Saturday, April 7, 2018

Game 286: Ultizurk I: The Grandmaster's Quest (1992)

           
Ultizurk I: The Grandmaster's Quest
United States
Independently developed and published
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 1 April 2018
Date Ended: 3 April 2018 
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 19
Ranking at time of posting: 61/290 (21%)
           
The problem with cloning one of the most famous and respected series of all time is that you can rarely hope to exceed the original. The Bard's Tale clones that were popular in Germany make a lot more sense than Ultima clones because The Bard's Tale is a relatively boring series that can manifestly be improved upon. You can't really say that about Ultima, at least not after Exodus. Thus, every time you play a clone, you know it's going to evoke a sense of Ultima but in a way that's slightly less than the original--less complex mechanics, a less compelling plot, less verbose NPCs, less tactical combat. A few clones manage to add something new, like Deathlord and Nippon, but these are almost always commercial titles with bigger budgets. All of the rest that I've played over the last year have simply blended with each other in my memory, and I'd have to read my own articles to differentiate Hera, Legends, Skariten, Gates of Delirium, Quest for Tanda, and Wrath of Denethenor--and that's only going back a year.

Given all of this, I was surprised to find myself not hating Ultizurk I. At least it doesn't try to be epic. It has a nucleus of an interesting plot. The writing is decent (a rarity for shareware titles), with a minimum of spelling and grammar issues, and the game evokes the spirit of Ultima IV-VI NPC dialogue better than most clones. It's still not a very good game, as we'll see, but it strengths are at least different than the strengths of most Ultima clones. And it lacks the hubris of so many shareware games. If I were a game publisher and I had received this in the mail, I would have written back, "Not quite for us, but submit again."
        

My character arrives in a new world.
           
In such a scenario, I would have been writing back to Robert "Dr. Dungeon" Deutsch, an Allentown, Pennsylvania programmer who marketed at least some of his offerings under the label of "Robbie's Adventures." When I saw the title of the game, I thought it was going to be a parody of Ultima or Zork or both, but in reality it's a respectful homage to the former.

Ultizurk is the first of a series, which came on the heels of a series of nine (!) text adventures that Deutsch wrote for the TRS-80 in the 1980s, starting with Zurk I: The Great Zurkian Empire and extending through Zurk IX: The Rendezvous. These are, of course, an homage to the Zork series, and I gather from the description that they feature a persistent protagonist who eventually achieves the title of "grandmaster" in his guild. I also gather that they are straight text adventures with no RPG elements.
         
Well, I'm Level 1 here, so . . .
       
Ultizurk I continues the story; the "grandmaster" of the subtitle is the protagonist, who has been warped to another world by its ruler, King Eldor, who needs a Hero. After decades of peace, monsters have suddenly begun appearing everywhere, including an endless number of sea dragons, one of whom recently destroyed the king's ship. Eldor needs to know where they're coming from and how to stop them. Apparently, someone named "King Slenderbow" (I guess he's an NPC in the Zurk series) recommended the PC for the job. The hero arrives in the unnamed land with no experience, no equipment, and 85 hit points.

This is Deutsch's first RPG and first graphical game, and it's clear that he's new at it. The RPG elements are minimal. The interface makes poor use of space (until you open your inventory, about 50% of the screen is blank), and the graphics are so bad that you'll bless the presence of a "look" command because you otherwise won't be able to tell what anything is. (I have no idea what the main character is supposed to be depicting; he looks like a skeleton with a flag on his head.) The interface over-reads input during movement, so if you hold down one of the arrow keys a smidgen too long, the character will go shooting past his goal. 
        
If thou dost say so.
    
Nonetheless, if there's one thing he gets right--and this is about to have a qualifier--it's the NPC dialogue. The roughly 20 or so NPCs with whom you interact have relatively full personalities and converse through Ultima IV-style dialogue keywords, offering more text than just about any Ultima protagonist.

As for the qualifier, it's that one of the personalities is a tad . . . unfortunate:
           
         
The game takes place in a very small world, maybe 75 x 150, ringed by a wall of ice that, amusingly, you can sail up to and chip blocks of ice from. The size of the world makes some of the world-building a bit comical. Each little island is given a name and backstory as if it's a whole continent. There's all this talk about a "lost" island with NPCs saying things like, "I dunno. I think it's somewhere in the vast ocean between Zylar and Elitoth," as if it's possible for anything, let alone an island, to get "lost" in such a small space.
          
