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.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Ultima Retrospective Part I, or "How to create worlds."

If there's one series that helped form my gaming tastes early on, it was the Ultima series. Created by Richard Garriot - or Lord British as he's better known - and the now defunct (Well, devoured by Electronic Arts in any event) Origin Systems, Inc., Ultima was a series of RPGs that helped define what a video game RPG is. More than that, though, Ultima introduced far more depth than most RPGs in the inclusion of the virtue system. The series evolved from a simple "Hunt down the big bad" format to include themes with more depth such as social commentary or encouraging the player to act in accordance with an ethical system. The world of Britannia was an expansive, living world and gave one a giant sandbox to play in. And then they reverted into the base RPG format for Ultima IX. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

So join me, if you will, as we walk though the history of the Ultima series. Please note, I'm going to be including a lot of spoilers here for the entire series. But really, we're talking about a series that has its roots almost thirty years ago and hasn't released a new game in the main series since 1999. I don't think I'm spoiling much more than what a cursory read of various Ultima-related Wikipedia articles would give you.

Akalabeth: Before we hit the main series, let's take a trip into Ultima pre-history. Akalabeth was created by Garriot in 1979 and is essentially a prequel to the series. It was basic (And incidentally written in BASIC) dungeon crawler and is among the first, if not the first video game RPG. The over world is a top down perspective while the dungeons are explored in a first-person 3D perspective. The Ultima series would keep to that mix of perspectives until Ultima VI. There's no real story to speak of, but it's the point of origin (no pun intended) for the entire series, so worth a mention.

Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness and Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress: I'm going to cheat a little bit and hit only the basics on these two games. The reason is that I haven't really played them to any great degree. It mostly has to do with the fact they run at mach speeds on any modern computer and I lack a slow enough system to actually enjoy these games. But they're important to the series none the less, so here we go.

Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness is the true beginning to the series. You play as a stranger from another world who travels to the world of Sosaria. There, you must travel the world to free it from the grip of Mondain, a dark sorcerer who is rendered immortal by the aptly named Gem of Immortality. The Stranger transverse the four continents of Sosaria as into space and through time, completing quests, saving princesses and various other non-cliched RPG staples. Eventually, the stranger goes into the past and destroys the gem and kills Mondain. Don't try to explain how all of this didn't create hundreds of messy temporal paradoxes. It'll give you a headache.

Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress is the only Ultima (Outside Ultima IX's tutorial level) to take place on Earth. The enchantress Minax, Mondain's lover, launches an attack on the Stranger's homeland to avenge Mondain's death and clear the way for her own invasion of Sosaria. She does so by messing the the fabric of time in the Stranger's homeland. The Stranger, in turn, embarks on a journey through time and space to hunt down Minax. That Stranger and his wacky time travel.

Ultima III: Exodus: Now we're starting to enter more familiar territory for me. I first played Ultima III at a friend's house on his Nintendo Entertainment System. I didn't realize what the game was at the time, to be honest. Looking back, it seemed like just another RPG.

The Stranger is summoned back to Sosaria to take out the last vestiges of Mondain and Minax's evil, Exodus. Exodus, as it turns out, is a demonic machine and child of Mondain and Minax. Don't ask me how that works. I suspect blood rituals and a correspondence course in electrical engineering was involved.

Exodus has launched his assault on Sosaria from his home base on the Isle of Fire which is protected by a large snake called the Great Earth Serpent who can only be passed by way of a password. The lands of Sosaria had been radically altered since the Stranger last visited. It appears that when Mondain was defeated in Ultima I, a fail safe went off which caused the other three continents of Sosaria outside the Lands of Lord British to vanish. The Stranger travels Sosaria and with the help of a being called he Time Lord (No, not that one) and several companions, he assaults Exodus and defeats the infernal machine. With punch cards.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Stranger - Master hacker.

