Sunday, April 25, 2010

Game 16: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985)

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
United States
Origin Systems, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for Apple II and Commodore 64; 1986 for Atari 800; 1987 for DOS, Atari ST, FM-7, PC-88, PC-98, and Sharp X1; 1988 for Amiga and Sharp X68000; 1989 for NES; 1990 for Sega Master System
Date Started: 25 April 2010
Ultima IV offers a roleplaying experience like no other CRPG, set in a world as rich in detail as anything in the modern CRPG era. Although the gameplay has advanced only a little since Ultima III, the story, game world, and quest are a huge leap forward.

Remembering back to the mid-1980s, it feels like I played Ultima IV for years, first on my friends' Commodore 64s and then on mine, before I won. I have no idea what took so long. When I replayed it in 1994, I was surprised and disappointed at how quickly the game progressed, and how many of the gameplay features I thought I remembered were actually from Ultima V. I played it a third time in 2000 and won it in, I think, a single long day. I hope that 10 years later I've forgotten some of the details and I can approach the game fresh. Blogging should slow down the progress.

Searching for a fresh experience, I decided to play the "recreated" version of the game offered at Everything about the game is the same except the graphics and sound are much better, and there are beautifully designed screens at certain points, such as when you meditate and achieve part of your avatarhood.

I'm going to try something different with this game and blog it in the order of gameplay, elucidating new features as I come across them, rather than summarizing them at once in long blog posts.

The game begins with a character creation method absolutely unique for its time, and rivaled today only in Morrowind and Oblivion, both of which are paying homage to Ultima IV. After you give yourself a name (mindful of Lord British having obtained his name from his homeland, I chose "Americus") and sex, the game draws you into Britannia slowly. You begin at your own home, in the real world, on a walk in the countryside.

Wow. It's like the game knows me.

You fall asleep under a tree when suddenly a moongate appears in a circle of stones (moongates were introduced in the Ultima series in Ultima II). Before it disappears, someone tosses through a package containing an ankh cross, a cloth map, a copy of The History of Britannia as told by Kyle the Younger, and the game's spell book. These items, of course, were contained within the original Ultima IV game box. The game insists that you read the book of history.

All right! Jesus.

The map and the History introduce a rich and detailed game world that will remain essentially the same through Ultima VII Part 1. What happened to game manuals like this? After recapping the light stories of Ultima I, Ultima II, and Ultima III, it describes the new land that arose from the "rubble of Sosaria," which Lord British named Britannia. In the new era of peace, Lord British was able to concentrate on improving the quality of life, erecting institutions to learning, meditation, and martial prowess.

Eight major cities developed "into cultural centers for one of the eight major professions." Moonglow focuses on mages, Britain on bards, and so on. One of the towns is Skara Brae, apparently an homage to The Bard's Tale but ultimately drawn from the name of a neolithic ruin in Scotland. The professions, or character classes, include two new ones: shepherds and tinkers.

The map that I know better than my own home town.

Equipment, character classes, monsters, and terrain are described in florid and exciting detail. Oh, we must have some examples:

  • "DAGGER: Ten inches of beautifully worked steel make the standard Britannian dagger. The traditional basket hilt looks very functional. A favorite weapon of novices."
  • "FOREST: The going is slow through dense woods, with thy speed cut fully in half. The oak so dearly loved by the Druids predominates here, along with healthy growth of Ash and Beech. There is quite a lack of visibility in the forest regions."
  • "HEADLESS: Another evil being best suited to terror and destruction, the Headless is indeed a creature of nightmares. Many a traveler has fled in abject horror at the sign of these headless torsos bearing down upon them."

Only at the end of the manual do we get a hint of the quest to follow. In an afterword penned by Lord British himself, he says that "we seek the person who can become a shining example of our nation and guide us from the Age of Darkness into the Age of Light. We have sent this message out to the farthest reaches of the known universe; indeed, we have even spoken across the void of time. Is there one who can complete the Quest of the Avatar?"

Here we have the key to what makes Ultima IV unique. The game is not about fighting some "big bad" like Mondain, Minax, and Exodus; it's about achieving moral enlightenment. There is nothing else like this in CRPGs.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Roger Ebert, Games, and Art

Roger Ebert's comments that "video games can never be art" (both his original comments on the subject and his most recent update) have the Internet in an uproar. He wrote his latest comments three days ago, and already there are hundreds of blog postings both agreeing with him and castigating him. His own blog posting has, of this moment, 1,746 comments. The first one is representative of many of them: "Roger - as you are sure to be inundated with comments for this post, I will simply say: You just don't get it." Many of the rejoinders criticize Ebert for never having played video games himself. How, then, can he presume to pass judgment on them as being "not art"? It's a fair point, so I would like to say, as someone who has played hundreds of hours of computer games in the last three months alone: Ebert is absolutely right. 

