Monday, March 24, 2014

Game 22: Ultima: Quest of the Avatar (NES) - Honestly, Compassion requires Sacrifice

Game 22

Title: Ultima: Quest of the Avatar
Released: Dec 1990 (Sep 20, 1989 JP)
Platform: NES (SMS published by Sega)
Developer: Origin (Port: Infinity Co., Ltd., Newtopia Planning | Localized: Atelier Double Co. Ltd.)
Publisher: Pony Canyon
Genre: RPG
Exploration - Top-down
Combat - Turn-based by party with terrain
Series - Ultima

Apologies for the length, in time since my last post and that of this one. In any case, I'm back! This time exploring the lands of Britannia in the next installment of Ultima. For some reason the series' console ports dropped the roman numerals. I suppose this was because Ultima III was the first game on console; however, the instruction manual for this game covers the past three games clearly labeling them 1-2-3. Adding to the oddities, the story of Ultima: Exodus was summarized as, "a group of adventurers defeated an evil serpent." I suppose they don't want to reveal too much, but this seems like a strange way to shorten it as Exodus becomes a star of ill-omen that portents the serpent's release.
Real moral choices like these haven't appeared in the game yet
After Exodus peace has taken root in Britannia; however, Lord British fears the people's hearts will sway towards evil ways. He summoned all noble souls to strive towards Avatarhood. My character, the Avatar-to-be, is whisked away from his world after picking up an ankh that appeared before him in a flash.
I'm really unsure those beads stand for anything
Upon arriving he came upon a cart where a man named Hawkwind interrogated him about the eight virtues. Compassion came out on top, and my character's class was solidified as a bard. This type of interactive character creation, role-playing a character, is the first of my memory for this blog, but I remember it most from my misspent youth in Ogre Battle (can't wait to replay this game). It's an interesting concept that prevents over-optimizing, or at least obscures the path to achieve it. At the same time, I wonder how many players stumbled upon the Shepherd (noted as the most difficult to play) and decided the game was too hard.
I landed first in a smaller version of Lord British's throne room where he explains that I was summoned to this land to seek out the 8 virtues of Avatarhood, and thus become the fabled Avatar. Stepping outside lands the character next to the village that shares the chosen virtue: Compassion in my case.
Lord British's castle is hidden by the menu
While familiarizing myself with the menu I noticed a few new additions. Herbs are now required to cast spells, and can only be bought at certain towns. It would have been nice to have an option to collect these in the field, like Oblivion, but I suppose we aren't up to that level of complexity yet. There's a recipe book that lists which herbs are used for each spell. I haven't needed most spells, but cure poison has come in very handy as I tend to walk over poison swamps more often than I take damage in combat.
Only a few enemies have ranged attacks
Starting near Britain, and Lord British's castle allowed me to learn quickly of my quest. The eight virtues (Compassion, Honesty, Valor, Sacrifice, Spirituality, Justice, Honor, and Humility) have eight corresponding towns, shrines, runes, and stones (although Humility might not have one) to collect. All the virtues, save for humility, are derived from three principles (Truth, Love, and Courage), which have castles associated with them.
All the answers you seek are here
Each of the three principles also have, somewhere, an altar. At these altars I'm supposed to present the four stones of virtue that relate to the principle. I've yet to find these altars, but I'm not too worried about that now as I haven't recovered a single stone. Most of the clues place the stones inside dungeons that are named in juxtaposition to the virtues of the stone contained. Once I visit the altar with the proper stones I'll receive a key of three. There are also three special items: the Book of Truth, the Bell of Courage, and the Candelabra of Love. In addition to those there are a number of items I've collected: the flute, the silver horn, and Mondain's skull. I'm not sure what any of these items' purpose are, but I'll figure it out eventually.
Meditating at the shrine of Compassion we learn that the game and manual differ on what to call the symbol of love
Traveling to each town, each castle, I've slowly uncovered that the main quest of the Avatar is to first collect the eight runes, act in such a way to uphold the eight virtues, and--once the hidden value for each one is high enough--meditate at each shrine to acknowledge my achievement. Hawkwind, the seer, resides at Lord British's castle and can tell me how well I'm doing in each virtue. So far I'm eligible for Avatarhood in Compassion, Valor, and Honor. Of those I've only found the rune of Compassion, but I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.
I wish, and also don't want, all runes this easy to find
Each of the virtue towns (there are others) has a companion willing to join the party, except for the character class your own represents (no Iolo for me). So far I have Dupre, Julius, and Mariah in my party. Geoff, the fighter, requires me to have fought more battles, or possibly a specific battle. Shamino, the druid, requires me to reach a higher level of experience (which is when I noticed I hadn't leveled since I started playing). Jaana, the druid, requires me to prove myself in some way. Katrina, the shepherd, I've yet to locate. I must have missed a section of Magincia.
Iolo brushing me off to sing songs
Battles are very similar to Ultima: Exodus. The party enters their actions one after another, and those actions take place in the same order. The enemies always go after the main party. Ranged weapons are very effective (as is magic, although that's costly). No longer are they restricted to straight lines. Characters only gain experience from killing a monster, and to level up just visit Lord British. I've leveled from 3 to 5, and noticed the increase in monster difficulty. The biggest negative factor to leveling is that gold is inconsistent (seems to range from 1 - 99 even after leveling), and sea battles generate no gold. Ships have appeared since I leveled though. The difficulty is toned down quite a bit; I've yet to face near-death situations. I believe dungeons are going to be my go-to place for gold from now on though.
A meager sum gained from a rough battle just after leveling up
I wish I had played this game as a kid. I would have thoroughly enjoyed being swallowed up by the world. It's much larger than Exodus, and I've only just considered exploring the dungeons. I would have spent hours grinding gold at low levels, buying the best armor, stocking up on reagents (herbs for spells), and meditating at each shrine hoping for new messages. Today, I'm playing through at a brisk pace while trying to take the depth in equal portions to the time spent (i.e. no grinding).
The only map I'd have access to if I rented this game as a kid
The manual has been put to great use. I'm thankful for the efforts of everyone that have put time into archiving old manuals online. Without the manual I'd still be wondering how the moongates actually worked (not all that difficulty); making my own map of the world; and marking all the locations of towns, dungeons, and gates. The manual goes on to give maps and hints of each town and castle, and further hints on how to complete the game, but I stopped reading through before I got to those parts.
The manual's map with moongate key
And with that, I should be done with most of the basics. I apologize for the length, but it's a lot of history to understand how the game works. With the overarching goal now in mind hopefully we won't get lost for things to do. I'm going to do things a little differently since the game is so open, and track how I'm doing in each virtue as opposed to a linear stream of play time.

