Sunday, March 22, 2020

Game 363: Ultima VII: The Black Gate

A deceptively pleasant introductory screen.
             
Ultima VII: The Black Gate
United States
ORIGIN Systems (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS; 1994 for SNES
Forge of Virtue expansion released later in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 20 March 2020

I first played Ultima VII in 1999. I had just purchased my first Windows laptop after 7 years of Mac-exclusive ownership, and I was ready to catch up on a decade of RPGs. I had staved off my addiction while serving in the Army Reserves, going to college, meeting my eventual wife, and starting my career, and it was best for all of those endeavors that I did. But life had settled down by then, and I was ready to take the risk.

The first two "new" RPGs that I played were Might and Magic VI and Ultima VII. ("New" being post-1990, when my Commodore 64 had died. By then, Ultima VII was 7 years old, of course, but I still think of it on the "new" side of the dividing line between "old" games and "new" games.) I had a similar reaction to each of them: initial distaste, followed by growing admiration, followed by absolute awe.
          
This may be the first CRPG with an expansion pack that takes place within the main quest.
            
But I still remember the reasons behind my initial reaction, and a few of them remain valid criticisms. I bought it as part of an Ultima anthology, so I would have played it after hitting Ultima IV-VI in quick succession. Compared to the small, crisp icons of the previous games, the Ultima VII characters seemed impossibly lanky and awkward. The creators must have taken to heart the criticisms of the tiny Ultima VI game window because they made the entire screen the game window--but then they zoomed it in so much that you still only see a tiny area.

They removed the ability to choose a character portrait, and I hated--still hate, really--the long-blond-haired jerk that I'm forced to play. The guy looks like he's about 50, which doesn't bother me as much today as it did then. The typed keyword-based dialogue that I absolutely cherished had been replaced by clicking on words spoon-fed to you by the game. And then there was all the clicking! For the first time, the Ultima interface wasn't using my beloved keyboard shortcuts but instead wanted me to click around on things. I hate that now and I hated it more then, when the mouse was still new and uncomfortable.
          
I still find everything about this screen annoying.
          
Finally, there was the plot. 200 years have passed?! And all my old companions are still alive?! Who is this Red Thanos taunting me through the computer screen? And what in Lord British's name have they done to Lord British?!

This is all to say that I'm glad I'm not playing Ultima VII for the first time. This is a game that vastly benefits in a replay, at a point where I've accepted its weaknesses but also have a full understanding of its strengths. In fact, the position that I'm in right now--knowing that I'm in for a good game but not remembering much of it because I haven't played it in maybe 13 years--is just about perfect.

So let's back up and note all the things that the game does right, starting with the animated, voiced introduction, perfectly scored. The game opens on a pleasant scene of Britannia. A butterfly dances around a grassy hillside at the edge of a forest. There's a lilting tune with a timbre suggesting an organ but a melody suggesting more of a flute.
                
The first appearance of the Guardian.
           
But after a few seconds, the music fades and is replaced with an ominous, themeless tune in a low register. Black and blue static fill the screen. A red face with glowing yellow eyes and teeth like rocks pushes through the screen to address the player directly:
               
Avatar! Know that Britannia has entered into a new age of enlightenment. Know that the time has finally come for the one true Lord of Britannia to take his place at the head of his people. Under my guidance, Britannia will flourish, and all the people shall rejoice and pay homage to their new Guardian! Know that you, too, shall kneel before me, Avatar. You, too, shall soon acknowledge my authority, for I shall be your companion, your provider, and your master!
            
I would note that in contrast to the comically awful narrations at the beginning of both Ultima Underworld and Ultima VII: Part Two, the Guardian's voice is reasonably well-acted by Arthur DiBianca, who I gather was just a programmer who happened to have a nice bass voice. [Edit: I was wrong. The Guardian was voiced by a professional actor, Bill Johnson, who remained with the character for the rest of the series. He also played Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.] The voice immediately gives us a paradox because the Guardian looks like an ape, an orc, a monster, yet his voice is clear, his speech intelligent and articulated. Just what kind of foe are we facing? One who knows who we are, who has the ability to push through into our world.

(Incidentally, having never played Ultima VIII or Ultima IX, I still don't really know the answers to the questions about the Guardian's origin and motivations. I know it'll be tough, but I'd appreciate if no one spoils it.)
            
As the screen fades, the camera pulls back to show that the player is somehow playing Ultima VII on his computer, with a map of Britannia and a Moonstone sitting beside it. No, it doesn't make sense. Don't think about it.
          
I can't not think about it. How is my character playing Ultima VII? Does he have his own character? How far down does it go?
           
"It has been a long time since your last visit to Britannia," the title screen says, two years constituting "a long time" back in those heady days of annual releases. The character picks up his moonstone and heads out to the circle of stones in his back yard--only to find a moongate already there. Without hesitation, he plunges through to the title screen, which features not the triumphant, adventurous introductory music of most RPGs but rather a dark, dreadful march in 2/4 time. Something awful is coming, it says.
                
I'm not sure this ever gets answered.
         
Before we get into character creation and the opening moments of the game, let's diverge to the manual, which is perhaps the most brilliant game manual of all time--a superlative unlikely to ever be broken now that game manuals no longer exist. It manages to educate the player on the basics of Britannia and the past Ultima games while perfectly serving the plot of the current game. It is the only manual that I know that was written by the game's villain. I realize that's a bit of a spoiler, but you'd have to be a particularly dense player to not realize that something is at least a little fishy with "Batlin of Britain," and a veteran player of the Ultima series reads it with an escalating horror.

The manual is called The Book of Fellowship, and it describes the history, geography, and society of Britannia in the context of the growth of a quasi-religious/philosophical order called the Fellowship. Jimmy Maher has a particularly excellent article examining the parallels between the Fellowship and the Church of Scientology. (Garriott had apparently read a 1991 Time magazine exposé of the Church while the game was in its planning phase.) But I also see a lot of the (then-) growing "prosperity gospel" in the Fellowship, and Batlin strikes me as as much of a Joel Osteen (although no one at ORIGIN would have been aware of him in 1992) as an L. Ron Hubbard. One particular analogue with prosperity theology (and not Scientology) is the organization's "layered" approach to scripture. The Fellowship does not reject the Eight Virtues of the Avatar any more than prosperity theology rejects the Bible. It simply adds its own new layer of interpretation (simplification) on top of them, encouraging its followers to hold true to the past without really focusing on it. The emphasis is all on the new material--in the case of the Fellowship, their Triad of Inner Strength.

The manual begins with Batlin of Britain's introduction of himself. He presents himself with false humility as just a regular man, a fellow "traveller" through life, who has happened to stumble upon a bit of wisdom that he wants to share. Throughout his biography, he brags-without-bragging that he has served in all eight of the classical Ultima roles: Born and raised by druids in Yew, a first career as a fighter in Jhelom, then as a bard in Britain; trained by a mage from Moonglow; serving for a while among a company of paladins in Trinsic and as a tinker in Minoc; and finally spending a sojourn with the rangers of Skara Brae before ending up as a humble shepherd in New Magincia. His series of portraits through these sessions show a square-jawed, hale, charismatic figure, and it's no surprise when we actually meet him in-game to find a fatter, oilier version than is presented in the official portraits.
            
What kind of pretentious jackass divides his own biography into sections called "part the first" and "part the second"?
             
During his description of overcoming some wounds in Minoc, Batlin says:
              
A healer there told me that without the proper treatments (for which he charged outrageous prices) I would most probably die! I angrily sent him away. After a time I did mend. I had learned that the healing process takes place mostly in one's mind and have since placed no trust in healers who greedily prey upon the afflicted.
               
Here is our first actual contradiction with the world as we've come to know it as an Avatar. It manages to parallel Scientology's rejection of traditional psychology, sure, but also the Christian Science rejection of traditional medicine and perhaps "New Age" medicine in general.

He describes in his history how he met his two co-founders of the Fellowship, Elizabeth and Abraham (the "E.A." being an intended swipe at Electronic Arts, which would have the last laugh by purchasing ORIGIN the same year), and how his experiences led him to develop the Triad of Inner Strength. If the casual reader is not yet convinced of Batlin's villainy, it should become apparent in the section where he discusses the "ratification" of the Fellowship by Lord British. Though calling him "wise" and paying him obsequious homage, Batlin manages to paint the king as a capricious, dismissive sovereign, uninterested in the Fellowship until Batlin managed to "prove" himself with a display of confidence that manages to reflect the Fellowship's own philosophies. The section brilliantly manages to associate Batlin with the king and the king's favor (for those who still admire the king) while also planting a seed of doubt about Lord British's fitness to rule.

What he does to the Avatar is less subtle but far more damaging. Batlin knows that if his Fellowship is going to replace the Eight Virtues as Britannia's predominant theology, and if he himself is going to replace the Avatar as the spiritual figurehead, he must undo the Avatar. But the memory of the Avatar is too popular, his friends too influential, for Batlin to use a direct attack. Thus, he snipes and undermines and saps from all angles while pretending to admire the Avatar himself. "The Fellowship fully supports the Eight Virtues of the Avatar," he says, but that "it is impossible to perfectly live up to them. Even the Avatar was unable to do so continuously and consistently." Thus pretending to support the Eight Virtues while rejecting them, he introduces the Fellowship's Triad of Inner Strength:
            
  1. Strive for Unity: Work together to achieve common goals.
  2. Trust Thy Brother: Don't live your life full of suspicion and doubt.
  3. Worthiness Precedes Reward: Do good for its own sake before expecting compensation.

