Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Xenogears, or "Killing god has never been so convoluted."

Every so often, you'll encounter a book or a movie or a video game that shows a lot of promise.  Then you go and read or watch or play it, and you find yourself wondering what the hell happened that made the author or creator squander that promise.
I still love that title screen.
Xenogears is a game that leaves me terribly conflicted. It's a console RPG that I love for everything it did right. It tells an engaging story with an ambitious scope that many games lack even today, has a tremendous sound track (Yasunori Mitsuda, the composer responsible for soundtrack of Xenogears, also was the composer for Chrono Trigger,) an involving combat system and an interesting art style that combines 2D sprites with rendered 3D backgrounds (With 3D graphics also used for the giant robots and larger enemies.)
But I have a hard time forgiving the game for its wasted promise. Xenogears suffered from a similar affliction as the later games of the Ultima series: Executive meddling. The first disc of Xenogears is terrific. It shows an epic scope, with ancient conspiracies and an ever-escalating war against a powerful force controlling the world to their own ends while at the same time the protagonists have to face their own inner demons (sometimes literally.) There's some information overload at times (and chronic abuse of unattributed pronouns by many of the antagonists) and there are quibbles with the control scheme and over-use of platforming, but all and all, it's a story well told.
And then you put in disc 2.
Wait. Wasn't I playing a game? When did this become a book?
Instead of letting you experience the consequences of the events set into motion in the wake of the cataclysmic climax of previous disc, the game goes into a series of hour-long cut scenes in which two of the main protagonists sit in a chair and tell you everything that's happening with still images behind them, offering a few breaks here and there where you get to explore a short dungeon or fight a boss.
The first time I played through Xenogears, I was floored by the sudden dead stop in the narrative. It felt less like the game was continuing and more like someone was telling me about this awesome game they were playing through and occasionally passing me the controller to experience a bit of the game of it here and there.
As I understand it, the reason the second disc feels so rushed and unforfilling is that Xenogear's staff and resources were pulled in order to help Square get Final Fantasy 8 out the door on time (Hey. Look everyone. Another reason for people to hate Final Fantasy 8.) Doing so crippled Xenogears' development. Instead of letting you continue to explore the world for the second disc of the game as you had during the first, the game rushes from plot point to plot point, giving the player the information and the revelations needed to set up the end game, at which point they return control to you. In some ways, it was an inventive solution that allowed them to continue telling the story without cutting it dramatically. But at the same time, it's a dire disappointment that the player didn't get to play that part of the game. The second disc turns Xenogears into a glorified text-based game broken up by occasional action sequences and FMVs instead of the game we just spent 30 or 40 hours playing.
I wonder if this painting is foreshadowing?
With all that out of the way, let's discuss the plot. The game opens with a cut scene that will make absolutely no sense for at least 40 hours and even then might require some extra reading to fully comprehend.  Fast-forwarding past that, the game introduces you to the main character.  You play as Fei Fong Wong, an amnesiac artist living in the idyllic, isolated village of Lahan, a town situated on the border between two waring nations - Aveh and Kislev. Lahan never really stood a chance, did it? That description alone is like a giant "destroy me" sign in RPGs. A heavily-injured Fei was brought to Lahan three years prior by a mysterious masked man. Fei recovered from his physical wounds, though now suffering from retrograde amnesia as a result of the trauma, and settled into the tiny town, making friends with Dan, Dan's older sister Alice and her fiance Timothy.
The game also introduces Citan Uzuki, one of the most awesome individuals in the game. He's an doctor and tinkerer who also is highly-skilled in combat who befriended Fei for reasons certainly not connected to Fei's mysterious past. Nope, no connection at all. I'd gush further about Citan's awesomeness, but I'd be spoiling most of the game.
That is one hell of a big music box. Also, foreshadowing.
Citan lives on a near-by wolf-infested hill with his wife, Yui, and daughter, Midori. Fei ventured up the hill to borrow a camera for Alice's and Timothy's wedding the next day. Oh man, Lahan isn't going to survive the night, is it? Citan shows Fei a music box he'd been working on that seems to briefly triggers something in Fei's amnesia-addled mind, but it passes rather quickly. Fei spends the afternoon and evening there, has dinner with Citan's family and finally returns to town that night. And as fate would have it (And the plot has been telegraphing for the last hour,) disaster strikes and giant robots belonging to Aveh's mysterious new ally/occupying force, Gebler, and Kislev decide Lahan is a wonderful location for a mecha-based beat-down and start fighting in the middle of town.
Poor Timothy didn't even make it out of the introduction.
Fei rushes to the scene to try to help the townspeople. After encountering a giant robot (called Gears in the game) vacated by its pilot, he sees a vision of himself in the gear's pilot seat and decides to try to fight off the soldiers. This doesn't end well. After seeing Timothy gunned down by soldiers, something snaps in Fei and some sort of power radiates from Fei's gear.  The power wipes out the village and kills anyone in the vicinity, including Alice. When Fei wakes up, the survivors, including Dan, promptly run Fei off for destroying their idyllic little village.
Why doesn't she ever use that gun again for the rest of the game?
Fei heads into the woods where he encounters an orange-haired girl in a military uniform who initially speaks a foreign language consisting of random punctuation named Elehaym Van Houten, or Elly for short. Elly, unbeknown to Fei at first, was a part of the special military unit who crashed in Lahan. To add to the trope checklist, she's also from the world's resident evil empire.the trained, high ranking military officer quickly cements her role in the game by promptly being attacked by forest monsters and then by a forest-dwelling dinosaur. Fortunately, Citan shows up with his flying machine carrying the very gear with which Fei accidentally destroyed his peaceful village. Citan doesn't really see any problem with forcing Fei back into the cursed machine, and Fei uses it to save Elly from the random forest dinosaur.
Get used to this Elly. Being saved is your role in the game.
The group sets up camp for the night and Elly runs off after Citan reveals a bit of foreshadowing by speaking in Elly's strange language. In the morning, Fei and Citan proceed into the desert that inexplicably borders the forest.  The climate of the world Xenogears is set in is weird. Fei goes on to meet a motley crew of colorful characters - including a one-eyed sand pirate, a gun-toting priest, a mutant who looks suspiciously like Blanka from Street Fighter II, a living colony of nano-machines and a a small, pink affront to all that is good in the world - and embarks on a reluctant journey to halt the machinations of the empire of Solaris and to learn about his past and his destiny. And he may or may not kill a god in the process.
Who the hell thought this section of the game was a good idea?
The core of Xenogears' game play is pretty standard for a Square RPG of the era. It features your basic Playstation-era over-world map ans menus galore. The town and dungeon maps feature a camera that, most of the time, and be rotated 360 degrees as needed, helping with exploration a bit. Some areas restrict how much you can rotate your map. The game is more action-oriented than most RPGs of its era, allowing the characters to jump around to get to otherwise inaccessible locations. Unfortunately, that also means that Square shoehorned in a lot of awkward platforming sections, some of which are more egregious than others. Tower of Babel? You're dead to me. Dead!
