Sunday, November 15, 2020

Game 51: Local Call for Death (1979)

The covers for Adventure International
games are usually very accurate, but this
one has loads of differences from the
actual game.

Today's game is Local Call for Death, a very short bit of interactive fiction for the TRS-80.  And when I say very short, I really mean it: I knocked this game out in about 40 minutes.  I wouldn't mind a long run of games of about this length.  I mean, I might have felt ripped off at the time if I'd paid for it, but when I have a list that's many hundreds of games long ahead of me I ain't complaining.

You may have noticed that I described this game as "interactive fiction". It's not a term I generally go for, preferring to describe these early games with the somewhat less pretentious label of "text adventure".  But with Local Call for Death, interactive fiction really is the most fitting descriptor for it.  Set a couple of years after the Great War, you play as an amateur detective helping to solve a murder mystery, with most of the input being in the form of your own dialogue.  It plays out much like a Sherlock Holmes adventure, with the player in a role similar to that of Doctor Watson, being prodded by a smarter detective to solve the mystery.  (Unlike with Lovecraft in my last post, I've read most of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.)

Local Call for Death was written by Robert Lafore for the TRS-80, and released by Adventure International.  We'll see Lafore again later in 1979, and he has some games in 1980 and 1981 as well.  Wikipedia credits him with coining the term "interactive fiction", so he has that claim to fame, and he also seems to have had a lengthy career in the computer field, as well as writing books on programming.  He would have been in his early 40s when his first games were released, which explains why Local Call for Death feels a lot more mature in tone than many of its contemporaries.

Mobygames says that Local Call for Death was a 1980 game, but the title screen and source code have it as being written in 1979.  Generally I'd prefer to go with the release date, but I've already played the game and started writing this post, so I might as well get on with it.  It came out for the TRS-80, and the documentation indicates that it was also released for the Apple II.  I couldn't find the Apple version, so for this post I'm only looking at the one for TRS-80.  I suspect the versions aren't greatly different.

The title screen.

After a request from the author to "please spell correctly" ("the computer is, alas, not bright enough to correct your mistakes"), the game asks you for some details about your character.  It asks for a title - Mr., Miss or Mrs. - rather than a gender, as well as your first and last name.  (Ms. is dismissed as being inappropriate for the time period.) Finally it asks what town in America you come from.  After the last couple of weeks I know a lot more American towns than I used to, but I still went with the boring answer of New York.

A level of spelling and grammar heretofore unseen in gaming.

The game begins with the player, an American visiting England, dining at a club with three people: famous English detective Sir Colin Drollery, a retired soldier named Major Wormsley, and a financier named Mr. Blackwell.  This section plays out much like the opening scene of a short story, with minimal input from the player.  The major characters converse among themselves, with the player being asked minor questions such as what they do for a living, or whether they want to drink some more wine.  At this point, the player's responses have very little effect on the game.

The conversation is extensive and well written, with quite a number of detours and red herrings, but the relevant details are as follows: someone has won the lottery today, and Blackwell's finance company is currently in some trouble.  The dinner ends after Blackwell's nephew Rodney - a gambling addict and womaniser - calls him to threaten suicide if he is not loaned 500 pounds.  Blackwell refuses, and the call ends with the sound of a gunshot.  It's all played off by Blackwell as another of Rodney's cries for attention, and everyone goes off to play bridge before going home.

The next morning the player is woken by Sir Colin, who has received a call from Blackwell; it seems that his nephew is dead after all, and he wants the two of you to investigate the crime scene.  So off you go, and this is where the game properly begins.  You are given a description of the room, in which Rodney is slumped over his last meal with a gun in his hand and a bullet hole in his head. Sir Colin then prompts you to explore various items within the room for clues.

The scene of the crime.

The first time I got to this point of the game I hadn't been taking notes, so I got completely stumped.  After scouring the room for clues, you're asked if you want to accuse someone of murder.  The preamble was so interminably long that I zoned out and forgot the names of the other characters.  The culprit was obviously Blackwell, but I had no idea how to accuse him without remembering his name, so I had to start again.

The second time through I took lots of notes, and was prepared to accuse Blackwell when the time came.  (You can accuse yourself, Sir Colin, or Wormsley, but all of those suggestions are dismissed as absurd. I tried to accuse the prime minister and King George V, but the game wasn't having it.)  Figuring out who committed the murder is trivial; the meat of the game is finding enough evidence of Blackwell's guilt. I didn't pick up on all the clues, and had to be prompted by Sir Colin once or twice, but I got there eventually.  Some of those clues are:

  • The phone is hung up on the receiver, which is pretty unlikely if Rodney shot himself while calling Blackwell.
  • Rodney has this morning's newspaper on the floor, impossible if he died last night.
  • There's a piece of material caught on the table leg that matches Blackwell's trousers.
  • Rodney is clutching the torn corner of a lottery ticket, and Blackwell has the rest of the ticket in his pocket,
  • Rodney's suicide note matches Blackwell's handwriting, which can be found on a business card he gave me over dinner last night
  • The window is open, and the coffee spilled on the table would be frozen if it had been left there overnight

Lord Colin Drollery lives up to his surname.

That's far from all of it, but it's enough to accuse Blackwell.  Perhaps the biggest difficulty in this section is getting the wording right.  Sir Colin insists that you give your answers in the form of complete sentences; you can't just type NEWSPAPER and move on, even though the game is probably responding to keywords.  The one I had major trouble with was matching the torn material to Blackwell's trousers.  I never did get that one right, but I was able to find enough other clues to make my accusation.

Once that's done, Sir Colin runs through his own reconstruction of the case, as is customary in these kinds of stories.  Blackwell makes some empty threats, and the game ends as you and Sir Colin shake hands over a job well done.

Let's be real, Lord Colin didn't need me there..

Local Call for Death is certainly interesting as a "path not taken", and it's often impressive in terms of how well it responds to the many sentences you can input.  Still, it feels a little bit like too much of a story and not enough of a game.  It's a bit like a micro version of those late 90s JRPGs that felt like they were 90% cutscenes.  What it does, it does well once the game gets going, but it does take a little too long to get to the point.


Story & Setting: Both of these were very well realised, if somewhat limited in scope.  Of course, in comparison to murder mystery literature it's pretty cliched stuff, but it's at the top end of quality in terms of the video games I've played for the blog thus far.  The main complaint I have is a lack of interactivity for the majority of the game.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: There are only three characters of note in the game aside from murder victim Rodney, but they have more depth than pretty much anything else we've seen so far (i.e. they have actual personalities).  Unfortunately, it's only Sir Colin that you really get to interact with; Blackwell and Wormsley don't do much outside of the heavily scripted opening scenes.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: This game is among the more well-written text adventures of its era, and it almost perfectly evokes the tone and style that it's going for.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Puzzles: Rather than having many smaller puzzles and obstacles, Local Call for Death has one large, interconnected one: gathering enough evidence to accuse Blackwell of murder.  This requires observance and logic on a level that's pretty much unheard of at the time; this might be the earliest adventure game I've played where everything makes sense.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Mechanics: This is a difficult one.  What this game is doing looks impressive at first, but I had all sorts of problems wrangling with the parser and getting my ideas across to Sir Colin.  At one point I even had him interpret my input as the exact opposite of what I was saying, so it's far from foolproof.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: The mystery here isn't all that difficult, especially for anyone who has read a bunch of stories in this genre.  Even if you get stuck Sir Colin is there to smugly guide you, so I'd say most players would get through this on their first try as long as they're paying attention.  For a commercial release it's certainly far too easy.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Fun: I only had to go through this game twice, and it would be very difficult for such a short game to get a minimum score.  I definitely got sick of the opening scenes though, as I do in any game where it takes too long to get started.  Once I was able to play I enjoyed it, but the ratio of story to game was way off.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 1. I haven't played anything quite like this game before, so it gets a point for innovation even though it's something of a game development dead end.