Maher's article points out how these three principles are not only kindergarten-level theology, but how easy it is to twist them towards evil ends. "Work together, don't question, don't ask anything in return" could be the motto of a fascist organization as easily as a charitable one.

Most of the slights against the Avatar occur during the second half of the manual, ominously titled "A Reinterpretation of the History of Britannia." Batlin walks through the events of Ultima I through VI much as the previous game manuals did, but with the occasional anti-Avatar salvo disguised as support. For instance, after describing the events of Ultima II, he says:
          
While there have been speculations as to the motivations of the Avatar, there is insufficient evidence to show that the Avatar was driven to violence by jealously over Mondain's romantic involvement with Minax. That being said, such theories are hereby denounced and should not be given consideration.
           
Soon afterwards, he "formally disagrees" with "those who say the Avatar should have handled [the events of Exodus] differently." He casts aspersions--no, sorry, alludes to other people casting aspersions--on the Avatar's motives in the Quest of the Avatar. As for Ultima VI: "Those who say that this terrible and destructive war could have been prevented had the Avatar not appropriated the Codex from its true owners are merely dissidents who are grossly misinformed." Leaving aside the fact that the Avatar wasn't the one who took the Codex, Batlin commits here the slimy politician's trick of introducing a slur while simultaneously denying it, thus seeding doubt while trying to remain above it. I've learned the hard way to at least try to keep politics out of my blog, but it's literally impossible not to think of Donald ("many people are saying") Trump when reviewing this aspect of the Batlin character or indeed the Batlin character as a whole. If I didn't say it here, someone would have filled in the blank in the comments as they did in the Maher article.

Aside from the undermining of the Eight Virtues, Lord British, and the Avatar, the manual is notable for numerous asides that make the veteran player eager to jump in and start swinging his sword. In his description of his time as a fighter, Batlin talks about "unruly lords wag[ing] war against each other . . . over Lord British's objections." Clearly, peace has broken down, but why? We later hear that Skara Brae is for some reason a "desolate ruin" (remind me to come back to another Batlin quote when I actually visit Skara Brae). Lock Lake near the city of Cove has become polluted. The town of Paws is said to be languishing in poverty. Some mysterious figure called the "Sultan of Spektran" has set up his own government on the island previously occupied by Sutek. The gargoyles have their own city, called Terfin, but there's a suggestion that local mines might be exploiting them for labor. Runic writing has fallen out of favor. There have been recent droughts. And worst of all, magic has been breaking down and its practitioners going insane.

Perhaps the biggest shock is that it has been 200 years since the Avatar last visited Britannia. This is presumably since his last visit in Ultima VI, not Ultima Underworld. The manual makes no acknowledgement at all of the events of Underworld; no mention is made of a colony on the Isle of the Avatar, nor its destruction in a volcanic eruption.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar still has the best quest of the series, in my opinion, but Ultima VII may have the best plot. This isn't the first time that a CRPG has featured writing and plotting worthy of a novel (I would probably give that award to Starflight), but it's still rare in the era. I understand that we owe this depth of narrative to lead writer Raymond Benson, who would later go on to take over the James Bond novel series. Benson was a playwright and composer who had previously worked on computer adaptations of Stephen King's The Mist (1985) and the James Bond games A View to a Kill (1985) and Goldfinger (1985). He was recruited by ORIGIN in 1991 and wrote some dialogue for Martian Dreams before beginning Ultima VII.

Someone like Benson was exactly what ORIGIN needed. The company may have "created worlds," but they always did so in a way that was both a little sloppy and a little too tidy, with poor respect for their own canon. I have discussed at length my disappointment over the way the game treated the concept of "the Avatar" after Ultima IV. Well, here, in the opening documentation of Ultima VII, we have an in-game character who personifies that lack of respect, who manages to take the confusion over ORIGIN's retcons--was the Avatar really the same hero who defeated Mondain?--and twist it to his own ends. When I finished the manual in 1999, I was never more eager to leap into a world and start putting things right. I am only slightly less eager now.

Note: To avoid loading transitions and other throwbacks to an earlier age, the developers of Ultima VII changed the way DOS allocates memory. Their solution required players to boot from a special disk. I remember that this created all kinds of problems when I originally tried to play the game in the late 1990s. Also, processors had gotten so much faster that the characters moved at lightning speed, and I had to use a special program called Mo'Slo to slow things down. I don't think I ever got the sound working properly back then. The emulation era and the folks at GOG sure make this much easier.

187 comments:

  1. When I saw that you were playing Ultima VII soon, I bought it on GOG. (It helps that it was on sale.) I've never particularly cared for Ultima, but I can tell that there's SOMETHING there for so many people to be so passionate about it.

    I played Ultima IV. I liked it overall, but I thought--and I don't mean it in a disparaging way--that it was cute. Britannia and its people as shown in Ultima IV were no more real to me than the houses in a Monopoly game. Ultima VII is the first Ultima game that I've played where you could convince me that Britannia is a place, not just the setting of a game.

    I grokked that Batlin was a villain pretty quickly (when has a mysterious new religion shown up and NOT been the bad guys?) but somehow it never occurred to me that he might be an unreliable narrator. Also, if the drawings in the manual are supposed to be of Batlin, then the one leading "Part The Second" is indeed significantly chunkier than the first one, and more representative of his in-game portrait.

    I thought you might have been exaggerating about the awfulness of mouse-based interfaces in previous games, but this game is truly a pain to control. Everything is so tiny and moves so quickly that it's very difficult to talk to anyone, and inventory management is a nightmare when most things are about four pixels across.

    I haven't gotten far in the game at all, but I'm excited to play more as entries come out.

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    1. Jimmy Maher's other article on U7 makes the point that for a game that many people regard as one of the best RPGs of all time, it really does suck on every measurable RPG mechanic. I wonder how this will be reflected in the GIMLET.

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    2. It does feel more like an adventure game. I've played for (checks GOG) about 8 hours. I've fought five combats in total, but talked to dozens of people and taken an entire page of notes.

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    3. There's a case to be made that Ultima veered away from RPG mechanics as it progressed, and became something else entirely. U6 and U7 aren't quite adventure games, but they have elements of them. From U4 onwards I feel like the core activity of Ultima was travelling around and talking to people, so it's always been a bit weird and hard to classify.

      As for the GIMLET, I expect it'll do well enough on the story-related categories to compensate for the poor mechanics. I don't think it'll hit the heights of U6 and U5, but it should still be somewhere in your Highest Rated list.

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    4. I also felt I was playing an adventure game. Perhaps why I never managed to appreciate it.

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    5. What I've always found weird is that throughout the game, The Guardian will appear on-screen and give you hints; like "go this way" and "do not enter here". But he is so obviously EVIL from the very beginning, that (1) why on earth would he do that, and (2) why on earth would you believe his hints?

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    6. As a big adventure game fan, I found Ultima VII a rather wonderful experience.

      The mouse interface also didn't bother me, since I was already used to using one for adventure games released around the same time.

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    7. If we're talking about U7 as an adventure game of the point-and-click variety, then it's almost as light an adventure game as an RPG. At least, there haven't been any puzzles that totally stumped me yet; the greatest mental challenge (besides not murdering Chuckles) has just been remembering things.

      While on the subject, I'll say that I disagree with Chet's take on typing keywords. If you're taking notes anyway (which you have to, since the game has no built-in quest log) then there's just no point in forcing you to type keywords. Unless specifically called for in a riddle, as at the end of U4, the only challenge is the slight inconvenience of looking at your notes.

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    8. The difference is that you can't intuit answers. In older games, you could guess that the guy tucked away in the corner of the town, far away from everybody else, has something you need. By putting together clues you could even figure out what that thing is, then ask about it.

      Using the Ultima 7 system, you simply can't do that - you won't get the proper keywords until you're told to do so.


      On the larger subject, I don't think any of the Ultima games really excelled in RPG mechanics compared to contemporaries. What always set Ultima aside was the story and world, even in the I-III days where both were much thinner than later.

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    9. The problems I had with VII's story is how much of it boils down to "Sorry Avatar, but the bad guy is in another castle" and while you are doing the inevitable circuit of towns and feeling the growing sense of urgency that Batlin presents you still need to go off looking for Ewoks because some kind claimed to have seen one once. Feels jarring when the flavour text is as well written as it is.

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  2. Ahhh Ultima VII. What a game. I only played it for the first time a few years ago, specifically because of this blog: I didn't want to be spoiled on the series, so I had to keep at least one step ahead of you. I loved it from the start. I'd already had my reaction of visceral disgust to Ultima VI, with its complete overhaul of the Ultima style and its dumb-looking character portraits. That was the one I had to learn to love. With Ultima VII, I was all in from the start.

