Friday, March 24, 2017

1986/1987

   
Since I retracted my "DOS/Windows-only" rule, functionally in 2012 and explicitly in 2013, prompting the dual lists off of which I now work, we've had some great games--plenty to make me happy that I took that step. I got to play all the Robert Clardy and Stuart Smith games. I was exposed to Galactic Adventures, an important step in the SSI line. I wrote about some of the earliest Japanese RPGs, plus plenty of German ones. I was exposed to John Carmack's early gaming efforts via a series of diskmag titles for the Apple II. I finally covered Questron.

By a certain point--we're almost there on my "later" list--the rule would have been moot anyway, as DOS and Windows became the dominant operating systems and other platforms were discontinued. My 1992 list has 65 games, and only 6 of them do not have DOS or Windows versions. 

Where we find ourselves in 1986, and likely more so in 1987 and 1988, is an era in which most good games had DOS ports. In the late 1980s, the Apple II and the Commodore 64 were waning as the dominant American gaming platforms. Only the Amiga was offering serious non-DOS competition. Most of the titles that didn't have a DOS port were from B-list publishers that couldn't afford it, or foreign publishers offering game for niche audiences. We have, in short, passed the area in which a game that I pick up because of my "rule change" is likely to be very good. I've run through a dozen 1986 titles since returning to the year last September, and only one of them--Phantasie II--has crossed the "recommended" threshold of around 35. Most of the rest have been dreck, with no chance of unseating Starflight as "Game of the Year."
    
It's been so long since I played Starflight and Might & Magic that I could have happily played them again.
    
The more interesting question is why I selected Starflight in the first place. It only had one serious competitor: Might & Magic. While there were elements to like about The Bard's Tale II, Larn, Shard of Spring, Roadwar 2000, Phantasie II, and even Swords of Glass, Might & Magic and Starflight stand so high above the others that to pretend they had a chance would just be cruel. The two competitors excelled in different areas, too: Starflight in its world-building, NPC interaction, and exploration, Might & Magic in its approach to combat, inventory, character development, dungeon construction, and quests.
    
The real best game of 1986?
   
In the first "yearly transition" posting that I wrote, I retroactively assigned "Game of the Year" status to earlier games. Of my 1986 choice, I said:
  
1986: It's a tough choice between Might & Magic I and Starflight. The former took the best of Wizardry and improved on it, creating a series that would churn out fantastic games for 20 years. The latter is an ahead-of-its-time science fiction game with an incredible plot and extremely memorable NPCs and encounters. In terms of sheer influence, I think I'd have to go with Starflight.
   
I wonder now what I was talking about in the last sentence. Might & Magic produced 9 sequels and countless imitators. What is the influence that I saw, in contrast, from Starflight? Did I think it affected later science fiction RPGs? If so, I don't think I've encountered one yet that shows a clear Starflight influence.

Nonetheless, although I'd probably make a different choice today, I don't think the choice was so obviously wrong that I want to reverse it. I'll leave the 1986 "Game of the Year" as Starflight for now, but I'll have done a disservice to the Might & Magic franchise if it doesn't earn the title for at least one of its releases.

I don't see a lot of common themes among the 1986 games, but there are two curious developments:

  • SSI! The publisher released four RPGs this year--Rings of Zlifin, Shard of Spring, Roadwar 2000, and Phantasie II--all of of which offer a very different approach. This is the first time we've seen four CRPGs from the same publisher in the same year (Epyx came close with 3 per year between 1980 and 1983). It will go one better with 5 in 1988 and then exceed that with 6 in 1991 and another 6 in 1992. SSI will, in fact, occupy the top spot for "most CRPGs published" every year from 1986 all the way through 1994, the year it was sold to Mindscape. All the way through 2007 (the latest my spreadsheet goes), no company breaks its record.

  • France! As I remarked in the last transition, we're in a brief "golden age" of French RPGs. I looked at four in 1986--Fer & Flamme, Les Templiers d'Orven, and Tera--and failed to get a fourth (Le Fer d'Amnukor) working. The three games from this year don't have a lot in common, but in general France has shown a curious immunity to the trends of the past. Orven is the most derivative of these titles, and even it showed some starkly original elements that would be unfamiliar to players of Wizardry. I can't even fathom what previous RPG experience influenced the developers of Fer & Flamme and Tera, and I already know that one 1987 title--Le Maitre des Ames--has a similarly untraceable lineage. We'll soon see if the same is true of the other two: Le Anneau de Zengara and Omega: Planete Invisible.
   
French RPGs continue to be just ineffably odd.
    
