Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Game 240: Beamrider

I don't spend a lot of time looking at underserved consoles on Data Driven Gamer. It's in the nature of the project; whale status is based on a rough barometer of a game's enduring popularity, and when a game is made exclusively for an also-ran system, that immediately limits how popular it could ever be to begin with. When a game was made multiplatform and not originally a coin-op conversion, third-party developers would most often use the most popular console as their master platform, which in this era was decisively the Atari 2600, having outsold all of the competition combined by more than 4:1. The most prolific third-party developer of the era, Activision, targeted the 2600 almost exclusively in their early years, sometimes porting their more successful titles to other, more advanced platforms in an upgraded form, but in nearly all cases the 2600 version was their first edition, and therefore the one that interests me.

Beamrider, though published by Activision, is an exception, being developed by independent David Rolfe rather than any of their employees. Rolfe's initial design was for Mattel's Intellivision, a system that he had been instrumental to with his early contributions.

 

Being released in 1979, just two years after the Atari VCS's debut and well before that console hit its stride, the Intellivision is clearly a graphical powerhouse in comparison, and even compares favorably in some ways to Atari's computer line that would form the basis of the next-generation 5200 and XEGS consoles. Colorful backgrounds like in Frog Bog just weren't done on the VCS, and sprites with multiple frames of animation were pretty rare.

But many have noted the Intellivision's shortcomings and how they likely contributed to its failure to make a dent in the VCS's dominance. The higher price tag, the more complex gameplay sensibilities, the bizarre controller with its telephone number pushbuttons and 16-direction "control disc" that must have been awkward to use and ensured children couldn't simply plug in and play their games without having to read instructions first, and Mattel's inability to effectively market the system.

Rolfe's rap sheet on Mobygames shows an interesting earliest credit - a vague role of "help" with Walter Bright's Empire in 1977! The year after, he is credited as the co-developer of Atari's Home Run, and this is also the year that he wrote Intellivision's Baseball, though it wasn't released until 1980. These two games, incidentally, were used in Mattel's most infamous ad, featuring that well-known Generation X icon George Plimpton. I did say Mattel's marketing strategy needed some work.

Scan by Flashbak

Baseball was, you could say, the system's killer app. Rolfe developed it in tandem with designing the Intellivision's firmware. The two projects informed each other, and in turn informed all other Intellivision games internally developed at Mattel, as the finalized system firmware dictated what abilities and functions were readily available to all other games made for the system.

Other projects of his include the Intellivision's pack-in title Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack, two arcade games for Exidy, a port of Frog Bog to the Atari VCS, and finally, Beamrider.

 

Beamrider looks an awful lot like Nintendo's old Radar Scope, but doesn't play that much like it. Your ship, rather than freely moving side-to-side, "jumps" across an array of five beams, and must switch frequently to target enemies and evade their fire. Each wave's goal is to shoot down 15 saucers, who zip around the screen in increasingly complex patterns and fire projectiles down the beams, but every two levels introduce a new enemy type, many of them invulnerable to your laser fire. Level 2, for instance, introduces asteroids which dumbly hurtle down the beams and can only be destroyed with your finite supply of torpedoes, and level 10 introduces blue ships that if not shot before landing, will stick around on the bottom of the screen for a few second, depriving you of maneuvering space.

Each sector concludes with a boss fight of sorts - a sentinel ship moves across the top of the screen, and can only be hit with a torpedo. You only get three per sector, and you'll want to save as many as you can for the sentinel. At first this is just a matter of timing, but before long, these sentinels become accompanied by lots of backup. Then, you have to be smart about where to fire the torpedoes and when. Learning to manipulate the various enemies so that, in moving to attack you, they open up a clear shot to the boss, is a must, but sometimes you'll still have to torpedo one or two of them to get them out of the way. You don't have to kill the sentinel to pass the sector, but this is the only way to score big points. Interestingly, the more lives you have, the bigger the payout.

Speaking of which, Beamrider is pretty generous with lives, almost as generous as it is eager to take them away from you, but it doesn't just hand them to you. Bonus lives come hurtling down the beams as yellow ships to collect, and you've got to not only maneuver to the right beams to pick them up without getting blasted into space dust by all the chaos going on, but also not let your trigger finger twitch and blow the life away, turning it into deadly radioactive dust.

I made it to sector 17 on my best playthrough, coming up just short of 40,000 points.

GAB rating: Good. I didn't love Beamrider at first. On first glance it just seemed simplistic, repetitive, and twitchy. But the more I played it and the further I got, the more I started to appreciate its deceptive depth. Doing well means recognizing and anticipating enemy patterns, thinking in split-seconds, even planning multiple moves ahead of time. There is a lot of randomness in the chaos that Beamrider throws at you, and dumb luck often makes the difference between facing an easy situation and an impossible one - I often found myself shouting "bullshit" at the screen when a bunch of bogeys fired an undodgeable battery at me nanoseconds after I moved into a corner in order to hit a target of opportunity - but the generosity of bonus lives balances things out. It's kind of like a Williams game in that regard. My only criticisms here are that movement controls can sometimes be unresponsive (especially when trying to move by tapping a direction immediately after blowing up a target), and that once you know what you're doing, the game doesn't get difficult, or interesting, until about eight sectors in, which takes too long for an arcade action game.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Ultima III: Won!