I hope that this wall isn't holding anything back.
       
The crux of the game is solving a series of fetch quests for the various NPCs. The king's seer dropped his orb in the ocean; he gives you some coordinates and a grappling hook and asks you to find it. The barmaid needs ice to cool the mead. A sick boy needs medicine. One farmer needs fertilizer for his crops; another needs grain for his cattle. The nature of the quests puts you in a somewhat linear order; for instance, to find the orb you need a ship, but to sail the ship you need a deed. The NPC who gives the deed requires a "Captain's certificate" which comes from the first farmer. But to get his fertilizer, you have to find an alternate passage to one of the islands, and so forth. Many of the buildings in the game require you to find specific keys to enter. Other quests require specific tools like a shovel, a farmer's knife, or an ice pick. The nature of the quests creates a lot of backtracking that makes the game seem larger than it is.
          
Using a knife to gather mushrooms for a mage.
         
None of the quests involve solving puzzles, exactly, although you do have to find (and dig at) certain environmental features, like three mountains in a row or a group of trees shaped like a cross. You also have to solve all of the quests--even the ones you don't think you need. The endgame sequence doesn't trigger until you do.
          
It never hurts to get on the good side of a barmaid.
                  
The inventory system aspires a bit to Ultima VI. When you hit "I," your pack opens and you can arrow around to the various slots, inspecting, using, and dropping what you desire. You get only one slot for a "readied" weapon, and there are about half a dozen weapon types in the game, none manifestly better than the others until you find a "Lightning Wand" and an already-easy game becomes moronically simple. There is no armor, but having one or two shields in your inventory offers some protection. There are no healing potions (for the player), but night falls every 200 moves or so, and (C)amping, as long as you have a unit of food (which is plentiful) restores all your hit points. 
          
Using an item from my packed inventory.
       
The game has no economy, and the king explains early on that you're welcome to loot anything you find. You spend a lot of time opening treasure chests and shuffling items around, since you can't walk where there's an item and you can only drop items on indoor tiles.

A small number of enemies--skeletons, rot worms, wisps, cyclopes, and demons--patrol the land areas, and sea dragons swarm the seas. None of the monsters move, so you can avoid most of them if you're low on hit points. But demons and sea dragons have ranged attacks, making it risky to walk around with them on the same screen. Combat is just a matter of hitting (A)ttack and targeting the enemy. There is no magic system. When you kill a foe, another one appears somewhere else in the world.
       
Attacking a demon with a trident.
       
Leveling up occurs once every 100 experience points and is performed by using an altar in the castle. You get around 20-30 hit points with each increase, plus your attacks become more powerful.
           
Couldn't be an Ultima clone without the occasional "thou art."
         
The king sets up a few more mysteries in the initial conversation. Near his castle is a pad of teleporters, none of which have worked in centuries. Ditto the mechanics that extend bridges: they simply have no power. The Lycaeum (another Ultima IV homage) might have some information about how to defeat the monsters, but with the king's ship destroyed and sea dragons patrolling the ocean, the player will have to find another way to get there.
          
Once you get these working, it becomes easier to get around.
          
There isn't much to do on the main continent initially, so soon the player enters a tunnel in the north which brings him to an underground area of long, deserted passages. In addition to a handful of enemies, he finds a robot, which only has enough power to whisper a request for radium.

The underground exits across the sea, on another "continent," where the player can ultimately get a ship. The ship opens the rest of the game world somewhat, although copious sea dragons sit in the waters between the islands. They're the only real danger in the game, particularly if you get two on the same screen and they start blasting you. You have to work your way around them carefully, occasionally killing one, but when you do, another one just appears somewhere else.
        
Getting a ship opens up the game.
        
Eventually, you come upon legends of a weapon called "Sunbane" which will kill all sea serpents on the screen at once. You also (among solving the other quests) learn the location of some radium. Taking this to the robot powers him on. You learn that the planet used to be run by robots, living in harmony with people, but they lost power centuries ago and humans, who had turned from technology to magic, barely noticed. 
          
How much more refreshing is this than the "kill all humans" approach?
      
If you give the robot some coal, he restores power to the teleporters and bridge-extenders, and the entire underground transforms to a thriving robot city. You learn of the robots' missing queen, Hapshepsut. I think there's a Martian Dreams influence here.
        