Exodus marked the end of what's called the Age of Darkness trilogy. The first three numbered Ultimas, while classics in their own right and undoubtedly influential on pretty much every RPG ever made for a computer or console, were not the greatest of games. Their plots are straight-forward "seek out bad guy and kill him dead" setups. There are interesting twists and influences that come from science fiction as much as fantasy. But it is the next three games where Ultima really starts to hit it's stride.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar: Ultima IV was a turning point in the series and is one of the most memorable RPGs ever made. Garriot starts to pull away from the more formulaic "kill the boss" type of game. Ultima IV is a game about self-improvement. Your character isn't out to slay an evil terrorizing the land, but rather, out to gain enlightenment. There aren't many video games in existence whose main goal is a form of self actualization.

You play ask... Well, actually, that's one of the more interesting questions of the entire series. You may or may not be the Stranger, the protagonist of the first three Ultimas. Later games in the series say that you are, but with a lot of the extra races and D&D detritus that was cut back for Ultima IV, it's possible that you aren't. But, for the sake of the argument at hand, let's err on the side of the later games and say that you are, in fact, the Stranger from another land who bested Mondain, thwarted Minax, and, um, punch-carded Exodus.

The game starts off by asking you a mess of philosophical questions that align you towards one of the eight virtues: Compassion, honesty, valor, honor, sacrifice, justice, humility and spirituality. The virtues are, incidentally, all governed by three guiding principles: Love, truth and courage. Your class is defined by which virtue you favor. After that, you're thrown into the world of Britannia.

"Wait, Britannia? What happened to Sosaria?" you might ask. Well, in the wake of Exodus's death, the remains of Sosaria were geographically altered. The lands were rearranged and some major cities were destroyed. Soon after, Lord British united the remaining towns into a single kingdom, Britannia. Lord British decided to create the virtues as a system of beliefs for the people to follow and put a quest in place to find a single individual to become the avatar - the living embodiment - of all eight virtues. That's where you come in.

The bulk of the game has the Stranger travel the world and gaining points in each of the eight virtues and collecting several key relics. Once the Stranger has become virtuous enough in a single virtue, he can meditate at the shrine using the rune and mantra and attain partial avatarhood. Once he's done so for all eight virtues, he and his companions - each of whom represent one of the virtues - must travel into the Stygian Abyss and consult the Codex of Infinite Wisdom and become an avatar. I say "an avatar" because it conceivable that another avatar could come into being. It just never happened.

Ultima IV introduced many staples of the series. The virtues and their various paraphernalia, the major cities and the companions would all be seen through the rest of the series. Moongates, which were a method of travel in Ultima III, are now located near the major cities and will remain more or less where they are until Ultima IX manages to mess even that up.

The companions themselves would gain increasingly prominent roles in the coming games. Most of the companions are based or are even the alter egos (In the same way Lord British was Garriot's alter ego) of people Garriot knew. Several of the companions, like Iolo and Shamino have appeared in the Ultima games from the start. Others were added for Ultima IV. Shamino, it should be noted, was one of the eight kings of Sosaria in Ultima I and is another self-insert of Richard Garriot, meaning he's in the game twice.

Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny: Ultima V pulls back a bit from self-actualization goal of Ultima IV more towards a big bad terrorizing the world. But we're not crashing head-long into cliched territory. In fact, quite to the contrary. Ultima V contains a giant, over-riding social theme. That is the dangers of implementing a moral system as an absolute law.

Between Ultima IV and V, the Great Council, Britannia's ruling body outside of Lord British, had magically raised the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom from the depths of the Stygian Abyss - an act that will in no way come back to bite them in the ass in the next game - and enshrined it on an island now called the Isle of the Avatar. Lord British, in what I can only describe as either a fit of stupidity or a mid-life crisis, decided to enter the Underworld exposed by raising the Codex and explore, leaving his friend, Lord Blackthorn, in charge of Britannia in his absence. Things go well, at first. Blackthorn is reportedly a good man and a good leader. Enter the Shadowlords. The Shadowlords, you'll eventually learn, were born from three large shards of the Gem of Immortality - each aligned against one of the three principals - and three individuals slain by someone driven mad by the three shards' power. They corrupted Blackthorn and caused him to enact the virtues as twisted, absolute laws and oppressed the populous. Meanwhile, Lord British is captured and imprisoned in the underworld.

