Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire: Final Rating

Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire
Origin Systems (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS, 1992 for PC-98, 1993 for Sharp X68000
Date Started: 11 April 2015
Date Ended: 16 May 2015
Total Hours: 18
Reload Count: 8
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 48
Ranking at Time of Posting: 163/185 (88%)
Ranking at Game #458: 420/458 (92%)

I end mostly where I started, thinking that The Savage Empire is a perfectly serviceable little game that makes adequate use of a good game engine but would have been better if the creators hadn't tied it to the legend of the Avatar. Said legend is, of course, already hopelessly muddled, so when we get revelations in this game about the ancient Kotl race and the ability of a moonstone to somehow power an entire civilization, we don't even try to mentally work it into Ultima canon. We just shrug and keep playing.

I couldn't think of any other thematic issues to cover after the "won" posting, so let's get right into the GIMLET.

1. Game World. The Lost World-style setting of Eodon, the various tribes, and the revelations about the lizard-like past civilization are somewhat common fantasy and sci-fi tropes, but they're relatively original among RPGs. In this, the game deserves a lot of credit even if the execution was a little goofy at times. While Empire didn't always make the best use of the Ultima VI engine, it kept the open approach to the game world that the Ultima series has been rightly famous for. Empire arguably does a better job than any previous Ultimas in having the game world respond to the player's actions, with NPC dialogue changing substantially depending on various plot statuses. Score: 6.

The Avatar prepares to start the endgame on the Hill of the Drum.

2. Character Creation and Development. Probably the worst part of the game. In contrast to the multiple races and sexes offered by Ultima VI, the player has no choice but to play the Avatar as a Great White Hunter. Even worse, the backstory removes any sense of self-identification with the Avatar that previous Ultimas (IV in particular) took great pains to build up. A brief character creation process helps define starting attributes, but there's nothing else. Because the game starts you at Level 5, there is essentially no character development (barring a lot of grinding, which is unnecessary anyway) for either the Avatar or his NPC companions. There are no role-playing opportunities, no karma meter. The game barely qualifies as an RPG in this category. Score: 3.

Jimmy becomes the only character other than the Avatar to level up.

3. NPC Interaction. Always strong in Origin titles, a little weaker here because so many NPCs say the same things. Basically, every tribe has a chief, a shaman, and one or two other key NPCs, and then about 6-10 interchangeable men and women with the same dialogue. Still, the quality of the dialogue is pretty good, and you learn almost everything of importance about the game world and quest through these discussions.

I like that you have so many party members to choose from--including a Neanderthal, a lizard man, and an automaton--and that they don't cease to be individuals just because they've joined the party; you can still talk with them. Some of them have unique skills, like Triolo's magic, Rafkin's ability to make certain items, and Jimmy's notebook.

Finally, the game gets points for offering the first player-optional romance in the game. (Other games have seen a romance between the PC and some NPC, but always part of the main plot, not something that the player can choose.) There's not much to it: you just say LOVE to Aiela or Tristia, which causes their dialogues to change, and you get a couple of endgame screens. Still, it's always nice to find a "first." Or am I forgetting an earlier game?

I could have done without the unresolved Shamuru/Dokray/Triolo mystery. Score: 7.

4. Encounters and Foes. Getting through the game involves solving a variety of item-based and navigation-based puzzles, none of them terribly hard, most with multiple solutions. While the selection of enemies (giant apes, dinosaurs, sabre-toothed tigers) is original and appropriate to the setting, I never got over the sense that fighting dinosaurs should have been a bigger deal. Like all Origin games, the manual does an excellent job describing each enemy. Score: 6.

Because of course we can't just walk through the waterfall and into the cave, Gideon prepares to block the river by blowing up the boulder next to it. Don't ask.

5. Magic and Combat. The tribal magic system, with its collection of 9 spells, is thematically creative but tactically underwhelming--particularly since there's only one spellcaster. I didn't find combat particularly strong in Ultima VI, and it gets worse here with poor enemy and NPC AI and a general sense that combat is a minor part of the game. Score: 4.

