On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting finds from the world of game modifications.
The critical consensus on Ultima Underworld is that it was a high point of the Ultima franchise, a then-unique (and still fairly distinctive) kind of game, a 3D fantasy adventure released nine months before Doom, with a detailed dungeon and a high degree of player agency.
Ultima Underworld got a Playstation release, but only in Japan. It is not a straight upgrade from the DOS version, it’s got different cutscenes and anime character portraits, as well as interface differences. Still, it could well be worth playing for its own sake.
Often for these romhack posts I’ll try to apply the patch myself and take my own screenshots, but in this case the patch is over 120 megabytes, and itself to be applied to a CD game ISO, and a substantial game to learn and navigate in itself, so I’m going to pass this time and just use screenshots from the game’s romhacking.net entry.
Time Extension has come up here a lot lately, hasn’t it? It’s because they so often do interesting articles! This one’s about the propensity of Japanese games to use medieval European game worlds, the kinds with a generally agrarian society, royalty, knights, and their folklore counterparts elves, dwarves, fairies, gnomes and associated concepts.
They often fudge the exact age they’re trying to depict, with genuine medieval institutions sitting beside Renaissance improvements like taverns and shops. Nearly of them also put in magic in a general D&D kind of way, sometimes institutionalizing it into a Harry Potter-style educational system.
Notably, they usually choose the positive aspects of that setting. The king is usually a benevolent ruler. It’s rare that serfdom and plagues come up. The general populace is usually okay with being bound to the land. The Church, when it exists, is sometimes allowed to be evil, in order to give the player a plot road to fighting God at the end.
Hyrule of the Zelda games is likely the most universally-known of these realms, which I once called Generic Fantasylands. The various kingdoms of the Dragon Quest games also nicely fit the bill. Final Fantasy games were among the first to question those tropes, presenting evil empire kingdoms as early at the second game.
John Szczepaniak’s article at Time Extension dives into the question by interviewing a number of relevant Japanese and US figures and developers, including former Squaresoft translator Ted Woolsey. I think the most insightful comments are from Hiromasa Iwasaki, programmer of Ys I and II, who notes that this Japanese conception of a fantasy world mostly comes from movies and the early computer RPGs Wizardry and Ultima, that the literature that inspired Gary Gygax to create Dungeons & Dragons (which in turned inspired Wizardry and Ultima), especially Lord of the Rings and Weird Tales, were generally unknown to Japanese popular culture. Developer Rica Matsumura notices, also, that there is a cool factor in Japan to European folklore that doesn’t apply, over there, to Japanese folklore.
It’s a great read, that says a number of things well that have been bubbling up in the back of my head for a long time, especially that JRPGs recreated both RPG mechanics and fantasy tropes at a remove, that they got their ideas second hand and, in a way similar to how a bunch of gaming tables recreated Dungeons & Dragons in their own image to fill in gaps left in Gary Gygax’s early rulebooks, so too did they make their versions of RPGs to elaborate upon the ideas of Wizardry and Ultima without having seen their bases.
Ultima Online is a wonder. World of Warcraft debuted in 2004; Ultima Online started in 1997. And it’s still going!
When it was new podcasts were not yet a thing! Podcasts arose from the fusion of periodic MP3 audio content and RSS feeds, in October 2000. Yet when UO was new there was an audio show called Battle Vortex that covered it. So we can’t call it an Ultima Online podcast, because those didn’t exist then, but it was a whole lot like one.
Battle Vortex had been gone from the internet for awhile, but now the whole show, 156 episodes, has been uploaded to the Internet Archive! It is a priceless snapshot of the early days of MMORPGs, and it’s heartening to see it housed someplace that will preserve it.
On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting finds from the world of game modifications.
They have fallen into obscurity in the intervening decades, but it used to be that the Ultima games were some of the biggest RPGs around, and many still have fond memories of them. The story of the rise and fall of Origin Systems, once one of the biggest game publishers, and how now they’re just another of the hundred ignored lines on EA’s balance sheet, is not our business here today, but instead that of one fan’s effort to improve one of the less faithful adaptations: the NES version of Ultima Exodus.