The main theme behind compassion is showing love and care for others despite all circumstance. Throughout my journey across the land I found numerous beggars, blind merchants who can't count their own coins, and pubs asking for generous tips. I visited each and generously passed out my gold. The rune of compassion was easily found at the foot of the stairs in the inn, helpfully pointed out by a random townsfolk. I found this early, and stopped by the shrine to meditate. To enter a shrine requires the correct rune. Once inside I had the option to meditate for one, two, or three cycles. I chose three cycles, and received a strange clue about lighting the Candle of Love at the Abyss.
So, are you saying it's around here somewhere?
I'm unsure if it was the number of donations, the number of people helped, or a combination, but eventually my compassion value grew enough for Avatarhood. I returned to the shrine and this time chose one cycle, and was informed I had completed my Avatar training in the virtue of Compassion. One down, seven to go... I'm really unsure what the number of cycles has to do with anything. After meditating there's an unknown amount of time that must pass before meditating again. I remember hearing that the PC version requires knowledge of mantras, but so far there's no sign of them.
Partial Avatarhood, or partial virtue... it's so confusing
The only thing I'm missing now from this virtue is the yellow stone of compassion. I'm guessing it's located in the dungeon of Despise, which I'll visit shortly.

My first companion was Dupre (a paladin), and I picked up a bow in Trinsic. Honor (along with Valor) were the first two virtues in which I reached the level of Avatarhood, but unlike Compassion, I don't have a clue where the runes are hiding. There's an old man preparing for the harvest, and I think I'm supposed to figure out when that is according to the phases of the moon, but I haven't deciphered his cryptic message yet.
I didn't try very hard, but reading this now it might be a full moon next to a new moon
Beyond that, there was Sam the Sailor who asked about a Sextant. I've since learned it's location is in the town of Vesper and costs 900 gold, a bit outside my price range. The barkeep is also supposed to be knowledgeable about fungus (an herb), but I've yet to tip large enough to gain this knowledge. My average tip and donation of 100 gold isn't appreciated here.
Seems I need to drop coins for everything
My second companion was the tinker Julius. A tinker seems to be a mix of fighter with just a touch of magic. He's been a solid companion. The rune of sacrifice was hidden inside a blacksmith's furnace, knowledge gained by giving gold to an injured man. I've yet to reach Avatarhood in this virtue, but I've recently learned that I need to donate blood to raise this value. I believe to get that option at the healers I need to be in sufficient health.
Meditation proves useful for the virtue I considered
There's also an NPC tinker named Zircon (where I found the rune) who is looking for some scales. I'm told my reward will be a sword of untold power. Sounds like a good weapon for either Dupre or Julius. The orange stone of sacrifice awaits me in the dungeon of Covetous.
The Lich is the strongest enemy I've faced, capable of casting Tremor
My third companion, Mariah, came from Moonglow. This virtue has been one of the hardest to track. I'm really unsure how to move this up. To prevent it from falling I believe I must not take other people's treasure, but does the game really track that I've avoided the temptation? I received a clue for the location of the rune as, "don't you see it? three spaces south!" I figured out quickly the directions weren't from the person speaking as she kept moving, but from an oddly placed tile.
Seriously, how is 'Yes' the correct answer here? It's like those "do you mind..." style of questions... In fact this isn't even a question with the period there and all
It's only natural that this town of magic also house the only shop that allows me to add new spells to my book. This requires me to know the ingredients for a recipe, which are learned from various NPCs. It also seems I can only add spells I've come across, as I have to specify the spell name first. Strangely I have the option to learn Tremor while no one has told me the recipe. I'm fairly certain it's because an enemy cast it. I'm avoiding guessing random recipes for it in case it'd cause harm to one of my virtues. I suppose the system does work.
