Ranking The Origin Games (10-1)

I’ve been counting down through my favourite Origin games for the last 4 posts and now we finally get to the top 10. It should be obvious enough which 10 are left so lets put them in order.

10.Autoduel

This was the only game that Lord British would put his name on the box that wasn’t an Ultima in nearly 20 years at Origin, although it was mainly worked on by Chuck Beuche. It was another adaptation of a Steve Jackson game which apparently wasn’t too popular with the man himself as it strayed so far from the source material. It’s those changes that made Autoduel such a success as it could truly taking advantage of the different medium.

In Autoduel, Origin created one of the more unique RPG’s of the 80’s in which the player has to drive around a Mad Max inspired post apocalyptic America earning money to upgrade their car in order to survive in the dangerous wastelands. Car combat was handled in real time arcade segments that could be approached very differently depending on exactly what upgrades you had made to your vehicle. The whole thing has an extremely open world and unusually for me in an RPG, I actually liked the combat.

Autoduel certainly isn’t forgotten but it should be more celebrated than it is. I’d love to have seen some sequels and it’s a game crying out for a modern remake.

9.Wing Commander 3

It won’t be any great surprise that most of the top 10 games are Wing Commander or Ultima titles. Wing Commander 3 was a technological marvel in the day to such an extent that as impoverished student, I had to combine the best components of my PC with 2 of my housemates in order to create something that would even run it. It still took several minutes to load each mission and the planet missions were nearly unplayable even in VGA so we kind of missed some of the impact. It was a great experience despite all of that.

The heritage to WC2 was a lot clearer than it would become in WC4. The movie sections were clearly replacements for the animated equivalents and for better or worse didn’t take over the game in the same way as the sequel. The in-flight SVGA engine was a little monochrome if I’m honest and I was slightly disappointed with it after playing Armada prior to this. It was the epic quantity and quality of all the movies that really kept me going on that first playthrough. You no doubt had to be there at the time to appreciate this of course, in the same way as the digitized speech impressed so much in WC2.

When I finally got a machine capable of playing it properly the combat sections came into their own and I could finally see the whole package in all it’s glory. Arguably the combat had been a little more fun in WC2 but this was a new and different experience that I replayed far too many times back in the 90’s.

8.Ultima 6

Ultima 6 marks the best middle ground of the main series for me between the hardcore RPG’s that preceded it to the almost statless and adventure game like Ultima 7. The dialog was expanded hugely and conversing with the many NPC’s is one of the largest and most enjoyable parts of the game. The combat was still much the same as Ultima 5 except all on the same map now and I only had to worry about controlling the avatar. This speeded progress massively and was a vast improvement. For anyone who really didn’t like combat, it could be largely avoided throughout the game and you wouldn’t be punished. There is precious little in Ultima 7 that wasn’t already in Ultima 6 outside of the fancy full screen graphics.

The plot while at first appearing standard RPG fare wasn’t quite what it appeared in one of the better twists of the series. About my only complaint with Ultima 6 was how dark it got at night. Origin really knocked it out of the ballpark in 1990 with this and Wing Commander 1 both coming out. These games heralded the shift in power to PC gaming in what was a long overdue change in focus from the Apple II for Origin.

I did miss the 3D dungeons a little but we got Underworld not long after which made up for it and then some.

7.Wing Commander 2

This was the first Wing Commander game I ever played and was by far the most impressive thing I’d ever seen on my PC at the time. It was an incremental improvement over the first in the series but it all added together to that much more of a satisfying experience. The cutscenes had far more animation and variety, the explosions were a little bit prettier, the music a little more varied and of course there was the speech dotted throughout that so impressed all the Soundblaster owners back in the day.

Even the ships had more variety from the nimble Ferret to the ponderous but extremely satisfying Broadsword. Capships could no longer be shot down with anything except torpedoes and these tense bombing runs are some of my fonder memories of gaming back in the early 90’s. It didn’t have the branching mission structure to the same extent as WC1 but since near enough everyone always replayed until they won I don’t think it was too much of a loss.

