Through the Portalarium

It already seems a long time ago but just over a week back, I got the unlikely chance for a tour of Portalarium and questions with Richard Garriott. The offices are on the 7th floor of an unassuming office block in downtown Austin.

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They had just put the Halloween decorations up when we arrived. Letting LOAF lead the way, we were ushered into a small conference room barely big enough to get us all in. It was immediately apparent we were in the right place though as there was an entire wall of Ultimate RPG concept art on the near wall. I’m unfortunately not allowed to talk about this but I can mention some of the other adornments such as the original Ultima 9 tapestry artwork and a trio of cover art pictures for Chuckles’ 3 games including Caverns Of Callisto:-

Caverns Of Callisto - Origin Artwork

A brief wait later and we are getting the tour from Richard Garriott himself. The hub of the tour is a central corridor in which Garriott has placed some of the significant items from his gaming history. The plan is to bring more of this collection out of storage as Portalarium and the offices grow but even now it’s still the sort of display that any Ultima fan would have to remortgage their house for:-

Portalarium Akalabeth Display

This is the first section with the bottom left being some of Garriott’s pre Akalabeth games on paper tape + his written out code which never got punched in. The earliest Computerland Akalabeth case contains a version on cassette as Akalabeth actually predates the Apple II disk drive. He doesn’t think he sold any of these but wasn’t entirely certain so there may be one out there somewhere.

Going further down the corridor there is the original artwork for just about every Ultima game as well as some Destination Games displays but I don’t have photo’s to share unfortunately.

Wing Commander Artwork

For the Wing Commander fans, in the next room off to the side there is some more artwork including the original Wing Commander logo as well as a very familiar looking Wing Commander Prophecy movie style poster. Also in this room is Garriott’s pre Akalabeth D&D games map which was fairly massive and had some very familiar town names. He explained that it formed the basis for Ultima 1 although interestingly it was more or less all one large land mass. This fits in with an ancient RG interview I read elsewhere that Ultima 1 & 3 were in fact based on the same game map with the 4 continents of Ultima 1 being chopped up/rotated around versions of the same world as Ultima 3. This looked to fit with what I saw but I wish I grabbed a photo. Maybe next time…

We strolled through some of the developer’s offices after this. One of them was working on removing the Garage Sale text from the Ultimate Collector artwork so it looks like it’s going to have a name change. The name Ultimate Collector was apparently “borrowed” when a TV show of the same name contacted Garriott and he liked the name so much he thought he would use a variant on it.

Richard Garriott's Apple II

The Portalarium offices are quite a modest affair at the moment and we were soon back in the main corridor where at the far end there is the original Apple II used to write Akalabeth and the early Ultimas, permanently set up running Akalabeth these days. There is also a small but growing new collection of toys which has been inspired by all the cool items the team has come across making Ultimate Collector. Another recently acquired item is a teletype machine exactly the same as the one used to punch in the pre-Akalabeth D&D games.

With the tour concluded it was back to the conference room and a Q&A session. I can’t speak for everyone else there but this isn’t the sort of thing I’m used to and it’s hard not to get more than a little starstruck. It’s not like RG isn’t an easy-going sort of guy but I’ve thought of a lot of questions I should have asked afterwards. In no particular order, this is what I remember from a week later much of which I’ve already covered in a previous post.

One of the questions that came up was whether he would be able to help track down a copy of Wing Commander 2 on the SNES. This has been a holy grail for Wing Commander fans for a long time. The game was sent out to reviewers and full write-ups appeared in magazines back at the time but it never went on general sale. It even had some enhancements to the original version such as colour communications screens. The good news here is that RG was extremely positive that he may have a copy. He said that he made sure to get a copy of every Origin game and 10 copies if it was Ultima and thinks that with WC2 getting that far he will almost definitely have it in storage. The downside is that he wouldn’t just let us rummage around for it so we will have to wait some time.

I took the chance to ask if that could also mean he had a copy of The Lost Vale. He didn’t think it had ever got finished but I’d take the word of Sheri Graner Ray here and assume that he just didn’t follow it too closely at the time. Going on what he said previously, there must be at least be a slight chance that he may just have a copy but we’ll have to wait for that alongside WC2 SNES.