The above scores total 17. Double that and add the bonus point, and Local Call for Death gets a very respectable RADNESS Index of 35.  That puts it equal 11th overall, and equal 6th in terms of adventure games.  The last two entries have seen good showings from two short games that do what they do pretty well.  There's not a hell of a lot of game here, but fans of old-school text adventures and mystery stories will probably enjoy it.

NEXT: It's back to the priority list for the third game from Ken and Roberta Williams, called Mission: Asteroid.  I've already finished it, so expect a post in the not too distant future.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Game 50: Kadath (1979)

Being a fan of super-hero comics I know the value of a nice round number, so it feels somewhat momentous to have finally reached Game 50.  I didn't realise that it was coming up, so I didn't arrange for it to be anything special.  Instead, I've just gone ahead with my standard chronological order, and played the next game on my list, Kadath.

Not gonna lie, any game with this C64 font is
gonna hit my nostalgia buttons hard.

Kadath was a text adventure designed by Gary Musgrave for the Altair, one of the earliest available home computers.  From what I can gather, the Altair was primitive in 1979 when compared to something like the Apple II.  It doesn't appear to have had a monitor display, so I suspect that Kadath accomplished that with paper printouts, in a similar manner to Richard Garriott's DND1.  Like I said, primitive.

The game was ported to the Commodore PET in 1981, but as I mentioned in my last post I haven't been able to find that version.    In 1983 it was ported to the Commodore 64, where it was renamed as Eye of Kadath.  That's the version I played for the body of this post.  Somewhere along the way it also got ported to the Exidy Sorcerer, a short-lived PC that I had never heard of before today.  I'm told by Jason Dyer of Renga in Blue that this version is probably closest to the original, and thanks to his instructions I'm able to briefly cover it below in Ports of Call.

In this game you play as a archaeologist who uncovered a tomb around ten years ago. In that tomb, the archaeologist found an ancient tablet, and has spent years translating it by consulting such dark volumes as the Unaussprechlichen Kulten and The Necronomicon.  The tablet spoke of the rise of a dark evil that would occur when the dark star Kynath was in conjunction with Arcturus.  Now, with only fifteen days left until that event will come to pass, the archaeologist has travelled to the ancient city of Yaddith intending to put a stop to it.

Laying out the backstory.

If any of the above sounds familiar to you, then you've probably read or heard about the noted horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft is one of those writers that - due to his massive influence on genre fiction and Dungeons & Dragons in particular - I should have read years ago.  I keep putting it off.  I tried a few years ago to get through a bunch of his short stories in audiobook form, but they slid right off my brain with no impact.  I suspect that's more due to the format than the stories themselves, but regardless, I'm only familiar with Lovecraft via what I've absorbed through pop-culture osmosis.

Kadath marks a pretty big first, in that it's the earliest known video game adaptation of Lovecraft's work.  Given the name, you'd think it was an adaptation of his novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, but a quick look at the Wikipedia entry indicates that there's little connection.  I suspect that Kadath may be an original story cobbled together from elements of Lovecraft's stories, but I'd appreciate it if any Lovecraft experts out there can set me straight.  (From further research, I'm seeing that there are elements in the game taken from stories by Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan; he was one of a bunch of writers that built on and added to Lovecraft's work over the years, with varying results.  It looks like Musgrave has drawn on elements not just from Lovecraft, but his many collaborators and imitators.)

What's also notable is that Kadath isn't played using the parser system that so defined text adventures in the wake of Colossal Cave Adventure.  Rather than typing in commands, the player is presented with a number of possible actions, and must choose one.  In some ways it's similar to playing a Choose Your Own Adventure or a Fighting Fantasy gamebook.  I can't say for sure if this is the first game that ever used this format, but it must be among the earliest.  It's hard to give this much historical significance, because it's not a style that really ever caught on in the digital realm, but it deserves at least a little bit of credit.

The first thing that struck me when I started playing Kadath is that the quality of the writing is very high by the standards of the genre at the time.  This is especially impressive on a home computer; there have been games with well-written descriptions before this, but they've been exclusive to mainframe systems.  Most of those on home computers have been very terse, no doubt due to memory constraints, and I was surprised to see something this good coming from a computer like the Altair.  I would later find out that the game isn't very long, which explains how Musgrave was able to cram it all in.  It was a good choice though; the game is short, but it manages to evoke a Lovecraftian atmosphere, something that would have been very difficult without longer room descriptions.

The game begins with the player entering the catacombs beneath the city of Yaddith, with the ultimate goal being to stop an ancient evil from arising.  The instructions lay out the five things you need to do to complete this goal:

  1. Enter the labyrinthine caverns
  2. Find the hidden and guarded "Eye of Kadath"
  3. Return the "Eye" to its rightful place
  4. Invoke the Elder Powers
  5. Destroy the gate through which this unspeakable evil will gain dominion over all the Earth.

All of this must be accomplished within fifteen days.  I tried waiting it out, to see what would happen; I've played other games that threaten you with deadlines but don't deliver when the time comes.  I got to around twenty days with nothing untoward happening, and I was about to add Kadath to that list, but then disaster struck while I was poling a raft into a cave.  Luckily, beating this game before the deadline hits is not at all difficult.

This sounds a bit like me during one of my regular
bouts of bronchitis.

The first chamber of the catacombs has four exits (not including the one you entered from), and after a small amount of exploration I was pretty hopelessly lost.  This game is difficult to map, and can be quite disorienting.  There are a bunch of near-identical rooms, all with five exits, and where those exits lead is relative to the one through which you enter the room.  So exit 1 might lead to a dead end, but when you return to that room exit 1 will lead somewhere else entirely.  There are also room where the exits are labelled as Left or Right, and I have no idea if those are relative or not.  Even after finishing Kadath I'm not sure that my map is correct.  I'm not sure if this was purposeful design, but it's another thing that adds to the game's Lovecraftian vibe.

Starting the game.

As you'd expect, you can die in Kadath, but for the most part it requires doing something stupid.  Do you want to dive into a lake from a high cliff?  Or creep across a vast cavern littered with bones?  Or wade through black, waist-deep water?  Go ahead, but you ain't gonna survive any of those.  I found myself doing dumb things on purpose just to read the descriptions, which had some macabre entertainment value.  Another benefit to dying is that the game tells you how well you're doing.  It will clue you in on whether you've found the items you need to beat the game, or if you've destroyed one of them, which I appreciated.

It's nice to be a part of something, though, innit?

Aside from the chambers with five exits, and the obvious death-traps I mentioned above, the catacombs have the following points of interest:

  • A balcony overlooking Yaddith, where an ancient scroll can be found.
  • A room with a stone block, on which rests a dagger and a sphere. Only one of these items can be taken at a time.
  • A room with a huge statue of a nightmarish beast.  Runes at the base of the statue translate as "From death spawned black star great Kadath rises - lord of all".  In the middle of the statue's face is a large pentagonal hole.
  • An underground lake with a raft.  The raft can be poled to an island, on which can be found a conch shell. Taking the conch causes the cavern to shake, and dislodges a stalactite that falls close to you.
  • The raft can also be poled into two fissures.  One of those leads to a certain death unless you turn back, but the other leads to a room where you will find a glowing green gem.  That gem is guarded by something called a Shoggoth, a shapeless, protoplasmic creature made of black slime.

