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Ultima III in Pictures

Ultima III

There’s a lot of interesting stuff to talk about in Ultima III, to the extent that I wasn’t quite sure how to wedge it all into a conventional review. So I decided to try this approach, to balance my usual telling with quite a bit of showing. Or something like that. Anyway, I found it fun to do.

If you’re inspired to play Ultima III yourself, know that Good Old Games is selling it in a collection which also contains Ultima I and II. Less legitimately, there are the usual abandonware sites and ROM collections where you can find the original Apple II version that I play here, but you’re on your own there. Some spoilers do follow, although Ultima III is tricky enough that you may just welcome whatever little bit of guidance you glean from this post.


Ultima III

Garriott was really proud of his game’s subtitle, Exodus, to the extent that in the game itself and most early advertising it’s actually more prominent than the Ultima name. He draws no connection to its meaning as an English noun or to the Bible. It’s simply a cool-sounding word that he takes as the name of his latest evil wizard, the love child of his two previous evil wizards, Mondain from Ultima I and Minax from Ultima II. Roe R. Adams III did make a somewhat strained attempt to draw a connection to the expected implications of the word in the manual via a recasting of an old seafaring mystery:

One possible clue as to the identity of thy nemesis has been discovered. A derelict merchant ship was recently towed into port. No crewmen were aboard, alive or dead. Everyone had vanished, as if plucked by some evil force off the boat. The only thing found was a word written in blood on the deck: EXODUS.

I never hear anything about this ghost ship in the game itself. Also left unexplained, as it was in Ultima II, is why Mondain was on Garriott’s fantasy world of Sosaria and Minax was on our own Earth. This time I’m stuck back on Sosaria again. Garriott would finally get more serious about making an Ultima mythos that makes some kind of sense with the next game, but for now… let’s just say I won’t be spending much more time discussing the plotting or the worldbuilding.


Ultima III

In Ultima III I get to create and control a full party of four adventurers rather than a single avatar. This is actually the only Ultima that works quite this way. Later games would use the code Garriott first developed here to allow players to have more than one person in their parties, but would start them off with a single avatar. Finding other adventurers in the game world itself and convincing them to join would become part of the experience of play and an important component of those games’ much richer plots.


Ultima II

Ultima III

With my party created, I’m dumped into Sosaria, right outside the town of Britain and the castle of Lord British in what has already become by Ultima III a time-honored tradition.

One of the fascinating aspects of playing through the Ultima games in order is seeing which pieces are reused from earlier games and which are replaced. Programming often really is a game of interchangeable parts. On the left above is Ultima II, on the right Ultima III. The same old tile engine that dates back to Ultima I is still in place in both games, but Ultima III changes the screen layout considerably and makes everything a bit more attractive and ornate within the considerable limitations of the Apple II. It no longer uses the Apple II’s mixed display mode that displays text rather than graphics on the bottom four lines of the screen. Instead the whole screen is now given over to a graphics display, with a character generator, once an exotic piece of technology but by 1983 commonplace, used to put words anywhere on the screen.


Ultima III

When I enter a town for the first time another of Ultima III‘s additions to the old tile-graphics engine becomes clear: a line-of-sight algorithm now prevents me from seeing through walls. This adds an extra dimension of realism, but proves to be a mixed blessing. We’ll talk about why that is in just a little bit.


Ultima II

Ultima III

And when I run into a couple of wandering orcs for the first time I see another big addition: a separate strategic-combat screen that pops up when a fight begins. You can see that on the right above; the old Ultima II system of flailing in place on the map screen is on the left. The earlier system would obviously be unworkable with a party of four. Unlike with Wizardry, combat has never been the heart of Ultima‘s appeal, but that doesn’t mean you don’t spend a lot of time — maybe too much time — in Ultima III engaging in it. The new system does add some welcome interest to the old formula. I can now move each character about individually, use missile weapons (a highly recommended strategy that lets me take out many monsters before they can get close enough to damage me), and cast quite a variety of offensive and defensive spells. Less wonderfully, all those random encounters with orcs and cutthroats now take much more time to resolve, which is one of the things that can turn Ultima III into quite the slog by the time all is said and done. Also contributing to the tedium: in a harbinger of certain modern CRPGs, random encounters are balanced to suit the general potency of my party, thus guaranteeing that they will still take some time even once I have quite a powerful group of characters.


Ultima III

As part of a general tightening of the game’s mechanics likely prompted by unfavorable comparisons of previous Ultimas to previous Wizardries, the strange system of hit points as a commodity purchasable from Lord British has finally been overhauled. Now healing works as you might expect: each character has a maximum number of hit points which Lord British raises by 100 every time I visit him after gaining a level. Alas, this works only until level 25 and 2500 hit points. At least I don’t have to pay him for his trouble anymore. In the screenshot above his “Experience more!” means that I haven’t yet gained a level for him to boost my hit-point total; small wonder, as all my characters are still level 1.


Ultima III

Ultima III

Having gotten the initial lay of the land, I settle into the rhythm of building my characters, exploring the world map, and talking to everyone I can find in the towns. The latter process, like so much in Ultima III, is equal parts frustrating and gratifying. The good citizens of Sosaria insist on speaking in the most cryptic of riddles. And here we see the darker side of Garriott’s new line-of-sight system: most of the most vital clue-givers are tucked away in the most obscure possible corners of the towns, like the fellow shown in the screenshot above and left. I have to scour every town square by tedious square to be absolutely certain I haven’t missed a vital clue, a vital link in a chain of tasks required to win that is much more complicated than those found in the earlier games. On the other hand, the gratification that comes when another piece of the puzzle falls into place is considerable. Ultima has always been better at delivering that thrill of exploration than just about any other CRPG.

There are in many places in Ultima III some small kindnesses, some elements that, once I figure out how they work, can make things easier. In the screenshot to the right I’m using a magic gem, purchasable from thieves guilds in a couple of the towns, to get a bird’s-eye view of the town I’m currently in. Ferreting out these secrets and hidden mechanics contributes to another thing Ultima always does well: making you feel smart.


Ultima III

Ultima III

Still, it’s possible to take this whole discovery thing too far. In one of the more astonishing design decisions in Ultima III, Garriott has consciously engineered into his hotkey-driven interface an element of guess the verb. After all, why should text adventurers have all the fun? There’s a mysterious OTHER command this time, which lets me enter new verbs. Divining what these are depends on my sussing that words surrounded by “<>” in characters’ speech refer to new verbs. (“<SEARCH> the shrines.”) A very strange design choice, which does a good job of illustrating the gulf in player expectations between now and then, when guess the verb was still trumpeted by many as an essential element of adventure games rather than just a byproduct of their technical limitations. Given that, why not try to engineer it into Ultima, a series which always tried to offer more, more, more? Thankfully, it would disappear again from Ultima IV, in what could be read as another reflection of changing player expectations.