Iolo and Shamino summon the Avatar back from Earth to help save Britannia. The Avatar collects a number of his old companions and sets off to end Blackthorn's tyrannical rule, slay the Shadowlords and free Lord British.

Where Ultima IV was mostly about the soon-to-be Avatar learning the meaning of the eight virtues, Ultima V is about showing how those same virtues could be twisted into a rigid, oppressive code of laws. You and your companions are considered outlaws for not submitting to the new virtue laws. Interestingly, you can't directly confront the "main boss" of the game, Lord Blackthorn. It is impossible to kill him in combat, even with the game's one-hit kill weapon, a glass sword.

Ultima VI: The False Prophet: I hadn't even thought about Ultima for several years when one day a friend showed me a game on his old 286 PC. It had nice graphics (For the pre-3D rendering world,) and a free world to mess with. You could kill and steal, or you could do quests and help people. You could talk to anyone and pretty much everyone had something to say. It took a little while to figure out that the game I was playing was a sequel to the Ultima games I had played on the NES years earlier.

Ultima VI graphically broke with the earlier Ultima games. It was still a top-down game, but it was no longer one-tile large stick figures wandering around. Also out was the first-person perspective in dungeons. The Avatar and his companions, and all NPCs in general now had distinct looks and even portraits to go along with their dialogue. Britannia was now a much more pretty place to look at and the game play gained a bit more depth. The world was more of a sandbox than it had been before and you were free to roam as you like.

The plot goes like this. Lord British regained control of his lands from Lord Blackthorn at the end of Ultima V and all was going well.Suddenly, a horde of red, demonic looking (They were actually refered to as daemons in previous games) gargoyles invaded Britannia from the underworld, taking over the eight shrines. The Avatar is lured through a red moongate and nearly sacrificed on an altar, only to be saved at the last minute by his old companions Iolo, Shamino and Dupre. After beating a hasty retreat and defeating several gargoyles who followed them though the moongate they escaped trhough, Lord British tasks the Avatar with fighting off the gargoyle invasion and to save Britannia. Again.

Sounds simple enough, but really, it isn't. Let me introduce you to the theme of this installment of the Ultima series: tolerance. The gargoyles are invading Britannia not out of some evil purpose, but because someone stole their most sacred artifact, the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, from their homeland, the Underworld. In the process, they managed to destabilize set in motion the destruction of the gargoyles' underground home. Remember when I said raising the Codex wouldn't bite them in the ass? I lied.

As you travel the game, you learn that the gargoyles are an intelligent species simply trying to reclaim their stolen property and halt the destruction of their world. The Avatar is the False Prophet of their sacred prophecies who will destroy the gargoyles and must make a sacrifice for the gargoyles to survive. So what's an Avatar to do when his two options consist of die and let the gargoyles continue their invasion or commit genocide to save his adoptive world? I'm tempted to flat out say the solution, but it suffices to say he found a third option by which both sides could access the Codex and coexist peacefully.

The second three Ultima games are considered the Age of Enlightenment trilogy. The break with the cliched scifi/fantasy roots of Ultima I-III did much to turn Ultima from a basic RPG series into a classic series. Ultima IV especially breaks so many RPG conventions that it's easy to loose count. The closest the series comes to confronting a big bad end boss in the second trilogy is destroying the Shadowlords in Ultima V. And even then, you don't destroy them by sword and sorcery, but by solving a puzzle of learning their true identities and burning the shards that created them in a fire that represents the principle they oppose.

I'll stop this retrospective here and pick it up again in a second part before this goes too much longer. Join me next time when I review the best and the worst entries of the Ultima series.

Images courtesy of the internet.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Legend of Zelda, or "Well excuse me... Wait. What do you mean that's an over-used catch phrase?"

A young boy wanders the monster-infested world in search of a magical MacGuffin to help fight a powerful evil lord in order to save a princess and the whole of the planet. Honestly, I think I just described about half the console RPGs in existence in one sentence. But in this case, we're talking about the grand daddy of the modern action-adventure dungeon crawler. The Legend of Zelda.