My party was strong, fully equipped, and all but ready to take on Exodus. Two tasks remained, both of them in the unexplored dungeons - to find the mark of snakes, and locate the Lord of Time.

A dungeon only accessible by moongate gave a promising clue by the entrance.

 

This dungeon is non-linear with multiple ladders going up and down on each level, but it's not especially difficult. There are traps, but not the insane clusters of them seen in Fires of Hell. Combat didn't even seem overbearing, though there was one time that I had two encounters in a row without even getting to move in between them.

Level 4 is basically the hub of this dungeon.

 

The ladder in the center goes up to a room full of gold, and down to another room full of gold. And the ladder in the lower-right corner goes all the way up to an otherwise unreachable part of level 1 with two secret fountains, or down to level 5, where you can keep going straight down all the way to level 8.

What the crap is that? Oh, it's the Time Lord in tile graphics.

Even though I've beaten Ultima III once before, long ago, I'm completely sure that I never found the Time Lord. I'm just not sure how I did it without having this clue - trial and error, perhaps? It was the Amiga version, and I don't remember spending that much time in the dungeons.

There were also some marks here, but nothing serpentine.

I went back up to level 5, from where I could take a different ladder down to 6.



This level, I think, well illustrates how Ultima III's design often clashes with its intent. Upon entering this floor, a message reads "Long march," and indeed there is a long, winding path from one ladder to another, but secret doors turn it into a short march instead. Mapping gems will reveal these secret doors outright, and I can't fathom a situation where you've discovered the Time Lord's dungeon and survived long enough to reach this floor but haven't discovered where to buy mapping gems or found lots of money for buying them yet.

Also, wouldn't this floor design be a perfect place to hide the mark of the snake? Alas, it isn't here.

Beyond, in level 7 and a previously unseen part of level 8, there wasn't not much except for treasure that I didn't need.

At an unnamed dungeon, also accessed by moongate,  I found the mark of the snake at the bottom. There was absolutely nothing interesting about this place except for having a high degree of multi-axis reflection symmetry.

 

One last unexplored dungeon warned me, "Welcome fools to your doom!!" I didn't bother going in any further. I had well past my fill of dungeon crawling, and I had all the marks.

I went to Lord British's to level up, heal, then replenished my food, bought lots of thief supplies, equipped my exotics, and sailed to Exodus's island, where yelling EVOCARE brought my ship to the other side of the serpent.

 

Fun Ultima III programming fact - after making a typo here and finding it worked anyway, I discovered that typing anything with seven letters that ends with "E" works. EEEEEEE works just as well as EVOCARE. Other commands like BRIBE and DIG are similarly just checking the length of the word and the last letter.


Right as you enter, the grass attacks.


It's a bunch of invisible enemies, but they're weak and have no special abilities. They were beaten simply enough by standing in a row and blindly attacking northward.

 

I proceeded north and entered the castle.

I should note here that while exploring this area, this ominous melody, not heard anywhere else in the game, plays in the background, provided you are emulating a Mockingboard. I haven't said much about Ultima III's soundtrack, but this is one of the earliest to have a proper one. Around this time and earlier, only arcade-style games had any music at all, and was usually at most a single loop for gameplay, sometimes with seconds-long ditties for context-sensitive events. Ultima III's soundtrack has ten songs, half of them are 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 minutes long - unprecedented for the time - which play during different parts of the game, and serve to evoke mood rather than just punctuate action. The earlier game I can think of with a similar approach would be Smurf Rescue, and that only had three songs, none lasting more than ten seconds.

Exodus' castle opens up into a huge, lava-filled courtyard. The demons and balrons are friendly, and even welcome you. "All may enter," they say when spoken to. Technically not true - only those with a ship, a mark of the snake, and who know the invocation may enter.

 

Northward goes to the prison, and to get in you'll have to kill some guards and also a party of terrified clerics who won't attack but do block your way, but it holds nothing of much interest. The chests here are mimics, the jellyfish-like monsters are garden variety pincers, and the humans just warn you to leave.

"Looking" reveals that this sprite means ranger. Why do I look like a ranger?
 

To proceed you must exit east or west from the courtyard to the battlements, where you'll face a gauntlet of dragons and daemons, who unfortunately aren't affected by time powders. In the interest of getting a complete map, I did both sides, at great cost to my health.

As it turns out, I was wrong to spend so much on thieves' tools. I should have bought lots of food instead. There are no doors worth unlocking, and time powders don't work here. Exodus's castle is full of lots of tough monsters, but they're not so tough when you cast Mass Kill on them. After losing my fighter in battle and retreating/refreshing, I tried again with a much more successful tactic of resting after each fight - simply waiting in place until my wizard's mana recharged completely, so I could cast Mass Kill right away as soon as the next fight started. The Cleric, when he didn't need to cure poison, was on heal duty - always basic heal, because greater heal costs five times the mana for only double the healing. I got hit with a few random fireballs while resting, but this was better than taking hits in combat.

Even with all this resting, my health trended downward. One, healing doesn't negate the damage done by the random fireballs, it only partly mitigates it. Two, Mass Kill often doesn't kill everything, and against dragons, who were the biggest damage dealers, it sometimes left as many as three of them alive. Three, I got mass poisoned by devils, and then the cleric had to use Cure Poison four times before he could go back to healing. And four, I made mistakes sometimes.

At the north end of the castle, there's one last force field and lava pit, and then the floor attacks!


It's just grass part deux, but there are four separate encounters in immediate sequence. The same tactics I used against the grass worked, and I got hit exactly once.

Finally, Exodus awaited, defenseless.


I inserted the cards, left to right, Love, Sol, Moons, and Death, as the Time Lord had instructed.


I have questions. Mondain and Minax built a computer... how? And what exactly was it doing this whole time? Why did it take twenty years to awaken - is it just a very slow computer? The game just ends abrubtly, and Exodus isn't really mentioned again until Ultima VII, and even then I don't really find its explanations of anything satisfactory.


GAB rating: Above Average. I have a lot of feelings about Ultima III. This is the first game in the series that really feels like an Ultima in retrospect. Where Ultima II tried and failed at becoming something grander than its predecessor, III mostly succeeds. The world is a bit smaller, with two main continents rather than five, but they're denser with more meaningful content, and there's no epic pointlessness like II's solar system full of planets you can explore but have no reason to. Everything serves a purpose - the towns, the dungeons, the mythical realm of Ambrosia. Ultima is at its best when you're exploring the world that Origin created and discovering its secrets, and that aspect is a joy here.

But Ultima III has some serious pacing problems that are almost enough to undermine that joy. It's not as bad as in II, where you can't even get started on the main quest until you've farmed lots of gold and started optimizing your character stats, but it's not great either. With the right party, you can accomplish a fair amount before upgrading any of your stats at all, but eventually you must, and if you can upgrade any of your stats, you can maximize all of your stats. And you might as well maximize as soon as you can - going through dungeons without a party that can steamroll the nonstop random encounters is a horribly tedious process. The fact of the matter is, for all of Ultima III's good points, there were very long stretches of my playthrough that felt like a chore.

I think part of the problem has a twofold cause - the game gives you a lot of control over your stats, and simultaneously lacks transparency on what your stats actually do. This manifests right from the moment you create a character - for every class, there's a single right way to assign the initial 50 points, a race that's obviously ideal in the long run, and an irrelevant sex choice. As you play, the relation between stats and your abilities isn't made very clear; strong characters seem to kill in fewer hits, but without even seeing numerical damage output, you can't be completely sure. By the time you have the ability to buy stat points and decide what they should be, you don't know what they need to be, and feel obligated to max them out. Or at least I did, but the fact that my maxed out party barely survived the final dungeon partly vindicates my caution.

Contrast this with Wizardry, a game whose influence Garriott acknowledged, which only gives you 10-19 or so bonus points to distribute to each character's initial stat sheet, and afterward grows or shrinks at random as they age and gain levels. Sure, you can farm Murphy's Ghosts for XP over and over again until you're overleveled, but XP and the stat benefits also accrue organically from just playing normally. The only thing that accrues naturally from playing Ultima III is your HP, which for whatever reason is governed by a completely different system than the one that governs character stats. This mechanical weirdness has been a part of Ultima since before the beginning, reached the nadir of clunkiness in II, and while III's works a lot better, it's still not a great system. Ultima I's rules, for all of their strangeness, are still the best in the trilogy in terms of making you get better at doing stuff as you play the game.

Others have noted the sociopathic amorality of your party as you rob, bribe, and kill without a thought for anyone else's well being. This, I can accept as contrivance of segregation of gameplay mechanics and storytelling, and it's become a trope unto itself by now. We know in retrospect that Ultima would move away from this - and it would feel pretty weird if the series continued in its direction of realism but never came to reckon with consequences for these actions - but other series taking after Ultima continued encouraging this ends-justifies-means behavior, whether it's Link smashing people's pottery and taking the loose change inside or the Dragon Warrior forcing a hapless axe knight to relive his violent death again, again, and again to power level himself.

Ultima III is a solid foundation not just for the series to come, but for almost all open world CRPGs to come, and I would dare say left a profound mark on the very concept of open video game worlds. In a series like Grand Theft Auto, where you can walk around town, discover hidden nooks and crannies, interact with the locals, and have a violently psychotic episode that cascades into an overwhelming police retaliation, you can see the seeds of that here. If Ultima III had flopped and bankrupted Origin Systems, the gaming world would be a very different place, and yet it would remain the most ambitious CRPG of its time, well worth studying for what it accomplished, and not just as a stepping stone to greater things.

 

My final map of Sosaria:


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