    No gameplay in this post (I can sense that you're planning to make the most out of this one), so I'll hold off for now. But man, the comparison of the Fellowship to prosperity gospel is spot on. Australia's current PM is a member of the Hillsong Church, which is prosperity gospel through and through, and while the Fellowship is obviously more simplistic, the similarities are there.

    Anyway, I am really looking forward to you digging into this one. There's so much, good and bad, to discuss.

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  3. Back to Ultima... nothing better!

    Looking forward to a good series.



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  4. Oh yes yes yes I've been waiting for you to get to this one!

    I presume then you won't be using Exult to run the game? I like it myself as they bring the refinements of Serpent Isle into part 1, but that does make the gameplay different from the original.

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    1. The one time I played was on Exult. I've heard it made managing the inventory a lot easier - keys and food especially. Where the other changes that significant?

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    2. You can project at different resolutions to get a larger play screen. (With the caveat that you may see creatures or things pop in since the original game engine was built around a particular size) The music and sound is also the highest quality available. And you can choose a better range of skin and hair colors for the Avatar.

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    3. If it does something about the spastic framerate, that would be a start for me personally. The game chugs and stutters constantly, especially while playing music. Unlike many games Chet has played, the music is actually pretty good, if a bit repetitive.

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    4. Exult is very smooth, never noticed any framerate problems. Explosions always caused major issues in the DOS version, but not in Exult.

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    5. I might throw on a patch that fixed a bug or two, but Exult seems like too much of a remake. I don't want my experience to be that divorced from the original player's.

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    6. You can shut off a lot of the extra options in Exult if you don't want them, like the more advanced paperdolls from Serpent Isle. But I totally understand wanting to experience it "as it was" as close as possible. And DOSBox does deliver that.

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    7. I think it's fair to avoid Exult if you want the authentic experience, but for anyone wanting to try the game nowadays I think it's a very good choice. It just makes everything a little bit smoother to handle, yeah

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  5. Ultima VII has always been one of my favorite CRPGs -- although it has a lot of flaws, the atmosphere and the way the story develops has never been equaled for me.

    Also you could do fun things; in high school when I played it I commandeered a house and filled it with as much treasure as I could get, along with curiosities and the dead bodies of various people who had annoyed me. I think either a friend of mine or I tried to have a morgue with as many dead bodies as possible.

    Serpent Isle was a lot of fun too.

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    1. Good lord. There's always a sociopath in the group.

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    2. As a kid I enjoyed Serpent Isle a lot, the Silver Seed expansion in particular. It was so mysterious and it implied all these strange things! Playing it a few years later was a very different experience, to say the least.

      I guess it was their attempt to make Worlds of Ultima games while tying them more closely with the mainline Ultima. It is also very obviously a game that's done in a hurry and borderline unfinished. But I do also hold some fondness for it thanks to the kid that was so fascinated by it.

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    3. Is there a way to carry corpses without dragging them across the screen every few steps? Even if I drop everything the Avatar can't pick up Iolo's corpse... after dying for the fiftieth time...

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    4. Avatar! Thou cannot do this!

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    5. I played on a friend's save back in the day. Just started wandering around killing whatever moved. He was actually horrified at my actions and demanded I stop.

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    6. I think maybe you can use a cheat code to allow you to carry around bodies more easily, but it's been so long since I played it I don't remember.

      I believe that my treasure house mostly had the bodies of the villains, but as an edgy teenager I probably thought it was funny to just have random dead townspeople in there too.

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    7. @Alex yes you can carry a corpse if your strength is high enough; in Serpent Isle it'll even appear on the paperdoll.

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    8. Does Armageddon litter tha landscape with corpses in this one or does it just erase everyone?

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    9. Do people not get that it's just a video game? In the absence of harm to others, there is no crime.

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    10. Did anybody imply that, besides Addict who was more likely than not just kidding?

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    11. I can laugh it off now, but back when I was 13, if I'd had any friends who played Ultima IV and one had come to me and said, "Oh, yeah, I spent the weekend playing. I completely murdered everyone in Britain. Also, did you know that you can just pay whatever you want for reagents? They're blind! They don't know!" I'm not sure if I would have burst into tears or done my best to kill him right there. But it would have been at least one of the two.

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    12. My first experience with Ultima IV was hiring it from the video store, with no manual, and no actual idea what the goal of the game was. I spent most of that week doing exactly what you described, and by the time I found Lord British and Hawkwind I was in a deep, deep hole of non-Virtue.

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    13. There's a particularly evil interaction in U7 that the game doesn't acknowledge (it's probably a bug), but is truly horrific.

      Gur ohpxrgf bs oybbq sebz gur zheqre fprar ng gur fgneg bs gur tnzr pna or hfrq va cynpr bs jngre gb onxr oernq. Oernq vf hfrq gb srrq lbhe cnegl zrzore. Bar bs lbhe cbgragvny cnegl zrzoref vf gur fba bs bar bs gur zheqre ivpgvzf. Va fubeg, lbh pna srrq n xvq oernq onxrq jvgu gur oybbq bs uvf bja sngure.

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    14. You don't even have to go the extra step, you can just directly feed the bucket of blood to a party member, I think.

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    15. Ugh! That approaches the disturbing...

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    16. Good lord. There's always a sociopath in the group.

      There's a joke about Ultima Online somewhere in here, but I've not the energy to make it.

      I never played Ultima VII, but I would give anything to be transported back to 1997 so that I could experience Ultima Online for the first time again.

      Granted there's some rose-colored glasses there: playing on dial-up was horrible.

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    17. Friendly reminder that Ultima Online tried to simulate animal and monster populations rather than artificially respawning them, which caused players to completely genocide most species within a week because of course they did.

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    18. JarlFrank, thanks for reminding me of one of the reasons why I never play MMORPGs.

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    19. UO was an education. It forcibly ripped off my rose-colored glasses, and taught me (to my great benefit) that (conservatively) maybe 5% of the people in the world will enjoy causing you harm, with no benefit whatsoever to themselves, except that it is what they enjoy doing.

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    21. I played the UO beta. I thought it was pretty neat, but not nearly enough to be considered a real game. When I heard they were releasing it, my reaction was, "WTF! It's not finished!" People ate it up anyway. Why? Because it was Ultima, but Online, man! I watched one of my buddies play. He helped found an "orc tribe", people who dressed in orc armor and hung around an orc fort, and said things like "Ug bug". I wanted to go on quests and stuff. I remember reading a guide on how to craft items and sell them, and it sounded more like a real job than anything I would pay to do.

      The players in UO who went around PKing were typically low-status males, ones who had been abused their whole lives by the rest of us. Finally getting into a position of power, they quite naturally understood hurting other people is what you do. And why wouldn't they come to that conclusion? We have only ourselves to blame.

      The UO animal population problem wasn't due to "genocide", it was because the too-clever developers didn't consider there would be so many apex predators. They made a tiny world and did not scale it to the population that would be inhabiting it. They created ecologies without thinking about the players, they just wanted their little SimBritannia and found it stimulating and rewarding to program like this. Typical "users last" mentality at Origin (and a lot of other software houses to this day).

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    22. In UO they had no idea how popular it would be. The realistic animal population was dropped before release, but what they ended up with was the servers having way more players than expected, so the spawn rate wasn't fast enough.

      And then the trolls discovered it, and the devs learned that you needed to actively fight them to keep the game going.

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  6. I replayed the game a few years ago (The GOG version with forge of virtue) a found the combat a little weak but the level of interactivity with the gameworld remains amazing today.

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    1. There's so much stuff to discover -- you can use a diaper on a baby to get a used diaper, then use that to make people run away.

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    2. It really is hard to find an equivalent, even today. Sure you can "cook" in recent games, but you don't put flour and water together on a table to make dough, then put the dough in the oven to make bread. You just sit down at a generic "cooking station" and it sucks the ingredients out of your inventory and gives food in return.

      RuneScape--at least when I was playing in the early 2000's--is the only remotely modern game I can think of that had a world full of interactions like Ultima. Of course it's simplified, and there are concessions made to the fact it's an online game, but many of the basic elements were still there.

      I was surprised to see that nobody's made the specific connection between RuneScape and Ultima before, actually. The comparison was pretty obvious from when I first booted up U7.

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    3. Arx Fatalis has that, which makes sense since it was originally going to be an Ultima Underworld game.

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    4. I think there's a pretty clear through-line from U7 to Ultima Online to modern games with crafting systems.

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    5. ”I was surprised to see that nobody's made the specific connection between RuneScape and Ultima before, actually.”

      Well, Lord British himself appeared in the Runescape anniversary documentary for a reason. In it, it’s said that ultima online indirectly inspired the game.

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  7. From Wikipedia:

    Apophasis (/əˈpɒfəsɪs/; Greek: ἀπόφασις from ἀπόφημι apophemi, "to say no") is a rhetorical device wherein the speaker or writer brings up a subject by either denying it, or denying that it should be brought up. Accordingly, it can be seen as a rhetorical relative of irony. The device is also called paralipsis (παράλειψις) – also spelled paraleipsis or paralepsis – or occupatio, and known also as praeteritio, preterition, or parasiopesis (παρασιώπησις).

