Retro Review: Super C (NES)

Super C is basically just Contra again, but a bit lesser. This is even reflected in its lives code, which gives you 1/3 as many lives to play with. Super C is graphically superior in many ways, but doesn’t really offer a whole lot more than that. Though unlike Contra, it is available on the Virtual Console, which is something.

Konami seemed to have a philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” when making Super C. The biggest innovation in the game is the mix of horizontal and vertical scrolling, with some diagonal scrolling tossed in for good measure. It also changed the Fire gun from an afterthought into a pretty cool explosive weapon, suggestive of the Crusher from Contra III (which is one of my favorites). It was all very technologically impressive in the NES era, but only really noticeable in a side-by-side comparison with Contra now.

The best part of Super C is the collection of bosses, which are on par if not beyond those of its predecessor. Starting the game off with a battle against a gunship was an inspired choice, and this is also the game that gave us the concept of the “Contra button,” the glowing red orb that screams “weak point” to the player.

One controversial change in the game was switching out the base stages to top-down stages where you can move and fire in 8 directions. I rather enjoy these stages, though they are far less unique than the Contra bases. To me, Contra games feel their best when you’re running and gunning.

On the whole, Super C is a pretty game but doesn’t offer much beyond the original Contra aside from looks. It’s a totally serviceable game, not quite as hard but certainly no cakewalk, but a lot of what made Contra really special was its unique style, which just isn’t as unique in Super C.

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Dragon Warrior III (NES)

Dragon Warrior suffered from a lack of content, and Dragon Warrior II suffered from a lack of balance. Dragon Warrior III suffers from no such issues, and really doesn’t have any major issues at all. This is a very solid, very long, and very satisfying RPG experience. The game is positively huge, yet well-conceived from end to end. The only complaint I can really come up with is that it is perhaps a bit too much – by the end I found myself thinking some earlier plot points had been in previous games because I had gone through them so long ago.

This is the game where the Dragon Warrior formula, at least as far as gameplay, was first perfected. You have the introduction of a class system that is simple yet satisfying and pretty well nuanced. For example, they added an openly useless class and actually gave a solid reason to play it. Indeed this is indicative of what’s so good about DW3: there’s a ton of stuff here, and all of it has a purpose.

Plot-wise, this is pretty basic stuff. The game actually teases a rehash of DW2’s endgame sequence before taking a very cool sharp left turn (And, unfortunately, something Nintendo Power spoiled for me more than 25 years ago.) But in the end, you’re still just tracking down some big bad by venturing through countless dungeons and collecting cool items. That’s kind of what this series is about, at least up until this point.

The first two Dragon Warrior games felt somewhat like the early Ultimas, and that feeling is even stronger in this game. The party system is reminiscent of Ultima III, and in many ways it’s a similar game except that DW3 is many, many times more dense. It’s mostly linear, though it does feature the requisite midgame “gather up all the mcguffins” quest line to mix things up a bit.

Unfortunately, saying more than that would probably venture into spoiler territory. But if you’re looking for an old-school, combat heavy, endurance RPG, you can certainly do worse than Dragon Warrior III. As I understand it, this is the point in the series where all the rumors about Japan making it illegal to release Dragon Quest games on weekdays (sadly not true) started, and I can see why. Maybe with some different timing and better marketing, Dragon Warrior/Quest could have been a thing in the US. Or perhaps the ‘gameplay RPG’ genre was just too well-covered by PCs here. In any case, I really enjoyed this game and would recommend it to any fans of the formula.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Snake’s Revenge

Snake’s Revenge is the U.S./Europe-only NES sequel to Metal Gear, which famously not only was not created by series creator Hideo Kojima, but is reportedly is the reason he decided to make a sequel (Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake for the MSX2, which we didn’t get here until much later). As such, it occupies a strange place in the Metal Gear series, where it’s officially non-canonical. But then, so is the NES version of Metal Gear, so it kind of works out.

Snake’s Revenge is very much a case of two steps forward, two steps back from its predecessor. The game actually has much better stealth mechanics than Metal Gear. You are rewarded for hand-to-hand stealth kills with rare but invaluable ammo or ration drops, it’s much easier to determine when guards will see you, and with a few noteworthy exceptions the guard placements are generally quite fair. The consequences for being seen are also much greater, as you’ll have to fight off a squad of enemies rather than just running to the next screen. Like Metal Gear, “stealth” here means undetected kills far more often than sneaking past the guards entirely. This isn’t a modern stealth game, but your stealth skills will nonetheless be put to good use.