No one who has played games would seriously argue that video games are not at times artistic. From the beautiful images of island and sea in Myst to the view from Dive Rock in Oblivion to the cinematic cut scenes in too-many-games-to-name to the movie-quality voice acting in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic to the music compositions that grace the backgrounds of countless games, games have always featured artistic elements. Some of them are quite grand. But the games themselves are not art any more than The Last Supper or The Thinker are games. You may disagree by supplying your own definition of "art" or by trying to shoehorn games into an existing definition of "art," and it will be difficult to argue with you because at its basis this entire discussion is semantic. But in the same discussion, I could prove that video games are "pornography," that pornography is "literature," that good prose literature is "poetry," that poetry is "religion," that religion is "comedy," and on and on until we just end up hitting each other with shovels. Let's try it this way: whether something is or is not any of these things depends on its primary purpose, not what it might happen to accomplish tangentially along the way. Video games do not have, as their primary purpose, the enrichment of human experience through interpretation, and thus they are not art. Don't like that definition of "art?" Choose another, but either you won't be able to make video games fit the definition except through selective examples, accident, or metaphor, or you'll be using a definition too broad to be useful. Gamers are upset about Ebert's comments, I suspect, because they're equating "art" with "good" and "not art" with "bad." This is just silly. There are plenty of wonderful things in life that are unquestionably enriching and enlightening and worth experiencing but that are just as unquestionably not art. How about:

  • The view from a balcony overlooking the Grand Canyon
  • A muffuletta on Decatur Street
  • A game of chess
  • The Winter Olympics
  • A Sunday New York Times crossword
  • Falling in love
  • Kant's theory of categorical imperative
Ebert sums it up nicely: "Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves?...Do they require validation? In defending their gaming against parents, spouses, children, partners, co-workers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, 'I'm studying a great form of art?'" I just wrote a posting about how, as a young man, a CRPG shaped my moral development. I'm investing hundreds of hours in this blog and playing the games that it covers, and thus I have as much reason as anyone to make believe that playing games isn't a complete waste of time. But something doesn't have to be "art" to not be a waste of time. And games are not art.  
[Later Edit: For those of you stumbling on this posting years later, please read this comment below before getting all upset.]

Ultima IV and Virtue

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin recalls that once he established himself as a successful printer in Philadelphia, he "conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection." Through his readings, he had identified a list of 13 virtues that together would equal this perfection: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. Realizing that trying to practice all 13 at once would be impossible, he set up a system by which he focused on one per day, carefully recording his progress in a ruled "score sheet" he set up in his notebook.

"I determined to give a week's strict attention to each of the virtues successively. Thus, in the first week, my great guard was to avoid every the least offence against Temperance, leaving the other virtues to their ordinary chance, only marking every evening the faults of the day."

When I was 13 or 14, I did the same thing Franklin did, only not having been exposed to his autobiography at that point, my list of virtues was different: honesty, compassion, valor, justice, honor, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility. I wrote each with its definition on an index card and every morning I shuffled the cards and chose one at random. That one, I did my best to practice for the day. If honesty came up, I was careful to tell no lies throughout the day. If it was sacrifice, I looked for ways to do something charitable. Valor was always a tough one. I scoured Bartlett's Familiar Quotations in the school library and made little signs to hang around my room. I still remember some of them:

  • "Honor and shame from no condition rise; act well your part, there all the honor lies." -- Alexander Pope
  • "God hath sworn to lift on high he who sinks himself by true humility." -- John Keble
Not many, I suspect, would admit to deriving what amounts to their religion from a computer game. But I had rejected conventional religion even as a pre-teen. I balked at Judeo-Christian doctrines that seemed both haphazard and arbitrary: meticulous rules about food and dress, but none about the need to actively seek out and destroy evil (my interpretation of "valor"); commandments against adultery and sabbath-breaking, but none against assault and slavery. Ultima IV, on the other hand, offered a comprehensive and completely nondenominational--secular, even--system of virtue. It fit me like a glove. Perhaps if I had read philosophy, the history of the samurai, or Ayn Rand, I would have encountered an equally suitable virtue system that would be more "respectable" as a source. But I didn't. Instead, I played Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.

Ultima IV's system seems to owe something to Hindu mythology, particularly in the concept of the "Avatar," which I think has been misunderstood by Ultima players and critics alike. In Hindu belief, an avatar is an earthy manifestation of a god--a form the god takes to walk on the mortal plane. In the Ultima series, however, your character is repeatedly described as the "Avatar of Virtue." "Avatar" in this sense is not being misused as a synonym for "exemplar" or "missionary"; rather, the game is suggesting that virtue itself is made manifest in your character; that abstract concepts like honor and valor can, in fact, be given physical form. By using the term, the creator is equating virtue with godhood, suggesting that our gods can be--perhaps should be--principles as well as beings. Why, indeed, should we worship a god who personifies truth, love, and courage when we can instead worship truth, love, and courage themselves?

At the same time, the use of "avatar" has a subtle second meaning. The character that moves around the screen is literally your, the player's, avatar in the game world. From the opening cut scenes of several of the Ultima games, showing you sitting at your computer, a soda can at its side, the games invite you to engage in a sort-of metacognition about the CRPG dynamic in which your fictional alter-ego acts in a way that is more virtuous, more courageous, more adventurous than in the real world.

