Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ultima VI: Final Rating

Given what we find out about the gargoyles, this is a somewhat cruel cover image.

Ultima VI: The False Prophet
Origin Systems (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 DOS; 1991 for Commodore 64, FM Towns, PC-98; 1992 for Amiga, Atari ST, Sharp X68000; 1993 for Super NES
Date Started: 8 February 2014
Date Ended: 7 March 2014
Total Hours: 30
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 68
Ranking at Time of Posting: 141/142 (99%)

Ultima VI is one of the best games I've played since starting this blog, and I fully expect it to finish, quantitatively, among the top three. Whether it technically beats Ultima V or even Pool of Radiance isn't a particularly important concern--at this level, small differences in the final rating are somewhat meaningless. In broad strokes, in terms of just exploring and messing around, I had more authentic fun with Ultima VI than any other game I can remember, but it leaves me unimpressed in certain RPG categories, predominantly combat.

This is one of the first true "sandbox" RPGs that we've seen: a game where you can explore a large world at will, hit most plot points in almost any order, and have a lot of fun with the possibilities inherent in the engine. Because I liked the engine and gameplay experience so much, it left me wanting a little more than it provided. The developers at Origin have never quite understood the concept of "side quests" even when creating a game engine that seems custom-made for them. There wasn't any reason that the mayors of the various cities couldn't have offered some optional dungeon-crawling quests to retrieve objects or deal with a threat; I wouldn't have even minded the Akalabeth-style "go into the dungeon SHAME and kill a(n) REAPER" quests--anything to get more out of the world and gameplay. In the end, we got a few optional areas and a couple of lame side-quests like retrieving The Wizard of Oz for Lord British.

Pretty much all the game's side quests involved taking books from the library and never returning them.

The story similarly offers a paradox. On the one hand, it seems full of nonsensical elements and careless retcons. On the other, it's only that it provides so much detail that we can poke at its inconsistencies. Most game worlds of the era weren't anywhere near this developed. Thus, we have to simultaneously praise the series for its excellent attention to history, description, and lore, and criticize it for, much of the time, not making any sense.

I know many fans would like to forgive and dismiss the retcons and plot holes in light of Ultima's stark originality in having a story at all--in light of it developing what is probably the richest game world that we saw in the era. I'd like to join these fans, but I can't, for two reasons. First, my blog has never been primarily about praising games for how good they were at the time. My blog is about recognizing that games, no matter how old, can still be a lot of fun in 2014. This conversely means also recognizing that what was good then is bad from a 2014 point of view. Second, as I pointed out in my first post on Ultima VI, most of the retcons and plot holes are entirely unnecessary. It's not like there was some vital plot element that required the gargoyles to live on the other side of a flat world, rather than just within the underworld, or that required the Avatar to be the hero of the first three games. No huge change of dialogue would have been necessary for everyone to say, "Yeah, we realize that it wasn't you who raised the Codex from the Abyss, but since you're the one who set everything in motion, we're blaming you anyway."

A bit of the game manual, which makes the Avatar the hero of the first two games and changes the action of the second game to Sosaria. There was no reason for either change.

Thus, we end up with a bunch of plot revisions that are simply thoughtless, a geography that doesn't even try to make sense, and an overall feeling not that the developers didn't know how to resolve the inconsistencies but rather that they just didn't care. I wasn't at Origin in 1990, so I can't say for sure what happened, but I honestly suspect that someone raised these concerns and the project leaders said something like, "It's just a silly little fantasy world. Let's focus on the game engine. Who really cares if everything in the story fits together perfectly?" Well, I do--at least for the first GIMLET category.

In a recent comment, Corey Cole references the "Uncanny Valley" phenomenon. Technically, the term comes from robotics and computer animation, and it refers to a abrupt negative drop--a valley--in human responses to things that look almost-but-not-quite human. They might think that a robot like the one in Lost in Space is cute and funny and a robot as advanced as the ones in AI: Artificial Intelligence are cool, but somewhere in between--say, the Johnny Cab driver from the original Total Recall--is an aesthetic that repels us.

An image from Masahiro Mori's article on the phenomenon.

As a metaphor, the term works for a lot of situations in which the lower extreme is okay, the upper extreme is great, but the point in the middle sucks. It notably applies to graphics and sound in CRPGs. I didn't mind Wizardry's wireframe dungeons, and I love the vistas of Skyrim, but in between there's a large era of CGA and EGA graphics that are "good for the time" but pretty awful today. Applied to story, I don't hate games with the barest sketch of a story (e.g., most RPGs from the 1980s), and I love games with extremely detailed stories, full of history and lore (e.g., Morrowind, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), but I have a disdain for games that tell stupid stories, or treat them carelessly (e.g., Dungeon Master: Chaos Strikes Back, Ultima II), and that is, at least in part, what we have here.

Still, all of this discussion is only to suggest that Ultima VI under-performs its two predecessors, and perhaps some of the best examples of other game worlds during the time (e.g., Starflight, the Gold Box games, The Magic Candle), not that it's an entirely "bad" story and setting. It'll still rate reasonably high in that category. It's just that, for me, its gameplay elements far outperform its plot.

Before I get to the rating: A few posts ago, we talked about the pirate treasure quest and how it was ultimately unnecessary to the game. I didn't fully realize the implications of this until I watched a speed-run of the game that took only slightly more than 30 minutes (and that's with the opening and end-game screens). If you already know everything--including the mantras and the positions for the Orb--all you have to do is:

  • Start the game, talk to Lord British about how the Orb works
  • Grab some quick cash to fund your endeavors, buy the necessary spells
  • Collect the runes, free the shrines (getting to them by the Orb), get the moonstones
  • Warp down to the gargoyle world, visit John, learn Gargish, enlist Beh-Lem, put on the Amulet
  • Put together the pieces of the balloon
  • Find the Vortex cube at Stonegate
  • Head to the Altar of Singularity and then the endgame

You can cut out all combats except the first one in Lord British's throne room and all dungeons except the last room of Hythloth where John is. Of the steps above, the balloon part takes the longest, which is funny given that you only need it for about three seconds of gameplay.

Let's see where it stands in a GIMLET.

1. Game World. I covered my thoughts on this above, so I won't repeat them here. It's not a bad plot, and I like that it continues the tradition of the rest of the "Age of Virtue" trilogy by not having the main quest focus on a "big bad" that you need to kill. There certainly is plenty of lore about the history of the land, pirates, the gargoyles, the gargoyle virtues, and such. I just wish there weren't so many inconsistencies and absurdities.

I like game worlds that react to your presence and respond to your actions. Ultima VI does that with items, but not with NPCs. With only a few exceptions, NPC dialogue remains fixed regardless of where you are in the plot progression, and no one acknowledges anything that you do, from liberating the shrines to discovering the true nature of the gargoyles. Score: 7.

Lord British fails to note the slain body of Chuckles in front of him.

2. Character Creation and Development. None of the Ultima games have been particularly strong in this category. I love the virtue-based character creation process except that it no longer has any bearing on what kind of character you play. You have some good options for sex and character portrait, but we're deep into an era of complex attributes and skills, and we don't see any of that in this series. You get a maximum of eight levels, and leveling up increases your hit points and attributes (the latter depending on a shrine). I didn't like that magic was essentially useless for most of the other party members.

But aside from the logistics of the character sheet, the game continues to excel in role-playing opportunities. It's the third game in the series to feature a "karma" meter (did any other games of the era?). It offers real temptations to steal, burgle, and cheat, and there are more opportunities to do these things than in the previous titles. Score: 6.

My final Avatar had max everything.

3. NPC Interaction. About as strong as it was in IV and V. I still love the keyword-based dialogue approach, expanded here to allow the use of actual sentences and including some subtle help. I love that so many disparate NPCs can join the party, and that you can't get very far in the game without teasing out key elements of lore from a variety of townsfolk with unique personalities. I love the surprise of encountering an NPC in a remote part of the game map and wondering what he'll have to say. I liked the occasional comments from members of my party and I wish the game had done a lot more with that. I still don't like that there are no true dialogue options--that there's no way to role-play a character in NPC interactions the same way there is in world interactions. Score: 8.