The combat system is a little odd at first, but gets more interesting as you use it more. On foot, you perform attacks by using action points. There's a light, medium and heavy attack that takes one, two and three points respectively. You can chain attacks together to use all of your points each turn. More over, there are combos that the player can learn that perform a more powerful attack. And if you save your action from turn to turn and use them to chain together multiple combos to do massive damage. Later in the game, characters gain access to elemental-based combos and Fei can gain two final combos that are strong enough to let him take down enemy gears on foot if he so desired.
The magic system, or Ether as it is called in the game in the game, is a bit hit and miss. The most useful spells in the game are ones that augment your fighting and defense. For the most part, your combo attacks will outclass any attack magic you possess.
This is gear fighting. Enough said.
Gear fighting is a different beast. Gears have a limited amount of fuel available. Light, medium and heavy attacks each take different amounts of fuel. Each attack lets you gain an extra power level. Once you have the right power level, you can do a gear version of your learned ground combat combos at the cost of extra fuel. Gear hit points can't be restored on the field (except with the use of certain gear parts,) and must be repaired in gear stores. Gears sometimes also get special abilities that generally have a high fuel cost. Some are more worth using than others and one specific one can be turned into a disc one nuke if you equip the character with the right item. Ether skills can be used from gears as well, but again, most ether attacks aren't worth using.
Character stats do not impact your gear fighting with the exception of the disturbing, pink comic relief character named Chu Chu who actually becomes her own 'gear.' Using the stat-boosting items you'll run into during the game on her yields the greatest dividends and can turn what is basically a joke character into one of your heavy hitters who has the added bonus of not requiring fuel and being able to be healed by healing magic.  Now if only she weren't so damned disturbing.
Okay. Maybe the graphic mix can look odd at times.
Graphically, Xenogears works pretty well, although heavily dated by today's standards.  It makes use of well made 2D sprites placed against a fully-rendered 3D backdrop.  Further, larger enemies and all of the gears are also rendered in 3D.  It can be a little bit jarring at times, but most of the time, it works really well.  They did a good job of making use of what they had.
The soundtrack for Xenogears is phenomenal. While the narrative and other parts of the game can come up lacking, the music helps the game tremendously. I still listen to the soundtrack occasionally. It is some of Yasunori Mitsuda's best work, and that says a lot given his body of work.
The voice acting is a bit hit and miss. A number of videos in the game are fully-animated anime scenes, all fully voiced. The problem is that the localization team made no effort lip-sync the characters' lines in any of the videos. It's like bad Godzilla dub lip-syncing. I don't know if it was the localization teams inexperience with dealing with voiced cut scenes or what. They are simply bad. There are a few short ones that are okay, but that's mostly because they didn't have much voice work in them.
Oh, I almost forgot. You also get to fight giant zombies.
As good as the story is, one of the major failings in Xenogears' plot it can be very difficult to follow. The first half isn't too bad. While the game is littered with terms and places with little context and many of the antagonists revel in their use of unattributed pronouns, but you eventually learn what a lot of it means and visit most off the places that are mentioned. The big problem starts to crop up on the second half where the text starts throwing names and places at you that it seems to expect you to know and in some cases doesn't. It might be better if the second half played out the same as the first half. But the story time game mechanic starts throwing exposition at you fast and furious and doesn't give you a lot of time to digest what you just learned. On the whole, it's a game that might require the creation of a flowchart to make full sense out of. Or get a hold of the supplementary texts that, while not released in the US, have been translated by fans. In fact, read the Perfect Words even if you want to play through again.
I should probably note that this evil looking gear belongs to Fei.
And there in lies my dilemma when judging Xenogears. It is an awesome story with a lot of detail and intricacy (Though you may need a flow chart to keep track of it at times,) and perhaps had the second disc not been full of suck and instead had the story have the same pacing as the first disc, it might have been one of my favorite RPGs ever. But the stumbling block of the second half is far too large to ignore. For as rich and deep as the story is, it starts to trip all over itself and grows increasingly convoluted and just when you need the exposition most, the game tosses the player the game's Cliff Notes. The shortcuts taken to get it produced beat the narrative to death and turned it into a mildly interactive novel for a long stretch. Further, the rush to the end game causes the story to start dropping plot threads and derails most further character development for almost anyone aside from the two lead characters and a few of the main antagonists.
I can't end a review Xenogears without discussing the more controversial aspects of the narrative.  Simply put, the game grabs hold of countless religious and psychological themes and milks them for all they're worth. This isn't a bad thing, really. Xenogears tries to be a version of Gnostic theology, only with giant robots. The game plays fast and loose with symbolism and seems to draw from all over the map from various religions. Sadly, a lot of the references were lost in the lackluster translation. For instance, most of the country names are derived from the months of the Jewish calendar. Add to that one of religions in the game being corrupt beyond belief, and you have a bit of a storm of controversy brewing on the horizon.
Adding to the controversy is the sex and nudity that show up in the plot. Neither is gratuitous or done for shock value. They fit the story, more or less. But none of it would have ever seen the light of day on a console in earlier eras where games had been butchered to sanitize them of far less 'offensive' content.
This scene will make sense eventually. I promise.
So what more can I say about Xenogears? It's a good game. It's a bit long, but a fairly rewarding experience. If you can get past a few of the levels that seem to drag on forever (Kislev D-block.  If you've played the game, you'll understand what I mean.) and the majority of the second disc where you get to test your reading comprehension skills as much as your gaming skills, it is well worth playing. It's confusing and convoluted and could have used a lot more polish to the translation before it's North American release, it generally gets its points across eventually. It's a good example of how the Playstation-era RPGs had begun to push the limits of their story-telling experience. It's a shame that no direct prequels were ever made, but the Xenosaga series act as a spiritual successor, in no small part because a number of the developers who made Xenogears headed for Monolith Soft - the company that created Xenosaga.
The only way to play Xenogears for the moment is its original Playstation release. Unfortunately, new copies of the game cost upwards of $100 and used copies, while costing less, are still over-priced for a Playstation game. The Japanese version has been re-released on the Playstation Network. I hope Square Enix eventually decides to re-release it in North America as well, perhaps even porting it to another console. It's an often overlooked gem in that era's RPGs and with all its faults, it is well worth playing for anyone who enjoys science fiction and RPGs or just enjoys watching an amnesiac martial arts expert lay a smack down on god while piloting a giant robot.  And I mean, who doesn't want to see that?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mega Man X, or "It's gonna be the future soon."