6.Martian Dreams

This is probably a controversial choice to place so high but I’ve always loved Martian Dreams from the first time I played it. This was long after the original release as it’s the game that got me into collecting in the first place. I’d been something of an Origin fan from about 1992 after playing Wing Commander 2 and Ultima Underworld in fairly close succession. I kept up with most of their newer releases after that but never really got into the Ultima series until the Ultima Collection was released in 1998. This was of course missing Martian Dreams (among others) so I thought I should do something about it and I kind of kept going from there.

The game has one of the least likely plots ever to come out of Origin with the Avatar joining a bunch of historical characters in the past to journey to mars via a cannon to rescue yet more famous historical characters and ultimately revive a long dead alien race…and you get to take Warren Spector along for the ride. What should be a ridiculous plotline works brilliantly and disbelief is entirely suspended as the story gradually unfolds before drawing to a fitting climax. The sci-fi nature of the plot is right up my street as I’ve never been overly keen on fantasy by comparison. The reskinned Ultima 6 engine never looked better and fitted the game brilliantly. I even love the music (especially the credits theme). Even better, it’s free on GOG these days rather than the silly money I paid back in 98/99.

5.Privateer

I rushed out and bought Privateer when it was first released, more or less ignoring the required specs on the box which my PC barely met. The result was an impressive intro but an unplayable game where my framerate led to me not being able to land any shots whatsoever. I ended up returning it to the store and never played Privateer again until it came around on this blog. I should have given it another chance years earlier.

The start of the game is certainly unforgiving but that’s what makes progressing so rewarding later on. Origin created a compelling universe to explore on that large pile of floppies and it takes a little perseverance before you can branch out to its furthest extents. The engine was arguably a little dated at the time given that it was still using pre-rendered sprites. These looked much better than they ever had in WC2 though and the music created an extremely effective atmosphere for the game. I especially liked the jump drive mechanic in which the player would have to reach a blue cloud of gas marking a jump point before being able to leave the sector. It led to lots of tense moments when trying to escape enemies. You could argue that Privateer was just an updated version of Elite but I don’t see anything wrong with that whatsoever. It was far more fun than Elite 2 ever was after all.

4.Wing Commander 4

Wing Commander 4 probably holds the record for the game I’ve played through more times than any other. Any time I’ve started to play it, I’d invariably be there several hours later trying to complete it in the one sitting. The snag with that is that I know the game all too well these days and can’t really go back to it any more.

The movie sections provide a compelling sci-fi action romp through the galaxy and were a huge improvement over WC3 in every aspect. WC4 really was an interactive movie in every sense with the story driving the missions rather than the other way around. The British press almost universally panned it at the time for having too much movie and not enough game but I don’t agree with this at all. The flight sections were arguably more challenging here than in WC3 and there was more branching and variety in the ship types so I thought it stepped things up a notch if anything. I even reckon the game flowed quite smoothly between flight and FMV, especially in the climactic later sections. I liked this game so much I bought a Creative DXR2 just to get the DVD version back in the day.

3.Ultima Underworld 2

Ultima Underworld 2 was a rushed sequel released in very short order to capitalise on sales of the first game but you would never know it (unless you run into a certain game breaking bug). The viewing window was substantially larger, the creatures far less pixellated, the worlds more varied and it was simply superlative at the time of release. Nothing else came close except Underworld 1.

The increased size of the game did have some pitfalls and there were parts that felt less polished than UW1. The varied worlds of UW2 didn’t hold together as a cohesive whole in quite the same way and there were some parts of the ethereal void especially that I wasn’t a fan of. I also didn’t like the music as much and the intro/outro were less epic. There are minor points though in a game of this size and scope. It’s probably the better game of the series but I can’t really give it the top spot given that it didn’t innovate in the same way.

2.System Shock

Splitting the Underworlds is the ever popular FPS System Shock. This is another game that I couldn’t get into on first release. I really wanted another Underworld and the lack of NPC’s and conversations was something of a gamebreaker for me. Also, lets face it that control system takes some getting used to but it works well enough when you have the hang of it.

