. Your job is monitor a number of security cameras and use the traps to capture any intruders or suspicious characters that might pose harm to either the undercover office or the teens in the house.

As the story goes on, you learn that the home’s owners are in league with a weird band of vampires called “Augers”. You must capture as many Augers as possible and avoid letting the house become overrun. This is easier said than done, as you will have to switch between a number of live feeds on they fly in attempt to detect any suspicious activity.

The original version of Night Trap was notoriously difficult. Today the game is available in a special 25th Anniversary Edition. This package includes the game in its original form, as well as a handful of alternate UI versions. Some of these new renditions do make the game a bit easier by allowing the players to see previews of all of the camera feeds. This can help save time by not forcing the player to constantly jump from screen to screen when monitoring the house.

The game itself is actually quite a novel idea. In a time when CD ROM drives were still considered to be jaw-dropping technology, making an interactive film was inevitable. Sure, the acting is terrible and the script is even worse. But the whole concept behind the game is both original and brilliant. Playing Night Trap is akin to experiencing an interactive B-grade horror flick. I was surprised at just much fun the game actually is. If you’re a fan of cheesy horror movies and you’re looking for something different this Halloween, Night Trap might be exactly what you’re looking for.

Difficulty: Variable –  Completing this game is no simple feat. This is true even when using the modern UI. If you really want a challenge, the original layout of the game makes things even more difficult. The trick to Night Trap is repetition. The more you fail and start over, the easier it gets. You’ll learn the story and memorize certain cues. But some parts will still require near perfect execution in order to avoid failure.

Story: Despite being exceptionally cheesy, the storyline for this game is well done and entertaining. The way it is presented is also very enthralling. At any given time, there’s a handful of different scenes available to watch. To see everything, you’ll need to play the game multiple times. The more you watch, the more you’ll see how the entire plot twists together. It’s actually quite brilliant.

Originality: At the time Night Trap hit the scene, there was nothing like it. Sure, interactive films were not a new concept. I remember seeing VHS tapes in the 80’s that would have you rewind and fast-forward to achieve a similar result. But never before had anyone taken the “interactive film” concept and made it so easy to use.

Soundtrack: The game features two memorable pieces of music. The first is a little background music that is heard whenever bad guys appear on the screen. The second is a terribly-good bubblegum song performed by one of the characters. Everything about the music in this game is B-grade cheese. But that’s actually part of the charm.

Fun: While there’s not much to the gameplay, it is actually quite fun. There’s a certain satisfaction achieved when you are able to perfectly anticipate and catch a handful of sneaky Augers. I enjoyed this game much more than I expected to.

Graphics: Being a FMV-based game, there are really no “graphics” to score. The game itself is made up of real video. The source material is quite old but holds up surprisingly well in the 25th Anniversary Edition.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are quite simple. On the PC its point and click with a single keyboard button to tap. On consoles it also just as simple.  The game is very dependent on the player’s reaction time, but offers no playcontrol issues whatsoever.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Campy violence.

Value:  If you’re going to play this game, your best bet is find a digital copy. The game sells for around $15 digitally and is also frequently on sale. If you’re looking for a physical copy, be ready to spend a upwards of $70-$80, as the game is already out of print.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Night Trap is a strange beast. Most people seek it out simply for the mythology that surrounds it. It’s very much a curiosity for many. But if you actually sit down with it and take the time to learn its charms, you just might find a pretty good game hiding under all the hearsay. I recommend this title to anyone who enjoys 80’s camp. It’s a riot and surprisingly pretty entertaining.

Available on: Steam, PS4, Nintendo Switch

Retro Rewind: Atari 2600

I’ve spent the last two posts talking about some of my favorite golden-age arcade games. This time, I’m going to focus on one of the earliest home video game consoles, the Atari 2600.  Interactive video games had actually been around for a quite some time.But they really hit the mainstream in the late 70’s-early 80’s. Hoping to cash in on what believed to be the “next big thing”, Magnavox developed the Odyssey – the first home video game console. However, it wasn’t until Atari released the Atari 2600 Video Computer System that the public really took notice.

