Ultima Underworld – PS1

As I write this, the Underworld Ascendant kickstarter is about to go into its last 3 days and hopefully a late rush towards some more of those stretch goals. I’m obviously excited to a see a sequel to a game that I’ve frequently described as my favourite of all time and it really deserves a bit more cash than it’s brought in so far. If you agree, please head over and pledge a few dollars towards the cause.

I thought I should do something Underworldy and decided to have a look at the PS1 port of the game that was released back in 1997.

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Despite being critically acclaimed, Underworld wasn’t a game that received many ports and the only one released outside of Asia was a Windows Mobile release for Pocket PC’s of all things. A Sega CD version was announced at one point but it never made it to release. This means I’m stuck playing in a foreign language on the PS1 which is why I’ve never played it prior to this.

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The introduction is now in FMV with newly drawn art and voicing. This is a shot for shot reproduction of the original and I really quite liked it. The acting sounds far more convincing in Japanese than it ever did in English but I’m hardly the person to judge when I don’t understand a word of it. I really like the way this has been handled but I may have been less impressed if I was coming to this as a new player – you could do a whole lot more with FMV after all.

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I struggle my way through character generation with Google translate not having an easy time picking up characters off the screen. All the usual options are there including an easy mode which I select under the circumstances. There are some new portraits for the Avatar, many of which look a little effeminate if you ask me. My first thought was that I’d chosen the wrong gender until I spotted a moustache on one of them.

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Having struggled through character generation, I immediately set out to save my game so I don’t have to go through it all again. There appears to be only one slot available which could be a handicap if so. My main concern would be the speed of saving which must clock in at 30 seconds plus. You definitely wouldn’t want to overuse this feature and I expect saving and loading would be potentially tiresome later in the game.

The abyss is instantly familiar at least and most importantly full screen. The PC original had an extremely small viewing window due to the hardware limitations of the time. Flash forward 5 years and the PS1 has basic 3D acceleration to take advantage of and it certainly improves things. I’d be lying if I said that the most has been made of the hardware. The same textures have been used as far as I can see and it’s not a whole lot better looking. The PS1 wasn’t exactly a 3D powerhouse but it could do more than this – this may be a prime reason why this port never made it out of Japan.

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The interface is reasonably straightforward, especially considering I’m working without a manual I can understand. There are no analog controls so instead the d-pad is used with buttons to run and jump. The inventory is node based and I found it quick enough to move items around once I got the hang of it. Whilst in first person mode, holding down one of the shoulder buttons brings up a pointer allowing items to be examined or picked up. A big time saver introduced in the PS1 port is automatic key use which should save players from a lot of fumbling around in their inventory.

Considering how much the original was designed for mouse use, UW’s controls made quite a smooth transition to console. I expect the average modern gamer would have less grief on the PS1 than trying to cope with the odd mouse control system used on the PC.

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The biggest difference to the environment is that all the sprite models of the original game have been replaced by all-new 3D ones. Some of the original UW sprites were pretty appalling (e.g. the bat that looked to be about a dozen pixels) but these were much improved in the sequel. Time hasn’t been entirely kind to most 3D modelling of the mid 90’s and these new models do look basic and cartoonish. They don’t move around the world smoothly either and give the impression of being pre-rendered in which case I’d far rather they had skipped the 3D modelling part and just redrawn everything the old-fashioned way. Most of them don’t look too bad – the giant rats are kind of cute, looking more like giant mice. The rotworm is possibly the worst and looks more like something left behind by one of the giant rats.

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The conversation system isn’t something I explored at any length for obvious reasons. The character portraits are tweaked but other than that I would guess that the conversations have been faithfully reproduced as there didn’t appear to be any reduction in options.

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I set out to explore the first level in full and have to say that I liked what I saw of the game. It moves fluidly and everything is exactly as I would expect it to be. In fact I didn’t spot any aspect of the game that played differently to the PC. The audio has been redone sympathetically on more modern synths with some digitized samples added in. With the full screen graphics, it arguably enhances the atmosphere of the original.