The path to victory is quick.  You need to find and keep the scroll on the balcony.  If you try take it out, the scroll crumbles and can't be used.  You also need to collect the conch shell from the island.  Then you need to find the Eye of Kadath, which is the aforementioned glowing green gem.  If you try to take it without the necessary item, the Shoggoth will chase you away, and you'll be told that you need a weapon to defeat it.  That weapon is the dagger from the stone block, which is powerful enough to kill the creature with one blow.  With the scroll and the Eye now in your possession, you just need to take them both to the statue, where the endgame begins.

I'm more horrified by the hideous mass of typos.

What follows is a series of questions. Do you put the Eye of Kadath in the statue, on the altar, or on the floor?  What do you use to invoke the Elder Powers?  What is the invocation on the scroll?  Will you destroy the Eye with the conch, the dagger or the sphere?  If you get too many of these wrong, you will eventually lose the game, with a message similar to what happens when you run out of time.  The only one I had trouble with was typing in the chant - KADATH CTHULHU R'LYEH - and that's only because the key mapping for the Commodore 64 emulator I was using was different to a standard QWERTY keyboard.  Luckily for me I spent over a decade using a C64 almost daily, so I had little trouble tracking down that errant apostrophe, and thereby beating the game.

Saving humanity with a conch shell.

Overall, it took me about an hour to beat Kadath, and the experience was short-lived and user-friendly enough that I had a good time doing it.  In a lot of ways, it feels ahead of its time; there's certainly no shortage of brief horror games based on Lovecraft floating around the independent scene these days.  I'm interested to see how it does on the RADNESS Index; it's short and very easy, but it does what it does rather well.


Before I rate Kadath, I'll take a quick look at the Exidy Sorcerer version.  The most notable difference is that the Sorcerer has more room for its text: it can fit a bunch more characters per line than the Commodore 64, so the text is a little more detailed.  For instance, the star Kynath is only named in the Sorcerer version.  I also noticed that the Sorcerer does a lot more in the way of creating pacing with its text formatting.  For example, the death screams of the Shoggoth are much more drawn out.  The trade-off is that it has a distracting number of typos.  There are plenty on the C64 as well, but on the Sorcerer they are present to a maddening level.  I suppose it's a toss-up as to which is better, but if you're as sensitive to typos as I am then the C64 version might be more to your tastes.

In terms of gameplay, the only difference I noted came in the endgame.  Some of the questions that are presented as multiple choice on C64 must have the answer typed in on the Sorcerer.  It makes the game a little harder I guess, but not so much that it makes a great difference.

The same ending, with a little more fancy text formatting.


Story & Setting: Kadath has great source material to draw from, and does a decent job of evoking that material successfully.  It might be the earliest horror game I've played that manages to be even mildly effective in that regard.  A lot of the details are vague and unexplained: the nature of the menace you have to stop is barely hinted at, and the various lurking creatures that can do you in are never shown or described.  For some that might be unsatisfactory, but again it's something done to evoke that Lovecraftian feel (which, for the record, is much more about fear of the alien unknown than fear of tentacles).  There's not a lot to the story and setting in terms of size and scope, but it makes up for that with atmosphere and implication.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: As with the previous category, there isn't a lot here in terms of detail: just about every creature in the game is lurking out of sight, never seen but dangerous nonetheless.  They provide atmosphere, but in terms of gameplay they're only there to kill you if you take a wrong step. The Shoggoth is the only creature that can be seen, and it's pretty great in descriptive terms, but it operates solely as an obstacle to victory.  Again, there's no interaction, so I can't rate it highly.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: This is a text adventure with no sound, but the writing is up there in the absolute top tier of the adventure games I've played so far.  This genre is never going to score super high here, but I have to put this one on a level with games like ZorkRating: 3 out of 7.

Puzzles: The puzzles in this game are very light on, and are solved almost exclusively by entering an area with the right inventory item.  That's the inherent limitation of a text adventure that relies on multiple choice rather than a parser, I guess.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: Everything in this game works the way it's supposed to, although it would be pretty hard to mess up a game in this format.  I suppose it might have been an impressive game on the Altair - I have no idea what other kinds of games were made for it - but by 1979 it already feels very simplistic.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: I finished this game in just under an hour, so I'd say it has little in the way of legitimate challenge.  Navigating the catacombs is probably the most difficult part of the game, but if you move around at random you'll eventually hit everything regardless.  That said, I'm not even sure the game was designed to be much of a challenge; it gives you copious hints about your progress after you die, so even when you do fail it's pretty easy to see where you went wrong or what you're missing.  I feel like it was made to provide an experience rather than a challenge, and on that level it does well. In this particular category, not so much. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Fun: As with most short games, I enjoyed it while it lasted but the experience wasn't meaty enough for me to really get into it.  I might have rated this a little higher as a parser-based game, as that would have provided more interaction and difficulty.  It worked well enough as a game with its multiple choices/branching paths, but the lack of choices brought it down a bit. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus: 1. Kadath gets a single bonus point, for a combination of being the first Lovecraftian game and one of the first Choose Your Own Adventure style games.  Neither of those would probably merit it on their own, but together they're worth a point I reckon.

The above scores total 15, which doubled gives a score of 30; add the bonus point and Kadath gets a respectable RADNESS Index of 31.  That places it equal 13th overall, and equal 8th in terms of adventure games.  It's level with games like The Wizard and the Princess, Colossal Cave Adventure II and Mystery Mansion, all of which I'd describe as games with a mixture of good and frustrating elements.  Kadath does what it does well, and if it was longer or less simplistic it might have scored quite a bit higher.

NEXT: My next game is Local Call for Death, a murder mystery for the TRS-80.  This one is similar to Kadath in that it's short and well-written; I don't expect it to take more than a single post.  After that, it's back to the priority list for Mission: Asteroid, the third game from Ken and Roberta Williams.  If these short games keep coming, I'll be on to Wizardry in no time...

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Ultima: Victory!

Having completely the quests given out by the eight kings of "Ultima" (as the world seems to be named in the manual), the next stage of my mission to defeat Mondain was to become a "space ace".  The chain of quest-lines went like this: to confront Mondain I needed a time machine; to get a time machine, I had to rescue a princess after becoming a space ace; to become a space ace, I apparently needed to go into space and shoot down 20 enemy ships.

The obvious way to get to space was to buy a shuttle from the Transport shop in one of the cities.  I had saved my last game just outside Castle Shamino, which is right next to the city of Gorlab.  I can't remember how much the shuttle cost; I just tried to go back and check, but for some reason my air-car has vanished in my saved game, leaving me stranded on an island.  It didn't really matter though, because by that point I had amassed around 40,000 gold, and money worries were a thing of the past.  The shuttle appeared on the wilderness map, one square north of Gorlab.

I'm a rocket man...

After I boarded the shuttle, it gave me a short countdown before blasting off into outer space. I remember from previous times I've played the game that you need to be wearing a Vacuum Suit here, or you instantly die.  It makes perfect logical sense, but as far as I can tell there's nothing in the game that clues you in to the deadliness of outer space (aside from, you know, common sense).  I guess it's no big deal, as long as you've saved your game recently.  It's just a "gotcha" death that results in a quick reload, and any player that's reached this point of the game should already have a Vacuum Suit in their inventory, or enough money to afford one.

