Ultima 4 NES – Part 3

At the end of part 2, I was well on my way to avatarhood although still falling short on some virtues. Attaining the rest of these proved to be easier than expected with the only time consuming part being walking to and fro between the healers and LB donating blood. Once I became a full Avatar there was a very welcome bonus in this version of granting me a maximum 99 magic points even though I was playing a fighter. I took the chance at this point to drop Iolo from the party and spent all the money from his gear on reagents.

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Next job was to get the exotic armour and weapons from Empath Abbey and the Lycaeum. This was just a case of climbing a tower in each and speaking to the guy who must have been sat around years waiting for me so he would let me in. The new armour dropped damage to about a third of chain mail and the sword killed every enemy in the game after this (except in one dungeon room) in a single kill. The only time I was ever really vulnerable in the game after this was in rooms with a lot of enemies which could cast sleep.

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I still needed to collect all the stones from the dungeons which took most of yesterday night. I based myself in Hythloth which gave me easy access to all the dungeons from the altar rooms in level 8 with the added benefit that if I died off, I turned up in LB’s castle again and could go straight back down and pick up where I left off. The only penalty for death that I spotted was my gold resetting to 400 which was no big deal.

The dungeons are a reasonably close facsimile of those on the PC. There was more repetition of rooms than I remember but there are hidden doors all over the place, panels to step on in some of the rooms to open up walls, etc.. With the aid of maps, my one man party found these reasonably easy to get through and if you took the time to build up a 4 person level 8 party the dungeons would be a breeze.

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One novelty with this version is that the stones are all located in their own rooms and there is a virtue question to be answered before you can gain access. Most of these made sense but a couple had to be answered incorrectly. I think the correct answer to “Would you withhold the gift of thy own blood from a dying companion?” was Yes… Each of these rooms has a nifty quick getaway stairway at the back allowing you to go all the way out of the dungeon but I didn’t use these and headed back down instead to the altar room to swap dungeon.

Two of the stones had to be collected elsewhere exactly as normal with the hot-air balloon to access the white stone being located at the exit of Hythloth.

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With the stones gathered I placed them all on their appropriate altars in Hythloth, grabbed the three keys then equipped myself as well as I could to head for The Stygian Abyss. Shortly after, I realised I hadn’t retrieved the candle of love with turned out to be in a hidden room in Cove. Cove was only accessible either by sailing into a whirlpool or using the hot air balloon which was why I’d missed it previously.

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Fully equipped this time, I gained entry to the abyss using the bell, book and candle as ever.

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The abyss proved to be not significantly harder than any other dungeon. At the end of each level I’m presented with what appears to be a cheap sports trophy and asked a virtue question. Since these come in the same order as the multiple choice answer on each level I can’t imagine many people got them wrong.

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The abyss is more complex than the other dungeons however, with plenty of unique rooms including the famous one at the end where you have to fight your own party as such. These guys weren’t as tough as their real counterparts or I wouldn’t have survived but they were the only monsters who didn’t die from a single sword hit.

I’m sure I recognised some of the room arrangements from the real game with complex paths having to be weaved between some of them to find the exit, often needing to locate secret panels to open walls up. The dungeons were definitely the best aspect of this port.

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With all 8 stones placed in their respective trophies, I’m rewarded with a bit of a cutscene to finish off which takes a departure from the PC version. There is some dodgy translation to start with as the ankh spokes. Using my keys, I then gain the codex and walk up a giant stairway to get a congratulatory ceremony from Lord British with each of my companions chipping in one by one.

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I have to say that I enjoyed the later stages of this game more than the earlier ones, which is the exact opposite of the PC version. As such this port did grow on me to an extent but if this had been the only version of Ultima 4, I doubt many people would remember the game all these years later.

The main drag is the incessant combat. Stand still for 10-15 seconds at any time and you will be in a fight. I couldn’t even complete the ceremony fast enough at the abyss entrance to get through it in one go. I much prefer being able to see and avoid the enemies on the main map. This tactic did have to be taken to extremes on the seas since pirate ships are the only enemies visible on the map. I could barely move without seeing one. Whenever I play a game like with this much combat it always feels like a short game is being deliberately dragged out.

The other major problem is the reduction to the conversations and towns. Ultima 4 isn’t a game that needed any simplification as it was already fairly bare bones being made for a 1985 Apple II. This simplification more or less ruined my favourite part of the PC version.

It’s a lot more faithful than I expected having said all that and still engaging provided you have the patience to get through the tedium of the early stages. I do think the Sega Master System version looks like far more fun even if it does have 2D dungeons. I’ll have to try that one another time but not today. I ought to give Wing Commander 3 on the 3DO a try next as I’ve had the console and joystick sat there waiting for me to play it for months now.

I’ll end with a quick mention that <A HREF=”http://www.gog.com”>GOG</A> are about to release System Shock 2 tomorrow which has been their most requested game ever since they started taking requests in the first place. It’s a game that has stood the test of time exceptionally well and is a must-buy if you’ve not had the opportunity to play it.

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