6. Equipment.  The sandbox nature of the game means that there's a ton of stuff lying around with no reason to take any of it, including jars, baskets, pots, tools, extra totems, rocks, sticks, and so forth. I don't mind this. It makes the world seem more real. The selection of armor and weapons is less interesting, particularly since the game doesn't tell you the relative damage of weapons or the relative protection of armor, and since combat isn't hard enough to bother with upgrades anyway. Towards the end of the game, I just equipped my new companions with whatever was most convenient, and they did fine. I didn't care for all the unused equipment slots.

A lot of the items are for solving puzzles, and many of these work together in creative ways. Tar can be collected in a bucket, then applied to strips of cloth (themselves made by putting scissors to whole cloth) to make "tarred cloth," which can then be wrapped around branches (pulled from trees) to make torches or used as a fuse in a bomb. Dropping a tree branch onto an open fire makes charcoal, which can be combined with phosphorous (scraped from crystals) and sulfur (screened from sulfur pits) to make gunpowder. Using a knife on a slain mammal gives you a pelt and some meat. There are a lot of these types of interactions, and they'd be a lot more fun if they were more helpful. Score: 5.

I think using a knife is the only way to do this.

7. Economy. There are plenty of valuables to find in the game, but only a couple of places to spend them, and essentially no reason to spend them in those places, since everything you need can be picked up for free. A very under-developed part of the game. You could argue that it's not necessary for The Savage Empire, but I still like my RPGs to have an economy. Score: 1.

8. Quests. Empire has a multi-staged main quest. It's interesting, but it doesn't offer choices, alternate outcomes, or really anything that qualifies as a "side quest." I did think that the "uniting the tribes" plot was a bit fun, particularly since (just like the map-piece-finding quest in Ultima VI) it offered such a variety of difficulties and lengths to the individual tasks. Score: 4.

I forgot to show the lizard guys last time, so here they are.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The graphics are well-drawn, but from my colorblind perspective, the palette used by Empire was awful. I couldn't discern a lot of objects, NPCs, and enemies against their backgrounds. The day/night cycle was a constant annoyance. On the other hand, I liked the frequent use of full screen graphics at key parts of the story--there were more of these in Empire than any Ultima game I can recall. There were some fun sound effects but no way to separate sound from the incessant music, so I left it off. (The music, I should add, is good--creative and thematic--but I still didn't want to hear it all the time.)

The giant Avatar prepares to trample a company of puny villagers.

The interface is generally excellent. Like any good game of this era, it offers the ability to move flexibly between keyboard and mouse, with major commands mapped to a single letter. The ability to designate an "active" character is essentially unique to this game and Ultima VI, and it's just what this type of RPG needs. One drawback to the interface: my characters kept getting stuck on things, and I didn't notice for a long time. This required a lot of effort to reunite the party. Score: 5.

10. Gameplay. Nice and non-linear. Even the major quest stages can be done slightly out of order (e.g., you could reunite most of the tribes before rescuing Aiela). The non-linearity and availability of different NPC companions makes it slightly replayable, though not very. The overall pacing is good--neither too long or too short--but like Ultima VI, it suffers a bit by being too easy. And despite using the same engine, it doesn't offer quite the same "screwing around" possibilities of its parent. Score: 5.

I don't often discuss a game's packaging and manual, even when they're good, but The Savage Empire deserves a couple extra bonus points for going the extra mile. The manual (may the MOCAGH never die) is presented as an adventure magazine written, in part, by the Avatar, Jimmy Malone, and Dr. Rafkin after their adventures in Eodon. It's full of clues hidden in sections like "Letters to the Editor" (one gives a hint about the importance of a fire extinguisher; another discusses bomb-making) and advertisements.

The "pulp manual" is part story, part instruction, part description, and part fun.

The manual also has one of the best and most obscure Easter eggs I've ever seen. In a (fictional) advertisement for an upcoming Savage Empire film, the cast is given as Richard Corlane, Bryan Swade, and Faith Selburn. You would have to be the most incredible film geek to know that these are the three (fictional) stars listed for a (fictional) Broadway musical called A Day in New York, featured in a single screen in the 1949 Gene Kelly/Frank Sinatra film On the Town.