In the screenshot at left above I’ve just used the hidden verb “BRIBE” to convince a guard who just a second before was standing right next to me to go away for the modest fee of 100 gold. Now I can go into the shop and steal with relative impunity. (Ultima III is, as we’ll continue to see, very much an amoral world, the last Ultima about which that can be said.) Bribing is only useful; other hidden verbs are vital.

For instance, the second screenshot above shows me gathering a piece of important information using the hidden verb “PRAY” inside a temple. This is actually quite an interesting sequence. PRAYing yields the information that I must YELL — YELL being one of the standard hotkey-based commands — “EVOCARE” at a certain place. It’s perilously closed to two guess-the-verb — or at least guess-the-word — puzzles joined together.


Ultima III

Ultima III

We see an interesting re-purposing of previous Ultima technology in the form of the eight moon gates which wink in and out of existence in a set pattern on the world map. In Ultima II, you may recall, these supposedly allowed me to travel through time, although effectively they just provided access to different world maps; nothing I did in one time could have any direct effect on any of the others. Here they’re renamed and used more honestly, as ways to move quickly from place to place on the primary world map. (There are only two world maps this time, the primary one and an alternate world called Ambrosia which we’ll get to shortly.) They also allow me to reach a few places that are otherwise completely inaccessible, as the screenshot at right above illustrates. Well, okay… I could also get there with a ship, an element we’ll talk about later. But that’s not always the case; there’s at least one vital location that can be visited only via moon gate. Thus understanding the logic of the moon gates and charting their patterns is another critical aspect of cracking the puzzle of Ultima III. Moon gates would continue to be a fixture in the Ultimas to come.


Ultima III

Ultima III

Garriott had completely rewritten his dungeon-delving engine for Ultima II, replacing what had been the slowest and most painful part of Ultima I with a snappy new piece that replaced a wire-frame portrait of the surroundings with glorious filled-in color. It’s easily the most impressive and appreciated improvement in that game. But then, like so much else in Ultima II, he squandered it by giving his players no reason to go there. Thus Ultima III almost feels like the new dungeon engine’s real debut. Not only can I harvest a lot of desperately needed gold from the dungeons, but I must also explore them to find five vital “marks” that give special abilities which are in turn key to solving the game. And at the bottom of the Dungeon of Time I meet the Time Lord. (Garriott’s Time Bandits fixation had apparently not yet completely runs its course — or are we now dealing with a Doctor Who obsession?) He gives a portentous clue that will be vital to the end-game.


Ultima III

Ultima III

Sosaria is still a world where might makes right. Lord British, the supposedly benevolent monarch, has a dirty little secret, an ugly torture chamber hidden in the depths of his castle. It’s almost enough to make you ask who’s really the evil one here. The manual talks a good game about Exodus, but he doesn’t actually do anything at all in the game itself, just hangs out in his castle and waits for us to come kill him. Meanwhile Lord British has torture chambers, and his lands are best with monsters trying to kill me, and he seems completely disinterested in helping me beyond boosting my hit points from time to time. Nor am I exactly morally pure: my own mission in the torture chamber is not to save the fellow who’s been thrown into a lake of fire, merely to extract some information from him.

The screenshot at the right shows an even more morally questionable episode, albeit one that requires a bit more explanation. I’m the one on the horse. Each of the three clerics next to me has a critical clue to convey. However, I can’t interact on a diagonal, meaning that the one at bottom right is inaccessible to me — unless I open up a lane by killing one of his companions in cold blood, that is. I want to emphasize here that the clue the inaccessible cleric has to offer is absolutely necessary; he tells where to dig for some special weapons and armor that provide the only realistic way to survive the end-game in Exodus’s castle. Thus the only way forward is, literally, murder, and it’s a conscious design choice on Garriott’s part. Of course, he didn’t think of it quite that way. He just saw it as an interesting mechanic for a puzzle, having not yet made the leap himself from mechanics to experiential fiction. Again, all of that would change with Ultima IV.


Ultima III

Ultima III

Speaking of horses: given Garriott’s newfound willingness to edit, the vehicles available to me in Ultima III are neither so plentiful nor so outrageous as they were in Ultima II. The ridiculous and ridiculously cool airplane, for instance, is gone.

I can buy horses for my party in a couple of towns. These let me move overland a bit faster, using less food and avoiding many of the wandering monsters and the endless combats they bring which can test the patience of the hardiest of players. A ship can be acquired only by taking it from one of the roving bands of pirates that haunt the coastline. There aren’t actually a lot of pirates about, which can get very frustrating; a ship is required to visit several important areas of the game, and finding one can be tough. In the right-hand screenshot above I’ve sailed to an island, where, following the lead of the cleric whose companion I killed in cold blood, I’ve dug up the aforementioned special weapons that are required to harm Exodus’s innermost circle of minions.


Ultima III

Ultima III

I also need a ship to get to the alternate world of Ambrosia, which I can manage only by the counter-intuitive step of sailing into a whirlpool. Here I find shrines to each of the four abilities, the only ways to raise my scores above their starting values. Doing so is vital; in Ultima III‘s still somewhat strange system, ability scores have much more effect on my performance in combat and other situations than my character level. For instance, the number and power of spells I can cast has nothing to do with my level, only with my intelligence (wizard spells) or wisdom (cleric spells).

The explicitly Christian imagery in these shrines, and occasionally in other places in the game, is worth noting. It’s doubtless a somewhat thoughtless result of Garriott’s SCA activities and his accompanying fascination with real medieval culture, but it could certainly be read as disrespectful, a trivializing of religious belief. It’s the sort of thing that TSR, creators of Dungeons and Dragons, were always smart enough to stay well away from (not that it always helped them to avoid controversy). Similarly, you definitely will never see crosses in a big-budget modern fantasy CRPG.


Ultima III

Ready at last, I piece together a string of clues and sail to the “Silver Snake”. There I yell the password “EVOCARE” to enter Exodus’s private grotto. The Silver Snake itself provides a good illustration of just how intertwined the early Ultima games were with Garriott’s own life. And the anecdote that explains its presence here also shows some of the difficulties of trying to pin down the facts about Garriott’s life and career.

Growing up in Houston in the mid-1970s, Garriott was one of the few people to see the infamously awful adventure film Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. Members of the lost Central American tribe that Savage battles in the movie all bear a tattoo on their chest of the Mayan god Kulkulkan, about whom little is known today apart from his symbol: a serpent.

