Ultima 4 (Sega Master System) – Part 2

I’ve spent several hours revisiting Ultima 4 on the SMS now. It’s been a good number of years since I played U4 (NES version not included) and I’d think I’d forgotten just how good it was. It’s providing a constant challenge but there is always a goal within reach and enough variety to keep my interest going. A game this old is never going to be an easy sell to a younger gamer but once Ultima 4 grabs your attention it’s not hard to see why the game is regarded as such a classic in the genre.

The SMS port has been everything I could hope for with no concessions made in gameplay that I’ve been able to notice as of yet. After raising my humility virtue so quickly in part 1, I had thought I might be in for an easy ride but all the other virtues have proven to require just as much effort as on the PC.


The combat isn’t as slow going as I’d feared but controlling a party of 8 is undoubtedly going to be harder work than I’d like when I make it that far. My combat strategy so far is simply to arm every party member with range weapons and attack the nearest monster and it’s proven extremely effective, not to mention fast since I don’t have to manoeuvre each person too much. The combat system does have one tweak over Ultima 5 in that I can only cycle between monsters when chosing what to attack which is a real timesaver.

Another thing speeding things up is that I think that the PAL version I’m running appears to have been speed corrected. For those that don’t know, the TV signal here in the UK runs at 50 FPS instead of the 60 used in NTSC for the USA/Japan. Most of the consoles that made it over here were fairly crudely adapted for PAL which meant that we ended up with huge black borders and the top and bottom of the screen and a squashed up game to play in the middle. To make matters worse, many (probably most) games from other countries were not adjusted to run at the correct speed and simply ran slower when played in PAL. All of this led to many people (myself included) modding their machines to add switches to swap between 50/60 Hz and since I prefer a full screen I’ve been playing this at 60. From the speed of the music I suspect that it’s running a little faster than intended although the game speed is about spot on as far as I’m concerned.


My biggest problem so far has been getting a boat. They are incredibly scarce in this version and I spent at least 30-45 minutes wandering around coastlines before I finally saw one. Taking the moongate to Jhelom and walking back and forth was what worked for me in the end.


I eventually ran into another ship on the high seas and led it to what I thought was a convenient spot on the Cape of Heroes. Under the impression I had this backup, I didn’t think twice about sailing through the whirlpool when I happened on it later on thinking it was a good chance to get a boat ready for transport to Cove. I only realised after that my boat was in an unreachable spot so I’m once again landlocked until I manage to find another.

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I’ve made steady progress other than this. I have all the runes and am now 2 parts Avatar and ready for all the other virtues except honesty. One thing to note is that every time I need to use a mantra at a shrine or elsewhere I have to key in it which theoretically means that this game may be completable without bothering with all the conversations after all which is a nice touch for experienced players.

I’ve slightly mixed feelings about the conversation system keeping track of everything for me. It saves keeping notes for the most part but it’s not unreasonable for a player to go around asking everyone about mantras and runes once they get the idea of how things work in Britannia. I do like the freedom of a text interface at times but the keyword system still represents an improvement on the whole.

I’ve still got work ahead of me before I venture into the first dungeon but I’m close enough to say that for the overworld part of the game at least, this has been my favourite version of U4. It looks, sounds and plays as well or better than any version I’ve seen and the interface is incredibly quick and easy to use considering there are just two buttons. It even has enhancements like 3 save slots which is a real luxury. It remains to be seen what I think of 2D dungeons and I intend to venture through several of those before the next post. That could be slightly delayed as I’ve just received a BBC Master and an Amiga 1200 today and I’m extremely keen to have a play around with them. You can guarantee I’ll have been playing some Elite before part 3.

Ultima 4 (Sega Master System) – Part 1

There has been big Ultima news in the last couple of days with the release of Ultima Forever for Apple devices. If it was out on Android as well I’d be playing it right now but instead I’ll settle for it’s spiritual predecessor which is Ultima 4, this time on the Sega Master System. Sega consoles were never exactly well represented in the Origin catalog and off the top of my head I can only think of one other Origin game that got a release which was Wing Commander on the Sega CD. SMS Ultima 4 was ported by Sega themselves and came out in 1990, 5 years after the original. It was the last official port of the game on any platform other than the FM-Towns.


