Monday, April 21, 2014

Game 23: Double Dungeons (TG-16) - Speedrun the Game, As Is

Unexpected situations in games and software occur due to the complexity of different rules interacting in real time. Some go unnoticed. Some are innocuous graphical artifacts. Some cause an unrecoverable state. I'm talking about glitches of course. In speedrunning, the community largely accepts glitches as part of the game. Take a game, as is, and beat it as fast as possible. Who cares if pressing jump on the exact frame that Mario's foot touches the sixteenth pixel of a wall tile causes him to jump in mid-air? Take it, and use it.
Most useless feature goes to inns... better off gaining a level and saving up for a refresh to use on the boss
Now not everyone is as accepting of glitches. I understand some of the arguments against it. Some may feel it cheapens the experience since the game wasn't played and beaten using the same method most people use. It's taking advantage of a mechanic not normally obvious; however, it isn't outright cheating either. The ability to cause a glitch is there for everyone. It's not a game genie code, it's not altering the game in any way, but I think we can all agree it's probably not intentional. Intentional or not though, it's there... it's in the game. There are some who prefer to run games with restrictions: pacifist (minimal or no attacking), low% (no collecting power-ups), and even glitchless (refrain from obvious glitches). Whatever your preference there's an opportunity to speedrun a game.
Any idea what a Zagnal is?
Why do I bring this up now when I promised a bit on routing first? Well, glitches have a lot to do with speedrunning, but beyond that I found a glitch. Yes, even in a game as simple as a first-person grid based dungeon crawler there are glitches. I have a hard time explaining why this glitch works, but take a look at the video for a quick example of getting it on my first try.

So, here's how I (try to) reproduce it:
  1. Face an enemy and hold forward as if to move through them.
  2. Shift left and right while still holding forward resting for a moment facing the enemy.
  3. ???
  4. (Profit) Randomly clip through the enemy.
Normally enemies are a barrier to movement. An obstacle to overcome, one which prevents the player from progressing too far into the dungeon. Passing an enemy more often than not doesn't have much benefit as the next enemy is just as strong. There are times though a single powerful enemy is guarding a store or treasure, and it's beneficial to spend the 0 - 20 seconds it normally takes to trigger this glitch and progress quicker.
I tried capturing the glitch in screenshots... here's how the wolf normally looks
Finding glitches happens in two ways: either by stumbling upon them through normal game playing (seems to happen most often when trying to do things quickly), or by applying known programming defects (overflow, underflow, clipping near polygon edges, causing intentional lag). The speedrunning community thrives on the drive to push games to their limits, and an openness to share that knowledge empowers the community to contribute. If everyone kept glitches they found to themselves, they'd more or less be playing by a different set of rules. It's the ability for everyone to play at the same level that keeps things interesting.
The last frame we see the wolf as I pass through him and into his square
I hope someone will come along to explain how this glitch actually works, but the first step is to expose it. Seems I'm the first to stumble upon it, or at least acknowledge it online. I tested on a TG-16 emulator, and the glitch appears to occur in the original version of the game (I'm playing on the Wii Virtual Console). I'm not sure knowing exactly how it works will allow anyone to make it happen more often, but it's probably better than not knowing. Anyway, on to the dungeons.