Once upon a time, Capcom made a video game series about a little blue robot kid in tights who ran around killing his fellow robots and foiling the plans of a fairly incompetent, megalomaniacal mad scientist. And it was good. Well, more or less. In any event, we hadn't reached the point where Capcom was really milking the series for all it was worth.

So along came the Super Nintendo. Not wanting to be left behind, Capcom knew they needed to get one of their flagship series on there. While they'd later release a new installment of the original series, they first decided to venture in a different direction with the series. Enter Mega Man X.

The X series is set roughly one hundred years after the classic series. No longer would we be controlling a blue midget in his crusade against themed robots . Instead, we get to control a slightly older looking blue robot as he fights against oddly themed animal-shaped robots. Right, so it doesn't sound that different. But it was. And more importantly, Dr. Wily is dead and gone by the time of the X series. So that leaves room for a new boss to become the predictable foil to our new azure friend. In all, the series seems to be meant to be a darker, edgier version of the Mega Man formula.

X (Who is most likely not Mega Man from the classic series, but rather a later creation) was a robot built by Dr. Light who was capable of thinking and acting on his own with free will - something robots until then had seemingly lacked. In order to make sure X wouldn't go nuts and kill everyone, Dr. Light placed him in a stasis pod to run tests on him. An archeologist named Dr. Cain eventually found the pod buried in the ruins of one of Dr. Light's old labs while looking for for fossil records relating to Mesozoic plant life. No, I don't know why he was looking in the ruins of a century-old laboratory for pre-historic plant life. Don't think too hard about it.

So, our intrepid archeologist took one look at this technological marvel from a hundred years ago and thought to himself, "Gee, would it be great if we could replicate X's designs and mass produce a bunch of robots with free will?" My guess is that Dr. Cain didn't read much science fiction or he'd see the problem with that idea. Instead, he pressed on and within a year, standardized and mass produced his new Reploids. No doubt, he also became filthy rich.

Things were going well, then some Reploids started to, shock of shocks, rebel against humans. At first, it was just a few here and there. Calling these rebels Mavericks, Cain and presumably whatever nebulous government that exists in the future establishes a group of Reploids called Maverick Hunters to police them. At the organization's head was Sigma, a late generation Reploid who was deemed incapable of turning Maverick. Everyone sees where this is going, right?

Sigma, joined by most of the Hunters, rebel and declare war on the humans. The only thing standing in their way? Zero, a high ranking Hunter who didn't rebel (And who has a rather interesting history added in later on linking him back to Dr. Wily himself) and X, who had joined the Hunters at some point but was a bit too pacifistic for the job until now.

The player plays as X - as the title tends to indicate. X starts off pretty weak. He has a charged shot by default. He doesn't have a slide of any sort at first and doesn't gain his equivalent until after he gains his first armor upgrade. He can, however, cling to walls and slowly slide down them. After an introductory level, he is faced with the usual selection of eight bosses. As per the idiom, once he defeats the bosses, he gains their power which can be used on other bosses and so on and so forth. The first place where X diverges though is that he also has armor and heath upgrades scattered through the various levels.

His armor upgrade is divided into four parts - legs, chest, arm and head. Each part either adds new functionality to X or otherwise enhances him. Some of the upgrades are easy to find while others require gaining a particular boss's weapon or another armor upgrade to access them. In each armor pod is a hologram of Dr. Light with a brief message concerning what each armor piece does. The legs are the only mandatory upgrade and grant you the power to dash. The chest increases X's armor. The head allows him to smash through specific kinds of blocks. And finally, the arm cannon adds a second level of charge to his charged shot and lets you charge up the boss weapons. There are also heart upgrades that increase X's heath and four sub tanks - reusable energy tanks that much be charged by gathering health power-ups while at full health. Finally, there's a secret upgrade that allows X to do a Haduken like Ryu from Street Fighter II.

Like I said in my Mega Man 3 review, we don't play these games for silly things like plot. Granted, it wasn't until the X games that there was much of a plot to speak of... Anyway, let's meet the Mavericks:
  • Chill Penguin: Most of these names pretty much tell you all you need to know about the boss. In this case, Chill Penguin is a penguin who shoots ice at his enemies and inhabits an icy level filled with slippery floors and various snow-themed enemies. Defeating him gives you the Shotgun Ice which fires a single block of ice at your opponent that shatters on impact.
  • Flame Mammoth: Again, it's all in the name. He's a mammoth who spews flame in a sort of fiery factory level. Defeating him nets you his Flame Wave attack - a short range stream of fire that runs constantly until you release the button.
  • Spark Mandrill: You detecting a pattern here? Incidentally, a mandrill is a kind of primate related to the baboons. Well, at least that's what Wikipedia says. He hangs out in an power plants. Killing him will get X the weapon called Electric Spark. No points for guessing what it does.
  • Armored Armadillo: He's a heavily armored armadillo. ...What more do you want from him? He rolls around in an armored ball and once killed, gives X his Rolling Shield. It's not really a shield, mind you. More like an oval shaped thing that rolls around, bouncing a bit as it runs over your enemies.
  • Storm Eagle: A large humanoid eagle who uses wind attacks. Honestly, he's one of the more interesting boss fights in the game. Fight your way through the airport he's occupied before the big showdown on board his air ship. X picks up Storm Eagle's Storm Tornado off the bird man's smoking carcass. It shoots long tornadoes forward at the enemy.
  • Launch Octopus: There's something to be said for the classic robot masters. At least a reviewer has room to describe them without feeling redundant to the process. Launch Octopus is a torpedo-launching octopus. Kill him will get you homing torpedo. I'm not sure how they work out of the water, mind you. I mean, at least Dive Man back in Mega Man 4 had the decency of using missiles.
  • Sting Chameleon: He's a chameleon. With a spiked tail. Who lives in a foresty/jungle level. When you fight him, he blends in to the background as he climbs around the room. And he shoots lasers. With his tail. His weapon is Chameleon Sting - a green laser that shoots in three directions. Moving on.
  • Boomer Kuwanger: Hey. Finally a boss who I have to explain. When I first saw him years ago, I wondered to myself, "Okay. What kind of animal is he supposed to be?" The answer, my friends, is a stag beetle. His name comes from, apparently, the word for stag beetle in Japanese, 'Kuwagata.' I guess Boomer Stag Beetle just didn't have the same ring to it. In any event, he's a stag beetle who leaps around the room throwing sharp boomerangs at X. His boss weapon is the Boomerang Cutter, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Before we wrap this up, let's touch on the few other named characters you'll encounter. Zero, as I mentioned earlier, is a fellow Maverick Hunter who helps X and is apparently working in the background to track down Sigma while X is mopping up Sigma's various underlings. In this game, he lacks his later trademarked light beam saber. Zero has a checkered history that more or less gets pushed into the background after X5. Following his heroic sacrifice in X, he'll go on to die several more times and star in his on continuation of the X series, Mega Man Zero.