Snake’s Revenge improves upon Metal Gear in some other ways as well, with a much more usable interface, better graphics, and a less confusing though far more linear progression through the game. There are more interesting items and usable weapons, and all in all, Snake’s Revenge has all the pieces to be a great sequel.

Unfortunately, Snake’s Revenge is also trying to be an action game, and in that it fails spectacularly. The boss battles are largely unfair and extremely frustrating, including one in particular during a train sequence where every time you lose you’re forced to re-do the entire sequence. The similarities and differences between the tank bosses in this game and the original Metal Gear are a good example of the general differences between the games: both require land mines to defeat, but the tank in Snake’s Revenge has several ways to kill you instantly and cruelly and reset the fight.

The game also features terrible side-scrolling sections which are generally no fun at all. Even when you get a handle on the ridiculous sight mechanics (ducking is enough for guards to not notice you when looking in your direction), the guard placements in this section are often unfair and you’ll often find yourself venturing through water that is filled with unfun mechanics.

On balance, Snake’s Revenge is still a pretty fun game. It’s much more linear than its predecessor, which is good in that it allows for a very large game world without being utterly confusing, but bad in that you can miss things that will make your life much more difficult. Most of the early sections have one useful-but-not-vital item you can miss, and there’s no going back. Like Metal Gear, Snake’s Revenge gives you a password only upon a final game over, so if you do miss one of these items there’s a good chance it will cost you a good chunk of gameplay to go back to it.

Snake’s Revenge doesn’t play like the eventual Metal Gear Solid series, but it nonetheless feels like a logical progression from Metal Gear. The action sequences are poorly considered, but the game mostly works. If you want more old-school Metal Gear, well, you should probably pick up an MSX port of the original games. But after that, try Snake’s Revenge. It’s decent!

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Final Fantasy III (Famicom)

Though it is just as obscure as its predecessor in the U.S., Final Fantasy III seems to get less attention than Final Fantasy II despite being a much better game. FFIII is in many ways the progenitor of the 16-bit Final Fantasy games, despite being 8-bit itself. Systemically, the game is almost identical to Final Fantasy IV, and aside from the requisite clunky UI, this game plays much more like a modern RPG than its predecessors.

The big innovation that really sets FFIII apart is the introduction of the job system. This isn’t quite the refined system of Final Fantasy V or Tactics, as each set of jobs makes most of the previous ones completely obsolete, but many classic jobs such as Dragoon and Summoner got their start here. Rather than being a system to customize party members, FFIII’s job system is largely used as a puzzle of sorts. At most points in the game, there is a “correct” set of jobs to use, but that combination is not necessarily obvious. Things open up later when the less direct jobs like Bard and Evoker show up, but the game is fun even before this. The biggest flaw of the system is that, in the end, there are two semi-hidden jobs that completely outclass everything else, which takes a lot of the fun out of experimenting.

FFIII plays around with a lot of interesting ideas. Some, like having multiple world maps to explore, are really awesome. And some, like dividing monsters (which split whenever you hit them with most weapons), are not. This is a very uneven game, and a number of dungeons stand out as being especially frustrating. The aforementioned dividing monster dungeon is one, but the final dungeon is of special note. Unfortunately, save points were not among FFIII’s innovations, and the final dungeon is incredibly long and includes five nasty bosses after the point where you can’t even leave and heal up or save if you want to. The final boss is unimaginative and is virtually impossible to defeat if you’re underleveled (not that you’re likely to be, if you did the various sidequests).

In the grand scheme of things, perhaps FFIII gets less attention than FFII because there just isn’t as much to say about it. It’s a solid game, and obviously a huge influence on the games that followed it, but even the introduction of the job system isn’t really that interesting. Final Fantasy III is a rough draft – the core of a good game is there, but it’s not so refined that it’s truly great, or even particularly memorable. The plot is a throwaway, the gameplay is notable mainly for its few frustrating bits, and the game just lacks “it.” And it’s unfortunate that we’ve never gotten a port of the original version. This game is worth checking out if only because this is perhaps the most referenced game in the series.

Review Score: B

Review: I am Setsuna.

I am Setsuna’s combat system is unabashedly based on Chrono Trigger, but the game itself has little else in common with that classic. This is a very melancholy, very snowy RPG with distinctly retro mechanics but a fairly basic story. The story actually is similar in some ways to another Square Enix classic. The titular character is on a journey that will end in her sacrifice to save the world for some time until the next sacrifice. Sound familiar?