The packaging is the usual sturdy plastic case used for SMS games. It came with a booklet and paper map, neither of which are in the copy I’ve got but excellent scans can be found at SMS Power. The manuals are basically smaller versions of the Apple II originals which is in stark contrast to the NES game which included a full guide to beating the game.


I’ve played 3 Nintendo Ultima games so far and for all their good and bad points it’s fair to say that they have been a departure from the original source. Right from the start it’s clear that this isn’t going to be the case on the SMS and it is as true to the original as is possible. The graphics are a huge leap forward however and arguably better than those on the PC VGA patch. The original music is used throughout which is great for the traditionalists among us.

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The full intro is present and looking as good as on any system I’ve played the game with the virtue cards being especially clear and colourful. I go for my usual route of playing a fighter which should help to a degree in the early stages.

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Ultima 4’s myriad of key commands have been compressed down to a menu based system which is intuitive enough to use if a little slower. Conversations are handled in an Ultima 7 style with a selection of keywords where I’m not allowed to ask about anything I’ve not learned elsewhere. This is going to force me to play the game properly learning every clue and mantra which will be a novelty. As far as I can see, every conversation and person from the original game is present and correct and any differences if they are there are minor.

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I may be forced to relearn all the mantras and clues but a little prior knowledge still comes in handy in this game and I’m soon collecting all the things I need to win the game. I briefly grind away on one of the guard conversations raising my humility and I’m ready to gain partial avatarship in that virtue in next to no time. This appeared to be way, way easier than on the PC version as I only went through the conversation maybe ten times. I have far less luck trying to raise my sacrifice by gifting gold coins to the beggar in Britain which curiously has no effect at all. I’ll have to try some alternatives.


Combat is where the first real change to the gameplay shows up as it uses the same system as Ultima 5 with attacking on diagonals allowed and any angle of attack using a range weapon. This does have the effect of slowing things down and it could potentially be worse in that regard than PC Ultima 5 with the option menu adding in an extra delay. The menu does default to attack which is going to be the most used command but with the hitch that it often makes strange choices on which monster to go for after this. The game really does love to select monsters that are out of range which may not be a problem when I get my party fully equipped with bows but is an issue right now. With a party of 8 I have concerns that combat could end up being extremely slow and I’m tempted to try to keep my party size down.


The combat is definitely not easy and starting this game is proving to be tricky. After breezing through NES Ultima 5 I think I’ve got a little too used to being mollycoddled. Here I’ve died numerous times already and really should be hanging around Britain taking advantage of the free healing and trying to raise funds for some decent equipment. That will be the next job on the list as so far I’ve just been getting ahead of myself running around the world exploring the towns.

I’ve not played for long yet but I’ll probably not have a huge amount to say about this port even when I have with it being so unchanged. It could well be the best version of the game I’ve played depending on how the dungeons work out but I expect it will require quite some time to play through.

Given how well the few that were ported turned out, you have to wonder why so few Origin games made it onto Sega consoles. Ultima 4 did come out relatively late in the SMS’s lifespan which certainly won’t have helped sales. It’s 1990 release was long after the Genesis had become available in the USA in January 1989 and the NES had been dominating the market prior to this. The SMS had far more of a market base in Europe though and since us Europeans had to wait nearly two years more than the USA before the release of the Megadrive this will have been a large factor in SMS Ultima 4 mainly being sold in Europe and relatively few copies ending up in the USA.

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.


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.



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.



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.


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.


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



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.


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.


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.

Ultima 4 NES – Part 2

I had concerns that playing Ultima 4 on the NES might prove to be slow going after the last post and having spent half of Sunday on it this has certainly proved to be the case. I am catching up on podcasts while I’m at it though and progress in the game is steady if unspectacular.

I made it to Buccaneer’s Den where I found the price of keys to be an eye-watering 2000gp. I decided at this point to ditch all but Iolo out of my party, gathering and selling the equipment belonging to everyone else. I equipped both of us as well as possible with the money buying a crossbow for Iolo and this has helped to speed things up a little with smaller monster parties to fight and fewer people to keep battle ready. I would have left Iolo behind as well but since I’m playing a fighter I need a rudimentary spellcaster occasionally.