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  8. I always loved the intro to U7. The way the Guardian says "..Provider.." is just so satisfying. To now find out that was not a professional voice actor; WOW he did a great job!

    I also remember working a LOT of hours to scrounge the money to upgrade to 8mb of RAM (i think it was 8) to actually get this game to work. Intel should thanks Ultima and Wing Commander, so many upgrades were caused by those two series.

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    1. From, say, U5 on, Origin was always pushing the hardware boundary, targeting what would at the moment of release be the bleeding edge of consumer computing. This meant that to anyone more prone to owning middle-of-the-road systems, they would always have to wait a few years before upgrading to enough hand-me-down power for recent Origin offerings. I'm sure there were plenty of fans who didn't manage to get caught up with the Ultima 7 generation of games until Origin was just keeping Ultima Online on life support.

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    2. It seems Mobygames has än error in the credits. In fact, the Guardian was voiced by Bill Johnson, who is indeed a professional actor.

      https://m.imdb.com/name/nm0424601/filmotype/actor?ref_=m_nmfm_1

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    3. Yeah it was Bill Johnson. I remember when Ultima IX was in development they were going to have Michael Dorn do the Guardians voice instead but they changed their minds because he didn't have the same menace.

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    4. I thought they couldn't get Dorn because he was busy with Deep Space Nine?

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    5. My mistake--I should have read the actual credits in the manual. He was also Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That's a bit of trivia I didn't know.

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    6. Well at the time U9 was in development, most of us followed the developer's journal like a hawk. And when they announced that Johnson was going to reprise the role, the reason they gave was Dorn's initial tests, the voice didn't sound right. No mention of conflict with DS9 filming was made.

      That being said, the sources for this info are long gone; not even the way-back machine would have these sites. The real question would be why they went with Dorn initially when Johnson did such a fantastic job. My guess? Bigger name recognition.

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    7. Among 90's actors, Dorn would be my first pic for a character like the Guardian. From the little bit I've heard of him in my own playthrough, it sounds like Dorn probably wasn't able to pull off the... I want to say "smugness," but that isn't the right word. Condescension? The Guardian is definitely talking down whenever he speaks.

      I suppose James Earl Jones might have been another pick, but he can probably charge whatever he wants after being the voice of Darth frikkin' Vader.

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    8. I had to appeal to my father's love of good hardware to get him to upgrade and buy a new computer after our Tandy 1000 simply couldn't run Ultima VII. Heck... it was slow with Ultima 6 even with an upgraded chip.

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    9. I always despised that about Origin. I remember complaining on silverchat about the slowness of their games, and getting an earful from Origin employees. They were unapologetic about the unplayability of their games on anything but $5000 computers. "Hell, Strike [Commander] ran slow on our development systems!" I remember one of them saying.

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    10. "But can it run Ultima VII?" Kids said back in the day

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    11. My first playthrough of this game was on a rather dodgy 386 with I think just a 16 MHz CPU. It was slooooow.

      Also, for some reason the boot disk the game made didn't work for my friend and me, so we fiddled with the config.sys for what felt like hours to get the f'ing game to run. The mouse we had had a driver that was just a tiny bit too demanding of memory, so we could basically decide whether to have mouse support or sound. We finally arrived at several stable settings for memory usage and switched between them from time to time. I mean, we really wanted to put that Soundblaster card to use at least occasionally, and U7 had GREAT music for its time. But as Iolo says right away in the beginning if you don't have one loaded: "for the sake of our sanity, Avatar, please purchase a mouse!"

      Who else played this without a mouse, at least in part?

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    12. What I had heard regarding Dorn being replaced was that they couldn't get him back to rerecord lines after the game was massively rewritten, so they just went with the original guy

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    13. That sounds plausible... It's been 22 years give or take, but I recall the voice switch happened around the same time that Bob White and Ed del Castillo resigned.

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    14. @Paul I had exactly the same PC as you, and I had a similar experience... soooo slow, maybe 1 fps.
      I remember sneaking in my father's study room in order to play it on his 486.

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  9. OMG YES!
    I have been looking forward to this!!!

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  10. I have never ever played this one but, from your summary of the manual, it already looks like a masterpiece to me. That attention to the detail is flabbergasting and truly inspiring.

    I'm looking forward to experience this game through your posts; it won't be the same as actually playing it, but I'll learn a fair amount about it.

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    1. That's the mission of my blog!

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    2. It's worth a look... I would suggest you cheat a bit and run it under the Exult platform that Adamantyr references above.

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  11. This should be great, I've really been looking forward to your coverage of U7. Your last paragraph really brought back some memories. I remember spending DAYS fiddling with the boot disk to get this game to actually run with it's crazy memory settings, and I never got the speech to work.

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    1. Yeah, I was completely incapable of running U7 circa 2000 - whatever weird memory things it was doing made my computer completely cack itself.

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    2. It was doing voodoo: http://wiki.ultimacodex.com/wiki/Voodoo_Memory_Manager

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  12. Oh wow! One of my all time favourites. I can appreciate the disappointment with the combat system, however it remains one of the most immersive stories and worlds of any CRPG.

    The opening stanza in Trinsic remains one of my all time favourite beginnings to any game!

    Also, what's wrong with having Rick Flair as your character portrait? Lol

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    1. I mean, Ric Flair ain't following the Virtues. He fails Humility super hard, just for starters.

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    2. I was thinking Dolph Ziggler. Of course he fails the humility test too...

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    3. I mean, Humility and wrestlers in general do not go hand in hand. I'm trying to think of a wrestler who might do well on the Quest of the Avatar. Daniel Bryan? It's hard to think of anyone else who would get far.

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    4. Granted about wrestlers. I was just looking at the picture.

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  13. For as much as you dislike having to play as long-haired blond jerks in RPGs, I dislike having to play as bald jerks in a lot of modern games :p

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    1. Hey, bald still beats average Joe short hair any day.

      ...though I secretly do think that long hair is best (especially in a fantasy world where the characters are always hygenic about it!)

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    2. They probably have hair-freshening spells so they don't have to wash it very often. How else would those elves manage to always have perfect hair even in the thick of adventuring?

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  14. I also first tried this in '99. I solved the murder, talked to British, experienced combat for the first time, and quit.

    My second try ended 10 minutes ago. I solved the murder, talked to British, and didn't even get to combat before I decided that there was no way I was gonna get value:time compared to other options in my 'unplayed' list. I dont like the movement, the cursor, people whining abut food, the lack of a map, the fact that NPCs wander everywhere. Just not my cup of tea. Maybe if I stuck with it I'd enjoy it more. I think I'll settle for the vicarious experience though.

    I found the guardian cheesy. He even has a villainous laugh.

    I think it's intended to be immediately clear that the fellowship are the bad guys.

    I don't think the manual is that great, I don't think its really a manual at all. It's just backstory and descriptions. The actual 'operating manual' is the reference card! Fallout's 'Vault Dweller's Survival Guide' is still my number one :)

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    1. I should say that I approached the backstory as someone who had basically no experience with Ultima, so missed most of the subtleties you describe.

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    2. I get where you're coming from, although my experience was diametrically opposed...

      Manual: since the game is so light on mechanics and so heavy on narrative, the manual is actually "the manual" IMO. Sure, it's nice to learn from the reference card that Y puts up everybody's stats, and number keys their inventories, but apart from that, the interface is pretty self-explanatory. They really perfected the interface that does not get in the way of presenting the world and story (while producing other problems, like finding tiny things in overstuffed backpacks, but that's a different issue).

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    3. Diegetic interfaces aren't known for being the most intuitive thing in the world; I died to some dogs five seconds after leaving Trinsic because I didn't know you had to switch to a special combat mode.

      I think it's awesome when a game includes a wealth of out-of-game information. It helps the feeling that there's a world with continuity on the other side of the screen, not just a neat game. Keep in mind that for a long time, installing a game wasn't as convenient as letting a download run while you ate dinner. It often tied up your entire computer, played music, filled the screen with concept art. The best games were a multi-media experience from first opening the box to putting it away for the last time, and a well-written manual is part of that. Now you're lucky if you get a tissue with the controls written on it.

      One of my favorite manuals/backstory documents is for Metal Gear Solid for the PlayStation. I read every page and was fully immersed before I even put the disc in.

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    4. Opening Ultima VII box was a marvel for my nerdy young teen self.

      That cloth map was the coolest thing I ever seen, it was amazing to try to get my bearings in the game with it as a reference.

      I must have read the lore book 3 times at least.

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  15. Spoiler about why that red gate is there: Gur gvzr ybeq frag vg. Ur zragvbaf guvf jura lbh zrrg uvz yngre va gur tnzr.

    Spoiler about the origin of the Guardian: Gur qrfvta abgrf sbe tnzr avar fgngr ur vf n shfvba bs gur guerr qrsrngrq funqbjybeqf, naq jnf erfcbafvoyr sbe gur tnetblyr vainfvba va gur fvkgu tnzr, naq jnf gur sbezre ehyre bs gur ynaq bs tnzr rvtug. Gur avagu tnzr vgfrys unf n qvssrerag naq jvqryl-qvfyvxrq rkcynangvba.