4. Encounters and Foes. A step back from V, I thought. The menagerie of creatures is still very well-described in the game manual, and they still have their strengths and weaknesses that require you to adjust combat tactics, but not to the degree that we saw in V. The "room" encounters are gone, and not replaced with very much in the way of puzzles. Most encounters have only one solution and require very little in the way of creativity or thought. Finally, I thought the respawn rate of enemies was balanced fairly well. Score: 6.

5. Combat and Magic. I thought the series hit its height in V in terms of difficulty, tactics, and terrain. While I normally appreciate a game that integrates combat into the main adventuring screen (I discussed this last year in relation to Chaos Strikes Back) and allows for some computer control of characters, I think the previous method--a separate combat screen--worked better for Ultima. The NPC AI for combat here is poor, but manually controlling each character is a little too frustrating. There are still lots of tactics having to do with spells, use of items, and use of terrain, but the overall reduced difficulty of combat makes them less meaningful.

The game also took a step back in spells. I appreciate that there are so many "utility" spells and that the nature of the game mechanics allows so many interesting things to happen with them. But it annoys me that only the Avatar can be a powerful spellcaster (the others, if they can cast spells at all, are crippled by low spell points) and that so many of the spells are useless. The transition to a "spellbook" method of casting means that you no longer have fun game mechanics like intuiting the right syllables or the right combination of reagents. There are spells of enormous power in this game and virtually no reason to cast them, especially since the game's toughest enemies (daemons) are magic-resistant. Score: 5.

Gideon prepares to resurrect a cat the party accidentally killed when they blew open a door with a powder keg.

(As an aside: it occurs to me at this late juncture that it would have been a lot more fun to save the shrine-freeing quests for later in the game, when I had more spells and was able to use them effectively against the small armies of gargoyle occupiers. Of course, this is a bad option for plot and role-playing reasons.)

6. Equipment. One of the game's best categories. I love the process of slowly filling in a paper doll interface with new and upgraded equipment, and VI delivers on this in spades. Not only that, it makes it easy just to (L)ook at a weapon or piece of armor and determine its relative protective value. The weight and encumbrance system adds to the logistics but never seems too restrictive. I love all of the "utility" items, like shovels, pick-axes, and powder-kegs, that you can employ both in ways that the creators intended and did not. There's even one bit of item-crafting involved in creating a magic shield.

On the negative side, the game dumbed-down its approach to food (you don't really need it) just as food got interesting. There are no item restrictions, which might have led to more interesting NPC choices. And all of the acquisition of weapons, armor, and magic items would have been more meaningful with harder combat. Still, a great part of the game. Score: 7.

7. Economy. In retrospect, it's a lot better than I covered in the brief section of my posting a few days ago. Even if you do the wisp trick, it's hard to get through the game with a complete spellbook--and this is especially true if you give a second character a spellbook--so the economy at least remains relevant through most of the game. There are also some big-ticket equipment items (like magic armor) that you'll never give to every character unless you buy it. (Although, again, the relative ease of combat makes this somewhat unnecessary) Gold drops are not quite as plentiful on slain enemies, making it all the more exciting when you find gold nuggets strewn about Shame or when you can sell an extra magic bow for a few hundred gold pieces. Late in the game, I even found myself scrambling a bit: I'd spent so much on spells and reagents that I didn't have enough to pay some key NPCs to help make my balloon.

The economy would have been slightly better with more magic weapons to buy (and, in turn, harder enemies), but for the most part it was better than I let on during my postings. It's tough to design an economic system tight enough that the player has a true incentive to steal, and the creators did that here. Score: 8.

8. Quests. It's a good main quest, with a fun plot twist in the middle of it, but why-oh-why can't the Ultima series get on board with side quests? You've got a big world and a great game engine--give us more to do with it!

That said, the stages of the main quest were interesting and involved a lot of sub-quests, if not side quests. And the game isn't totally bereft of side-quests; it's just that the ones it offers are somewhat lame, like retrieving a book for Lord British (and, apparently Dr. Cat, though I missed that one) and a dragon egg for a cook who rewards you only with a smile. There are at least two plot elements that seem like side quests but are, maddeningly, unsolvable: the murder of Quenton in Skara Brae, and the healing of Matt's muteness in Britain. Although there are optional roads on the main quest, there are no alternate endings.

Ultimately, I feel that the game was about as good in this category as Ultima V, but it surprised me when I looked at my rating for Ultima V, and I saw that I gave it a 7 despite having no side quests, no alternate outcomes, and very few ways to role-play the main quest. I think I rated it too high, and I'm going to have to rate VI more consistent to how I've rated other recent games. Just having a main quest is only one of my four criteria, and it only gets you so far, no matter how good it is. Score: 5.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Both the main game and cut-scene graphics are pretty good, certainly nothing to complain about. I didn't mind the game music, but there was no way to turn it off independently of sound, and naturally no way (in this era) of setting the music volume differently than the sound volume. This meant that I had to turn the music off at the setup screen. The sound effects are tolerable but certainly not yet "good." It has some background effects like ticking clocks and cackling fireplaces that are at least okay. I like how cyclopes thud and shake the screen nearby, but many of the monsters are curiously mute. Spell and combat sound effects are, again, tolerable.

I seem to differ with a lot of Internet commenters on the interface. Yes, too little fits into the main game window, but beyond that, I thought it was great. I thought the inventory was easy to use, and I really liked that the keyboard and mouse were redundant, so you could use one or the other or, as I did, both in tandem for their strengths. The ability to set an active character is also a strength of the game, though rendered a little annoying when you can't re-activate "party" mode from more than a couple of squares away. While the AI in combat may be bad, the AI for characters following the Avatar is good: they avoid poison, lava, and other hazards (unless the Avatar walks through them), and they always catch up. I think it's one of the best game engines we've seen so far, and I'm glad it shows up again in the two Worlds of Ultima games, even if I'm not excited about them for plot reasons. Score: 7.

10. Gameplay. My only complaint here is on the difficulty. The game is way too easy, with the Orb of Moons making it too easy to travel and Lord British's auto-resurrection, plus the "Help" spell, making it likely that you'll never need to reload except for plot-related reasons. With no particularly tough combats, there isn't much incentive to build up your inventory, master all the spells, or grind your characters to the highest level. Hythloth should have been crawling with nasty creatures. The Altar of Singularity should have told me, "Yes, you need to visit the three shrines, but since the gargoyle world started to collapse, literally everything bad has gone to live in those caves." Instead, we got the occasional dragon or demon that could be defeated with a couple of spells and a lot of melee work.

But everything else in this category is good. The game is almost completely non-linear, and this non-linearity makes it very replayable despite not having alternate directions in the plot. I played in a relatively "standard" way, but during a replay, you could have some fun saving the shrine-liberations for last, when you can maximize your spell power, or explore the dungeons at the same time you hit their associated cities, or warp immediately to the gargoyle world and keep Beh-Lem with you as a best friend for the entirety of the Britannia part of the game. The pacing is also excellent--it's the rare game that left me wanting more (but only a little) when it was concluded.

Finally, it's one of the few games of any era in which you can have a lot of fun just screwing around--in which you can make little vignettes and scenarios for your characters that don't depend on the regular plot. Free every prisoner in Yew! Avenge Quenton's death! Read every book in the library! Fill the throne room with so many chests that no one can walk anywhere! Pile bodies in the dungeon and burn them! Make your main weapons gunpowder and cannons! Develop Sherry into an indestructible Mouse of Vengeance! Play a jazz riff on your panpipes! And above all, don't worry too much if the game doesn't really acknowledge these flights of fancy.

The engine is just brilliant in these possibilities, and perhaps most notably, it features some mechanics that we no longer see. As much as I love the last three Elder Scrolls games, do you know what I can't do in any of them? Destroy a chair. Play an instrument. Batter down a door. Throw a wine bottle across the room and have it shatter on the floor. Row a boat. Start or douse a fire. Lock a door. Oh, Ultima VI has plenty of limitations itself, of course, and I don't want to suggest that it's "more advanced" than modern games, but the sheer number of possibilities that it offers puts the gameplay experience at the top of the list, with everything else it does well making up for the relative ease. Score: 9.