It's a secret to everybody
I enjoy the ranger class. The power of a fighter, the magic of a cleric, and the stealth of a rogue. Unfortunately, I either get locked into the first three companions, or the game locks out Shamino until I gain a number of levels. I'm not sure collecting all the companions is necessary, but it's something to do. The rune and stone are missing, and will take some snooping around to find.
This is where I learned to look for hidden rooms
Geoff the fighter is another companion that won't join me. He suggests I, "fight more." Well thanks for nothing. I'm already at Avatarhood status in this virtue, but once again locating the rune is proving troublesome. I suppose I could go after the stones in the dungeons first. It's possible fighting through there is the only way to get the attention of Geoff, and possibly the rune.
This man in black, can you describe him?
Like other towns, there are some locked doors here. The guild shops are hard to reach, and the keys are prohibitively expensive at 2,000 gold. I'm still saving up for the sextant, but I'm not sure how I'm going to afford all of these keys. It's possible some of the runes, or at least hints towards them, are behind these doors.
So, that's a ghost horse behind me?
The town of Yew is hidden inside the forests north of Britain, and east of Empath Abbey (castle of love). Jaana needs me to prove myself worthy of her company before she'll join. The rune was kept safe by Ramus, but he's misplaced it. Apparently someone, or somewhere named Vorpal has it, or knows where it is. I was told by the Judge Talfourd that I was honest enough and needed to speak with penitent Vorpal, but I haven't found him at all. He may be a prisoner below the court, but once again I'm without keys.
Darkest secrets? I'll tell you some dark secrets...
I've also been told to seek out someone named Flamis. It almost feels like there should be another town with all these people I should seek. At first it sounded like Vorpal was a location, but the more I think on it, the more I'm convinced it's one of the prisoners. Also present is a scholar named Calummy who's creating a book of magic and already at 69,105 pages.
Where's this Vorpal place you may have mistranslated?
The town centered around humility was destroyed long ago. In the distant past they believed pride was a virtue, and speedily came their destruction. Now the place is covered in poison swamps, crumbling buildings, and badgering monsters. I suppose the impulse to attack would be a lot stronger if it encouraged me after every slight, but hiding the attack command in the menu prevented me from acting on it. I was told they don't have use for the treasure below town, and I was free to take it. It was a flute, whose purpose baffles me.
Must... refrain...from... attack
The companion in this town was nowhere to be seen, and there was no mention of the rune or stone. I seem to be progressing in this virtue (Hawkwind's description went from "progressing well" to "progressing very well"), but I'm not sure how. If it's just spending time in town and avoiding the attack command while talking, then it should be rather easy. If only I could find the rune.
Once I completed an initial pass through all the towns and castles reachable by land or moongate, I raised my level and ventured out into the sea. Wandering back from Lord British I stumbled upon a hidden room. I noticed a strange notch in the side of the wall tile after I found the room. I wonder how many of these I've passed in my travels.
Oh! Look! Treasure! Mine! Is what I'd say in any other game...
The ship offered up the Buccaneer's Den, a pirate town. Vesper (which is actually near the shrine of sacrifice), Serpent's hold, and various islands that offered a couple items and possibly the entryway to the Abyss. The Abyss is the final area I must prepare to enter. In there I'm to find the Codex, but I must prepare for it by finding the Exotic Armour and Paradise Sword. Both items are only available to one who has achieved Avatarhood in all eight virtues.
Pirates are laughably easy