Boosted primarily by Starflight and Might & Magic, the average GIMLET score for a 1986 title was 27.89, only slightly higher than 1985 (27.56) but nonetheless the highest so far. It is not inevitable that the average score increases with the year: 1984 (20.50) was lower than 1983 (22.94), which was lower than 1981 (23.90), and so far 1991 (33.32) is lower than 1990 (36.15). The minimum score for 1986 (13) was the highest of the 1980s thusfar, as was the maximum (60). Overall, this makes 1986 a pretty good year. It just doesn't seem like it lately because I've been sweeping up the detritus. I played the good stuff during my first year of blogging.
     
I'm looking forward to the pipe-smoking rabbit-horse again.
    
1987 is going to see me revisiting a few titles to which I gave slapdash attention the first time around, including Alien Fires: 2199 AD, Le Maitre des Ames, and maybe even Braminar and Wizardry IV. Beyond that, we see a few themes:

  • The growth of the Mac-only RPG. Regrettably, I couldn't play the first one: 1986's OrbQuest (couldn't find it); in 1987, we'll have Quarterstaff, Scarab of Ra, and The Dungeon Revealed. I want to play the former before I get to 1991's Shadowkeep, but it's been a pain to emulate the Mac so far.
  • The last gasps of the ZX Spectrum. I'll have to endure this platform for exactly two more games: 1987's The Kingdom of Krell and 1989's Tower of Light. After that, the UK firmly joins the Amiga world, with most titles having DOS ports.
  • A couple of new countries. 1987 brings the earliest known Australian RPG (Doc the Destroyer) and the earliet known Finnish RPG (SpurguX). The latter, a roguelike involving a hobo looking for a bottle of brandy, promises to be a barrel of laughs, at least if I can get the translation working.

Between new games and revisits, I'm starting the year with 29 games. Naturally, some will fall to the definition axe. The list is total chaos. I basically know what to expect from Alternate Reality: The Dungeon and The Eternal Dagger (both sequels to games I've played), but that's about it. The rest of the year is full of titles I've never heard of (e.g., Habitat, Land of Spur, Skariten, Tower of Myraglen) mostly from developers I've never heard of (e.g., Compile, Asgard, Balistic, Beam). An awful lot are independent, which makes me anticipate a series of one-offs in which I grudgingly try to say something nice. But at least one, Deathlord, promises to be epically long.

I've been toying with reaching the end of 1991 on my "main" list and then just staying there until I get caught up on my secondary list. That's currently about 80 games, but it'll likely be only 60 after I get done hacking and may be less than 50 by the time I actually reach the end of 1991. If I could do that, I'd feel better about writing more "special topics" postings or even the occasional one-shot on a console game. I'll make that decision in my "1991/1992" transition, but I'm happy to take opinions.

In the meantime, let's leap into 1987 with a second visit to the uniquely bizarre Alien Fires: 2199 AD.



Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Game 246: Wrath of Denethenor (1986)

    
The Wrath of Denethenor
United States
Independently developed; published by Sierra
Released in 1986 for Apple II and Commodore 64
Date Started: 6 March 2017
Date Ended: 13 March 2017
Total Hours: 26
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

The Wrath of Denethenor is the most competent Ultima clone that we've seen, perhaps excepting, if we're extending that term to it, Questron. Difficult and complicated, it at times exceeds Ultima I-II, although that might be faint praise for 1986, given what came out in between. It took me long enough to win that I could have squeezed at least 3 entries out of it, but it came up at an odd time where I'd already written and scheduled the next 5 entries, so I didn't need to stretch this one out. That's probably for the best: it's a long game to conquer, but not a lot of plot happens in between.
    
Some scrolling text at the beginning sets up the story.
    
The setup is of the typical "evil wizard" variety. Once, the land of Deledain was in balance, with four island kingdoms--Nisondel, Cestiona, Arveduin, and Mystenor--ruled independently. Then Lord Denethenor of Mystenor (a likely play on The Lord of The Rings' Denethor) started exploring the dark arts and decided he wanted to rule everything. He's sent monsters to flood the neighboring lands, and everyone is terrified. The PC is a young adventurer from Nisondel--so far, the least affected of the kingdoms--who sets out to stop the threat.
    
Approaching the King of Nisondel.
    
There's no character creation except the specification of a name. Every character starts with 5 strength and intelligence, 1000 hit points, 600 stamina, 300 gold, and no items. The game is unique, however, in that information about the character and the world state is written to all four of the game disks. More on the ramifications of this in a bit.
     
Character creation.
    
All commands are delivered by a single key, such as (C)onverse, (H)oist anchor, (O)pen door, and (R)est. Movement is with the IJKM cluster.

Each of the four kingdoms is an island, or series of islands, and the game starts on Nisondel. The monsters are easiest here, and the towns are completely safe. Each kingdom has its own map, and each map (nonsensically) wraps around on itself, as do the dungeon maps. There are multiple dungeons in the game, although some of them are completely optional.
    
