Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ultima I: Hit Points and Progress

There aren't many common elements that you find in every RPG, but hit points (or "life points," or "vitality," or whatever you call them) may be one of them (if there are any exceptions, let me know). You even find them in non-RPG first-person shooters, although you usually see something like a "health bar" instead of an actual number. This seems obvious to any modern gamer, but remember that to those of us who grew up with parlor video games, and then early console games, the basic unit of health was the "life." In Galaga, or Space Invaders, or Pac-Man, you got three "lives"--and every time the enemy scored a hit, you didn't just lose some portion of your health. You died. Die three times and game over.

Even the earliest CRPG-ish games were "life" focused. Ghosts 'n Goblins is a good example. (I'd have a mansion in Santa Barbara now if I had just invested the quarters I spent on that game as a kid.) You started the game with three lives, and each life started with a suit of armor. Get hit once, you lose your armor. Get hit a second time, you were dead. You basically had two hit points.

Real "hit points" came from pen-and-paper RPGs, of course. Hit points are the glue that holds all RPGs together. They turn action games into strategic games, allowing you to experiment and take risks. And within the game, they are the end-all be-all. When you think about it, almost everything else you acquire or do ultimately boils down to hit points. You buy the best armor to preserve your hit points as long as possible. You seek the best weapons and spells so you can reduce the enemies' hit points before they reduce yours. You quest for rings that protect you from fire, frost, paralysis, and poison--all to minimize your loss of hit points. You level up to increase your maximum hit points. In almost any RPG, if you didn't have to worry about hit points, there wouldn't be any reason not to stroll through the game with cloth armor and a dagger. If anyone ever makes a movie about CRPGs, they ought to call it Hit Points.

Last night I defended Ultima I's practice of awarding hit points, upon exiting a dungeon, for all the monsters you killed while in the dungeon. I rationalized that it "cuts out the middle man" of experience and levels, which hit points are based on. But I realized a flaw in my logic: experience and levels in other games change your maximum hit points, not the number you currently have. The latter is just absurd. And there are no healing spells or potions in Ultima I, making it the only game I know in which when you're low on hit points, you'd better head straight for the nearest dungeon and find some monsters to fight!

Grey Star emerges from a session of dungeon crawling...healthier.

As I write tonight's blog entry, I have 2,556 hit points, up from the 100 I started the game with. Based on the counter, which only has four digits, I'm guessing you can get a maximum of 9,999 hit points. That's some serious health. And you can just buy them! When I was a kid, we had to earn our hit points. Oh...wait. Right.

Anyway, my plan last night was to buy a frigate, but when I got to Scooter's Super Duper Transport, Inc. in Brtiain I discovered they had both aircars and shuttles available. I had forgotten--probably "blocked"--the space-based element of Ultima I. It comes at you with no warning, really. One moment you're fighting orcs with a sword, and the next you're floating about in an air car, shooting your enemies with lasers. People who have never played Ultima I are assuming I'm drunk, but I swear I'm not making this up. After a few hours of play, I lost any need to attack outdoor enemies with regular weapons.

Eat pulses of electromagnetic radiation, thou knave!

So basically I've been flying around and exploring the map. The map--like all Ultimas until Ultima VI--is based on discrete tiles. There are about 250 north-south and 300 east-west, for a total of 75,000 in the game. Bigger than I remembered. Too many to map. I feel like I should also mention for those readers who have never played old CRPGs that all the moves are turn-based. If you just sit in place, the rest of the game world does not continue on around you.

The game consists of four main continents: the Lands of Lord British, the Lands of the Dark Unkown, the Lands of Danger and Dispair, and the Lands of the Feudal Lords. Each land has at least one castle with a king who gives you a quest. I completed my quest for Lord British--to find the Grave of the Lost Soul--quite easily. He gave me +10 strength and sent me out find the Grave of the Lost Soul. So much for finding answers. I'm still not clear how to progress in the main quest to kill Mondain, but perhaps once I finish all the various lords' quests once, I'll get some kind of hint. I remember that eventually I'm going to have to buy a space shuttle and head off to shoot some tie fighters (again, not making this up).

Some other things:

  • I bought a wand but I can't figure out for the life of me how to use it. I can (r)eady it, but neither (a)ttack or (f)ire seems to work with it. In fact, the game asks me incredulously, "Attack with wand?!" like I'm some kind of idiot.
Screw you, Ultima. What else am I going to do with it?

  • Even squids and sea monsters give you money. I don't know if they carry it around or if the game is assuming I sell their ink and hides.
  • You cannot board pirate ships. That must be in a later Ultima. If you try, they just barrage you with cannons until you die.
  • In addition to air cars and space shuttles, you can buy vacuum suits and relect suits. Just right over the counter.
  • If you try to (s)teal from the storerooms of a town or castle, you are swarmed by guards who pummel you to death.
  • I know I mentioned this yesterday, but I'm still tickled that Ultima VII's Montor and Fawn show up here in Ultima I. So does Paws from Ultima IV, and there's a city called Moon that I think appears in Ultima III. There are lots of other cities, people, and locations that I don't remember ever appearing again: the City of Wealth, the City of Poor, the City of Imagination, the Pillar of Ozymandais, the City of Snake, the Lost King, the Black Dragon (a king), the Castle of Olympus. But it's been years since I played an Ultima game, so maybe I'm wrong.
  • Shamino is here! And he's a king! (He wants me to kill a balron.) And suddenly yet another subplot of Ultima VII makes a lot more sense.
  • There are a bunch of signposts on small islands that give you bumps in stats when you (e)nter them (took me a while to figure that out). There's also one that gives you a weapon every time you visit. I think it gives the next best weapon that you don't have. So if you don't have a dagger, it gives you a dagger. If you have a dagger, it gives you an axe. It takes a while to reset. I kept leaving and coming back before I realized I could probably just buy all the lower weapons and see what it gives me at the high end. I did that, made my way back to the post, and it gave me...a dagger. Dammit! Turns out when thieves attack you, they steal all of the non-readied armor and weapons you have. I have to go buy them all again and try again (this time without popping in to a dungeon first).