Add 'em all up and we get a final score of 68--still one point lower than Ultima V! But owing to small variances in scores that I can never make fully consistent, I think we can consider them tied. V is a "tighter" game, with better combat and difficulty, and just as good in most other categories. VI offers better game mechanics that create that "sandbox" feeling.

What I love about this ad is that in the first game image, they replaced the pole-dancing centaur with a generic image of a woman, clearly not drawn by the same artist. You can just hear the ad department saying, "You know, why don't we just let them wait until after they've bought the game to deal with that centaur thing."

My positive opinions are in no way controversial; there's probably more written on Ultima VI than any other game of 1990 (or any previous year, for that matter), and almost all of it is positive. The sheer number of fan remakes and ports, some continuing today, attest to how fondly everyone remembers it. It ranks in the 91st percentile on MobyGames's rankings, and the words "best" and "awesome" appear repeatedly in the user reviews.

Scorpia's review in the June 1990 Computer Gaming World (it starts on Page 11) is an interesting read. It's easy to forget that many of the elements in Ultima VI--combat on the main screen, all party members visible at all times, party members with minds of their own, towns and cities integrated with the rest of the game world, unique portraits for every NPC--were brand new at the time, and it took a period of adjustment before players used to IV and V could learn to appreciate this new style. You can feel some of that angst in the review, in which Scorpia says she has "some very profound, mixed feelings." (Scorpia was never one to embody humility, but I think she means "profoundly-mixed feelings.") Despite that statement, her review is almost entirely positive, and the things she flagged as negative--the triviality of the map quest, poor AI in combat, and inconsistencies in plot--are the same things I've remarked on. Ultimately, she called it a "very good game," praising the NPC conversations, the interface, the plot, and all of the little touches that make it feel like a living world.

Incidentally, CGW nominated Ultima VI for "RPG of the Year" for 1990 but gave the award to Starflight II, which was a 1989 game, but whatever. (The other nominees were Dragon Wars, Keys of Maramon, and Chamber of the Sci-Mutant Priestess.) I don't agree with the decision, but it's at least sensible--not baffling in the way that it was when they gave the award to Elvira (a 1990 game) in 1991.

Since I won, I've had some fun reading other modern players' takes on the game. Ophidian Dragon had a fun series of posts in 2007 in his "Blogging Ultima" project, but the ones I enjoyed most were Nakar's epic series of 22 posts on the game in November 2007. Nakar hit upon so many of the same plot holes and jokes as I did that you'd be forgiven for thinking we're the same person. But he's much funnier. I woke up Irene in the middle of the night because I was laughing so hard. He starts off playing straight but completely goes off the rails (hilariously) by the end.

I remember Ultima VII as having many of VI's strengths, especially when it comes to the sandbox-like game engine, although with even worse combat. I also don't like that the dialogue switches to clickable keywords, but this might be balanced with more dialogue options (I don't remember). I think perhaps there are better side-quests, too. Whatever the case, I look forward to checking it out in 1992. But well before then, we'll have the two Worlds of Ultima games and probably Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss.

Moving on, we unintentionally encounter two games with the word "Tunnels" in their titles: 1982's Tunnels of Doom and 1990's Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan. If you're wondering what happened to some other games, I rejected Lords of Doom as an RPG and moved Silmar to where it belongs in 1991.

120 comments:

  1. I'm surprised it just barely failed to take first place! Do you think, if you had never played the Ultima series before now, would it change your rating or enjoyment? I know you try to stay as unbiased as possible, though.

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    1. I'm not sure if your hypothesis is that I would have given it a higher or lower rating if I hadn't played it before. In any event, I don't think it affected anything.

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  2. I read your blog with great attention, especially now that you are playing my first RPG! I always felt that the enigne is the real star of the game. For the player, it's easy to understand the things that are possible in the engine, and these things feel fair. I've always been frustrated withg the TES games because I coudn't open a door or something. It makes the game feel like a game. To me, U6 is at the top before the uncanny valley, while Morrowind (an OPblivion and Skyrim) feel incremently at the bottom of the valley. It's progress, but not my kind.

    From your text:
    > I think it's one of the best game engines we've seen so far, and I'm glad it shows up again in the two Worlds of Ultima games, even if I'm not excited about them for plot reasons

    Why is this? I have an original copy of Martian Dreams, and it's one of my favorite games. It's just so weird and full of charm. The conversation system is very good, and the characters are well-written.

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    1. Martian Dreams is one of my personal favorites as well. The setting with real historical persons, combined with science fiction themes of the era (space cannon, martians, etc.) - "full of charm" is indeed the right expression to use. Add this to the even improved game engine of U6 and a well written plot and dialogue, and we have a great game, per se.

      Still, the problem I have with MD (and SE as well) is the artificial connection to the Ultima world and lore. I cannot talk on Chet's behalf, but I would guess this is one of the reasons why he isn't too excited about them.

      And last but not least, Warren Spector..(although we should already be used to this at Origin..)

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    2. I've played through just a little bit of Savage Empire. I've given up because it keeps crashing. But it feels more like an adventure game with a CRPG engine, rather than a traditional CRPG.

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    3. Glad you like the blog, Filip. The reason that Fenrus gives is indeed my answer. I don't like the artificial expansion of the Ultima setting, nor the way it makes the Avatar an even more defined person. But it may turn out that I love the gameplay.

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    4. I believe there's a couple of reasons Origins did this little Alternate Worlds of Ultima foray.

      1) They Create Worlds.
      2) It might not sell well under other labels... especially with the same engine.
      3) They need not come up with an entire back story on how the protagonist came about. He/she already has a rich back-story.

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  3. I think the cover image for Ultima VI is kind of a trick. Players were used to playing the "hero" and of course triumphing over demons and the like. The cover art sets you up for that, then the game flips the concept on you. The False Prophet is initially the cover art.

    Tunnels and Trolls sticks in my mind for one reason: It was probably one of the last commercial games that would run acceptably on a genuine 8088/8086 computer. When you're a kid with an ancient computer, that's important.

    I got this game for Christmas somehow. I never got far with Tunnels and Trolls, but then my attention span wasn't too awesome then. I think I'm going to fire up a game of it right now though...

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    1. "I think the cover image for Ultima VI is kind of a trick. Players were used to playing the "hero" and of course triumphing over demons and the like. The cover art sets you up for that, then the game flips the concept on you"

      Exactly. On the store shelves that cover looks like a divine hero triumphing over evil, but what it really shows is a horror scene - it's how the gargoyles see the Avatar, a harbinger of doom for their kind.

      U6 is a classic for plenty of good reasons, but I think that cover just might be the most clever part of it.

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    2. I agree with your interpretations. It did set up a nice reversal of expectations.

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  4. Yes, it seems that the possible interaction with the environment in this game might still be unsurpassed. I wonder if graphics are to blame. After all, each interaction with the environment, with an instrument, or a piece of furniture would require a special animation, maybe also special sounds. With the commercialization of the video game industry, these little additional touches might have become too much of a hassle. It reminds me of how the volume of dialogue decreased as the Elder Scrolls series went from written to spoken dialogue.

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    1. Think of how long it would take to listen to all of Morrowind's dialogue. A player can read a paragraph of text much quicker than a voice actor can recite it.

      My ideal dialogue system would be one where you have Morrowind's boxes of text, but a line or two for each of the conversation's subjects. You'd select 'Dagoth Ur' and receive a paragraph of text, but the NPC would audibly say 'Dagoth Ur is a blight upon Morrowind' or something like that.

      Something to better carry the illusion of a conversation while sticking to the limitations of computer hardware and human patience.

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    2. I fully agree. I don't like fully-voiced dialogue in modern RPGs. The Infinity Engine games did it perfectly: a couple of lines of voiced dialogue, and you read the rest of the text on-screen.

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    3. Yes, I think I agree as well. I really don't think that spoken dialogue adds much to a game. It can emphasize certain phrases though (I still have Ravel's "What can change the nature of a man?" from Planescape: Torment in my ears).

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  5. Awesome review as usual, Addict.