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    1. I was hoping someone would do this (and rot13 it, of course) - thank you!!

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    2. Ultima IX... too bad they didn't go with the "Bob White" plot... sigh... after Ultima VIII they really needed to hit a home run.

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  16. I first played this in the mid 00s when I discovered abandonware and went through tons of old RPGs I had missed in the 90s. The high opinion it has on RPG Codex made me check it out. I hadn't even heard of Ultima before that since I only started playing RPGs in the early 00s, when the series was pretty much dead already.

    The combat, frankly, sucks. But the exploration was great, and while I didn't get very far in the main story on my first attempt, I spent a lot of time dicking around in the main city, doing all kinds of stupid things like attempting to rob the bank.

    I don't think there's any other game that reaches the level of interactivity Ultima VII has. Except maybe those modern survival games where you can craft all kinds of shit... but those have a different kind of interactivity, I guess. When it comes to full fledged RPGs with proper quests and NPCs and all that, Ultima VII is still unsurpassed.

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    1. I think the difference is that interactivity in modern games is largely in service to the gameplay, not the immersion. In most games that include crafting, you just get requisite ingredients, and when cooking/crafting/etc. the game just trades the ingredients for the end result. You don't go through the motions yourself.

      There's something to be said for both versions. I think it's neat that I could theoretically harvest grain, mill it myself (or have it milled,) mix the dough and bake it all myself. But I probably won't ever do it, because it sounds tedious and ultimately not that useful. In the time it takes to do all that I could just buy, hunt or magically create enough food to keep the party fed for hours. In Fallout 4 or Skyrim I cook all the time, but that's because most found food sucks and cooking just takes a few button presses at the appropriate facility.

      It's just a matter of different design goals. U7 was designed for verisimilitude above all else. Skyrim, FO4, survive-em-ups, etc. are designed around a more rigid but more consistently satisfying gameplay loop.

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    2. I think the non-essential crafting in Ultima came about because Garriott/Origin's design method was to create the engine and world first, then the story. With a world as interactive as U7 there were bound to be things in the game that don't serve the main quest.

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    3. The only game I can think of that approaches Ultima VII's crafting system is the RL game Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead. That's still menu-based instead of entirely in the environment, but otherwise works much the same - you can start with the most basic raw materials and incrementally go through steps to get the finished product, requiring appropriate tools and supplies at each step.

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    4. @Gnoman dwarf fortress comes to mind

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    5. Unless there was a major update to Adventure Mode that I missed, there's very little crafting there (at least in vanilla). Fortress Mode is more of the traditional "materials go in, goods come out" black-box workshops (though multiple mods have tried to increase the complexity, to various degrees of success), and isn't an RPG anyway.

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  17. Time to switch my avatar, I suppose :)

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  18. I was trying to remember if I'd bought Ultima VII in a compilation or standalone.

    I think the answer is that I first played 7 on a friend's computer, and he had it on floppies, that may have included a boot disc, and I didn't buy it at that time. And he bought Ultima 8 too. I eventually bought Ultima 9 near its release in a format that included all previous games on a CD - but 9 itself was so awful and hardware-intensive that I never played more than the first half hour or so of the game.

    I think. But I also remember having to use MoSlo, and I have memories of spending significant time playing U7 by myself, which suggests I didn't play it at a friend's place after all.

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    1. The Voodoo memory manager was a pain to use, but you didn't really need a dedicated boot disk. I had it running off the HDs config.sys & autoexec.bat w/ SCSI cd rom, mouse and soundblaster each taking their chunk of memory. Thankfully win32 came around and negated the need for such shenanigans.

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    2. I just realized I own 4 different copies of this game.

      - The original boxed release.
      - Ultima VII "The Complete", with Serpent Isle and both data disks, which came bundled with a SoundBlaster card.
      - Ultima collection, included in U9 Collector's edition (the only reason I bought it)
      - The GOG version.

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  19. I've been looking forward to this post for 10 years.

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    1. Same! I've never played Ultima VII, but I've been long aware of its stellar reputation.

      This, Might and Magic VI, and Baldur's Gate are my top three anticipated games now that Magic Candle I and Quest for Glory II have had their runs.

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    2. Likewise. I've been following this blog since it started, and I am curious to see how it handles the 90s. Those struck me as a drought period for RPGs; that is, year after year passed and nary a new game was to be seen. It's why I hope that Chet doesn't get too bogged down in roguelikes and side avenues; they would make a good extended notes series but there is a central narrative, and one wants to see it continue!

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  20. So, long time lurker, first time poster here. Been reading for years pretty much on the idea of "I can't wait until he gets to Ultima VII!" U7 has had a pretty profound effect on me as a gamer ever since 12 year old me saw it on the shelf at (I think) EB Games soon after release. That plain black box with just the title was the coolest thing I'd ever seen, and it still has pride of place on my PC game shelf.

    A few observations follow. It's been said a few times on this blog, I think, but it's absolutely amazing how far ahead of everyone Origin seemed to be in 1992. At 12, I'd already been exposed to years of 80s RPGs thanks to my dad, and gridlike dungeons and keyword parsing were getting pretty stale. U7, being my first Ultima, completely blew my mind with a whole series of staggering innovations, such as:

    - 256 color graphics and a full-screen view of the world, which I'd never seen before and which were a complete revelation to me. This game is gorgeous for 1992, and I'd argue that it holds up quite well even today.

    - The soundtrack, which again seemed unprecedented in my 1992 experience for how amazing it sounded, and which I still listen to often. Nothing else even seemed close to it at the time.

    - As much as we all used to make fun of name/job/bye and the keyword system, that system is what finally made RPGs really playable to me. I was fine with taking notes and making maps (thanks for making me love mapmaking, Wizardry), but I lost patience quickly with trying to figure out the right word to type to make the guy say the thing. At last I could just have a conversation.

    - For that matter, whatever one might say about the mouse-based interface (I happen to like it), it was definitely something new in an age when mice themselves were still pretty novel. I at least appreciate the attempt.

    - You've already touched on how next level the manual was, but what got me is that the official clue book/hint guide was also completely written in character in a helpful and easy to follow format with both general clues and outright spoilers for each step of the way. It's the best example of the type I've seen, as is the one for Serpent Isle.

    - What other game would inspire a kid to learn about DMAs and IRQs and BAT files to make that game and only that game work because Origin was eking out everything the hardware of the time could offer? Everything I ever learned about computers in the 90s was because of this game.

    - I'm sure we'll get into it more, but this was the most immersive, open world game experience I could think of at the time, and in a lot of ways it still is.

    Other people have touched on plenty of other things about it, so I won't go on, but U7 remains the pinnacle of RPGs for me, arguably the finest ever made. It's influenced me strongly ever since I first got my hands on it, and I'm excited to see you play it.

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    1. "That plain black box with just the title was the coolest thing I'd ever seen, and it still has pride of place on my PC game shelf."
      Haha, opinions on Ultima VIII's then? Certainly would serve as a conversation starter.

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    2. I do vastly prefer this conversation system over the keyword system from previous games. Typing in a keyword and having the game not have a response for it was always immersion-breaking and made it clear I was dealing with a system that needed to be gamed rather than a living world.

      I'd much prefer to have the limited number of options clearly enumerated, and have really good writing behind them that helps the interface flow naturally.

      (Of course, a system like this is just as bad when dozens of NPCs have identical generic responses to some keywords, or when the available conversation options don't include your obvious predictable reaction, or when the writing encourages you to actually roleplay but then the available options don't support your view of how your character would act.)

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    3. "Haha, opinions on Ultima VIII's then? Certainly would serve as a conversation starter."

      Loved it, still do (And I like U8 more than many, for that matter). Frankly, the run of boxes from U7/SI/U8 are some of my favorites ever - the only ones of the era I bothered to keep. All three are extremely evocative and unique - Plain black box with a title? Cool. Giant snake head? Rad, and what's even going on with that. A flaming pentagram? Not even Diablo rolls that hard, and this is still the era when busybodies are yelling about games turning our kids to Satan. Loved that particular thumb in the eye.

      U9, on the other hand, well. About as good as everything else about U9, and I think we all know about that.

      "I'd much prefer to have the limited number of options clearly enumerated, and have really good writing behind them that helps the interface flow naturally."

      This entire comment precisely. And as far as it went I think U7 did a pretty good job of it.

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    4. Civilization, BG 2 and Fallout would all have to rank high on my favourite boxes - not coincidentally, all three had great manuals as well.

      I was disappointed when games started coming in cd cases, and manuals were either low effort, or pdfs.

      These days I don't even want to own physical copies of games.

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    5. I still think the best game box of all time is 1987’s Karma:

      http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2017/10/game-264-karma-1987.html?m=1

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    6. Karma is like a fever dream. I don't remember reading it the first time, even though I must have. I read through your writeup again, twice, and still have no idea what the gameplay is like. (How are you even transitioning from scene to scene? Is this 3D movement? Sometimes you're in space? Sometimes there are a bunch of less-than marks? You can have 15 party members? What even is reality any more?)

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    7. My favorite cover and titles is Chamber of the Sci-Mutant Priestess:
      https://www.mobygames.com/game/chamber-of-the-sci-mutant-priestess/cover-art/gameCoverId,91053/

      It's not an RPG, but an adventure game. A French one. With weird, barely comprehensible gameplay, because that's how French games of that era rolled.

      The entire French gaming output of the 80s and 90s is some strange drug-fueled fever dream.

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    8. Manuals for Island of Dr.Brain and The Adventures of Willy Beamish were also written in-character (sort of, in Dr.Brain's case) and I still have them to this day.

      I'm adamant that video games used to be a passion and an art and I'm equally adamant that they aren't anymore. I have nothing to back up this opinion.

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    9. I always really liked the U3 box art. It has that 80's "horizon reflected" lettering, some bad ass Daemon ( the 10 y.o. in me always wondered "is that Exodus"?) holding something menacing (is that fire? an upside-down root ball?), while his wing tips may or may not be melting in lava....LAVA !

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    10. A propos French games of the period, I remember an Infogrames game called Captain Blood (L'Arche du Captain Blood per Wikipedia) being deliciously weird.

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  21. This game is so good. Savor it. But with a modern PC, it is possible to beat this game in a week or less--a few playing sessions. No longer will you wait a second or two for every footstep to register and respond, nor will you have to mess with Norton disk cache to speed up the memory management. On my 386 this took months to beat. When I played it again about four years ago, I beat it in four or five days.

    But I could not stop playing. I missed a fair bit, too. I even managed to skip ahead to parts I probably shouldn't have due to a level of creativity I did not explore when I was a kid upon first release.

    But I loved every moment of it.

    This is one of the greatest RPGs ever made.

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  22. Batlin is a great villain. I hope you show off the hidden dialogue he has [rot13]nsgre pnfgvat Nezntrqqba[/rot13]; it's one of my favorite bits in the game. I like that they set him up as kind of a false Avatar, but not in a cartoonishly literal "anti-Avatar" way. The writing and general feel of the game get me past the flawed gameplay.

    Forge of Virtue is cool but wrecks the game's balance. On the other hand, said balance-wrecking means you don't have to spend nearly as much time fiddling with the wonky combat.

    My biggest gripe with this game is that [rot13]Ybeq Oevgvfu vf n cnffvir, jbeguyrff yhzc jub vf qbvat nofbyhgryl abguvat ba uvf bja gb nqqerff gur fbpvny pbyyncfr bs uvf xvatqbz, yrg nybar gur vzcraqvat vainfvba ol na vagreqvzrafvbany glenag[/rot13]. Ultima VI had the same problem, but it's stronger here.

    I think you pretty much have to think of UW1 as non-canon. Worlds of Ultima 3D: Really Big Dungeon. Great game, but it was never designed as an Ultima game, and nothing that happens in it matters for the rest of the series. On the other hand, UW2 is a definitely canonical, plot-significant interquel between the two Ultima VII games (YMMV on whether it does a good job of that).

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    1. Yeah I wish the story and world-building of the game was packaged in a format I could deal with.

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    2. Yeah, the item you get at the end of Forge of Virtue is a bit OP, but given that combat is the worst aspect of U7 it's something of a blessing to have it made easier.

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    3. I find the combat pretty damned trivial anyway; hardest part is keeping your guys from murdering each other with friendly fire.

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    4. Combat was one of the least interesting aspects of Ultima for me... I'll run for Forge should I ever play through it again.

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  23. So random. I just started playing this on GoG as well.

    I've been looking forward to your playthrough for some time. Unlike Ultime 6/Savage Empire/Martian Dreams I wasn't able to play this one when it came out. My system at the time was compatible with Extended memory, not Expanded Memory, which...apparently was a thing?

    Ran into many of the problems you did, when I tried to replay it in the past. So I've never really gotten through it.

    So, looking forward to this for sure, and I may actually play this one in parallel with your playthrough.

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  24. I started playing RPGs around 1991, so Ultima VII was one of the first I owned, and it really blew my mind: the way you could interact with the landscape, the daily routines NPCs had, their little stories (was it the mayor's wife that was cheating on him?)... Then after finish the game a couple of times (what an amazing plot!) I just started opening all doors, trying to explore every dungeon... Not until Morrowind I experienced something like this.

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  25. Great dissection of the intro and the love that went into the creation of the manual. That opening scene was really something. I'm going to bet that you can recite the Guardian's speech by heart, like me and probably many here.

    Alas, I never got to experience the game itself. Couldn't get past the first big fight, IIRC. It was too much of a pain right after the turn-based brilliance that was Ultima VI.

    Batlin did look like a villain from the start, as it was pretty obvious his tenets can be applied to any communist state or enforced collectivism as well.

    And I get the long haired dude is painfully generic, but why is he a jerk? Somehow that gave me a good chuckle. I'll take him in a pinch over the drastic solution adopted by Ultima VIII.

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    1. Iolo went from middle aged to seemingly elderly between 6 and 7, so it's not a stretch to imagine that the Avatar is now middle-aged himself.

      I get the impression (partially from appearance, but also from events in the game) that the Avatar is in a terrible sort of mid-life crisis. When he's not saving Britannia you could find him at a dive bar trying to pick up college students, or pouring money into superficially masculine hobbies like muscle cars and rock music. The kind of guy who tries to relate to younger people by """humorously""" pretending not to understand slang and new technology. The kind of guy who brags about being a rebel, then let's his boss, coworkers, friends and family walk all over him.

      At least, that's what I read into the portrait.

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    2. It IS a stretch that the Avatar is now middle-aged, because he lives on Earth which has a different time flow. I mean, 200 years is probably a bit too much, but the point of the backstory is that a lot of time has passed between U6 and U7 (and BOY HOWDY have the Britannians screwed up their country in that time!)

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    3. The long-haired guy's... er... avatar looks rather stern, I must admit.

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    4. Just in answer to the puzzle over the 200 years: according to the Ultima V Book of Lore, time for people from our world passes at a tenth of the rate that it does for the people of Britannia. And, from that same source, Lord British, Iolo and Dupre are all travellers from the other world. (However, Shamino is definitely a Britannian borne and bred, so if he's still alive they really are pushing it!)

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    5. Well, that explains the Avatar's age, but that means 20 Earth years have passed, canonically, between the two titles. Does that mean it's now 2011 on Earth or did Ultima VI take place in 1972?

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    6. Wasn't the Avatar somewhat surprised that 200 years have passed in Britannia? It makes me think that the presence of the Guardian has done something to speed up the time differential.

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    7. The Avatar doesn't really say anything in this game. Conversations let you ask about keywords, give/take items and answer yes/no questions, but the Avatar himself never seems to express anything.

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  26. I randomly got Serpent Isle as a Christmas present from my mom---I had never played any Ultima game before nor expressed any interest in it. But I ended up loving it, and went back and played U7 (yes, I played them out of order... I have never been one to care much about the "right" sequence!). I loved U7 even more, and I think it is still my favorite game of all time. I think it still does the open world better than any modern game.

    The modern game that reminds me most of U7 is Skyrim, but somehow despite more sophisticated graphics and AI, the world of Skyrim just doesn't feel as "alive" as the world of U7 did to me. Maybe it's just my age, but maybe Origin circa early 1990s was able to find more creative solutions to technological limitations than Bethesda circa 2010.

    I do wonder how U7 will do on the GIMLET. It really is more of an adventure game.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I encountered the Ultima series with IV and loved it. This was a first-day purchase for me and the manual was indeed wonderful. Then it took the better part of a day to configure my computer to play, and I already had a boot menu with three options (Ultima VII got its own).

    I worked out the opening mystery but the game wouldn’t let me solve it in game, which was frustrating, so I hit the road. My companions started starving despite having plenty of food in the party, triggering grumbles and an inventory puzzle finding food to feed them. (For a “reality simulator” this triggered all my worst memories of RTS games where guards would stand and die unless explicitly ordered to fight. Centuries-old companions who couldn’t feed themselves!)

    Then I had my first combat experience in-game, which was as miserable as anyone’s. It was dark and raining, so I couldn’t even see when combat began, and every time you are hit the screen flashes red. The combat ended before I could figure out what was going on with one companion dead, so I reloaded and went a different way.

    I quit and never tried again after deciding to explore a cave a little. The frustrating part wasn’t merely that I carefully picked my way around the traps only for my companions to set them off and kill the entire group. (I played Planet’s Edge and that could happen there too). It was the combination of them setting off every single trap, not just one or two, followed by the Guardian taunting me over a TPK that was the fault of the game.

    I loved the ability to just explore that had characterized the Ultima series. Arguably, this wasn’t the first game in the series to punish you for looking around, but it was the first to insult you for dying.

    I still have my original Ultima III gamebox and disks, but I sold VII a while ago and am happy to experience it vicariously through sites like this one. It may be a brilliant story, but for me it was a miserable experience and the “improved technology” ruined for me what had been one of the best interfaces in PC gaming.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The feeding and the inventory hiding things below other inventory put me off the game too. I just could not get into this game no matter how great everyone said it was.