The combat system is certainly the highlight of the game, and it adds a lot to the basics of Chrono Trigger’s system. You have three characters with positional abilities, monsters you can see in the field without a separate battle screen, two- and three-character combos, and the usual active time wait bars. Combat goes well beyond this starting point, and in many cases it succeeds in improving on the formula. The best addition is momentum, a separate meter that fills up when you perform various actions, which lets you augment any of your attacks or techs. This system is a lot of fun, and adds a lot of tactical opportunity to the game, since many techs offer special effects separate from their main effect when you use momentum. It also solves one of my biggest issues with Chrono Trigger: when your ATB bar is full because you’re waiting on another character for a combo, your momentum meter fills instead, making it seem like less of a loss.

The drop system is also quite interesting. Monsters have the usual common and rare drops, but they also have 10 other drops that are guaranteed if you defeat them in various ways (with certain elements, with a combo, etc.). The in-game journal tracks which of these you have found, and there’s no randomness outside the rare drop, so it is quite possible to target certain drops. Combined with the non-random encounters, this is a pretty fun system for completionists. The downside is that you don’t know what the drops are until you get them, and drops are what allow you to get new techs, so if you really want some fancy new ability it’s going to take trial and error to earn it.

The combat is far from perfect, however. While your abilities are pretty fun, the enemy design can be quite annoying. There is a limited number of enemy types, and several of them basically exist to be frustrating to fight. For instance, there are tiny two-tailed squirrels that ride on snowballs and have extremely high evasion. They aren’t that dangerous, they just take a while to kill. The pacing of combat is also thrown off due to a few odd decisions. The active time bars go very slow, to the point where you’ll often wait several seconds with nothing happening for them to fill. And I never again want to see another one of those enemies that individually self destruct in a long animation when killed.

Boss fights can be very tough, often suggesting if not requiring the use of certain abilities to counter their moves. Your best defense is usually a good offense, but that can be risky. Recovering from even a single character death can be very difficult as the bosses and even some normal enemies relentlessly attack for high damage. And there are plenty of one-shot abilities in the game which can quickly turn a winning fight against you. You need to be on top of the latest techs and combos to even the score, which given the randomness involved in getting techs and some UI issues determining what combos you can use can be a headache.

The actual plot of the game is fairly straightforward for the most part, but filled with convoluted side stories. Pretty much everyone in your party has some secret identity or whatnot, and they’ll often be revealed so quickly you didn’t even have time to start caring. Things slow down by the end, where the revelations get a lot more interesting and the game comes to an appropriate and, in my opinion, satisfying end.

The real problem with the game is that it gets a bit monotonous. Every area is snowy, leading to a minimum of environments (to be fair there are also several ice caves!). There are few monsters per area, and if you don’t quickly determine a way to dispose of them quickly, fights can drag on. MP tends to be fairly limited until you get a lot of MP restoration abilities late in the game, so this may happen regardless. You can freely switch characters between fights to stretch your resources, though sadly you can’t do any such thing during an actual fight.

Fortunately (in my opinion anyway), the game isn’t especially long. They do try to artificially stretch your playtime in a few places, which is unfortunate. One idea they took from Chrono Trigger and made far worse was the concept of magically locked chests. Rather than a few of them scattered in unique places you can remember to come back to later in the game, there’s at least one chest in every area of the game. As a result, once you can open them you basically have to run through the entire game again (albeit at much higher level) to get all the loot.

The magically locked chests are a microcosm of why I am Setsuna is a good, but not great, game. It has a lot of cool ideas, but the execution is fairly lacking. I don’t doubt the Tokyo Game Factory team can come up with good to great JRPGs forever, but I hope they cut a few less corners on variety in the future. Still, if you have a lot of nostalgia for Chrono Trigger-style combat, or like slow-paced, melancholy JRPG stories, I am Setsuna is probably for you.

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Super Mario Bros. 2

As pretty much everyone knows by now, the U.S. version of Super Mario Bros. 2 started out as an entirely different game in Japan. Nonetheless, it has become a classic entry in the Mario series, adding many elements to the canon including Shyguys and the skillset of the four playable characters. And while it is a major departure from the first Super Mario Bros., it is a very good game in its own right.

The only major play mechanic in SMB2 that has any basis in its predecessor is that you can jump on enemies. However, instead of defeating them, you can simply ride on top of them, or pick them up and throw them at one another. The most jarring change between games are that there are no blocks to distribute items or coins; instead, all items are pulled from the ground like vegetables (and many of the items are vegetables).