Once you reach outer space, the game switches to a completely different style of play.  Ultima isn't exactly what you'd call a cohesive game.  It's cobbled together from bits and pieces of various styles and genres, and is composed of at least three separate games, each with their own mode of play.  Wilderness exploration is different to dungeon exploration, which is different to space combat.  If someone were to break it down even further, it wouldn't even surprise me to find out that the cities, castles and the final confrontation with Mondain all operate under different rules as well.  Garriott could probably have split the three major sections into separate games and sold them on their own, and he might have even made more money that way, but none of those games would have had Ultima's special brand of kitchen-sink charm.

From a modern perspective it does feel odd to be going into sci-fi territory in a fantasy game, and it felt odd when I first played the game 20 years ago, but I wonder how unusual it was at the time.  I've read a lot of Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop gaming stuff from the late 70s, and fantasy/sci-fi mash-ups were all over the place.  The D&D module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, which takes place in a crashed spaceship, was published in 1980.  Even in literature, I get the sense that sci-fi and fantasy weren't quite as separated as they later became.  It's hard to know, having only been about three years old at the time, whether Garriott was following trends or smashing genre boundaries.  In terms of CRPGs, at least, it seems to be more the latter.

After taking off into space, you're given a "top-down" view of the sector of space you're currently in.  Aside from your shuttle, there's also a planet, a sun, and a space station with two other docked ships.  Flying into the planet will return you to the wilderness.  Of the three ships you can fly, only the shuttle has heat shields.  It's supposedly the only one that can survive re-entry, but I wasn't about to test it out and jeopardise my "no deaths" record.  Flying into a sun will kill you regardless of the ship you're flying.  Again, I didn't test it to make sure.

Commencing count-down, engines on.

Every ship has a different amount of Shields and Fuel.  The shuttle has 1,000 of each, but from what I could tell it doesn't have any weapons, so you want to dock at the space station and switch to another.  This can be tricky.  The "Enter" key activates the thrust, which moves you forward; the "/" key activates the retros, which slow your forward movement or move you backwards; the left and right arrows turn your ship around.  As you'd expect there's no gravity, so once you start moving you won't stop until you reverse that movement.  Docking at the station requires pixel-perfect precision; even if you're just one pixel off, you'll crash and sustain damage to your Shields.  It can be frustrating at first, but eventually I was able to eyeball it pretty accurately.

Of the two ships at the space station, one (the slightly fatter one to the left in the image above) has 5,000 fuel but only 100 Shields.  A single shot from the enemy will destroy it, so I'm not sure why you'd ever want to use it unless you're trying to challenge yourself.  The other ship (slightly skinnier, on the bottom in the image above) has 1,000 Fuel and 5,000 Shields, so it's a much safer bet.  Having high fuel is good, as running out leaves you drifting in space forever, but the other ship's Shields are just too low to even consider.

The goal of the section of the game is to find enemy ships and shoot them down.  Finding the enemy is done by using your long range scanner, activated with the (I)nspect command.  This gives you a small text-based read-out at the bottom of the screen, indicating what's in the surrounding sectors.  To travel to a sector, you need to face it, switch to the first-person view with the (V)iew command, then warp by using the (H)yperjump command.  This took me absolutely forever to get right.  I spent ages hyper-jumping, only to find that I hadn't moved at all.  Eventually I figured out that you need to give your ship a little thrust in the overhead view to get it to work; after that I was off, exploring sectors and looking for enemies to destroy.

I found some enemies pretty quickly; they're very obviously modelled after Imperial TIE Fighters from Star Wars (the movie's real name, don't give me none of that A New Hope bullshit).  You'll have to trust me, as the one screenshot I took doesn't capture it very well.  I ran into trouble immediately, though, because I was completely unable to hit them.  Combat happens in first-person view, and is a simple matter of getting a ship into your crosshairs before pressing (F)ire, but no matter how well I aimed I couldn't score a hit.  I ended up running out of Fuel and having to restart, which I guess counts as a death, albeit through no fault of my own.  I did a little internet research, and soon figured out the problem: I needed to run my emulator in Apple IIe mode, not the default Enhanced Apple IIe mode.  With this done, I was happily blasting TIE Fighters to smithereens, and well on my way to becoming a space ace.

Trust me, it's a TIE Fighter.

With 5,000 Shields the enemy ships presented little danger; they only deal 100 damage per hit.  The main danger of space combat is running out of Fuel, so it's imperative that between every one or two space battles you dock at a space station to refuel.  Every time you dock it costs 500 gold, but I suspect this is only a danger for those who go haring off into space as soon as the shuttle becomes available.  I tend to leave it late, at a point when I've got loads of money, so I don't recall it ever being a problem.

I have to say, I'm impressed with how smoothly the game runs its space combat.  The contrast between this segment and the dungeon exploration is night and day.  One takes literal seconds to render the walls between every move, and the other has a smoothly scrolling starfield.  Perhaps there's some trickery involved under the hood (and I'm sure the reduced screen size that you can see above has something to do with it), but whatever Garriott did with this part of the game, it runs really nicely.

Each occupied sector of space has two or three enemy ships, so I had to travel to about eight different occupied sectors to shoot down the required number of enemies.  This involved a decent amount of cautious backtracking, so that I could dock at space stations to refuel in between battles.  Each hyperjump drains 100 Fuel, and flying around within a sector drains it as well, so I was having to refuel every couple of combats.  I considered trying to see if it was possible to kill all of the enemies in space, but I honestly have no idea how big space is in Ultima, or if the enemies eventually respawn, so I thought better of it.  After becoming a space ace I immediately hyperjumped back to the sector with my home planet - I'd been keeping careful track of my movements so that I wouldn't get lost - docked at the space station, switched back to my shuttle, and landed near Castle Shamino.

It was time now to rescue a princess.  I wasn't too concerned, as I'd been able to do it much earlier in the game without too much difficulty.  Rescuing the princess involves killing a jester, unlocking her cell, and either killing or escaping from the guards as they give chase.  Last time I'd been able to outmaneuver the guards, but this time around I wasn't so lucky.  The guards cornered me, and I had to fight my way out, getting pummeled from multiple sides as I desperately hoped that the guard's hit points would run out before mine did.  They did (I had thousands of hp), and when I escaped I was told by the princess that I could find a time machine to the north-west.

It took me a while, but eventually I found the time machine on the island north-west of the fourth continent.  At this point I got a little nervous about whether I was strong enough to battle Mondain, so I went back to Shamino's castle to buy some hit points from him (he was unconcerned by my recent murder of his guards; the status of the castles and cities resets as soon as you leave them).  I got my hit points up to around 20,000.  I still had close to 25,000 gold left over, but I got bored of going through the process of buying more.  Besides, I figured that I was owed some sort of monetary reward for defeating Mondain.

Activating the time machine.

Having loaded up on hit points, I made may way back to the time machine, got inside, and inserted the four gems.  The machine whisked me into the past, where I came face-to-face with Mondain, who was in the process of creating his Gem of Immortality.  (I really cut it fine with this time travel business.  Couldn't I have landed a week or two earlier?)

Witness Mondain, about to get rekt.

The battle with Mondain happens in a top-down arena, using the same controls as in the wilderness.  Flames ignite all around you during the battle; I'm not sure if you can be damaged by them, but if it is possible I managed to avoid it.  Mondain hits hard; he was dealing over 700 points of damage to me with each attack, and managed to get me down to about 13,000 hp before he turned into a bat and tried to flee.

