The SNES port of Ultima 7 was published in 1994 via Pony Canyon with the development work being done in house by Origin. Going on past experience, this isn’t a promising start when other games Origin developed themselves for Nintendo systems include Metal Morph and the truly dire NES Ultima 5. By contrast the games originally developed in Japan such as NES Ultima 3 + 4 and SNES Ultima 6 worked out far better. Porting the mammoth Ultima 7 to the SNES would look to be a daunting prospect for anyone so my hopes were definitely not set high playing this for the first time.
However good or bad the game, boxed copies of the USA release are quite hard to come by with some crazy money currently being asked for sealed copies on Ebay. Unusually, the Japanese version on the left is by far the cheaper option being extremely common. The manual for the USA release has basic but less than thorough instructions for playing the game + all of Batlin’s backstory as in the PC documentation.
The game starts with the familiar figure of the guardian quoting his usual spiel, sadly without the menacing tones of Bill Johnson here. As for the rest of the intro apart from the flapping butterfly (which explodes when it lands on the logo?), it’s not present and it’s straight to Trinsic.
I’m greeted by Iolo with some rather stilted dialog but at least the character portraits are shown here which helps to add some personality. The keyword system is used for conversations but in a serious breach of Ultima tradition I can’t ask about name and job and people just go and introduce themselves without being asked. The dialog has been seriously cut down and is often less than subtle. It’s not exactly unapparent that the Fellowship may be up to no good within the first 5 minutes.
True to form for a Nintendo game, the serious crime turns out to be somewhat less serious than Ultima 7 veterans may expect being a kidnapping rather than a murder. Presumably that means I’ll get to rescue Christopher and Inamo this time around. I’ll have to do all of this on my own as there is no party support and Iolo deserts me immediately after welcoming me back.
I’m soon asked to look into the crime by the mayor and I take the chance to have a look around the town. Graphically, the port doesn’t look too bad. The scrolling is nice and smooth which is more than could ever be said on the PC. There are no weather effects however, and all the interiors are done on a separate map.
The layout of the town bears little relation to the original with many locations and NPC’s missing entirely. Of the houses that are left, most do have basements all of which turn out to be infested with rats, gremlins, skeletons spiders and slimes. These pop up out of nowhere when stepping in certain locations and tend to reappear every time you leave and come back, as does just about every single other item in the game as far as I can see. I’m free to plunder and steal at will and get the impression that the cellars are in effect no more than mini dungeons.
I have to give some credit to the interface for being quick and simple to use. I can assign weapons to either hand which can be used with the x + y buttons. Shoulder buttons move between inventory and equipped items and it’s all second nature if massively slimmed down. The number of keys I’m carrying is shown under the Avatar’s level. Most Britannia residents appear to have hoards of these skeleton keys in their basements which can be used on most locks rather like skull keys in Ultima 5. The stock of these is shown on screen at all times up to a maximum of 15. I’m yet to come across any other sort of key but there have been some doors I’ve been unable to open.
My stash of gold coins is shown at the bottom right. Given that I’m free and apparently encouraged to plunder whatever I like + the fact that every single item respawns when you leave and come back, I can’t see me ever being too short on money.
At the bottom left of the screen, the hearts represent my health and the ankhs my mana. I can’t cast spells yet as I don’t have the spellbook but this has been simplified down to assigning a spell to each shoulder button from the spellbook and doesn’t require any reagents, only consuming mana.
That just leaves combat which is a simple affair of bashing the button relating to one of the two hands as fast as possible to use that particular weapon. I start out the game unarmed but am soon equipped with a sword and later a bow. The sword pushes the enemy back a little on each hit so combat requires retreating slightly then bashing the button as fast as possible while the enemy advances onto it. The bow doesn’t appear to push back but does have a longer range so this is at least slightly tactical and requires more manoeuvring.
Health and mana both recharge slowly over time or can be regained through eating food/ankh’s which can be found scattered throughout the towns or dropped by some of the monsters. As my Avatar levels up, the maximum health and mana increases.
Ultima 7 is famous for the vast amount of readable books littering the world. There are a handful present here but they have been seriously chopped down. There is also reading material in the form of notes on many of the doors saying “Use other door” and indeed I can’t enter the buildings through any of these but can exit through them. It’s like there is some sort of technical limitation to the interior maps of only having one entrance but a couple of exceptions have proved this isn’t the case so I’ve no idea what this is about.
Finding Spark is tricky as he doesn’t appear to have a house anywhere that I could see but I do eventually locate him wandering around outside. Some of the NPC’s definitely have schedules but I’m suspicious that they are simply teleporting between locations until I see evidence otherwise. Investigating the kidnapping/murder is just a case of talking to everyone in town in the right order after which the mayor gives me the password and I’m free to start the long trek to Paws (which turns out to be about 2 screens away).
Paws looks much the same as Trinsic did with no hint of it being less well off than any other town. There is another quest to do involving tracking down the thief of a plaque from the Fellowship. Once again this is just talking to people in the correct order. With maybe 7 or 8 NPC’s in town this isn’t a big task. I’m rewarded with a magic bracelet for my troubles which will heal me at the expense of some mana.
I wander off path at this point and almost immediately stumble across Destard. It’s guarded by Mongbats who have a nasty ranged attack and I get the impression I need better armor from the amount of damage it does. I’m not planning on exploring but I do poke my nose into the dungeon only to find that my field of view is reduced to a tiny circle around the Avatar so I immediately give in on that idea. If there was any way for me to get back out of the dungeon I couldn’t see it so I end up reloading.
While wandering around, I can’t help but notice that the overland map uses the same monster spawning mechanic of specific monsters appearing when stepping onto certain locations. I can literally retreat a few steps back during combat and head forward again only to have the same creatures respawn once more.
Just like the Trinsic to Paws journey, Britain is almost touching Paws and I’m getting the impression there won’t be much wilderness to explore. Castle Britannia is now Britannia Manor presumably since there wasn’t room for any castle graphics. The place isn’t a hive of activity but has twice as many NPC’s as any other location I’ve been to. LB hands over my missing spellbook giving me the chance to cast a few spells at last.
I’ve already levelled up to 4 or 5 at this point which I think governs the spells I’m allowed to use. The speed I’ve been levelling at is ludicrous for what is supposedly an RPG. I can only assume that I’ll be maxing out the next time I play. I notice an illumination spell in here which will help in the dungeons no doubt but I’ll hold off going in them until I absolutely need to.
I’ve not fully explored Britain yet but have received several tasks including delivering Batlin’s package to Minoc + taking the new law about the pollution of Lock Lake to Cove. Shamino is supposed to be around Britain somewhere so the plan is to find him and then head off to Cove which is presumably going to be 1 screen East of Britain.
I’ve played about 2 hours to get this far. I’m not long into this but it is without a doubt the most simplified and dumbed down console port I have seen. When compared to the original game, it’s pretty insulting in all honesty and appears to have been aimed at primary school kids. The idea of this being someone’s introduction to Ultima 7 doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s almost like NES Ultima V all over again.
What it does have going for it over NES Ultima V is a nice quick control system and half decent graphics thanks to the SNES hardware. It’s also got a smattering of the original soundtrack which although cut down like everything else is at least more varied than the aforementioned U5. Maybe it’s just because I expected the worst but I’m actually quite enjoying this as a simple hack and slash affair. I’m not going to say it’s good but putting the original classic U7 to the side, it is reasonably playable. Think Runes Of Virtue without any puzzles and you won’t be too far off. It’s also different enough from the original to pique my interest for where it’s going.