Ultima and Ultima II (and their predecessor Akalabeth) were popular, but Ultima III was the first megahit version of the game, that could be considered to stand up today. Ultima I was pretty small, and Ultima II had a lot of crazy elements like space travel. Ultima III has a much more cohesive game world, a more detailed quest, and generally feels a lot more like what we would consider an RPG game now. Later games would build off of it and become even more popular, especially Ultima IV with its detailed morality system, and Ultima VII with its vast game world, depth of NPC interaction, and many system and UI improvements.
Back to Ultima III. One of its best-selling versions was the Famicom version in Japan, which had a bit of a media blitz around its release. Both the Ultima and Wizardry games had something of a second life on Japanese computer systems and consoles, where they would go on to sell millions of copies more. While EA’s ownership and neglect have meant that Ultima is mostly gone and forgotten*, in Japan new Wizardry games continue to be made, hewing to that series’ original dungeon crawl aesthetic.
* This is, honestly, partly to series creator Richard Garriott’s ownership of several important characters, meaning both parties have to agree to the other’s vision for any further official Ultima game to be made. And Garriott seems to be chasing fads lately; his most recent idea for a game utilizes that bane of all game design concepts, NFTs.
So now you have a little idea of what Ultima is. The Famicom/NES version was a hit in Japan, but it differs from the computer version in many ways. This was pretty much the norm for the many Japanese-made Famicom adaptations of Western games. An article could be usefully written on all the ways Famicom ports of RPGs differ from their originals. Maybe later.
The point of this romhack is to change the NES version of Ultima III: Exodus so it more matches up with the computer versions. It uses its own patching system, so Romhacking.net’s web-based patching system won’t be of use.
So many little things have changed in this version that it’s hard to talk about! At the very least, the graphics have received a complete overhaul. The cartoony figures of the original, which were pretty silly even back then, look a lot more appropriate for a series with the stature and legacy of classic Ultima games.
NES Ultima Exodus is also notorious for a number of significant bugs, including the absence of an important clue, it being impossible to cancel a character’s turn without wasting it, poorly differentiated character classes, and the lack of some of the monsters of the computer version. These have been fixed in this version. Some other niceties have been added, including character portraits for the people you talk to, which is really going above and beyond for a game like this!
It’s pretty much become the definitive console release of this landmark of computer RPG gaming! You should check it out if you have an interest in these things.
In @Play yesterday I mentioned a number of games that use Wizardry’s weird world metaphor. They’re sort of like roguelikes in that the world is divided into a grid of discrete spaces, but instead of viewing them from overhead, you are given a first-person view from the center of that space.
You don’t move with the same kind of smoothly-adjusting motion as Wolfenstein 3D would bring a while later, but movement instead jerks along one space at a time, and you turn in 90 degree increments. These games all disorient the player just enough that mapping them becomes important, but can be easily mapped on graph paper. Your more fiendish RPG dungeons of the type have tricks they play on you as you explore specifically to disorient you, like teleporting you to an identical-looking corridor without telling you, or spinning you around randomly. Wizardry and Bard’s Tale in particular delight in doing this.
It’s such a distinctive and immediately recognizable way to represent dungeon exploration that I’m surprised there isn’t a fan name for it, like “shmup” or “belt scroller.” I’ve calling them blobbers, but those actually get their name from the fact that, if you are commanding a party of characters, they’re all considered to inhabit that one space. The term doesn’t really apply to the mode of movement, only the atomicity of your group.
I gave a list of a good number of games that offer this kind of movement, but shortly after I thought of a bunch more, and they’re such a weird and varied bunch that I figured I’d take it as an excuse to catalogue as many examples as come to mind, and say some words about them in passing.
In the beginning there’s the Wizardry games, of course. I don’t actually know if it’s the first of the type, but it’s the earliest I can think of. Wizardry games using this format include, I believe, the first seven in the series; the 8th (and last in the core series) finally switched to a full 3D engine. There’s also some Japanese Wizardry games, and some of them use the style as well, but I can only personally vouch for one. That’s eight in total.
There’s some games that use Wizardry-style mazes as only a part of the experience. Some of the Ultima games do this. The Ultima predecessor Akalabeth uses them, and I know Ultima III does too for its dungeons. That’s two more.