The Atari 2600 was originally released in 1977 and took the market by storm. At last, friends could enjoy two-player video games in their own home. New and unique games were being released for the 2600 at a rapid-fire pace. Famous arcade titles were even being ported to the system (albeit in very poor quality). For several years, it seemed like the sky was the limit for Atari. However, by 1983 interest began to wane for the system. The overall poor quality of many of the games, as well as an over-saturated market ultimately led to the 2600’s downfall.

Many of the best games for the Atari 2600 were actually classic arcade games (Frogger, Pac-Man, Centipede), but these ports are dreadful when compared to the original arcade versions. Regardless, the 2600 still played host to some worthy titles. Four of my favorite 2600 games are as follows:

Adventure

Adventure – This was the first overworld exploration game. The purpose of Adventure is to explore an open environment in search of a magic chalice. Once found, return it the golden castle at the beginning of the game. To say Adventure was ahead of its time is an understatement. Games like The Legend of Zelda likely would not exist if it wasn’t for Adventure. This game invented the concept of free-roaming enemies, “continues”, and even Easter Eggs. Naturally, when compared with modern equivalents, Adventure has not aged well. But it is still worth a look for curious gamers.

Haunted House – If Adventure is considered the first fantasy-action games, then Haunted House might very well be the first survival horror title. In this game, you explore a dark haunted mansion in search of pieces to a broken urn. The gameplay is best described as “bumping around in the dark” while looking for items. To actually find anything, the player must light a match that illuminates a small area around them – but doing so will attract monsters. Haunted House was a favorite of mine as a child. But most everyone I knew refused to read the instruct booklet and therefore did not understand/enjoy the game. This a shame, as the game itself is quite well done.

Pitfall!

Pitfall! – If I had to pick a favorite Atari 2600 title, it would be Pitfall!.  This is a side-scrolling action game in which our hero must jump over rolling logs, swing on vines, and avoid mean little critters as he searches the jungle for rumored treasure. Pitfall! may have been the first side-scrolling game that I ever played. As a result, it kindled my interest in the genre for years to come. If you are going to play any game that the Atari 2600 has to offer, this is the one I recommend.

Swordquest – As an honorable mention, I’m including the Swordquest games in my list. I’m not doing so because they were particularly good games… but rather due to the legacy that follows them. Swordquest was a series that consisted of three released titles (Waterworld,  Earthworld, and Fireworld), and a fourth unreleased title (Airworld). These games were part of a larger real-life contest. Depending on which game you were playing, clues were hidden in the game’s instruction manual as well as in a comic book that was included with each game. Players who uncovered the game’s secrets could then write in and hope to be selected to participate in a special contest. The winner of the contest would be awarded with actual treasures. The rewards included: an 18-karat gold talisman that was littered with various gemstones, a jewel-adorned solid gold crown, a jeweled platinum chalice, and a gem-encrusted jewelry box. Of these rewards, two were distributed. The fate of the remaining two are shrouded in mystery… The gameplay itself is a mixture of various genres. For the most part, the main areas of the game were similar to Adventure. But occasionally, the style would switch to various puzzles and platform challenges.  Since the games themselves were designed around a now defunct contest, and the storyline for the games has been left unfinished, there’s very little reason to play these titles today. But the mythology behind them still fascinates many.

 

So, let’s say you’re curious and want to get your hands on these (and other) classic Atari 2600 games. How to do that? Well, a vast number of Atari 2600 titles are included in a the Atari Vault collection. This collection features one-hundred classic Atari titles (both 2600 and Arcade versions). Classics like Centipede, Crystal Castles, Adventure, Haunted House, etc are all included. Xbox One and PS4 users also have their own collection of classic Atari games. However, if you’re hankering to play some Pitfall! The Atari Vault will disappoint.  Currently, the only modern way to enjoy that game is on the Atari Flashback console (version 8 or newer).

 

For 2600 fans, the Atari Flashback 8 Gold is my currently my official recommendation. But, if you can be patient, the Atari Flashback 9 is just around the corner and will included even more long-forgotten games. These consoles simply plug into your TV using an HDMI port. – Just make sure you’re getting the GOLD version if you decide not to wait for the Atari Flashback 9. The non-gold “8” console does not use HDMI and will likely not be compatible with most modern televisions.