A robot laments his missing queen.
         
With a key found in the robot kingdom, you can open the building that contains Sunbane. An NPC technically gives you the coordinates for the place, but it's easy enough to stumble upon it. You still have to solve that NPC's quest, though. By this time, you also have a Wand of Lightning, which never runs out, and are thus fairly invincible. 
        
That dragon looks like he knows what's coming for him.
         
When every quest has been solved, you speak to the king. He casts a spell that takes you inside an otherwise-inaccessible building on the "lost" island. Inside lies the robot queen, sealed away by her followers for her own protection. You get one final quest to find a "mindstone." Once you give it to her, she tells you that the monsters have been coming from another dimension, exploiting an imbalance caused by this planet's loss of power. Now that power has been restored, the robots and humans can close the dimensional portal and defeat the monsters.
         
I wish more games took this approach. Instead of making me handle every last detail, just say, "We've got it from here."
         
The game ends when the player takes Sunbane to an area in the far northwest, using it to return to his own dimension. But when he does, a shadowy figure approaches him in the void and taunts him by saying that he (the shadow) has been promoted to guildmaster in the player's absence. He then reveals himself as a thief that the protagonist supposedly defeated in Zurk II: The World Below and will presumably defeat again in this game's sequel.
           
Does that come with a 401(K)?
That might be overstating things a bit.
       
A couple things don't seem to work as intended and thus make the game a bit too easy. First, when the character dies, I think he's supposed to wake up in the castle, hit points restored, with no loss of experience, and his weapon and shields stored in a castle antechamber. Instead, his active weapon and shields disappear, but he remains where he was when he died. So "death" basically just restores hit points and makes him fight with a backup weapon or fists.

Second, the game has a pretty good map, called with the "M" key, that clearly shows the player's current location. Only late in the game did I realize that it's not supposed to work until you find a game map in the underground city. But it works from the outset, making it even easier to find features in the small game world. It even depicts the location of enemies.
        
An awesome resource that I apparently wasn't supposed to have until 5/6 of the way through the game.
         
Ultizurk I rates only a 19 on the GIMLET, its best ratings for the backstory (3), NPC interaction (4), and the overall brevity of gameplay (3). It has no economy and does poorly in character development, combat, and graphics, sound, and interface.
          
That "NPC interaction" score does ignore a few things.
        
But it's good enough that I would have encouraged the developer to keep at it, and boy did he. In the next four years, we got Ultizurk II: The Shadow Master (1992), The Great Ultizurkian Underland (1993), Ultizurk III Part 1: The Guildmaster's Quest (1993), Ultizurk III Part 2: The Mobius Mind (1993), and two spinoffs called Wraith (1995) and Madman (1996). (I am 100% certain of none of these dates; this is not a well-documented series.) Ultizurk IV: Lord of the Cyclops has reportedly been in development for decades. Deutsch said he was still working on it in 2012, anyway, but since then his web site has gone down. He managed to get an "enhanced" version of Madman on Steam a few years ago.

Judging by screenshots, the series gets quite a bit more complex as it goes along. By Ultizurk III, at least, Deutsch has almost perfectly mimicked the interface for Ultima VI.
          
Although I'm not sure he nailed the NPC portraits.
         
If you're interested in more about the series and Dr. Dungeon's own comments, I would refer you to this insanely long RPGCodex thread from 2012, when the series of games was first unearthed after a decade. Feel free to comment on anything interesting you find in there. I gave it until Page 6.

We'll have Ultizurk II later this year. I won't mind if more of the 60+ games in 1992 allow me to wrap them up in a single entry.

*****

After an initial investigation, I am removing Slaygon from my upcoming list. It seems more an action-adventure game that evokes some RPG-style dungeon crawling but does not feature any character development beyond acquisition of new gear. That gets us further through 1988, but simply not having to play a game called Slaygon is reward enough.


27 comments:

  1. Crazy synchronicity, I just scraped the Madman remake on Mobygames this week after a contributor documented an Ultizurk (3, I think), as you noticed the first of the series to wash up there... after years of these games being on my hit list. (Sadly, they didn't pull priority quite the way Braminar did.)

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  2. "because The Bard's Tale is a relatively boring series that can manifestly be improved upon"

    Jesus Chester, it's like you're punching my mother in the face. To be honest, I might have spent more hours interacting with Bard's Tale 3 than any human being alive, my mother included.