Since we're playing in a world where the main antagonist is messing around with a light beam saber, why not throw in a Boba Fett doppelganger? Vile is one of Sigma's chief subordinates. He wears body armor with a shoulder-mounted cannon and a face mask that looks dangerously close to that of a certain Star Wars series bounty hunter. He also rides around in a ride armor and enjoys mercilessly beating on X. He's not all that complicated a character in the original X game, but gains a bit more depth in the sequels and remake.

Finally, let's discuss Sigma. Sigma is the big bad of the X series. His motivations vary a bit from game to game, but for the most part, he's after a world dominated by Reploids under his control. In the first game, he appears to have started the rebellion on his own accord and convinced others to join him via persuasion and charisma and such. But subsequent games move towards the idea that he has merged with a virus and infects his fellow Reploids, turning them Maverick.

If you'll forgive a slight digression, I find the charismatic leader version of Sigma is far more interesting from a characterization standpoint. It adds a bit more depth and plays well off the idea that Reploids are an artificial life from with free will who can strive for good or ill. The humans who created them seem not to fully grasp that fact and still treat them like normal robots, deeming them to be Mavericks if they exercise their free will versus the humans. The virus of later games seems to undermine the premise and revert the series to something closer to the classic Mega Man's simplicity of mindless robots wreaking havoc at the behest of a mad man. In a way, they return to the original premise later in the Mega Man Zero series and add a bit more depth to the idea.

In any event, Sigma was the commander of the Maverick Hunters and designed to be unable to turn Maverick. This, of course, is akin to a super villain announcing to the world that he's invincible before subsequently being flattened by the nearest deus ex machina that feels like putting that theory to the test. He wields a light beam saber and has a robotic pet wolf. He also likes to mark everything under his control with a '∑.' Incidentally, he's no relation to Gamma of Mega Man 3 fame, although his second form in X5 is a throwback to Gamma. One of his trademarks is that he has multiple bodies and can move from one to the next. When the whole virus plot takes off in the later games, you'll even fight a sort of virtual construct of Sigma's head that supposedly the virus itself. All in all, killing Sigma never seems to last for very long, thus opening up the ability to make sequels. The closest to actually dying Sigma has come is in X5, where the series was supposed to end, and X8, where for the moment, the X series has ended.

The X series lasted for 8 numbered installments with a pair of side stories on the Game Boy Color and an RPG on the Playstation 2. As I said before, the series was originally supposed to end at X5 and lead into the Mega Man Zero series. In fact, the ending to X5 does a pretty good job wrapping up a lot of the loose ends to the series. Capcom disagreed, however, and decided to make three more games and an RPG. The Zero series had its plot reworked a little to compensate for the additional games.

Mega Man X was released on the Super Nintendo and ported to the PC. In 2006, it was remade as Mega Man Maverick Hunter X. The original game was also released as part of the Mega Man X collection for the Game Cube and Playstation 2.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mega Man 3, or "Top Spin is the worst boss weapon. Ever."

I haven't managed to finish writing the third part of my Ultima retrospective. I'm running low of synonyms for 'garbage.' So instead, dear reader, please indulge me this digression.

Once upon a time, Capcom made a game about a little blue robot who shot Tic-Tac-looking plasma bullets at other, oddly themed robots. He'd wander long, linear levels and eventually fight stronger robots and steal their weapons after crushing them beneath his cerulean boot. He'd then assault the main antagonist's fortress and rarely make it through because most people would eventually give up because without a password system and with limited lives and continues, that sucker was hard. But the game was good.

Then Capcom released a sequel. And I'd dare say it was as tough as the first, all be it in different ways. But Capcom heard the anguished cries af the frustrated gamers and added a password system. No longer would you have to finish the game in one sitting. And the game was good.

Where am I going with this? Oh, right. Mega Man 3. Some people might say this is where the series started to slide... Bad pun, sorry. What I mean is that with the addition of Rush and sliding and the fact the game was, to some degree, easier than Mega Man 2 might mean that the series was starting to go down hill. And to some degree, I suppose it did. Capcom was adding layers of complexity onto the basic framework of the first two games. But to those nay-sayers, I say this. Mega Man 3 is my favorite game in the classic series.

For the benefit of the uninitiated to the Mega Man series, here's the deal. As I described earlier, the setup is rather formulaic. You choose your stage and Mega Man goes out and hunts down eight (Six in MM1) rogue robots generally under the control of the evil Dr. Wily and defeats them. He then faces off with Dr. Wily himself in his various Skull-themed castles. Mega Man defeats Wily, Wily invariably escapes (Well, except for MM6. But they worked around that in 7,) setting up Capcom to be able to churn out sequel after sequel after sequel. To accomplish his goal, Mega Man is armed with only his trusty arm cannon. Oh, and the weapons he gains upon defeating the enemy robot masters. And sometimes he gets special extra equipment which is mostly replaced by Rush adapters from MM3 on. MM3 marks the beginning of the series attempt to throw a bit of variety into the endgame. But we'll get to that in a moment.

