Saturday, June 28, 2008

Ultima: Exodus

Last night, after seeing a movie and not having anything to do, I played an old game I received in middle school. I remember the story behind how I got the game to be interesting, but I don't remember the exact details. I'll do my best: the year was probably 1997, I was in the 8th grade. Several other nerds played Ultima: Online, but I was still rocking the 56k, and didn't have a job to support a monthly-fee service nor a computer to run it on. I bought Ultima: Exodus because I wanted to play Ultima: Online, or at least become familiar with Ultima. Exodus isn't anything like Ultima: Online anyway. I paid a dollar for the cart, and a dollar for the kid's game genie. I still have both, and retrospectively continue to consider the trade an excellent decision.

The next day (after buying the game) I was sick. I was excited to skip school and play this new cart. I remember re-hooking my NES to the wood-paneled television in the living room and playing Ultima: Exodus for the first time. It reminded me of Dragon Warrior, for obvious reasons, yet with increased flexibility, race/class/gender/etc. which made creating a party fun and exciting. And I played the game all day, and promptly forgot about it (temporarily) soon after.

Ultima: Exodus is a 1987 NES port of Ultima 3, released on the Apple II in 1983. Exodus is one of the most influential games of all time, obviously inspiring both Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy. In turn, those games inspired others, and the console RPG genre evolved and produced some of the best games ever made. Ultima: Exodus is clearly of great historical importance, though oddly absent from RPG history articles (usually Dragon Warrior, released in 1986, is credited with starting the console RPG revolution).

Back to last night: the first thing I noticed was that the music wasn't just good... it was fucking awesome. Suprisingly, almost suspiciously, awesome.

When the player starts a game, they will immediately be assaulted with a barrage of character choices inevitably resulting in a major fuck up five hours into the game (although during the process of fucking up your characters, you will be treated to the best song in the game). Pick your race: human, dwarf, bobit (lol, hobbit is trademarked), elf, or fuzzy (wtf? my guess is that this is something like a pixie). Does the game tell you the inherent strengths and weaknesses of each race? Hell no. (You might be able to guess, but who would guess that bobit is the best race for both Paladins and Clerics?) Then, the player chooses a class: Alchemist (a crappy wizard), Barbarian (a crappy fighter), Druid (can cast wizard and cleric spells), Fighter (gets weapons, but is somewhat crippled without magic), Illusionist (crappy cleric), Lark (aka, Bard, analogous to a wizard-fighter, great class), Paladin (cleric-fighter, another great class), Cleric (hulz people and opens chests), Ranger (a Druid-fighter, pretty decent but suffers from "red mage syndrome"; he isn't the best at anything), Thief (can open chests), and Wizard (death to everything). All of these brief descriptions are also not available in the game, so the player originally has no understanding of the game mechanics. To complicate the process even more, you have to allot stat points. The formula I rely on is maxing Int or Wis, depending upon if the character is a Wizard-type (Intelligence) or a Cleric-type (Wisdom). Then I put 20 points into Dex, and dump the rest into Str.

Don't pick characters without magic, they just plain suck. Magic regenerates by walking, and it regenerates pretty quickly. There is no reason to take a thief, fighter, or barbarian (or an alchemist or illusionist). Thieves can open chests, but so can anyone with Cleric spells. You can level up to level 5 using two spells: Repel and Undead (wizard and cleric spells, respectively), which can clear an entire screen of level 1-5 monsters for ZERO Magic Points.

And that's before the game even begins...

The main part of the game involves grinding on monsters, gaining gold, experience, exploring 3-D dungeons, maxing stats, talking to townspeople...

Speaking of townspeople... some of them say some pretty strange things. I'll leave them for you to find, but they reference the developers and the game itself several times. Luckily, these 4th-wall-breaking townsfolk are rare, making the discovery even more enjoyable.

The combat is like a game of chess. You can see monster formations before battle, and touching a monster will initiate combat. In combat, characters and monster move on a grid, and take turns flinging fireballs and daggers at one another. Melee characters are forced to walk forward for a few rounds before attacking, which is one of the inherent flaws about a Barbarian or Fighter. Even if you pick one of these classes, you'll no doubt equip them with a bow, because ranged damage is far more deadly than melee attacks.

The game also incorporates a weird "vision" system. You can only see what your main character would be able to see, and other tiles are completely black. You can see into a building, but only if you are standing in front of the door. You can't see over some walls. It's somewhat unsettling, because half of the map continues to disappear from existence, phasing in and out as your characters travel across the land. It grated my nerves originally, but I've grown to appreciate the concept. It makes surprises all the more interesting... but it does limit your vision. 2-D games work because you have absolute knowledge of your surroundings, but you can't see more than a few feet from your character because his vision is bound by the edges of the screen or monitor. Ultima: Exodus limits this view to an extreme, and philosophically I feel betrayed because the social gaming contract implies that the player should have a limited(by the monitor), but absolute knowledge of the game.

One can easily dwell on Ultima's problems. The balance is non-existent, characters have to keep eating food (or they die), the player can't see anything, the game gives you little-to-no direction, it is difficult to locate shops and churches, and the menu system is cumbersome. Obviously, the developers where going for realism and attempted to create a Dungeons & Dragons world where the player had lots of freedom.