    I understand that you probably don't want to re-do all your previous ratings, and that the rating differences among games in your top tier are more-or-less inconsequential, but I'll point out that you felt you overrated Ultima V in the "Quests" category -- so... a tie between Ultima V and Ultima VI, indeed.

    I was a thirteen-year-old gamer when this came out, and for me I felt that this was THE game that truly ushered in the 256-color VGA era. When I saw those advertisements, I started begging my family for a VGA card and monitor. There were other VGA games before this one, but Richard Garriott had the market position (and the game was good enough) to influence the entire industry.

    I think it's interesting, also, that the interface and graphics are taking us toward an era where graphics are now themselves supposed to create IMMERSION, as opposed to simply supplementing the images that a text creates in our imagination. We see this goal expressed in the graphics, the NPC portraits, and in the interactivity of the objects in the game. We also see this transition, in how there is no change in perspective between peace and combat, between town and wilderness, and between surface and dungeon. (Ultima VII takes this further by hiding the interface and devoting the entire game screen to what your characters see.) We're now transitioning into an era, supported by the advancing technology of the time, when graphics assume a place of importance in gamers' minds.

    It's an interesting observation you make, how Ultima VI provides more interactivity with objects than modern sandbox games do. I think it has something to do with the expectation nowadays, that NPCs are supposed to react to changes you make in the gameworld (something that you point out Ultima VI is lacking in). If you are able to magically-lock someone out of their home in Skyrim, then you'd expect TODAY for the resident to arrive home, see that it's locked, use whatever means at their disposal to try to break in, or call the town guard. (Moreover, there would need to be motion actors and voice actors to act out all these conversations.)

    It would seem that certain goals in game design, such as immersion, graphics, and NPC reactivity to a world, necessarily conflict with other goals. I certainly rather enjoy the madcap possibilities suggested by Ultima VI's engine, but mainstream modern game design perhaps cannot (yet) accommodate it. (Perhaps Origin's Ultima Online can be seen as an offshoot proceeding down this direction.) And so, RPGs that prioritize dimensions of play must necessarily appear maverick in the context of today's modern RPGs.

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    1. My basic point is that there is a give-and-take to RPG design, and that certain kinds of RPGs are not confined to the past. It is still possible to create games like Ultima VI today, and from a purely technical standpoint it should be easier.

      The obstacle of course is commercial support. I think that the trend toward graphical immersion set in motion by Ultima VI (and the next big earthquake in the gaming world in my opinion, the game Doom that introduced immersive 3D action) swung simultaneously grew the market and swung it in a certain direction.

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    2. Minor disagreement with ushering in the 256-color era with Ultima 6...if you limit to CRPGs, then maybe you are right, but not in general. To me, Access Software ushered in the 256-color era...but they weren't creating CRPGs. Mean Streets (starting the Tex Murphy series) really impressed with 256 colors and actual voices, a year before Ultima 6. That said, my quibble is extremely minor, particularly since this blog is all about CRPGs. Overall, I think you have a great point.

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    3. Well, there's an aspect of all of this that's subjective. I played Mean Streets at the time, but I remember it being something I got AFTER I snagged a VGA monitor and graphics card to play Ultima VI! I venture to say that Ultima VI's graphical and interface advances had an influence on the market and game design that went farther than Mean Streets' (albeit well-done) video-capture and sound technology.

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    4. Rotgrub - do you have any suggestions for contemporary RPG's that are similar to Ultima VI? The last games I played along those lines (although I might say more similar to Ultima V) were a couple of the Exile/Avernum games. Then again - maybe I don't want to know because I don't need another time sink in my life these days...

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    5. I don't play a whole lot of games, and nothing I've played strikes me as similar to Ultima VI. I assume what you're looking for is the quality of NPC interaction and game world and non-linearity... Nothing comes to mind unfortunately. Perhaps someone else knows of other games? I would be curious to try some more recent ones myself.

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    6. I agree it is subjective. I also think Ultima VI is by far more popular than Mean Streets was, and thus probably was the first exposure to 256-color greatness in a video game. I just wanted to point out that Mean Streets was a year earlier and had voices as well as 256 colors, but if the argument is "who forced the VGA monitor upgrade", I think Ultima 6 is probably the winner.

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    7. I think the big one for the mass market wasn't Ultima VI (nor the comparatively little-known Mean Streets), but Wing Commander. Also an Origin game, btw...

      Wing Commander impressed by making the game's graphics, traditionally merely the messenger, into the message. WC was all about flash, not substance. Ultima VI, though it looks great, mostly looks functional by comparison, while WC was made to look as cool and as attention-grabbing as possible - in every single screen. This kind of singularly focused attention to looks (over substance) was something that just clicked with a lot of the audience then. WC showed everybody that you could convey immersion via pure atmosphere, which in turn was transported by graphics (and sound, but we're not talking about that).

      Ultima only got there by U7, not sooner, IMHO. Even in Ultima Underworld, what is so great about the full 3D world presented is not that it looks great, but that it is used for gameplay.

      In a word, the Ultima games were not shallow enough to focus everybody's attention on their graphic component.

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    8. @Paul - and to their credit, Ultima 8 and Ultima 9 both look very good for their times. But it reflects the changing direction of Origin under EA that they LOOK great but don't play great.

      Also I thought Wing Commander was a lot of fun. Is it possible that it's mostly because the graphics (especially those explosions!) were incredible for their time, that I was swept away by an otherwise mediocre space-combat sim?

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    9. @Paul, Ah, I remember Wing Commander being a big hit at around this time also, and winning awards. My bias toward RPGs made me less aware of that game's impact. Though I definitely think Ultima 6 has an important place in the transition of computer games during this period -- before action games predominated, CRPGs were king.

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    10. To be sure, I loved Wing Commander, as it really transported an epic space opera feel. But the uncontestedly better game was and is Ultima VI, one of my all-time favorites. And you're right, @rotgrub, U6 showed that you can do CRPGs with great graphics, and thereby enhance the experience.

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    11. I don't think any individual game can be given credit for VGA becoming commonplace, there were dozens released at approximately the same time and it was just inevitable progress. The same applies to soundcards.

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  6. Oh! I am kind of sad. Uukrul, the game I am now playing and enjoying greatly, falls to the 4th place.

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    1. I've started playing Uukrul as a result of this blog, and it is a great gem!

      That said, be prepared for Uukrul to slide down another notch... I'll go out on a limb here and say Darklands may be the first game to score three perfect 10s (game world, character creation, and economy). Every time I read a GIMLET, I am reminded how the game will likely be scored above average in every category and extremely high in a few. Not even my plays of Morrowind so far showed as deep of a character development system as Darklands. (Morrowind has many *other* things it does better than Darklands, and character creation is more meaningful in Morrowind than most other games, but Darklands still reigns supreme for character creation out of games I am aware of.

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    2. 1992 had so many great games that by the time the Addict gets to Darklands it's quite possible that even U5 would be somewhere near the bottom of his top already. ;)

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    3. Sam, I discovered this blog searching for articles about Uukrul! But I have not yet read them, only the first one, lest I spoil myself.

      When it came out it was highly praised in the magazines in my country (Spain) but at that time I didn´t have a PC, only a MSX, so I couldn´t play it. I also think that my english level would not have been enough. When I finally got a PC it was not on sale anymore. Luckily internet came and finally, after after more than 20 years I am finally playing it.

      I love how it unfolds little by little, how the priest is almost useless at the beginning and how he is becoming the most powerful of the group, wondering what the prayers to Fshofth do, discovering (and drawing) all the maps, solving the puzzles...

      I have just solved the hangman puzzle and I am starting the area after the Sanctuary of Urran where neither the automap nor the compass work.

      I don´t think I have played Darklands.

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    4. Every time we get one of these Darklands posts I just grin. I'm reminded of other games and other fans who were just sure the Addict would love their particular gem. :^)

      We shall see... we shall see.

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    5. VK, you are so right! Fortunately, Darklands is toward the top of 1992, starting with a D. :)

      Laertes, if nothing else you owe it to your CRPG addiction to get Darklands and at least go through the experience of reading the manual and creating a party.