All in all, fantastic work by Aaron Allston (credited for both the overall game story and the game manual) and worth an extra 2 bonus points for a final score of 48. That's considerably lower than the 68 I gave to Ultima VI, but still in the top 10% of 1990 games, and the third-highest rating I've given in the past year.

I started my series of posts on The Savage Empire praising Origin for re-using a great engine instead of discarding it after a single use. Thus, I was a little surprised and annoyed to find Dennis Owens complaining about the same thing in his March 1991 Computer Gaming World review. "Although once upon a time, Ultima stood for innovation and surprise," he grouses, "[they] seem to have devolved into copies of themselves--all requiring that worlds be explored...monsters be bashed, and objects be found." I mean, Jesus, Dennis--you could reduce all RPGs to such trite phrasing. Ultima hasn't lost its innovation just because the creators re-used one engine. Frankly, if they hadn't, we'd be waiting until Ultima VII for the next game. Would that have been better?

While he does have some positive things to say, his conclusion is mixed: "Compared to any except its own brothers and sisters, The Savage Empire...must be considered dazzling and successful. Compared to its peers, however, the game presents what may be a disturbing view of a possible trend in the Ultima line: caricature."

In her 1993 "survey" of RPGs on the market, Scorpia was a little more positive, concluding that it was "good for filling in the hours while you wait for the next real Ultima," with which I completely agree.

For the next Ultima game, I thought I'd have a choice between Martian Dreams and Ultima Underworld, but I was disappointed to see that Underworld is a 1992 game (really looking forward to that one), so Martian Dreams is definitely the next outing as the Avatar. I know people usually rate that one nigher than The Savage Empire, but the backstory seems a bit stupid to me. Maybe everything else will be better.


And that pretty much wraps up 1990! Technically, I still have Operation: Overkill to finish, but that's proving to be a boring slog, not unlike Dragon Sword but without the same ability to cheat. If I do finish it, it will probably be several weeks from now, after playing an hour here and an hour there in between other games. That means we'll be moving on to the 1990/1991 transition posting. I look forward to writing it.


  1. I would have given it a point more in the economy for at least trying. There's at least one shop and a currency that fits in thematically and makes sense in the context of "Role-Playing" portion of a CRPG.

  2. I think what I'd like to see, to clarify your ratings, would be a post that describes/gives an example of 1,5 and 10 in each category.

    This game feels like a 1 in CC&D - Almost nil,

    and a 2 in M&C - no tactics, no danger, companions don't work properly, spells are almost entirely irrelevant.

    1. I second this. And for example, what would a game (theoretically) have to have to score a 0, yet still technically function as a game (though not necessarily an RPG?) What about a theoretical 100?

    2. Ahh, yeah, 0 is the bottom. Thanks for that correction.

      It'd be hard to get zero.

      It requires:

      Zero RPG elements.
      A user-hostile interface
      Dreadful presentation
      Sufficiently broken/rudimentary gameplay.

      Every category but 'encounters' has scored zero at some point.

      A game that received that max score given in every area so far would receive an 81. I think that's a bit high. Some of the AAA titles these days provide game experiences that are far more immersive, expansive and responsive, with meaningful characters and novel-quality writing. For instance, Starflight gets a score of 9 for 'Game World'. While both have well-crafted universes, Mass Effect has an order of magnitude more writing, deals with a multitude of themes and the text is excellent, whereas Starflight's is trash. It's like Lord of the Rings vs 16-yr-old-me's D&D campaign.

    3. I guess there's no reason why Chet can't give an exemplary performer in any area 11 or 12 points.

    4. As an academic exercise, I thought about trying to squeeze non-RPGs into the GIMLET, and made some guesses as to what they would get.

      Space Invaders:
      -Extremely limited but semi-believable game world (2)
      -Progressively more difficult (at least until the game loops) encounters against a huge number of foes at once, with a little strategy (do you shoot through your shields? Which invaders should you be aiming for?) (3)
      -A quest... kind of. Stave off the invasion as long as possible. (1)
      -Simple but well-designed interface, clean but functional graphics, and sound effects (the rhythm of the invaders' movement) that add to the game. (3)

      That totals up to 9. It's pretty funny that Space Invaders beats Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash.

