ULTIMA 4 / Origin / Sega Master System

Ultima 4 comes from the Read The Manual era of PC games; where little to nothing was explained in-game, and you were not only expected to study the manual prior to even installing the game, but to keep it handy at all times as you played. And not only that, but to take notes and make your own maps as well. So it's kind of an odd game to port to console, particularly in the two-button 8-bit era. The NES port (handled by a different company) attempted to make some concessions to the console market by making it more JRPG-like. The SMS version, on the other hand, is pretty much a straight port of the PC version. The only additions are some nice little classical guitar tunes here and there, and reducing the hotkey-heavy PC control scheme to a convenient menu of commands that comes up when you press the A button.

If you're not prepared to do some Work, this game will run you off quick. There's no in-game map of the world, and you can only see a few squares around your character at any given time, making navigation a nightmare without the pack-in map of the game. The game actually gives you no idea about your overall quest at the outset, and most players will learn about it only by stumbling out into the wilderness, getting owned by some mage, then getting teleported to Lord British's castle and revived, whereupon the omnipresent ren-fester king explains the whole deal to you. Hell, the game doesn't even tell you what your character class is at the outset, assuming you know the links the game makes between tarot cards/towns and character class. There's no real "status screen" for your character, so you can't see that or a few other basic pieces of information you'd expect to be standard in an RPG. And then there's the obtuse Moongate system of travel, which you need the manual for to know when and where moons will show up, and where they'll take you.

The main thing I don't understand with this port is that the graphics were shrunk needlessly. The Master System had more than enough power to handle a faithful graphical reproduction of the PC version, so I have no idea why they chose to smush everything down and waste a bunch of screen space. Yeah, they had to accomodate menus, but they really couldn't handle doing some sort of overlay? Or at least having a smaller font?

Ultima IV is one of those games that was impressive for being new and high-concept at the time (open world, moral system), but does not pass the test of time at all in terms of simply having fun with it. Aside from how demanding it is of using outside references and making your own maps and notes, there's barely even a story, and the most threadbare dialogue possible. And while the "moral choice" system here was a pioneering idea and undoubtedly influential on all sorts of other games, in actual practice it's about as primitive as it gets. The goal is to go around the world raising your eight "virtue" levels by doing good deeds, since you need to master the eight virtues to open the final dungeon. "Virtue" actions are laughably simplistic - give a bum money endlessly to raise your Compassion, for example. Some are also annoyingly contradictory, like forcing you to fight battles and never run away to raise Courage, but then throwing enemies you can't possibly be ready to handle at you outside of the starting towns and punishing you if you run from them, or punishing you if you trash up too many weak enemies or lob missile weapons at a retreating asshole. And virtue cause-and-effect is not documented anywhere in-game; I'm not sure if the manual covers it, but you're not able to check your current Virtue levels except by going to a shrine located in one of the main towns, so you can't do a quick check on the fly to see if an action had an effect or not.

There's an article that has been making the rounds the last couple of years, written by a guy who teaches game design at some university or another. Every semester he puts his students through older "classic" titles that have less "accessible" interfaces and asks them to post their thoughts on them. They work through games like Fallout and the first Civilization and end up enjoying them, but the one they universally seem to give up on early is Ultima IV. Their perspective is pretty much summed up by this quote - "I'd say for gamers of our generation, an RPG like Ultima IV is boring and pretty much unplayable." (http://www.brainygamer.com/the_brainy_gamer/2010/09/unplayable.html). The guy writing this acts like this is some dismaying phenomenon, and thinks it speaks to some sort of decay in modern gamers thanks to modern gaming conventions. Well ... I grew up in the 1980s-1990s generation of PC games, I taught myself the intricacies of PC hardware and DOS just to get these games working, and I learned and played any number of complex games. And even during that time, I always found the early Ultima games rather tedious and uninteresting to play. The "inaccessible" elements of this game are sheerly due to game design praxis and technology in the 80s still being in a relatively primitive state of development. Now that it's not ... what earthly reason is there to continue to put up with it? I think the author also makes the mistake of equating "important" with "enjoyable." You can appreciate the contributions Ultima IV made to gaming while also admitting that it has aged absolutely terribly and gives the modern player almost no reason to bother with it, you know? Either that or it's just the good ol' Nostalgia Goggles at work. Either way, the NES port of this game is a little more playable and inviting if you're really curious about it.

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