Monday, October 12, 2020

Ultima: Knowledge, Lasers, and Alcohol-Related Disasters

At the end of my last post on Ultima, I'd just finished exploring the first continent.  I'd been tasked by Lord British with finding the Tower of Knowledge, and my plan was to continue exploring the wilderness in the hope that I'd stumble across it.  I didn't have to wait long; I struck out east from my starting location and found the Tower of Knowledge on an island north-east of the continent.  I entered the tower, and was given a bonus to my Intelligence.  (Entering the tower also gives you the message "turris scientia magnopere", which is pretty much latin for tower of knowledge.)

Completing my quest for the Tower of Knowledge.

With my quest somewhat abruptly completed, I made my way back to Lord British's castle.  Rather than sail all the way around I decided to land on the east coast at the City of Grey and travel overland.  Along the way I stopped in Paws, and being flush with gold I bought a cart to travel in.  After some experimentation, I figured out the differences between walking on foot, using a horse, and using the cart.  Walking uses 1 unit of food per two steps, riding a horse uses slightly less than that (sometimes it takes 2 steps per unit of food, and sometimes 3), and the cart uses a unit of food per 3 steps.  So the cart is the most efficient method of overland travel.

From Paws I went to see Lord British, and he rewarded me for completing the quest with a +5 bonus to Strength.  I spoke to him again, hoping for another quest, and was told once again to seek out the Tower of Knowledge.  So I went back to the tower, got another Intelligence bonus, and returned to Lord British. He awarded me with more Strength, and once again tasked me with finding the Tower of Knowledge.  Is this really all that Lord British does in this game?  Grant you some strength bonuses for a pretty simple quest?  It's a far cry from his future role as the series' central NPC; here he's just one of many kings, and perhaps not even the most important of them.

Lord British's sole contribution to the
fall of Mondain.

I had plenty of money, so I decided to test out what would happen if I offered Lord British some gold. As I suspected, he rewarded me with an increase in hit points.  I gave him 90 gold (the most possible), and got back 135 hit points in return.  After a few rounds of this I had over 600 hit points, which I decided was plenty to continue my wilderness exploration.

Before heading off across the ocean though, I stopped in at Paws again and went to the pub.  I wanted to get some more rumours, but the first one I got was hardly helpful: "Bub, you best know this is a great game!"  Yes Richard, we know.  The second clue I got, after a few more drinks, was much more enlightening:

"Bub, you best know that over 1000 years ago, Mondain the wizard created an evil gem. With this gem he is immortal and cannot be defeated. The quest of --Ultima-- is to traverse the lands in search of a time machine. Upon finding such a device, you should go back in time to the days before Mondain created the evil gem and destroy him before its creation. If you do this, you will save the universe and win the game!!!"

Bub, you best know that I can break the fourth wall.

It's a little weird to be getting this vital plot information from a bartender, and even weirder for said bartender to completely break kayfabe by talking about "winning the game".  And unless there's a piece of documentation I've missed, this is the only place where Ultima tells you about its plot.  Despite being the big bad guy of the first game, Mondain seems to be a bit of a non-factor in the present day.  None of the kings mention him.  I guess all of the monsters infesting the countryside and the dungeons work for him, but Mondain himself is nowhere to be seen. It would be cool if you could find him in the present day and fight against him in his invincible form.

I also wonder how this fits with the plot of Akalabeth, where Mondain is said to have already been defeated by Lord British.  Did British drive Mondain away at some point, before Mondain made a comeback?  Or is Akalabeth technically set between Ultima I and II?

Now with an actual motivation, I returned to my frigate and set off across the ocean to the east.  It only took me about 30 "steps" until I found land, a small island with another landmark.  This was the Pillar of the Argonauts, and when I entered I was reward with... a dagger?  Hardly the most useful of treasures, but I kept it anyway.

A little further east I came to the coast, and started exploring in an anti-clockwise direction, stopping at cities and dungeons when I found them.  To the south-west of the continent I found an island with another landmark, the Pillar of Ozymandias.  Entering this gave me a quote from the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as a bonus to my Wisdom score.