I'm well past six hours, but I like the game too much to stop, and anyway, it's the first game in the Ultima series. I have to finish this one.

Can anyone else remember any references from an early game in an CRPG series to show up years later?


Posts on UltimaOne | Two | Three

Further reading: The story continues with Ultima II (1982), Ultima III (1983), Ultima IV (1985), Ultima V (1988), Ultima VI (1990), and somewhere in there we have the dreadful Ultima: Escape from Mount Drash (1983). For a British copy of the original Ultima, see The Ring of Darkness (1982). 


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  3. Good points. And as you say, it ultimately works in the context of the game even if it logically makes little sense.

    If I remember correctly--and I may not, but I guess I'll find out pretty soon--in Ultima II there literally is no reason to go into any dungeon, since there are no quests that require it and you DON'T get hit points in those games.

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  5. The Bard's Tale Series had the city of Skara Brae show up in BT1 and BT3. The Mad God Tarjan is referenced in BT1 and BT3.

  6. I really really love this blog and it made me want to play old CRPGs again. Thank you!

  7. No problem, Christopher. Thanks for reading!

  8. I love reading your takes on these old games from a 21st century perspective. Even as someone who knows hit points all to well, the way you explain it makes it rewarding reading. Onward...

  9. Dwarf Fortress, which has an adventurer mode which plays like a normal roguelike doesn't display as hit points. It actually keeps track of individual organs and has layers for muscles, fat, skin, has full skeletons and nervous systems. There's gotta be numbers hidden somewhere in there, but they're deep enough its hard to see.

  10. That's an exception I didn't know about. Thanks, Bhazo.

  11. Dwarf fortress is insane when you look at what basically one coder is doing with it. If you look at the list of things they want to implement it is more ambitious than any other game project I have ever seen, and what is already implemented is amazing when you look at its features compared to big studio games. I encourage you to take a look at the short term development goals:

    This ambition works better in the fortress mode, which is not an RPG but a sim of a titular dwarf fortress, than it does in the roguelike mode.

    Best thing about it is that anything you do in the world is there for the next time you play, because the world ages with your games. So when you mighty fortress falls you can start an adventure mode game (the roguelike) and find the ruins to explore. If you kill all the dragons, then there are no more dragons!

    I think the lack of pretty graphics is the only reason it has not exploded like Minecraft which it inspired or Terraria which poised to get big soon.

  12. oh google boatmurder and you will see a good example of how fun DF is (it is from an older version but there may be some spoilery things in there). Its a game which has the motto loosing is fun and doesn't lie about it.

  13. Not sure if console JRPGs count, but in most of the Romancing SaGa and SaGa Frontier games, you ultimately want to preserve Life Points, not Hit Points. Basically, after each battle all of your characters have their full HP restored- but not their LP. If you run out of HP during a battle, you lose one LP (SaGa characters can have from 4 to 30-some LP- it's fixed per character with no way to increase.) After being knocked out they can still be attacked and lose another LP. The only way to restore LP is usually to either rest at an inn in town or to use some rare items. So ultimately, battles come down to finishing them quickly to conserve LP. (Points that fuel special attacks and HP healing spells also usually don't restore after battles- meaning that again you have to balance spending them to finish battles quickly against risking losing LP by letting battles drag on too long.)

  14. I just discovered your blog last week when I was looking up info on old RPGs (Space Saga 1 was the CRPG that lead me to your blog initially) and I love it! I'm on a similar "quest" to you are but mine is to beat all the RPG staples over the years, both CRPGs and console ones as well. I'm working my way through your old posts right now and coincidentally the next RPG that was on my list to beat was the first Ultima.

    I had never played it before, the only Ultima game I had played up to that point was U4, the NES version. After getting sucked in for a few days, I just beat the game last night! Fun little game (I played the 1987 remake as well), my only gripe was that they should have made more items or at least some dungeon specific ones. I felt like there was no point to going all the way to level ten in each dungeon since there was no physical reward.

    Overall though, I was impressed with the scope of the game considering when it came out. I'm planning on playing through U2 when I get a chance. On a side note, you asked if there were any other reoccurring characters/towns from other Ultima games and scanning over the comments I don't think anyone mentioned Iolo the bard, who sings in the towns. I believe Iolo is the bard you can recruit in U4 but I could be mistaken. Anyhow, looking forward to reading more of your blog!

    1. Yes, Iolo shows up in all the Ultima games, though I don't remember specifically where he is in U1.

      I'm glad you like my blog, and I hope you enjoy your tour through your own list. As you'll see if you read my review, I thought U2 was atrocious.

  15. "If you just sit in place, the rest of the game world does not continue on around you."

    Not entirely true. The game will automatically pass time even if you are idle and enemies will make their moves. The text "Pass" will appear after certain time.

  16. It's worth checking out the "Spoony" video review of this game. He riff's quite a bit on the "medieval kingdom with space shuttles" and even has a few nice dress up moments.

    Also "balrons". Its fun to see that game designers started being at least slightly conscious of ripping off Tolkien :) Old school D&D went through the same phase too where the hobbits became halflings and so forth.


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