      Let's try Super Mario Bros.
      -A (minimal) backstory, and graphics that give you a sense of just how bizarre the Mushroom Kingdom must be. (3)
      -Varied, strange enemies, each of which has a place in the gameplay. (2)
      -It's brief, but every enemy could be considered a combat. As an action game, it's still great, but as an RPG it gets a (1).
      -Power-ups, which are kind of like equipment. (1)
      -You get an extra life for every 100 coins. Does that count as an (extremely crude) economy? (0-1)
      -A quest that involves a good variety in level design, with exactly one outcome. (2)
      -Very intuitive controls, perfectly functional graphics, satisfying sound effects, and an iconic soundtrack. (5)
      -Warp zones give the game some nonlinearity, and choices in how to complete the game. Gameplay (1)

      That's 12-13, meaning that Super Mario Bros. works better as an RPG than the Intellivision's (allegedly) Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Cartridge's 9.

    5. I think I'd score space invaders 2.

      1 for sound/graphics/input - At least it's clear what's happening
      1 for gameplay - It's designed to be replayed.

    6. I'm working on porting the GIMLET over to a "page" with the sorts of examples and explanations you're all talking about. I want to get a few more regular posts in the pipeline before I spend more time on this, but I should have something up in a few weeks.

      Tristan, on your Starflight example, you do have to give some consideration to the scale of the game. Mass Effect's game world would have been absurd in a game with the length, scope, and mechanics of Starflight. It's not all about complexity and depth; there's an element of context, too.

      I wouldn't go higher than 10 on a rating. It would make the scale meaningless.

      Foreign doctor (or whatever you translate as), that was a fun exercise, but your comparison games (Mount Drash and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) weren't really RPGs themselves. Still, I'm sure it's possible that excellent games from another genre could outscore mediocre RPGs on the GIMLET.

      It would be functionally impossible for any RPG to score a 0 on the GIMLET. It would have to have essentially no RPG elements, which means it wouldn't be on my list in the first place. I'm sure we've already seen the lowest scores that we'll ever see.

    7. As for SMB...

      GW 2 - Unique, has a variety of biomes,
      E&F 2 - Enemies are varied, original and described in the manual
      1 for a main quest
      GSI: 4 - clear, entertaining graphics, amusing sound, responsive controls
      GP: 2 - Replayable, has warp portals

      11 all up. Similar score for similar reasons.

    8. Oh, I know that Drash and AD&D Cartridge aren't RPGs, but to a debatable but existent degree, they try to pass themselves as at least vaguely RPGish. Therefore, I called it "Allegedly Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Cartridge", because I would expect something with that name to have at least a recognizable influence from some version of (A)D&D. Even the LCD "AD&D Computer Fantasy Game" (haven't played it, but have played Hunt the Wumpus, which it supposedly clones) seemingly had more (still not saying much) RPG credentials, and probably about as many as could have been squeezed into such a game given technology at the time.

      Don't worry, I'm not quite sure what my name actually translates as either, but it's in reference to my fascination with parts of Japanese games/gaming culture that never left Japan. It's supposed to be "Hakase"=professor and "Gaijin"=Foreigner (relative to Japan)/Non-Japanese, in a sort of self-depreciating reverse Engrishy way.

    9. Is it possible for any game, RPG or not, to get a GIMLET of 0? It almost seems like a 1 in E&F should be the bare minimum (you encounter... something that happens, challenging or not.) Pong, which is probably close to the simplest possible game, would seemingly get a 1 for the encounter or "battle" against the other paddle. (Let's assume we're playing a version with terrible control for the paddles, because the paddle knobs it was designed for are extremely responsive and precise, which has got to be worth at least a 3 on GSI.) To make Pong score a 0, you'd have to play two-player mode with nobody controlling the other paddle. (It wouldn't technically cease to be a game, because if I'm remembering right when you score a point the ball comes back towards you, so you have to hit it once to score.)

    10. There are some genres, like racing games or some platformers, that have nothing that I'd consider "combat" or "encounters." The bigger difficulty would be to get a 0 in "gameplay." It would have to be completely linear, way too long, and way too easy or way too hard. Even then, it would be tough to find a game so bad that it got nothing in "graphics, sound, and interface."