Working my way through a dungeon.
    
In its opening stages, the game will seem very familiar to anyone who's played Ultima II. Monsters spawn all around the land and sometimes stack up behind mountains or on peninsulas where their pathfinding is poor. Combat is a little more complex than Ultima--instead of just hitting (A)ttack, you hit TAB (CTRL on the Commodore) and the direction you want to attack, then specify a high, level, or low attack. These options don't really add anything to the combat except force you to pay attention whether you're facing a regular creature, a small creature, or a flying creature.
     
Grinding for gold and items against a line of monsters while more wait behind the mountains.
   
When the creature dies, it sometimes delivers gold, sometimes one of the special items you need to cast spells. Anyone who remembers mowing down rogues and guards hoping to find blue tassels, keys, and powder will have a similar experience here, killing monsters to find torches, scrolls, pendants, charms, and silver powder. There is otherwise no experience or leveling in the game, and thus no reason to kill things except that they're trying to kill you.

Equipment is pretty basic. There are maybe 8 weapons, ranging in quality from whip to rapier, which adjust your strength up to a maximum of 30. There's no creative swapping of weapons here; when you hit (E)quip, you just get the best one. Armor comes only in four types, cloaks to plate, and simply absorbs a fixed number of damage points.
     
Equipping the "best items" later in the game.
     
Denethenor's somewhat odd approach doesn't become fully clear until you've played it for a while. Hit points, the most important resource of any other game, are worth virtually nothing here. The character needs only to find some safe corner and rest indefinitely to earn up to 9,999 of them. The far greater danger, just like the early Ultima games, is starving to death. A "stamina" score is boosted by food and depleted with every action and with every spell cast.

Since food costs money--as does equipment--the primary mechanism of gameplay is to get as rich as possible. You can try to do that by grinding against enemies, but they deliver paltry amounts of gold. To really bulk up your resources, you need to find treasure chests. Dungeons have them, and they regenerate slowly over time, but the best way--the way that the game seems tailor-made to support--is burglarizing them in towns and castles, just like in Ultima III.
     
Taking those chests is going to involve killing 3 guards and casting at least two instances of RESONIM--but there are enough of them to be worth it.
    
There are a couple of twists to this thievery. First, some chests are behind locked doors and energy fields, and when all is said and done, you might find that you've expended more in stamina and items than you made via the chests. Second, stealing turns the chest owners and guards hostile. Unlike Ultima II--where you could steal, kill some guards, flee town, and re-enter to find everyone alive again--NPC deaths in Denethenor are permanent and saved to the game state. Kill a shopkeeper and you'll never be able to buy what he's selling again. Kill a random NPC and you'd better hope that you got his clue first. Thus, to make the most out of theivery, you really have to study the map, figure out the best means of entry and escape, and calculate the risk/reward ratio.
    
A guard is prophetic.
    
Once you have the best equipment, the need for gold becomes less acute--food isn't that expensive--and you can give up the life of crime, but I rather found these opening stages the most interesting of the game.

The outdoor and indoor terrain will again be familiar to an Ultima player--including impassable mountains, water, store counters, locked and unlocked doors, shop names spelled out in large letters read from above, hidden areas in each town where you find key NPCs, and ships that you need to steal. NPC dialogue is also the same: NPCs have only one line, and most of them say generic things like "Having a nice day?" or (for guards), "Behave yourself!" A few key NPCs have major hints, and chief among these are the words of power that you need to speak to cast the game's 10 spells, which are more like puzzle-solving devices than traditional combat spells.
     
An NPC gives a clue as to the location of a spell.
     
Some major differences become clear after a few hours. First, the lands and cities of Denethenor are much larger than any Ultima or Questron game. I might even say that they're too large. They exhausted me a bit. Each land has islands and peninsulas cut off from the mainland, and you have to find your way around with "dimension doors," multiple dungeon entrances and exits, and (when you can find them) ships.

Second, dungeons are still top-down rather than first-person. To navigate them, you have to have been told the TULICANRE spell and have a supply of torches on which to cast the enchantment. They're full of traps (there's a "disarm" option, but I found it usually fails), treasures, and complex twisty passages. Like the lands and towns, some of them are simply enormous and require multiple hours to fully explore.
     
The mapping spell helps figure out a complex dungeon.
     
Third, the game is fairly linear. You basically progress from Nisondel to Cestiona to Arveduin to the Isles of Bregalad to Mystenor, in that order, and even within the individual maps, you often have to follow an exact path through mountains, dungeons, towns, water, and dimension doors to find your way to the next map. This makes it particularly hard towards the endgame because you lack opportunities to easily backtrack for food and supplies. The shops are very inconsistent. The best weapon (the rapier) can only be purchased on the first map, and the first town you encounter, Backwoods, has the only location where you can sell excess inventory. There isn't necessarily a food shop in every town.

