Thursday, July 3, 2014

Ultima: Quest of the Avatar (NES, 1990)

The best Ultima game on the NES... or any console, really. While it's an adaptation of Ultima IV, It's completely different than the PC version, much like Exodus. Unlike Exodus, this game is infinitely more playable. Let's get on with it.
This game got a sweet eight-page article in Volume 21 of Nintendo Power. Unfortunately, I don't have that issue.

Looks like they covered pretty much every aspect of the game in typical awesome Nintendo Power style. They even had some maps for the Stygian Abyss (the final dungeon). Wow.

Regardless, time to begin the game. Which one's faster? 9 is logically the fastest, but it's first! I'M SO CONFUSED. Let's try 1.

Protip: Yes, 9 is the fastest. I could only find that out by trying them and resetting. But hey, this is a lot better than the tutorial-fests that are modern games. "HEY MARIO! PRESS THE DIRECTION BUTTONS TO MOVE!"

Hell I spent like the first hour of Twilight Princess on forced tutorials. But I digress.

 At the outset, we get a bunch of questions that determine your ethical alignment. I like when games do this. All of these questions are very familiar, like whether or not to let someone else take credit for slaying a dragon. Maybe there's some stock pool for alignment-determining questions in videogames.

 What do I do? Kick 'em in the dick! Most bullying problems can be solved by a quick dick kick.

 I go full honesty as much as possible here. Apparently these virtues are hidden stats in the game, and you need to max all of them out to become an Avatar and power up. Interesting. 

The legendary Lord British Himself. One of the very very few videogame characters who actually exists in the real world in the form of Ultima creator and LARP-thusiast Richard Garriott.

My name? Sting. STING RETURNS! Question is, is he wrestler Sting or musician Sting? One thing is for sure: Nothing's for sure, but don't stand so! Don't stand so close to him! It's showtime, folks.

...huh. It seems I'm actually a female mage. I guess the questions at the outset don't just determine your starting levels in the virtue stats, they also determine your class. No idea how good mage is or isn't, so I just rolled with it.

The overworld. I very quickly cross through a portal and end up on an island...with no return portal. I'd spend the next half hour roaming around this island looking for something to do. Apparently the portals (Moongates) only appear during certain moon-phases, and if it isn't the phase you need you have to wait on the overworld while time passes. Enemies still accost you while you're standing still, 7th Saga style. Which is actually fine for level-building purposes.

I head into the first town I see, which turns out to be Moonglow. You've got your typical NES RPG menu here. Interesting that there's an attack option. I take this to mean that you can be a bad guy and attack townspeople? ...but that'd likely kill your virtue stats, which are necessary to beat the game, so it's pointless unless you want to go Full Heel for some reason.

 Weird, I start at level 2. Most games start you at level 1, and if you start higher than that it's usually level 5 or 10. Level 2 just seems so... random and pointless, like being the #2 entrant in the Royal Rumble. Yeah, you're in the same boat as the #1 entrant but without all the hype and fanfare.

Maybe I got to start at a higher level because of the barrage of questions at the beginning. Intriguing.



Er, so yeah, you learn spell recipes from talking to people, and have to buy ingredients from shops Evermore-style. Though I quickly discover that I have a huge spell repertoire already. More on that in a bit.

The game frequently gives you chances to change your alignment levels, but like I said you always want to be going towards the positive if you want to finish the game. In situations like these you can completely get away with shortchanging the guy, but you'll want to actually overpay him to get a righteousness boost.

 Far as I can tell there are only eight ingredients for spells. That's fairly simple.

 Battles take place on an impressive field screen where you can move around. For a mage it's particularly useful since you can stay out of the reach of foes. The spell list itself is fairly extensive for a newbie-level character, and this isn't even all of it. Missile seems to be the cheapest attack spell I have and does about 12 damage at this point. Fire and Ice are both substantially stronger, but they use more MP. ...yes, this game has MP in addition to reagents. It isn't messing around; being a spellcaster isn't simple.

 Enemies always drop a chest after battle, and these chests have random GP rewards. Also, NONE OF THEM EXPLODE. If you read my Exodus post you'll remember that about half the chests I opened just decimated my party, one of the reasons I didn't play very much of that game.

We also have your standard Inns in this game. They're quite detailed for an NES-era RPG. All things considered, this game is right up there with a Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy in presentation and actually surpasses them to some extent in depth/gameplay. Could this finally be a console Ultima worth playing through? Yes.
One thing I don't like is that enemies are never named, they're just "Enemy 1" and so on. How about Skeleton 1? It'd add a lot to the game. Plus I can't really tell what a lot of the enemies are.