While he was fleeing, I took the opportunity to (G)et the gem.  This destroyed the gem, and dealt around 10,000 points of damage to me.  (I'll never forget that you need to use the (G)et command here, because the first time I played this game I kept walking into the gem and taking damage over and over.  I had to call a friend to get some advice from him, but he couldn't remember what to do.  In the end I just started pressing buttons on the keyboard, until G did it for me.)  There was nothing left to do but kill Mondain in bat form.  I managed to corner him against a wall, and after repeated attacks he was dead and I had won.

Mondain goes down in defete.

As with every game in the Ultima series (including Akalabeth) I was instructed to report my feat.  In later games that instruction tells you to report to Lord British, but here it tells you to report to California Pacific.  Obviously that's not viable any more, but Lord British himself is very accessible these days, so I reported my feat to him on Twitter.

I deactivated my Twitter account yesterday, so that
I can mostly avoid the US election. Interactions like
this are what will bring me back.

I love that Garriott takes the time to do this for people on Twitter.  He's very friendly, seems like an incredibly cool and down-to-earth guy, and is pretty high on the list of people I'd love to have a conversation with over some beverages.

Well, after many years I finally got this blog to the point where I could play Ultima again.  I had to cheat a little by going out of sequence, but I got there.  I have to say, it was well worth it; it might be the most fun I've had with a game on the blog.  It's certainly the most enjoyable of the CRPGs I've played.  As far as the RADNESS Index goes, I expect it to do very well indeed.  I don't think it will unseat Zork at the top, but I won't be surprised if it comes close.


This game is a bit too big for me to play through it a second time so soon, and aside from that I'm not doing Ports of Call for the Priority List Games.  I'll play another version of the game when my chronological list gets to 1981, by which time I'll definitely be ready to play it again.  Taking a look at Mobygames, it seems that the only straight port of this version of the game was for Atari 8-bit, released by Sierra in 1983.  That's the version I'll play when I get to 1981.  All of the other ports were for the redesigned version of the game, called Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, and released in 1986.  If this blog ever makes it to 1986, that's when I'll play the re-release.


Story & Setting: It's tempting to rate this game high for story and setting, because it is Ultima after all.  The thing is, what I'd be rating is barely present in this game at all.  This isn't Britannia, with its rich history and developed NPCs.  It isn't even Sosaria, as it would be named later.  If the manual is to be believed, the world is called Ultima, which at least makes some sense of the series' name for me, finally.  There's no rich history, the world is pretty sparse in its details, and the ultimate plot is to kill an evil wizard.  It doesn't sound that great when you boil it down, does it?

So yeah, the goal is cliched, but without a doubt this is the absolute best "kill the wizard" story that's been presented in a video game thus far.  How many others have you dog-fighting in space and travelling in a time machine? Sure, little of it makes sense.  Why are the princesses held captive?  Where does the sci-fi technology come from?  Why do the princesses hold the key to a time machine?  Who's piloting those ships you have to shoot down in space? You can rationalise this stuff away (and some have), but when you get down to it the details don't really matter, because the world feels so much vaster than anything presented in a game before.  Zork may be more interesting and detailed on a smaller scale, but no game before Ultima has spanned an entire world with multiple cities, castles and dungeons, as well as featuring a trip into outer space.  The details are still sparse, and much of the content is repetitive, but for the time its scope is unparalleled.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The cities and castles feature plenty of characters: guards, shopkeepers, wenches, bards, jesters, princesses and kings.  The problem is that every city has the same shopkeepers and guards, and every castle has the same jesters and kings.  Interaction with them is also minimal: each type of character exists to serve one purpose and one purpose alone.  (Okay, so the kings serve two purposes.)  The game does better with its monsters, which are plentiful and with a lot of variety.  Unfortunately, only a few of the ones encountered in the dungeons have special abilities; the others are all just sacks of hit points, and the wilderness creatures don't even get unique icons.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Aesthetics: By modern standards Ultima isn't going to earn any plaudits for its graphics, but it looks very good for its day.  Okay, so the wireframe dungeons and the monsters therein are a bit crude, but the wilderness graphics are colourful and attractive. I'd be hard-pressed to find another CRPG of the time that looks as good as this.  Unfortunately there's no sound, aside from the odd beep when a blow is struck in combat.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Combat: In general terms the combat simply involves trading attacks with your enemy until someone is dead, but there's no separate combat interface, so every command is available to you.  As such you can cast spells, flee, or perform any other action that's normally available.  Not that you often need to; combat is rarely difficult beyond the first hour or so of play.  Once you have a few thousand hit points there's not much that can kill you.  Only the lower dungeon levels present a real threat, and that's more due to food-gobbling Gremlins than actual combat.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Mechanics: Ultima does a lot, and does most of it pretty well: wilderness exploration, dungeon exploration, and especially space combat.  It does perhaps use too many keyboard commands; is it necessary to have a command for (U)nlock and (O)pen?  Do (B)oard and (E)nter really need to be separate?  That said, it's pretty intuitive, and after one session I didn't need the reference card open any more.  The only major complaint I have in this category is with the sluggishness of the dungeon routines; it takes ages to redraw whenever you take a step or pass a turn.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: Given that I didn't die once during my play-through of Ultima (I don't count having to reboot because I was in the wrong emulator mode), it's tempting to mark this low.  After all, wouldn't that make it too easy?  It should be remembered, though, that I've played the game before.  I knew at the beginning that I needed to buy food.  I knew how to build hit points, and roughly where to go to advance in my quest.  I also know from previous experience that this game is quite challenging when you're unfamiliar with it.  To its credit, it doesn't have a lot of frustrating areas; only the Gremlins are truly annoying, and they can be avoided.  Ultima gets the difficulty balance about right.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

Fun: I've already said that this is the most fun I've had playing a game for the blog, and I stand by it.  That's probably because it's the first game that provides the type of gameplay that I really enjoy: I like CRPGs with long quests and a world to explore.  Most of the CRPGs before this have been heavily dungeon-based, and quite repetitive.  Ultima provides a lot of variety: if you're sick of exploring the wilderness, hit the dungeons. If you're sick of the dungeons, go shoot some spaceships.  If you're sick of all those, you could try robbing a town, or rescuing a princess. There's no shortage of things to do in UltimaRating: 5 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 2. How can I not give Ultima the top marks here?  It's one of the first genuinely good CRPGs, it's the beginning of a major series, and it's extremely influential on a global scale.  It could even be said to be the first "open world" game, in its own primitive way.  It's tempting to bust the scale and give it more than 2 points, but I must restrain myself and stick to the rules.

The above categories total 27, which doubled gives a score of 54.  Add the two bonus points, and Ultima gets a RADNESS Index of 56.  That places it second overall, and on top of the CRPG list.  It's 4 points higher than Rogue, which was the only CRPG that I thought it might not beat.  Rogue is very good, but Ultima plays to my tastes a lot more, so I'm not surprised that it scored higher.

NEXT: My next game by Garriott is Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress, which is a disheartening 18 games away.  I must admit to being a little sad when I finished Ultima, and the temptation to go right on to its sequel was a strong one.  It's very possible that I might switch it with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Cloudy Mountain, just so I can get my fix six games earlier.

As for my next chronological game, that's Kadath, a Lovecraftian text adventure for the Altair, of all things.  My chances of emulating an Altair seem slim, so I'll be playing a port.  There's a later port for the Commodore PET that I couldn't find, and a still later one for the Commodore 64.  I suspect that's the one I'll have to play, so hopefully the differences between the versions are entirely cosmetic.