In most games, this process is one-way--usually, at least, and thankfully so. Gamers who spend hours killing fictional enemies and then go out and kill real enemies are justly labeled as murderers, with negative consequences for their victims, themselves, and the gaming community. In less dramatic examples, no one learns how to sword fight from Oblivion or cast real magical spells from Wizardry. But here, in Ultima IV, we have a game that invites us to apply its lessons to the real world--to improve ourselves in the same way that we improve our in-game character. And if we decline to do this--decline to take this system of virtues seriously--just because its source is a "video game"...well, what better example do we have of a failure to live up to the most difficult-to-master of the eight virtues: humility.

Creating your Ultima IV character.

There has never been, and I suspect never will be again, a CRPG--or, indeed, any game--like Ultima IV. Today's gamers wouldn't have the patience for it. I'm surprised they ever did. Perhaps it was only because CRPGs were so young, computers less ubiquitous, and computer gamers more cerebral (in the 1980s, mostly nerds had computers), that Ultima IV ever found an audience in the first place. Imagine, today, a game without a "big boss," but rather a more complicated quest to become a moral exemplar; a game in which progress is made less through combat than through meditating at shrines; a game whose character creation process invites you to explore your own morality; a game in which, to win, you must give gold to the poor, sacrifice hit points at a blood bank, always tell the truth, and let fleeing monsters escape; a game in which NPC dialog occurs not by choosing among options but by actually typing the words you want to speak.

If you came here for gameplay details, I apologize for the long and abstract polemic. I'll actually start playing (re-playing, in this case, for the first time in 10 years) in the next posting. But this discussion explains, I think, what ultimately led me to create this blog. Ultima IV wasn't my first CRPG, but it was among the first few, and for years it has stood in my mind as the foremost example of what a CRPG can achieve. If this intrigues you at all, ignore that it's old, ignore that it has lousy graphics and sound, ignore everything but the plot, and just play the game.

Phantasie: Final Rating

Back in town, the adventurers review their progress.

United States
Independently developed; published by Strategic Simulations, Inc.
Released in 1985 for Apple II, Atari 800, and Commodore 64; 1986 for Atari ST, PC-88, PC-98, and FM-7; 1987 for Amiga and Sharp X1; 1988 for DOS and MSX
Date Started: 13 April 2010
Date Finished: 19 April 2010
Total Hours: 12
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: 39
Ranking as of Game 359: 298/359 (83%)
This is the second time I'm applying the rating system I outlined a few weeks ago. Phantasie may be my favorite or second-favorite CRPG so far, so I'll know the system works if it produces a reasonably high rating.

1. Game World. Although mostly a standard high-fantasy world, Phantasie does a good job fleshing itself out with back story and characters. It doesn't approach the depth and detail of modern games, but it's good for its time, rivaled only by the Ultima series. Although its towns are completely interchangeable, its multiple dungeons each have their own unique character. Your quest is clear from the start, and although Nikademus himself doesn't make an appearance until the end, your progress through the game shows the effects of his tyrannical rule, and the Black Knights are a constant reminder of the main quest. The only thing I can fault the game on is my preference that your actions affect the game world. In this game, they don't, really. The dungeons continually re-set, meaning you find the same NPCs in the same perils every time you enter. In the end, you can kill Nikademus again and again. Final score: 6.

2. Character creation and development. The classes and characteristics are RPG standard, but the wide variety of races is interesting. Unfortunately, the choice of classes and races has no real bearing on the game except for a single dungeon you must have a minotaur to enter. Character advancement is fairly basic, giving you extra hit points and spells. Uniquely, all characters--including fighters and thieves--can cast spells, although not many. Final score: 4.

I can't think of any other game that allows you to play a troll main character. No...wait. Might and Magic VIII. Bollocks.
3. NPC Interaction. There are NPCs in the game, but your interaction with them boils down to you stumbling into them and them telling you things. Through the innovative use of scrolls, however, the game does allow you to learn interesting things about the world via your character interactions, and talking to them is necessary to advance the game. There are no role-playing options during dialog, however. Final score: 4.

4. Encounters & Foes. There are many monsters in the game, but they aren't very well distinguished among each other. They basically break down into two varieties: those that hit and those that cast. Aside from deciding whether to greet or fight (neither of which has long-term implications), there's no way to role-play during your encounters. On the positive side, there are both random and fixed encounters, and dungeons respawn, allowing you to replay battles and encounters, and re-find treasures. (Just so it doesn't seem like I'm inconsistent with #1, this is a good thing when it comes to fighting, but a bad thing when it comes to quests and NPCs.) Final score: 5.

5. Magic and Combat. At first, I thought Phantasie was equal with Wizardry in tactics with just a different battle screen. But it's not. First, since all your characters can attack (as opposed to just the first three in Wizardry or The Bard's Tale), you don't need to carefully plan the actions of half your party. Except towards the end, the battles are comparably easy, so there's no reason to meticulously ration your spells. Even at the end, they aren't very hard. My biggest objection is to the imbalance between combat and magic. You must have a wizard in this game, both to travel to the city of the Gods and to slay Nikademus. Fighters, no matter how high level, are completely useless--not relatively, but completely--against some of the higher-level creatures. Final score: 4.

