Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Ulysses and the Golden Fleece: Won!

Ulysses and the Golden Fleece is a cruel game, even by Sierra’s standards. I never found the King’s Quest series as egregious as its reputation suggests – sure, they will kill you for walking one pixel away from the bad edge of a staircase, and happily let you screw up your game by eating a crucial inventory item or nonlethally failing a required action and then let you continue playing an impossible scenario, but these were quickly remedied by reloading a recently-saved game, provided you always kept multiple save files as the manual strongly recommended.

But this game, I do find egregious. This was evident within the first few minutes of play, as I entered a store where I was allowed to buy exactly seven of their eight items. Game logic said that exactly one item was unneeded, and I would absolutely need the other seven, and the only way to reasonably find out would be trial and error, forcing a restart several hours in. Other spiteful acts included:
  • An alley that you must enter to find a coin, but if you enter while possessing treasure, a thief steals it
  • The worst maze-of-twisty-little-passages I’ve seen in my life, set in an ocean where breadcrumbing is impossible, landmarks are few and far between, and where you must sail off the critical path to locate an albatross who gives you a bag of diamonds, but must not stumble upon the seagull, who will just steal your entire inventory. Both birds are in completely arbitrary locations.
  • Numerous points of no return, which would be less of a problem if the parser weren’t so bad, but in Ulysses it’s nigh impossible to tell the difference between a red herring and an important point of interest which you just haven’t yet figured out the right combination of words to use.
  • Multiple MOTLP’s, some of which lie about their valid exits, making it necessary to try out every possible direction anyway.

I was stuck on a canyon, and for all I knew I was missing whatever item I needed to cross, and almost certainly had missed out on something critical to the game if not that, so I restarted with a walkthrough.

The first major point of divergence from my first playthrough was, unsurprisingly provisioning at the store. The red herring object was the lantern, which I had suspected was the case when I found I could navigate the cave in the Island of Storms without lighting it, but this is still a troll move by Bob & Ken. Maybe they wanted to be subversive by offering a lantern, the ubiquitous inventory item of the early adventure, and make it turn out to not be needed, but if this is a joke, I don’t think it’s funny. If you buy the lantern, you’ve already lost!

The next point of divergence happened soon afterward; you are supposed to bribe a guard with the gold coin found in the alley, in exchange for a map.

This makes absolutely no sense. There’s no indication that the guard has anything that you would want except passage onto a ship, and you don’t have to bribe him for that – you already have permission from the king! And why would I have to bribe him for a map? I’m on a royal quest – why wouldn’t the king just order him to give it to me? Maybe if the guard said something like “psst… do you have a cousin named Ganymede,” then the bribe would be a reasonable action.

The “map” is just a list of directions, which will take you from the hurricane near the start to the Island of Storms, but it’s still necessary to go off-course from it once and locate the albatross while avoiding the seagull.

On the island, in the south-east corner of the jungle, there’s a pile of dust found in hole in a tree which you must take.

No verbal clues, but you must type “LOOK HOLE” here.

The walkthrough soon converged at the great canyon with my original playthrough, and the solution to get across was to pluck the dead condor and use its feathers and my wax to make wings and fly across. From here, I continued playing unguided.

Past the canyon, down a one-way passage, I ran into Pluto.

Or maybe Dracula. Not sure.

The magic dust, thrown in his direction, drove him out of my way.

A few more rooms in, I ran into the other side of the firewall.

I couldn’t figure out what to do here. I had water from the spring, but drinking it didn’t help, the parser didn’t recognize “THROW WATER” or “EXTINGUISH FIRE” or several other attempts, and I couldn’t think of how my inventory items might help, so I consulted the guide.

It was a good thing I did, because I had missed an item.

This one was on me. I was in the zone, mapping the caverns, and completely missed that this rock was mentioned in the text, and therefore important. There were reins underneath, which turned out to be the whole reason for visiting the deep end of the cave.

But that didn’t help me leave, so I kept reading the solution, which is to pour wine on yourself and then walk through the fire while wet. But why? Is there a Greek myth where someone does that? I remember a version of the Odyssey where Odysseus used especially strong wine to make something MORE flammable, but not to pass through fire unsinged.

Anyway, I was reasonably sure I had explored every inch of the island, and within it I found a bridle, reins, a rock, and some spring water, which I figured must be the potion I came here for. I left the cave through the hole near the fire, departed the island, and sailed on to Neptune’s pass.

It took me a few tries to figure out what to do, but Neptune fell when I poured the potion into the ocean, clearing the way for me to sail north.

More horrible ocean MOTLP’s awaited beyond, though not quite as awful as the one at the start, and I estimate that in this stretch, one could stumble upon the path through without mapping. In some enchanted waters, a voice in the wind warned me to beware the sirens, and whispered “E-1 N-1;” simple directions which took me around their deadly island.

I did try seeing if I could resist them by stuffing my ears with the remainder of my wax, but was told the wax was too hard. The parser did recognize my attempts to tie myself to the mast, but this act alone didn’t accomplish anything, so I kept moving on.

Beyond the siren’s island, the ocean MOTLP got pretty convoluted, and to make things worse, a whirlpool would sometimes randomly jolt the ship to a new location. But the island lay to the north, and I landed after painstakingly finishing my map of the choppy waters.

More jungle awaited on the island, a medium-sized maze, but without any twisty passages. My crew followed, and started to grumble that I hadn’t fed them. On the west side, I found a tree that I couldn’t climb, but looking at it reveals the word “SVENEESAS” carved in the trunk. Northward, I found a cage guarded by harpies, but found no way to interact with either.

To the east, I found a cave, where the cyclops lived and kept sheep.

My sword had no effect on the cyclops, so I replayed out the scene in The Odyssey. I offered him wine, and he left to gather some grapes so that I could make more of it. As he left, I sharpened a branch with my sword. When he came back, I made him more wine, until he passed out drunk. Then I blinded him with the sharpened branch, after struggling a bit with the parser to type out the exact sequence of two-word commands it expected (and getting eaten whenever I typed anything else). We then made a fire with the flint and wood, then cooked and ate his sheep, and continued on.

The jungle beyond was more maze, made painful by a dwarf in one corner who would steal all of my items, and a “clearing” with a bunch of skeleton warriors.

One of us is in the wrong myth.

They followed, for a little while, and then attacked and killed us.

Stuck again, I consulted the walkthrough, from Neptune. Turns out you are supposed to visit the siren’s island, even though a voice of the ocean warns you not to. By typing “HOLD WAX,” it becomes soft enough to put in your crews’ ears, and then if you tie yourself to the mast, you can hear the song:


The guide told me to just open the cage on the island, but that didn’t work. I tried typing “SEVENSEAS,” and the harpies scattered, allowing me to open the cage and free the man inside, who gave me a magic mallet.

The walkthrough converged with my playthrough at the clearing with the skeletons. Here, you must say “ECEELF,” the word seen on the note at the beginning of the game, which unlocks the chest found in the forest at the beginning of the game. This doesn’t work anywhere else; only here.

Inside the chest was a magic sword, which cut down the skeletons where they stood, allowing me to continue my journey.

Past the clearing was an unclimbable cliff, which yielded to the magic word SUPPELTUEL.

Beyond was the Golden Fleece, draped on a thorny tree, and Pegasus!

Approaching the tree to take the fleece was deadly. But I broke Pegasus’ chains with my magic mallet, secured my bridle and reins on Pegasus, and rode over the lethal brambles.

I snagged the Fleece and flew home.

Why did I even bring you guys ashore? All you did was follow me and eat the Cyclops’ sheep.

Interesting that Cranston Manor made me a “Level 3 adventurer” and this made me a “Level 2 adventurer.” It implies a countdown to Sierra’s next adventure, the monstrous Time Zone, which would have already been in the planning phase by 1981, and grants you the “Ultimate adventurer” title when finished. Were they planning on making that their final adventure?

For my own curiosity, I just had to see what happens when you try “KILL KING.”

That happens.

I like mythology, and I think it makes for a great adventure game theme. The Odyssey itself is like an adventure game plot, with Odysseus sailing from one location to the next, defeating deadly foes with his wits, and with each chapter getting closer and closer to his destination. Ulysses and the Golden Fleece has a decent enough Hero’s Journey framework, starting out in your homeland, a call to adventure, and a journey to a fantastic island with one excursion along the way. The colorful graphics, the raison d'etre of this series, though not exactly high art, are a step up from previous efforts, and complement the mythological theme.

That said, I hate this game. Last month, I declared The Demon’s Forge to be the worst adventure game I’ve ever played in my life, but it’s hard to say whether this tops it or not. While the parser here isn’t nearly as bad, the excess of mazes makes mapping, a fairly pleasant exercise in The Demon’s Forge, a tedious slog. And even though Ulysses’ mazes are light on twisty little passages (that horrendous ocean maze notwithstanding), you don’t know that until the map is finished, and must check every single passage in both directions just in case. It’s just a massive load of obnoxious padding in a game that’s otherwise light on puzzles.

The puzzles themselves are just as obtuse and unsolvable as in The Demon’s Forge at its worst, and the design far more spiteful, which manifested from the very first area with its store that will sell you a worthless lantern of all things. The game features no fewer than three puzzles solved by saying magic words at completely arbitrary points, three screens where your items can just get outright stolen (two in mazes where you’re probably trying to hit every screen), and several points of no return, where it is easy to have screwed yourself over by not finding an obscure item previously.

A Scott Adams-style interface which unambiguously told you which exits were viable and which objects you could interact with would have improved this game immeasurably, but wouldn’t have quite elevated it to “good” status, as none of the puzzles are particularly inspired. It just would have been significantly less annoying to plod through.

Needless to say, my GAB rating is Bad.

Time Zone would be Sierra’s next adventure on the Apple II, but I won’t bother playing it, as it falls short of whale status. For what it’s worth, I had played it some years ago, sometime in the 2000’s, but I don’t remember much about it, except that I was impressed by its massive size, and enjoyed the endgame sequence on the planet Neburon in the year 4082 A.D. But I’m sure I spent quite a bit of the playthrough just following a walkthrough too; something I’d be a lot more adverse to nowadays, and can’t help but wonder if I made an earnest effort to play now, if I wouldn’t hate it even more than I hated Ulysses. For now, though, there are hundreds of games I’m actually looking forward to playing, so I’d rather focus on those.

My Trizbort map:


  1. I'm glad you are open to documenting these old adventures! We had one about pirates on our old TI99/4A and I made little progress on it as a ten year old!

    For those who are interested in Timezone, the Digital Antiquarian has a series on it:

    It was a flop apparently. Hope I don't overstep my bounds in posting that link there Ahab! Between you and the Antiquarian and the Addict I am a happy camper!

    1. By all means, feel free to share anything that you find relevant or interesting.

      Antiquarian said at one point that Time Zone was a strong candidate for his most hated adventure of all time. Interesting that much of his complaints about it were also issues I had with Ulysses - the large and empty regions, the puzzling distinction between objects you can and can't interact with, and to a lesser extent (for Time Zone) the unmotivated actions.

  2. I think the magic word on the chest would have been kosher had it not worked until arriving on the island of the Golden Fleece -- that you had to get "close to the magic" somehow. But having it only work at the exact room you needed to use the item inside made it come off as a cheap puzzle rather than a narrative device.

    I'm happy to declare that this game is worse than Demon's Forge.

  3. I played the Hi-Res Adventures about 10, 15 years ago, and in fact, this was my favourite. (I didn't play Timezone because I couldn't find any copy that wasn't broken.) But I must have played it with a walkthrough, because I never had the patience for those stupid mazes, battling with the stupid parser, or solving all these illogical puzzles.

    I guess I just liked the childish naivity of the graphics and the whole mythological setting. But after reading your walkthrough, I think I can agree to your verdict (for all that it matters :).

    By the way, my favourite scene from the Homer's Odyssey is when the cyclops asks Odysseus his name and he answers with "Nobody". Later, when the cyclops is blinded and screaming, the other cyclopses come running to the closed-off cave and ask what's wrong, and when the cyclops answers "Nobody has blinded me!", they just shrug their shoulders, say "All's well then" and go off. This made me LOL even 2000 years later, reminded me of Monty Python.

    And wouldn't that make a great puzzle, too? Missed opportunity.

    1. Nobody could beat this game without a walkthrough :)

      I remember when I did play Time Zone, using disk images from the Roberta Williams Collection, it only worked right with a really old version of AppleWin. With then-current AppleWin versions (around 2004 or so?) it would freeze at a certain point. South America 1000 AD IIRC. The WOZ versions probably work fine on current versions.

  4. Yeah, it was the same for me. Just some mid-game freeze that I couldn't work aroud.

    It's great that the retrogaming community puts so much effort into making these old games available and working.

    Well, the Hi-Res Adventure definitively are pretty high on my "to-crack" list, so I may revisit them one of these days.


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