      The manual has a 4-page bibliography, citing around 80 or so books that influenced the game design! If ever there were a PhD in game development, it should go to the Darklands team! I wait in anticipation for the post on the Darklands game world...considering how much emphasis Chet puts on that sort of thing, a game world that was developed from 80 different books will be quite a sight!

      The gameplay is extremely open-ended, perhaps to a fault in some areas, with one exception: You can't decide who to fight all of the time (so no random killing good quest-givers...although you can use skills to try to avoid fights still). The Darklands mechanism for handling towns/cities is also fairly unique...and IMO better than wandering around as if it were another area to explore (and memorize), because it allows for so many towns to be included in the game...I think there are at least 100?

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    6. Darklands is a great game, but woefully incomplete and buggy. Did you know there's a button to tell your party to set up an ambush on the world map? It wouldn't be a surprise if not, the Ambush option wasn't actually implemented, just the party stance...which does absolutely nothing.

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    7. That I will agree with; Darklands isn't perfect *overall*, but when I think in context of the GIMLET, I see it doing very well. Game World, Character Creation, and Economy are just so much deeper than anything else in its era.

      The thing with Darklands is the lack of direction is perhaps too pronounced, and there are some incomplete things like you mention. But I can easily see 10's in the three categories before-mentioned, and above median (ie, above 5) scores in many other categories, which would mean it is a top-tier game on the GIMLET scale.

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    8. BTW, anyone actually completed Darklands? I'm still playing my 2nd game (after my dismal 1st attempt) and it doesn't seem to end! I break it out once in while, bandaging it with some fan patches as and when available, for a few hours but... I'M STILL PLAYING IT 20 YEARS LATER! WHAT AM I DOING WRONG?!

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    9. There's approximately 100 towns (I think actually 93 or something like that), leaving lots of potential for Raubritters, dragons, and other such baddies! You "complete" Darklands sort of like you "complete" SimCity...although there is a little bit more definite of an ending to it, even after the "end" you can continue play to solve other remaining quests.

      If you got the game on GoG, it comes with a cluebook, that may help you know the main quest. I don't want to post details here, but I think if you click on my name in this post you can email me if you want more information as well.

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    10. Also Kenny, you can't use all of your knowledge from one playthrough to benefit another playthrough. There are a significant number of random variables in the game, set when the game world is developed. Many things remain constant, but even things like quest locations change. (I think this is in large part also a benefit of handling towns with the Darklands approach.) So, I wouldn't expect to go to the same town to get the same quest as I got last playthrough...nor would I expect to go to the same town to learn the same Priest "spell" (you probably know what I mean by this, but don't want to spoil it for others).

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    11. @Sam- Well, I'm only at my 2nd game (for the last 20 years) and, yeah, lots of things are different on my 2nd playthough but I always thought it was because of my starting lineup.

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  7. I've really enjoyed reading your entries on this game - this was one of the first CRPG's I had on "my own" PC when I was about 14, the other being Starflight II. And I remember at the time that Computer Gaming World naming SF2 as "RPG of the Year", and I thought "Awesome!" because I loved that game and I was more of a sci-fi buff, but after replaying both I think I'd give the nod to Ultima 6.

    As for comparing Ultima 5 and Ultima 6, I find that it's still difficult to evaluate the games on their own merits, without also remembering the circumstances when I first played them >20 years ago. Ultima 5 I first played a bootleg copy (with photocopies of the game manual) in my best friend's basement on his Tandy 1000, and I have to say he wasn't the brightest guy, and playing it secondhand like that was not as rich an experience. By the time I had my own PC, Ultima 5 was hard to find in stores (and my friend's floppies were corrupted). But Ultima 6, I could stay up all night exploring every corner of the game world. I suspect it's the reverse for long-time fans whose 'formative' RPG experience started with playing Ultima 3, then 4, then 5 in their own basements, and for whom Ultima 6 then seemed a massive departure (and 7, 8, and 9 even moreso).

    CRPG addict gets high marks for trying to evaluate these games objectively, because I'm sure you also have your own "original" memories of these games which surely color your perceptions going in!

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    1. I do have a lot of "original" memories, but to the extent they color my perceptions, we're mostly past that era. I was 17 by 1990, and most of the games I played from this era, I didn't play until I was in my 20s. Sure, I can remember the joy of encountering some of the great games from the 1990s for the first time, but those memories aren't rose-colored the way that CHILDHOOD memories are.

      If any game was going to be affected by nostalgia, it was going to be Ultima IV, and I feel like the GIMLET ranked that game fairly low compared to how I feel about it, so in that sense, my memories didn't affect the rating.

      I do want to offer one small amendment, though: I make no claim to evaluate games "objectively." Even if my reviews aren't colored by memory, they absolutely ARE colored by my own biases and preferences. I don't make any apologies for being subjective; that's really the only way to experience a game. What I do is try to review games SYSTEMATICALLY, if not "objectively."

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    2. I suppose nostalgia only takes me so far. I also had great nostalgia for The Bard's Tale 3 (which I played at probably age 12-13 on my C64), and then replaying that as an adult found it tedious beyond compare.

      Good distinction though between systematic vs objective. I suppose there is no way to do a purely 'objective' review of something like a game.

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    3. Funny. I first played Ultima 6. Despite its strengths I could never get it. Mainly this is due to the idea of the Avatar as a character class. Lord British's response to both your actions and the gargoyle threat was also a problem.

      You made the best review of Ultima 6 that I have read, but I must say that your glowing review of Ultima 4 was a piece of art that inspired me to go back and play the game. I say that at least now, it is my favorite. Though it is less sophisticated than either V or VI, there is a completeness and quaintness about it that sets it far away from other games.

      I sometimes wonder if the plot of VI was Garriot's attempt to keep his games somewhat anchored in the real world. In this case, the plot seems to deal with racism in a fashion.

      Your blog remains one of the few areas of the internet I visit.

      Thank you for your hard work and sense of humor.

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    4. No problem. Glad you're still around.

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  8. I am quite intrigued by your application of the Uncanny Valley graph to other aspects of RPGs. However, some of your examples are extremely subjective.

    You may not mind an excuse plot ("Go kill Werdna and get my amulet!") in your classic RPGs, but I for one have reached the point where they bore me - especially when judging by the standards of 2014 games. Also, I find ancient wireframe graphics extremely hard on the eyes, and I suspect your color-blindness influences your perspective here.

    My view of these game aspects approaches a more logarithmic curve (after a certain technological or creative point, further improvements in graphics, music, or even story can only improve a game so much). But I'm sure different people see it differently, and I can't help but wonder whether the preponderance of CRPG gamers are closer to your view than mine.

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    1. Of course they're subjective. What else would they be? This blog is about my reactions to games. Above, I said, "I* don't mind Wiizardry's wireframe dungeons...," not "Wizardry's wireframe dungeons are good...." Even when I'm not so careful with my language, I think the very nature of my blog means I don't need constant disclaimers that it's just my opinion and yours might vary.

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    2. I dunno, I can't really take anyone seriously who says things like "these graphics suck" or "the plot is ridiculous" when talking about a game made in 1979. It says less about the game and much more about the douchebagginess of the person saying it.

      People like that just need to play other games and retire the PC entirely.

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    3. I find that PC elitists tend to be the most dismissive of outdated graphics..

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    4. Shut up, you unwashed Apple/Amiga/TexasIn/Atari/console fanboy! Bow to us PC-Using Master Race like the lowly servants that you are!

      That said, I was secretly envious of Amiga users in my teens. There, I said it. So, screw you guys and I'm glad I picked the right side. Muahaha!

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  9. Just a quick aside to why the picture by the Avatar's computer in the ad is different than in the game. The picture in the ad was by the artist Patrick Nagel and I believe that Origin was told to change it or they would get slapped with a lawsuit. So I believe that Centaur-Girl replaced Nagel and not the other way around.

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    1. Yeah I noticed that too. Origin Drone: "Hey, Dr. Cat! Legal says we can't rip off this image for Ultima 6. Can you come up with a picture of a sexy lady for the Avatar's living room?" Dr Cat: "Sure, heh, heh. I'll whip something up real fast..."