6. Equipment. The variety of equipment in Phantasie is admirable. In addition to different types--swords, staffs, daggers, ring mail, chain mail, shields, and so on--there are different levels of augmentation, from regular through +10. Use of weapons and armor is not limited by character class but rather by strength and dexterity statistics. Items you find on your journey cannot be used right away; you have to get back to town and distribute them among your characters. During this process, it's very clear which weapons do the most damage and which armor and shields offer the best protection. Unfortunately, there are no terribly unique weapons and armor, and the game doesn't offer any descriptions of them. Final score: 5.
Distributing equipment among your characters.
7. Economy. Sucks a bit. After the initial equipment purchase, there's nothing else to buy. All gold goes to training, and for most of the game you don't have enough gold to fully train your characters to the levels they've achieved. Suddenly, towards the end, you end up with more gold than you know what to do with. Final score: 2.

8. Quests. Phantasie offers a compelling main quest, but there's only one outcome. Despite what I thought at the beginning, there are no real "side quests," although there is at least one side-dungeon. The quests do not really offer role-playing opportunities. Final score: 3.

9. Graphics, Sound, Inputs. The four-color graphics are pretty bad on the PC version, and sound had not developed enough by this time to be un-painful. Final score: 2.

10. Gameplay. Theoretically, the game is alinear, allowing you to march off in any direction from the beginning. In practice, this would swiftly get you slain by any number of creatures even if you could survive the swimming (a skill you don't fully develop until a higher level). Similarly, with only a couple exceptions, you can progress through the dungeons in any order you wish, but you can only fully complete them in a specific order. The game offers the same experience for each play; there is no replayability. Even though you can only save in towns, the overall difficulty felt a little too easy at times. But it is evenly paced from beginning to end, and it's over before it gets boring. Final score: 4.

Final Total: 39. This means I liked it slightly more than Wizardry and The Bard's Tale but not as much as Ultima III. I guess that works. Next up....yes! Ultima IV.

Phantasie: Won!

Well, damn. I guess I'll have to play Phantasie II then.

The ending of Phantasie came at me all of a sudden. I had intended to get in at least one more posting before I won. This is par-for-the-course in some of these older games, though, which don't telegraph their final chapters the way that modern games do.

Many of the assumptions that I made about the game in the last posting turned out to be false. First, there are no side quests--what I thought were side quests were just steps along the path to the main quest (although there is at least one dungeon that seems to serve no purpose but to provide an interesting diversion). Second, there aren't a fixed number of Black Knights. Although the game repeatedly tells you there are nine, they must regenerate, because I must have killed 30-40 of them.

In your progress through the Phantasie dungeons, you meet the heroes of the pre-Nikademus era: the dwarven fighter Kilmor, the sage Filmon, and Lord Wood. Each gives you clues, items, and passwords to help you along the path through the dungeons and, consequently, the main quest. Your progress culminates with a visit to the city of the gods, where you meet Zeus himself, and then finally to the castle of Nikademus. [Later edit: 5 years after I posted this, an anonymous reader pointed out that you don't actually fight Nikademus in this game; you fight the Black Lord, leader of the Black Knights. Every time I say "Nikademus" from here on, I mean the Black Lord. I was under this misapprehension for a long time!]

The reason I was surprised by the ending was that the game led me to believe I had to collect nine rings along the way. But when the game finished, I only had six of them. Phantasie makes the origin of the "nine rings" concept quite clear and pays homage via the name of one of the game's villains.

Shouldn't it be J. R. R. Trolkin?

The odd-dungeon-out is the interesting dungeon of the Bleebs, where you encounter a multi-colored race that offers you a series of riddles having to do with which color tells the truth and which lies. I like it when games throw logic puzzles at you like this. The Bard's Tale, in retrospect, offered some fun riddles that I forgot to mention in my postings.

This turned out to be a lie.

Some of the encounters give you at least some ability to role-play, although we're nowhere near modern games in dialog and freedom of decisions. You can choose whether to rob a jewelry store, whether to pray to or deface statues, and whether to rescue a young maiden or an old man from lava. (To be fair, though, if you rescue the young maiden you can't continue in the main quest.)

Nikademus himself is pretty tough, repeatedly casting spells that do dozens of points of damage to all of your characters. Fighters barely damage him. The only way to defeat him--like the only way to defeat a lot of other big bosses in the game--is to repeatedly cast Fireflash IV.

The cloak makes the outfit.

The game lets you keep playing after the final battle--in fact, even after the final battle, Black Knights continue to roam the land and you can go back and defeat Nikademus again. In fact, you have to go back if you want to finish the dungeon and get the final scroll.

I guess Nikademus is multi-dimensional.

I made a video of the end game--no sound this time. Final accounting to follow in another post.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Phantasie: Plugging Along

I continue to only vaguely understand why the colors had to be so bad in the DOS version of this game. I'll try to educate myself, but if someone wants to summarize it in a comment, I'll owe you one.