Kulkulkan

Young Richard thought the symbol so cool-looking that he went to his mother’s silversmithing workshop in that room above his family’s garage that would one day house Origin Systems and made the design — or as close an approximation as he could manage — for himself. He put his new amulet on a chain made from one of his mother’s belts. He told Shay Addams about it circa 1990:

“And this chain now resides around my neck 365 days a year, 24 hours a day — it has essentially remained there for the rest of my life ever since the day I put it on. There is no way to remove it without taking a screwdriver to it and prying open one of the links. For the first couple of years that I wore it, I actually had a link that I used to open and close a little bit. After I realized I was wearing out something by doing that, I quit doing it, so this necklace has remained here ever since. It literally never comes off. The chain was gold-colored with I first put it on. As it wears off, the colors keep changing, and now it rusts on my neck. I mean literally, every day. When I go, I may die of rust poisoning or something.”

Shortly after finishing Ultima III, Garriott loaned the original to his father Owen to carry with him on his second and final trip into space. It went into space again with Richard himself in 2008, and it seems that he still wears it frequently if not constantly. For what it’s worth, the color now seems to be a dull silver, almost a pewter shade.

But… wait. A close look at the early portrait of Origin Systems I published earlier shows that he doesn’t seem to be wearing it there, although Ken Arnold is using either the original or a duplicate as a key ring. Various other contemporary photos show no evidence of a chain or amulet, at least not of the construction and bulk of the one he wears to public appearances in recent years. Now, you could say that to even question this is petty, and in a very real sense you’d be right. Really what does it matter whether he never takes the serpent medallion off or whether it’s merely a precious link to his past that he wears on special occasions? I mention it here only because it points to how slippery everything involving Garriott can be, how much the man often seems to prefer SCA-style legend over the messier world of historical facts, and by extension how eager his interviewers and chroniclers often are to mythologize rather than document. That in turn forces me to spend far more time than I’d like to debunking or at least double-checking everything he says and much of what is said about him. But we’ve moved far afield from Ultima III now, so enough beating of this particular dead horse.


Ultima III

Ultima III

As I’ve mentioned before, Garriott excised most of the anachronistic science-fiction elements from Ultima III to focus on fantasy. But notice that I said “most.” When I get to the grand climax at last, I learn that Exodus apparently is in fact… a giant deranged computer in the tradition of Star Trek. The four magic cards I quested for were apparently punched cards — Exodus is an old-fashioned evil computer — that I need to use to shut him down or change his programming or… something. Of course, none of this make a lick of sense — how did Mondain and Minax manage to breed a computer child? But I dutifully insert the cards and shut him down, and am left to “speculation” about Ultima IV.

In that spirit, let’s note that Garriott himself sees the Ultimas through Ultima III as essentially technical exercises, written “to satisfy my personal interest in seeing how much better a game I could put together with the skills I’d acquired while creating the previous game.” While his technology would continue to improve, with Ultima III it reached a certain point of fruition at which it was capable of delivering more than an exercise in rote mechanics, was capable of sustaining real experiential fictions. Garriott didn’t entirely realize that at the time he was writing Ultima III, and thus the game takes only the most modest of steps in that direction. When he started on the next one, however, it would all come home. In a way, it’s with that game that Ultima really became Ultima as we remember it today. We have much else to talk about before we get there, but I hope you’ll still be around when we do. With Ultima III Garriott had his foundation in place. Next would come the cathedral.

 

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The Legend of Escape from Mt. Drash

The only published advert for Escape from Mt. Drash

Ultima collectors are a hardy and dedicated lot, not only authoring web sites but even huge books on their passion. An oddity called Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash has for years been rivaled only by the original hand-assembled Akalabeth as the Holy Grail for these folks. Drash, a game for of all platforms the lowly Commodore VIC-20, trickled out of Sierra in the spring of 1983, achieved miniscule distribution and miniscule sales, then vanished from history. For some years there was reason to wonder whether it had actually been released at all, rather than only being something that came and went from a single advertisement (as shown above, from the July 1983 Compute!) and a few product catalogs. Only in 2000 was a working copy of the game finally found, “at the bottom of a cliff in British Columbia” amidst a pile of other old, unsold software apparently dumped long before by a retailer or distributor.

As befits a Holy Grail, a legend sprung up around Drash that consisted of a few known facts woven together within a tapestry of conjecture. Drash, the story went, was an attempt by Sierra to make a quick buck off the Ultima name by releasing a slapdash game to the VIC-20 market, terra incognita to Richard Garriott, without his knowledge or consent. The implication is that someone at Sierra eventually got nervous about this dubious scheme and buried the game — in some versions of the story literally, by dumping remaining copies into a landfill in a tale that echoes the (itself likely exaggerated) tale of Atari’s dumping of millions of E.T. cartridges into a New Mexico landfill that same year. It’s a glib story which seems to explain much about the game’s obscurity while also investing it with a nice dollop of the nefarious, a plus for collectors of an industry that, let’s face it, isn’t exactly rife with the sort of dark secrets and forbidden fruits that their pals who collect, say, vintage records get to enjoy. Yet it’s also a story that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, to an extent that it’s hard to understand how so many bright people could buy into it. There are two serious objections, either of which would make it highly improbable. Together they make it impossible to believe.

We should first of all take note of the author of Drash: Keith Zabalaoui. Zabalaoui was a member of what I somewhat facetiously called Garriot’s “entourage” in my previous post, one of his old high-school running buddies who hung around with him in Houston and helped from time to time with his various projects. It could only have been through Garriott that Zabalaoui came into contact with Sierra in the first place. So, the legend requires us to believe that Zabalaoui met the folks at Sierra through Garriott and sold them a game, then agreed with them to secretly release it as an illegitimate knockoff of his friend’s work. Finally, after publishing the game and receiving at least some sort of royalties he continued to keep the whole affair a secret from his buddy. That’s behavior that borders on the sociopathic. There are also some serious plotting problems to this little narrative; didn’t Richard ever say, “Hey, Keith, whatever happened to that game you were working on for Sierra?”

And then let’s look at this from the other side, from the viewpoint of Sierra. Yes, the company may have started with advertising pasted together from newspaper clippings around Ken and Roberta Williams’s kitchen table, but those days were already long gone by early 1983. Sierra was by then negotiating licensing deals with Big Media players like The Jim Henson Company and accepting millions from venture capitalists who saw them as major players in a major emerging industry. Can we really believe that such a company, which by now employed a substantial legal team, would risk their reputation by sticking someone else’s trademarked name on a game in the hopes of making a quick few (tens of?) thousands of dollars and maybe sticking it somehow to Garriott, the man who had recently jilted them? As John Williams says, “Sierra On-Line management was young but not stupid.” Ken Williams had been closely involved in the complications of securing for Garriott and Sierra legal right to the Ultima name from the now defunct California Pacific after Garriott had first agreed to sign with Sierra. To imagine that he would then just blatantly steal the trademark is… well, absurd is perhaps being kind. To imagine that the legal team the venture capitalists insisted be in place would even allow him to do so is to fail to understand how such relationships work.