Thematically, the progression of lands is fun to experience. The first three kingdoms have kings in their castles who give you 10 point boosts to intelligence. The ruler of Cestiona even gives you a side-quest to find some hemlock. Monsters get progressively harder, and by the fourth map, they're even showing up in towns. There's one town that's completely overrun by monsters, with all the shops smashed and empty, and you find the townsfolk living underground, voluntarily sacrificing themselves into a volcano to keep the orcs at bay. (This "town" is the only place where you can actually purchase spell reagents.)
    
An underground town is menaced by orcs.
    
One by one, from exhaustively talking to NPCs, you get the game's 10 spells. As I said, most of them are for navigation and puzzle-solving. SPECERE makes a map; TULICANRE lights a torch; NETRELON lets you pass locked doors; and RESONIM dispels energy fields temporarily.
    
SPECERE helps you figure your location in the large overworld.
    
A couple other useful ones are a "time stop" spell called MONSROL that lets you run past monsters, and an invisibility spell called INSLERETE. Late in the game you get spells that damage or destroy enemies, but by then stamina is so precious it seems irresponsible to waste 50 points casting, say, a LETHREN (fireball). The earliest spells all require an item to cast: a scroll for SPECERE, a torch for TULICANRE, a charm for NETRELON, and so forth. But about half of the spells--including the vital RESONIM--don't require anything.

The game does some interesting things with its disks to minimize swapping. All of the towns, lands, and dungeons in one area will be on one disk so you only really have to swap when you (rarely) move between lands. Moreover, as you do move between lands the game saves the changes you've made to them (e.g., chests plundered, NPCs killed). When you go to save the character, the game just saves him on whatever disk is active. When you quit and reload, the game has to do some scouting of the disks sometimes to find the character file.
     
The game occasionally shows a sense of humor.
     
One unwelcome element is the day/night cycle. Such a concept is hardly new to Denethenor, but what is unusual here is the length of the cycles. It takes 5 game actions for 1 minute to pass, so a whopping 3,600 actions make up a 12-hour cycle. At 19:00, the world starts growing darker and doesn't get fully light again for 3,600 more actions. This makes outdoor and town exploration difficult without wasting a lot of torches (which don't fully light up the area anyway). And you can't just sleep away the time: the (R)est command does nothing more than pass the turns in place as if you were holding down the SPACE bar. It also depletes precious stamina.
   
I'm just going to have to live with this for a while.
    
Other minor notes:

  • Enemies can blunder into traps, get hit by each others' spells and ranged attacks, and get caught when dispelled energy fields turn back on. That's always fun.
  • Hit points regenerate as you walk and rest outside or in dungeons. They do not regenerate in towns.
  • After you cast a spell, a little meter takes a few rounds to recharge before you can cast again. This has major consequences towards the end of the game.
  • Some of the dungeons are completely dark--torches don't work--and you have to navigate with the SPECERE spell or by feeling your way.
  • Some of the towns have banks, but you can't actually do anything with them except, I suppose, rob them.
    
And how often do kings wander into town?
    
  • Enemy wizards have a highly-original attack by which they send you flying away from them until you hit an impassable object. Outdoors, they can send you shooting across an entire continent until you slam into a mountain range.
  • There's a unique creature here called a terrahydra which originates in the sea but can climb up and attack you on land; it has a different icon for each location. I think all of Ultima's creatures are land- or sea-only.
  • Enemies can attack and move on the diagonal, but the character can only move and attack in the four cardinal directions.
  • When you're in a ship, you attack with ships' cannons, but you don't get any gold or items from the kills.
    
Attacking a "terrahydra" from a ship.
    
To win the game, I had to find the right paths, ladders, and doors through the continents to the final land of Mystenor. I had to look up a hint at one point when I couldn't find a way forward; it turned out I needed to visit a particular city during the midnight hour to find the teleporter (I must have missed a hint).
   
Actually, it turns out that I screen-shot the hint. I just didn't remember it.
    
Very late in the game, I found the hemlock that the king of Cestiona wanted. But by the time I found it, I couldn't figure out how to easily get back to the king. I never turned in this quest. The developer later told me that if I had, I would have received a significant boost to my intelligence, which would have made the endgame much easier.

Eventually, my ship came upon an island with Castle Denetheor. It was surrounded by energy fields that I had to dispel with a RESONIM. As I entered, I expected combats, but instead I found friendly guards and NPCs who said things like, "Someday, the truth will be revealed and Mirrih dethroned" and "the other Lords of Deledain are just jealous." Denethenor, sitting on his throne, greeted me with a friendly, "Live long, friend." I thought the game was setting me up for a plot twist, but I didn't know how to act on it, so I decided to try to kill Denethenor to see what happened.
    