The cities I found on the second continent were named as follows:

  • Owen, in a forest grove near the west coast
  • The City of the Snake, in a bay to the south-west
  • Linda, on the south coast
  • Wolf, on a south-east peninsula
  • John, in a bay near the east coast
  • Arnold, on an island near the middle of the continent
  • Gerry, on the east coast of the north-western region
  • Helen, on the west coast of the large north-eastern island

Aside from the cities of the Snake and the Wolf, I suspect that Garriott was namechecking friends and family here, or possibly people who helped him work on the game.  I know that the code for the overland tile graphics was done by Ken Arnold, which accounts for one of the city names.  His parents were named Owen and Helen, which accounts for two more.  I'm sure Garriott scholars can fill me in on the rest.

I also found the following dungeons:

  • The Labyrinth, near the west coast
  • Where Hercules Died, south-east of the above
  • The Horror of the Harpies (there are two dungeons with this name, one south-east of Where Hercules Died, and the other on the large north-eastern island)
  • The Gorgon's Hole, on the south coast
  • The Dead Warrior's Fight, at the tip of a peninsula on the east coast
  • Advari's Hole, on an island near the middle of the continent
  • The Savage Place, on the maze-like island to the north
  • Scorpian Hole, to the north-west

I also found two castles, the Castle Barataria (on the central island) and the Castle Rondorlin (on the mainland north-west of that).  The king of Castle Barataria tasked me with finding the Pillar of Ozymandias; easily done, since I already knew where it was.  The king of Castle Rondorlin wanted me to find and kill a Carrion Creeper.

At this point I'd pretty much fully explored the continent.  Here are the two continents side-by-side.

Two remarkably similar continents.

Notice anything?  If you turn the second continent on its side and flip it, it's exactly the same layout as the first, with some ocean thrown in to mix it up a bit.  Even the cities, dungeons, castles and landmarks are found in the same places.  I wonder if this was done due to laziness or expedience, or if it was a clever way of getting around memory limitations?  I know there are books out there that go into the creation of the series, I really need to get my hands on one.

After visiting Castle Barataria, I went to the city of Arnold right next door, and discovered that some new methods of transport were available: an air-car and a shuttle.  I was definitely not feeling ready for space travel yet, so I didn't buy the shuttle; I wanted to hold off until I'd fully explored the world I was on.  I was more than ready to buy an air-car, though, and it was every bit as great as I'd been hoping.  Not only was it capable of skimming across the ocean, but it could also go on land; its only restriction was an inability to fly over mountains and forests.  It also had lasers, which were more powerful than my frigate's cannons.  I abandoned my frigate, and set off in my new air-car, with an icon that looked suspiciously like Luke Skywalker's X-34 landspeeder from Star Wars.

Using a Star Wars vehicle to shoot lasers at a Scottish cryptid.
This game is bananas.

It's a shame that the documentation of Ultima is so open about the game's space travel elements.  It's one of the biggest sections of the manual, and there's a space shuttle right there on the front cover.  Otherwise, there's no mention of the various technological weapons and modes of transportation that are eventually introduced.  I mean, the mash-up of elements in this game is still buck-wild, but I feel like they would have been even more effective if they weren't signposted so heavily.  I guess Garriott had to put the space ship control instructions somewhere though, and at this stage of video game development it wasn't going to be in an in-game tutorial.

I hit up the Pillars of Ozymandias to complete the quest I'd just been given, and along the way I also checked out the Pillars of the Argonauts again.  This time I was rewarded with a mace, a slightly better weapon than the dagger I'd been given last time.  Castle Rondorlin is very close to the Pillars of the Argonauts, so I decided to test a theory, shuttling back and forth between the two to see what I would get.  Sure enough, every time I visited the Pillats of the Argonauts I was rewarded with a stronger weapon, from regular stuff like swords and axes, to magical items like wands and amulets, to sci-fi stuff like light swords, phazors and blasters.  Eventually I had acquired a full complement of weapons, and when I wasn't shooting my enemies with the lasers on my air-car I was firing at them with my blaster.

Every weapon in the game.