So, the true story is, as these things so often go, more prosaic than the legend. Zabalaoui did visit Sierra in Garriott’s company, where he was inspired to start work on a simple maze-running action game. When he eventually showed the finished product to them, they were doubtful. It wasn’t a terrible game, but it wasn’t a great one either. And by early 1983 the huge but breathtakingly short-lived VIC-20 software market had already passed its peak and started on a downward slope that would soon turn into a veritable cliff as the ever-plunging price of the vastly more capable Commodore 64 made the older machine more and more irrelevant. And Zabalaoui’s game required more than just a VIC-20: one also needed to have the 8 K memory expansion (to boost the machine’s RAM from just 5 K to 13 K) and a cassette drive, since it was too large to be installed onto a cartridge. Most of the kids who owned VIC-20s as learning toys or game machines didn’t equip them with such luxuries. Sierra hemmed and hawed, and then made a suggestion: if they could maybe market it as an Ultima that might help… Garriott was perhaps not thrilled with Sierra at this point in time, but he was always good to his friends. When Zabalaoui came to him with Sierra’s request, Garriott agreed, likely more as a personal favor to someone who had helped him out with his own projects quite a bit in the past than anything else. Today, of course, when the industry is so much more mature and so much more sensitive to the power of branding, one in Garriott’s position would never risk tarnishing his trademark in such a way. But in 1983 both Garriott and his industry were still very young.

Even with the Ultima name, Sierra was obviously skeptical about the game’s chances, particularly as the VIC-20 software market continued to decline even as packaging was prepared and the game was sent off for duplication. They manufactured the minimum quantity required by their contract with Zabalaoui, on the order of a few thousand units, placed that one halfhearted advertisement, and watched with disinterest as the game foundered commercially. The vast majority of the production run was likely, like that first copy that was rediscovered in 2000, written off and trashed, whether by Sierra themselves or their various distributors. It’s an example of a phenomenon you see from time to time in business, where a project about which no one (with the possible exception in this case of Zabalaoui) feels terribly enthusiastic just sort of drifts to completion through inertia and the lack of anyone stepping up to kill it with a definitive “no.” In this case that led to Escape from Mt. Drash passing into history as the first of the spin-off Ultimas, games that are not part of the main sequence but nevertheless use the name. Future entries in that category would actually be some of the most impressive to bear the Ultima name; Mt. Drash, however, should most definitely not be included in that group.

I’m not the first one to reveal the true story of Escape from Mt. Drash. John Williams has occasionally tried to correct the record in the past via comments to other blog posts and the like that repeated the legend. Recently it has begun to seem that word is finally getting out. Blogger Pix had the opportunity to interact with Garriott personally last year, and asked him directly about the Mt. Drash legend. Garriott at last confirmed to him that he had known about the game and duly authorized its release.

So why should I take up the cause now? Well, there are still plenty of online sources that repeat the legend. I’d thus like to add this blog’s weight — to whatever extent it has weight — to the true story. This I partly do as a favor to John Williams, who has gifted me (and you) with so many memories and insights on the early days of Sierra and the industry as a whole. John is, understandably enough, annoyed at the persistence of this falsehood, as it directly impinges the honor of Sierra and by extension himself.

More generally — and yes, I know I rant about this more than I should — this can serve as a lesson to people who consider themselves historians in this field to be a bit more rigorous, and not to substitute easy assumptions for research. I won’t get into the original source of the false legend here, only say that I’m disappointed that it was repeated for so long without ever being seriously questioned. When you are thinking of saying something that directly accuses people of unethical dealings you really need to be sure of your facts and careful with your words. Frankly, that’s a lesson that Richard Garriott himself could learn; despite my admiration for his vision and persistence as a gaming pioneer, I find his glib dismissal of the folks at California Pacific and Sierra who launched his career as dishonest, “stupid bozoos,” and “heavy drug users” to be unconscionable. It’s a lesson his fans should also take to heart.

If you do have one of those websites that repeats the legend of Escape from Mt. Drash… hey, it happens. I’ve made a hash of things myself once or twice in public. But maybe think about taking a moment to make a correction? I’m sure that at the very least John Williams and the others who built Sierra would appreciate it.

 

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Origin Systems

Early days in the garage at Origin. Top row, from left: Ken Arnold, Mike Ward, Laurie Thatcher, James Van Artsdalen, Helen Garriott, John Van Artsdalen. Bottom row: Richard Garriott, Robert Garriott, Chuck Bueche.

Early days in the garage at Origin. Top row, from left: Ken Arnold, Mike Ward, Laurie Thatcher, James Van Artsdalen, Helen Garriott, John Van Artsdalen. Bottom row: Richard Garriott, Robert Garriott, Chuck Bueche.

When we last checked in with Richard Garriott, he had just released Ultima II under the imprint of Sierra Online. Despite all of the pain and tension of its extended development process and the manifold design flaws that resulted from that, Ultima II proved to be a hit, selling over 50,000 copies within the first year or so and eventually approaching sales of 100,000. Contemporary reviews were uniformly stellar. In contrast to Ultima II‘s modern reputation as the black sheep of the Ultima family, reviewers of the era seemed so entranced by the scope and vision of the game, so much grander than anything else out there, that they were willing to overlook all of the useless spinning gears that didn’t connect with anything else and the many things that just didn’t make sense even by the generous standards of CRPG storytelling. Only one review that I’ve seen takes note of Ultima II‘s strangely disconnected design elements at all, James A. McPherson’s piece for Computer Gaming World. Even he bends over backwards to put the best possible interpretation on it:

My only thought as I finished the game was that very little of this enormous work was really being utilized as being required to finish the game. It was almost as if this was only a small initial quest to give you the lay of the land and that additional scenarios would be released, each one using more of the game until the “Ultimate” quest was finished.

No “additional scenarios” would have a chance to appear even if Garriott or someone at Sierra had read this review and thought it a good idea. As McPherson wrote those words Garriott’s relationship with Sierra was falling to pieces.

As I described in my earlier article, the relationship had been full of tension for months before the release of Ultima II. Big, blustery Ken Williams of Sierra took pretty good care of his people and was beloved by most of them for it, but he never let it be forgot that he considered them his people; he always made it clear who was ultimately in charge. Richard Garriott, younger and quieter than Ken though he may have been, had just as strong a will. He just wasn’t going to be the junior partner in anything. In fact, he even had a small entourage of his own, some of his old running buddies from high school who assisted with his projects in various ways. Most prominent amongst this group were Ken Arnold, Keith Zabalaoui, and Chuck Bueche (immortalized as “Chuckles the Jester” in many an Ultima), the latter two of whom also spent time in Oakhurst at the Sierra offices. Throw in a serious culture clash between the free-spirited California lifestyle of Sierra and the conservatism of Garriott’s suburban Texas upbringing and a final blow-up was probably inevitable. It came just weeks after Ultima II‘s release.

Through much of 1982 Sierra was essentially a two-platform shop. Most of their games were developed on the Apple II, and then those that were successful would be ported to the Atari 8-bit line. (A minority, such as the works of Atari stalwart John Harris, went in the opposite direction.) Accordingly, immediately upon signing Garriott Sierra had not only re-released Ultima I, whose rights they recovered from the now defunct California Pacific as part of the deal, but also funded a port of that game to the Atari machines. Ultima II‘s Atari port was done by prior agreement by Chuck Bueche for a piece of Garriott’s generous royalties. By this time, however, it was becoming clear that Sierra would need to support more than just these two platforms if they wished to remain a major player in the exploding software industry. They therefore funded an additional port of Ultima II, without Garriott’s direct oversight, to the IBM PC. (Another unsupervised port, to the Commodore 64, would follow later in 1983.) The contract he had signed not only allowed Sierra to choose where and when to port Ultima II, but also allowed them to pay Garriott a considerably lower royalty for ports with which he and his entourage were not involved. Effectively he would be paid as the designer only, not as the designer and the programmer. Garriott, who had apparently overlooked this aspect of the contract, felt like he was being swindled even though Sierra remained well within the letter of the law. You can choose to see all of this as you like, as Ken Williams slyly manipulating contract law to put one over on his naive young signee or as a simple failure of due diligence on Garriott’s part.

Regardless, Garriott had consciously or subconsciously been looking for a reason to split with Sierra for some time. Now he had a suitable grievance. Luckily, he had been wise enough to retain the right to the Ultima name. Even Ultima I and II were given exclusively to Sierra only for a few years before reverting back to their creator. There was thus nothing stopping him from continuing the Ultima series elsewhere.

But where? He certainly had no shortage of suitors, among them Trip Hawkins, who pitched hard for Garriott to become one of his electronic artists. Still, Richard wasn’t sure that he wanted to get in bed with yet another publisher at all. He talked it over with his business adviser, his older brother Robert, who in the best over-educated tradition of the Garriott family was just finishing his second Master’s degree at MIT with the thesis “Cross Elasticity Demand for Computer Games.” Robert proposed that they start their own publisher, with him managing the business side and Richard and his buddy Chuck Bueche the technical and creative. And so Origin Systems was born. It would be a little while before they came up with their brilliant slogan — “We Create Worlds” — but just the company name itself was pretty great. It probably owed something to the Origins Games Fair, one of the two most prominent North American conventions for tabletop gamers of all types. Richard, who had played Dungeons and Dragons obsessively in high school and at university in Austin had become an intimate of Steve Jackson Games, had deep roots in that culture. Richard, Robert, their father Owen, and Chuck Bueche all put up money — with the lion’s share naturally coming from the relatively flush Richard — to become the founders of a new games publisher.

Everything about the young (literally; look at their picture above!) Origin Systems was bizarre, even by startup standards. They set up shop in Richard’s personal playhouse, a space above the Garriott family’s three-car garage which had once served as an art studio for his mother but had been commandeered by Richard and his friends years before for their D&D games. It was a big room scattered with desks, chairs, and even cots. Here Richard and his friends set up their various computers. A little cubbyhole at one end served as Robert’s business office. Robert himself was still officially living in Massachusetts with his wife, who had quite a career of her own going as a manager at Bell Labs and thus couldn’t move. Robert, however, was a pilot with a little Cessna at his disposal. He spent three weeks of each month in Houston, then flew back to spend the last with his wife in Massachusetts.

Together Chuck Bueche and Richard worked feverishly on the games that would become Origin Systems’s first two products. Chuck’s was an action game called Caverns of Callisto; Richard’s was of course the big one upon which they were all depending to get Origin properly off the ground, Ultima III.

Given its flagship status, Garriott felt compelled to try to remedy some of the shortcomings of his earlier games. In particular, he was obviously eying the Wizardry series; for all of the Ultima series’s stellar reviews and sales, the first two Wizardry games had garnered even better and more of both. Much of what’s new in Ultima III is there in the name of addressing his series’s real or perceived failings in comparison with Wizardry. Thus he replaced the single adventurer of the early games with a full party which the player must manage; added a new strategic combat screen to make fights more interesting; added a full magic system with 32 separate spells to cast to replace the simplistic system (which the player could easily and safely ignore entirely) of his previous games; added many new class and race options from which to build characters; made some effort to bring some Wizardry-style rigorousness to the loosy-goosy rules of play that marked his earlier games.

Notably, however, Ultima III is also the first Garriott design that doesn’t simply try to pile on more stuff than the game before. Whether because he knew that, what with his family and friends all counting on him, this game needed to be both good and finished quickly or just because he was maturing as a designer, with Ultima III he for the first time showed an ability to edit. Garriott was never going to be a minimalist, but Ultima III is nevertheless only some 60% of the geographical size of Ultima II, the only example of the series shrinking between installments prior to everything going off the rails many years later with Ultima VIII. Also gone entirely is the weird sub-game of space travel, as well as — for the most part — the painful stabs at humor. Yet it’s safe to say that Ultima III will take the average player much longer to finish, because instead of leaving huge swathes of game — entire planets! — dangling uselessly in the wind Garriott this time wove everything together with an intricate quest structure that gives a reason to explore all those dungeons. In fact, there’s a reason to visit every significant area in the game.

Viewed from the vantage point of today, Ultima III is perched on a slightly uncomfortable border, right between the simple early Ultimas that predate it and the deeper, richer works that make up the heart of Ultima‘s (and Richard Garriott’s) legacy today. I don’t know if any other game in the series sparks as much diversity of opinion. To some it’s just a long, boring grind, while a small but notable minority actually name it as their favorite in the entire series. Personally, I can appreciate its advances but take issue with many aspects of its design, which strike me as cruel and rather exhausting. My favorite of the early Ultimas, the one that strikes me as most playable today, remains Ultima I. But I’ll talk about Ultima III at much greater length in a future post. For now let’s just note that it gave CRPG players of 1983 exactly what they wanted — a big, convoluted, epic experience that pushed the technology even further than had the previous game — without the bugs and other issues that had plagued Ultima II.

Having dropped out of even a part-time university schedule and now largely living right there in that garage loft, Richard wrote Ultima III quickly, almost inconceivably so given its technical advancements. It was done in about six months, barely one-third the time invested into Ultima II and considerably less time than it would take many a player to finish it. As usual, the game itself was essentially a one-man effort, but as it came together he recruited family and friends to help with numerous ancillary matters. Ken Arnold, his old buddy from the ComputerLand days, wrote and programmed a lovely soundtrack for the game, playable by those who had purchased one of the new Mockingboard sound cards for their Apple II. A huge advance over the bleeps and farts of the previous games, it was the first of three Arnold-composed soundtracks that have become a core part of Ultima nostalgia for a generation of players, especially once ported to the Commodore 64, where they sounded even better on the magnificent SID chip.