    11. Desert Bus, perhaps? As a game, it barely functions, and quite literally seems to not want to be played (the bus veers slightly and this has to be corrected for, which is annoying but trivial if you're paying attention. This is to stop you from taping down the gas button.) As a work of art, though, it's brilliant.

      A video of one point in Desert Bus being scored, in real time:


      If not, maybe Hong Kong 97 or Crazy Bus. HK97 might even get a negative bonus score for being racist (guessing from Rance that being actively offensive would be a -5) which should nullify any points it accidentally gets. I'd dig up videos of them, but Youtube isn't playing videos for me right now.

      I'm sure you can tell I've taken it as a challenge to find a game that's a straight zero. :P

    12. Surely it would have to be Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing that gets a 0 or even a negative. It is notoriously considered the worst commercially released game of all time!

    13. For all games, there should be a moderate but not absolute positive correlation between GIMLET score and overall game quality. Rance GIMLET'd at 17, SMB GIMLETs at 11-13, yet I'm sure Chet would rather play the latter, and consider it a better-made game. (For what SMB does, at the risk of comparing apples and oranges, I'd put it about on the level of Ultima IV, maybe a bit higher.) I don't think the "worst game ever" would necessarily be the "worst RPG ever."

      As for RPGs that are atrociously bad but would still score some points on the GIMLET... maybe Mirai Shinwa Jarvas? It's a Famicom game with a semi-detailed background story in the manual, money never really stops being useful, has some non-linearity and a variety of sub-objectives to actually complete the game, but the interface and action is so terrible that it ruins everything. My guess:

      GW- 3
      CC/D- 4 (no creation, but can train in various classes and level your character)
      NPC's- 2 (some have a few things to say)
      E/F- 2 (There are monsters, arena duels, etc.0
      M/C- 2 (Magic exists, combat exists.)
      Equipment- 2 (Better weapons are nice, items are useful, but armor is completely useless due to a bug)
      Econ- 4 (you need to keep coming up with money to beat the game)
      Quests- 2 (Main quest with sub-objectives like increasing your fame and taking over continents)
      G/S/I- 0 (Interface is actively hostile, music is annoying, people barely look like people)
      Gameplay- 1 (A little freedom and nonlinearity, but the game system is so bad it's wasted)
      Bonus: -3, because everything comes together so atrociously badly. Would be lower except for the creative premise of a space traveler returning to Earth.

      That's 19, which puts Jarvas, widely considered one of the worst games ever created by those who have played it, above Akalabeth, and tied with Treasure of Tarmin.

    14. The Intellivision AD&D game was not developed as Dungeons and Dragons. The game had been progressing well when the infamous suits that ran Mattel decided it needed a license. They talked to TSR and bought one of their products, which was red hot at the time. Apply it to the cartridge in development and boom, that's a good day's work for a suit.

      So evaluate the game for what it is, not what the label tells you to think.

    15. Of course it should be evaluated for what it is (I kind of like it, but it's not an RPG.) But the fact is that it essentially claims to be an AD&D RPG front and center, so it should also be evaluated as such, making the claim of an RPG a miserable failure, and my GIMLET Super Mario Bros. (which neither claims nor attempts to be an RPG) shows this. What the GIMLET does, it does very well, and removes a lot of subjectivity (I suspect that using Chet's rubric properly, scores should vary by at most 10 points or so, no matter who evaluates them.) I think the soundtracks to most Final Fantasy games add to the experience tremendously, but that's barely reflected in the GIMLET (and understandably so, because it's about Chet's preferences, not yours or mine.) If I were to build my own version, music would probably get its own category, and NPCs would be de-emphasized and folded into another category, for example.

    16. Objectionable content muddies the waters a bit. A game with Rance's mechanics but a less obnoxious plot would still be a mediocre RPG, but it would be better than a lot of others from the era. It would scratch my RPG itch in a way that Super Mario Brothers wouldn't, and I certainly wouldn't mind playing it again.

      To make a valid comparison, you have to pit Rance against a version of SMB in which you punch Jews instead of turtles or whatnot.

