Ages ago, I played through the Ultima games through the EA CD-ROM collection, and at the time found Ultima II to be a much worse game than its predecessor. This, I would eventually realize, was not a fair comparison, as I had been playing the DOS versions rather than the Apple II originals. Ultima I in particular was not representative of what was available in 1981; the original had never been ported to DOS. What I had played was a port of the much more polished 1986 remake, and as such, playing it back-to-back with a sequel four years older than itself was certain to skew my perception of the series’ natural progress – Ultima II felt less polished and less well designed than the original’s newer remake, whose qualities I may have incorrectly attributed to the original game. In turn I had overlooked the technological advances made by the sequel, as these had carried over to the remake, and did not seem like improvements.
Last year, I partly rectified this by playing the original Apple II version of Ultima, and found it to be better balanced than its too-easy remake, but also hideously slow, frustratingly inconsistent with its interface quirks, and overall not very much fun to play.
Now, I am replaying Ultima II, only this time I am playing its original Apple II version rather than its contemporary DOS port. I don’t expect this purism should make as much of a difference as it did when playing the first game, but at the very least should ensure I will experience its aesthetic and interface as Richard Garriott intended. At the moment, there is no WOZ copy of Ultima II. Asimov has a “4am crack” distribution of a 1989 re-release, but I want to be as 1982 authentic as I can, and am using a clean-looking cracked copy of the original release, distinguishable from the 1989 re-release by a lack of blue border and by using the stock Apple II all-uppercase font.
Ultima II was published by Sierra On-Line, and came with a bigger production budget than the first one. Perusing scans at MOCAGH, I found myself staring at the box reverse for way longer than I should have.
First of all, that castle looks awfully similar to the one on the boxed release of The Wizard of the Princess. Was Sierra attempting to make a canon crossover? Were they just lazy? Who knows?
Secondly, the list of things you can do “only in the arena of Ultima II” is incredible. Seize ships, hijack airplanes? Burglarize merchants and clash with innocent bystanders? I know we’re three games away from becoming the Avatar, but holy shit guys, this is starting to sound like Grand Theft Auto. Then there’s “slay vicious creatures” which is most assuredly not something you can only do in Ultima II. And I think I’d rather not be accosted in a dark alley or be pursued by KGB agents, thanks!
There’s a cloth map, the first in a trademark of the series, and allegedly Sierra's willingness to manufacture these was the chief reason why Garriott left California Pacific for them.
This is also the first appearance of the Ultima runic alphabet, which I found a huge pain to read in the games that used it, mainly because of the A’s that look like F’s and the E’s that look like M’s. The lines bouncing around the map are the time gate paths, and the symbols represent time periods – left is departure, right is destination, although the geography is drastically altered in some time zones (and the Ankh represents another plane).
The manual isn’t quite up to par with Wizardry’s, but does show more professionalism than the first one, and has plenty of dry humor. Before covering any gameplay or lore, there are disk copying instructions, and it presses the point hard and repeatedly that you must make a backup copy of your player disk, and only of your player disk, because should you play using the master copy and get your character killed, that’s it, your disk is hosed. That’s less of a dire issue today where we can just re-download the disk images, but it’s easier still to keep our own backup copy.
The plot appears near the end of the manual, narrated by Lord British in character, and tells of Minax, the incredibly powerful apprentice/lover to Mondain, her rise to power after his fall, and the near-destruction of earth by nuclear war in 2111 AD, which she had instigated through her dark influence. You play a survivor of this holocaust, urged by a council of scientists led by Lord British to explore time and space through “time doors” that had opened with the death of Mondain, and to remove Minax’s influence from time in the hopes that this will reverse the effects of her evil from history.
There are already some serious continuity problems here. The backstory is told by Lord British, who knows of Mondain’s fall (and suggests you are his vanquisher). But we traveled back in time 1000 years to destroy him and his immortality gem – that should undo a thousand years of his tyranny and unless Lord British himself is also over a thousand years old (does he have an immortality gem too?), then he should be describing this as a historical event.
If we just ignore the fact that time travel was in the first game (and the backstory, after all, makes no mention of this), that places the events of Ultima some time prior to the year 2111 AD, but within living memory of it. This isn’t too hard to digest; Ultima was already a bizarre hodgepodge of fantasy and sci-fi tropes, we’re rescuing princesses from castles’ dungeons one moment and making a getaway by flying car the next, so it’s just as conceivable that Ultima is set in the future as that it’s set in the past. Then again, maybe we traveled back in time to the late 21st century, and the Lord British from Ultima is immortal or a descendant. Or perhaps by travelling back in time, we caused a split timestream in history, further split by Minax’s own meddling, which converges back at the moment of our original time travel in a chaotic fashion. Lord British does imply that messing with history will mean that things will be different on your return to the present, and nobody will remember how things were except for you.