Ultima III

But most of the outside effort went into the package. Origin may have literally been a garage startup, but Richard was determined that their products should not look the part. He wanted to outdo Sierra’s efforts for Ultima II; he succeeded handily. Denis Loubet, whom Richard had met back when he did the original cover art for the California Pacific Akalabeth, now drew a striking demon for the Ultima III cover which might not have had anything obviously to do with the contents of the disks but sure looked cool. (Maybe too cool; lots of overzealous Christian parents would take one look and start sending Garriott letters accusing him of Satanism.) Loubet also provided pictures for the manuals, as did Richard’s mother Helen, who drew up another mysterious cloth map complete with arcane runes along the borders; such maps were about to become another of the series’s trademarks. And did you notice I said “manuals”? That wasn’t a typo. Ultima III included three: a main game manual along with two more booklets containing elaborate faux-medieval descriptions and illustrations for each wizard and cleric spell. Said faux-medieval writing is a bit more tolerable this time because Richard, no wordsmith, didn’t write it himself. The spell descriptions were done by Margaret Weigers, a local friend, while Roe R. Adams III, who was quickly parlaying his reputation as the king of adventure-game players into a career in game development (he would soon sign on to design Wizardry IV for Sir-Tech), doused the main manual in copious quantities of suitably purple prose (yet another Ultima trademark).

As July of 1983 faded into August the game was already largely finished and the various hardcopy pieces were beginning to come in from the printers. Showing that he could challenge even Ken Williams in the charisma department when we wanted to, Richard convinced Mary Fenton and Jeff Hillhouse, two Sierra employees he’d met during his time in Oakhurst, to come join Origin. Fenton would become Origin’s first customer-service person; Hillhouse, who had learned how the industry worked at Sierra, would handle logistics and distribution. When he made contact with distributors and announced Ultima III, everyone was astonished when initial orders totaled no less than 10,000 units. Richard and Robert now kicked their long-suffering parents’ vehicles out of their own garage to make room for a big shrink-wrap machine — their biggest capital investment yet — and a workbench of computers to use for disk duplication. By now Origin had rented a tiny office in Houston to serve as the front that they presented to the world, but the real heart of the company remained there in the garage. For several months evenings in front of the television at the Garriott household would be spent folding together lurid demon-painted boxes.

Origin Systems's first advertisement, for their first two products

Origin Systems’s first advertisement, for their first two products

Ultima III began shipping in late August for the Apple II. Versions for the Atari 8-bit line and the Commodore 64 soon followed. Both ports were done by Chuck Beuche, whose role as a creative and technical force with Origin during these early days was almost as significant as Richard’s. The game was a huge hit across all platforms; Ultima III became the first Ultima to top 100,000 units in sales, a mark that all of the following titles would surpass with ease. Indeed, this moment marks the point where Ultima pulled ahead of the Wizardry series once and for all to become simply the premiere CRPG series of its era. Despite the occasional worthy competitor like the Bard’s Tale series, it would not be really, seriously challenged in that position until the arrival of the officially licensed D&D games that SSI would start releasing at the end of the decade. Happily, Ultima and Richard Garriott would prove worthy of their status; the next Ultima in particular would be downright inspiring.

But for now we still have some business for 1983 and Ultima III. I want to take a closer look at the game, which planted the seeds of much that would follow. First, however, we’ll take a little detour to set the record straight about another one of those persistent myths that dog fan histories of Ultima.

(Richard Garriott’s career has of course been very well documented. The two most in-depth histories are The Official Book of Ultima and Dungeons and Dreamers, even if a distinct whiff of hagiography makes both rather insufferable at times. And of course he’s all over contemporary magazines, not to mention the modern Internet. A particular gem of an article for students of this period in his career is in the November/December 1983 Softline. That’s where I found the wonderful picture at the beginning of this article.)

 

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Playing Ultima II, Part 2

Despite allegedly taking place mostly on our Earth and sometimes even in (basically) our time, very little about Ultima II has much in common with the world that we know. One of the more interesting exceptions is the town of New San Antonio, which is right where you’d expect to find it in 1990. Oh, there are still unanswered questions; it wouldn’t be Ultima II without them. For instance, why is it called New San Antonio? Still, the town hosts an airport where we can steal the second coolest vehicle in the game: an airplane, an obvious nod to the San Antonio of our own world, which hosts two major Air Force bases. Having grown up in Houston and attended university in Austin, Richard Garriott would have been very familiar with San Antonio’s personality. One of the bases, Lackland, houses a huge training center that has earned it, and by extension San Antonio, the nickname of “Gateway to the Air Force.” Wandering the River Walk and other tourist areas around the time of one of the various graduation ceremonies is like strolling through a Norman Rockwell painting — a sea of earnest, clean-cut young men and women in uniform accompanied by proud, doting parents and siblings.

I’ve spent a lot of time already pointing out the cognitive dissonance and design failures that dog Ultima II. Never fear, I’ll get back to doing more of that in a moment. But the airplane affords an opportunity to note what Ultima II, and the Ultima series in general, do so right. As nonsensical as its world is, it consistently entices us to explore it, to find out what lies behind this locked door or at the bottom of that dungeon. Most of the time — actually, always in the case of the dungeon — the answer is “nothing.” But we find something really neat just often enough that our sense of wonder never entirely deserts us. In this case we come upon an actual, functioning airplane. Nothing in the manual or anywhere else has prepared us for this, but here it is. We look to our reference chart of one-key commands to see what seems to fit best, experiment a bit, and we’re off into the wild blue yonder. The airplane is kind of hard to control, and we can only land on grass, but we can fly through time doors to range over any of the time zones in the game, even buzz the monsters that guard Minax’s lair in the heart of the Time of Legends. We made this crazy, undocumented discovery for ourselves, so we own the experience fully. When we take flight for the first time, it’s kind of magic.

That feeling can be hard for modern players, who have every detail about every aspect of the game at their fingertips thanks to a myriad of FAQs, Wikis, and walkthroughs, to capture. Yet it’s at the heart of what made the Ultima games so entrancing in their day. Games like Wizardry gave us a more rigorous strategic challenge, but Ultima gave us a world to explore. This likely goes a long way toward reconciling the rave reviews Ultima II received upon its release (not to mention the fond memories some of you have expressed in the comments) with the contemporary consensus of bloggers, reviewers, and FAQ-writers who revisit the game today, who generally hold it a boring, poorly designed misfire and by far the worst of the 1980s Ultimas. I don’t so much want to disagree with the latter sentiment as I want to also remember that even here in their worst incarnation there was just something special about the Ultima games. They speak to a different part of our nature than most CRPGs — I’m tempted to say a better part. The joy of exploration and discovery can make us overlook much of the weirdness of not only the world and the story but also of the core game systems, some of which (like the need to buy hit points as you would food) I’ve mentioned, but many others of which (like the fact that earning experience points and leveling up confer absolutely no benefits other than bragging rights, or that the gold and experience you earn from monsters has no relation to their strength) I haven’t.