As a series, Zelda is about as prolific as they come. There has been at least one original release of the series on every major Nintendo console (Well, except the Virtual Boy, but we shall not speak of that demonic strainer of eyes. I suppose had it lasted longer, it may have gotten it's own Zelda title as well.) and countless re-releases over the years. There are also several spin offs, most of which have not seen a release in the United States, and three laughably abdominal games made for the ill-fated CD-i, but those are hardly worth mentioning. There was a Zelda animated series back in the '80s and the Zelda crew guest-stared on Captain N several times. There have been several comic series and countless Japanese manga about our green hero.

But for purposes of the review, let's narrow our focus and take a look at the original game. The Legend of Zelda was released in Japan for the Famicom Disk System - a Famicom peripheral that never came to the United States - in February 1986 and on the Nintendo Entertainment System in the U.S. in August 1987. Its shiny, gold cartridge sticks out among the sea of traditional gray NES cartridges. One of the more unique items included with the game was a map. On one side, there was a partially incomplete map of the over world, while on the other were a couple of dungeon maps and a list that gives you an idea of what treasures you'll find in the later dungeons. Both were invaluable for the beginning player in a world before one had hundreds of walk throughs a few keystrokes away on the Internet.

The game itself is a quintessential top-down adventure game. You control Link, a green Hylian elf with an improbably large inventory on a journey to collect the scattered pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom and ultimately liberate Princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil Ganon. As you travel the world and from dungeon to dungeon, you'll pick up links now-iconic equipment like the boomerang, bombs and bow and arrows. Some gear you'll find randomly strewn across the over world and the nine dungeons, while others can be purchased with rupees, the currency of Hyrule.

Game play is straight-forward. Link moves around wit the control pad, stabs his sword with the A button and uses his current special weapon with the B button. The Start button will bring up Link's inventory screen and the Select button pauses the game.

Link's life is measured in hearts and can be increased by picking up heart containers, most of which will drop off the dungeon bosses. You start the game with three hearts. At full life, Link's sword will shoot sword-shaped energy from a distance, giving him a useful sniping ability that will instantly go away the moment a random bat dares touch him. When Link is low on life, the game will start an incessant beeping noise that will grate on your nerves until a monster decides to drop a heart to restore some lost life. Link can also pick up faeries from fallen creatures that will restore a larger chunk of your life or visit a fairy spring which will restore his life to full. You can also pick up a red potion which will, when used, fully restore Link's life and are useful.

You're more or less free to roam where you like on the over world map with the only major limiting factors being that some areas require you to acquire certain items to unlock them. Well, that, and if you wander into some areas before you're supposed to, the monsters may be too strong to defeat with you puny starting sword. The dungeons can be entered in any order with the caveat that some dungeons are inaccessible without certain items and others can't be completed without certain items.

Aside from the monsters, there are also other Hylians hiding out across the world. Several are shopkeepers who'll sell you (mostly) valuable equipment. Others will offer advise of dubious value - not because they are trying to trick you or anything, but because the sparse dialogue in the game was so horribly translated. Still others may offer you some rupees or other items to assist you, while others will be angry that you busted into their homes and actually charge you for the repairs. Sadly, without a guide or notes from a previous playthrough, it's a bit of a crap shoot as to which is which.

The dungeons have a fairly stable formula to them. Find the map and compass, hunt down the special item, fight the boss, pick up the hunk of Triforce, rinse, repeat seven more times. While the early dungeons have more or less straight-forward layout, the later ones can be more tricky to navigate with multiple hidden rooms and secret passages.

Once link has traveled the world, collected enough items that he shouldn't be able to move any more or should at least require a cart to drag all his junk around in, and vanquished Ganon and saved the princess, your journey is not necessarily over. Why? Because the game will let you travel a harder version of the game with a new layout and stronger enemies and repeat the process over again.