Dungeon 4 - Current Best: 17:15
The longest of the early levels, this one is a pain to get a good time on. I'd thought this would be easy what with 3k gold in chests, but it's all hiding behind poison toads. They are terribly long to kill even with a long sword at level 8 or 9. Add on to that the fact that the boss is the most difficult of the level 1 dungeons (the dungeons are separated into 6 levels: 1-8, 9-14, 15-18, 19-20, 21, and 22). Even at level 12 I still had difficulty and needed 3 refreshes.
About to die this time
Dungeon 5 -  Current Best: 5:50
This level, so fast. This is probably the first level I'm really going to dive into and optimize. Introduced on this level are the invisible men. They're stupidly weak, easily defeated at level 1 with basic equipment, but give 16 experience and 20 gold. By far the best deal. I grind through the level, pick up a star jewel (sells for 200 gold) and purchase the best equipment plus a refresh. In no time I'm level 8, and raise to level 9 just outside the boss door. I may even try to get through this one at level 8. It's strange that the boss shares the same name and sprite as a normal sorcerer.
Once again, thanks to nirexine for the original. Additions noted in red (Source: GameFAQs)
Dungeon 6 -  Current Best: 9:45
This dungeon is where things really start to get interesting. No longer is there a good area for grinding. Instead the monsters are all mixed up. Imps and mummies standing next to slimes and skeletons. It's a bit touch and go initially. As soon as I grind to level 5 I can hit up the iron heads, buy the long sword, and clean up the tarantulas. Something a bit strange about this level, a couple of the iron heads actually respawn. Normally there are enemies which don't respawn at all, and in all previous levels (including a select few on this one) iron heads are one of those creatures. By level 11 I should have enough to purchase a refresh and take on the boss. I feel like I can tighten my path a lot on this level.
So far bosses have very generic names
Dungeon 7 -  Current Best: 11:20
There's a balance here, as in most dungeons, but here especially. I can potentially take on skeletons as early as level 4. I mean I can eventually defeat them. It's not until level 5 though that I tend to do so within a couple blows. Same with goblins and queen ants, both are encountered often in the early parts of the dungeons. Taking this further, the sylvan wolves and guarders here are potentially taken out at level 8 or 9, but to do so takes more time than I believe it's worth. I haven't tested, but if I can knock a full minute off the above time it'll tell me I should definitely put my focus on the quick kills rather than the larger payoffs. This is where routing optimization really comes into play. I have a general plan, which works, but is far from the best. It all comes down to timing each fight.
Testing the waters in a new dungeon
Dungeon 8 -  Current Best: 8:50
This is one of the riskiest levels. I dislike spending time grinding on lowly death spiders when sorcerers and king spiders (just as easily killed) offer much better rewards. I take my chances early on by taking out two goblins at level 4. I could potentially wait until level 5, have a much easier time (a guaranteed success), but this isn't about playing it safe; it's about grinding up as quickly as possible. Now does grinding to 5 get me through the goblins faster? That's a question I'll have to answer when I get back to this level. The time above includes one use of the glitch. The falcons on this level are a bit difficult, and have a high potential to hurt me even as I'm ready to face off with the boss. Knowing that, I've been taking my chances with a late glitch through one bird right before the boss door, and a couple attempts at the necromancer before hand (he doesn't hurt as much, but takes just as long to defeat).
Each boss begins with a taunt
Dungeon 9 -  Current Best: 18:00
Welcome to level 2 dungeons, we've increased the dungeon sizes threefold as well as boss strength. To give you an idea of the size (and also due to a couple corrections) here's the map for dungeon 9.
Red X's mark where I removed a square, and white boxes are where I needed to add one (Source: GameFAQs)
There are now two stores to assist with the greater need for upgraded strength. Unfortunately I don't have time to grind for the best equipment. I settle for the best sword, and pick up the wooden armor when I can. Due to that I'm probably pushing it as I take the boss on at level 17 and use up all 3 of my healing items (actually I've managed to pick up a fourth from a random troll drop). As I optimize this a bit more I'm going to explore buying the second most powerful sword instead and some better armor. Seems I might get away with a few less refreshes that way. We'll have to see how that goes.
The mighty Kraken... strangely when I looked back at the video my HP didn't decrease with this message (another glitch?)
Dungeon 10 -  Current Best: 18:00
This dungeon is another where the glitch comes in very handy. There's a sylvan wolf that blocks the best store. It's the same one displayed in the screenshot where I try to capture the glitch in still screens. Normally it'd take all my HP at level 9 to bust through, but with 800 gold in hand I glitch through at level 8. At this level with the bastard sword and stone armor (really? stone?), I can easily take out the two in my path. Strangely the imps on this level respawn, unlike other levels, so I can grind quickly on the 100 exp encounters once I hit level 9 or 10. The boss is another tough one.A full 4 refreshes are needed at level 17. Also, don't let the map at GameFAQs fool you, the item marked as Berserker is just beef (a 20 HP healing item).
Our first hint at a semi-coherent story
Dungeon 11 -  Current Best: 13:15
Strange, but this boss is much easier than the previous two. I get to spend less time grinding due to five iron heads all in a row. Thanks to a 1k gold chest I glitch through a ghoul and mummy early to pick up the strong sword. This thing is a hot knife to the buttery goodness that are iron heads and hobgoblins. By the time I can get through the gremlins (level 13 minimum realistically, although 12 might work) I'm rushing for the key and then the boss... too bad they were put on opposite ends of the map. If only there were a glitch to move through the walls (I've tried, hasn't worked yet).
Looks like only one face to me
Dungeon 12 -  Current Best: 16:45
There are two useable items that increase attack (speed ring) and defense (defender). The difference in power is quite noticeable at low levels. Thankfully there is one of each early in the dungeon floor. One alone allows me to take out the goblins at level 4 instead of 5. I discovered a purchase of a long sword (instead of saving everything for the strong sword) allows me to break through early to the point past the death crows (marked in blue with white letters on the map).
A small addition that matters little for the route. (Source: GameFAQs)
Now, the warrior armor is more powerful than any I can purchase from the store, so I forgo all protection. Strangely, and unlike all previous levels, the boss requires no healing items at level 17. It seems the added protection from the new armor proves invaluable. I skip getting the refresh and focus on affording the strong sword. I forgot about selling the long sword, so I ended up grinding out an additional 100 gold. Managing gold just when I need it is another area of optimization I hope to bring to the route. Thinking on it now, it might be worth getting the refresh and selling it to save another 150.
So, this is all happening in one kingdom? That is strange
Dungeon 13 -  Current Best: 14:00
Oh my, the possibilities here. I believe getting an early long sword as soon as possible is necessary for the speed of the run. When I first looked at the map I picked up the 3k gold chest, bought the strong sword and silwer armor (sic), and headed off to grind for the boss. That may still be the best way, but this current time considers another route. I raced over to get the dragon armor, both the 2k and 3k gold chests, and grinded up another 1k by the time I reached the second shop. There I bought an earth shaker for 6k. There are useable attack items, and as far as I can tell, they all have unlimited uses. The earth shaker makes the boss and all other enemies ridiculously easy.  I take out the boss as early as level 13 (I think the dragon armor protects me from most of the attacks).
It's hard to judge attack strength when the game hides a few damage rolls like this
Dungeon 14 - Current Best: 9:00
The last of the level 2 dungeons seemed like a good place to stop for this post. This again has another use for the glitch. I use it to quickly get 300 gold from behind a gremlin. Due to the placement (not right next to the monster) I need to have success with the glitch twice. I may seek an alternative way, but getting through the shamans and death flies takes some time without it. Speaking of which, the latter guards a 5k gold chest that I use to buy a 4k Gradius (sic) and a full assortment of refreshes. The Bloody Armor is also nearby, which offers superior protection. Level 14 seems to be the minimum, but I may try to time level 13. Still, with the imps, the difference between the levels is very little. May even be faster to go to 15 before the boss.
Maybe I should just throw all my gold at Durahan instead? I have enough of it