I think Phantasie is the first CRPG to introduce the convention shown in the above screenshot: hiding the map and only revealing it as you explore. No, scratch that. Rogue did that first. Well, Phantasie is the first non-"Roguelike" to do it, and the first for outdoor areas.

I believe we're also seeing the first "side quests." I received a mission in a dungeon to rescue a priest from some lizardmen. This could be part of the main quest, so I don't know just yet if it's a first. Either way, it's fun to see the elements that now come naturally in CRPGs introduced game by game.

A neat feature of the game is that as you explore new areas, you find scrolls that help explain the area, provide hints to your quests, and flesh out the stories. For instance, the scroll below talks about the cave where I am to find the uncle of Lord Wood.

Alas, it did not end well for the unfortunate uncle:

The game is progressively getting more difficult (although it hasn't really become "hard" yet), with battles against numerous tough foes, including spellcasters and legions of undead.

I have already slain four Black Knights, and from what the scrolls suggest, there are only nine of them. I suspect they do not stay dead, however. They are quite difficult to kill, and 8bitjeff's comment in my first Phantasie posting about needing the Fireflash IV spell turned out to be rather prophetic. It's really the only thing that does any serious damage.

My biggest problem at this point is gold. It costs thousands and thousands to level up my ogre fighter, dwarf fighter, and hobbit thief, and I never seem to have enough. Several of my characters are two or three levels below where they could be if I just had sufficient funds. I hope dungeons coming up bring more riches.

It's also fun, in a vaguely annoying way, to see how these older games protected themselves against piracy. The Bard's Tale would make you answer questions from the game map when you leveled up. Now as I explore the Phantasie dungeons, the game periodically stops to ask me questions from the manual, like this one:

The game makers, of course, didn't anticipate flatbed scanners, OCR, and the Internet.

That's about all there is to cover right now. I'm definitely going to continue with this one until the end.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Game 15: Phantasie (1985)


United States
Independently developed; published by Strategic Simulations, Inc.
Released 1985 for Apple II and Commodore 64; 1986 for Atari ST, PC-88, PC-98, and FM-7; 1987 for Atari 800, Amiga, and Sharp X1; 1988 for DOS and MSX
Date Started: 13 April 2010

In a response to my first posting, a blogger going by the handle Gooberslot asked a good question: "Why only PC rpgs? You say you don't want to 'frig' around with emulators but dosbox is an emulator too. Plus, you're missing out on playing the best version in some cases. The PC sucked compared to some other computers until VGA came out and it still sucked in the sound department for a while after that."

Phantasie illustrates this quite well. Here, for instance, is a screenshot of the Amiga version of Phantasie:

Here, in contrast, is the same screenshot from my DOS port:

Yuck, right? Here's a nice shot from the Atari ST version in battle:

..versus my DOS version:

I am green with envy. Get with...right. Moving on.

So, at least in the graphics department, the DOS version blows. And a couple of weeks ago, when I posed the question, you were almost all for me trying the non-DOS versions. So yesterday evening, I made an attempt. I Googled "Apple II emulator," "C64 emulator," "Atari ST emulator," downloaded some, and gave it a go. I'll spare you the rest of the details--which involve a difficulty finding Phantasie downloads for some of those systems, an unfamiliarity with their conventions, crashes and freezes (perhaps owing to my running Windows 7), lack of clear DOSBox-like frontrunners in the emulator departments, and so on--and simply announce my recommittment, as bad as the graphics are, to staying with a DOS/PC-only gameplan.

That aside, I like Phantasie so far. The story is simple: the island continent of Gelnor has been conquered by a tyrannical wizard named Nikademus, who maintains fear with a cadre of near-invincible Black Knights. Your party is composed of newly-arrived adventurers seeking fame and fortune, and liberating the land from Nikademus seems like a sure way to both.

Phantasie is notable as the first RPG from Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI), which would soon gain the gratitude of CRPG fans everywhere by making the "gold box" Dungeons & Dragons games. That reminds me: how long is it until I get to Pool of Radiance? One, two, three, four....nineteen games. Damn.

The game is multi-character, allowing you to choose from fighter, monk, priest, ranger, thief, and wizard classes. It offers more races than any CRPG I can think of: in addition to humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes, and halflings, you can also play gnolls, goblins, kobolds, lizard men, minotaurs, ogres, orcs, pixies, sprites, and trolls. Wow. The monster classes all excel in at least one attribute (you have the standard strength, intelligence, dexterity, etc. in this game) but they pay for it in increased training costs. And the manual isn't kidding about this: it cost 24 gold to move my human ranger for level 2 to level 3; for my ogre fighter, it was 1,056 gold.

You move about the game world in a top-down perspective, with your entire party represented by a single icon, much like in Ultima III. The perspective changes a bit when you enter a dungeon. The dungeons look like paper maps in which you reveal passageways as you move. Special encounters are represented by little symbols and described in text at the bottom. It sounds primitive, but I actually rather like it.

Since you can save your dungeon progress when you leave, this makes Phantasie the first game I know to automap. The encounters have been fun and fresh so far: levers to pull, a sage with a ring, a door that locked me in a room until I found a secret exit, and a "pile of gold covered with a gooey substance" that turned out to be the honeycombs of a giant bee hive.