There’s two major series of Wizardly-inspired games. The original Bard’s Tale series were blobbers in the truest sense of the term. That’s four: I, II, III and Construction Set. The hugely underrated Might & Magic series also used them for both dungeons and their game worlds up to V. That’s nine more, for a running total of 19.
On the NES there are some surprising examples of the form. I already mentioned Interplay’s Swords & Serpents, a unique and probably doomed attempt to make a Bard’s Tale RPG on a ROM-based system. There’s multiple oodles (boodles! froodles! zoodles! poodles!) of interesting things about that game, like its character-specific password system and its four-player support, but we don’t have the time here to get into that. In fact, I could say that about nearly this entire list.
Two of the most ridiculous kinds of characters to explore 1st-person dungeons are a super spy (as in Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode) and lightbulb-tonguing uncle to a weird and macabre family (as in Fester’s Quest), both also on NES. Adding them to the pile brings us up to 22.
I mentioned Phantasy Star on Sega Master System and Arcana on SNES. There’s also Shining in the Darkness on Genesis and Double Dungeons on the TG16. There’s at least one Madou Monogatari game that uses the system, but I’m only adding games that I can remember without Googling or looking anything up, so I’m only counting it once. We’re now at 27.
There’s 3D Bomberman on the MSX, an early experiment in the Bomberman series where the mazes you’re in are 3D. In the arcade there’s Ed Logg’s Xybots, which was intended to be a Gauntlet sequel but the play ended up being different enough that he changed it to a sci-fi game. Xybots breaks the rules slightly because your character is visible, but it’s still that kind of grid-based, first-person maze. More recently there’s, hm… at least five Etrian Odyssey games? That brings the count up to 34.
Some more miscellaneous RPGs I mentioned last time: Dragon Wars, Eye of the Beholder, and Dungeon Hack. I particularly like Dragon Wars and Dungeon Hack, although for completely different reasons.
Oh! Let’s not forget about the D&D Gold Box series, which use 1st person grid mazes for dungeon exploration. That includes Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Secret of the Silver Blades, Pools of Darkness, Champions of Krynn, Death Knights of Krynn, Unlimited Adventures, and the Buck Rodgers game made in that style. There are other computer D&D games from the time, but they didn’t use that engine. These games also had other modes of exploration, and overhead-view combat, so they aren’t as tied to the format.
Finally there are some other miscellaneous games. Blobber-style mazes were a low-resource way of immersing the player in a labyrinth, even if there was nothing else in there of interest. My first exposure to the field was a C64 BASIC game called, natch, Labyrinth. I remember seeing a shareware DOS game called 3-Demon. The game that Strong Bad poked around in the Friendlyware video I linked last time is Killer Maze, and definitely fits the discretely granular bill.
So, all in all that’s 48 games completely from memory! But I’m sure there’s more; can you think of any others?
When Wolfenstein 3D came out this entire style of world presentation immediately fell out of favor. Wolf 3D has very much that same kind of grid-based world, but no longer is your position locked to the center of each space. You can turn in angles of less than 90 degrees, and there’s more of a real-time immediacy to the game that’s a lot more engaging.
Wolf 3D pretty easily destroyed this genre. Almost no blobber mazes show up from that point on except for some edge cases that are explicitly calling back to the old style, like the later Japanese Wizardry games and Etrian Odyssey. It is interesting that, once computers became powerful enough to render worlds in a more fluid and immediate kind of way, it made these kinds of distinctive presentation shortcuts irrelevant. It’s kind of saddening.
EDIT: One I had intended to include but somehow left out is Dungeon Master, which xot reminded me of in comments!
Kyle Orland at Ars Technica, who always does good work, has a long piece up about scandals in PC game collecting. It’s a close-knit subculture where members trust each other implicitly, but as the value of old games has gone up, it has recently been awash in forgeries.
A prime culprit in their distribution was Enrico Ricciardi, a prominent figure in the community who many members trusted. He is known for writing books on the history of the Ultima games and the early days of Ultima publisher Origin Systems. It’s not known that he was actually forging the copies of the games, but the fakes are known to have passed through his hands, and it’s considered by the group that he should have been able to spot fakes.
It’s a fascinating article that involves prominent Apple II disk imaging expert 4am doing forensics on a supposedly-legitimate disk of The Chambers of Xenobia and finding it was a cracked copy.