      Delete
  28. U7 is my favorite game ever.
    I really would suggest using Exult, albeit with all enhancements turned off.
    This gives you some better experience and especially one or two bugs.

    ReplyDelete
  29. "The Guardian was voiced by a professional actor, Bill Johnson, who remained with the character for the rest of the series. He also played Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

    As I recall, this was pretty well hyped up during the game's initial release, seeing how professional actors of any quality were still quite rare in video games back then. I think Gabriel Knight's release not long after is what really blew the doors open in terms of showing how many prominent actors could be hired for a game.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Gabriel Knight is from 1993 with voices from Tim Curry and Micheal Dorn... And Origin of course upped the ante with Wing Commander 3 in 1994, using FMVs starring Mark Hamill, Malcolm Mc Dowell, Tom Wilson and John Rhys-Davies.

      The pace with which the medium was progressing in those years, from a guy programming in his parents' basement to multi-million productions, was insane.

      Delete
  30. Another vote for also reading the hint book. You meet all the characters in the book in game at some point or another. Obviously, you would want to wait until after you finish the game to avoid spoilers.

    Actually, every hint book going back to Ultima III are excellent products written in a narrative form. The main thing they offer are maps, which was especially useful for dungeons.

    ReplyDelete
  31. I'll just leave this here...

    https://lparchive.org/Ultima-VII-The-Black-Gate/

    (FWIW I played Ultima IV in my formative years as well, however I never had quite the take on the series as this guy)

    --JB

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nakar's Let's Play of Ultima VI was hilarious too. I remember Lord British (or more likely someone pretending to be him) posted in the SomethingAwful thread while it was going on. Magical.

      Delete
    2. OMG yes, that whole LP series is hilarious!

      Delete
    3. yeah, Nakar's LP of 4-7pt 2 are really really funny, I honestly re-read them every few months when I'm bored at work, strong recommend which is why I mentioned them, but hold off if you're playing through along with Addict...

      -JB

      Delete
    4. If you're playing along with Chet, read Nakar's LPs now for Ultima 4, 5, and 6! You just KNOW that everything is Steve's fault...

      Delete
  32. Personally, I played this a few years ago, after taking a bit of a break from the Ultima games by going though the first five Might and Magic games. Overall, I thought it was alright. It's definately an influential game, but not a particularly great game, especially these days. I honestly wouldn't consider it one of my top 5 Ultima games, and while I am somewhat tempted to play through it again, I'm not tempted enough to actually do it. I also had some serious issues with what feels like what's effectively one of the first instances of pay to win DLC in the form of Forge of Virtue. I felt like Serpent Isle had a better expansion by virtue of it not making most of the game trivial, and overall I also just liked Serpent Isle more due to having what I felt was a better story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hard to call it a pay-to-win DLC when the game itself isn't all that hard?

      Delete
    2. Even so, it's still an expansion that isn't very difficult, and it's main purpose is to basically max out all your stats, make your strength double the max, and gives you the most powerful weapon in the game. That definitely gives me strong pay to win vibes, even if the actual end result on the game doesn't amount to much

      Delete
    3. 'Vibe' sounds about right, yeah. My feeling is that it represents a bit of a failure of imagination, more than anything else.

      "So guys, what should we put in this expansion?"
      "I dunno, gamers always like more power, though, right?"

      Delete
    4. I haven't played Serpent Isle, but a more charitable take is that they realized most people were enjoying the story a LOT more than the combat. So in making the combat trivial, Serpent Isle might have been retroactively correcting a design flaw from Garriot's and other designers'/developers' point of view.

      Delete
    5. Ugh. I meant Forge of Virtue, not Serpent Isle in the above comment.

      I wish Blogger had a way to quickly edit comments within a minute or so of posting them.

      Delete
    6. To be fair, it still makes sense with Serpent Isle as that game has more of a focus on story, which is the sort of thing I like in my RPGs

      Delete
  33. "I can't not think about it. How is my character playing Ultima VII? Does he have his own character? How far down does it go?"

    This video has a great scientific explanation:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5drjr9PmTMA

    ReplyDelete
  34. I started playing Ultima 7 last september for the first time ever. I read so many times that it is the best Ultima ever made. I hoped to finish it before you started it... but I abandoned it twice. Why?

    Because of carpal tunnel pain.

    Down with the mouse! Give me good ol' keyboard shortcuts!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. get a cheap vertical mouse, like the one from Anker. It makes all the difference.

      If you already have it and it makes no difference... My carpal tunnel is surviving through alternating between a trackball and a kind of ergonomic mouse (two expensive pieces of hardware called mx ergo and mx master). And a good support for my wrist.

      Delete
    2. Sorry, I meant: I have one of the Anker likes at work, and at home, these two. Hm, don't you suffer more with keyboard controls actually? I forced myself to play with gamepad with some genres because of the pain of WASD.

      Delete
    3. Vertical mice saved my ability to game; this is good advice!

      Delete
    4. Armagan TuzcuogluMarch 25, 2020 at 6:47 AM

      I played might and magic 4-5 on my phone's dosbox emulator using touch screen as mouse click emulation and it was a fantastic experience. I don't know about U7 but if all commands of a game are accessible by left clicking of a mouse, using that method is way better than using a mouse on an actual computer.

      Delete
    5. I get the feeling that using the touch screen to navigate this game's inventory system would not be much fun. All those tiny keys... And on a screen the size of a phone? Even worse!

      Delete
    6. Besides that you need both right and left mouse buttons, or else something to stand in for the arrow keys.

      Delete
    7. Oh, man, touch screens. I don't know if any other old school computer users have this problem, but I've found it impossible to switch from decades of "NEVER TOUCH THE SCREEN" to the new era. Even though my laptop comes with the technology, disabling it is one of the first things I did.

      I feel about touch screens the way I would feel if they invented some technology that made it perfectly sanitary to sneeze on the salad bar. I still couldn't bring myself to actually do it.

      Delete
    8. After using a keyboard almost literally since birth, I had the same issue, with the serious complication that non-pressure-based touch screens simply didn't work for me until about five or six years ago - they'd never register.

      Delete
  35. My comments:

    - The writing in Ultima VII goes from the best to the not that great. In general I feel the writers think of themselves as fabulous writers when the prose is a bit banal, or as I usually say, they have the Kim Stanley Robinson syndrome.

    - Still it was one of the first games that told a story about the duality of religious organisations: how they could do good, and how they could also be manipulative. Just depending on who you were or if they liked you.

    - Music is addictive

    - Exult... you could call it a remake, Addict, but the best part of it is that it removes some annoying bugs like dissapearing inventory objects. And I cannot object to a keyring given the huge amount of keys. IDK, I don't consider the key managing as a core part of a crpg experience. Or the bugs.

    - In general Ultima VII has the same flaw as many other games regarded as masterpieces: the best part of it is in the beginning. When you start to feel the world, see how the characters and the quests connect different cities, and discover your first dungeons, and even cook your first cakes, it is an amazing feeling, similar to what I felt the first time I played Gothic. Of course a lot of plot points are left unresolved.

    - And yes, its RPG mechanics are not that great. It is a game of exploration, talking to people, fedex missions... but with beautiful characterisation.

    - I hate the font type. But it is not as bad as the one in Ultima VIII.

    - I cannot remember anything about the ending. And I finished it one year ago.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Another note:

    For those looking for a truly authentic Ultima VII experience, same as in the old days, this is possible with some technical wizardry and without an authentic classic machine or CRT monitor:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3AE2twxgEg&t=297s

    Exult is cool, but vanilla Ultima VII is nice.

    ReplyDelete
  37. This talk about how Chet thought Bill Johnson's psuedonym was a programmer who Origin shanghaied into voicing the Guardian REALLY makes me hope that there's an actual placeholder recording out there with some hapless intern trying to sound scary. Especially with the Guardian's """friendly""" laugh at the end.

    ReplyDelete
  38. So we have finally come to this which is also my personal all time favorite crpg, despite the shortcomings in its RPG mechanics as mentioned. Maybe it's because I wanted and got my first PC so desperately just to be able to play this (of course that's not how I communicated the need for a PC to my parents...but I'm working as software developer today, so yes it also did some other good) so it's also my first pc game ever owned. Maybe because my other favored genre is adventure games and U7 has a lot of these elements. Also the story, setting, graphics, what we today categorize as open-worldness, etc. It simply blew my mind back then and it still does. I really like TES Skyrim, but when you ask me what I miss in it it's more of U7's elements.

    I did like Serpent Isle just as much, I think I really don't care for linearity or not. After that however, the series falls down. Rock bottom hard. But that is for our addict to discover.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry I forgot to mention, another reason why I enjoyed it very much was because it was one of the rare crpg's which had a German version and my English knowledge was still somewhat lacking back then. It was a well enough translation AFAIR. An interesting thing I also remember hopefully correct is that the voice of the guardian in the German version WAS voiced by an origin member, maybe that's how Arthur DiBianca got the voice credit?

      Delete
    2. In my case, there was no Italian version, and it is probably the single game that helped me the most in learning English (which has been a terrific asset in my professional career).