Which is what Ultima: Exodus really does well. It's an early example of a sandbox game, with the player free to explore whatever they can, whenever they can, and only the final castle (Castle Exodus) is locked with story coupons that you have to cash in to gain entrance, but are otherwise useless in the game.

The graphics are hit-or-miss for 1987 (the gameplay is identical to the Apple II version, but the audiovisuals were upgraded), and the sprites are generally awesome. All of the player characters look great, including 64x64 pixel full-body portraits, which add a nice touch. Monsters look monstrous, and eventually grow in size. The backgrounds would be nice, but the line-of-sight system really breaks down what would otherwise be artistically framed screenshots. As humans, we enjoy looking at simple shapes in paintings, movies, and video games. Ultima: Exodus is like having a nice painting made of squares, and removing some of the pieces. It hurts the artistic presentation, unfortunately.

Ultima: Exodus has been surpassed by its predecessors (specifically Final Fantasy 3 and Dragon Warrior 3), but it's highly addictive. The game has so many problems that, ultimately, most players will walk away after a few hours. That doesn't negate the possibility of a few hours of good, old fashioned fun.

Thinking positively, you can attack any townsfolk. Even guards. Even the King! It's this wicked freedom that makes Ultima: Exodus great. Our actions have consequences, however, and guards will do their best to kill you after slaying an innocent (they are very effective at their job).

A few more quirks are bothersome: when NPCs move, they instantly teleport from tile to tile. This was a carry-over from the 1983 version, but it would have been nice to update the movements for the NES release. Also, the NES can only support 5 sprites on a column at a time... and your caterpillar party consists of 4 would-be adventurers. Sprites will flicker, but one should be able to forgive this problem considering most NES games feature occasional sprite flickering.

Ultima: Exodus left a great legacy, and paved the way for other games. Its soundtrack is hauntingly spectacular, and everyone should listen to at least one theme from the game. I suggest King Britain's Theme, I've been listening to a midi of it while writing this article. Exodus has an interesting little world to explore, I've lost myself inside its 8-Bit code for hours at a time. I don't even attempt any quests. Kill monsters, explore the countryside, occasionally killing a townsperson and then getting killed by guards. Never progressing that far, never accomplishing any specific goals, just being a slacker and having fun.


Anonymous said...

nice post. sounds intriguing.

James Dziezynski said...

Ultima: Exodus is almost always in my top ten NES games list. It's an excellent RPG for the time and I think it set a higher console RPG standard than Dragon Warrior. It's a shame the dungeons are pretty much there for the first and 8th floors but it's still a good concept to mix in the game.

The Ambrosia music is so cool--creepy, bittersweet and eerie all in one.

Great game and probably the best version out there.

Black Crusher / Del Duio said...

I always have a thief as lead in my party. I found that doing so also helps him to avoid a lot of the traps that can spring out at you while walking in the dungeons.

And about that weird line of sight thing with the black blocks: All those old games that were worth their salt did the same thing. Otherwise it'd be too easy if you could see the enemy on the other side of a forest. Dragon Warrior did it a bit better by incorporating rooftops that fall away when you entered them.

Oh, my favorite 4th wall experience in this game by far is the guy who says "IT'S TOO LATE TO PLAY ULTIMA. GO TO BED!" or something like that. At the time, it was about 3am and it freaked me out (this was a long time ago haha).

You need to get into Quest of the Avatar, I thought it was much better than Exodus (The NES one at least).

Cult of Moo said...

How very, very odd. On literally the exact same day you posted this entry, I dusted off Ultima: Exodus for the first time in a decade and played it all day. (Right up until the point where I realized that maxing out my characters would cost me the rest of my summer.) Your review is spot-on: wonderful sandbox gameplay, but absolute lack of direction and many flaws--but still undoubtedly a great and vastly influential game. Just as long as you don't expect to get anywhere, heh. "Lord British" is one of my favorite songs, ever, I play it on my guitar (or any guitar that's handy, really) constantly. Love that song.

This does make me smile, because I really have no idea who you are, and yet we have this crazy similarity. Just goes to show you there's no such thing as coincidence. Kind of makes me believe in the Internet again.

Benjamin Fennell said...

This really reminds me that I need to spend some time with those old NES Ultima games again. I remember being enamored with them when my older brother rented them when I was a kid. I was still learning to read way back then in the late '80s, and could only pick up on bits and pieces of the writing, but I was completely enthralled with the games and fantasy adventures. (So I ended up into RPGs before I could even read to enjoy them.) These are games they really should bring to the Virtual Console sometime.

8bitcity said...

I started playing this game again. I still have my save file with Dorf and Tila and whatnot. I calculate I need 350 more battles at this point, to get 5000 gold a character.

Xyzzy Magic said...

Even though it's been 7 years since this post: a fuzzy was a bipedal simian around 3' tall with cat-like ears, relatively long fur, and incredible strength. The Ultima wiki "Fuzzies" page has pics from the original Ultima III: Exodus manual that give a better idea.

The line-of-sight visual method was used because our avatars were supposed to really represent/be us, rather than a character we controlled. The creators went to pretty great lengths to reinforce that idea with the computer versions: including a cloth map, some crucial item our avatar finds in the intro (an ankh, magic stone, etc.), manual & spellbooks written as if they were real guides and printed on parchment-like paper, stuff like that.

The whole Ultima series on computers had excellent music, by the way -- if you've played Ultima Online, you've heard some of it. :)