What could be cooler than an airplane, you ask? The answer, of course, is a spaceship. We find a few in the one town in 2111, Pirate’s Harbor, located approximately where we might expect Moscow to be. (Apparently the Soviet Union won World War III.) We steal one and we’re off into space, in what must already be the hundredth videogame tribute to Star Wars‘s warp-drive sequences.

It’s possible to visit all nine planets of the solar system. (In 1982 Pluto was still considered a full-fledged planet.) As with Earth itself, however, Ultima II‘s version of the solar system doesn’t have much in common with reality as we know it. Here Mercury’s terrain consists of “water and swamp”; Jupiter of “water and grass”; Uranus of “forest and grass.” Owen Garriott, Richard’s scientist/astronaut father, must have been outraged. The rest of us can marvel instead that not one of these planets contains anything to make it worth visiting. Indeed, Ultima II can feel like a box of spinning gears that often don’t connect to anything else. In addition to the planets, there are the similarly pointless dungeons, which waste a new dungeon-delving engine that marks as big an advance over Ultima I‘s dungeons as Ultima II‘s town engine is over Ultima I‘s generic towns. For some reasons spells only work in the (pointless) dungeons, meaning that there’s absolutely no reason to make one’s character a cleric or wizard, unless one feels like playing a hugely underpowered fighter. In space again, it’s actually possible — albeit pointless — to dive and climb and turn our spaceship, implying that Garriott originally intended to include a space-combat section like that of Ultima I but never got around to it. Thus, while Ultima II is an impressive machine, it feels like a half-assembled one. A couple of those meta-textual dialogs that are everywhere perhaps offers a clue why: “Isn’t Ultima II finished yet?” asks Howie the Pest; “Tomorrow — for sure!” says Richard Garriott. The only possible riposte to this complaint is that a contemporary player wouldn’t know that planets, dungeons, and so much else were superfluous. She’d presumably explore them thoroughly and get much the same thrill she’d get if her explorations were actually, you know, necessary. I’ll let you decide whether that arguments works for you, or whether Ultima II plays a rather cheap game of bait and switch.

In addition to all the unconnected bits and bobs, there are also problems with pieces that are important. The most famous of the glitches is the ship-duplication bug. We can make a new ship by boarding an existing enemy ship and sailing one square away; we’re left with a ship under our control and the original enemy, which we can continue to board again and again to crank out an endless supply of ships. It can be so much fun to make bridges of ships between islands and continents that it’s almost tempting to label this error a feature, one more of those juicy moments of discovery that make the Ultima games so unique. Other bugs, though, such as certain squares on the map where we simply cannot land a blow against a monster, are more annoying. And there’s one bug that is truly unforgivable. Flying into space requires a certain strength score. There is only one place in the game where we can raise our statistics: the clerk at the Hotel California (don’t ask!) in New San Antonio will sometimes randomly raise one when bribed appropriately. In the original release of the game, however, he will never raise our strength, thus making the game unwinnable for anyone who didn’t choose a fighter as her character class and put a lot of extra points into strength. Sierra did release a patch that at least corrected this problem — one of the first patches ever released for a game.

But, you might be asking, why should not being able to go into space make the game unwinnable if there’s nothing there to find anyway? Well, there actually is one thing we need there, but not on any of the familiar planets. Sifting through all of the jokes and non-sequiturs spouted by characters in the towns has revealed hints that a tenth planet, “Planet X,” exists. There we can pick up a blessing from one Father Antos, which in turn will let us buy a ring from a fellow back in New San Antonio on Earth. All we actually need to beat the Ultima II endgame is: the blessing; the ring; a special sword (“Enilno” — “On-Line” backward; the meta-textual fun just never stops!) that we also can buy in New San Antonio; and of course a character with good enough equipment and statistics to survive the final battle with Minax. She’s tricky, constantly teleporting from one end of her lair to the other, but in the end we finish her.

Like so much else in the game, the final message doesn’t really make sense. The optimistic reviewer for Computer Gaming World took it to suggest that Sierra might release new scenario disks to utilize some of those uselessly spinning gears. But that was not to be. Instead Ultima II is seen in its best light as a sort of technology demonstration, or a preview of the possibilities held out by Garriott’s approach to the CRPG. A better tighter, finished designed, combined with another slate of technology upgrades, would let him do the job right next time.

 
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Posted by on October 17, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Playing Ultima II, Part 1

I thought we’d take a trip together into Ultima II today. I’m not going to overdo the exercise, as that wouldn’t be much fun for you or me; there’s a lot of sameness and even a fair amount of outright tedium involved in winning the game. I will, however, try to hit most of the highlights and give you a fair picture of what sort of experience the game has on offer. As always, feel free to jump in and play for yourself if you like. Ultima II is available for sale at Good Old Games in combination with Ultima I and III. As we’ll see, it has plenty of issues, but there are certainly worse ways to spend six bucks.

When we first create our character and start Ultima II proper, we might wonder just what Richard Garriott spent eighteen months working on. Aside from some animation that has been added to the water, everything looks just as it did in the last game. All of the graphics tiles appear to be exactly the same as those used last time around. As soon as we start to interact with the game, however, we have reason to bless Garriott’s move to assembly-language programming; everything is much, much snappier.

The map over which we wander is also different: this time we’re adventuring on Earth rather than Garriott’s old Dungeons and Dragons world of Sosaria. Moving over such familiar continents brings out the really weird scaling of the Ultima maps in a way that the previous game never did. Here London is exactly nine steps away from the southern tip of Italy, Africa eighteen steps from north to south. Ultima I presumably represented similarly immense distances with each tile, but because it was a fantasy creation I never really thought about it that way. I suppose there’s nothing absolutely prohibiting each step of our journey over the world map from representing days of travel. Yet Ultima II just doesn’t feel like it’s playing out over such an immense time scale; if it is, then the process of winning the game must involve decades (or more) of game time. And even that doesn’t explain why it’s possible to construct a bridge between North America and Europe by lining up a handful of ships. It makes a constant reminder that this is a highly constructed, highly artificial computer landscape we’re wandering through. That fine, I suppose… weird at first, but fine.