      There might not be a lot of subjectivity to how a game rates using my rubric, but of course there's a lot of subjectivity to the rubric itself. As you note, other people would drop or add categories to the scale or might weigh various elements more than I do. The GIMLET is my attempt to QUANTIFY my enjoyment of an RPG, but quantification does not mean objectivity.

    17. I mentioned Rance because it had very roughly the same final GIMLET as SMB (17 vs. 13), from which I (probably incorrectly) inferred that SMB would give only slightly less satisfying exploration, game world, etc, and though that your -5 bonus reflected how the offensiveness affected your actual enjoyment (in this case, it quite literally made your enjoyment negative. Especially since it would seem to follow that Pool of Radiance, if it had similar themes but was otherwise identical, would get a similar -5 bonus and maybe another -10 because of how it directly affected other categories, which would still leave it above 50.) Maybe- and I say this seriously- a -20 or -30 negative bonus would have been appropriate, since "bonus" is basically an "other" category- if something, anything seriously affects your enjoyment of a game, it should belong there, and a game that could be characterized as actively disgusting and offensive would surely deserve a negative score.

    18. After reading all this, I can't wait to see how you rate Progress Quest... It will probably push the boundaries of a bunch of your categories. Pity I have to wait until you get to 2002.

  3. If anyone's interested, Savage Empire is legally available for free on GOG:


    Also, please, nobody ever try to play the SNES "port" of Savage Empire. It runs on the SNES Ultima VII engine, which means it's... atrocious as a port. Be glad it never left Japan.

  4. If Origin hadn't done the Worlds of Ultima games, there wouldn't have *been* an Ultima VII, because they would have gone bankrupt.

    1. I don't think that this is true.

      For what it's worth, in interviews they stated that the Worlds of Ultima games weren't successful. Which is why they didn't do the third planned game in the series, an Ultima 7 based game about the Arthurian Legends. Too bad.

    2. Well, Origin DID do the Worlds of Ultima games, and that didn't save them, they still wound up gobbled up by Evil Arts... er Electronic Arts.

  5. I have to add my voice to the many that were really disappointed with Savage Empire, but loved Martian Dreams. I remember being very skeptical about Dreams after Empire was so "meh," but it's now one of my favorite games of the era.

    But, like Empire, Dreams is really an adventure game shoehorned into an RPG engine, which means it probably won't do as well on the GIMLET. I actually think that the Ultima 6 engine is a great vessel for storytelling, much better than it is an engine for combat or character advancement. One of the problems with Sierra or LucasArts adventure games is that only the puzzle items (or interactive environment elements) have a purpose, and they only have one purpose, and you find them near where you need them. The slight whiff of RPG in the U6 engine games allows the world to be built out of small reusable components, like Legos, and in that way seems more immersive to me than a prototypical adventure game. Maybe that fork isn't needed to open a door or solve a puzzle -- it's just a fork, and does d2 damage if you hurl it at someone.

    In Martian Dreams it really hit a sweet spot, at least for me.

    1. That's good to hear. Savage Empire wasn't really BAD, so if Martian Dreams is better, that's something to look forward to.

    2. "Dreams is really an adventure game shoehorned into an RPG engine"

      This applies to Ultima 7 too, doesn't it? The combat in U7 isn't really important and is hard to influence anyway (it's realtime and you can't give direct orders to your party members). There are very few battles that you actually have to win And IIRC those can be won by using magic items, so you don't really need to level up the characters. (You might have to level up to be able to cast a specific spell, though.) You spend your time in U7 travelling and talking to NPCs, and occasionally solving a puzzle. Due to the world simulation, you can do zany stuff like robbing the [onax bs Oevgnva] (slight spoiler ROT13ed) in various funny ways. I've read that Richard Garriott and Warren Spector made sure that each puzzle has at least two different solutions, and Spector enthused in an interview how a playtester solved a puzzle in U6 in a way that was not anticipated. (The player used Sherry the mouse to crawl under portcullis to reach a lever.)

      I agree with you that this is actually a great approach to adventure games. Instead of the rather artificial puzzles in classical adventure games, you can have puzzles that are simply natural consequences of the simulated game world.