It probably didn’t help that I had the floppy version. System Shock didn’t really come into its own until the CD release some time after. This was done so well and fitted so perfectly it’s hard to believe now that it wasn’t released in that format in the first place. The atmosphere of the game is intense, the action and story extremely well presented and in some ways it’s a template for many games that followed it. I wish more of those games had more of the freedom and exploration of System Shock instead of the on-rails FPS’s that are so prevalent these days.

1.Ultima Underworld 1

It may not be a coincidence that my #1 game on the list is also the first Origin game I played. Playing UW1 was an experience unlike any other with its true 3D world making a huge impression on gamers like myself who were not used to 3D. I’d compare playing this in 1992 to anyone trying VR for the first time now. It really did feel like being there with the sudden switch to combat music making me jump out of my chair on numerous occasions if a denizen of the abyss had crept up on me. The music and visuals created an incredibly dark and foreboding atmosphere of the sort that I’ve only experienced since in games like Amnesia.

Beyond that, the dungeon was such a compelling place to explore with loads of inhabitants to meet (both hostile and friendly), a damsel to save and ultimately a demon to banish. Each level would bring something new and there were so many ways to approach the challenge. The simulation aspects that Looking Glass brought to this on top of the 3D visuals were the cherry on the cake. It’s ridiculous how advanced the game engine was compared to everything else on the market.

After days of traversing the abyss, there is a closing passage where the Slasher of Veils is banished and a breakneck run through the ethereal void with him breathing down your neck. It’s probably my favourite endgame of all time in what could well be my favourite game of all time. Looking back at this 30 years later, it would be impossible to play it with the same perspective but I have never been as immersed in any game before or since.

 

So that’s my top 55 Origin games. Hopefully, I’ve not annoyed too many people by putting favourites low down the list. I’d certainly be curious to know what anyone else’s top 10 would have been and the reasons why. I can’t say I found it all that easy to compare many of these titles and my list would no doubt have been different on another day. I was heavily influenced by the games I played nearer their release date which I’m almost always going to remember more fondly. There is also a tendency to avoid clumping all those Ultima/Wing Commander games together and even then I ended up with a top 10 that was 40% of each.

The irony isn’t entirely lost on me that my top three games were all developed by Looking Glass rather than Origin but Underworld was always going to win out in my case and the other two are built from similar moulds.The good news for me is that they all have sequels on the way so let’s hope those can live up their predecessors.

6 thoughts on “Ranking The Origin Games (10-1)

  1. Very nice to see updates again, had almost stopped coming by!
    Personally I’d bump Shock1 and Underworld2 to the top.
    Then WingCommander3, simply love the Kilrathi in this one.

    Oh I remember Cybermage. Was obsessed trying to get the demo running on a 486. Ended up mostly staring at the load screen, naturally. Like with TekWar, which I came back to and quite enjoyed just a few years ago. Sounds like it’s time to hunt down Cybermage and give it a fair chance, hopefully Dosbox likes it more.

    • The Cybermage demo had a unique level which didn’t do a great job of selling the game from what I remember. It should run fine in DOSBox – I’m 99% sure that was how I played it. Something I didn’t mention is that I’m sure there were references in the game to either or both System Shock and Crusader suggesting they were all set in the same universe.

      I’ve got Tekwar but haven’t played it yet. I’ll have to give it a go when I get the chance.

      • Yeah, I made the mistake of starting with the “tutorial”, suspect that was the demo. The actual campaign is far more engaging so far. Gotta get to those references.

        There was one big quirk with TekWar though. The cycles required for smooth framerate breaks the cutscenes, so it has to be opened at like 7k cycles, and cycled up ingame about 10x, then cycled down before the level end. Now, while you often sense the end, you don’t know exactly when the first time, so often it means reloading and doing the very last thing again at terrible fps. It may sound terrible but this is another one with really massive, and pretty open-ended, levels, so there are only about 8 of ’em.

    • In fact, is there: “There is precious little in Ultima 7 that wasn’t already in Ultima 6 outside of the fancy full screen graphics.”

  2. Pingback: » Pix Ranks the Origin Games (10-1)

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