ADDENDUM: For anyone who wants to learn more about the inner workings of Ultima, I highly recommend the posts by Ahab over at Data Driven Gamer.  He really goes in depth into the code, and extracts pretty much all the data you could want, from all of the game's many modes.  It's excellent stuff.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Ultima: Through Farthest Lands and Deepest Dungeons

Having fully explored two continents, and completed the quests ordained by the kings of Castle Barataria, Castle Rondorlin, the Castle of Lord British and the Castle of the Lost King, there was little for me to do but head off across the ocean once more to find new land.  The third continent I discovered was - like the two before it - based on the same basic shape, with the cities and dungeons located in the same places.  I spent a good amount of time on mapping, even though by this point I had realised that it was pointless.  The only things I absolutely had to find were the castles and landmarks, and with the continents being nearly identical that wasn't hard.  What can I say, I like mapping games based on a grid, and I'll keep at it as long as the process isn't too frustrating.  In the case of Ultima I was far more powerful than the monsters I was encountering, so the mapping was fun.

A map of Ultima's third continent.

I've listed out the towns and dungeons for the previous continents, so I guess I should do it here as well for the sake of consistency.  Here are the towns on the third continent:

  • Ponder, on the eastern side of the inlet on the south coast.  (There's a town called Ponder in Texas, which might be the inspiration for this name.)
  • Nassau, on the north side of the central bay, not far from the castle. (Garriott grew up in Nassau Bay in Texas, so this is undoubtedly named after that city.)
  • Stout, on the shore of the south-eastern lake.
  • Clear Lagoon, on the north coast. (Garriott's hometown was in the Clear Lake Area, and there's apparently a Clear Lagoon in Texas City; either could be possible influences.)
  • The City of Imagination, at the tip of the inlet near the east coast.
  • The City of Wealth, to the north-east.
  • The City of Poor, to the north-west.  (Check out that searing social commentary.)
  • Gauntlet, in the central forest grove.

The dungeons are named as follows:

  • The End.... (complete with ellipses), on the west coast.
  • The Metal Twister, in the mountain range to the south-west.
  • The Trolls Hole, on the south coast.
  • The Guild of Death, on the small island in the centre of the bay.
  • The Slow Death, at the tip of the peninsula on the east coast
  • The Vipers Pit, which has two entrances: on west of the Slow Death, and the other on the continent's north-west, in a forest valley.
  • The Tramp of Doom, on the north coast.
  • The Long Death, in the mountain range north-west of Gauntlet.

The first of the castles I located was the Black Dragon's Castle, on the western side of the central bay. The quest he gave me was to "go forth and kill a Liche", so there was definitely more dungeon delving in my immediate future.

On the north side of the bay was the Castle of Olympus, where the king told me to "go and find the sign post".  This was a little less mythically epic than the other quests I'd been given, but I'll take my stat boosts where I can get them.  This continent has two landmarks: the Southern Sign Post, and the Sign Post.  The first of those is found on the east coast, and is connected to the mainland unlike its island-based counterparts on the previous two continents.  The Southern Sign Post features the Latin phrase "omnia mutantur" ("everything changes"), and gave me a boost to my Charisma.  The Sign Post, found on a mountain-ringed island to the north-west, was the object of my quest. It's Latin phrase is "ultima thule", and it gave me a boost to Stamina.  As with the other "landmark quests" I'd completed, the king of the Castle of Olympus rewarded me with a bonus to Strength when I returned to him.

Finding the Sign Post.

(A quick note about the phrase "ultima thule".  In ancient times it referred to the northernmost location mentioned in Greek and Roman literature, and later on it became a phrase representing any land beyond the borders of the known world.  It's difficult to guess where Garriott got the phrase from, but the Edgar Allen Poe poem "Dream-Land" does feature the phrase, as well as the line "Out of Space - out of Time".  It seems a likely connection.)

I did my Liche-hunting in the dungeon known as the Guild of Death.  The dungeon is located on a small island, but by this point I wasn't worried about the consequences of dying.  I'd accumulated enough hit points that I could survive pretty much anything the dungeons could throw at me.  I mapped my way down to level 7, found and killed a Liche almost instantly, and made my way back to the Black Dragon's Castle.  The king rewarded me with a blue gem, and the following hint: "the princess will help a space ace through time!".

Fighting a Liche.

That last hint was the one that I needed to piece everything together.  From hints obtained while drinking at the bar I knew that I needed to travel back in time and stop Mondain from creating his gem of immortality.  One of the kings had told me that I'd need a time machine to complete my quest, and another had told me that I needed four gems.  I'd found three of the gems, but no sign of the time machine. Now, with this new hint from the king, I knew that I had to rescue the princess in order to find it.  I'd rescued her before, but had received no special reward beyond gold and experience points.  To get that special reward I needed to become a "space ace", which the barman had previously told me required going to space and killing at least 20 enemy spaceships.  I now had three specific tasks: obtain the fourth gem, go to space and become a Space Ace, and rescue one of the princesses.

The third gem, and a vital clue.

I didn't feel ready to go to space yet, so I skimmed across the ocean in my air-car to the fourth continent.  This continent still uses the same template, but it's a little more broken up by rivers and the ocean.

The last continent!

Again, for the completist in me, I must list out all of the towns and dungeons.

  • Dextron, on the western inlet.
  • Gorlab, near the castle at the centre. (This is obviously Balrog spelled backwards, although in Ultima it should probably be spelled Norlab.)
  • The City of Lost Friends, on the west coast of the northern section.
  • The City of the Turtle, to the south-west.
  • Bulldozer, on the east side of the southern bay.
  • The City of Magic, near the south-eastern lake.
  • The City of the Brother, on the island to the east.
  • Wheeler, in the central forest grove. (This is another one that could be named after a town in Texas.)

And the dungeons:

  • The Morbid Adventure, on the small island near the centre.
  • Spine Breaker, to the far north-east.
  • The Skull Smasher, on the north coast.
  • Dungeon of Doom, in the mountains north-west of Wheeler.
  • The Dead Cat's Life has two entrances, one in the mountains west of Wheeler and the other on the island in the southern bay.
  • Dead Man's Walk, on the west coast.
  • Hole to Hades, at the top of the southern peninsula.
  • Free Death Hole, in the labyrinthine mountains to the east.

This continent's landmarks were the Grave of the Lost Soul, and the Eastern Sign Post.  The latter of these - found on the small island to the north - was very unhelpful, simply saying "go east to go east" and providing nothing in the way of a stat boost.  The Grave of the Lost Soul was the object of the quest I was given by the king of the White Dragon's Castle.  Entering it gave me a boost to my Stamina, and the Latin phrase "vae victis" ("woe to the vanquished").  As expected, I got a boost to my Strength from the king upon my return.

Oh yeah, visiting graves is a real helth-booster.

The last castle I located was the Castle of Shamino, a welcome surprise.  Shamino goes on to become one of the more well-known NPCs of the series, but at this point he's another alter ego of Garriott himself (Shamino Salle Dacil being his name in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group of medieval reenactors and inveterate drunkards who bash each other with sticks).  Shamino gave me my final and most difficult quest: to slay a Balron.  (They were called Balrogs in Akalabeth, but here they get a rebranding.  A similar things happened to Balrogs in Dungeons & Dragons after some words from the Tolkien Estate, so I figure the same happened to Garriott or he was exercising caution to avoid any legal action.)

For this quest I had to delve all the way down to dungeon level 9, where the strongest monsters dwell.  I chose the Dungeon of Doom for its close overland proximity to the city of Wheeler, and as usual I set about mapping all of the levels along the way.  Everything was going very smoothly, until I had to spend some extended time on level 7 and 8.  On my last visit I'd only stayed around long enough to kill a Liche, but this time my desire to map everything led me into conflict with my most hated enemy of all: the dreaded Gremlin.

Seriously, fuck these guys.

Anyone who's played an early Ultima already knows what I'm talking about, and some of you might remember them from my coverage of Akalabeth, but goddamn do I hate Gremlins.  They don't target hit points, but instead on a successful hit they eat half of your food.  It doesn't matter how much you have, they'll eat half of it, and it only takes a few hits before things start to look grim.  Ultima gives you no leeway whatsoever in regards to food; once your food counter reaches zero, you're dead.  I had a number of very close calls while mapping levels 7 and 8, the closest the game has come to killing me so far.

What made this even worse is that I went to the
Magic Shop first by mistake.

While exploring level 8 I started to get annoyed with how many hits it was taking to kill the enemies, so I took some time to buff my stats by visiting various landmarks: I still needed to boost my Stamina, Charisma and Strength.  The first two were easily done by repeatedly visiting the Grave of the Lost Soul and the Southern Sign Post.  Strength was a little trickier, as it required completing a quest and returning to the king.  I spent a good while going back and forth between the Grave of the Lost Soul and the White Dragon's Castle.  Eventually, I managed to get all of my stats up to 90.  The manual claims that these scores can be raised to 99, but if there's a way to do it it's not by visiting landmarks or completing quests.

I got myself into another dilemma at about this point: I could no longer buy weapons or armour.  My Reflect Suit had been eaten by a Gelatinous Cube, but when I returned to town to buy another one I was told that I couldn't carry any more stuff.  I tried dropping and selling some things, but it still didn't fix the problem.  All I had left armour-wise was a Vacuum Suit, which I equipped before realising that I might have made a mistake.  You see, the Vacuum Suit is vital for space travel in Ultima.  Vital as in you die if you haven't got one.  If I lost this one, I was worried that I wouldn't be able to buy another one, and if that was the case I'd have to start over.

When I returned to the Dungeon of Doom, I used Ladder Down spells to quickly move through levels 3 and 4, and avoid all Gelatinous Cubes.  Once on the lower levels, I noticed that I was dealing more damage, and that the monsters were doing less to me in return; my stat boosting had paid off, albeit in a small way.  The monsters on level 9 were still doing around 250 points of damage per blow, so I didn't want to stick around for too long.  The second monster I fought on level 9 was a Balron, and even with my stats boosted it took absolutely ages to kill.  I'm lucky nothing else snuck up behind me while I was fighting the thing.

The blank stare of evil.

With the Balron dead, I zipped out of the dungeon and returned to Shamino. He rewarded me with a white gem, but unlike the other kings he didn't have a hint for me.  Instead, he allowed me to take 9 items from his stores.  I made straight for the Armour room, and came out with a few Reflect and Vacuum Suits, so I needn't have been so worried about my inventory problems; for whatever reason, I had no problem adding items to my inventory here.

With all four gems in my possession it was tempting to press on and complete the game, but instead I ventured back into the Dungeon of Doom to check out what other monsters roamed the lowest dungeon levels (and also to confirm that dungeon level 10 is the lowest depth).  The monsters found on dungeon levels 7 and 8 are as follows:

  • Liche. A disembodied head, as I described in my last post.
  • Wandering Eye. A beholder stand-in that thankfully has no special abilities.
  • Tangler.  A kind of weird amorphous creature, I'm not even sure what it's meant to be.
  • Wraith. Does a lot of damage, but seems to have no special abilities.
  • Gremlin. I've described their food-stealing abilities above. Possibly my all-time most hated RPG enemy.

These monsters are on level 9 and 10:

  • Invisible Seeker.  They don't have any special abilities, but as the name says they're invisible. You have to guess where they are to attack them.
  • Mind Whipper.  Aside from looking pretty rad, I suspect that these stand-ins for D&D's Mind Flayer drain Intelligence.  I'm not completely sure, but I did notice that my Intelligence score had been lowered after this dungeon foray, and they seem like the most likely culprit.
  • Zorn. A stand-in for the D&D Xorn. Xorns eat gems in D&D, but in Ultima they have no special abilities.
  • Daemon.  Tough, but with no special abilities.
  • Balron.  Even tougher, but also with no special abilities.

Not gonna lie, this guy looks pretty dope.

A baggy-shirted Daemon.

That's its mouth on top of its head, if you're wondering.

The most accurately depicted monster in the game.

I did press on playing after this, but I'll end the post here.  My next goal is to head into space to become a Space Ace, which involves Ultima inexplicably becoming a 3-D space combat game.  I mentioned before that this game is wild, didn't I?

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Ultima: Dungeon Fundamentals

Having explored two of the game's continents, I had been given a number of quests by the kings of four separate castles.  I'd yet to complete two of those quests.  The Lost King, residing on the first continent I explored, had told me to "go now and kill a Gelatinous Cube".  On the second continent, the king of Castle Rondorlin said that I needed to kill a Carrion Creeper (a pretty obvious stand-in for D&D's Carrion Crawler).  I was getting a little tired of mapping the wilderness - a probably side-effect of noticing how similar the two continents are - so I decided that now was the time to mix it up with a bit of dungeon exploration.

Now that I think of it, the game doesn't tell you anywhere that these monsters are found in the dungeons.  I'm being guided by knowledge from previous play-throughs, so I know where to go, but someone unfamiliar with Ultima would be completely in the dark here.  I'm trying my best to approach this game from the standpoint of someone who hasn't played it before, but it really is impossible. The best I can do is try to call out these moments when I notice them.

I left off my last session near the castle of Lord British.  The nearest dungeon was Montor to the north-east, so I chose that one to explore.  I suppose that Mondain's Gate to Hell is actually closer, but it's also across the ocean, so I ignored it.  I'm not sure what happens when you die in this version of Ultima, and I don't want to risk being stranded on an island without my air-car.  So Montor and its easy overland route seemed like the safe choice.

A dungeon exploration screenshot from an earlier session.

The dungeons in Ultima run off a similar engine to Akalabeth, albeit one that seems to run much slower.  The view switches from the tile-based overhead view of Ultima's wilderness exploration to a first-person perspective.  Movement uses the same keys, with Enter moving forward, the "/" key turning you around, and the left and right arrows turning you in the appropriate direction.  If you leave the keyboard alone for a few seconds a turn will pass, so it's kind of in real time.

Every dungeon level has the same basic layout, with the only impassable walls being those shown below.

The major difference between each level is the position of the various doors and secret doors.  As with Akalabeth, a door takes up an entire square on the map, which I always find confusing at first.  Adding to that confusion is that the doors are sometimes replaced by chests or impassable force fields when you transition between levels. The ladders up and down between levels are always in the positions marked above, with up and down alternating from level to level.  The only exception is on level 1 where the ladder up is in the bottom right corner.  This all makes dungeon navigation fairly trivial, although I've still been diligently mapping the levels.  Here are some examples from the Dungeon of Montor:

Brown squares are doors and blue squares are
secret doors. P denotes an open pit, while T is a
hidden pit that dumps you to a lower level.

Monsters roam the levels in a seemingly never-ending supply; I don't think levels can be cleared out like they could in Akalabeth.  Combat involves trading blows with the (A)ttack command, as in the wilderness, but there are additional tactical concerns.  You can be surrounded on four sides, but you can also use positioning to your advantage, and fire at monsters from a few squares away if you have a missile weapon.  Speaking of which, it seems that the bug from Akalabeth that allowed the player to fire through walls has been eliminated.