      For example, let's say that some citizens ask you to find out why all the gold transports from the local bank are being robbed. After talking to some NPCs who suspect that there's a traitor in the local administration, you might follow the town's mayor around all day until you see him meeting with a bandit leader at midnight somewhere. Following the bandit leader to his hideout, you cast sleeping spells on all bandits so that you can search the room (even better: put a sleeping potion in the wine barrel outside from which all bandits go to drink sooner or later). You find a paper in the desk that seems to prove that the mayor informs the bandit leader about the gold transports in return for a portion of the gold. The next day you pickpocket the mayor, getting a small key. Exploring the mayor's villa (putting the servants to sleep if necessary), you find a door in the cellar which the key opens, where the mayor's portion of the gold is stored. Presenting the paper and the gold at the law court, you prove the mayor's guilt and solve the quest.

      I wish someone would go all the way with this approach, removing combat entirely, and design a simulationist adventure game like this. I think implementing this might be possible with Exult Studio, an editor for games running Exult's reverse-engineered Ultima 7 game engine.

    3. This kind of pure, scripted determinism is what always bugged me about adventure games. From my memory of Ultima 7, though, what bugged me (and to a lesser extent in Ultima 6) is that it simplified and de-emphasized the RPG mechanics while still not quite feeling like a full-on adventure game (there weren't constant puzzles, it was possible to travel awhile and not have anything "adventurey" happen, etc.) Ultima 5 struck this balance perfectly- there were puzzles to solve and items to find, yes- but it had perhaps the most interesting combat of the entire series, max HP was lowered 70% from U4 so you never really had enough HP to feel safe, etc.

    4. "Instead of the rather artificial puzzles in classical adventure games, you can have puzzles that are simply natural consequences of the simulated game world." The last couple of Elder Scrolls games seem to ALMOST get there with some of the quests, but I agree it could be done much better, and in the context of a non-combat game. I don't think classic "adventure game" aficionados would like it as much, however.

    5. Yeah, I agree Ultima 7 continues in the same vein of a "simulation adventure," but goes even further. Finally, the immersive bread-baking engine that I've always wanted! They really got a kick out of giving the world the mechanics to weave cloth and make items and whatnot... paving the way for more distilled Crafting in future games, I guess.

      I definitely agree the contemporary equivalent is the Elder Scrolls games. Though, I always feel like those games are so big and mechanical that it's too easy for me to get lost in them. I spend a few hours foraging for rare potion components when I sit up and wonder what the hell I'm doing with my time. That's less true for Skyrim, and definitely for Fallout 3.

      If someone started building compelling adventures in a sandbox RPG game engine, without the RPG components, I would play them. (In theory. My game playing time is considerably more limited these days, even though I keep funding Kickstarters that are seemingly designed to part me with my money.) It's a niche genre that hasn't really been adequately explored. Even with all the cool stuff that they did put into U7, I feel they could have done more adventury stuff into it.

      I wonder what the Minecraft adventure game from Telltale will be like. Certainly, it would be an opportunity for this kind of thing.

  6. I'm very much looking forward to the post wrapping up 1990, mainly because it means you are finally free of this mediocre year. Looking at your master list, 1991 appears to be a bit more promising, but 1992 looks absolutely amazing.

  7. Why is the background story for Martian Dreams stupid? Pulpy, yeah, in a tin-foil hat kinda way. But stupid? That's a little harsh, especially when 1889 didn't get called stupid for providing a similar theme with an even more outlandish background story (which the author himself acknowledging and requesting readers to leave their sense of credibility outside the door before stepping in).

    1. You're making a lot out of a single throw-away word, but the short answer is that Space: 1889 takes place in the setting, whereas the Avatar is supposed to be from the "real" world, and thus I have trouble understanding how the game reconciles this with the setting. I said "seems a bit stupid," so perhaps I'll change my mind when actually get into it.

    2. I liked the setting of Martian Dreams a lot. The whole thing's idiotic, and made me grin like an idiot.

      It also made me want to narrate the goings-on in a British accent. Ho ho, men! Ready your sabers, this horde of Martian jumping beans shall not get the best of us!

      Drive them into the canals!