I'm not even trying to accommodate future Ultimas, which make it canon that Sosaria – the setting of the first game – and earth – the setting of the second – exist in different dimensional planes, that time passes differently in each, and that the Avatar and Lord British are both originally from earth.
Moving on, rifts in time opened by the death of Mondain connect five time periods together –
- Legends, a time before time, where the enchantress Minax has taken refuge and her evil schemes affect all of history to follow
- Pangaea, a time before the continents shifted, though inexplicably human civilization exists at this point already
- B.C., representing the dawn of human civilization as mainstream historians understand it
- A.D., representing the near future of 1990, vaguely described as run-down and crime-ridden
- Aftermath, a time after an apocalyptic war, presumably the time from which we came from
Moving on to the commands section to glean details on Ultima II’s gameplay, things are mostly the same as before, but with a few additions, making every letter of the alphabet used for something. Hyperspace returns, for when you inevitably get ahold of an FTL space ship. Ignite consumes a torch, which weren’t needed before. Negate and View activate magical items when possessed, for time freezing and map-viewing, respectively. Finally, Jump and Yell aren’t useful for anything except expressing frustration with the game (really!).
Magic is reworked – only clerics and wizards may cast spells at all now, with Light and Ladder spells available to both, Passwall, Surface, and Prayer (cryptically described as “results simulate reality”) available to clerics, and Magic Missile, Blink, and Kill available to wizards.
Character stats and creation are described next, with some unusual pop culture references thrown in (“Annie Oakley must have had ninety agility points; Fat Irving might have had ten”). Race, class, and gender affect your stats, and there’s an interesting apology regarding that last point.
Apparently, being male also affects a person’s judgment about what it means to be female; but this is Lord British’s universe, and he willed, in a fit of triteness, that the significance of being female is having a pretty face and a bubbling personality: up ten charisma. Ho hum.
Starting off, there’s a looping intro with an animated dragon – could Garriott have felt one-upped by Wizardry’s animated title screen?
I went in knowing that the original release has a bug which prevents raising strength, so I built my character around maximizing while still allowing myself spells. This meant putting 40 points into strength, being a male dwarf for another 10 strength points. I decided to be a cleric as the exclusive spells just seemed more useful than the wizards’.
The manual’s notes on stat adjustments are actually not correct; here are the proper values:
Male: +5 Strength
Female: +10 Charisma
Human: +5 Intelligence
Elf: +5 Agility
Dwarf: +5 Strength
Hobbit: +10 Wisdom
Cleric: +10 Wisdom
Fighter: +15 Strength
Wizard: +10 Intelligence
Thief: +10 Agility
And off we go, lost in time and space yet again!
Starting off, I had no weapons, no armor, no spells, and no sense of time or place except for being on the US-Canadian border and far from any signs of civilization. I wandered northwest, and found a land bridge to Europe, where an accessible town could be seen in approximately where Italy would be.
There were already two evident improvements over the first game. First, movement is longer slow as molasses, as the entire engine had been recoded in assembly language. Walking around doesn’t send me reaching for the CPU overclock controls. Second, monsters appear in the overworld and wander around. In the original, each step had a random chance of making a monster appear right next to you, and you would have to either fight it or run away, either of which would make it disappear completely. Both of Ultima II's improvements carried over into the Ultima I remake, and would have been lost on me when I played the DOS port of II.
Entering town, there’s another big change – towns are no longer identical single-screen locations, but are explorable areas of their own, and are distinct from one another.
Linda had a bunch of NPC walking around who would just repeat stock phrases and lame jokes. I found a transport store where I bought a horse, an armor store where I bought some chain mail, and a weapons store full of fighters, where I bought a bow and arrows, only to be told I couldn’t use them with my low agility. So I bought a cheap dagger, which I could equip just fine. I looked for a food store, but couldn’t find one, ironically consuming quite a bit of food in the process. Some merchants offered to sell me apples, but I couldn’t find a way to buy them, and just assumed this to be another generic NPC response.
After exiting Linda, I explored a bit and fought some monsters, but couldn’t find anything else meaningful in Europe. I saw a time gate open up, so with nowhere else to go as far as I could tell, I went in.
I had arrived in Minax’s realm! And obviously completely unprepared for it.
|No resurrection this time|