Ultima 1 FM Towns – Part 2

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Half an hours more grinding away visiting sign posts and I had my character ready to face some dungeons. I’d been gathering all the various monster killing quests on my journeys so I could stack them together into a single trip. With a freshly purchased stack of ladder up and down spells I headed for the nearest dungeon.

The dungeons turned out to be 10 levels deep with all the usual monsters. Force fields are invisible on the FM-Towns so I couldn’t see them until I walked into them but other than that it was just like the earlier levels with nastier critters. I’ve put together a menagerie of everything I bumped into on this trip:-

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This isn’t a complete set of monsters by any means but it must be the majority of them.

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With all my quests complete, I headed off to see all the kings and collect the gems. It was then time to buy myself a space shuttle and head for the stars.

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I have to say that I was a little let down by the space section. I was expecting something better looking but it’s not all that much different to the Apple II version. There is some really cool background music though.

The ships have different specs with the ship with low shields and high fuel being completely useless as it can only survive a few hits so the fuel is wasted. The other ship however has 5 times more shields and still has enough fuel to become a space ace in one trip and is clearly the one to go for.

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The view from the front of the ship is hardly upgraded at all. The Tie Fighters have curvy wings like the Tie Advanced instead of the regular version instead but they are still Tie Fighters. They do have a little face on the front when they get close enough which wouldn’t have fit with the Empire’s image very well.

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When I’ve killed 20 of them, I become a space ace. I head back to the center of the map to go back to Earth and the moment I swap to the overhead view I crash into the sun and die which seems grossly unfair. I do respawn back on Earth but with no cash or weapon it’s a struggle to get back to the nearest town and survive.

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I build up my character a little and then try my hand at some princess rescuing. Thankfully for me, this turns out to be the easiest way of making money and experience ever. The layout of the castles varies in this game but I can get in and out of one of them only having to fight a single guard. Also, if I manage to rescue the princess I don’t even have to fight my way out. After each rescue she foolishly get’s herself instantly recaptured so after a half dozen dashing rescues I’m ready to take on Mondain.

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Finding the time machine takes me ages and I must have searched the entire world before stumbling into it. Just like buses, two come along at once.

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Mondain is ready and waiting for me. There is some nice background music but otherwise the battle plays out just like any other version.

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I end up chasing him in bat form all over the map trying to get the odd shot in until I eventually get enough hits to beat the game.

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Some triumphant CD music kicks in after my glorious victory but I only get the usual text. You would think there would be a little more on a CD-ROM game but that’s it.

I have to say that I’ve enjoyed playing Ultima 1 again a frankly unhealthy amount. The extra challenge in this added to the fun and it’s already been worth the asking price of the trilogy just for this one game. The traditionalist in me says that one of the other versions is the one everyone should play but nearly all the gameplay is intact in this and it does look and sound so much better that it’s hard to make a case against it.

I’m really tempted to carry straight on with Ultima 2 but my VFX-1 has been sat unused all week which just isn’t acceptable. I’m dying to try Wings Of Glory out so that has to be next.

Ultima 1 FM Towns – Part 1

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The Ultima Trilogy was published for the FM-Towns in 1990 solely in Japan. I’ve been hearing for years about the FM-Towns versions of the first 6 Ultimas but have never had opportunity to try them out before now. I’m still missing 4 & 5 but I’m sure enough auction searching will turn them up eventually. I’ll be using the UNZ emulator to play all of these which is reasonably stable and easy to use even without any familiarity with the original hardware.

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The FM-Towns was in essence a PC with some unique hardware and its own OS. This hardware included a CD drive long before they were becoming remotely close to being a standard here in the West. This gives any games on the system the opportunity to make use of CD audio and all that extra storage back when the rest of us were all using floppy disks. This is in evidence on the Ultima Trilogy right from the start with a CD audio introduction to the series by Lord British himself. This is a still image with speech rather than FMV but this was 1990 after all. I can’t help but think that those Origin dev’s recording the Wing Commander 2 demo gave a more convincing performance as Kilrathi than Richard Garriott does as Lord British here but it’s still a nice extra. Maybe it’s just me but the moustache he is sporting in this photo looks a little unusual as it’s pixel perfect straight. It gives the appearance or being drawn on afterwards with a square brush. This intro is already on Youtube for anyone who wants to see it.

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There are also separate executables on the CD with an introduction to each game. The games themselves come in both English and Japanese but these introductions are Japanese only. They have some nice CD music in the background and some full screen static graphics but I can’t say I especially like the artwork. This intro is also on Youtube already.

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After the slightly dubious art in the main intro, the first screen when starting the game is more like it with the armour clad stranger holding off a dragons flames.

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Character creation is the same as ever, although everything is a little more user friendly. Once in the game, the difference in graphics is pronounced from Ultima 1’s original tiles. The new tiles are hi-res (for 1990) with plenty of colour, if a little cartoony. It’s a big improvement which doesn’t stop there as there is also adlib style music throughout the game. This music is all original to the port and while not up to the usual Ultima standards is pleasant enough if bland. The main map music is an on extremely short loop which did start to get on my nerves later on. I’ve heard that the same music is used in all three of the trilogy and I’m hoping that isn’t true.

I should mention that I discovered that when capturing screenshots with UNZ it will overwrite all the old ones when starting a new session. All these early screenshots are from later in the game to fill in.

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Towns are done in Ultima 2-5 style with a scrolling map rather than the original Ultima 1’s entire map on a screen. This makes them zoomed in by comparison but the layouts are the same so there is no difficulty finding my way around.

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The gameplay is incredibly faithful to the original Ultima 1. It’s perhaps surprising just how similar in a major update like this. This means that the early stages involve lots of dungeon delving to try to advance my character to the point where the shops allow me to buy a ship. The dungeon graphics have received a complete overhaul with textured walls and large sprites for all the monsters.

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These sprites continue the cartoony theme of the game with T-Shirt wearing thieves and the like. In this first session, I’ve not ventured too deep into the dungeons only completing a single quest to kill a gelatinous cube. This cube was more of a gelatinous blob in appearance and promptly ate all my armour but I just about managed to kill it off. I’m looking forward to seeing some of the tougher monsters when I delve down to the lower levels but there is no way I would have survived trying that in these early stages.

The dungeons represent the biggest change in the gameplay that I’ve seen so far in that the monsters don’t move around (at least after I’ve seen them). They just lurk on a single square and if I’d had a range weapon at any point while dungeon delving I’d have been able to pick them off at a distance in theory. The snag with this lurking is they tend to attack from a side corridor as I walk past meaning that they always have 2 free hits before I can get an attack in myself. They also attack from behind closed doors which can leave me having to guess which door to attack if I have a choice. This all made the dungeons considerably harder than in Ultima 1.

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In other ports, I’ve been able to consistently raise my hit points by dungeon raids but I struggle to do much more than come out even in this. The dungeons are identical with each visit however so I work out a route around Level 1 of the Mines Of Mt. Drash which I farm repeatedly for gold and experience to get my character up to level 3. I occasionally have to use Lord British to raise my HP in order to keep going.

Most of my HP losses are on the main map, which has far more that it’s fair share of wandering monsters. These build up over time and are still there waiting for me if I go into a town or dungeon. They do vanish when reloading a game or if I can get far enough away from them but other than that I have to deal with them all later if I put it off by running away.

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Once I get my character to level 3, the shops are getting better stocked and I’m able to buy a ship and start attempting quests. I decide to farm my stats up to maximum before I do anything else.

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This means lots of trips between sign posts. The layout of the maps is the same as ever so I use tried and tested routes here to grab all the best weapons and by the end of the session have raised my wisdom and stamina to 99 and also repeatedly done one of the sign quests to get my strength into the 60’s. I’ve still got plenty more farming to do to build up my other stats.

One thing I discovered which wasted some time was that it’s possible to shoot your own ship if you try to attack a sea monster hiding behind it. This resulted in me being stranded on an island and I’d not saved in ages. If I’d exited the game the regular way, it would have saved automatically so this required a complete closedown of the emulator. I suppose I could have waited until I starved to death although there is no guarantee that I wouldn’t have respawned on the same island so this is definitely something to be careful of as it could mean a restart.

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After several previous playthroughs, I know my way around Ultima 1 and expect another session will be enough to finish it off now that I’ve got started. I have found this considerably harder than the original version with an abundance of monsters in the overworld and tougher dungeons. There is no mechanism to reload a saved game once started and restarting the emulator is a lengthy process I can live without so I’ve been doing my best not to take risks. It occurs to me that I could have looked into using savestates but playing it as intended I have died off and had to restart from a respawn a couple of times. At least this version has respawning which I don’t recall being in Ultima 1 first time around.

There is no doubt that starting out in Ultima 1 FM-Towns has been tougher than normal anyway. I would have finished the original game in the time I’ve spent on this already and the port itself runs quite quickly so it’s not a case of waiting for things to happen.

Something I haven’t mentioned yet is the sound effects which are loud and over the top digital samples fitting in with the cartoonish theme. The games I’ve been reminded of all the time I’ve been playing this are Might and Magic 4 + 5. The cartoony monsters, the insipid music and the sound effects could almost be straight from either of them. I think the world of Xeen had a little more charm but I do love those two games so this isn’t much of a criticism.

From what I’ve seen this is a major upgrade to the original Ultima 1 but still incredibly faithful. I have slight issues in that it doesn’t look or sound how I’d expect for an Ultima but this has to be better than stick men and PC speaker beeps. The stationary monsters in the dungeons are strange though and a detriment to the gameplay. That’s my only major complaint so far and I’m hoping it won’t be carried forward into the other games in the trilogy. I’m really interested to see what the space section is going to be like and am hoping to see some Kilrathi ships to shoot down but that is probably optimistic. I would imagine that they will have to look less like Tie Fighters for copyright reasons at the very least.

I’ll probably do some scans of the documentation after I finish the game. Thanks to the Ultima Collector’s Guide, I know that I’m missing the paper maps that should have come with this so I won’t be doing those but I’ve got the manuals themselves. There is something to be said for blissful ignorance and it’s one of the snags of having the guide to look these things up. I’m not too worried about having yet more maps anyway as I could probably carpet one floor of the house in Ultima maps already. The one thing I’d really like from all the Japanese extras is an ankh letter opener.

Ultima Trilogy Press Release

I’ve been tinkering with the site design and have gone for a simple red theme for now + a completely new menu. It still needs work but I think it’s improving. At the very least it’s a change. What I really need is a logo and/or a background image. I do have some ideas for that but I’ve spent long enough on this today as it is.

Since I’ve been linked from Ultima Aiera, I thought I ought to post something Ultima themed but I don’t have much time and this was the first thing that came to hand. It’s a single page press release for the Ultima Trilogy from 1989, or at least the front half of it. The back which should have shown the specifications is blank.

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Ultima – Apple II Original Version

Ultima was first published in 1981 by California Pacific. It was written almost entirely in BASIC with a few assembly routines used to draw the screen. The original release never made it to the PC and the version included in the Ultima collection is a 1986 remake. The original release only had ziplock packaging like Akalabeth and didn’t include the maps and coins or any other extras that would become a staple for the later games.

In the past I’ve played the PC remake a few times + the C64 version more recently on my Pandora. The C64 version was basically identical to the PC with nothing to choose between them. I’d never played the Apple II original though, despite being all for playing the first release of a game in most cases and it’s about time I did.

The introduction sequence of the remake is gone and there is just a single screen, making it less impressive than Akalabeth if anything but it’s not a huge loss.

After going through the character creation, I’m surprised at just how familiar the game looks. I was expecting something a lot more primitive somehow, but the major difference to the remake is the lack of animation which isn’t all that noticeable. The other obvious change is the speed of the game. It really isn’t quick and unlike Akalabeth, it passes a turn if I don’t move for too long meaning I can’t just stick the emulator on maximum speed. I settle for upping it to about 3x normal which is very playable although still not what you would call sprightly.

I quickly stumble into my first combat. I don’t get to see the creatures approaching in this version and they just spring out of nowhere directly in front of me when I’m moving around. Combat isn’t directional either and I just have to press A to attack and it figures out if I’m in range or not. The other difference is that I’m attacked by bands of creatures (represented by the one sprite) which I have to kill one by one. Each kill gives me gold and experience, meaning that you can actually level up quite quickly in the outer world in this game but it is a lot more dangerous until you get yourself equipped to deal with it.

I head for the nearest town to stock up on much needed provisions. Everything here is very familiar, and will become more so as every town in the game looks exactly the same. At this stage I can only buy basic equipment, and should probably have tried stealing (which allegedly can get you the stuff they aren’t selling yet) but it didn’t occur to me until now, so I started out the game the hard way.

The dungeons are straight out of Akalabeth but there are plenty of additions with new monsters, coffins to open, force fields + the option to search each location to reveal traps and doors. There is nothing in the remake that isn’t here as well with the only change being the same agonizingly slow redraw rate seen in Akalabeth. I did notice a proliferation of traps in this version but you can avoid these retrospectively when using an emulator by searching the area after a quick restore from a savestate.

The start of the game is really quite testing in Ultima but once you get through it the game gets a lot easier. After several dungeon raids, I stack up enough gold to buy a frigate and take to the seas at which point I can start to build my character up.

The familiar Ultima 1 levelling system of trailing between various signs to raise stats is present here and the maps look to be about the same as I’m used to in the remake. I’m soon going backwards and forwards between convenient pairs of signs upping my stats and grabbing weapons. The frigate appears to make me nearly invulnerable and it’s cannons quickly take care of any monsters. The cannons even appear to find monsters I haven’t actually seen yet and since I don’t have to aim in the combat in this game (except in towns and castles), I gather a lot of gold and experience while I’m travelling around. This grinding is the main part of the game and I must have done going on an hour of it before I felt well equipped enough to start trying to complete the dungeon quests.

These quests are straight out of Akalabeth and involve killing particular monsters for 4 different Kings/Lords. There appear to be a few bugs in the game regarding remembering which quests you have and haven’t done. I stacked all four quests up to do them in one trip and this worked OK for 3 of the them but I ended up having to do the most difficult quest to kill the Balron twice.

Once these were out of the way it was time to buy a space shuttle and take to the skies.

Given the speed of the rest of the game, I was expecting the space section to be fairly awful but it actually runs well. The star field looks pretty decent and smoothly speeds up and slows down when entering hyperspace, although we don’t get the stars stretching out effect at the end.

The map of space is a little more basic than the remake though  and all you get is a 3×3 text square of your immediate surroundings. This means that you can potentially get lost so it’s a good idea to keep track of where Earth is. On the plus side, I didn’t appear to have to pay docking fees so you can swap ships as much as you like, making the whole section quite easy.

The space combat has the familiar tie fighters and they look better in this than the remake if anything. It appears to have lost a wing in my one and only screenshot but they were both there in the game. The combat involves steering the fighters to the center of the screen and firing. It’s not exactly taxing but it’s a fun diversion in the middle of the game. I couldn’t find any real skill to this and whether you have enough time to shoot any given ship before it fires at you appeared to be random.

The fighters always came in groups of 3, rather than 1-3 as in the remake. Although I couldn’t go into the overhead view to change direction, it was possible to hyperspace out again before killing all 3 which is just as well as I started out in a ship which I discovered couldn’t survive a single hit.

I soon reach the rank of Space Ace, although again the game forgets this and I have to go back and do it again after rescuing a load of princesses fails to net me a time machine.

Rescuing Princesses turns out to be a great way to gain gold and experience and by the time I’ve gone back to regain my Space Ace’ness, I have a serious amount of gold and experience stashed up. The guards are tougher than ever and the best approach is to run them around Benny Hill style rather than trying to kill them off.

I should really have spent the gold first to get my HP up, but 9000 HP was always enough in the original and I’m keen to push on. I quickly find the time machine and jump in….

I don’t remember Mondain’s lair being quite this plain, but I head straight for his gem, grab it and start blasting away.

Modain transforms in a bat after a punishing skirmish but then just sits still so I can fire at him with impunity, which is just as well as I’m all but out of hit points by now.

I kill him a few times but he always comes back to life, so I try closing to point blank range and ‘Getting’ the corpse which apparently does the trick. There is no end cutscene, just a final message (and yes that is a strange way to spell complete).

There is an address instead of a phone number this time to contact California Pacific. It’s interesting that both this and Akalabeth asked people to report to them if they finished the game. I can’t help but wonder what you got for this and if there were completion certificates for these original games. If there were, I’ve never seen them mentioned anywhere.

Playing these games back to back for the first time since I started this blog, Ultima 1 feels like the game Akalabeth should have been. It’s adds a story (of sorts), some new quests, grindable stats, a fun little space shooter and an endgame. The space section is out of place but it makes the whole thing that little bit more epic. For it’s age, it is still quite a fun and varied game to play and were it not for the slow movement, there wouldn’t be much to choose between this and the remake. If I’d been a little older and rich enough to own what was a ridiculously expensive computer over here at the time, I’d have loved this game back in ’81. It desperately needed to be done in assembly though and the move to that for Ultima 2 had to be the way to go. Anyone who thinks Ultima 2 wasn’t an improvement should try playing both games at their original speeds.

I’ll be having a look at the VIC-20 version of Escape from Mt Drash next.