      Nagel! Totally forgot about him. Amazingly popular at the time. I Had prints, too.

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    2. And in a very nasty twist of irony, He died 30 years ago; minutes after doing a benefit for heart disease where he worked out for 15 minutes. Cause of death... Heart Attack.

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    3. Interestingly, there is a completely different Pat Nagle who works for Blizzard Entertainment. The superstar angler Nat Pagle in the game (World of Warcraft) is named after him.

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    4. That's interesting. Thanks for the correction. It's a fun bit of lore.

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  10. Is this the first time you've gone through a Let's Play (the thing by Nakar that you linked to) after finishing a game? I must say I never expected you to link to one.

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    1. He did mention my Let´s Play of "The Faery Tale Adventure" after he abandoned the game after his 6 hour minimum bar :D
      So not sure if it´s a common thing he does but he did mention someone before.

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    2. I don't link to them willy-nilly, but I wouldn't hesitate if it illustrated a point I wanted to make. I'm sure I've done it a few more times in the past--Chaos Strikes Back and Sentinel Worlds come to mind, along with Elanarae's example. Why did you think I'd be reluctant to link to one?

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    3. I didn't think you actually took the time to *read* them (they do, after all, tend to be pretty long, and you do have a lot on your plate as it is), as I don't recall seeing you link to one before from a game that you actually finished.

      I mostly noticed it because I had just finished the same LP, and had been thinking how interesting your take on it would be.

      It isn't the first time I've thought that, as there's also a very good series of the Mac versions of the first three M&M games on there, and those were very nice contrasts to the Dos versions of 1 and 2 you've already played.

      In other words, it wasn't the link that surprised me, it was you actually taking the time to look at them, if that makes any sense.

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    4. I guess I don't review LPs in a systematic way when I play their associated games, so I probably miss some that I would enjoy. And you're right--most of the time, they're way too long. Moreover, they're often quite boring. But I do appreciate intelligent and humorous commentary.

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    5. " But I do appreciate intelligent and humorous commentary."

      How the heck did you ever find one of mine then?!??!?! 8D

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    6. As a note, if you turn on the Youtube HTML5 beta you can set the speed of a video to play at 1.5x speed, which works really well for a lot of lets plays. If they have a slower accent, like a lot of Southern US ones, you can often get away with 2.0X speed.

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  11. So, this should place it 2nd on the all-time ranked list, and also take the top ranked category in G/S/I and Gameplay. I think that's fair. So, can we assume it will also make the "Must Play" list? We'll see whether there are any realistic challenges for GotY later.

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    1. Yes, no question it'll be on the "must play" list. I need to update the entire side bar.

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  12. I think as an RPG veteran who has played the genre for decades and is re-playing the game the difficulty might not be that high. But what makes a tough game? Grinding and min/maxing before you can proceed to the next level? A cruel RNG? Having all your decisions be important (what i mean is it's easy to make mistakes, either in dialogue options or in combat or in other choices in the game)? Anyway I remember as a teenager when I played it the world was so massive and so much stuff you had to do (get all the runes, free the shrines, find the map, etc.) that I never beat it without the cheat menu.

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  13. Chet! When are we getting "Chamber of the Sci-Mutant Priestess"?

    I will level with you, no title I've heard recently has excited me more.

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    1. The Trickster from The Adventure Gamer blog has covered that game. Not an RPG per se but it has some combat and a "mana" pool.

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    2. I believe I rejected it as "not an RPG."

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  14. My first experience of the ultima series was VII, which ended up being one of my all time favorite games (as well as teaching me a lot about making boot disks and dos commands, it was one hard game to get working!).

    Eventually I decided it would be logical to go back and play VI seeing as how I loved VII so much. Although I enjoyed it for a while i eventually couldn't get over the tiny main interface, especially when it gets dark. It's interesting that you gave the interface a fairly good mark, but I guess because you have come at them chronologically instead of backwards like me it is less noticeable things like that.

    Still, great review though!

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    1. I know the Ultima VI interface has its detractors, but I felt like it did a good job of streamlining the previous alphabet-long list of commands, whereas Ultima VII devolved to mostly point-and-grunt. The Ultima VI inventory was much easier to navigate that Ultima VII-VIII with the jumbled up pile in the backpack. You can see in Ultima VII part 2 there were a couple of attempts to fix annoying flaws: a keyring, and a "feed" button. And, as dumb as the Ultima VI combat AI could be, it was the last time we had turn-based combat that allowed for any modicum of strategy, particularly with respect to offensive spells.

      Also, and this is rarely pointed out, the approach that the earlier Ultimas take of splitting up the window into a "map" and "text" portions does have the advantage of making the text more readable. Ultima VII used Ye-Olde Style font directly over top of the graphics, and often suffered in terms of contrast and readability, particularly when overlaid on top of a grainy piece of scenery.

      Not to bust on Ultima 7 because I did enjoy it, but it is not the end-all be-all in terms of game interface that some people make it out to be.

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    2. I'm not saying that the interface of VII is great, the inventory, as you mention, is particularly bad, but most of the problems are merely annoying, as opposed to the immersion breaking problem of VI's tiny main window, for me anyway.

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    3. I specifically remember that I couldn't even get U7 to run in the first 2 weeks after purchasing it. Back then, there were no Internet and trying to get Origins Tech Support on the other side of the planet is like trying to read something with a concave lens in a void.

      So, I went to "browse" a copy of Gaming Monthly with tips on how to get that Voodoo Memory Manager working (because I totally failed on following the instructions on creating a boot disk from Origin's instructions) in a bookshop.

      Finally got it to work and was both overwhelmed and disappointed at the same time. The game was pretty dark and gave me an ominous feeling of Origins' impending doom as the title of the game and creepy game music came up.

      What it portent was rather spot on as U7 & U7 Part 2 are the last decent RPGs from the Ultima franchise.

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    4. "It's interesting that you gave the interface a fairly good mark." To me, all the things that the interface did well outweighed the minor inconvenience of a cramped adventuring screen. And even that I got used to by the end of the game.

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  15. Is there anyone else who never played an Ultima until later and just doesn't see the appeal?

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    1. Only with VII, rob. Terrible combat, enemies respawn right after you scroll the screen, few options for character customization, a nonsensical plot, and too many diehard fans who just refuse to see its flaws.

      That being said, the Underworld series remains one of the best first-person video game series ever, and I will fight you if you disagree.

      -BelatedGamer

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    2. I'm sure it all depends on your point of reference and expectations. For example I started playing computer games at the tail end of the heydey for text-based adventures like the Infocom games, and I just don't see the appeal of going back. I also have a hard time going back to games like "Rogue" with primitive ASCII graphics. But my starting point is around 1984-85, and after playing games like "The Bard's Tale" and "King's Quest", Ultima 4-5 seemed like a revelation - both the style of gameplay and also the game lore and plots which were well beyond the "kill the evil wizard" or "retrieve the lost amulet" kind of thing that was common. I'm sure if if your starting point is in the last 10-15 years, it's hard to see the appeal of something as "primitive" as the early Ultimas.

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    3. My start point is Might and Magic 1, I didn't have a lot of games as a kid so I didn't play any Ultima until much later and when I did I just didn't get it. I don't think they are bad, just not as great as everyone else seems to.

      I would say it's a bias towards first person dungeon crawlers because I like Wizardry, Gold Box and Dark Heart of Urkull which I came to around the same time as Ultima. But I like the later third person games like Fallout and the Infinity Engine stuff.
      games.

      Also Ultima Underworld is great but vary few things Looking Glass did aren't.

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    4. I started with Might & Magic 2, and I don't share quite the same affinity to Ultima as many CRPG players do...but I have grown to enjoy 4+. The thing is, to me at least, the combat in Might & Magic is done so much better than combat in Ultima...so that made it hard for me to get into Ultima for awhile. I also prefer the way magic is handled in Might & Magic -- spell points and knowledge means ability...with perhaps some required gems for stronger spells...but casting spells in Ultima is a lot more difficult.

      Once I got past that, I really enjoyed the Ultima *story*, but I think the combat in general is a huge weakness in an otherwise great series.