There was some talk about Ultimate RPG although it’s clearly in an early stage. He discussed how Portalarium’s Poker and Ultimate Collector games are necessary building blocks towards the technology needed to make Ultimate RPG within a small company like Portalarium. He confirmed that he would be appearing in Ultimate RPG and it would always be him playing his own character just like in Ultima Online.

Inevitably there was some talk of space travel (which he thinks will be as affordable as a first class airplane ticket within 20 years). Although he is now an employee of NASA, it turns out they were less than helpful with his journey to the space station despite the fact that he was doing experiments on their behalf. I gather that NASA didn’t want to be seen as spending USA tax payer’s money on “some rich yahoo’s” jaunt into space.

For instance, Garriott had to sign a fairly standard disclaimer before travelling to the Space Station. NASA never got around to countersigning this and 3 days before the flight tried to change the terms so that RG wasn’t allowed to take photo’s through the windows owned by NASA, take photos of the NASA owned portions of the station or actually go on the NASA side of the station in the first place (more or less negating the first two). The rest of the astronauts thought this was as ridiculous as he did and advised him not to sign it since they could hardly stop him flying at this point. After being further pushed to sign it however, he had the bright idea of getting NASA to agree to add a final clause that all terms were under the guidance of the mission commander on the space station (this was actually already the case anyway and this would just reaffirm it). The moment he arrived the commander welcomed him on board, told him he could go wherever he wanted, take any photos he wanted and not to feel the need to ask again.

To get back to Earth and Ultima games, the topic of Mount Drash came up somehow. The story is that Keith Zabalaoui (a friend of Garriotts who was credited on Akalabeth) had already written the game but Sierra weren’t going to publish it unless they could use the Ultima branding to increase sales. The game was never intended to be an Ultima but Garriott gave this his blessing to help his friend out, hence Ultima – Escape From Mount Drash. This makes it a legitimate part of the Ultima series as far as I’m concerned and a whole lot more collectible (if that is possible). I might even be prepared to fork out the money myself now if the chance ever arose although I’m not so sure I wouldn’t rather buy another bookcase full of less extreme vintage software for the same price.

I asked about Ultima 4.5 which is something I’ve been curious about ever since I heard of it. According to an RG interview I read a long time back Ultima 4.5 and Ultima 5 were being developed side by side for a while and I wanted to learn more. Garriott didn’t think this was the case however and said that Savage Empire was the first time they had tried to reuse an engine.

He went into some detail about the thought process behind each of the Ultima spinoffs. The original idea was that reusing the same engine would mean that the game could be made for less than the original which is certainly what I would have expected. However with Savage Empire, it apparently was so much work to strip out the original assets that it ended up costing just as much as Ultima 6 to make. They thought could learn from this with Martian Dreams but that also cost just as much and both games sold less than the mainline Ultimas casting questions on the whole notion of engine reuse.

With the U6 spinoffs not entirely going to plan, a different approach was taken with Serpent Isle whereby the original game assets would still be used for the most part which was supposed to keep costs down but this plan failed once more. It occurs to me now that I should have asked about Crusader at this point, which I’m assuming was Plan C. If so this probably worked out better by using the engine for a completely different genre of game and thereby not just appealing to a subset of those that bought Ultima 8.

LOAF asked about the Ultima anime which was supposedly made in Japan in the 80’s. Garriott was adamant that there was never any such thing which would certainly explain why it hasn’t surfaced by now. I would assume that the screenshots that exist were simply created for a Famicom TV commercial which sounds like a far more likely explanation.

The only other things I can recall were a mention of Ultima Forever as he had just been out for dinner with Paul Barnett the day before and agreed to appear in the game travelling around in the skies. He thinks their heart is in the right place for U4E but he hasn’t seen the game so couldn’t give an opinion on it.

We also got an impromptu illustrated guide to the iconic shapes of the Wing Commander 1 fighters (and other things), which Garriott considers to be far more memorable than those in later games. I also recall asking (more to fill an awkward silence than anything) whether Time Bandits really was the inspiration for the cloth maps which of course it was but we all knew that anyway.