Atari Vault

 

 

Atari Vault is available on Steam,

Atari Flashback Classics (vol 1 and 2) are available on PS4 and Xbox One

 

Retro Rewind: Golden-Age Classics (Part 2)

First, I want to start this post with an apology for my absence. When I make multi-part posts like this one, I like to try to have them uploaded no more than a few days apart. In this case it’s been a little over a week since my last entry. This delay was largely due to a recent career change. That’s right, I’m no longer working from home in the banking industry. Instead, I’ve switched gears for something a little more blue-collar. I decided a few months ago that the mental stress caused by my previous job was best abandoned for something a bit simpler. It’s taken me a few weeks to adjust to the new schedule and find my groove. So again, I apologize for the delay. With that out of the way, let’s continue our journey into some of the classic arcade titles of the 1980’s!

Millipede

Millipede – In the same way that Galaga was a re-imagining of Galaxian, Millipede is an update to the classic Centipede. The gameplay is largely the same, with the exception of some new enemies and environmental objects. Millipede was intended to replace its predecessor. But for many players, myself included, it just didn’t have the same magic as the original game. I’m not sure what it is exactly – as both games are very similar. But I just prefer Centipede over this update. Sadly, if you’re curious about Millipede, you’re a bit out of luck. While Millipede has been released on a number of systems over the years, it is currently unavailable on modern consoles.

Donkey Kong Jr. – In my last entry I spoke a bit about the Nintendo arcade classic Donkey Kong. Well, as you might expect, Donkey Kong Jr. is a sequel to that legendary game. The original game ends when Mario captures Donkey Kong and rescues his girlfriend. In this title, you play as the son of Donkey Kong on a quest to rescue his father. Much like the previous game, this is a fast-paced platform title. It’s a fun twist on the original title and one that I actually find it to be a bit more enjoyable than the first. Donkey Kong Jr. is currently available on the Nintendo Virtual Console and coming soon to the Nintendo Switch online service. I highly recommend this one to anyone who enjoys Nintendo-style platformers.

Joust – Did you ever want to knock out a friend with a giant lance from the back of a speeding bird? If so, Joust is the game for you. While not the first 2-player co-operative/competitive video game, it was arguably the most popular.  In Joust, you can either work together with a friend to eliminate bad guys from the back of a flying ostrich, or you can simply duke it out head-to-head. Personally, I can tell you that when I was young, the whole point of playing Joust was to compete with someone else. It was very therapeutic. In fact, many disputes of my youth were settled via Joust matches. Today, curious gamers can  experience this title via the Xbox Live Arcade.

Moon Patrol

Moon Patrol – I loved this game when I was a kid. Nothing was better than Moon Patrol. I remember how excited I was to see that the game was finally available on the Atari 2600, only to quickly have that excitement deflated upon seeing just how horrendous the Atari port actually was. It was bad… So, so bad. The arcade was the only way to really experience this classic title when I was a kid. What made Moon Patrol so great? Well, first of all, there was the “moon buggy”. Who didn’t want to drive a funky-looking moon buggy across the lunar surface while blasting aliens and hopping craters? I know I sure did. The game was made even better by the catchy theme song that played throughout the game itself. All of this made Moon Patrol a classic that still withstands the test of time. Moon Patrol is available today on the PS4 and Nintendo Switch.

Pole PositionNeed for Speed, Forza, Gran Turismo – all of these game franchises owe their success to Pole PositionPole Position is the original arcade racing game. There was no joystick on a Pole Position machine. Instead, the game machine was equipped with a steering wheel and gas pedal. There was nothing else like it at the time. I remember sitting down in the arcade driver’s seat for the first time, I was blown away. This game was unlike anything else I had ever seen. For kids like me, Pole Position set a very unrealistic expectation about what driving a car was actually like – but that’s what makes it fun! Today, you can play the original game as part of the NAMCO Museum collection on Xbox Arcade.  However, the only way to relive the original experience is by sitting inside one of the classic Pole Position machines, assuming you can manage to find one.