The combat system in Phantasie is unusual and, I think, rather fun. Statistically and tactically, I suppose it's little different than Wizardry or The Bard's Tale. Your six characters line up in a single line to face your foes, who can be in up to four ranks. Most of your characters can attack only the first rank, but your thief can dart into any rank and your spellcasters can target the entire field. Like Wizardry, you set an action for each character and execute them all at once. The unique thing is that the animation shows your characters leaping and thrusting when their turn comes, and their blows connect with a satisfying crunch.

The animation doesn't change the basic tactics, though. Each of your characters can attack, parry, or cast a spell. Attacks are split into thrust (more damage, only one attack), attack (moderate damage, two attacks), and slash (minimal damage, three attacks). You also have the macro options to avoid combat by greeting the monsters, threatening them, fleeing, or begging for their mercy (and giving over your gold).

In between adventures in dungeons and wilderness areas, you return to towns to rest, level up, and buy and sell equipment. When you enter a town, the game asks how you want to divide your accumulated experience points among your characters. I can't think of a single other game that does this, allowing you to channel everything into one character for quick development or spread it evenly among your group. The former options means that if a character dies, you can train a replacement in fairly short order. Man, do I wish Wizardry had that option.

The town of "Pelnor." Arthurian influence?

I created a party consisting of a human ranger (Aodin), an ogre fighter (Ghalar), a dwarf fighter (Yalgar), a halfing priest (Sanctavia), a gnome thief (Slissk), and an elf wizard (Arcanius). In my first couple hours of gameplay, I've explored one dungeon and collected a series of scrolls that tell me more about the land and Nikademus. This is actually a pretty cool way to slowly divulge more about the game world and the central quest.

The scroll goes on to say that nine wizards forged nine magical rings to combat Nikademus, but he perverted the power of the rings and used them to turn the wizards into Black Knights. This is starting to sound vaguely familiar...

Finally, I'll note that the game has been challenging so far. I've lost a few characters, and there's no temple in the towns (at least, not the first town), so I've had to create new ones. Gold looks like it's going to be a problem; I have a few characters ready to level up but not enough money to pay for it. You can only save in towns, but at least (unlike Wizardry and The Bard's Tale) you have the option to quit without saving if the battle goes badly.

In short, Phantasie has tactics as deep as Wizardry, stuff in dungeons as varied as Telengard, a lore as rich as Ultima III, and a difficultly level as pleasing as The Bard's Tale in its early stages. I hope the rest of the game lives up to its beginnings!

(If you're interested in a video of the gameplay, including the combat, here's one on YouTube, albiet for the Atari ST version. Hopefully I'll finish setting up my new laptop soon and I can make my own.)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Game 14: Wizardry III (1983)

Wizardry III is cheerfully indistinguishable from Wizardry or Wizardry II except for the specific dungeon. Everything else--graphics, controls, character classes and races, spells, and gameplay--are essentially the same. I say "essentially," because there do appear to be some new monsters, weapons, and armor. Instead of leather and chain mail, for instance, you have a "cuirass" and a "hauberk."

As with Wizardry II, you cannot create characters in Wizardry III; you must import them from one of the previous games. Unlike Wizardry II, when you import them, you do not keep your levels, experience and gold. Instead, the game resets you to level 1, explaining that you aren't really importing the characters so much as instilling their spirits in their descendants.

At least the game tries to come up with a plausible reason you have to restart at level 1.

The scenario is that the normally placid kingdom of Llylgamyn is suddenly experiencing volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and storms. Your party of adventurers is tasked with climbing through the lair of the dragon L'kbreth to retrieve from her a mystical scrying orb that can reveal the source of the disasters.

In my first few hours of gameplay, I probably cycled through 50 characters. The game is much more difficult--at least on level 1--than the first Wizardry. 9 out of 10 battles killed at least one of my party members, forcing me either raise him, or (when I was broke) to go back and create a new character in the original Wizardry so I could export him. Needless to say, this made it difficult to advance any of the characters to level 2.

Nonetheless, I stuck with it, and ultimately managed to stabilize my party at character levels 2-4 while mapping the first level of the dungeon. The level has a few interesting features, including a "lake" that I cannot cross, and a castle surrounded by a "moat" (the graphics don't actually show you a moat , of course; the game just says it's there).

The moat is full of serpents called "moat monsters" that aren't too hard to kill and provide a decent bit of experience.

The castle is full of guards, but ultimately you get to a series of rooms, a couple of which have stairs upward. Before them is this cryptic message:

This sounds like you need both good and evil characters to proceed, but the game won't let you combine them in one party, so I'm not exactly sure what it means.

As I wrap things up for the night, I'm trying to decide if I'm going to continue with Wizardry III or not. On the one hand, I don't have a particularly good reason not to. On the other, since the gameplay is identical to Wizardry, I'm not sure I'll have anything much to blog about. I'll sleep on it and let you know after the weekend.