Richard Garriott Space Suit Badge

Our hour was up almost as soon as it had begun. We got some final photo opportunities and there was one little bonus when we were gifted Richard Garriott space suit badges. I came out slightly shell shocked and I still can’t quite believe I got to do this in the first place. Many thanks to Lord British for taking the time to show us around and also to Loaf and Chris Reid for all but one of the photo’s on this post.

Akalabeth – Apple II

Akalabeth was originally self published in tiny numbers by Richard Garriott in 1979 before being snapped up by California Pacific and sold on a large scale. It saw several versions with different cover art and manuals over the space of 2 or 3 years before California Pacific went out of business leaving Richard Garriott looking for another publisher for Ultima 2. The full story is well known, so I won’t repeat it all again but you can find it in the Official Book Of Ultima or 95% of the interviews Richard Garriott has given over the last 30 years.

In terms of getting hold of an original copy of any version, it’s relatively uncommon and still in high demand making it by far the most expensive game I’ve ever bought. At least 30,000 copies were sold though so there are probably several thousand of them still around. Disk images are of course available in the Asimov Apple II archives for those who can live without the real thing. Until now I’ve only ever played the MS-DOS remake included with the Ultima Collection but if I’m going to pay hundreds for a game I reckon I ought to at least play it.

Before I actually get to the game, something that may be of interest is that with software written in BASIC on old home computers, you can usually break out of the program while it is loading and list the code. Akalabeth was entirely written in BASIC so if you fancy poking around in the code written by a youthful Lord British all those years back, press CTRL-C while the game is loading and then type catalog to view all the files on the disk. From here type load filename and then list to view the contents of any the files. This trick also works with Ultima 1, although you can’t quite see the entire source code as a few small portions were written in assembly.


I was expecting not to see any real differences to the PC remake in all honesty, but perhaps the biggest difference is evident right from the start in that the game has a 3 screen introduction. This isn’t all that spectacular but it is definitely better than nothing which is what we got in the Ultima Collection version.

Character creation is exactly the same. There is a patience sapping option to continue rerolling stats but it’s not worth spending too long on this on the whole. There is a choice to play as a wizard or a fighter. I’d strongly recommend the wizard as ladder up spells come in extremely handy but it wouldn’t be too hard to win as the fighter either.

The early aim of the game is to explore an overland map and find Lord British’s castle to  receive a quest. The one time I went to a dungeon first to build up some stats, the game restarted as soon as I tried to accept this quest. This game is not without bugs like this although this was easily the most severe I encountered. The overland map looks much the same as the remake and you move around in a 3×3 grid of line drawn tiles. This map was exactly the same in each game I started so it appears that only the dungeons are random in this version.

The dungeon quests all involve killing progressively tougher monsters. On the whole these tend to be found at lower levels of the dungeon each time but this wasn’t always the case. The key to beating the game is the use of magic amulets to cast the ???Bad spell. This either turns you into a toad or a lizard man dividing or multiplying your stats depending on which. At first this may seem entirely random, but I discovered that the game actually used the same sequence on each level of the dungeon. Exiting that level and returning reset the sequence, so it’s a simple case of finding a level where the lizardman spell is cast first, then exit come back and repeat until you have godly stats.

In a similar manner chests reappear each time you enter a level, so you can max out gold just by finding a chest near a ladder and grabbing it over and over. After a little of this my character was comfortably well off and mostly invulnerable with the exception of Gremlins which are a serious pain stealing half my food with each hit. The strange food mechanics from Ultima 1 apply here where your food goes down with every step and if you reach 0 you die instantly. Thankfully my beefed up wizard could kill pretty much anything in one swing of an axe at this point so Gremlins were not too much of an issue provided I spotted them quickly. Judicious use of save states certainly helped but the game is easily completable without.

The dungeons play much the same as the remake. The main difference was that monsters often retreat when you have damaged them a bit, then come back and attack again later, although it’s not too advanced as they only ever retreat in a straight line backwards. I also noticed that I didn’t tend to get beset by monsters quite as quickly so I don’t think they have any pathfinding skills beyond the direct route.