Q*Bert – Here we have one of the true classic golden-age titles: Q*bert. When I was a kid, Q*Bert blew me away because it was a video game that could actually talk – well, sort of. The game has a very basic synthesizer built into the audio board. This allowed the game to output obscure vocal tones. However, these phonmes don’t actually end up being combined into English words, instead it was gibberish. The result was very unique and quirky. Regardless, it was pretty groundbreaking at the time. Q*Bert is a game in which each level is comprised of a number of 3D-like cubes. The player controls a funky little orange character that jumps from cube to cube in attempt to change each cube to a uniform color. Once every cube on the stage matches, the levels ends and the game progresses. Of course, there are a handful of bad guys hopping around also. So you must always be aware of your surroundings. This game was a favorite of mine when I was very young. Today, Q*Bert is available on the PS4 and Xbox One as part of Q*Bert Rebooted. This title includes the original classic, as well as a modern re-imagining of the game.

Mario Bros.

Mario Bros. – Most people you will encounter have played Super Mario Bros. But how many are familiar with its predecessor? That’s right, before they were “super”, they were just the “Mario Bros.” This game is a simple platformer, that consists of a number of stages. Mario (or Mario and Luigi – if playing in two-player mode) must defeat a set number of enemies in order to advance to the next stage. Unlike Super Mario Bros., the characters are unable to jump on top of monsters to defeat them. Instead, they must bang on the underside of the platform that the monsters inhabit. This will flip the monster onto its back, thus allowing Mario to kick them into oblivion. Even though Mario Bros. was designed to be a co-operative two-player title, many people enjoyed trying to sabotage the other player in one way or another. When I was a kid, this was only real reason to play the game. Mario Bros. has seen some form of release on almost every system Nintendo has put out over the years. However, each of these ports have paled in comparison to the actual arcade version. Today, the only way way to play the “true” version of Mario Bros. is via the Nintendo Switch. The game is included there as part of the “Arcade Archives” series.

Gauntlet – If you’re a fan of dungeon crawl games, you owe a debt of gratitude to Gauntlet. This is the game that started it all. Gauntlet is a multi-player action game with a fantasy theme. It supports up to four players, each taking the role of a different hero; Warrior, Elf, Wizard, and Valkyrie – each with unique strengths and weaknesses. The object of the game is navigate through the dungeon maze, face hordes of monsters, collect troves of treasure, and ultimately find the exit. In its day, this game was infamous for draining young arcade-goers of countless quarter. Admittedly, I spent a small fortune of my weekly allowance on “continues” for this title. I was completely enthralled with Gauntlet. In fact, this game might very be responsible for my lifelong fascination with the fantasy genre. For a time, the original Gauntlet was once available on Xbox Live Arcade. But today, this classic is currently unavailable on modern platforms. Instead, there is a modern reboot with the same name. But make no mistake, there is only one classic Gauntlet.

Rampage – If you’ve ever wanted to assume the role of a giant monster and destroy entire city blocks, Rampage is the game for you. In this game, you can control one of three kaiju monsters; a giant ape, a giant lizard, or a giant wolf. The goal is to complete demolish various US cities, stage by stage. Of course, military and other hazards await the player.  Rampage was another game that really shined in two-player mode. Sure, it was fun enough on its own, but experiencing it with a friend makes it even that much better. Today, the original game is available in the Midway Arcade Origins collection, which is compatible with the Xbox One. (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, not included.)

 

The games detailed in both this, and my last post are simply some of my personal arcade favorites from the golden-age of gaming. This is by no means meant to be a definitive list of golden-age classics. Nor should it be considered a complete “best of” list. In fact, there are many more wonderful arcade titles from the 80’s that captured my attention. Classics like Popeye, Bubble Bobble, Dragon Spirit, 1943, and Afterburner just to a name a few – all left major impressions on me.  However, if you are a younger gamer with an interest in retro-gaming, any of the titles mentioned in there two posts are excellent starting points.

Modern games are amazing. But it is always important to remember your roots.