SMB2 has relatively few levels, only 20 spread over 7 worlds (compared to SMB1’s 32 levels over 8 worlds). Warps are available, but they are fairly well-hidden and don’t take you very far. If you’re going to complete this game, you will actually have to play most of it. Like many games of its time, you get two continues before a final game over.

One of the defining features of the game is the ability to choose from four different characters. This is not just an aesthetic choice, as each character has specific strengths and weaknesses. Luigi, for instance, is very slow to pick things up, but he jumps incredibly high and can often skip large parts of levels as a result. The princess famously can float, which can be very helpful when trying to make a precision landing. SMB2’s play control is a little looser than its predecessor, and landing on a single block can be problematic, so this is quite helpful.

The game gets excellent mileage out of its core mechanics of carrying items and riding enemies. You’ll find yourself building stacks of blocks to jump off of, jumping between flying birds acting as platforms, and being chased while carrying keys from screen to screen. Most stages end with a recurring boss who spits eggs that you need to jump on (while in motion), grab, and throw back at them. It surprises me that we haven’t seen more of this sort of thing.  The world bosses in particular can be a lot of fun, offering a number of variations on basic combat.

Also of note is the use of “subspace.” You will find potions that create doors (for some reason) that lead to a mirror image of the world. This has two purposes: it’s how you increase your life bar in each stage, and it gives you chances for 1UPs after completing the stage. The game is actually pretty stingy with 1UPs, with no points or collectables, so this is your primary method of getting more lives. Unfortunately, how many you gain is based on the whims of a slot machine. Still, the subspace mechanic is interesting because you’ll want to try to figure out where the life increasing mushroom is hidden, but you need to balance that with finding coins for extra life chances.

Not all of SMB2’s mechanics are as well-considered as these, unfortunately. There are a number of incidental powerups that tend to be more trouble than they’re worth. For instance, once you defeat a certain number of enemies, a heart will float up on a random part of the screen. This heart restores life, but quite frequently it will appear somewhere you can’t reach, such as within a wall. Invincibility stars have a similar issue, though they appear more predictably. These flaws are minor but can be frustrating when you’re down to your last hit or last life.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said for Super Mario Bros. 2 is that even though it’s wildly different from every other game in the Super Mario series, it feels like it belongs. At its core, this is still a solid platforming game. It has some wild mechanics but it’s challenging and a whole lot of fun.

Review Score: B+

Review: Final Fantasy XV

Whenever a new Final Fantasy game comes out, the question people always have is “does it feel like a Final Fantasy?” I’ve never really known what this question means, since Final Fantasy is a series defined by change, but the question has never been harder for me to answer than in Final Fantasy XV. It certainly doesn’t not feel like a Final Fantasy, but I’m mostly at a loss to give any specific reason why it does. Most of the usual stuff is there, including famous monsters and references galore, but they aren’t what the game is about, to a much larger extent than usual for the series.

There is a lot of ground to cover in reviewing FFXV, but the storytelling seems to me like the best place to start. Final Fantasy game stories are generally kind of ridiculous when you think about them, but the way they’re told has been top notch for a very long time, and FFXV is no exception. Indeed, it may be the culmination of that idea: this is the best-told story in the series. I’m still a bit too close to it to be objective, but I honestly think it might be the best-told story in any video game I’ve ever played. And the story itself is not bad at all, which enhances the effect.

The game stars Prince Noctis and his three retainers on a road trip, a premise which seems ridiculous on the surface but is at the core of why the game works. In writing, there is a saying: “show, don’t tell.” FFXV takes this even further in a way only an interactive medium can, which can be summed up as “experience, don’t tell.” Oddly, I never felt like I was Noct, unlike so many of the greatest RPGs, but I nonetheless experienced his story from beginning to end. When the four party members start getting wistful for the earlier chapters of the game, I was too, and for much the same reasons. When the game wanted me to have an emotional reaction, boy did I have an emotional reaction. Quite a few of them, at that.

In several respects, FFXV feels a lot like Uncharted: the banter between your party members is similar to that seen in that series, and many of the more cinematic moments also have a distinctly Uncharted feel. However, Uncharted can feel like a string of events put together to fulfill a quota at times. FFXV’s main story trims all the fat, to the point where it’s one of the shortest main sequences in the series. I arrived at the final chapter in about 20 hours. Many will criticize an RPG for being that short, but I have long been a proponent of shorter main stories, and FFXV makes an excellent supporting case. There’s plenty of side stuff to do, but the story itself remains clean and crisp – with one significant exception.