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Monster encounters are far more frequent than I would like on the surface but my first thought was still to try out a dungeon. Visually these are bland but don’t look too bad, a definite improvement over the PC version anyway. Again, there is no sign of monsters walking about and it’s simply random encounters but there are pre-designed rooms to work through some of which have secret walls. This part of the game feels much more like the PC port and looks to be where the game will come to life. It’s no bad thing since as far as I can tell there is no down/up spell in this version so I’m going to have to do these dungeons the hard way.

Much like above ground, the dungeons proved to be comparatively tame. They weren’t exactly piled with gold but I did come across the occasional cache and slowly grew my hoard. It’s hard to build up large quantities of gold in this game as chests never have anything except money. Selling armour in other Ultima games has always been the better source of income.


When I finally had the 2000gp the key proved to be a better deal than I’d feared as it can be used over and over for every door in the game. I spent the rest of the day gathering runes, grinding virtue stats and trying to attain avatarhood.

The virtue statistics are more simplistic than in the original due to the curtailed towns and conversations which was a real detriment to this section of the game. I’d swear some of the questions have the answers the wrong way around also which can make them trial and error. It didn’t take all that long to locate all the runes though and I now have 5 out of 8 partial avatarhoods.

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Playing the game so far has been more than a little tedious with the incessant random encounters occurring far too often for my liking. If I’d been on an emulator it would be been on 500% speed long before now but I’ve not got that option open to me this time. These encounters are more or less the same thing over and over and it’s all just grinding that can be done on autopilot (hence the podcasts). The monsters in the NES version hardly vary in strength taking either one or two decent hits to kill. With two party members with decent bows, they rarely make it to point blank range and it’s all too easy and very monotonous. Ultima 3 was far more of a challenge and had more of a clear role for the different characters which varied depending on monster and character level.

I’m still looking forward to properly exploring the dungeons which was much more entertaining from the little I saw but I want to gain avatarhood first as in this version it apparently allows me to climb towers in two of the keeps to get the best weapons and armour. I tried climbing these anyway to see what happened but it proved to be an endless set of staircases with no top. I expect I’ve got several hours ahead of me before I’m able to get either of these so the next post may be several days as I fit it in around everything else. I might take a look at the Ultima Online Collector’s Guide in the meanwhile as that finally arrived in the post on Friday.

I’ll veer off topic to end this post as one of the coolest things to ever make its way through my letter box arrived yesterday. Despite the Origin blog, my gaming genre of choice is without a doubt adventure games and as a huge and long time Gabriel Knight fan one of the Kickstarters I’m most keenly awaiting to see reach completion is Jane Jensen’s Pinkerton Road. The rewards in that Kickstarter included 50 pencil sketches of Gabriel Knight design artwork. These were all rescued out of a dumpster years back by a fan who generously donated them to the cause. Anyone who backed enough got to pick their top 10 favourites and some maths was done from that to decide who got which one. I was a little tactical in my choices spurning the more obvious picks and was fortunate enough to get my number 1 choice which is now framed and stuck on the wall:-


This is a concept sketch for the end of the game with Gabriel and Grace overlooking the ruins of a voodoo hounfour which was hidden underneath New Orleans. This scene has always been a personal favourite which is why I picked it, I love the dialog, music and the slightly downbeat tone struck and it’s easily one of my favourite game endings of all time. I’m over the moon to have got this and it’s a proud addition to the growing set of gaming memorabilia covering the walls on my 3rd floor.

From one adventure Kickstarter to another, the long anticipated Dreamfall Chapters surfaced a couple of days back. This will be the third in the Longest Journey series and is a game I’ve been eagerly awaiting for years. It’s still got nearly a month to run and anyone who enjoys adventure games should be backing this one as far as I’m concerned.

Ultima 4 NES – Part 1

Ultima 4 was released somewhat belatedly for the NES in 1989 having being developed by Pony Canyon. It’s a game I’ve been curious about trying out for a while as I love the original version but the console ports tend to be different enough to be worth a look in their own right. This time I get to play au-natural as such meaning, you may be relieved to hear, that I recently bought a NES and it’s now region-unlocked and ready to play my Ultima 4 cartridge:-


The snag with having the real hardware of course is that decent screenshots are out of the question and I’m just pointing my phone at the TV instead. Ultima 3 on the NES turned out to be a decent and reasonably faithful port which was something of a pleasant surprise back when I played it last year. My concern (which is probably justified from what I’ve heard) is that each of these games is going to be slightly worse than it’s predecessor as the scope grows further beyond what a console of the time was capable of.