At the start of Mega Man 3, Dr. Wily has seemingly sworn off evil and teamed up with Mega Man's ever-gullible creator, Dr. Light, to build Gamma, and gigantic peace-keeping robot of death and destruction. To do so, Mega Man is sent out to retrieve eight crystals (That are never shown in-game) from eight mining area guarded by eight robot masters that in no way work for Dr. Wily. To help him, Dr. Light has given the blue bomber a transforming robotic dog called Rush and given him the legendary power of being able to slide. Don't scoff at the slide. It's as close as we're getting to the ability to duck until mid way through the Mega Man X series.

So off Mega Man goes to fight the likes of Needle Man, Hard man, Shadow Man and... Top Man? Yeah, I think MM3 is when they started running out of good themes for robot masters and just started attaching random nouns to the word 'Man' and hoped for the best.

You'll also encounter a mysterious robot with a trademark whistle named Break Man. Little does Speed Racer Mega Man know that Racer X Break Man is really his long lost brother. Yes. Really. Hopefully I'm not spoiling too much (Oh, and Dr. Wily is behind everything and will get away at the end of this game,) but Break Man is really a robot called Proto Man, the prototype robot created by Light and Wily prior to Mega Man. One day, he just sort of wandered off from the lab. Wily eventually found him and, apparently not knowing how obviously evil Wily was, got the robot to work for him in slowing down Megs. He donned a mask and showed up in the various levels to briefly fight his little blue brother before teleporting away.

Anyway, eight boss kills later, Mega Man returns to Dr. Light's to find out that, shock of shocks, Wily took the crystals and absconded with Gamma. Before Megs can head for the latest Skull Castle, (Where does Wily find the money to build so many of these when they keep getting blown up each game?) Mega Man has to go face off with eight Doc Robots who have taken over four of the previously cleared stages. The Doc Robots each emulate one of the MM2 robot masters. Unfortunately, you don't get to steal all their powers again. Rather, you have to use all your fancy new weapons.

The levels you revisit have all seen better days. The maps have been partially destroyed and made far more difficult to transverse. It adds a bit of variety and lets you visit completely new levels that have familiar elements to them.

With the Doc Robots disposed off, one thing stands between you and Dr. Wily. Break Man. You face off with your older brother one final time in his own level area before he teleports off. Finally, the way is open to Wily's castle. In inside, you'll face several levels, each controlled by customary end bosses including a machine that launches exploding turtles at Megs, several copies of Mega Man and the eight robot masters from MM3. After destroying Wily's latest 'Wily Machine,' he'll boot up Gamma and fight you on board the incomplete giant robot. With Gamma dispatched, the fortress will begin to collapse (Stupid load bearing bosses) and blocks will fall, seemingly killing Wily while Proto Man will pop in and rescue the blue bomber. Cue the ending sequence in which we learn who Break Man really was and one of the coolest closing themes of all time.

Right, enough plot. Let's talk robot masters and weapons. After all, that's why we play Mega Man, isn't it? To be able to blow up other robots with stolen weapons of mass destruction.
  • Snake Man: He's a large walking snake... man. Yeah. The weapon you pick up off him is the Search Snakes. They're green and run along the floor and walls kind of like Bubble Man's Bubble Lead. Only they're snakes.
  • Gemini Man: You face twin robots (Get it? Gemini? Twins?) who bounce around the room shooting at you. You pick up the Gemini Beam off their smoldering corpses. It is a laser that ricochets off walls until it dissipates or hits something.
  • Shadow Man: He's a ninja, so he's all stealthy. His level has a tendency to shut off the light every so often. Once dead, he'll give you his Shadow Blade - a boomerang shuriken that can be shot up and diagonally. It's kind of like the Metal Blade from MM2, but less useful.
  • Hard Man: He gives you his Hard Knuckle - a rocket-powered fist you shoot at the enemy. You may insert your own joke involving the words 'hard' and 'fist' here if you so desire.
  • Needle Man: He's an oddly-shaped blue guy with a spring-loaded spikes on his head and a big red nose who shoots needles at you. You get his Needle Cannon upon his death. Honestly, it's just the arm cannon only with pointed projectiles instead of Tic-Tac shaped ones. Use it if you feel like a bit of variety or something.
  • Magnet Man: You'd think making a complex electronic robot out of a bunch of giant magnets might not be the smartest idea, given the nature of electro-magnetic pulses. But hey, he's a fairly effective robot master all told. His weapon is the Magnet Missile, which is just that. A giant exploding magnet who shoot at enemies. The only real interesting thing it will do is that it shoots up or down depending on where the enemy is.
  • Spark Man: Elec Man's 'special' brother. He's a walking spark plug with prongs for hands. You get his Spark Shot which is essentially little yellow sparks you fire at your enemy. Not all that intimidating.
  • Top Man: Top Man... What can I say about Top Man? He is the laughing stock of robot masters. Well, until you hit Plant Man. His level is filled with giant tops and things that fire giant tops. And what does he do against you? He shoots a bunch of tops at you before spinning at you on the ground. But his boss weapon... Now that, that is the disappointment. They could have given you a top shooter of some sort. But no. No, we get the Top Spin - the first master weapon that is as likely to kill you as it is to nick your enemy. Mega Man spins into his enemy. The problem is that it's horribly ineffective you'll usually end up taking collision damage. The only enemy in the game it's worth using on is Shadow Man who inexplicably is weak to the damn thing. I don't know. I guess ninjas have some sort of mortal fear of ballet or something.
So that's Mega Man 3 in a nutshell. It's a good game, to be certain. It's the point in the series where the game was becoming more complex, but hasn't hit the critical mass where it collapses under it's own weight. All in all, I've found that most Mega Man series games tend to peak after their third installment. X3 was the last one on the SNES and thus, the last one before the introduction of long cut scenes filled with horrible voice acting. Battle Network 3 always seemed to me to be the last EXE game they released before they ran out of ideas. Zero really hit a high point as far as things go when it hit 3. Fortunately, they ended the series after Zero 4 before things got too weighed down. I'd be curious whether they'll eventually release a third ZX game so we can see how that stacks up. There was no Legends 3 unless you count some of the side games. And I haven't played any of the Star Force games, so hell if I know how they go.

At any rate, you can get Mega Man 3 from a myriad of locations. There's the original NES release, the Sega Genesis remake, the Mega Man Anniversary Collection for the PS2, Xbox and Game Cube and more recently on the Wii Virtual Console.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Ultima Retrospective, Part II, or "Highest of highs."

Last time, I covered the first six Ultima games. This time, we'll take a look at some of the side games in the series and both parts of Ultima VII.

As before, this will contain quite a few spoilers. I suggest you stop reading now if you don't want me to spoil the series for you.

Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire and Martian Dreams: After Ultima VI, Origin decided to use the engine to create a few side-stories for the Ultima series. Neither takes place in Britannia, and honestly, neither has any real effect on the rest of the series as a whole. The first, The Savage Empire, takes place in a Lost World-like jungle filled with people pulled from various eras. The Avatar is transported there by an experiment gone awry. To get home, the Avatar has to master a new form of magic and fight the insectoid Myrmidex.

Martian Dreams takes the Avatar to Mars, where he must help save an expedition filled with famous, late nineteenth-century figures that was accidentally launched via a Space Cannon from a World's Fair. To put it succinctly, the Avatar goes to Mars to fight a Martian-possessed Rasputin with the assistance of the likes of Sigmund Freud, Nikola Tesla, Teddy Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill.


Both Worlds of Ultima games include a number of new companions for the Avatar, including a man named Dr. Spector. He's a self-insert for Warren Spector. Yes, that Warren Spector. Origin launched a lot of game design careers.

Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss: The Avatar was quite busy between Ultima VI and VII. Aside from the Worlds of Ultima games, he also appeared in a 3D game called Ultima Underworld. After being drawn back to Britannia to a colony on the Isle of the Avatar devoted to virtue, the Avatar witnesses a kidnapping which he is then found guilty and banished to the Stygian Abyss. Inside, he must rescue the kidnapped girl and prevent a demon from being summoned to Britannia. The game takes place from a first person perspective and is essentially a non-linear dungeon-crawler. You explore the abyss, fighting monsters and discovering the sinister happenings of the colony.

Ultima VII, Part 1: The Black Gate: Back to the numbered series, we reach what I consider the high point of the series. Ultima VII carries over much of from Ultima VI - the perspective, the general looks of the supporting cast, etc. - but adds several dozen layers of depth. Ultima VII is a living, breathing world. All the NPCs run on a schedule. You can explore virtually anywhere. It is a giant sand box of interactivity. You can even bake bread should you so desire. About the only major loss from Ultima VI was that you are now given the key words for NPC conversations without having to type them out yourself. But that's debatable as to that being a loss or not.

The story itself is quite good. It's been almost 200 years (Time in Britannia runs faster than on Earth.) since the Avatar was last seen in Britannia. Lord British is still on the throne and it's a time of relative peace. (Lord British and almost all of the Avatar's main companions are natives of Earth and age slower because of the time difference.) The Underworld finally finished collapsing, but the Gargoyles were giving the island of Terfin - Former home of Blackthorn's castle - to settle on. In the mean time, the Fellowship, a not-at-all sinister philosophical and religious organization has risen to great prominence. But all is not going quite so well. Mages across the land are loosing their minds, being driven mad by some sort of disruption in the ethereal waves that full their powers. People have begun to forget the way of the virtues, and many of the shrines have gone into disrepair. Oh, and there's been a rash of bloody, ritualistic murders.

Enter, once again, the Avatar. After being taunted by a malevolent, red face on his computer screen, he rushes outside to find a moongate open. He assumes Lord British sent it to summon the Avatar to aide him once again, and enters the red portal. For some reason, he decides not to bring any weapons or equipment, but honestly, that's nothing new. He ends up in Trinsic at the site of the latest of the murders. And so the Avatar begins a new journey, tracking down the myserious hook-handed murderer, figure out who this 'Guardian' guy is and learn the dark secrets hidden behind the friendly facade of the Fellowship.

It's difficult to write about Ultima VII's plot in any cohesive manner because it doesn't follow much direct progression. The Black Gate is a giant sandbox of plots and sub plots and side quests. It's concievable that you could skip around and even miss big chunks of the main plot thread. You spend most of the game following the trail of two of the Fellowship's founders, Elizabeth and Abraham investigating the murder spree that seems to form in their wake. There is a route the game will point out for you to follow, but over all, you could skip almost directly to the end of the trail only to have to go back and do earlier parts in the wrong order. It isn't a weakness in the game, per se, but it could cause a new player trouble if they fall off the rails and don't know where to go next.

The game also had an expansion pack called The Forge of Virtue. It wraps up a few hanging plot threads from Ultima III of all games. After the Stranger defeated Exodus in Ultima III, Lord British turned the demonic machine's former home base into a place that would be part of the Quest of the Avatar. The Isle of Fire sank into the ocean before anyone could make use of it, so it was forgotten. That is, until the island rises again. Fearing the return of Exodus, Lord British asks the avatar to travel to the Isle of Fire and find out what's going on. He learns that what he destroyed all those years ago was in reality Exodus's terminal interface and that it's dark core yet remains. The Avatar must take the challenges of truth, love and courage to help create the Talisman of Infinity to banish the dark core. In the process, he has to do a number of tests and forge a dark, demonic sword to slay a powerful dragon. The sword will be integral in the next numbered chapter.

In his travels, the Avatar will destroy three generators put in place by the Guardian. One is causing the mages to go inside, one has destabilized moongate travel (And completely breaks all the moongates when destroyed, leaving the Avatar stranded in Britannia.) and a third allows the Guardian to communicate with his followers. With three objects trapped inside those generators in hand, as well as a broken magic wand that detonates the mysterious blackrock that has been mined in mass, the Avatar confronts the Guardian's most loyal and powerful supporters in their 'secret' hideout on the Isle of the Avatar. Personally, I think hiding on an island named after your biggest adversary right behind one of the most important shrines for Britannians and gargoyles alike - the shrine that once housed the Codex of Infinite Wisdom - is a pretty bad idea in the grand scheme of things. But hey, I'm not an all-powerful, muppet-faced, trans-dimensional overlord. I'm sure he had a good reason for his minions to build the gate there.

When the Avatar reaches the titular gate, he's faced with a choice - Destroy the black gate and prevent the Guardian from using it himself, or use the gate to return to Earth, leaving Britannia to it's fate. I'm not sure why it didn't occur to the avatar to hand the wand to Iolo and go through, letting his companions destroy the gate themselves, but obviously, the Avatar blows up the blackrock portal. But Batlin, the Fellowship's founder and the Guardian's greatest supporter in Britannia, has escaped to parts unknown. But for the moment, victory is at hand and chasing down Batlin can wait for another game.