On a last note, someone has lovingly created a page devoted to the Wizardry series at:

He's uploaded character files that I could have used to give Wizardry II a second shot, but I've moved on from that. I checked out the walkthrough for Wizardry II and it doesn't sound like I missed much. I've got to stop browsing it before I accidentally spoil Wizardry III.

Later Edit: Party slaughtered on Level 2, created new party, party slaughtered again. Had enough with limited-save, permanent-death games. On to Phantasie.

Edit from 04 January 2015: Almost five years after offering this miserably short post on Wizardry III, I returned and finished the game. Continuing coverage picks up with this posting.

Game 13: Wizardry II (1982)

Okay, here's the essential problem with Wizardry II: you can't create characters in it. Instead, you have to import your characters from Wizardry. Now this would be okay, maybe, if during the import the game auto-leveled you to something sensible, but it doesn't. Also, when you import your characters, it permanently removes you from the original game. You can't even go back and re-import them if they die. Man, these games are harsh.

Remember how in Wizardry I, I kept losing my party because the game auto-saves and death is permanent? Well, the same thing is true of Wizardry II. Now this was bad enough in Wizardry I, when I had to create characters from scratch and build them up to a high enough level to either a) rescue the bodies of my original party or b) replace my original party. But in Wizardry II, if I lose my party, I have to go back to Wizardry I, create new characters, build them up in Wizardry I, then import them to Wizardry II, and finally send them on the rescue expedition. I'm sorry, but I don't have that kind of time.

I might do it if there was anything different about Wizardry II, but the manual that came with The Ultimate Wizardry Archives confirms that the gameplay, classes, races, spells, commands--everything--is exactly the same. Even the names of the equipment shop, tavern, inn, and temple are the same, despite the fact I'm supposed to be in a different city. Wizardry II isn't a new game: it's a new dungeon in the same game.

I did try. As you may recall if you read that entry, only four of my characters survived the final battle in Wizardry. I imported them into Wizardry II along with two level 1 characters I created in Wizardry to take the places of the dead ones. I figured that I could keep them in the back of the party and just build up their experience using the other characters. This worked for a time, and I got them up to level 6 (my other four came in at level 12). Unfortunately, one of the dead/replacement characters was a mage--the only class that can cast the MALOR teleport spell--and on Level 1 of the Wizardry II dungeon, you need the MALOR spell to progress.

Wandering around on Level 1, I found a room in which the sorceress Gnilda (the creators' anagrams are showing again) spoke about the main quest. The City of Llylgamyn was once protected by the magical Staff of Llygamyn, which prevented any evil-doers from entering the city. Regrettably, the staff had a loophole: those born in Llygamyn were immune to its preventive effects. Someone evil named Davalpus staged a coup and slaughtered the royal family, and in the ensuing war the staff was lost to the depths of a dungeon and the city brought to rubble. My party's quest is to recover "symbols of Gnilda's favor" so that she'll give me the staff and I can restore peace and prosperity.

Unfortunately, Llygamyn is going to have to remain a smoking ruin, because shortly after receiving said quest, my entire party--even the veterans--was slaughtered by a group of "kobold kings." No way am I re-playing Wizardry just so I can have characters at a high enough level to start Wizardry II. The process of importing, creating new characters, starting up, and mapping Level 1 took close enough to six hours that I feel like I've kept within my rules.

They looked so easy...

Now isn't everything I'm saying also true of Wizardry III? Yes, Wizardry III also does not allow you to create characters; you must import them from the original Wizardry. But according to the manual, you're not really importing the original characters but rather their "descendants," and during the import it re-sets you to Level 1. You don't even get to keep your gold. Hence, since unlike II, III doesn't require high-level characters, I have no cause not to give it a try.

Since Wizardry II is the same game as Wizardry, I see no reason not to give it the same overall score: 37/100.

The manual that came with the Archives is a lot of fun, full of comical little drawings of your characters. I wish I could show it to you, but my scanner is broken. It also explains things a little better than the original manuals. Flipping through it, I have to say, Wizardry VI and VII look pretty cool. I'll get to them eventually.

Edit from 26 March 2014: Nearly four years after I first played this game, I returned to it and won it. The GIMLET score fell to 32 upon consideration of the game in its entirety. I recommend that you read my updated post for more information about the game.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Bard's Tale: Final Rating

Our heroes discuss the relative merits of this CRPG
The Bard's Tale
United States
Interplay (developer); Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1985 for Apple II; 1986 for Commodore 64 and Amiga; 1987 for DOS, Apple IIGS, and Atari ST; 1988 for Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, and PC-98; 1989 for Macintosh; 1990 for NES
Date Started: 14 March 2010
Date Ended: 9 April 2010
Total Hours: 45
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 37
Ranking at Time of Posting: 8/11 (73%)
Raking at Game #420: 322/420 (77%)
I know: three postings in one day. It's feast or famine with me. I'll try to develop better consistency in the future.

Earlier this week, I outlined a rubric for rating CPRGs in 10 categories. It's highly subjective, dependent upon my own preferences and peeves (but hey, it's my blog). Tonight, I'll apply the GIMLET for the first time to The Bard's Tale. Ratings for each category is out of 10.