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    5. I agree with BelatedGamer ref Ultima Underworld 1 and 2 being fantastic games. I put them up with Dungeon Master as my favorite classic RPG's. (I spent much more time playing Rogue, but I don't really consider it an RPG, and it doesn't hold up as well today.)

      I don't think I played Ultima 6, but I did play a bit of Ultima 7. I'm afraid it left me cold - the look and the interface. I also did not get far with Ultima Online. I encountered two major bugs in the tutorial - One allowed players to max out combat skill before entering the main game. The other made it impossible to finish the tutorial; I had to restart it on another day. Then I got into the first city, which was deserted by NPC's and occupied mostly by griefer players. One threatened to track me down and kill me the instant I left town. Others merely mocked the n00b for daring to try to complete the original "trade with another player" quest.

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    6. My introduction to CRPG genre was RoA3 in late 90-ties and it was kinda formative for my RPG tastes. Thus while I can't say I don't see Ultimas' appeal, I do find them annoyingly simplistic in some aspects.

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    7. I will say after the Ultima 7/Ultima Underworlds I skipped most of the '90s as far as CRPGs are concerned. (I did play Ultima 8 and 9 but I wouldn't really count those...) Anyway the next one I played was Baldur's Gate II, and I was really impressed with the strides in technology and gameplay while also maintaining a good story and interesting character interactions. Probably if I started there I would find Ultima 1-6 simplistic as well.

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    8. I also have little desire to play the Ultima series. My formative RPG experiences never involved taking notes or mapping or painstaking searches for the next plot-critical RPG, so I find it difficult to enjoy games that require those things.

      Because I didn't map, the simplest 'spinner' would confound me. I had no conception that a game could be devious like that! You can imagine my horror upon reading the 'My name is Sheltem' puzzle on this blog,

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    9. "I'm sure it all depends on your point of reference and expectations." While I understand this statement, and concede that it is probably accurate, it does go against one of the basic theses of my blog--that great games transcend time and technology; that a 1980s game can be just as fun t play to a modern gamer as a 2010s game. I persist in believing that if players like Tristan and roberski just shook off their reluctance and gave the games a couple of hours, they'd enjoy them.

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    10. I'd have to second your thesis, CRPG Addict, with a caveat -- I think you have to be willing to put in the same level of effort as people did in (insert era of game) to enjoy it, though. For example, if someone just can't get past making their own maps, they aren't going to enjoy Might & Magic 1. That said, I think your overall premise is correct. I know I have enjoyed Ultima 4-7 (currently on 7) now, even though I used to have a hard time getting into them due to what to me was strange combat. I would also hold Uukrul as an example; some gamers are finding that game to be fun to play as well, despite its age. So, I think the gems endure.

      That said, I think a game that is average (or maybe even slightly above average) for its era may be perceived as below average by the modern gamer, since they may lack the motivation to put in the effort for an alternate system.

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    11. Well, it's been sufficiently long since I read the Ultima IV posts and I own a copy and it was the game my crush was playing when I was 9 years old, so I'll give it a proper go.

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    12. I played this new at the time and had friends who raved about the ultima series, yet I still could never get into it. I found the combat slow and tedious and the overall UI not to my liking. I was an avid gold box, M&M, Moria and Wizardry player at the time so I had experience with other RPGs, that I enjoyed.

      I always find myself on the heretical fringe for never really getting the appeal of the ultima series game play. For a story driven game that, I found lacking in fun tactical encounters, the pacing was unbearable. All the walk around and find this random person to get an item for another random person just wore me down.

      I think that's why I am so far behind on the blog I just associate this game with boredom so I had trouble motivating myself to read these entries.

      I guess I have given enough evidence for you guys to start binding my wrists and starting the bonfire already so I'll leave it at that.

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  16. What is the story behind the cover art? Isn't that just the opposite of the story of the game?

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    1. It deliberately tricks you by presenting the Avatar as a hero triumphing over the gargoyles, when in reality that scene should horrify most people who know the whole story.

      -BelatedGamer

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  17. In Akalabeth, the world was called "Akalabeth."
    In Ultima, the world was called "Ultima."
    In Ultima II, the world was called "Earth."
    In Ultima III, the world was called "Sosaria."

    I think they're all supposed to be the same world, though, it's just that the developers didn't settle on its geography and name until Ultima IV. So when Ultima VI says that Ultima II took place in Sosaria, it's not changing that game's setting, just using revised terminology. Ultima II isn't set on our (the Avatar's) Earth, it's on the same world as the previous games that's bizarrely called "Earth" for one game only, which is why Ultima II's manual says all the Mondain stuff happened on "Earth" too. No one thought up the name Sosaria until Ultima III.

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    1. I remember one of the History Books did mention that the game world only became known as Britannia after U3 under the unified rule of one Lord British.

      Delete
    2. The thing is, Ultima II's world map IS shaped like Earth. Okay, I can believe that islands from Ultima I formed a continent in Ultima III that was changed by earthquakes in Ultima IV.
      But in Ultima II I can travel from Alaska to Africa, then to the British isles and then build a bridge of pirate ships to Greenland or South America, steal a spaceship and fly to all planets of Solar System. And then they tell me that it all happened in Sosaria. This is where my suspension of disbelief ends.

      Delete
    3. It's a nice theory, but it's contradicted by the game's manuals that do acknowledge changes to the settings and the names of the lands--just inconsistently.

      Delete
  18. Apparently, the word "centaur" is incorrect in this context.

    And apparently, "zebrataurs" are a thing.
    http://www.elfwood.com/~suechan/Zebrataur.3260420.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ok... now that I know that there are zebrataurs, I expect that rule 34 holds there as well.

      Delete
    2. Yes. And Dr. Cat would be at the forefront of that Rule...

      Delete
  19. I think the retcon of the previous Ultimas -- particularly of Ultima 2 -- was because the developers didn't like what was in them once they tried to create a consistent mythology. I think that the Richard Garriott only really cared about consistency from title to title, when it came around to Ultima V. Then he had the problem of how to make a consistent story out of disparate elements that were never meant to be one in the first place.

    I would rather the Ultima 6 manual did what it did, and retcon the first Ultimas, than to say that a hero went to Earth and fought some space battles...

    Sure, some retcons weren't necessary. But to stick to THAT legacy? No thanks...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you're on to something here. It simply wasn't a priority for Origin to achieve narrative consistency. They did whatever they felt like they had to do to make the current title interesting.

      Part of my problem, though, is that the story and lore don't hold up very well even within the confines of U6.

      Delete
  20. It seems my previous comment was eaten by the spam filter...

    The developers of Nuvie, the open sourced game engine for playing Ultima 6, just released version 0.5. It's fully playable and it's probably the best way to play the game now. They say they'll focus on supporting the two Worlds of Ultima games next.

    Their website has obsolete screenshots. Here's a forum post with a comparison of the new screen modes:
    http://www.rpgcodex.net/forums/index.php?threads/nuvie-progress-ultima-6-in-full-screen.70226/page-4#post-3167513


    Their documentation is confusing. Here's what you need to do:

    1. Download and install Nuvie 0.5 from here:
    http://nuvie.sourceforge.net/?page=downloads

    2. Open the file "nuvie.cfg" in Nuvie's program folder and search for "<gamedir>c:\ultima6</gamedir>". This needs to point to your Ultima 6 installation on your harddrive.
    Or you can copy your Ultima 6 installation into a "ultima6" folder in Nuvie's program folder, then change the line into "<gamedir>./ultima6</gamedir>".

    3. Run "nuvie.exe" to check if the game works.


    When the game is running, you can configure some things with the in-game-menu (ESC). If you want to change the screen/window size, you have to do it manually in the "video" section in "nuvie.cfg". Just as an example, this is for a fullscreen 1920x1200 display, with 4x-scaled pixels (while still showing a much larger part of the game world than in the original game), using the Ultima 6 UI:

    <video>
    <scale_method>point</scale_method>
    <scale_factor>4</scale_factor>
    <fullscreen>yes</fullscreen>
    <screen_width>480</screen_width>
    <screen_height>300</screen_height>
    <game_width>480</game_width>
    <game_height>300</game_height>
    <game_style>original+</game_style>
    <game_position>center</game_position>
    </video>

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had to rescue this one from the spam folder, too. Blogger's automatic spam-checker doesn't like hyperlinks.