Speaking of weird: Ultima II may just have the most nonsensical fictional context I’ve ever seen in a CRPG — and that, my friends is really saying something. Let me do my best to explain it. The screenshot below shows us passing one of the “time doors” that blink in and out of existence at various places on the landscape; charting them is the whole point of the ornate cloth map that was such a priority for Garriott. Through them we can journey to primordial history, when the Earth still contained just the single ├╝ber-continent Pangea; to “B.C.,” a time “just before the dawn of civilization as history records it” where we begin the game; to 1990; or to the “Aftermath” of 2111, when the Earth is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s also possible to go to the “Time of Legends,” a “time before time, peopled by creatures of myth and lore.” Along with the time doors themselves, Legends is the most obvious direct lift from Time Bandits in the game. The same place existed with the same name in the movie, and, there as here, was the scene of the final showdown between good and evil.

It seems that after we defeated the evil Mondain to win Ultima I, his protege Minax, “enchantress of evil,” took up his cause, albeit using a subtler approach:

For Minax is not content to spread evil among the good, causing misery and pain. She prefers to sow seeds of evil in the good and thus set the good against the good, leaving no person untouched. Destruction abounds — and those horrors known only to the once good, guilt and horror and self-hatred, taint the Earth.

The climax was the holocaust of 2111, Minax’s greatest triumph to date, in which ancient civilizations born of love of beauty and wisdom and thought turned upon one another and, in their vicious anger and hate, destroyed almost all of the very Earth that had nurtured them.

What makes no sense about all this is that Ultima I, you’ll remember, took place on Sosaria. Now we’re suddenly fighting the legacy of Mondain on Earth for reasons that, despite furious ret-coning by fans in later years, go completely unexplained in the game itself. Garriott said later that he chose to set Ultima II on Earth because “time travel needs context.” In other words, we need a familiar historical frame of reference on which to hang everything to get the contrast between, say, prehistoric times and contemporary society. Hopscotching through the timeline of a fictional world whose history means nothing to us just isn’t all that interesting. All of that makes perfect sense — except that the version of history depicted in the game has little to do with our Earth’s. Why are orcs wandering about contemporary Earth attacking people? Assuming Garriott didn’t have big plans for world domination in his immediate future, why does Lord British apparently rule the world of 1990 from his castle? Why can we buy phasers and power armor from merchants in prehistoric times? It feels like two (or more) games that smashed together, with everything that made sense about either spinning off into oblivion. Put less charitably, it all just seems really, really dumb, especially considering that Garriott could have had his time doors without at least the most obvious of the anachronisms just by setting his game on Sosaria. Better yet, he could have just made his time doors the moon gates of later Ultimas; there is absolutely no concept here of actions in one time affecting the others. Garriott gains nothing from time travel but a sop to his Time Bandits fixation and a whole lot of stupid.

Anyway, we make our way to “Towne Linda,” located on the southern tip of Italy in B.C. When we enter we see one of the most obvious demonstrations of the work Garriott has been doing on his game engine since Ultima I: towns are now portrayed using the same tile graphics as the wilderness areas, filling many screens. Every city and village is now a unique creation, with its own geography and personality and its own selection of shops and services. There aren’t a lot of towns, just a few per time period (another thing that seems weird in the context of wandering a map of the Earth), but they do much to highlight the primacy of exploration over combat that has always made the Ultima experience unique. In the same spirit, it’s now possible to talk with anyone and everyone in the towns. In fact, it’s necessary to do so to pick up vital clues and information.

As Garriott has noted many times, walking around in the early Ultima can be a bit like wandering through the psyche of the young Richard, meeting the people, places, and interests that filled his time. Towne Linda, for instance, is named after his little sister, with whom he was very close. In a way this is kind of a fascinating concept — the videogame as intellectual landscape. As I’ve said before, one can picture an Annotated Ultima of a (fictional?) future where videogames are accepted as a form of literature. In it some hyper-dedicated scholar has laboriously run down all of the references and shout-outs in the same way that some have written books about Ulysses‘s allusions that are longer than Ulysses. And anyway, who can fault a guy for adoring his little sister? The problem comes when Garriott decides to get witty on us.

Now, Garriott is many things, with adjectival superlatives like “brilliant” very possibly among them. However, he’s not really a funny guy, and when he tries to be one here the results can be painful. Perhaps most grating, just because we have to see them over and over, are the generic phrases spouted by those for whom Garriott hasn’t written anything specific to say: like the guards who say, “Pay your taxes!” (why would a guard say that?), or the wizards with their immortal “Hex-E-Poo-Hex-On-You!” But even those with something unique to say are equally tedious, a jumble of obvious pop-culture references that isn’t exactly Gilmore Girls in its sophistication along with plenty of pointless non sequiturs. It feels like a teenage boy trying to ape Monty Python, which is just about the surest route to the profoundly unfunny I know of. Pity poor Richard; most of us left the humor of our teenage years in the past, but Garriott made the mistake of gifting his to the world. Reading some of the worst of this stuff brings on a sort of contact embarrassment for the guy.

Time Bandits: you have a lot to answer for. I’m sure Garriott imagined Ultima II as a manic, eccentric thrill ride like the movie, but, as he definitively demonstrates here, that tone is harder than it looks to pull off. At worst, it comes off like one of those amateur IF Competition entries in which the (usually young) author, realizing he’s written a game that makes no sense, tries to compensate by making it into an extended meta-comedy about the absurdities of text adventures — an exercise that fools exactly no one.

Like in Ultima I, saving the world from the forces of Evil in Ultima II requires that we not get too hung up on being Good. If we try to buy all of our equipment, food, and hit points (Ultima II persists with the bizarre mechanic of its two predecessors of making hit points a purchasable commodity), we find ourselves in a Sisyphus-like cycle of being able to earn just enough from killing monsters to keep ourselves in food and hit points, but not enough to buy better equipment or for doing any of a number of necessary things, like giving bribes to certain townspeople. To get ahead we need to, at a minimum, steal our food. Further, getting into a number of special areas requires keys that we can acquire only by attacking and killing town guards in cold blood.

Getting from continent to continent requires a ship. In the screenshot at above right we’ve used some of our ill-gotten keys to steal one from the village of Port Boniface. Once we deal with this sea monster that apparently lives in the harbor, we’ll be home free. Since towns reset themselves every time you leave and bloody murder has no other consequences, you eventually start feeling sort of like the CRPG Addict did when he played:

As far as I can tell (and I admit I didn’t keep a careful log), the only recurring characters are Lord British, Iolo, and Gwenno. The latter two are encased in a grassy area in…I don’t know. One of the towns. Remembering how I killed Gwenno for her key in Ultima I and having by now fully internalized my role as a serial killer, I landed a bi-plane in the grassy area and hacked them both to death.

For my part, I found that — gameplay tip here! — I could earn gold fastest by attacking this one townsperson who is always right at the entrance of the town of Le Jester in prehistoric Africa. I must have killed him and run out of town before the guards could get to me 500 times. Yes, Ultima II makes serial killers of us all.

Next time we’ll penetrate all the way into Minax’s lair in the Time of Legends. The assortment of monsters that greet us when we step through a time door to go there is a pretty good sign that we’re in the right place…

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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