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There is some evidence of this right from the beginning with the famous introduction to Ultima 4 reduced to a simplified version of the virtue questions + a speech from Lord British about how he knows I will become the Avatar. One of the great aspects of Ultima 4 was that you didn’t know your quest right from the start, and even when you found out you were just one of many in Britannia with the same goal. It suggests before the game has even begun that this is going to be a simplified world and this proves to very much be the case.

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It has to be said that the graphics do look quite nice for their time. This could easily be a Final Fantasy game at a cursory glance and it’s about as good as it got on the NES. I cannot say the same for the soundtrack. A portion of it can be said to be tolerable, other parts made me wonder if the sound chip on my NES was faulty. Why the original score wasn’t used over this I have no idea.

The interface has of course been hugely simplified and works well within the limitation of a two button pad. It’s menu based with the most commonly used verbs quickly accessible and the lesser on a second screen. Combat is handled a little like Ultima 5 with a target crosshair for attacking which allows arrows to be shot in more than straight lines in this version although I still can’t attack on diagonal lines with a sword. Another tweak is the ability to ready both a bow and a sword simultaneously with the bow not able to be used at point blank range.

The combat has been unbelievably easy so far and I don’t remember finding it such a walk in the park in these early stages on the PC version. I have never been in any real danger in the 90 minutes I’ve played, although I haven’t been fool enough to seek out a dungeon at this point. There is an impression still that this has been aimed at a younger audience.

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The aspect of Ultima 4 that was the biggest leap forward from Ultima 3 to me was the conversation system. This added an adventure gaming element where you had to figure out who to ask what, making notes as you talked to everyone in each town. This is the part of playing Ultimas that probably holds the most appeal to me. I expected this to be simplified for the NES port but I honestly thought there would still be more to it than there is. We are almost back in Ultima 3 territory with most NPC’s reduced to a single paragraph of text. There are exceptions in the case of Hawkwind and Lord British, a rare few have a second alternative line of text when talked to again + there is the odd Yes/No choice to make but that’s it. To add insult to injury the towns themselves are simpler with far fewer inhabitants. From what I have seen, there is hardly any exploring to be done and it’s a definite loss.

I played for about 90 minutes and managed to get myself a full party (only 3 companions), explore a couple of towns, found a rune or two and that’s it so far. Everything is Britannia is where I would expect it on the main map, which is a definite plus point. There aren’t any monsters walking around on that map and it’s just random encounters ala Final Fantasy which is a point against. The combat gets a little slow with a full size party + the number of monsters increases. There is a definite temptation to drop my party down in size and speed things up, not sure if that is viable or not and if anyone has any advice I’d be glad of it.

Saving is now only possible in inns which would be an irritation if the combat wasn’t so easy. One odd thing I spotted was that in Yew in the original you were asked something along the lines of whether you were guilty of any crime. You were supposed to answer that you were, spend a night in the cells as punishment and find the rune. Here you have to give the opposite answer to prove yourself worthy to be told the location of the rune and then break into the prison to retrieve it. This isn’t a change for the better.

So overall first impressions are, it’s OK, not great but OK. It’s not exactly Ultima 4 any more and seems to have lost much of what made it such a classic. This plays like a Final Fantasy/Ultima hybrid not quite living up the standards of either from what I’ve seen but after 90 minutes I haven’t seen that much. I’ll play it until I’ve got partial avatarhood in a few virtues and done some dungeon delving before I come back for part 2. I’d just got a ship when I stopped so I’m planning to head to Buccaneer’s Den to buy the tools to open all the locked doors I’ve been running into.

While I’m posting, I noticed a copy of Origin’s second game Caverns Of Callisto on Ebay which may interest one or two readers. I know all too well that you don’t see boxed copies of this coming up all that often although the asking price with a day to go is already reflecting that and then some.

Also, there was a curious Google+ post from Richard Garriott yesterday “Working hard on our next FRPG! Getting back to me roots! More info to follow!”. He confirmed that the F stands for Fantasy and not Facebook but basically no more info has followed at least yet. Whether he’s referring to Ultimate RPG I’m not sure. The concept art I saw wouldn’t really have put it in the fantasy realm so possibly not unless it’s had a change of direction. I’d love to see a new single player game but I think I’ll just wait and see rather than speculate.