Killing monsters rewards you with gold, as well as experience.  Any experience earned in the dungeon gives you double that amount in hit points when you make it back to the surface.  Grinding on the first few dungeon levels can net you a lot of hit points, but at around level 6 I found that I was losing more hit points than I earned.

Each grouping of two dungeon levels has it's own set of monsters, some of which have their own special abilities. I'll run through those that I've encountered so far.

Dungeon level 1-2:
  • Ranger. A fairly weak enemies with no special abilities.
  • Skeleton, ditto.
  • Bat.
  • Giant Rat. They seem a little stronger than the other enemies on these levels.
  • Thief. Not that strong, but on a successful hit they will steal one of your unequipped weapons. I lost most of the weapons I'd acquired at the Pillars of the Argonauts in this manner.

Dungeon level 3-4:
  • Giant Spider.
  • Viper.
  • Cyclops.
  • Orc.
  • Gelatinous Cube.  This monster will dissolve your armour on their first hit.  They can also be difficult to see at times, being depicted as a transparent square, which fits their D&D abilities really well.

Fighting a Gelatinous Cube with a coffin in the foreground.

Dungeon level 5-6:
  • Ettin, a kind of two-headed giants cribbed from D&D.
  • Minotaur.
  • Carrion Creeper. These guys are depicted graphically as crawling on the roof. This doesn't stop them from being blocked by hidden pits though.
  • Mimic.  They are graphically identical to treasure chests.
  • Lizard Man. They remind me of the absurd power levels you can reach in Akalabeth by transforming yourself into one of these monsters. Whenever I fight them here I like to think that I'm fighting an adventurer who has done just that.

Dungeon level 7-8:
  • Wandering Eye.  They look similar to Beholders from D&D. They don't have any of the special abilities from D&D thankfully. In future Ultima installments they'll be known as Gazers.
  • Liche.  They're depicted as floating heads.  I suspect that Richard Garriott was thinking here of D&D's demi-lich, which is a lich that has decayed to the point where only its skull is left.

I haven't explored any deeper than level 7, and I didn't stick around on that level for any great length of time.  I have no idea how deep the dungeons go.  I suspect ten levels, although the dungeons in Akalabeth were theoretically infinite.  I'll probably have finished dungeon delving in my next post.

In addition to monsters, there are coffins and treasure chests that contain gold.  I haven't encountered any traps on the treasure chests, but sometimes when I open a coffin there's a monster inside.  There are also pits.  Some are visible, and you can walk over them freely, or use them to drop down to a lower level.  The ones that are invisible will dump you down to a lower level without warning, but you can find them by using the (I)nspect command from one square away.  You can also avoid them by carrying rope and spikes, which can be bought at the weapon store.  I've noticed that these hidden pits only ever appear in the spaces between two impassable walls, so they're pretty easy to find.  Monster won't walk over them (even the monsters that can fly or crawl on the ceiling), so that's another way of figuring out where they are.

Some squares contain force fields, which look like laser barriers and are impassable.  You can't shoot through them either.  I gather that these force fields can be created by characters with the Create spell, and likewise gotten rid of with the Destroy spell.  I don't have access to either spell, so my only recourse is to go around them.

A Carrion Creeper behind a force field. The square I'm in has
a ladder going up, viewed from the side. You can't (K)limb a 
ladder unless you're facing it.

It didn't take long for me to complete my first quest; I had loads of hit points, and Gelatinous Cubes are found on level 3, which isn't too deep.  Along the way I did some mapping, and tested out a bunch of my new weapons.  The Triangle (a type of magic sword) worked here, and did quite a bit of damage.  For some reason it hadn't worked for me in the wilderness, I'm not sure what's going on there.  After a bit of experimentation I went back to my trusty Blaster, which does high damage and can be used at range.

At first I was pretty much impervious on the first few levels, probably because of the Reflect Armour that I was wearing.  That changed after I fought a Gelatinous Cube, and my armour got dissolved.  I was taking about 50 points of damage per attack on level 3, which isn't much when you have a few thousand to spare, but I decided not to stick around.  I had some other suits of armour, but for some reason the (R)eady command doesn't give you the option to put armour on when you're in the dungeon.  I'm not sure if this is a deliberate choice, an oversight, or a bug, but it's pretty annoying.  As soon as I left the dungeon I had to go to Paws and buy a new set of Reflect Armour.

Upon returning to the Lost King to report the completion of my quest (presumably with a handful of dead Gelatinous Cube as proof), I was rewarded with a red gem.  I was also told that I would need four more gems to complete my quest.  Four gems, four castles, and I suspect four monsters to hunt down...  Sounds simple enough.

I returned to the Dungeon of Montor, intending this time to find and kill a Carrion Creeper.  I decided to load up on spells along the way.  There are eleven spells in the game, but I haven't done much experimenting with them at the moment.  Four of them I wasn't able to buy: Destroy, Create, Blink, and Kill; those are restricted to Wizard characters.  (This pretty much guarantees that I'm going to play this game as a Wizard when it comes up again in my regular chronology.)  I bought ten each of the remaining spells, but the only one I've got much use out of so far is Ladder Up.  Casting it creates a ladder that leads to the dungeon level above, or to the wilderness if you're on level 1; it's a handy quick escape if you get into trouble, or find yourself lost.  I gather that spells can fail on occasion, but I've already juiced my Wisdom and Intelligence scores up to the point that my spells always work.

Back in Montor, I made my way down to level 5, skipping through levels 3 and 4 quickly so that I could avoid having my armour dissolved.  I had a bit of mapping trouble this time.  As I noted above, the dungeon doors are sometimes replaced by coffins, chests or force fields, and before I realised this I got completely turned around and lost.  I actually had to use a bunch of Ladder Up spells to escape and get my bearings; the monsters on the deeper levels can do in excess of 100 points of damage per hit, which really adds up.  I haven't died in this game so far, and I plan to keep it that way, so I made a quick retreat from the dungeon before going back a little wiser in terms of my mapping skills.

Defeating a Carrion Creeper

Despite getting lost I had managed to kill a Carrion Creeper, so I flew my air-car east to the second continent to see the king of Castle Rondorlin.  He rewarded me with a green gem, and another hint: I would need to use a time machine to beat the game.  I knew this already from hints acquired while drinking at the pub, but there's a good chance that a player might get this clue first.

Being rewarded with a green gem.

I guess I'm about halfway done with the game: I have two more dungeon quests to complete, and two more continents to explore, which I expect will take up the bulk of my remaining time with the game.  I'm still enjoying it, although the sluggishness of the dungeon loading is starting to wear on me.  I came into this game determined to map every square inch of it, but I'm wavering in that goal where the dungeons are concerned; there are an awful lot of them, I don't know how deep they go, and I don't even know if they're randomly generated or the same from game to game.  If anyone is aware of how Ultima's dungeons are generated I'd appreciate them letting me know, because I'd rather not expend any effort on further pointless mapping.

Before I finish up, I wanted to mention that I accidentally found the game's "attract mode", or demo, or whatever you want to call it.  Ultima uses two disks, one of which has the game and other of which has the information for your character.  If you boot from the second disk it launches the demo, which runs through a quick game intro showing off its various modes. I was hoping this might have given some extra backstory, but it doesn't.  It does have this radical skull, though.

This would make a great tattoo.

I suspect that this screen is used when a character dies, but because I'm so frikkin awesome at Ultima I haven't seen it yet.  I think I'll be able to keep it that way unless the monsters on the deeper dungeon levels get really tough, or I screw up when I go to space.  A "no deaths" run would make me feel pretty good though.