At least the next set of dungeons don't triple in size again (not 'til dungeon 19 at least). I touched a bit on optimizing here, and I'll give a bit more focus on that and routing in my next post. I figure that and a won post will follow quickly. I'm looking forward to wrapping up the gaming year, so I've been going through a dungeons speedrun route only once before moving on. It'll probably take the rest of the year or longer to finally get a full speedrun of the game to an acceptable level. Once that happens I'll submit it to Speed Demos Archive, at which point anyone can come along and improve individual levels. Because it's a first submission, all levels need to be submitted at once this time. I hope I haven't bored anyone yet, but I probably have. Stick around though, this one is over soon.

Elapsed Time: 7h40m (Total Time: 10h15m)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Game 23: Double Dungeons (TG-16) - Speedrun Planning

Game 23

TitleDouble Dungeons
ReleasedDec. 1990 (Sep. 1989 JP)
GenreRPG (dungeon crawl)
Exploration - First-person
Combat - Active turns
Series - Standalone

I imagine this game came about from a short description of a dungeon crawler boiled down to a one-line pitch. Maybe less. You explore a dungeon, level your character, buy equipment, and fight enemies. Done. Ship it. Actually, you explore 22 dungeon scenarios, all using this same formula. Variation? Who needs that? For those curious, and because I did the math, the game scores a 10 or 11 (depending on how generous I'm feeling) out of 19 on my "is it an RPG" scale. Just over the line, so let's do this.
Only dungeon 22 requires a password to enter
Before we do though, there are a couple of things I'd like to disclose up front. First, I've broken one of my rules, and I'm using someone else's maps. The game is dreadfully boring as it is, and I'd rather not inflict the tedium on myself or others by spending time making my own maps. I will however, verify the maps and make corrections as I find them. In cases where I've corrected something I'll post the corrected version. Second, I'm not going to do a play-by-play of my play sessions because I'm playing this one a bit differently. In case the title hadn't clued you in already, I'm going to create a speedrun for all 22 dungeons. The dungeons are as separate as can be: nothing carries over, all are book-ended by a short prose, and the game resets after every dungeon to the title screen.
Each dungeon has a short reason for the warrior entering
Now, for those looking for a more genuine first time experience, please check out Shen Nung's playthrough. He does an excellent job encapsulating the feel of the game in its simplicity with concise prose. His thoughts echo my own during my first time with the game back when I first started this project (nearly 3 years ago). It was a dark time of choosing games at random, and calling a short two line update a blog post. Even though I deleted the posts, I left the Double Dungeons videos on my YouTube for the curious. I locked down the other game videos though because of music copyright claims... I no longer post full game videos on YouTube (no one really commented on them anyway).
Beginning a Speedrun
The first step in any speedrun is to play the game. Become intimately familiar with the mechanics so that if any problems come up adapting to the current situation becomes second nature. This means playing the game a lot. In the case of Double Dungeons I've already run through the first three dungeons multiple times, and completed the entire game once.

Each dungeon begins the same way, start at level 1 with a dagger and pan lid, grind on low level enemies until I can purchase the best weapon in the shop (so far a long sword), continue to grind until I can afford the best armor (wooden armor currently), and lastly attack the boss (might require healing items). Sounds simple enough, right? Right. There really isn't anything difficult about this game.
Must be an RPG, there's a slime right there
Monsters stand in static locations, and only attack while you're facing them. Normally combat follows a trade of blows, but if you stand still long enough the enemy will get a free attack. Once an enemy is defeated the space it occupied remains free to pass through for a short period of time. How short is determined by... something.

I haven't quite figured this part out yet, and if I could, then I would definitely increase my chances of optimizing a speedrun closer to the second. As it stands I've noted the respawn times can range from 11 - 29 seconds, except for those monsters that never respawn. Since I can't depend on enemies always being around I've decided on a hunting path that takes me through multiple enemies in a short amount of time. As an example, here are the first three dungeons.
Random suggestions by the game
Dungeon 1 - Goal: 9 minutes
Each time I start a new dungeon I list out the monsters, how much exp and gold they give, and at what level I can competently dispatch them. As an example here are the monsters for the first dungeon:

Green Slime - 2/1 - L1 (1)
Killer Bee - 4/4 - L1 (2 - 4)
Death Spider - 6/6 - L2 (3 - 6)
Sorcerer - 14/8 - L3 (6)
Skeleton - 8/10 - L4 (10)
Giant Leech - 10/6 - ??
Marsh Snake - 32/24 - L7 w/ LS (70)
Hawk - 17/16 - L7 w/ LS (30 - 40)

This notation allows me to quickly glance at what monsters I should take on when, and quickly add up the gold I'd get from clearing out a specific section a number of times. The #/# is experience and gold, and the L# is the base level I tested and following that the weapon or armor I had equipped. The last value is the average HP I can expect to lose. This last value goes down dramatically with more levels, and only somewhat with better equipment. Something I've considered adding to this list is the average time it takes to kill the monster. It's possible killing more slimes, bees, and spiders will make skeletons obsolete since it takes longer to kill it even at level 5.
Purchasing the wooden armor; equipment doesn't take item slots
Early in the level I can manage to reach a sorcerer, and can take him out as low as level 3. Most monsters in the first area give 4 or 6 exp, but the sorcerer is worth 14. I quickly raise to level 4 and add in a skeleton for a bit of extra gold. The skeleton drops 10 gold as opposed to the sorcerer's 8. My aim in the beginning is to collect enough to afford the long sword. Once I have the sword I'm usually at level 7 and able to take on one marsh snake. This is a tough fight, taking about half my HP; however, the experience and gold rewards are well worth the effort (plus there's one guarding the path to the boss).

HP is refilled at every level up (strangely calculated before max HP is increased), and it's one of the keys to continuing a good run. There are limited healing items, and a stay at the inn costs 100 gold (too much for the 400 - 600 I expect to get throughout a dungeon). At this early stage in the game only level ups are reliable for healing. There are also random items dropped from monsters like a healing potion (40 - 60 HP) or apples (5 HP), which typically help to offset some of the riskier fights.
The missing treasure is actually a mimic!
With the snake out of the way I'm able to fight more skeletons, a giant leech, and take out a hawk in the way of the final boss door. By the time I make it there and back to the shop I should have enough for the best armor. Levels tend to offer better increases than equipment, but take longer to acquire. With the best sword and armor I've found I can take the boss out at level 9 with the help of a full heal item found in a chest (called a refresher). Bosses are behind locked doors, and finding the keys while not too difficult is something to keep in mind as the dungeons become more complex. I currently have a good run of this clocking in at just about 9 minutes. I'll probably aim for less than 9 minutes as a nice rounded goal.
At the end of each scenario you get one part of the password for dungeon 22
I like my interpretation better
Dungeon 2 - Goal: 10 minutes
Dungeons often share a number of monster types. Green slimes, killer bees, death spiders, sorcerers, and skeletons appear again and again. Their stats remain the same. New to dungeon 2 are the following:

Goblin - 5/5 - L4 (10 - 20)
Killer Ant - equivalent to a Killer Bee
King Spider - 12/8 - L3 (4 - 6)
Iron Head - 24/40 - L5 (10 - 20)
Death Crow - 19/38 - L6 w/ LS (20 - 40)
Guarder - 36/42 - L8 w/ LS + WA (170 - death)
Thanks to nirexine for the original. My additions are marked by red (Source: GameFAQs)
From this it's pretty obvious I want to kill king spiders all day long. They're quick to kill, I can get them early, and they provide great experience. Unfortunately there's only one in the dungeon accessible early on. Another does open up once I'm able to take on a guarder (one blocks the way to the boss). Goblins are slightly better than the killer bees, but they do more damage and take longer to kill so they're best avoided until level 5 or 6. The iron heads do not respawn. Same with the death crows. Guarders as well, but those aren't worth the grind.
Testing out the new monsters I find I'm a little under-powered for this guy
Currently my route carries me south and around the bottom of the map to the king spider as quickly as possible. I should reach level 4 rather quickly on my first loop. By the time I get back to the king spider again I'm usually approaching or achieving level 5 and head straight after all the Iron Heads. By the last one I have enough for the long sword, and reach level 6. I round up on the two crows, picking off the king spider as often as I can. I swing by to get the Wooden Armor.
Trading blows is quick, and timing healing items is tricky... here I could have perished
If I'm feeling lucky I'll try my hand at a guarder or two as soon as I hit level 8. I've tried it at 7 and it just hasn't worked. I want to reach at least level 9 for the boss, and have 4 healing potions. There's no free refresh, so I'd have to buy one for 300 gold. Healing potions are 40 and having 5 of them is equivalent to a single refresh (except they take up 5 out 6 item slots). In my experimentation I've found I really only need 4 for the boss (a little less grinding is always nice). I've only managed a time just below 11 minutes, but I think this one has a lot of room for improvement. Expecting sub-10 minute time in the end.
Here I tested level 7 w/ LS and died to a Guarder earlier
Dungeon 3 - Goal: 9 minutes (or less with glitch)

Red Slime - 2/2 - L1 (1)
Mummy - 20/12 - L8 (150) or L8 w/ LS (<50)
Pumpkinhead - 27/31 - L8 (140) or L8 w/ LS (<40)
Killer Wolf - 25/38 - L5 (20)

The map for dungeon 3 is a little more restricted than the others. Only slimes, skeletons (too powerful), and a single sorcerer are options. There's a killer wolf nearby, and I clear all of them out once I reach level 5. The pumpkinheads and especially the mummies are definitely not worth the trouble. Unfortunately a mummy blocks the way to the store, and a pumpkinhead blocks the key. There's a second mummy before the boss, but easily dealt with by the time I reach level 9 with LS + WA. Once again the boss easily falls at level 9 (I've actually been reaching him at level 10 for some reason) with the LS + WA and four healing potions.
The game is supposed to measure the general strength of enemies, but the game lies
This is easily the fastest level. There are three sorcerers and four skeletons all in a close area. Two of the sorcerers are blocked by a skeleton though, so getting to them once I reach level 4 is a priority. While fooling around on this level checking out the co-op feature I stumbled upon a glitch. This glitch allows me to walk through enemies. It's a little tricky to get working since I haven't played with it enough to understand what's going on. I'll go into more detail on it in a future post once I have more experience with it. In general though, I don't see it as useful since I still need to build up levels to have a chance at the boss. I can see it's usefulness getting past the mummy to purchase a long sword and armor so fighting him is faster.
The translation is... strange; anyone know what "Bacad" could mean?

I'm not sure I'll continue the in-depth analysis on each dungeon, but I hope this gave some insight into the game mechanics and the process I use for speedrunning a game. Next time I'll write a little more on honing a route from the general plan. Then I'll follow that up with a post on glitches, and I'll take a closer look at the glitch. If necessary I'll wrap it all up with a nice talk on the community. Unfortunately I didn't have much time to play over the past week, but that should change now that I've finished posting for Ultima and cut Final Lap Twin. I don't plan to spend too long on this game.
Tried out 2-player... I can't decide if it's head-to-head or co-op
Elapsed Time: 2h35m (Total Time: 2h35m)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Below the Cut: Final Lap Twin (TG-16 - 1990)

(Source: IGN)
Final Lap Twin - Rating(6 RPP)
1) 0 - Character Advancement: practice/experience based advancement, stat or level increases, multiple classes or characters, customize characters
2) 0 - Combat: character stats used for combat, additional combat options, turn based
3) 2 - Items and Equipment: store to buy and sell, equipment decisions, item decisions
4) 1 - Story: main story at the forefront; world full of hints and lore; descriptions for objects, people, and places
5) 2 - Exploration: open world from the beginning, visited locations remain open
6) 1 - Quests and Puzzles: side quests not related to the main quest, puzzles and riddles to solve

RPGs tend to generate a loyal fan base. Obviously, every game should be an RPG, or have RPG-elements. At least that seems to be the thought process behind some of these hybrids. We've seen this before in games like Pinball Quest, but at least this one does a slightly better job at it.
Would you like to play the real game or have a filler story?

Take an RPG, remove the character levels, replace combat with races (including random challengers), and then you'll have an idea of what it's like to play Final Lap Twin. There's absolutely no way to advance your character (only your car's abilities). The story goes that the main character wants to be the world racing champion. This feat is accomplished by visiting towns, racing local champions, and building a super car. Towns offer a place to refill turbo power, purchase and sell parts, and gain some insightful hints.

The world is open from the very beginning, which is nice, but racing challenges prevent you from straying too far from the area most appropriate for your gear. Losing a race sends you back to the first town. There are some side quests (at least quests for car parts), but in the end if you don't find all the best equipment you'll have a hell of time completing the final race.

While the story is simple, it's at least ever present. Do you have what it takes to become world champion? Not an RPG.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Game 22: Ultima: Quest of the Avatar (NES) - Final Rating

Unlike most RPGs, the main draw for Ultima really isn't the combat. Sure it's there, but the focus is more on the story and plot. Even so, the system implemented improvements over Exodus. Battles are overall very well balanced even though the challenge is often missing (unless you count trying my patience). By mid-game combat became a chore with very little benefit. I ended up using the Blink spell more often than bothering to fight it out.

Spells are plentiful and offer a variety of options. I especially liked the Blind and Quick spells, but I found uses for Tremor and Energy as well as Protect and Jinx. I didn't venture too far into the spell library though as battles often ended quickly due to ranged attacks. Ranged weapons and spells are also now able to target any enemy; no longer are we restricted to straight lines.

Enemies are consistent with a normal fantasy game world (i.e. you start to wonder why they're attacking and where they all come from). The main complaint I had with Exodus is back to haunt the series though. Enemies level at the same pace as your party, and combats take longer with the same amount of gold rewarded. I really hope they address this by the next game.
Rating: 5
The only danger was getting stun-locked via Sleep
There's a nice cast of characters here with enough to differentiate between them to make it interesting. The ability to influence your progression is limited. Magic is the only area you have any control over, but there's no give and take, so why not learn everything. Appearance is static for each character, and advancement to Avatar is the only path. Only HP advances with levels. Stats are raised by visiting orbs in dungeons, but in the end I didn't see much difference in having a higher dexterity or intelligence.
Rating: 4
Shouldn't I be glowing or something?
Puzzling out the hints and clues for the main quest is enough for me to give this game the highest puzzle rating yet. There are a couple side quests, and although not tough, provide an interesting task to follow up on while waiting for the shrines to allow meditation once more. Everything fits well in the story, and there are multiple ways of advancing in the virtues. On the flip side of that, figuring out how to avoid reducing virtues (while mostly commonsense) provides another challenge. The purpose of this section is really to highlight how well a game provides challenge outside of combat, and Ultima truly provides the best of that to date.
Rating: 5
One of the more subtle puzzles, I'm told Marina knows the final ingredient to the Life spell
I went over my criteria, and while this seems low, hear me out. The main story does well to offer a number activities to involve the player in, and NPCs do offer assistance in guiding us along. However, the game lacks a bit of engagement. There's no way to truly affect the world or characters in it. They repeat the same dialogue with no options to guide the conversation. One character mentioned Ramsel left long ago, whereabouts unknown. I'd like to tell them I found someone of the same name in Buccaneer's Den, but that level of interaction isn't available. I also could use the skull of Mondain in town, but the townspeople regenerate as soon as I reenter. It's an interesting game and the main plot is compelling, but at least in this port, the supporting world lacks immersion and responsiveness.
Rating: 4
If this were the PC version I could probably ask you more about this Flamis fellow (later edit: turns out no)
If you like to leave no stone unturned, no chest unopened, and take everything not bolted down, then this isn't the game for you. Grinding for the amount of gold necessary to purchase every item would take longer than the potential gain is worth. The number of useful items is limited to herbs, and combat equipment. Said equipment isn't easily identifiable as stronger than other. (Is a sword or axe better?) There are a few class specific items, but beyond the Avatar ones, the classes that use them are very restrictive (I count one for fighter, and one for shepherd). The economy never tanked, although I may have over invested in herbs. About the only collectable items are the stones and runes, which are necessary for the plot. How long do I have to wait for small unique trophies or a book to track my Pokémon?
Rating: 3
No! That's probably the only one in existence...
The very first 7 in any category! This game was a true joy to explore. I really loved how each town had its own feel and focus, and you reach them all from the beginning. Each area of the game had some new discovery to reveal. The music left something to be desired by the end. My favorite melody is only available by talking to a bard in the inn of Britain, and it quickly reverted to the original when I left town. The biggest feat is the completely open world. The limiting factors are quickly overcome when the ship and balloon become available (very nearly in the beginning of the game if you know how to get them). Lastly, rather than hopping from one hub town to the next, we get an entirely open world to explore and play.
Rating: 7
Randomly floated around and spotted a new town. So fun!
Final Rating: 28 [45%]

This is is a great game, easily the best of the year. Even though it tied with DW II, I think there's more depth to this one and it has a slight edge over it. So, how does the game compare to the original? Well, there were a lot of changes. Beyond the obvious graphics and music, the game uses what I believe is a modified engine of Exodus. This means all the NPCs were reworked to have a single piece of dialogue. I believe the NES could have handled branching dialogue and keywords, but the developers decided against it. "What would a game like that look like without a keyboard?" you might ask. Well, I'm glad you asked. It'd look very much like the SMS version of this title.
As you can tell, even with a slight graphical upgrade, it remains very true to the original. The menu based dialogue offers basic keywords (name, look, job, health, join, and give), and will add keywords as the conversation matures. Flamis here (I looked up who he was) has told me about holding the fabric of justice together. One difference I noted from the PC version, is that it's no longer possible to jump ahead of a conversation chain. No longer can I randomly walk up to people ask them about runes or stones in hopes they'll point the way. If I don't talk to a druid in Yew, ask about job, ask about justice, ask about shrine, then I'll never know to ask Talfourd about the rune. In the screenshot above, my newly made druid approaches him right away, "RUNE", and I get a response.
Mantra? What's a mantra?
Another point to make is I never needed to learn the mantra for each virtue. I guess the NES version didn't see a reason to include these. In the SMS version, I'd most likely need to track the conversation chain down to unlock them for later use. I didn't spend much more time with the games, but I noted eight vs. four active party members. I definitely think this is due to relying on the Exodus engine. Also, I believe ranged weapons remain tracked on a straight line on both the PC and SMS.
The SMS intro is very nice
Well, I'm going to read through Chet's posts now and comment on them from the NES port perspective. Hopefully I can gain and give a bit more insight. I stand by my statement that the NES received a dumbed down version though. Easier battles with ranged weapons (welcomed) and simple dialogue options (basically none) both make for a more straightforward game that lacks challenge. Before I close this up, and you move on somewhere else for further Ultima IV fixes, I'd like to point out there's a speedrun of the NES version. Done in less than 2 hours! Do check it out... I still need to.

I'm already well into Double Dungeons, and could potentially finish it in a night or two since I played it so recently.  I decided again to skip mapping on my own for this one game. I have the maps nearly memorized (at least for these first few dungeons), and I don't see the added benefit of making my own maps while viewers sit and wait. Instead I'm using the maps found on GameFAQs again, but exploring each square to ensure correctness. I've already discovered a couple missing enemies from one, but I'll post more on that soon enough. First, we have a game to cut.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Game 22: Ultima: Quest of the Avatar (NES) - Finished!