At this point I would be remiss not to point out that Final Fantasy XV is by no means a perfect game. It has major gameplay flaws that can’t be overlooked. Chief among these is the combat system: it’s incredibly fun and rewarding when it works, and pretty terrible when it does not. Unfortunately, it fails more often than it succeeds. Combat fundamentally breaks down into three actions: warp striking (which serves largely as a way to navigate chaotic battlefields), attack combos, and defending. I am terrible at defending, and that is a big problem in this game. I’m honestly not sure what you’re supposed to do against huge hordes all alternately attacking and leaving almost no opening. For better or worse, you can spam healing items to power through just about any fight, so this is more frustrating than difficult. I had many similar problems with the harder fights in FFXII. Part of the problem is that I expect open-world Final Fantasy combat to be reminiscent of FFXI or FFXIV, but that’s not the case.

The camera can be incredibly bad in combat, which exacerbates combat’s general problems. If you’re fighting on an open plain, it’s fine, but if you’re in the woods, expect to see more extreme closeups of foliage than your characters or enemies. Even when your view isn’t obscured, sometimes you won’t be able to rotate the camera the way you want to for no discernible reason. It’s not just bad, it’s Playstation 1-era bad.

The game also tends to throw incredibly hard optional fights at you without indicating that they’re optional. It’s not fun being one-shot by every enemy in a plot area with no clear idea where I’m even supposed to go. It’s also a little annoying when the main quest suggests a sidequest that I am in no way prepared for, even if it does make sense in the narrative.

Combat isn’t the game’s only flaw. Final Fantasy XV contains one of the most ill-conceived dungeons I’ve seen in an RPG. It’s long, boring, and frustrating, and you lose almost all of your abilities, Metroid-style, at the beginning of it. Truth be told, if it was just shorter – a lot shorter – it wouldn’t really have been a problem. The frustration of it is kind of the point, it just goes too far with it.

Many of these problems can be solved by spending a lot of time in the open world. FFXV’s open world is a lot of fun to explore, with tons of sidequests and monster hunts to go on. Your greatest foe while doing these quests will be load times. You can drive everywhere manually, and even get rewarded for doing so, but using fast travel often takes nearly as long just due to loading. That said, when you get to your destination, it tends to be a lot of fun. All the optional content offers meaningful rewards, and even when the plot takes you away from the open world areas, you can almost always go back to them on a whim. (One particularly annoying exception is the dungeon mentioned above. Not that leveling up would help with that, but at least it could break up the monotony.)

FFXV’s open world is quite large, and filled mostly with open terrain. This certainly helps with the world’s verisimilitude, though it can make travel annoying. I’d definitely recommend unlocking chocobos as soon as possible to help with that. The chocobo rental system can be annoying when it runs out in the middle of nowhere, but you can usually teleport back to your car so it’s unlikely to be that big a deal. The game also has a day-night cycle, and you are strongly discouraged from traveling at night due to powerful monsters that spawn. Instead, you’re better off resting. Experience is only tallied while resting, in a throwback to old-school D&D, and you have an interesting choice to make when doing so. Stay at a camp in the wilderness, and you can cook a meal that will give powerful long-term stat buffs the next day. Or you can pay money to stay at an inn, lose the food bonus (though you could buy one separately at a restaurant), but gain a multiplier on your experience earned the day before.

In many ways, resting serves as a microcosm for what makes FFXV’s game design so compelling. When I was younger, I thought what I wanted was more realism in RPGs: having to eat and sleep, worrying about encumbrance, and so on. It turns out, adding that stuff to a game is generally just a drag. FFXV makes a lot of this sort of thing part of the game, though, in a way that’s interesting mechanically while also serving to draw you into the world. In much the same way as the story is told, the game mechanics help make your journey feel like a journey and not just a video game.

While there’s a ton more about FFXV to cover, the truth is, whether you’ll like this game probably comes down to a few factors. If you like tactical, carefully planned combat, you’re probably not going to find it here (though I would recommend using Wait Mode in this case). If you play RPGs for the story, you will most likely love this game. If you want to explore an open world and get ridiculously powerful, that too is something FFXV allows. I’d recommend it to anyone with the patience for RPG mechanics, even people who aren’t traditionally RPG or Final Fantasy fans. As the game says when you boot it up, this is a Final Fantasy for fans and newcomers alike. It’s not perfect, but god damn is it satisfying.

Review Score: B+

Halfway Through Final Fantasy XV

Based on hours played and chapter, I’m about halfway through FFXV now. Since the game just told me I’ll be losing access to the open world for a while, I figured this was as good a time as any to give my impressions on that open world.

