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:


8 comments:

  1. I wonder why they would code the game that way (re: EVOCARE). Did it have something to do with difficulty of doing string comparisons in whatever language they were using, or did they just want to make it so a typo didn't ruin your experience?

    I first played this game on the NES; a friend owned it but we never figured out how to get very far.

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    1. My guess is the ease of programming 6502 assembly and also saving memory. With exact string matching you would need a dictionary of verbs in RAM at all times, but with this approach each "word" only has to be two bytes.

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  2. An excellent series of articles as always. I, too, had this on the NES, and basically never got much of anywhere.

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    1. Yes! Enjoyed seeing one of the early ones from my own timestream!

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  3. I think I mentioned earlier in your series that Ultima III was basically the first real CRPG I completed... previously I had played a ton of Tunnels of Doom on my TI, but was basically a neophyte at CRPGs till then. I played the IBM conversion when it came out in 1987 and finished in 1988. I haven't seen most of those screenshots in 33 years!

    I've read a good deal about the Ultima series over the year, and often Akalabeth, Ultima I, and Ultima II are mentioned as Garriot developing the programming skills to give us the Ultima III to VII Part 2 run that was the golden age of the series.

    But... in reference to your comments about the pacing of the game... and the limited interactions of the game... I've always felt III was really more the final learning effort before we saw the mature efforts and development of the later titles.

    None the less... enjoyed your recent blog series on III and the good memories it brought back!

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  4. Oh yeah... I played Ultima III with good ole CGA graphics... yech!

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    1. FWIW, it looks better in composite. There's also an upgrade patch by Voyager Dragon that includes a graphics mode that simulates the 16-color CGA composite look, but without the slightly fuzzy look that comes with actual composite graphics.

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    2. I think I loaded up an upgraded version for a few hours maybe 4-5 years ago that was in EGA or VGA. Primitive, but anything beats CGA. I had forgotten about even playing around with it until you mentioned the composite option.

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