  8. Technically, I still have Operation: Overkill to finish, but that's proving to be a boring slog, not unlike Dragon Sword but without the same ability to cheat.

    So sorry to burden you with the albatross! If you were playing the registered version (probably not possible today barring the intervention of its developer, Dustin Nulf), you would be equipped with a wide array of SysOp superuser tools to eg. edit the map, customize the enemies, and no doubt fudge your player data. With limited access to online playtime, I never made it anywhere near the end of this game; in a sense, the idea that it had an end goal was kind of beside the point. That may be to its detriment in the final GIMLET reckoning of things.

    1. A pioont I was going to make in the next review is that by only playing 30 minutes a day or so, I'm actually doing a better job mimicking the original experience than if I played all the way to the end.

      Don't apologize. I want my list to be as comprehensive as possible, and the game does have some interesting ideas.

  9. About Ultima Underworld. I recommend considering use of the "Lights Patch" from the start. It's fan-made, but the game is just too damn dark. Without a torch, lamp or a light spell you can barely see walls without hugging them. And even with a source of light, it's like three to four meters (yards) worth of visibility.

    - VladimIr V Y

  10. What do the different colors in the dialogue denote?

    1. They denote keywords that you can ask about in further dialogue.

    2. Right, but you said some where brown, some were red, and some were green. What do the different colors mean?

    3. No, there's only one color to the text. When I said it was "red, green, or brown," I meant that I didn't know what color it was. I can't see the variations in those colors.

  11. I recently played through this and think your review and rating is spot on. It's a rather nice short amusement in between two "real" entries to the ultima series. I also have to admit I like the pulp fantasy elements, although they really bring matters to a head here. Ja zey alsoh did inklood some cliché Germans, which always amuses me being German myself. Warren Spector however is not a German in reality as everyone probably knows. I wonder why they made him starring as a German professor in the game, perhaps no particular reason but who knows.

    The greatest beef I had with the game was the lost city of Kotl. Be glad you somehow stumbled into the control panel, bcause it took me hours. I didn't help that I have a compulsion to explore every dungeon in an rpg completely to grab all possible treasures on the way through. Especially the southern part of the city is somewhat confusing and hard to map. I think you said in some post that top down games are harder to map than dungeon crawlers, this is also proven here.

  12. Didn't see it mentioned here, so I wonder if the (apparently) first appearance of a quest log (Jimmy's notebook) was taken into account in the GIMLET? That seems to be an innovation which made it into many subsequent RPGs.
    And might be worth adding if you ever feel like expanding your list of "firsts" in CRPGs (http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2012/10/first.html) - I could imagine the additional ten years since then have brought a few more interesting categories or even corrections given all your fascinating backtracking game archaeology and deeper analysis over time.

    So Rafkin was able to recount his adventures in the manual / adventure magazine alongside the others even though he chose to stay behind? Well, I guess maybe LB just opened another moongate to whisk him over for a little home(world) R&R and an article.

  13. Is this the first CRPG with a real crafting system? Ultima VII has gotten a lot of the attention for a system (baking bread and making bandages) that is both simpler and less useful.

    1. If we're defining "crafting" as making useful objects out of mundane objects in a realistic manner, I think some version of NetHack (maybe even the original Hack) probably has this beat. This might be the first real GRAPHICAL crafting system.

  14. this happens EVERY. TIME. lol.

    origin seem so good at pulling ideas out of a hat and setting them up as game worlds and then SO BAD at the follow through.

    it makes me want to scream, sometimes.

    in your second posting on this game, i really thought, "actually, this seems so cool" [much in the way i thought the framing idea for space 1889 was a super neat idea] and then origin kind of come along and botch the execution by making the game so BORING.

    it also doesn't help, i guess, that this feels like a step back from actual ultima 6 while using the ultima 6 engine.

    it's really too bad.

    but i get the feeling - often - that richard garriott and co mainly used these games as little testing grounds for ideas.

    maybe the test here was: "can we port the avatar to other types of game world outside of the fantasy milieu and does that resonate with players? [and will they buy it.]

    the answer seems like a resounding no, sadly, because just as this sub-series seemed like it was getting interesting [martian dreams], they shelved other projects like it. :(


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