Buccaneer's Den offered up a chance for dishonesty through posing as pirates, but I declined. I learned of the location of Mondain's skull, which I picked up shortly after. A hint for the Silver Horn also proved fruitful. I'm really glad no one seems to lie in this game. I also ran into a pirate named Ramsel, who I remembered had someone looking for him. I couldn't inform him of that though, so I suppose I'll have to revisit that location, wherever it was.
At Serpent's Hold I learned the recipe for the Jinx spell (enemy confusion), and the location of the stone of honor (dungeon of shame). I also learned the colors of the stones necessary for Courage and Truth. I'm slowly piecing everything together.
If only I had a clue for what a shoal looks like this game
The city of Paws offered up a variety of clues including the location for Rune of Spirituality, and the spell of Reflect. There was also a mention of someone missing in the dungeon of Hythloth, which is located behind the castle of Britannia. Some more locked doors taunted me.
Okay... and which one is the great castle again?
Vesper offered up the guild shop, with keys, and the sextant. I'm guessing the sextant is used to give the current coordinates, which will be helpful in tracking down that secret. I also learned of some serpent scale in a mountain range, although no which range or serpent it belonged to. Lastly, The shrine of humility is south of Moonglow, but the island looks quite dangerous.
Eternal dirge? Forever song?
Next up I'm going to start exploring a few dungeons. I started on one for a bit and noticed the random battles don't offer gold rewards. This is a pretty far step backwards from Exodus, but to make up for that, they now have treasure rooms where set encounters wait and guard more than one chest. The chests still contain the usual amount of gold, but if I can find a room that has three or more chests and a nearby fountain, I can quickly resolve my gold shortage. The dungeons themselves seem smaller, but it may have been just the floor of this one dungeon I explored.
I didn't realize those monsters were facing away from me until I already attacked, I hope the hit to Valor isn't much
I also should go back through the towns and search for other secret passages, possibly after I've bought a number of keys. Unlocking random doors, especially prison doors doesn't seem in line with Justice, Honor, or Honesty, but what else is a burgeoning Avatar-to-be to do when faced with no way to ask the nice judge to open up the prisoner's door. It's not possible to speak to characters through the bars, even if they weren't at the back of their cells.
I was to seek out the last ingredient for the life spell from her, but this is all she says
Lastly, there is rumored a whirlpool that will take me to the hidden city of Cove. Just imagine, an entire city of clues, hints, and items just waiting for me somewhere out there. It'll have to wait a bit longer as I've seen no sign of such a location. I'm hoping the whirlpool doesn't move around like it did in the previous game.
This is a cryptic clue for one of the ingredients to Tremor I believe
In other news, I'm going to start playing on a more regular schedule. Hopefully that also means blogging on such a schedule. I meant to get this post out on Saturday, but some family came into town and ate up my whole weekend. It may happen again in the future, but hopefully it's not more than a monthly occurrence.
The "password" to all hidden shop menus, just press select
I'm also gearing up for some of the upcoming titles, and to make room for them I'm planning on selling some games. If you're interested in helping out by buying some I'll send you link to what I'm selling (most games are unrelated to this blog, but some are duplicates I've gained in lots). At the end of this gaming year I'll actually start selling off past games played on this blog. Check back on the year transition post for news on that.

Elapsed Time: 5h49m (Total Time: 5h49m)

Edit: Nicolay Garkusha helpfully pointed out that this game was also available on the SMS. Published by Sega, which is a more faithful port of the PC game. Although you don't type commands, the basic topics of Name, Job, and Health are presented as menu options when speaking to each NPC. This is contrasted with the single Talk command on the NES. I'll test drive that version and PC, and report more on the differences in the final rating post. Going forward, I'll do my best to mention other versions of the game and why I chose to play the one I did. In some cases, I may even open up polls so readers can vote for the version I play. Yet another topic for the end of year post.


  1. Nice to hear your back at it. I've heard this game has some interesting mechanics involving moral decisions.mand some that aren't always obvious.