      Delete
  21. With impeccable timing, Wired's Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast just interviewed Richard Garriott: http://www.wired.com/underwire/2014/03/geeks-guide-richard-garriott/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth, which he programmed in high school, may be the first computer role-playing game ever published."

      Great research there.

      Delete
    2. Hmm. Could have sworn I heard Garriott himself say that while I was researching him, but maybe I'm misremembering.

      Delete
    3. At any rate, I changed it to "one of the first," which seems to be generally agreed upon.

      Delete
    4. I apologize, David. I was catching up on a lot of comments very quickly, and instead of taking the time to read and listen to the entire interview, I made a quick, snarky comment about the first sentence and moved on. I don't know why I did that. It's not my intention to blithely insult other authors in a public forum.

      Your correction is indeed accurate. There are a handful of games that clearly predate Akalabeth by at least a year, and another handful released in the same year as Akalabeth, but the game is clearly within the first six or eight RPGs ever published.

      I'll try to find time to listen to the entire program and say something, if not positive, at least a little more respectful.

      Delete
    5. Well, thanks for the correction. I'm too young to remember the '70s, and Akalabeth is listed as the first true CRPG on any number of gaming websites.

      Let me know what you think of the interview. I've been a fan of your blog for several years.

      Delete
    6. Here's an example of Richard Garriott claiming to have "invented the first role-playing games on a computer at all" (at 2:06):
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHZCYck4Gb0

      Delete
    7. Wow, he does say that, and without any confusion in what he means.

      Here's the thing: HE might think it's true. He didn't go to any of the universities that had the PLATO system, so he probably didn't know about those. As for commercial RPGs, only a handful clearly precede his, and they would have been pretty obscure at the time he was writing Akalabeth. Perhaps most important, he conceived and wrote Akalabeth from scratch, without any prior influences.

      Still, it's a bit arrogant to think of Akalabeth and Ultima as the ur-RPGs. He must have been aware of other RPGs made at the same time as his, and most of them show no Ultima influence. The intervening 30+ years have offered plenty of time for him to do a little research and see there was more going on than Akalabeth in the late 1970s, and computer RPGs would have emerged as a major force in the 1980s even without the Ultima influence.

      Delete
    8. Thanks for linking to the interview, by the way! Very interesting.

      Delete
    9. Lord British is rather pompous, isn't he?

      Delete
  22. Ah, finally done with Ultima IV. I've been avoiding spoilers, but am really looking forward to it (starting Ultima IV tonight). I strangely played Ultima III, Ultima Underworld, and then Ultima VII. I'm not sure how I missed the whole middle trilogy that's remembered fondest by fans. In any case, back to reading more Chet; I'm happy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know, I know. I'm correcting that now and seeking the 8 virtues. So far I'm enjoying Ultima IV.

      Above I should correct that I was commenting on Chet finally being done with Ultima VI. Too many Vs and Is. It's interesting to note the console versions dropped the roman numerals altogether. At leas they retained the correct subtitle.

      Delete
    2. Yeah, well, the console versions suck. It took me only a couple of hours to beat U7 on SNES. I bought it after failing to install the game (blast that stupid Voodoo Memory Manager!) on my then-new AT586. It had worked on my older AT486, though. But seriously, what were they thinking?!

      Delete
    3. Well, I'm planning on playing the PC versions of Ultima once I'm done with the console ones. It's hard to argue with how awful the SNES ports are in comparison to their originals, but the NES ones are so far enjoyable. We'll see how well they hold up. I'm three hours in and feeling a bit lost for what to do. I've reached two shrines, but after meditating the hints I received are too cryptic to decipher at the moment. I'm in the process of visiting each town to learn more. Combat has been very easy up to this point.

      Closer to the topic at hand, I have many games to play between U6 and now (I'm just about 70 games away). It's strange that it took four years for the console port to happen, but at least Black Gate comes just 20 games after.

      Delete
    4. Not all the console Ultimas suck. The Sega version of Ultima 4, for instance, is a near direct port of the computer version, only with some interface alterations (mainly to conversations) made necessary due to using a two button controller instead of a full keyboard.

      The NES version of 4 takes a lot more liberty with the game, but I still found it enjoyable, in its own way. Similarly part 3, it wasn't entirely the same as on computer, but still had a lot going for it.

      Then part 5 for the NES came along, and that's when it all turned to crap. They tried to remake it shoving the U6 engine into an NES game, and failed miserably. Even part 6 on the SNES didn't do well with the engine, so you can only wonder what they had been thinking to try 5 that way on the NES. The less said of 7 on the SNES the better.

      Of course parts 8 and 9, which seemed kinda consolish even on the PC never got any ports. I was particularly surprised that 9 didn't get some Xbox or Playstation port, it seemed like it might have been dumbed down by EA so they could port port port. Guess using VooDoo graphics (not to be confuse with the Voodoo memory manager of 7) might have come back to bite them there.

      Delete
  23. Now that you have finally played Ultima 6, you will forever have a difficult time playing an enjoying another RPG after this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I wouldn't say that if I were you. There's plenty of room for improvement and I dare say that Fallout can easily give Ultima its run for the money.

      Delete
    2. Thanks for the bleak outlook, Anonymous. Fortunately, I have played some games from the 1990s and 2000s, so I know that's not true. I sure hope the top scoring games don't remain in the 60s for too long.

      Delete
  24. I agree with your score of 7.0 for U5 and 5.0 for U6 for one good reason. IMHO Ultima5 had a better story. It's extremely dark tone and it being more difficult makes for a better power-progression and the need to "play smart". As with U6, you can just plough thru most of the enemies and with a large party it's even easier.

    U5 had the better hand, it's fitting that it sits above U6 if ever so slightly. The only game of the series on par with 5 imho is U7.

    Loved the blog !
    -- Francois424

    ReplyDelete
  25. > First, my blog has never been primarily about praising games for how good they were at the time. My blog is about recognizing that games, no matter how old, can still be a lot of fun in 2014. This conversely means also recognizing that what was good then is bad from a 2014 point of view.

    I think you're doing an excellent job with finding games that are still good and why, while also giving a historical perspective on the games' design and their contemporary reception. Thank you very much for your great work here.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Some of you might enjoy this post, by the excellent Stargazer on using FATE to roleplay in the Ultima world: http://www.stargazersworld.com/2014/04/22/fate-accelerated-idea-ultima

    ReplyDelete
  27. "It's the third game in the series to feature a "karma" meter (did any other games of the era?)"

    A Karma meter was surprisingly common in early Japanese RPGs, but rarely well-implemented (which may be why it didn't stick.)

    I believe the first to feature one was Hydlide II (slightly predated Ultima IV), (labeled "FORTH", for some reason), where killing "good" monsters would lower it, and if it was low, NPCs would ignore you. (Hydlide III features a similar karma meter, but apparently having low Karma only affects some bosses.)

    Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu (released at roughly the same time as U4) features a similar KRM stat, where killing "good" monsters raises your KRM stat. If it's above zero, temples will refuse to level you up. The ONLY way to reduce your KRM is to (ROT13'd) Svaq naq qevax frzv-ener cbgvbaf bs cbvfba, juvpu pnhfr n fhofgnagvny nzbhag bs qnzntr.

    Haja no Fuin, better known in the west by the title of its only English version, the Sega Master System Miracle Warriors: Seal of the Dark Lord has a "reputation" stat that works like Karma in these other games. Basically it slowly goes up as you kill regular enemies, plummets if you kill defenseless merchants (although this gives a LOT of gold, so sometimes it's worth it), and is required to progress with some events.

    Hardly as nuanced as Ultima IV, but it's interesting that developers in Japan seemingly independently came up with the concept of tracking "karma" independently.

    Speaking of Hydlide, there used to be a European site (woomb.net, which is domain squatted now) selling English versions of MSX games bundled in emulators, including Hydlide II and Hydlide III, so (in theory) these should be floating around the web somewhere.

    ReplyDelete

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