      I had fairly lackluster grades in highschool but, after Ultima VII, English classes were a freebie.

      Delete
  39. Game breaking bug that you need to pay attention to: always keep quest items and keys on The Avatar's inventory and not a companion.

    This is because in combat, when severely injured, some companions may panic and run, so they drop items from their backpacks.


    Another workaround: there's a Berserk combat option, companions won't run and will fight to the death so they also won't drop anything

    Tip for the interface that makes the game a bit easier, although it may be considered cheating (ROT13): Cvpxvat hc fbzrbar'f vgrz vf pbafvqrerq fgrnyvat. Vs lbh bcra gur vairagbel svefg (cnhfr zbqr) naq qent gur vgrz fgenvtug gb lbhe onpxcnpx, gur ACPf qba'g frr vg fb vg'f abg pbafvqrerq fgrnyvat

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I tried the trick you describe, and long story short it wasn't quite that easy. V gevrq gnxvat gur ubarl sebz Orr Pnir jvgu gur gevpx lbh qrfpevor. Gurl abgvprq, naq gur tnzr pybfrq gur vairagbel fperra rnpu gvzr V chg n cvrpr bs ubarl va zl onpxcnpx. V qba'g xabj vs guvf vf havirefny be whfg sbe Orr Pnir gubhtu.

      Delete
    2. Hmmm interesting... I may not have been 100% clear, so a bit more info: Lbh arrq gb bcra gur onpxcnpx vgfrys, naq qent gur vgrz gb gur pbagragf vgfrys. Abg gb gur onpxcnpx vpba.

      Delete
    3. Also worth noting, as a last resort the game offers a debug menu that allows you to create or summon any item in the game. The below instructions assume you have a GOG installation and has been rot13'd for politeness, although you'll probably need it.

      1. Tb gb lbhe Hygvzn 7 Cneg 1 vafgnyy qverpgbel. Bcra qbfobkHYGVZN7_fvatyr.pbas va Abgrcnq naq erzbir gur ynfg gjb yvarf, juvpu fubhyq or "hygvzn7.pbz" naq "rkvg"

      2. Evtug-pyvpx ba gur "Ynhapu Hygvzn 7" fubegphg, pyvpx "Cebcregvrf" naq erzbir -abpbafbyr, -p naq "rkvg" sebz gur "Gnetrg" svryq.

      3. Ynhapu gur tnzr ol qbhoyr-pyvpxvat gur "Ynhapu Hygvzn 7" fubegphg.

      4. Ng gur cebzcg, glcr gur sbyybjvat:
      Hygvzn7 NOPQ
      Whfg nsgre NOPQ, ubyq PGEY naq NYG naq glcr 255 ba gur ahzcnq. Bgure fbheprf fnl gb whfg ubyq NYG, ohg V unq gb nyfb ubyq PGEY gb trg vg gb jbex.

      5. Bapr lbh'ir ragrerq gur tnzr, cerff S2 gb npgvingr gur qroht zrah. N yvfg bs vgrzf lbh pna perngr vf urer.

      Delete
  40. As with others that have commented, Ultima VII was my first CRPG, and the game who made me, if not a CRPG Addict, for sure a CRPG fan.

    Sorry if I use the comment section for purely selfish nostalgia reminiscing. It is maybe the game I have been looking forward to the most, since I have started following the blog.

    Somehow I got through a C64 and an Amiga without ever crossing paths with either the series or any other CRPG; I recently made the switch to PC, and I read a glowing review of Ultima Underworld 2 on a game magazine, and decided I needed to buy it (in hindsight, I'm not even sure it would have ran at all on the PC I had).

    After exhausting the limited resources available to a 13yo in a city in southern Italy (mostly generic IT shops with a limited selection of games), I could not find UU2 anywhere; but the last shop I visited had this striking, mesmerizing black box, seemingly somehow related to the game I was looking for.

    I took the plunge and bought it. It was simply nothing like I played up to that moment (mostly platforms and adventure games): the complexity, the freedom of exploration, the interaction... it was intoxicating.

    I remember that I had my characters overencumbered after the first screen, as adventure games taught me to pick up every object not nailed to the ground, and I could just not conceive that there could be items in a game without a specific gameplay purpose, but just for the sake of ambiance.

    Even if I'm fully aware of its shortcomings, I think that in terms of world building and immersion, few CRPGs have reached it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha. I think I probably did the same thing. Because if you're in an adventure game, and you see a bucket, that's probably the only bucket that exists in the entire world. I think I remember doing the same thing in Morrowind.

      Delete
  41. I sort of played U7 in 1996ish. I didn't have a PC but my friend did so we played it together, or rather he played it and I watched and gave suggestions. I remember loving how you could wander around where you liked -- more or less -- and wherever you went there was always something to do and see, often something completely unrelated to the plot.

    I haven't encountered a game with that sort of breadth of detail since, although there are traces of it in some of the Bethesda rpgs. You do see it in the Mercenary games from Novagen, but those aren't rpgs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Check Gothic 1 to 3, Risen 1 to 3 and Elex (the weakest are Gothic 1 and Elex; the best is Gothic 3 after applying Community patch 0.74)! We can go anywhere in a big, very big world, extremely detailed... And wherever we go there are always lots of quests to do. Skyrim, Oblivion, etc. (or even the Ultimas) never managed to captivate me as much as Piranha Bytes Games.

      Delete
    2. The Piranha Bytes games are also some of the very few games that have pissing animations.

      How many games have NPCs taking a leak? Not many. PB games do. It's all about the details, man.

      Delete
    3. Joaquim, I think you are in the minority with Gothic 3. I seriously believe that Gothic 1 is the best of the bunch and the better balanced of the Piranha Bytes games - also the one with better world, characters and ending. I played Gothic 2+NOTR and could not regret more playing it with NOTR: the added world is boring, the added quests are unbalanced and everything is left to your patience with the awful fighting. Oh yes, awful interface, a staple of PB games.

      And also, though I like them a lot, we have to mention that they are way more conservative, mysoginistic, homophobic and generally mean than any Ultima. Which ties with my belief that games went backwards ideologically when we approached the new millennium.

      Delete
    4. I finished Gothic 2 before Night of the Raven came out, never felt compelled to replay with the expansion. Seemed ok? But I'm not sure why people are even comparing it to Ultima, it feels like a different category. Certainly I felt a lot more "grind through the world" game-ness to it, whereas Ultima VII was more like a place I could inhabit and do whatever. (I saw a streamer play once where he gave himself the extra task of building a house from scratch.)

      Delete
    5. Gothic 2 is one of my top 10 games of all time, a simply amazing and detailed game world. Best played without the expansion though. Gothic 3 is also great with the community patch, another beautiful game world. It is weird to compare them to U7 though as Jason said, they both have amazingly detailed game worlds but apart from that not massive amounts in common.

      Delete
  42. WHY did they publish this when I had no chance to play it!
    Now I'm told this is a classic and a must-play, but alas, I simply can't do this. Some grafics (and sound) don't age well, and THIS...ugh.
    ...
    But if someone ever does a remake of this (and if it won't cause eye cancer) I will give it a try.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exult, really. And a notepad. This one is very straightforward once you familiarise yourself with the interface.

      But... do you really have a problem with the graphics and sound of this game? It has among the better design in both than I can remember in the 90s.

      Delete
    2. If graphics are your issue then you aren't worthy of this game.

      Delete
    3. I love this game but I have to agree with minando, it's ugly. It's not just the graphics, but the technique; this fake-isometric diagonal perspective art style would be as ugly in 4K HD graphics as it is in 90's pixel art. It makes a game full of pixel hunting and other eyestrain-based puzzles even more difficult just to look at.

      Delete
    4. The perspective is really strange, and the text is awful. This is probably the worst example of "just add text on the screen without a text box, so there's no telling what is going to be behind it" I can think of, thanks to the yellow text color and the obnoxiously ornate font.

      The actual pixel art is solid enough, and wouldn't look that out of place in a modern indie game (some exceptions such as character portrait apply).

      Delete
    5. The text looks much better on a vintage CRT monitor or proper CRT emulation.

      Delete
    6. That helps some - that sort of thing is why I pulled a CRT out of the attic a few months ago), but only so much. Borderless yellow's one of the worst possible color choices for overlayed text, at least in my experience, and the low resolution doesn't help.

      Delete
  43. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  44. I have been waiting for years for you to reach The Black Gate. Super excited. ;-^) I have to say, I really appreciated reading your impressions. I didnt grow up with the classic RPGs but got started with U7 and Underworld. So it's interesting to see how the game strikes somebody who was coming to the title with a different set of expectations / appreciation for older RPG conventions. To this day it remains my favorite RPG of all time, just because of the impact it had on me at such a formative time. But despite the passing of nearly thirty years it also still does many things better than modern RPGs. Looking forward to the future entries!

    ReplyDelete
  45. That's not Evil Resting Face on the female avatar. She just looks serious... wait, is that blood dripping from her lips? I stand corrected.

    ReplyDelete

I welcome all comments about the material in this blog, and I generally do not censor them. However, please follow these rules:

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