1. Game world. The Bard's Tale's game world is not terribly imaginative. It is set in a somewhat generic high-fantasy city called Skara Brae which the evil wizard Mangar has taken over, unleashing scores of monsters into the streets. That's about all you're given. You learn nothing of the larger game world, nor how long Mangar has been a threat, nor where he came from to begin with, nor why your party suddenly appeared on the scene. Your actions do not effect any changes to the game world--not even completing the main quest. Even if you slay Mangar, monsters still roam the streets, and if you return to Mangar's tower you can slay him again! Perhaps the only unique thing about the game world is the implicit importance of bards in the society. Category Score: 2.

2. Character creation and development. For its time, the character creation system is reasonably advanced, allowing you to choose from a number of classes, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Hunters do very little damage but have a decent change of scoring a critical hit. Thieves are worthless fighters but necessary for trap-removal if you don't want to waste spell points. Spellcasters can cycle through four different classes, learning new spells each time. For all but the spellcasters, though, leveling up after a certain point doesn't seem to do anything but give you additional hit points. It's a little odd that you can only select male characters. There are no alignments, and there is no--absolutely no--character-based role playing. Category score: 3.

3. NPC Interaction. There are essentially no NPCs with whom to interact. In some squares, you stumble upon people and objects, but they mouth a few scripted lines at you and send you on your way. As with all games of this era, you have no dialog choices, no real opportunities for role-playing, and certainly nothing as advanced as romances. Category score: 1.

4. Encounters and Foes. As I noted when creating this evaluation model, I like random encounters and re-spawning, and this game is all about both. There are some scripted encounters, but they re-spawn the moment you leave the level and return. One memorable encounter has you fighting four groups of 99 barbarians each. If you have the right spells, you can survive it, it takes a good 10 minutes, and it nets you more experience than any other battle in the game. It's nice to be able to return to it now and then for a boost. The monsters are relatively well-distinguished, especially for a game of the era, each featuring different types of attacks, magic, and weaknesses. The manual doesn't really describe them for you, though, and of course there is no opportunity for role-playing in the encounters. Category score: 5.

5. Magic and combat. Combat in The Bard's Tale is identical to Wizardry, with the first three ranks having the ability to attack and the others able to use items and cast spells. The combat is very tactical, forcing you to choose your actions carefully to maximize your chances of survival and minimize your expenditure of resources. Since your six characters are all piled on to one screen, though, there is no way to role-play them individually in combat. Category score: 5.

6. Equipment. The game has a very large variety of equipment, from normal weapons and armor to special musical instruments (usable only by bards) that cast a variety of spells, rings, staffs, wands, lanterns, magic carpets, and so on. There is no description attached to any of these (no game will have item descriptions for years yet), but one unique aspect to The Bard's Tale is that you sort-of have to fiddle with your plundered objects to figure out what they do. My one gripe is that it's relatively easy to achieve the lowest possible armor class, after which finding new armor doesn't seem to do anything. Also, the damage you do in combat is overwhelmingly based on your level and not your weapon, so there's no particular reason to keep upgrading and comparing. Except for a few quest items, equipment is thoroughly randomized in the game world. Category score: 5.

Those horns do some serious damage.

7. Economy. Gold is very plentiful in this game, thank God, because you need a constant supply for healing. Healing is really all you need it for. After your first trip to the equipment shop at the beginning of the game, there is no need to ever visit again to buy anything. But because resurrecting characters, un-withering them, and turning them back to flesh from stone cost so much (and rise with levels), there is never a point that you're not grateful for a hoard of gold. Category score: 6.

8. Quests. The Bard's Tale has a main quest, but there is only one outcome--killing Mangar. There are no side quests or any opportunities for role-playing in quests. Category score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, Inputs. The graphics are quite good for the era--leaps ahead of Wizardry. Some of them are lightly animated. On the DOS port, there are no sound effects except for the bard songs, which suck a bit. Controls are by keyboard or mouse, and both work fine. Category score: 4.

10. Gameplay. In some ways, the gameplay is fairly linear--you must progress through the dungeons in a specific order. But having done so, you are free to backtrack to previous dungeons. Skara Brae itself is fully explorable at the outset; there just isn't much reason to explore. The difficulty is "pleasingly difficult," as I wrote in one point, because you can only save in the Adventurer's Inn and you have to carefully ration your spell points in dungeons. Towards the end, though, it becomes incredibly difficult, especially with the ability of certain monsters to turn your characters to stone, which you have no spell to redress. Every stoning requires a trip back out to a temple, if you're lucky to survive long enough. Monsters that drain your hard-earned levels also make you tear out your hair. There is absolutely no replayability; you'll get the same experience no matter what party you use or what decisions you make. Category score: 4.

The Bard's Tale's total score is: 37/100. On my master ranking list, that ties it with Wizardry I and suggests I liked it better than anything I've played so far except Ultima III. That feels about right.
Further Reading: My coverage of The Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight (1986), The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate (198), and Dragon Wars (1989). I also have updated coverage of The Bard's Tale from 2021.