Perhaps our heroine could interest you in some...HLA?

...Okay then.

I grinded for a little while, trying to reach level 3 and having no luck. Then I talked to Lord British again (after finding my way back through the Moongate) and... zapow, he grants you levels. Now it makes sense. So you need to return to him after any given dungeon/adventure and get a power boost. I kinda like this, makes levels seem more important than if I could just grind them out in the field.

 If you tell him that you aren't in good health, he...

...heals you for free! What kind of socialist commie medicine is this?

I get my second party member at this point, Iolo the Bard. So the other party members are the Avatar's buddies? Why wouldn't Mariah join me? Weird. Maybe because we're both mages, and for whatever reason you can't overlap. Gonna keep an eye out for Shamino and Dupre.

I find my first rune... a townsperson told me to search by the stairs. Yep, this game is OLD-SCHOOL, and all your hints are from townspeople.

Now there are TWO of us! Enemy 1 doesn't stand a chance! ...I think those might be minotaurs. Or more accurately, Evermore-style Mini-taurs.

Hang out by a shoreline for a few minutes and a pirate ship will attack. I don't think this happens until you're level 3, possibly 4. What follows is a scenario right out of FF1, as you beat up the pirates and take their ship. Since we're outnumbered by four times, it isn't easy.

Bam! Got a ship. Pirate ships will continue to hound you, and you can hijack those ships too if you fight them on a coastline. Now I can cruise around the overworld, which is fairly expansive: ESSENTIAL WORLD MAP HERE

It's worth noting that the entire Ultima series (or at least, this game onward...unsure about the first three) has the same overworld. Towns and castles undergo changes throughout the series, but the continental setup is the same throughout and key places like Castle Britannia and Empath Abbey generally stay in the same spot. It's pretty damn cool, actually. It might be the only RPG series that I've seen besides Elder Scrolls that takes place in a persistent world. When I was a kid I used to wish that the Final Fantasy games were like that.

Seahorses, the terror of the Ultima series, attack en-masse as you cruise around. Actually, random encounters in this game are a bit too common and a bit too intrusive. They usually go on for several minutes, though emulator frameskip helps a lot. A big issue is that while they have range attacks, you probably don't early on, so they can pelt you with attacks from the water. It helps to buy Slingshots for your characters ASAP. The weakest range weapon, but the only affordable one for most of the game and surprisingly decent.

Each city has its own virtue-theme. Jhelom is the city of Justice, and wouldn't you know it, it has a court and jail. This gives me violent flashbacks to my rebellious youth in D-Block getting passed around by Julio.

Giving blood (100 HP at a time) is a good way to up your Compassion virtue stat. It seems you need to max out all eight virtue stats in order to achieve Avatarhood. You can go about this any way you want while you go around collecting the Runes of Virtue and their corresponding Stones. Actually, this game is completely open and lets you deal with things in any order you want. The enemies scale in power/number with your levels and the amount of party members you have, so there's always balance and you don't need to worry about roaming into a place you're not allowed to be in yet.

 Moongates are one of the cooler things about this game... yet they're also really irritating. Their destination points change depending on the moon-phase, and the time you spend waiting for them to appear and getting attacked is quite tedious. I wish they would stay put, never close, and always take you to the same destination. That would more than make up for the lack of a Return spell in this game, because you spend a heck of a lot of time hoofing it around.

Here's Magincia, the requisite town of monsters. No one here is fond of our heroes.

While roaming around the overworld I take my first death...and discover that dying in this game has basically no penalty. It warps you back to Castle Britannia (sometimes a big time-saver!) and fully heals everyone at no cost. However, your gold gets reset to 400, so if you have 5000 gold saved up you're SOL. ...that said, if you have zero gold and die, it bumps you UP to 400. This is a nice little exploit and makes it easy to get gear for your characters early on. Too bad all you can afford with 400 gold are the weakest armor and weapons, but it's a huge help for reagent-buying.

Another familiar face. He's the guy most people play as in the Game Boy Runes of Virtue games, since he's a tough paladin. This game is no exception, as he starts with a sword and chainmail in a time when my other characters are using clubs and leather armor.

 There's a dungeon in the basement of Castle Brittania. I don't think it's a Virtue dungeon, but it's a centralized dungeon that contains warps to the depths of the eight main dungeons. Seems like a fairly optional shortcut-type place, but it's crucial for stat-building. Unfortunately, I need a key to get in, and the key costs 2000 G. Farming gold to get the key should be the first major goal anyone works towards in this game. Once you get the key, you can open virtually any door in the towns. This lets you get a bunch of runes, as well as max out your stats in this dungeon.