There were a few weapons I couldn't use, though.  The wand, staff, and amulet had no effect; either I need to be a different class, or they're used to cast spells somehow.  The triangle, said in the manual to be a type of magic sword, also didn't work.  Not sure what's going on there, unless it's also restricted by class.

After that I went to a town to check out what armour was available, and was happy to see that Vacuum Suits and Reflect Suits were on sale.  I bought one of each, and equipped the Reflect Suit.

Having just cheesed my way into the best weapons in the game, I decided to do the same with my stats.  I started with the Pillars of Ozymandias, going back and forth between there and the City of the Snake until I got my score to 90.  The higher your score is, the lower the bonus you receive; by the time my score was in the 80s I was only getting 1 point per visit.  The manual says that the maximum attribute score is 99, but once I got to 90 I the bonus I was getting per visit was +0.  It's possible that multiple visits might be required at this point to raise a score by 1, but I was satisfied for the moment.

I then returned to the first continent, and did the same thing at the Pillars of Protection and the Tower of Knowledge, raising my Agility and Intelligence respectively.  This time I tried alternating between the two landmarks rather than visiting cities in between, and that worked; it also made the process quite a bit faster.  Three of my six attributes were at the maximum possible score (or near-maximum, if 99 is possible).

I was getting towards the end of my session, but I thought I'd stop back in at Paws to get some more pub rumours.  The first one I got was either a question or a warning: "Bub, you best know to watch the wench?"  I tried a few more times, until I finally found out the hard way the consequences for drinking too much: I was seduced by the wench, who stole all of my gold.

Is the the first CRPG where you can sleep with a prostitute?

This was a potentially fatal disaster.  I only had about 100 units of food, and nothing to buy more with.  It was a bit late at night for me to want to go grinding for gold in a dungeon, so I succumbed to the lure that every Ultima player eventually falls foul of.  It was time for a bit of theft and murder.

I went to the food store to try the (S)teal command.  It only worked when I was behind the counter, which is to say that it didn't work, and I was caught red-handed.  A couple of the guards gave chase, but with my new weapons and armour I took care of them.  Then I murdered the shopkeep, and made a few dozen attempts to steal some food.  None of them were successful, so figured that this was a bust.  It was time to try something else.

In my last post, I'd heard the pub rumour that the princess would offer a great reward to anyone who rescued her.  There's a captive princess in every castle, and a jester who wanders around singing about their possession of the key; to pull this off, I'd have to get the key from the jester, open the princess's cell, and escape from the castle without getting killed by the guards.

I was wary of taking on so may guards though, so I did a test run, fighting the guard at the entrance to the Castle of Lord British.  I killed him, but it cost me far too many hit points; there was no way I'd survive if I tried to fight my way out.  Instead, I decided to make a mad dash for it.  At first I tried the steal command near the jester, but that didn't work.  There was nothing else to do but murder the poor soul, and take the key.  Then I high-tailed it to the cell with guards in pursuit, and let the princess out.  She followed me as I raced out of the castle, soaking up hits as the guards attacked me while I fled.  Thankfully the guards weren't all that good at boxing me in, and I had more than enough hit points to make it out.

Making a mad dash for freedom.

Upon escaping from the castle, the princess rewarded me with 3,000 gold, experience, and hit points.  These were exactly what I needed to get out of my cash-strapped predicament, and a potential death by starvation.  The rumour I'd been told had suggested that I'd get an extra reward if I was 8th level or higher.  I'd already reached 9th level by that point, but I didn't get anything extra.  I remember that the princess is the one who gives you the time machine, and I thought that's what would happen here.  It didn't, and now I suspect that there are other things I need to do first.

My sweet, life-saving reward.

All told that was a pretty fruitful session, with the aim of the game revealed, one continent fully explored, three of my stats maxed out, the best weapons and armour obtained, and a princess rescued.  I almost came to disaster near the end, but those are the moments that make success all the sweeter.  Next time around, I think I'll do some dungeon exploration, I have quests to kill a Gelatinous Cube and a Carrion Creeper, and it's about time I got to it.

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