FFXV feels a lot like FFXII (which I love), with a lot of Uncharted and a dash of GTA mixed in. Some of the cinematic exploration reminds me very strongly of Uncharted, which is a good thing since that game had excellent presentation. The flow of combat also feels similar at times, where things can be quite chaotic than suddenly end. Plus the banter is fantastic, and with a fairly consistent party of four there’s a lot of room for character development there.

The GTA aspect is basically just that there’s a map with objectives on it, and you often have to pay attention to roads instead of going directly to them in a line.

The one aspect of FFXII I never loved is the chaotic combat, because I’m actually quite terrible at it. Sometimes I’d just get my butt kicked by a fight and have to use a dozen consumables to survive, or just spam some cheesy abilities. My only real complaint about FFXV so far is that it feels exactly the same in this regard. It doesn’t help that the camera is awful in combat, particularly if you’re fighting in the woods. I don’t particularly like the targeting, and I generally have no idea why I’m winning or losing a fight.

That said, this really only applies to packs of wandering monsters. Whenever you’re fighting set pieces against human troops, those fights are amazingly fun. Warp striking never gets old, and those fights set you up perfectly for it. I’ve also started getting better about magic (now that I realized you can mix items in for cool effects, like self healing of max HP).

Combat complaints aside, I love this game. The presentation is amazing, the characters are great, and I’m interested in where the plot is going. I do have one worry about the plot, which is that the party seems way too easily bamboozled repeatedly, but I guess I’ll see if it actually plays out that way. If I end up liking this game as much as FFXII, that will definitely be a win for me.

FFXV (Very) Early Impressions

I’ve played an hour or so of Final Fantasy XV, and I’m definitely liking the vibe so far. All of the reviews I’ve seen were kind of vague on why they liked the game so much, but I kind of get it. The bro road trip thing works surprisingly well.

One of my worries was that the nature of the game would prevent it from being very guide-friendly, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. I’ll probably have to do some actual mapping for this one, but that’s not the worst thing in the world. There’s plenty of information to gather, though, between items, abilities, hunts, and whatnot. I won’t start doing any guidework in earnest until I’ve finished the game the first time, though, so don’t expect it all that soon.

Retro Review: Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness

Although Ultima I is the first game in the series proper, the Ultima series doesn’t really start until Ultima IV. Only later games even start tying together the hero(es) of Ultima I-III with the Avatar at all. The earlier games are similar in engine and design to the later series, but contain a number of elements that would seem terribly out of place in say, Ultima VII. Like space combat against TIE fighters.

The original 1981 version of Ultima (without the “I” or subtitle) is very hard to come by. The version I’m discussing is the 1987 16-color PC remake, which runs quite a bit more nicely than the original BASIC version. Like later games in the series, the box comes with a lot of neat extra stuff. The game manual is basically a fantasied-up description of various things in the game (monsters, races, equipment, and so on), and the game came with four cardboard maps of the four continents.

Ultima I’s world is incredibly vast compared to that of Akalabeth, the precursor to the Ultima series, and unlike that game is not randomly generated. There are four land masses to explore, each with a similar collection of towns, castles, and other notable landmarks. Because each land mass is separated by water, Ultima I introduces the most frustrating early-Ultima mechanic: having to wait for transportation. It’s not as bad as Ultima II, since you can actually buy a hovercar pretty easily, but the game seems quite limited until you do so.

Ultima I introduces a number of gameplay elements the series would become known for. For instance, the actual plot progression in the game does not involve killing anything (save the aforementioned TIE fighters), nor ever entering a dungeon. Dungeon crawling is a great source of treasure and food, however, and is necessary for sidequests to increase your Strength score. Your other stats are increased only through exploration.

Unfortunately, though Ultima I paints a vast tapestry with its world, its mechanics are simple enough that you will very quickly discover how to abuse them, and to do otherwise becomes boring quickly. With the same monsters popping up on the overworld or any dungeon in the game, there just isn’t much depth of combat. The game does end with a satisfying final battle with Mondain the dark wizard, a less straightforward fight than one would expect from such an old game.

Ultima I is a relic of history, and can be fun to play around with, though there’s not much reason to beat it other than “it’s really short.” Dialogue in the game, or even text, is almost nonexistant, and the combat lacks any depth, but despite that the plot is relevant to the Ultima universe: one of the four land masses even makes a fairly accurate reappearance in Ultima VII Part 2.

Review Score: C−