The Legend of Zelda is a classic among gamers. It has been re-released in the U.S. for the Gameboy Advance, on the Game Cube as part of The Legend of Zelda: Collector's Edition, and is available on the Wii Virtual Console. Link is one of the most recognizable video game protagonists and the game has spawned 12 sequels (Counting the two Gameboy Color Oracle games as a single game and not counting LCD games, spin offs and the horrible CD-i games.) Granted, only one of the sequels - Zelda II: The Adventure of Link - is a direct sequel to the original. But most possess the basic elements of Link traveling the word to save the Princess Zelda (in one form or another) and defeat Ganon (also in one form or another.) If you can get past poorly translated text, The Legend of Zelda continues to be a quite enjoyable adventure and well worth playing for the four or five of you who have yet to do so.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Startropics, or "The one in which we explore how useful a yo-yo is as a weapon."

This is just a peaceful vacation to the south seas, right?A boy - armed with a yo-yo - sets off on an island-hopping adventure to save his uncle from aliens. As goofy as a premise it may sound, it makes for an interesting game.

Startropics was an adventure game released for he Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989. It's one of the more memorable games of its time for both its good gameplay and its odd back story. It combines RPG elements with a core action-platforming game that sucks you in to the game.

You sure you don't have a sword stashed away there Chief?You play Mike, a teenager from Seattle. After receiving a letter from his Uncle Steve, an archaeologist studying some ancient ruins in his laboratory in the south Pacific. When Mike arrives at C-Island, he learns from the local chief that Dr. J, as they call Mike's uncle, had been kidnapped and that monsters had begun to infest the local islands. Mike, in a fit of either bravery or insanity, takes it upon himself to venture out into the islands to find his uncle. The chief, in turn, decides to arm you with among the least probably video game weapons of all time, a yo-yo. We're dealing with a responsible bunch here, aren't we?

C-Island.  A tropical paradise on the surface...The over-world map and town maps work a lot like the basic RPG of the era works. You can talk to people, wander around and so on. The game really begins when you head into various tunnels and dungeons and it turns into a top-down action platformer. At the end of the first area, you pick up a yellow mini-sub named Sub-C is your mode of transportation as you visit the rest of the game's islands.

The topic of combat brings us to one of the more famous aspects of the game - your primary weapon. The yo-yo. It's, well, a yo-yo. It's a short-range weapon, unlimited use weapon with which you hit your enemies As the game goes forward, you'll pick up a couple upgrades to your yo-yo, but that will be quite a while in the game. I'm not entirely sure how effective a child's toy would be against slugs or rats or snakes, but in Startropics, fights them off quite well.

...But possessing a cavern infested with all kinds of beasties.Aside from the yo-yo and its later upgrades, you'll be able to pick up various special weapons and items in each of the levels. Aside from the quest-relevant event items you'll pick up, there are two major categories of usable items. Support items, such as medicine, can be carried with you between levels, and weapons, which have a limited number of usages and vanish when you leave an area. Some of the temporary weapons are more useful than others and can kill enemies that would be difficult to yo-yo to death.

The levels are twisty, monster-filled tunnels. The ground is either open areas you can move around or tiles which can only be jumped on to. Tiles can contain switches that reveal paths that allow you to get items or continue to a previously blocked area.

It's a C-Serpent. Get it? This is C-Island and... Yeah, I know. It's about as subtle a pun as a punch in the face.At the end of most levels, you'll find a boss. Each one has its own gimmick. The bosses can be quite difficult to defeat and often it's not a matter of pummeling the boss into submission to overcome them. Many levels will have boss fights where you must do specific things to switches or other tiles in the room to win. Combined with the inability to attack in the air and the lack of diagonal movement, the the game can reach moments of controller-smashing frustration.

Overall, though, Startropics was a good game. It had a quirky aesthetic, a good sense of humor, and it was a fairly original plot for its time. In spite of its flaws, it's an enjoyable experience. The game is available on the Wii's Virtual Console and is worth a look if you haven't played the game before. Interestingly, Nintendo was forced to rename the yo-yo the "Island Star" for copyright reasons for the Virtual Console release. But we all know what Mike is really smacking those rats with, don't we?