The nicest villain ever.
    
He died in about 2 hits. When I stepped where his throne had been, the entire castle and its NPCs were revealed as an illusion. The facade disappeared and I was standing in a crumbling ruin next to a message that said "UrenDuirEsex." 
    
"Ruined ur sex?"
    
A teleporter outside the castle took me to the real Castle Denethenor, where I had to solve an underground dungeon maze to emerge in the castle proper. There were about one billion demons in the castle, and by this point in the game I was mostly using MOSROL to stop time and run past them. There were also a few locations where something killed me in a single hit, and I could only pass with the INSLERETE invisibility spell. Lots of doors that required NETRELON and lots of magical force fields, too. A player could easily reach this point and find himself in a "walking dead" situation because he didn't have enough spell reagents.
    
The final castle offered some challenges.
    
Denethenor's throne room was in the northern part of the fortress, and every time I tried to approach from the obvious way, he spotted me (even with invisibility active) and sent a legion of demons to kill me. (Apparently, some NPC dialogue that I missed warned not to approach from the west.)
    
    
Through exploration, trial, and error, I found an alternate route. A secret passage from a southern room led to the outer walls. It ultimately became clear that I needed to traverse these outer walls and sneak up on Denethenor from behind. The problem was, the interior of the walls was filled with magic energy fields. I could dispel them with RESONIM, but the spell is temporary, and I didn't have enough time to reach safe spots within the walls before the fields came back on and started frying me, directly damaging both stamina and health. Because you can't cast another spell for maybe a dozen rounds, I had to sit there in the fields, taking constant damage, until the game let me cast again. (Again, if I'd solved the hemlock quest, the time between castings would have been reduced and the duration of the spell would have been lengthened.)
    
This is the worst plan ever.
   
It became clear that I simply didn't have enough hit points and health to proceed, so I had to reload an earlier save, buy plenty of food, rest a lot to get my hit points up, and re-do a bunch of the game to try again. This time, I had enough resources to survive, and I was able to enter Denethenor's chambers. He was surrounded by force fields, but another RESONIM got rid of them. However, when I approached him, he spotted me when I was one square away.
    
Okay, seriously. Stop calling me a fool.
     
Reloading yet again, I found that I could approach him if I had INSLERETE active. I couldn't attack him--the game insisted that no one was there--but the magic word learned in the fake castle somehow brought about his doom.
    
I defeat the big bad by sneaking up on him and whispering something about sex.
     
The ending was reasonably satisfying. Denethenor died and his castle shook and was fractured. This was accompanied by about 5 constant minutes of cacophonous sound.

Denethenor was apparently a "load-bearing boss."
    
The game said that I woke up in an unfamiliar place. Before I could take any action, it simply gave me a winning screen.
      
Yes, where am I, exactly? This is going to bother me.
     
As okay as the ending was, it fell short of expectations. One of the reasons I forced myself to finish the game--and it really was an effort during the last 10 hours or so--was that a contemporary review promised a mind-blowing ending. "The grand finale is a masterpiece of programming," it said. I was expecting a Questron-level epilogue and really looked forward to writing about it. Later, I realized that this glowing review came from Sierra's own magazine.

In a GIMLET, The Wrath of Denethenor earns:

  • 4 points for the gameworld. The story is derivative, but it does a good job of matching game elements with the backstory, offering areas not seen in typical Ultima games (e.g., a lunatic asylum), and achieving a persistence with the game world.
     
Talking to a NPC in the insane asylum.
     
  • 1 point for character creation and development. Unfortunately, there's hardly any of either. It barely qualifies as an RPG in this sense.
     
You get strength boosts from equipping better weapons; you get intelligence boosts by talking to regional kings.
    
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. Just one-line monologues, but still more than some games of the time were offering.

An NPC gives the location of a key teleporter.
     
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The original slate of monsters, well-described in the manual, offers a few new and innovative things in their special attacks.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. Most of that goes to the way magic is used to solve navigation puzzles. There are really no combat options at all.
  • 2 points for a minimalist approach to equipment.
  • 5 points for the economy. The strongest part of the game, and one of the few games that truly rewards a life of crime versus more banal monster-slaying.
    
Money never runs out of value.
    
  • 4 points for a main quest with a few stages, one side quest, and a few optional areas and dungeons.
    
I do wonder what this side quest would have gotten me.
   
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Graphics and sound are only okay, but any interface that just requires me to memorize a few intuitive letters always gets a high score from me.
  • 2 points for gameplay. Alas, Denethenor is just a little too large, linear, hard, and long.
            
The final score of 31 is higher than I've rated any Ultima clone, including Ring of Darkness (25), Vampyr (28), and Legend of Lothian (23), although (again) not Questron (32). It's even higher than I rated Ultima II (21). There was some really good work here, marred primarily by size, length, and inability to shortcut certain areas.
   

Scorpia reviewed Denethenor in the May 1987 Computer Gaming World and mostly offered the same opinions that I did. She comments on its clear similarity to the first two Ultimas and says although it is "well-crafted," it "offers nothing fresh to the RPG genre." To be fair, she also notes that the game only sold for $20 in an era when the more common price was $40 or $50.

Denethenor was programmed by Christopher Crim with graphics by Kevin Christiansen. An acknowledgement in the manual suggests that the two friends went to high school together in Bishop, California and began working on the game before graduation. It was finished while Crim was halfway through his bachelor's degree in computer science at the University of California at Irvine. Crim would go on to spend his career at Filemaker, Inc. (formerly Claris). He is now at least semi-retired. We corresponded a bit last week. He acknowledges the game's debt to Ultima and says he wanted to improve on the size and complexity of the geography, which he clearly did. Having read a draft of my review, he notes that I missed a lot of clues and some beneficial side-areas and seemed surprised that I was able to win anyway.

This was the first RPG that Sierra published after losing the Ultima series in 1983. I like to think that while they enjoyed the game, the prospect of annoying Richard Garriott must have been at least a secondary consideration in their decision to publish it.

With this review completed, we've hit the end of 1986 for the second time. There's not much chance that any of the games I've played since August are going to unseat Starflight as "Game of the Year," although we do perhaps need to have a discussion about why I chose Starflight over Might & Magic. Either way, expect a transition posting coming up.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Martian Dreams: Summary and Rating

    
Martian Dreams
United States
Origin Systems (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS
Date Started: 18 October 2015
Date Ended: 2 March 2017
Total Hours: 35
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

I realized why no one was getting my objections to the plot of Martian Dreams during an exchange with commenter Jakub Majewski. I was trying to explain why the game had destroyed the "avatar" concept. "I don't know a guy named Spector in real life," I said. Mr. Majewski responded that, "there is no difference between him and Iolo or Lord British."

Not to pick on you in particular, Jakub--I really have enjoyed your contributions to my entries--but yes there is. There is a huge difference. The difference is that Iolo and Lord British are on the other side of the moongate. If you don't get that distinction, you can't possibly understand my problems with the game.
    
Dr. Spector isn't just an NPC. He's in my house!
     
The moongate between the "real" world and Britannia served a vital narrative purpose from its first appearance in Ultima IV (prior moongates were not between the real world and Britannia). It is the transition point at which the player enters the game; a metaphor for the computer screen and the act of booting up the executable. The player is on one side of the moongate. His avatar--in a quite literal sense--is acting on the other side. 
    
The concept of the avatar is the most important part of Ultima IV. The icon that you move about the screen is literally your avatar in Britannia. But you are also trying to become the Avatar of Virtue--the physical embodiment of what it means to act rightly in a chaotic world. When you have achieved the quest, the game challenges you to return to your own world and adhere to the same principles--to maintain the role of Avatar of Virtue in a place where you are no longer an avatar. This is an important and meaningful thematic message, and one that I took closely to my heart when I first was exposed to Ultima IV at the impressionable age of 12.

Getting players to internalize this theme means not screwing up the thematic illusion. The illusion works brilliantly in Ultima IV because what happens on the player's side of the moongate is limited and abstracted. The game presupposes only that you've gone for a walk in the countryside--certainly, such an activity is not beyond the realm of possibility for most players. It doesn't even say that the countryside is nearby. I suppose if you're in prison, the game requires a certain suspension of disbelief from the outset, but barring that, anyone--young, old, male, female, black, white, gay, straight, poor, rich--can put himself or herself into the role of the avatar and carry that role through the moongate and into Britannia. 
   
Nothing implausible so far...
   
Again, I emphasize that the first game works so well--it allows the player to feel so personally-invested in the character and quest--because very little happens, and none of it implausible, on the "real" side of the moongate.
     
That doesn't look like me or my bedroom, but I guess I can just go with it.
     
Alas, this does not remain true for subsequent games. Ultima V's opening starts you in a single-family house of a particular configuration with a wilderness area right outdoors. It's not so much that you can't suspend disbelief, but it's a step down the wrong path. In Ultima VI, you now see what "your" living room looks like--complete with the painting of a pole-dancing centaur woman--and "you" are clearly a young white male with brown hair. Again, you can suck it up and take this introduction as an abstraction, go through the moongate, and still enjoy the game and keep pretending that the Avatar is your avatar, but it's getting harder.
    
Wait. Whose house is this supposed to be?
    
The Savage Empire and Martian Dreams make this suspension of disbelief impossible. Too much happens on the "real" side of the moongate. In The Savage Empire, you live in a city, you have a friend named Dr. Rafkin, you write stories for a magazine, and you can only play as a white male (though this time with blonde hair). You ultimately go through a moongate to the game proper, but by then so much has happened on this side that you can't possibly pretend that this is you.

And, finally, we reach Martian Dreams, where the entire game takes place on "this" side of the moongate. Yes, technically you go through a "time gate," but you're clearly meant to still be in the "real" world. After all, before you enter the gate, you've met a Martian and seen a photograph of yourself and "your" friend Dr. Spector posing with the most famous dignitaries of the age.

So, by the end of the game, the Avatar has not returned to "your" home in the real world but to some freaky alternate reality in which he, Dr. Spector, Theodore Roosevelt, Emma Goldman, Buffalo Bill Cody, Nellie Bly, Vladimir Lenin, and a host of other real-world individuals have, historically, been to Mars in a capsule shot from a cannon, found intelligent life there, and returned. It's not like the trip was covered up or something. There was a parade when you got back.
     
Did they erase the memories of the 3 dozen famous people who were there?
     
I suppose the degree to which any of this bothers you is related to when you played Ultima IV. If it hadn't occupied such a central role in my life when I was young--if I'd only first encountered it as part of this project--I suppose I wouldn't care. But I spent too long invested in the "avatar" concept to react with aplomb when its creators start treating it this way. I would also maintain that the plot is pretty stupid even divorced from the avatar, especially when we got to the point of coating the Martian mechanical bodies with realistic skin.
     
A few other notes and questions on the game before the GIMLET:
  • What would have happened if you'd just picked up the phlogistonite barrels from the crashed capsule at the beginning of the game? 
  • Is there any time limit at the end of the game when the ground is shaking? I rested in my tent a few times and nothing happened, but perhaps I needed to rest more.
  • If you kill the NPCs lining the corridor on the way back to the space cannon, Andrew Carnegie refuses to do business with you.
    
Historically, I'm not sure this is true.
    
  • When Jack Segal smashed the Dream Machine in Olympus, did he kill a bunch of Martians whose consciousnesses were residing there?
  • Did I collect all the possible NPCs in the game? It feels like I always had one extra slot open.
  • There's a place in the south pole where you can dig to find a pair of ruby shoes, use them, and automatically go right to the endgame credits. I found them--they're in the middle of a rock formation that just invites you to search--but I totally forgot to comment on them or even keep a screenshot from the experience.
     
Image courtesy of Nakar's hilarious LP.

     

  • I spent a long time picking berries that were hardly used at all. There are two times that you have to use telekinesis and one time that you have to talk to a machine. 
  • I missed the famous face on Mars. 
    
Image courtesy of Dino's Ultima Page.
    
  • I never returned to my capsule after leaving it the first time. Would Freud, Tesla, Blood, or Dallas have had more interesting things to say about the plot developments? 
  • It's worth noting that by Ultima canon, the Avatar has already been to Mars--in Ultima II. It's unclear where in the timeline that game falls.
   
I already know this is going to rate better than my posts have suggested. Sometimes my most negative-sounding reviews are reserved for games with good mechanics that (in my eyes) under-perform their potential.
    
1. Game World. Stupid, as I've argued, but holds together within its own universe and hits most of the points of my GIMLET. You can't say it isn't original, nor endowed with history and lore, nor notably changed by the player's actions. If it wasn't supposed to be Mars, it might score a bit higher. Score: 6.
  
2. Character Creation and Development. The Freudian psychoanalysis is fun and original, although it doesn't really affect very much in terms of the character. The Ultima characters continue to have only 3 attributes and continue to only really "develop" a little when leveling up. The effects are even more blunted here because there are no spells to acquire. Since the role of combat is so minimized, there is no strong sense of increasing power associated with leveling. Score: 3.

3. NPC Interaction. As always, NPC dialogues are a key part of the Ultima experience, and this is the last title, I think, to feature typed keywords. Dialogue is absolutely necessary to learn about the world and solve the games quests, but it falls short of allowing for dialogue options and role-playing. The NPCs who join the party are less interesting than in previous games: I felt no sense of kinship with them, and the developers wasted a romance potential with Nellie Bly (or, I suppose, Dibbs). You don't even really have choices about which NPCs join the party. Score: 5.
    
Since there are no rioters, streets, or stores in the vicinity, I think we're okay.
     
4. Encounters and Foes. I can't say that the plant-based monsters aren't at least original, and the documentation describes them well, but there's no "soul" to them. They just appear as you walk around, and you feel no particular animosity towards them. You kill them because they're in your way. It feels slightly wrong to be killing Martian life in the first place--much like the dinosaurs in The Savage Empire--except in this game, that's all there is. Not one single enemy that you slay in combat has anything to do with the game's plot. None of them are willfully acting on the part of the opposition.

I've taken to use this category to also offer bonuses for the puzzles, but I can't say I particularly enjoyed them. They were mostly of the "do you have the right inventory item?" and "if not, go and get it" variety, not really anything to do with logic or intuition. Too much depended on fiddling with controls. Score: 4.
    
5. Magic and combat. As with Buck Rogers, we see that combat systems designed with magic in mind tend to fall short when the magic is removed. All that's left is the ability to target foes and set some basic action defaults for other members of the party. There are very few tactics, and too often characters don't do what they're supposed to do. The outcomes of combat are too arbitrary--a party of enemies that slaughters my characters might inflict no damage at all on a reload--and in general, combat isn't an important part of gameplay. Score: 3.
    
6. Equipment. The engine's approach to equipment remains strong. It was designed for a sandbox game in which all kinds of items--food, cooking utensils, tools, and treasures--populated the world, and many of them have interesting interactions with each other. The systems for assessing and equipping weapons, armor, and accessories remain strong. I found less actually-useful stuff in Martian Dreams, however; characters end the game with most of the same weapons and "armor" that they started with. Score: 4.

7. Economy. There really isn't one. Oxium serves as a currency, but early in the game you can get an unlimited supply of that. There isn't much to buy at the trading posts that you can't find on your own in the game world. Disappointing. Score: 2.
    
8. Quests. The series still offers virtually nothing for side-quests, and here even the main quest is far more linear and less mutable than in previous games. And, of course--not to keep beating this horse--it's just kind of dumb. Score: 2.
     
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. All quite good. No ambient sound yet, but very serviceable sound effects. Music is top-notch if you like that kind of thing; I don't, and I was glad to finally be able to turn it off without turning off the rest of the sound. The graphics are fine for the era, and I didn't have the same color issue that I had with The Savage Empire where everything seemed literally camouflaged. The ability to set an "active character" is still rare and welcome, and overall the redundant mouse/keyboard interface works very well. Score: 6.
     
I confess I'm not sure what the graphic artists were trying to do with the avatar's face here.
     
10. Gameplay. Martian Dreams is a rare Ultima title that is almost completely linear and entirely non-replayable. I found it a tad too long, but just a tad. Score: 4.

That gives is a final score of 39, fairly far below the 48 I gave to The Savage Empire and the 68 I gave to Ultima VI. But I understand why. Ultima VI was a sandbox game with a nonlinear approach in which combat, magic, exploration, and economy all played vital roles. These things are less true of The Savage Empire and not true at all of Martian Dreams, and thus the same engine does not work well for all purposes.
    
In the September 1991 Computer Gaming World, Scorpia agreed with most of my points, particularly the tediousness of walking around and the number of objectives that require you to walk back and forth between locations. "It's really an adventure game with a thin veneer of CRPG," she says, noting in particular that "combat is mostly gratuitous," thus blunting the importance of character development. On the other hand, she liked the story and thought that watching it unfold was the best part of the game.
   
Someone must have received an angry phone call after the September issue was published, because the next month's issue features a wet, sloppy kiss of a review from Roger Stewart. (It was common in the era to see Scorpia's reviews duplicated by someone else, but it was usually in the same issue.) "An epic adventure of rescue and resurrection that has all the depth and complexity of the Ultima series," he glows, but I'll save my ridicule for a little background info that he gives: Richard Garriott approved Warren Spector's plot, but with the restriction that "the outcome of the game could not contradict history as we know it." I can't tell you how glad I am that Lord British constrained the developers so; the outcome might have been ridiculous otherwise.
     
Nothing contradicting history as we know it here!
    
The Worlds of Ultima / Ultima: Worlds of Adventure mini-series came to an end with Martian Dreams, which reportedly sold poorly. The Internet tells of a third planned entry, Arthurian Legends, which would have used the Ultima VII engine. Accounts differ as to whether Arthurian Legends was, in fact, ever considered as an Ultima title or whether it was always a standalone title. Whatever the case, it died as the latter. Even though I haven't really enjoyed this side-series, I would have been interested to see how Origin handled the Arthurian source material.

Any criticisms I have about the direction Origin has gone with Ultima in these "worlds" titles is about to be obviated by what they do next: 1992 brings both Ultima Underworld and Ultima VII: The Black Gate, easily two of the best CRPGs ever created. We just have to get out of 1991 first.