Combat still has the three varieties of swing except these are each mapped to different buttons when the weapon is drawn. I soon found myself using the familiar hit and run tactics and the different control scheme was proving no handicap. In fact, I think it was an improvement over mouse and keyboard.

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I got as far as half way through the second level where I succumbed to a headless while trying to figure out how to fly up and down. I never did figure this out but assume it must be possible. This did mean I got to see an all new FMV where the player regenerates thanks to the silver sapling back on level 1.

I had a great time re-exploring the familiar locations in this new format. I’d heard quite negative opinions on this port prior to trying it but what I’ve seen played fine as far as I’m concerned. I’d be surprised if there was a better first person RPG on the system – this is still every inch Ultima Underworld after all. It’s so faithful a port, you could argue it’s more one for fans of the original game – while the graphics and audio have been given a gentle facelift it may have been technically underwhelming at the time. The open gameplay and foreboding atmosphere is still there though and I would dearly like to have seen an English language release of this.

I’m probably going to press on a little further before I give in but doubt I will make it too much further. There are enough quests requiring conversation that I expect to come to a grinding halt with the language barrier sooner or later. In the meanwhile, there is a full speedrun on Youtube courtesy of dandandan5 which I’ll link to below:-

Ultima Underworld Level 1 For Doom

Having just started Ultimore, my IIGS is once again playing up and the playthrough will be on hold for at least a week or two while I get it fully working again. Apologies for that but in the meanwhile I thought I’d have a look at a few bits and pieces that I may not get around to otherwise starting with an Ultima Underworld level 1 map that was created for Doom back in the mid 90’s by Jon Charlson.

What drew my attention to this was a brief mention of Ultima Doom maps in Dungeons and Dreamers which I read about a month back. It sounded like as good a reason to fire up Doom again as any so I had a search for Ultima maps with this being the only one that I’ve found so far.

I’ve played the original Ultima Underworld enough that I reckon you could drop me anywhere on any level and I’d probably know where I was. The basic layout may be the same here but I still had a tough time recognising a lot of the map mainly due to the world being a lot flatter. Some of this is the limitations of the Doom engine that Ultima Underworld didn’t have despite being several years older (i.e. bridges and jumping) but I’d imagine it was mainly for gameplay purposes. The abyss’s tight corridors don’t make for the best FPS environment.

It’s a large map by Doom standards with one room stuffed full of more soldiers than I can ever recall seeing in one place. This room would have probably killed my PC if I’d run it back at the time. The level is nothing special but a solid enough effort especially since it was the first attempt by Charlson. I was hoping for something a little closer to the original map in all honesty but Doom is still as entertaining as ever especially with modern ports like ZDoom. If you fancy a go the wad is on here (Do a search for ultima.zip). If not I recorded a quick run through below:-

Ultima Underworld – Japanese Cluebook Artwork

Nearly a month after starting, Skyrim continues to eat up all my gaming time with no ending in sight as far as I can tell. To keep things ticking over on here, I thought I’d dig out another of the Japanese cluebooks.

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This was written by Tetsuo Kanai and published by Locus in 1994. Like all of these Japanese collectibles, there isn’t a whole lot I can say about the content not speaking the language. It appears to be thorough racking up just under 160 pages with loads of close-ups of specific map areas to highlight where to go for various quests but what usually makes the Japanese books fun for those of us who can’t read them is the unique artwork. This particular guide is largely textual but each chapter does have a little Underworld cartoon at the start all of which I present below:-

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A quick appeal before I go. After wanting one for years, I’ve got my hands on an Apple II this week in the form of a IIGS that has spent its previous days being used in a school. The first thing I did with it was see if my CPC Ultima disk would boot up and shockingly it does still work after 33 years. I’m only in black and white until I build myself a SCART converter cable for the monitor output + I’m waiting for a CFFA3000 flash drive from dreher.net so I’m not quite up and running yet but will definitely be playing a few Origin games on this thing over the coming months. Which brings me to the game that I’d really like to play on it which is the IIGS port of Ultima 1 published back in 1994 and sold by mail order until relatively recently. The snag here is that I can’t find a copy anywhere and believe me I’ve tried. I’ve even attempted to contact one of the authors Rebecca Heineman to try to buy it direct from the source as such but with no response so far. If anyone out there has any idea of where I could locate this, I’d be extremely grateful.

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Ultima Underworld – FM Towns

One of the Ultima collectibles that I’ve been after for some time is an ankh paperknife which was a trinket included in some Japanese editions of Ultima Underworld. These aren’t all that uncommon but it’s still taken me ages to get hold of the FM Towns edition which after a lengthy sojourn in UK customs arrived yesterday. Now it’s here, I thought I should take a look at it:-

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The box is a bit smaller than the PC release with the original cover art reduced in size drastically and now viewed as though through a hole in a wall. This wall takes up the vast amount of real-estate on every side of the box. Despite the small box there is still a full set of manuals, all translated into Japanese except for the occasional bit of English.

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More interesting than the manuals is the map which has been rearranged and uses different colouring. It’s had some embellishments such as edges around the rivers and central volcano to make them look raised. The water has a different ripple effect also and the whole edging of the map has been changed. I’m not sure that the 3D effect doesn’t look out of place but after 20 years I’m extremely used to the original map.

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Underneath all the manuals, the game itself is on a single CD with the paperknife being every bit as nice as I’d hoped. Outside of some of the cloth maps it’s easily the best looking Ultima trinket although it does bear the name of Electronic Arts on both sides which may put some Ultima fans off. This is in English on one side and runic on the other.

Of course, I’m not someone who likes to get these games just to own them and I did at least attempt to have a go at playing it. This didn’t get far as the game consistently crashed UNZ just as the intro was starting. Judging by this timing, it would seem to be an issue with CD audio but I couldn’t find a way around it so I won’t be able to start this up at least for now. Allegedly, the game is an exact copy of the original but there is at least a slight difference with the aforementioned CD audio which I can at least listen to.

The CD-Audio consists of all the speech from the introduction sequence plus an original piece of music to end the intro. I was expecting the speech to be a higher quality copy of the original which is almost true but not quite. For a start the tone and post-processing is different, with the lines sounding slower and deeper with more pronounced reverb. Alterative recordings must have been used or roles reprised for a second reading of the lines as the words aren’t always the same either. For example on track 41 “until I hear Arial’s voice from within” becomes “until Arial’s voice do I hear from within”. They may not even be the same “actors” in all cases but they are doing a good impression if not. The curious can download all the audio in a rar from here. I especially recommend tracks 5-7 for some fine Shakespearian acting from Garamond.

The final music track is very reminiscent of the music from Ultima 1-3 on the FM Towns, it might even be the same but I’d have to go back and check to say for sure. It’s inoffensive enough but I’d rather hear the original theme on an MT-32.

I’d love to be able to give the game a go. If anyone has managed to get this running on an emulator and can offer some advice, it would be much appreciated.

Ultima Patcher 1.21

I’ve been tinkering with my Ultima Patcher today for the first time in months. I always wanted to add support for MT-32 emulation but held off because I didn’t want to supply the ROM’s. I’ve had a change of heart and thought I’d give it a go anyway. I’m still not supplying the ROM’s although finding them on the web should prove far from difficult. The patcher expects them to be named either CM32L_PCM.ROM & CM32L_CONTROL.ROM or MT32_PCM.ROM & MT32_CONTROL.ROM. The CM32 ROM’s are the ones to go for as a rule since they have some extra sounds not included on the original MT32.

Without the ROM’s, I’m not so sure if this is something anyone wants or would use so I’ve only implemented it for Underworld 1 as a test for now. I noticed that I needed to run the game as an administrator after patching in order for it to start up. Also the CPU cycles may need tweaking depending on setup/preferences. GOG originally set it for maximum cycles but this is a bit much with the MT32 emulation running at the same time so I’ve altered it to 30,000.

The new version can be downloaded from here.