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    1. Wow if you feel that way don't read his posts on the series past the first one.

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    2. "Jesus Chester, it's like you're punching my mother in the face"

      Perfect comment/avatar combination there.

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    3. Oh, I read them already. This is a long-simmering resentment.

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    4. We in the cult of Ultima welcome you from the wastelands and have been expecting you Mr. Mahney...

      ;)

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    5. "To be honest, I might have spent more hours interacting with Bard's Tale 3 than any human being alive, my mother included." Keep at it and you'll get out of the starting dungeon eventually.

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    6. Ha! You're not far off the mark. I started playing it at age 10, and it wasn't until I was at Uni that I defeated the starter dungeon. I didn't finish the game for about 13 years after that...

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  3. Replies
    1. Definitely! I love these long lost little shareware diamonds in the rough (or pyrite as they may be!).

      I played tons of Hack back in the day (prior to Nethack) being released and it was fun to see what it has become here. We also had Castle of Larn and some others as well.

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  4. It has to be a relief to play the first game in a seven-game series and discover that it's both not terrible and relatively brisk, especially with your long and storied history with lousy Ultima clones.

    I also see the end of 1988 is in sight. One more year and you'll be all caught up with the present (well, the 1992 "present"), correct? Barring a few extra stowaways.

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    Replies
    1. Indeed--but 1989 has a lot more titles awaiting (27) than 1988. Let's hope I can boot some of them.

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  5. Oooh, I see Legend coming up really soon. Very curious about your take on it. It's arguably one of the most original RPGs out there, mechanics-wise.

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  6. I think the character icon is a letter 'z' with arms and legs. I can't figure out what the flag bit is though.

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  7. If you zoom in it looks kinda like a head with a helmet.... kinda

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  8. The last time Dr. Dungeon posted in the RPG Codex thread was about last year, I think, giving a Steam sales report of his Madman re-release (which was below 10 copies) and receiving some advice on marketing it (such as raising the price from 5 bucks to over 10 bucks, to make it appear less like a cheap piece of shovelware). He did seem motivated to continue his work on the next Ultizurk game, so we may very well see that released some day in the future.

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  9. Man, I don't want to live in a world where people aren't excited by the idea of playing a game called SLAYGON.

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    1. My first thought as well. What's the point of living, if you can't enjoy a game like SLAYGON? Might as well go jump off a cliff right now, you're prolonging an empty existence.

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    2. Not yet though. I still want to see him play through Ultima 7.

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  10. I googled Wizards Lair. This looks like it can be booted. It appears to be an action style platformer with no progression.

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    Replies
    1. You saw the 1985 ZX Spectrum game of that name. The only on my 1988 list is a multi-character roguelike.

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  11. I have to say that I'm impressed by Mr. Deutsch's commitment to the hobby. I've always played around with the idea of coding up my own RPG as a fun software design experiment, but have never actually done it. He's written 9 text adventures and 7 RPGs in what I assume is his free time.

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  12. stepped pyramidsApril 8, 2018 at 2:49 PM

    This reminds me of some of the amateur QBasic RPGs I played as a kid, especially the clunky aspects of the interface and the kewl concentric circle-based graphical effects. The little bits of text adventure influence are neat, too. I probably would have loved this back then.

    The plot point with the robots is definitely lifted from Martian Dreams. Even the detail where you activate a single robot with radium but reactivate the entire planet with a supply of coal is the same. At least this game is cribbing from the better Ultima games, as opposed to yet another Ultima I or III knockoff.

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  13. Ye gods... that screen is so titchy. Seeing it on widescreen must be pretty painful.

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  14. It´s a shame this game "failed" to execute well. The graphical engine has that potential for the time period it was in. Thanks for telling us about this lost old game

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  15. Cool, first game that I`ve seen an reference to Hatshepsut

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  16. Good and fair review of one of those obscure games I played back in the day that nobody has heard about. I'd just like to make 3 points:
    1. I think the flag thing on your character is supposed to be a fancy hat, something like the Three Musketeers wear.
    2. If you're knocked out, your weapons do reappear in an otherwise empty building on the first continent (I think it's north of the castle; took me a long time to figure this out).
    3. Be warned that Ultizurk II is very unforgiving and it's quite possible to lose essential items. I don't think I've ever read about someone finishing it. The later sequels are much better in this regard, though.

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