Our heroes stumble upon a drunken buffoon in the woods. It's just like walking around the park here in Boston.

Here's Katrina, the Shepherd and my fourth party member. I've read that Shepherd is the worst class in this game. Contrary to what the guide says, she CAN'T use the Bow +1 which is pretty much the best weapon. I got her because I thought she could, so this is quite a disappointment. I'll go for Shamino the Ranger whenever I can. Shamino, Dupre, and Iolo can all use the Bow +1, which will give me a huge advantage should I ever farm the 12000 gold needed to buy three of them. ...probably won't. The only better buyable weapon is the Wand, which could go on my main. That'd give me an offensive barrage at range that'd put these slingshots to shame, but it'd take a huge amount of grinding that I don't feel like doing.

I'm starting to collect boats around Castle Britannia. Wonder if it's possible to just line the shores with these things, since the pirates infinitely respawn.

Buccaneer's Den is in the middle of the sea, and it's a crucial location. You can buy the Bow +1 and Wand here, as well as the Key (which is why I'm here).

 My God! Are all the shopkeepers in this game blind?

Here's the key and the weapons I'm after...which I need quite a bit more money for. Money-grinding might well be the most time-consuming part of this game. Reminds me of Golvellius. Or you could just not bother, and probably fare pretty decently with Slingshots. Though battles take a bit too long that way. I wonder if dungeons would be a better way to raise my gold totals than overworld battles... if I can find a dungeon with respawning gold chests, that'd be primo.

 Time for HELLA GRINDING~! to get the Key. Now that I have four characters, I can fight more enemies at a time. While this ups the amount of exp I get from battles, the gold I get from post-battle chests seems to be the same as it was before (random, 1 to 90). Since battles take a bit longer now, I wonder if I would have been better off farming gold when I just had a solo character. Don't know, but this way my other characters can get exp too.

Reviving Iolo has been a money drain for me, since he gets beaten up a lot. It was particularly frustrating in one battle when it wouldn't let me heal him for some reason. For the most part, I put him in the back of the party and kept an eye on his HP. If anyone in this motley crew can take point against the enemies, it's Dupre. The rest are range characters, without a doubt.

After I finally get the Key, I go back to where I found Katrina. In the next room over you can get her best armor...and only armor besides the starting armor. It's the Water Flying Cloth of this game.

I didn't bother farming gold for Bow +1s and a Wand, much less better armor for anyone. Took ages to get the 2000 for the Key. Now I can go into Hythloth, the dungeon in Britannia's basement.

 Enemies attack in bigger groups in dungeons, and they can quickly wear you down if you aren't prepared. It's worth noting that Sting is level 6, Dupre (who kills more enemies and thus levels faster) is level 7, and Katrina/Iolo are lagging a thousand exp behind at level 5. The maximum level in this game is 8, but it takes a super-long time to go from 7 to 8. Weird.

Dungeons have a 3-D perspective. You can move one square at a time, so things have a very slideshow feel to them.

Casting Exit in Hythloth sends you to a valley with a hot air balloon. You can jump in and it'll start randomly flying around the world at high speed. This is wild. With the Wind spell, you can control the direction the balloon goes in, and it can be landed in any plains. Pretty weird take on an airship, but I like it. It's the gaming world's most unique fast travel method.

This is probably a good time to mention the main thing I like about this game. While it's far more forgiving (and playable) than Exodus or Warriors of Destiny, it still doesn't hold your hand at all. It feels less like a game and more like a real-world adventure. Kinda like Daggerfall. You have some vague objectives and you can go about them any way you want while building up your character.

There's a definite storyline, but it doesn't box you in or make you follow a set order of events. My first adventure was to get a boat and travel around assembling a party. There are numerous characters available, but I tracked down the three that I specifically wanted. My second adventure was your typical grind-fest as I went for the Key. From there, I got Katrina's best robe, worked on maxing my characters stats, and then went on a journey to find the Runes of Virtue.

 Stat maxing is a simple matter of finding this orb. After Exiting from Hythloth to the balloon valley, go back into the entrance that you appear at. The orb is two steps away from said entrance. It raises all of a character's stats by 5, and respawns when you leave the dungeon (two steps away). It also kills the character it boosts, oddly enough. If you use it on all four characters (and the hero last since their death is game over), you'll get warped back to Lord British at full health. From there it's a simple matter to just warp back down here and repeat a few times. My character stats were all in the 20-30 range, but after a few rounds of this I had them all maxed-out at 50 across the board. It's a big help against enemies, and not as overpowering as you'd expect. Not sure if leveling them to 8 is even all that necessary since the stat-maxing gives you more of an advantage over enemies.