Aside from the underlying theme of the danger of blind loyalty to a group and the dangers of collectivism, there's one other subtle theme in The Black Gate. That is a resistance to the takeover of Origin by the gaming behemoth, Electronic Arts. For instance, the three generators are in the shape of a sphere, cube and tetrahedron, which is a subtle parody of EA's circle-box-triangle logo. If you look hard enough, you'll find other little jabs at EA through out the game. Sales were not enough for Ultima VII to stop EA's takeover.

Ultima VII was ported to the Super Nintendo. Well, not so much ported as smashed repeatedly with a spiked mace for an hour. Some of it has to do with good old Nintendo censorship. The brutal murders, for example, which spur much of the plot are replaced by bloodless kidnappings. Other problems are a bit more puzzling. You don't get a party for your journey. I think it might have to do with the biggest change for the port. Our happy, wonderful Ultima game turned into a Legend of Zelda clone in many ways. I suppose intergrating party combat into a more twitch-based setup would be difficult.

Part of the problem with playing a lot of old Ultima games on their native platform - the PC - is that technology has rendered some of the games unplayable. Computers today are just to fast for the oldest games. And then there's both parts of Ultima VII that required specialized DOS setting back when they first came out. The games would require you to make a boot disk and load up the game via that. There are two ways to get around this to play the game. The first is using a DOS emulator like DOSBox. The second is to use a specially made emulator for the two Ultima VII games called Exult Exult doesn't just emulate the game and make it playable on modern PCs. It improves the games. You can get a large screen size than the normal 320 x 200 the game was made with. It will also add a number of GUI and interface improvements added in Serpent Isle to the Black Gate. Exult further has its own interface improvements such as an easily accessible health (and mana for the Avatar) bar so you can see which of your party members are about to die horribly before they're on the ground in a pool of blood. The only major drawback to Exult is that it does cause both the Black Gate and Serpent Isle to be a bit buggy at times.

Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds: Squeezed in chronologically in the year and a half between the the two parts of Ultima VII, we have the second Ultima Underworld game. It features better graphics than it's predecessor and a slightly more involved story. Lord British decided to hold a party in his castle with most of the Avatar's companions and various other dignitaries to celebrate a year of rebuilding Britannia after the destruction of the black gate. But one of the guests, working at the behest of the Guardian, traps the guests inside so they'd be out of the way while the Guardian attempts to invade Britannia. It's up to the avatar to use a crystal found in the sewers below the castle to explore a number of world held by the Guardian to find a way to crack the blackrock dome locking them in.

Like Underworld I, Underworld II is a side story with little impact on the main series. It gives a bit of insight into other worlds that the Guardian has conquered and shows that big red does have a few other plans squirreled away in case he failed. It also contains its share of plot holes, such as where the black sword from the Forge of Virtue - a sword which the Avatar is bound to and can not discard - has wandered off too. Then again, giving the Avatar a weapon that powerful from the word go would have somewhat lessened the challenge.

The only major plot-related item in Underworld II that will have any effect on the series as it moves forward is the discovery of a blackrock sculpture of a serpent that will come into play in the next chapter.

Ultima VII, Part 2: Serpent Isle: EA's in charge of Origin now, so hang on kids. Things are about to get a bit rocky. Serpent Isle could almost be called Ultima 8, but it was decided since it runs on the same engine as The Black Gate that they couldn't give it its own number. Instead it became part two of Ultima VII.

It's been two years since the destruction of the Fellowship, and Lord British and the Avatar have finally gotten around to going through Batlin's stuff. Apparently LB spent his time, when not trapped in a blackrock dome, rather poorly of late. Anyway, they find a magical message left by the Guardian for Batlin that tells him that should (Or when, as the case may be) the Avatar thwarts his plan to enter Britannia, he should venture to the mysterious Serpent Isle and... Uh... I guess let him in through there? The whole plan is a bit vague, at best.

Serpent Isle, as it turns out, is where one of the Avatar's former companions and Iolo's wife Gwenno had recently gone to through the here-to-fore unmentioned Serpent Pillars. Not having much else to do, I suppose, the Avatar grabs Shamino, Dupre and Iolo and heads off after Batlin.

Lord British apparently confiscated all the Avatar's best gear from The Black Gate because you're rather poorly equipped when you arrive on the Serpent isle. And by arrive, I mean your boat gets struck by lightning and sails through the air, somehow safely landing on the coast of the unknown, yet oddly familiar continent. The Avatar and company set out from their wrecked ship only to get struck by lightning after about thirty feet. They're off to a great start, aren't they?

Turns out the lightning is magic lighting that's a sign of the the Apocalypse. More importantly, it steals most of what little good gear you came there with. It also scatters your companions. The Avatar soon meets a monk who will serve as your resurrection service for the game and who give a bit of exposition after the obligatory copyright protection. It turns out that Serpent Isle is being plagued by storms. These storms are but a sign that the end of the world is near, and the Avatar and his companions are prophesied to be the ones to fix the world's problems. The monk gets cut off by her fellow monk who interprets the prophesy differently thinking that by helping the Avatar, they are dooming themselves. The two fight with magic before teleporting away. From there, you meet up with Shamino and eventually the rest of your companions and explore this strange, new (old) world.

Serpent Isle is a far more linear game than The Black Gate was and takes place in what you might call three acts. The first act, you meet the locals. There are three cities in the southern part of the continent - Monitor, Fawn, and Moonshade. All three were settled by Sosarians who fled when Lord British took over and imposed his system of virtues on the world. A mage named Erstram lead them through the Serpent Pillars to found New Sosaria. The continent they found was covered in ruins decorated with various types of serpents, so they decided to rename it Serpent Isle. Essentially, all of this is a bit of a retcon to explain where exactly several of the cities that vanished between Ultima III and IV went. But it's fairly clever. More importantly, it's the Avatar's first trip through a world that knows little of his Age of Enlightenment exploits and where Lord British is referred to as the Beast British.

The second act delves deeper into the history of Serpent Isle as they follow Batlin. In exploring the continent, the Avatar and his companions learn that Serpent Isle is, or was, one of the original four continents of Sosaria - The Lands of Danger and Despair. After being split off from the rest of Sosaria, the remaining people eventually started worshiping Order, Chaos and Balance in the form of three serpents. Order and Chaos grew into powerful factions and remained held in check by the lesser faction of Balance. They called themselves the Olphidians and had a rather nice civilization going for a while there.

Everyone remember the Great Earth Serpent from Ultima III? Yeah, well, he was the serpent that embodied Balance for the Olphidians. When he was ripped from the void by Exodus to guard his castle, war broke out between Order and Chaos. In the void, the serpents of Order and Chaos fought it out as well. In the end, Order won the war with their army of robotic automatons. In the void, the serpent of Chaos was defeated and his essence sundered three parts. The three parts were imprisoned and grew corrupted over time, becoming the Banes of Chaos. Order left Serpent Isle through their wall of lights to go elsewhere. Thus, when the settlers showed up later on, the island was deserted and covered in war-torn ruins.

The war had unforeseen consequences. With no mediating force and one force prevailing over the other, the world was thrown into imbalance. This imbalance started localized to Serpent Isle, but over time snowballed into the mess that exists today. The storms are a consequence of ancient war. Batlin, having learned from the Guardian about Serpent Isle and the Wall of Lights, believed that he could attain power to rival the Guardian and betrays him. He frees then captures the three Banes of Chaos, but then does something rather dumb. He goes to the Wall of Lights belonging to the Order sect and attempted to open it with the blackrock serpent (One like the one found n Underworld II) of Chaos. This does not go well, and Batlin's death marks the end of act II.

Act III starts immediately after when your three companions - Shamino, Iolo and Dupre - are possessed by the Banes of Chaos - Anarchy, insanity and wantonness respectively - and proceed to murder about 90 percent of the population of Serpent Isle. Yeah.

As an aside, there was originally supposed to do far more than their murder spree. But in a sign of things to come, Origin had to rush the game out the door and cut a lot. Originally, the Banes were supposed to take over Moonshade, Montor and Fawn and you would have to drive them out before eventually confronting them. Instead, they murder almost everyone and hold up in one of the few places you have yet to be able to access in the game. There are bits and pieces of the cut content that remain. But they're relegated to minor sub plot status as you go off in search of what you'll need to take down the Banes and eventually finish the game.

The Avatar and a few survivors find the dead Gwenno, who had been possessed by the Bane of Wantonness bane before Batlin killed her and captured it. Once revived, she is act rather nuts. To cure her, and then to create prisons to capture the banes, you have to seek out the six Olphidian shrines dedicated to their 'virtues.' Dousing Gwenno with the water of Ethnicality fixes her. After forging three soul prisms, you go fight the banes, slaying them and capturing them in soul prisms. Dumping a bucket of the right water on the right companion, once revived, brings them back to their senses. It also allows Xenka, the seer who started the monastery, to wake up (Or appear. It's a bit sketchy.) and tell her followers how badly they screwed things up. Also, she sends the Avatar on the journey to save the universe from the increasing imbalance. The effects of the imbalance had begun effecting other worlds outside Serpent Isle. That includes Britannia and even Earth.

The Avatar is told that he must do the following. He needs to get the various ceremonial implements of the Great Heirophant, the three blackrock serpents of Order, Chaos and Balance, and the eyes of Order and Chaos. He, or one of his companions must then sacrifice themselves as part of a ritual to recreate a purified Chaos Serpent. Finally, he has to return the Great Earth Serpent to the void so he can mediate the two forces once more. Dupre, unable to live down what he did while possessed by the Bane, sacrifices himself in the Monitor crematorium. The Avatar uses his late friend's sacrifice to recreate the Chaos Serpent, who immediately starts fighting the Order Serpent in the void. Finally, he heads to the shrine of Balance on Sunrise Isle, and sends the Great Earth Serpent back into the void, finally ending the war and the imbalance. The Avatar himself goes through the wall with the Great Earth Serpent and witnesses the reunion, but before he is able to return to Serpent Isle (Assuming he could at all. He was kinda floating in space there.) the Guardian reaches into the void and snatches up the Avatar and drags him off to a new, unknown world. A world already conquered by the Guardian and knows nothing of Sosaria, the virtues or the Avatar. The world of Pagan.

Serpent Isle is a great game and honestly, I love the story. But the story comes at a price. The immense sandbox of The Black Gate starts to vanish. It would be seen again, in a way, when it came time to create the Ultima MMO, Ultima Online, some years later. But the rest of the main series would become far more linear in their scope and remove much of your ability to explore.

What really gets me about the story is two fold. First is the people of the three cities. They are people who, unlike everyone you've met for the last four games, decided not to live under Lord British's virtues and fled to an unknown land. As such, you encounter people who could give a damn about your being the paragon of those virtues. You're back to being a stranger, of sorts. Also, it's interesting to see how they subtly twisted the three principles - Truth, love, and courage - in representing their towns.

The second part I particularly liked was the Order/Chaos dichotomy. Neither side is good or evil. There could just as easily been Banes of Order had Order lost the war instead. The system leans towards finding Balance between the two extremes. I think the theme, such as there is, of Serpent Isle is striving for that balance. Balance is something the Avatar is not inherently all about. The Olphidian civilization is a well-thought out concept and has the level of detail I'd expect from Origin.

Serpent Isle had it's own expansion pack, The Silver Seed. Using a magic amulet given to you by the monks, the Avatar and friends travel back in time to near the end of the War of Imbalance. It's a similar setup to the Forge of Virtue in that you are in a fairly self-contained area doing a bunch of quests. This time, though, instead of awarding the Avatar with a game breaking weapon and massive stats boost, you get a still incredibly strong weapon and a bunch of other good relics, including one massively game-breaking ring - the Ring of Reagents. In all Ultima games (With the exception of Ultima IX, sort of,) the magic system requires reagents to cast spells. They take up space and cost money. The Ring of Reagents gives you infinite reagents, meaning you can easily turn into a spell slinger as soon as you get your spell book.

Both parts of Ultima VII remain among my favorite RPGs. And with good reason. They both have engaging stories, interesting characters and locations. Both games have living, breathing worlds, the likes of which won't show up again in RPGs for many years. Both games add quite a bit to the series as a whole and seemingly set up what looked to be an interesting story arc for the final installments of the series. The Guardian, while a bit passive aggressive, makes an good, omnipresent opponent who doesn't dip too far into the big bag of villain cliches. While you only see him in the flesh during the endings of both parts of Ultima VII, he makes his presence known through taunting the Avatar and through his effect on his followers in the Fellowship. He's an adversary who you learn little about in spite of his constant presence.

In a way, all those good points make the disappointment of Ultima VIII and the jaw dropping idiocy of Ultima IX all the more tragic. I'd originally planned to cover the end of the series in a single update, but it would end up being far too long. So join me next time, when I'll unleash years of pent up frustration on the final games of the Ultima series.

Images courtesy of the Internet.