After completing 4 or 5 quests, I get my final mission to take out a Balrog. My tactic is to save my amulets on the way down using ladders, traps and trap doors to get down levels as quick as possible, carry out a hit and run on the Balrog then cast ladder ups all the way back to the top. On my return to LB, I’m rewarded with Knighthood and a phone number to ring, which I’m sorry to say is 29 years out of date.

It’s hard to be objective going back and playing a game this old, especially on hardware that I didn’t own at the time. One of the things that will strike anyone playing this is how slow the drawing algorithm is, giving away the fact that it was written in BASIC. We all had a lot more patience back in 1980 and I was happily playing games that took 10 minutes to load off a cassette well over half a decade after this came out. Even so, this really is slow by any standards and you can see it draw each block of the maze after every single move, even if nothing changes such as when in combat. If I couldn’t put the emulator up to maximum speed, playing this would have been painful.

Ignoring the speed, it’s not an especially well designed game relying mainly on a simple exploit with the talismans and spotting the games lack of randomness to progress. It was quite complex for the time with its RPG style stats and different player types but there is no significant way to develop your character after the start of the game. LB advances your stats by 1 after each quest but I can’t imagine this making any significant difference. With the additional of levelling up stats through combat, this could have been a full fledged RPG but Ultima’s avoided what would become traditional levelling systems for years.

This was still a great effort for a game that was after all never intended for public sale but Ultima was a big step forward and a far more rounded game, at least the Ultima that I’m familiar with. I’ve never actually played the Apple II original however which is what I’ll be looking at next.

Akalabeth Scans

I mentioned in a post a few days back that I’d finally picked up a copy of Akalabeth in the last couple of months. I was asked if I’d be doing any pictures so I’ve added a pdf of the manual + the disk (which is all I’ve got) and they can be downloaded from here.

There are a few versions of Akalabeth and this is the last of them. The manual for this may be short but the first California Pacific version had half as many pages. None of them were ever released in a box as these came out back in the days when everything came in zip-lock bag’s. The huge Ultima 2 box must have stood out when it hit the shelves a year or two later.

The version that everyone really wants, of course, is one of the copies that Richard Garriott originally made himself before it was published by California Pacific. There are a few of them around still but there is no way I’m ever going to own one. The amount I paid for this was frankly silly, but I’m sure it would be dwarfed if an original Akalabeth ever hits Ebay. I’m happy with this anyway, and I’m definitely not making a habit of spending this sort of money on a game.

Day 1 – Akalabeth & Ultima 1

I’ve raced through the first couple of games today. They really didn’t take long at all to play through, maybe 30 mins for akalabeth and a couple of hours for Ultima 1. This is going to be easy!

Akalabeth

There’s a couple of remakes knocking around but I chose to just play the one that came with the Ultima collection in dosbox.  I chose a fighter and rerolled my stats a few times until most of them were in the 20’s, in the shop I bought a weapon and a load of food, then set off to find Lord British’s castle. The overhead map for the game world is only 20×20 so this didn’t take long to find. He then raises all my stats by 1 (thanks a lot LB) and sends me off to kill one of the critters in the dungeon. I go to the nearest one (they are all identical) about two steps away from his castle. 

Every dungeon floor is the same every time, including the position of the monsters so its always predictable once you’ve been playing the game for a bit. The best strategy here seems to be to stick around on the first level, killing the easy baddies and opening the chests to get some gold. Then go back to the nearest shop, get the best equipment, and as many amulets as you can afford. Then I saved my game just before entering the dungeon, use the amulets (the effect is random for fighters) until I turn into a lizard man. This seems to roughly multiply all my stats by 2. Oddly enough, if you keep using amulets and turn into a lizard man again it doubles your stats over. By saving and restoring, when the random effect doesn’t work out I had a character with all stats in the 200’s inside about 5 mins. This made me completely invulnerable to all the monsters, except gremlins who could still steal food.

There isn’t too much to say about the rest of the game, each time you complete your quest LB gives you another creature to kill which is 2 levels lower down in the dungeons. The final one was a balron, I think. I dispatched that, got made a knight, and that’s the end of the game. The end message is basically the same as the original version but you aren’t given a phone number to ring.

For a 30 year old game, written in his spare time by a student it holds up pretty well. Its extremely simple but its pretty good fun for half an hour. 

Ultima 1

I’ve not seen any upgrades around for this so just played the Ultima collection version in dosbox. I chose a fighter once again. This game is basically Akalabeth with a decent overhead map system added in and a space combat subgame – I read somewhere that tile graphics were invented for this game and they are now used instead of lines to draw all the maps. The dungeons are nearly identical to Akalabeth with a few additions like trap doors (can climb down them but not back up), and traps that drop you a level. My strategy for this game was to buy some basic weapons at the start and then use the nearest dungeon to gain enough experience to get me up to level 3. This is pretty easy as you regenerate hit points when you exit a dungeon (depending on how many things you’ve killed). So I just walked back and forward down the first corridor of the dungeon, killed everything, exited, and repeated. This raised my hit points loads and got me some much needed cash. The experience however does not raise your stats. Next I found a town that would sell me an air car – apart from getting me everywhere on the map this has a nice set of lasers to blast enemies with. I then set out to find all the castles to get quests and visit all the signposts on the way. There are 4 lands each with 2 castles, containing kings, princesses and jesters. One of the kings gives you a quest to slay a dungeon monster ala Akalabeth, the other to find some place or other. Once you complete the task, you then go back and get either a gem and a clue, or a bonus to your strength stat (this is the only way to raise your strength). You can be on quests for all eight kings at once and do the quest several times if you wish. 

Back to the signposts, these are dotted around the map and you enter one to raise your stats. You then have to visit a different signpost before you can raise your stats again however. This is one of the oddest ways to raise stats, I can think of in an RPG. My strategy was just to pick nearby pairs and fly between the two until my stats were maxed. There’s also one signpost that gives you weapons (a better one each visit) which I used to get the blaster. I maxed out all the stats this way at any rate, completed the 8 quests so my strength was in the 60’s, and then went to buy a space shuttle. This does seem kind of out of place in a fantasy game – I gather that the idea was that the technology progresses throughout the game. Hence the lightsabers, blasters, aircars etc. The space combat bit was added as there was room on the disk to fill up. 

The space section is basically a sub-game that has little to do with the rest of the game. First off you have to dock your shuttle using the arrow keys with a little space station. You then choose one of the other two ships docked with it to actually explore space, and shoot tie fighters with. One of them has loads of fuel and not much shields and the other vice versa. The combat itself is dead easy. You move your crosshair around on screen, the little alien ship moves accordingly. i.e. if the crosshair is above it moves down, to the left it moves right, etc… When it gets near enough so that you can see the hole in the middle, you can shoot it. For some reason you seem to have to aim slightly above it. Something I never noticed before, is you can use the spacebar to get your crosshair back to the middle of the screen, which makes things much easier. You get 100 experience for every alien shot and I think you have to kill about 18 to become a space ace. Once I’ve done that I hypered back to the middle of the map, docked, got back in my shuttle and went back to Britannia.

The next task was to go to a castle, kill the jester to get his key then fight past the guards to free the pricesss and get her out again. She then tells me where the time machine is – its kind of odd I hadn’t noticed it before since its the same size as LB’s castle. I then go back into the same castle where new guards have been recruited and all is now forgiven, offer up all my money to the king to get my health up to about 6000.

Next its off to the time machine, I insert the four gems from the kings quests and this is it the battle with Mondain. I head straight for the gem and try to get it – it shatters dealing me about 3000 damage. I then blast Mondain over and over until he turns into a bat and tries to run off. I then have to chase around after him all over the map trying to get within one square and blast him, at which point he runs off again and I start chasing. This is kind of anti-climatic and more like some sort of game of tag than an epic battle but eventually I get him. There’s a nicely written screen of text at the end of the game where LB congratulates me. 

All in all, the game was fun enough. Theres no real story to it, but all the different elements come together well. It was easy enough not to be frustrating and not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.