Have you ever stopped 10 feet before a finish line? Actually, scratch that, a better analogy... have you ever fallen asleep within the last few pages of a book? You know you didn't finish, but you can't quiet place where you left off. That's how I felt getting back to Quest of the Avatar after a long weekend. I meant to wrap it up on Saturday, but my power company had other ideas.
I like to bookend these posts with the title and very last screens, no matter how underwhelming
So, I knew that I needed to meditate (according to my notes) at the shrine of Valor, but every time I visited, I received the same message. I was too weary from my last meditation. Either I actually needed to walk around the world map to relieve my weariness, or the game hates me. I tried wandering the map in the safety of my balloon. I fought a couple battles. I spent many a night at the inn. All this to no avail.
At least someone acknowledged the passage of time
I had time to stop by Zircon's to pick up the fabled weapon. A completely useless Axe +2. It neither has value to sell, nor anyone in my party to wield it. (According to the manual only the fighter may do so.) I even visited Lord British for some final levels. With nothing else to do, I scouted out the entrance to the Abyss.
That looks likely (I should have said to myself)
In fact it was plainly one of these volcano structures. I thought maybe they were interconnected, and I needed to navigate them. Imagine then my sinking feeling as I walked over each one, taking damage, and not entering a single one. I searched, I used items, and failed to use the correct ones. I found that the bell had a certain affinity with the one pictured above, but nothing more happened.
This should have been a resounding "You are at the right spot!"
I tried to use the candle next and nothing happened. I tried the book, again nothing. I tried the bell again, and again it rang. Then I thought maybe I needed to use each one at a different volcano. You see, I think I missed a hint that told me the order I should use them in. In the end, after about 10 minutes of wandering around, I contemplated trying to meditate again at the shrine of Valor. Luckily, I gave the correct location one last chance.
Truth follows Courage
I figured this out by trying the bell twice in a row. First it rang solemnly. Second, nothing happened. I most definitely knew now I needed to use them in a certain order. Only one left to try.
And both are swallowed by Love
Strangely, the skull of Mondain crumbled to pieces as I entered the Abyss. I wonder if getting it was even necessary. As I entered the Abyss, all my companions simply vanished.
Begin end game *plop*
The Abyss is structured similarly to regular dungeons. To complicate this, the correct path down is lined with chalices where you must answer the correct virtue and place the correct stone into the cup. I'm not sure what happens when answered incorrectly. By the third or fourth level I realized the correct answers were in order.
Let's see, level two, Compassion
The stones are in the same order... really reinforces the order
And, that's it. That's the end of the game. One of the floors has a tricky little maze through the top-down rooms that litter the dungeons, but other than that it's fairly straightforward. Without the last set of gems I can imagine it being a wee bit more work, but really, who's going to play this game without using the gems?
I know there's a way down, the gem told me so
There is one last room of interest where I had to fight against clones of the companions (including my chosen class). Less interesting that it's a standard battle with no dialogue, so I wrote my own twist. I imagined a terrible discovery was made while I was adventuring; that reading from the codex would destroy Britannia. In a last ditch effort, the companions tried to stop me, but I knew this to be final test of my determination and slaughtered these doppelgangers.
Poor Ankh hasn't had anyone around to corrects it's grammar
At the Ankh, the three keys became one. I wonder if it's possible to arrive here without the keys, and what would happen. There's probably something preventing that. A stairway opened up after uniting the keys. Below this room was the Codex. Inside was the end of the game.
Some reference to Infinity
The game was pretty much on auto-pilot at this point. No further dialogue options. No access to the menus. And the game wrapped up in a ceremony above. It turns out this was a hidden area under that strange shrine, which was the very first location I plopped into when I started the game.
It begins and ends with Lord British...
Another game done. This one was a pleasant experience, though a mostly diluted one from what I hear of the PC. I plan to play through a bit of the PC and SMS versions to include some differences in my final rating. I also have a game to cut, which I may end up doing before I get the final rating post out for this game.

As for the next game, Double Dungeons, I'm going to do something a bit different. I've already completed the game in recent memory, so I'm going to dive in a bit more than usual. Into the inner workings of the game and route a speedrun for it. With my new schedule, I'll start later tonight even though I haven't quite finished posting for other games. Wish me luck.

Elapsed Time: 1h41m (Final Time: 19h03m)