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 [47%]

This is is a great game, easily the best of the year. Even though it tied with DW II  (edit: turns out I can't add, and it didn't tie... my records were just bad), 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.


  1. I like your rating system, but find it difficult to fully comprehend... 45% would be a failing grade in most other systems, yet here it denotes "a great game, easily the best of the year."

    I just realized that you don't have explicit categories for graphics (though admirer might touch upon this aspect), music, or story. Your scale is all about "what can you do in these RPGs? How can you play them, and are the ways you can play them fun?"

    Congratulations on finishing another game! I'm looking forward to Double Dungeons. Your posts will probably determine whether or not I ever play it.

    1. The points for each rating are described here:

      Final rating may not be the best term for the final score. It has less to do with my overall enjoyment, and more to do with how well it fits into each category.

      As for graphics and music, that's part of the exploration experience (a bit of admirer). Story is part of instigator, while quests are part of puzzler. Yes, overall I agree my ratings cover the more interactive aspects, and I think that's the correct approach. I'm a terrible judge of graphics and especially music (as long as it's not grating I'll probably call it good).

      Thank you for you comments, and the congratulations. I hope I don't disappoint you with my posts on Double Dungeons. I'm doing it a bit differently. Since there isn't much depth, I'm going to add a layer by speedrunning it and describing my process.

  2. Awesome! I have a vague memory of never finishing this game as a (young) kid because I couldn't figure out how to increase my chances at Avatarhood... and considering I rented the game, I probably just gave up when someone deleted my saved game one weekend. Probably should have tried it when I got my first PC, but oh well. You're here to help me not suffer through it again. :-)

    1. No suffering involved, but I'm glad I've saved you some time.

    2. Not just time, though -- you've done a better job exploring the world and game mechanics then I would have done on my own. Considering what I've done with recent nostalgic attempts, I would have just sped through it and, eventually, cheated my way to the end using Game Genie codes on an emulator (now that I think about it, I probably spent more time reading your blog then I would have spent replaying the game).

    3. Well, I'm glad to have given you a deeper experience. In any case, I hope you stick around for other games.

  3. I think that's a fair rating, Zenic. I agree that one of the most fun parts of this game is the ability to explore a world that is not on the brink of nuclear war/monster invasion/meteor falling from sky/insert fantasy trope here. It's almost like a proto-sandbox in that way, barring areas inaccessible without the balloon.

    Isn't it amazing how the Ultima series can't get combat right?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Do they ever get it quite right? I know eventually the series skips to real-time combat, but I don't remember it very well. It's funny that this is considered Britannia's time of peace, but there are still plenty of monsters that roam the land and attack on sight. I guess it was too bold to consider a combat free game (who would we fight for valor's sake).

      Best game of the year (and so far), but I think we'll see better games as soon as next year. Almost there... risking the chance of being wrong on my estimates once again, I should be in 1991 by the end of the month.

      Edit: Google really needs an edit comment feature.

    3. From what I've played and seen of the Ultima series, combat remains an oddly undercooked aspect of the series. But it does so much right, it's hard to complain too much.

    4. Well, it's understandable since combat really isn't the main focus of the game even if you spend most of your time doing it.

  4. I know that I'm late to the post, but I loved this game as a kid and really enjoyed reading along as you played through it.

    Despite on the surface having the usual trappings of a standard RPG on the NES, the uniqueness of the main quest really stood out. Instead of fighting to save the world from some big baddy I am trying to learn how to be a good person? Extremely odd to me at the time but compelling.

    I rented it repeatedly but never finished it. Years later when a local shop was selling off the remnants of their obsolete NES game inventory I scored a new-in-box copy (first time having access to the map and manual!) and finally achieved victory!

    Good memories...

    1. Definitely a unique adventure. Lucky you to get a complete copy. The map and manual are invaluable for a game like this. I can't imagine trying to complete it without them.