This is what you want your hero to look like before you really get started with the dungeons of the game. Unless you're a pro, of course. He could be level 8 with a Wand, but I think this is sufficient.

 My last order of business is to find the eight Runes of Virtue, since they're in the various towns. Definitely need a guide for some of these, as at least two of them are in the middle of unmarked fields.

The most out-of-the-way rune is in the depths of a furnace in a blacksmith hut on the edge of the world. The floor inside the furnace is damaging, as I presume it's the equivalent of walking on hot coals.

In Skara Brae, a town without a rune, I find a fifth party member. Been looking for Shamino, and it figures that he's in the most out-of-the-way town on the map. Now I can switch Katrina out for someone who can actually use a Bow +1.

I took the balloon to get to Skara Brae, and with the right winds I sailed right back to Castle Britannia.

This is one of those games that you really do need a heads-up as to how things work. Someone going into this game blind would probably think it was awful. "I can't even control the damn airship" they'd say. Stuff like this is just a matter of knowing what to do beforehand. The Wind spell pushing the airship in different directions is a lot like traveling in Zelda: The Wind Waker.

There's a hostel in Castle Britannia where you can switch your characters out. Interesting. So I totally could have recruited that Geoff guy I ran into earlier without losing any ground. Oh well. Now I've got the only party I'll need for the rest of the game. Shame I can't give Katrina's uber Robe to my mage-hero, who is stuck wearing Cloth.

 There we go. Some very familiar names here. Shamino is, unfortunately, behind on levels. He starts at level 2...oddly enough. Catching him up won't take too long, since level requirements raise exponentially (so each level takes twice as much exp as the one before it). While the others are going from level 6 to 7 Shamino could go from level 2 to 6.

I'll also need to go get him max stat boosts from that orb in Hythloth, but that'll take all of ten minutes.

 And done. Shamino is a very good character even at a lower level. Far far better than Katrina, as it turns out. Don't make the same mistake I did; just stay away from Katrina.

Got all eight runes. Not even sure what they do yet, but I know they're needed to finish the game. Maybe they're part of attaining Avatarhood once you max out the eight virtue stats. The only thing left to do now is...

 ...get some cojones. Or rather, clear the eight dungeons to get the eight Stones of Virtue. Also gotta get Avatarhood. I know once all of that is done you have to clear the Abyss, which is a massive dungeon that the hero has to do alone. Interesting stuff, but I'm going to stop here rather than start on the dungeons.

This game is waaaay better than Exodus or Warriors of Destiny on the NES. They made two Ultima main series ports for the Super NES, as well. The False Prophet and The Black Gate were based on VI and VII respectively. Out of III through VII's console ports, the only ones worth playing are IV (this one) and VI. From what I've heard the rest are awful. Ultima VI: The False Prophet for the Super NES is said to be good like this one, though. Did all of that make sense? There are also the Runes of Virtue games which were designed specifically for consoles; I'd like to check those out eventually.

I'll probably play through the rest of this game some point, but my coverage of it ends here. If anyone wants to see a part two of this game that continues onward, leave a comment below. If it gets some votes I'll make it happen.

Other NES Ultima Games:

 Ultima: Quest of the Avatar 


  1. Wow, Mariah shut you down hard.

    Did you have any problems with main-character death in this game?

    It would be hilarious if you could build up a fleet of ships and attack something with them.

    1. No problems with main character death at all, surprisingly (given his/her mage-ness). Since you can move characters around on the battlefield, I could put the main character into retreat mode while the others take point if a battle starts going south. Some enemies are spellcasters, but I have yet to see any instant-death spells or otherwise over-damaging magic.

  2. This looks awesome, and I'd love to see the end of it whenever you feel like picking it up again. Seems very much worth finishing and I'm glad there's an Ultima they got right, with scaling and everything.
    Having Honesty and Honor be opposites is really interesting. And true, I think.

  3. I liked reading this review, I liked the pacing, I like the feel you gave for the game situated in its era.

    I have a very hazy recollection of being able to play through less than a quarter of what you did at my friend's house. We tried really hard to answer the moral questions at the start as reasonably as possible, and of course got the shepherd.

    This is also a lot of inspiration for a project I'm working on, check me out: