Ultima 1 Palm OS – Part 1

I spent a good amount of time with the PalmOS port of Ultima 1 yesterday. It’s a mixed bag and I get the impression that no one actually tried to play through the game before it was released. It’s not exactly buggy but does have a fatal flaw which I’ll get to.

The first quirk I ran into was during character creation. This port is using Ultima 3 rules, so a party of 4 with all the Ultima 3 classes, spells, etc. You get 30 points to assign to your characters skills but it’s entirely possible to max out every stat during creation to 25 as the available points count doesn’t get updated until you press the middle button on the pad, leaving a final total of -50 points to assign. I’m fine with making my life easier so did this on my party.

Once in the game, the graphics look very similar to the VGA patched Ultima 4. There isn’t any sound at all beyond the occasional beep – a bit of audio would have been nice but it’s not essential. The line of sight effect that came in with Ultima 2 is present here in all locations including towns and dungeons. Combat has it’s own screen with each party member controlled individually, as per Ultima 3. There are some welcome quick commands implemented to speed things up – it will default to the previous option for each character or to attack with range weapons if you have them. I’m all for speeding up combat – it has to be said that the combat is horribly repetitive with every battle feeling much the same as every other but at least it’s quick.

The quests of the original Ultima aren’t present here, or at least I haven’t found them yet. Lord British is in his castle but only tells me to get more experience. His castle does have the Ultima 1 tropes of a jester who I can steal some keys off, a prison and also three chambers for food, armour and weapons. The guards come straight for me if I get the keys and there is no way my party is strong enough to fight them so I’ll have to try that later. In Ultima 1, you could steal from these but I can’t find a steal command here

The world map is original to this port and I can’t say I recognise the towns themselves either. There are a few people to talk to giving hints as to what to do but for the most part they don’t have anything helpful to say. The towns have shops selling all the Ultima 3 armaments plus a few things I don’t recognise such as a gloves option for a weapon. Rather than seeking them out, you can buy mystic armour and weapons right from the start if you have enough money but don’t expect to be able to equip them on most of your party. Aside from my fighter, the party appears to be limited to the most basic of weapons. There is a range of mystic weapons also, with bows and swords to pick from – maybe these will turn out to be equippable on the whole party as in Ultima 3. Some of the towns include a guild selling torches, gems and powder. The torches are automatically consumed in dungeons for light. The light spells last a pitiful amount of time, not enough time to make it to the exit of a single dungeon level by the shortest route half the time, so torches are highly recommended.

Speaking of dungeons, they are all in 2D. There are secret walls identifiable by slightly different tiles, no doors but lots of arches, and there are relatively few monsters until you get deeper down. Their layout is vaguely similar to in the real game but it’s a lot easier to navigate from overhead like this. They are simpler than the Akalabeth dungeons in truth with no traps or doors. Palm devices could easily have handled 3D so it seems lazy not to implement them properly in a product that was being charged for.

Any chests on a given level respawn when you return to it so I set to grinding away for gold at one of the dungeons with a conveniently places chest just north of the ladder on level 2. I discover around now that all the chest traps will harm the party with monotonous regularity, even with a thief character doing the opening. Gas traps poison the whole party and since curing poison is way beyond my cleric’s abilities and not worth the 100gp per person at the “magic” shop in the towns I ended up with a permanently poisoned party. It’s completely unavoidable but since the damage doesn’t stack gas traps are harmless after the first one. Thankfully, the poison doesn’t do all that much damage in the scheme of things.

Bomb and acid traps on chests will occasionally insta-kill even a relatively healthy party. It’s here that I ran into the major issue with the game. Ignoring that the death message you receive refers to Ultima 2 instead of 1, you get returned to the main menu and your single save game is overwritten at the same time. So we have here an RPG requiring many hours to beat that apparently has perma-death. You could literally get all the way to Mondain, lose the final fight and have to start from scratch again.

Suffice to say, that’s as far as I’m going on real hardware. I’ll have another attempt on an emulator with save states. The fact that this looks effectively unplayable even at this early stage does not bode well. I have a suspicion I’m not going to be seeing the end of this game but I’ll persevere for a while longer.

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