    1. I've heard the same. I think the most obvious one is you can't just steal treasure willy-nilly from the towns and castles. Beyond that it's been a fairly standard RPG, minus a main quest to kill a single bad guy. It seems to be all about bringing everything together (collecting random items, companions, rune, stones, etc.).

  2. Good to see you blogging again.

    "Geoff the fighter is another companion that won't join me. He suggests I, "fight more." Well thanks for nothing. I'm already at Avatarhood status in this virtue" - If it's the same as the PC version you can only recruit one companion per level.

    1. Good to be blogging again, although this post took longer than normal.

      Ah, that makes sense if that's the case. I just picked up a couple more companions just last night. I'm hesitant to swap anyone out though since they'll be at a lower level.

  3. I remember having to buy a hint book for this game (remember those?) since I had no clue how to get Avatarhood in some of the virtues (I was a kid, give me a break!)... it totally baffled me why I couldn't just open up random chests. Once I figured it out though, I was absolutely amazed at how the system worked and what a nice change it was compared to other games of the era (and really, to this day). I can't remember specifics of the game (though the screenshot of the town for Humility rings a bell), so I'm very happy that you're playing through it! Thanks for doing this blog and keep up the great work :)

    1. I do remember hint books. We used them extensively (basically as a walkthrough) for the goldbox games when we were below double digit age. It's very possible I'll get stuck in this game, it just seems like the type of game that would allow it. All the hidden items, virtue values, and cryptic questions all contribute to a confusing game world unlike any other I've seen. I hope you'll enjoy the rest of the posts, it's good to know the writing is read and appreciated.

    2. If I remember correctly this game (along with Ultima VII) were fairly different compared to their PC/Amiga versions, with a lot of storyline/text removed. I wonder if that's playing a part with any cryptic information you're getting from townsfolk?

      I've been reading since the beginning and most definitely appreciate it (you're one of my ten RSS feeds I read regularly)!

    3. You're probably right. I'd have guess the limited space on the cart was the culprit, but if the SMS included all the original text that's probably not the case. It may very well have been a double translation issue.

      In fact, someone stopped by the stream last night to let me know the above text where I mentioned Humility as outside, not derived, from the three principles appears to be an ill-informed interpretation. While near exactly stated like that in the game, he explained the three principles are born from Humility. Maybe it's a spoiler and something that isn't explained until later, but it's interesting such history was deemed unimportant. I wonder how much other text has changed. One obvious change is that not everyone has a name, and I know almost no one's job or how their health is (strangely they left this option in when speaking to Lord British).

  4. Wow, awesome write-up. Love seeing it. And man... there are so many memories tucked into this. I absolutely loved this game when it came out. I enjoyed it a lot more than the first Ultima on the NES, Exodus.

    1. I probably would have loved it too, and I'm not sure why we never rented this or the follow up game. Maybe the bad taste in our mouths after sinking our teeth into the NES Exodus. In any case, it's been fun playing through, although I do have one gripe: Leveling up puts the party at such a strong disadvantage that I'm making it a point now not to visit Lord British. It's nice that the game hasn't become overly easy, and I suppose I did make a point to say it hasn't been difficult. It's just very strange to be punished for leveling up. The game has in no way become impossible, even without grinding for better equipment.

      I feel good about the new schedule, which should give me a solid 5 - 6 hours throughout the week, and another 4 - 5 on Saturdays. I'm still eager to play the game often, so that's a good sign.

  5. Just curious, why did you decide to go with NES version? Master System one is a lot more faithful to the original.
    I'm glad that you are playing NES version though. One can read about PC version in many places (and nearly everything about PC version can be applied to SMS one), but there is a very little coverage of NES version on the web.

    1. hmmm, it wasn't a conscious decision actually. I think I failed to note there were different versions for this game. Also, I don't own an SMS presently, so I probably would have decided on the NES version. I was planning on playing through the PC one and comparing it a bit in the final rating post... I'll make note to add something about the SMS version. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  6. My bad, though. I completely forgot that SMS version was released only in Europe with very small number of copies making their way to the USA. Thus it's a lot harder to find a copy of SMS Ultima IV than NES Ultima IV nowadays.

    1. According to MobyGames it was released in the USA. I didn't know anyone who had one though, so my knowledge of the library of games is very limited. I appreciate the notice though, as I'm sure I would have missed it in follow-up posts.

  7. Everyone loves it when people come together and share ideas.
    Great site, stick with it!