Retro Review: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

Ultima IV is in every way the defining game of the series. It introduces the concept (and if you ignore the revisionist history, the character) of the Avatar, along with the eight virtues, Britannia, and a host of other concepts that do not change for the remainder of the Ultima saga. And best of all, it’s been released as freeware, so you should go play it right now!

On the gameplay front, Ultima IV is fairly similar to Ultima III, with a few major revisions. The stats and leveling are finally codified, as is Ultima’s propensity for giving you most of your xp through quests. But most importantly, Ultima IV introduces conversation trees.

The conversation trees are actually quite limited in implementation, but despite that they provide for one of the deeper storylines of the era. You can only ask any given NPC their name, job, or health status, or one of only two other concepts per NPC. (To the point where you can actually use an NPC that has limited conversation options as a hint that you will need to go back to them later.)

The plot of Ultima IV revolves around the eight virtues: Compassion, Honesty, Honor, Humility, Justice, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Valor. You spend most of your conversation time learning about the virtues, and upholding them is vital to your success in the game. The systems in place to determine your virtue range from interesting to incredibly silly (honesty is judged entirely by whether you rip off blind shopkeepers, for instance). The result is that you can cheat, but doing so will only make it harder to win – especially since combat is not particularly difficult.

The problem is that, beyond the differences in the virtues, the actual tasks you are assigned get a bit repetitive. You visit eight towns to find the eight mantras to use the eight shrines, and delve the eight dungeons to find the eight virtue stones, and so on. The details differ, but the information gathered in each town starts seeming familiar after a while.

Perhaps the aspect that most sets Ultima IV apart from other RPG’s is the final “boss.” After delving the longest dungeon in the game (and the only one you can’t avoid most of, even if you’re clever), you’re faced with a test of sorts. Not only on the virtues, but on the three principles they are derived from, and other concepts that are hinted at throughout the game but not explicitly made important. Pass, and you are anointed as the Avatar, embodiment of the eight virtues. Fail, and… well, shit, I don’t know, I wasn’t going to fail at the bottom of the freakin’ stygian abyss just to find out what happens!

Ultima IV set the series apart as more than just your typical hack-‘n’-slash series, a trend that would continue through Ultima VIII. (The less said about Ultima IX, the better.) The lack of RPG staples, like bosses of any kind, can be disconcerting to those unfamiliar with the series, but for reasons that can’t be fully explained, these games are even more satisfying to play and complete. It’s not a coincidence that the ability to make choices in RPG’s has become a big deal lately, but Ultima was doing it in the 80’s (and let’s face it, being evil may not let you see the ending, but it can still be fun).

Review Score: A

Retro Review: Mega Man 4 (NES)

It’s hard not to point at Mega Man 4 as the game where Mega Man started to go off the rails. The game has its ups and downs, but the largest factor in its downturn in quality is the addition of the charged Mega Buster shot. There is a good game hidden beneath the surface, but it’s dragged down by some dreary design, the constant charging noise limiting the music, and a design that plays it incredibly safe. I do want to give them some credit for finally putting all the special weapons and items on a single-page inventory screen, though.

It’s hard to believe that Mega Man 4 is the first game in the series with a strict 8-boss order, but along with everything else, it doesn’t help. It’s one of several annoying traditions this game would establish for the series, along with having a set of non-Dr. Wily stages in the same format as the subsequent Dr. Wily stages (spoiler alert!). Mega Man 4 doesn’t miss with everything, though. Several stages have side paths that exist only to offer extra Energy Tanks as extra items, which I like. It also introduces two utility items to supplement the three Rush forms. It does seem like ability bloat at times (especially considering that the Rush Marine is useful exactly once in the whole game), but the idea of hiding optional items in stages rather than having them be won from bosses is a good one the series would revisit.

The weapons in Mega Man 4 are actually pretty well-designed, but it doesn’t matter because the Mega Buster is usually just as good or better. The charged shot throws off much of the balance of the game, and several enemies seem to be designed around the timing of the shot charge. The game doesn’t offer enough challenge to incentivize weapon experimentation, and you’ll find yourself switching mostly just to hit enemies that you can’t otherwise line up for a direct shot.

Mega Man 4 isn’t a bad game, and outside of the context of its two predecessors it may even be remembered fondly. Instead, it’s indicative of the the growing problems in the series and takes a lot of blame for starting that trend. It’s fine if you want more Mega Man, but there are plenty of better options to play.

Review Score: C+

Retro Review: The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda brought with it a number of firsts: the first official gold cartridge, but more importantly, the first NES game with a battery save. While other games that were originally for the Famicom Disk System, such as Metroid and Kid Icarus, used a password system, thankfully Zelda was important (and complicated) enough to have something totally new. Many NES-era games that were large for their time feel small now, but Zelda is not small even by modern standards.

The original Zelda makes very efficient use of its design. You collect a large variety of items, but only 8 actually need to be selected and half of those aren’t used in combat situations. There are nearly as many passive items like the ladder and raft that work continuously or automatically. The 128-screen overworld map is divided into fairly distinct areas, but still flows more or less naturally. Nearly the entire thing can be explored from the start, with the various items you collect giving you access to secrets and shortcuts rather than opening up new areas. Survivability is the main impediment to exploration, and most of the tools to toughen Link up are found on the overworld.

The game’s 9 dungeons take up approximately the same amount of screens as the overworld, but feel entirely different. Though the grid-based nature of the dungeons certainly limits design in many ways, in others it actually opens things up. A glance at the map will tell you which walls you need to check for secrets when you’re stuck, for instance. The game relies on keys and locked doors to keep the player honest, but if you explore thoroughly this will rarely become an issue. And there’s a fine mix of exploratory puzzles and intense combat.

If the Legend of Zelda has any weakness, it’s that the combat can be extremely hard. Whenever you die or load your save, you’ll have only three hearts worth of health filled, which is annoying when you have a maximum of 16. It’s not much of an issue on the overworld map, but dying in a dungeon can lead to a loop of continuous death, and if you leave to find a fairy you can reset some of the tougher rooms. You don’t gain experience or anything of that sort, and defensive upgrades are pretty rare (and mostly found elsewhere). At times you just have to practice until you’re good enough to finish your quest, but this can be a time-consuming process.

If Zelda isn’t hard enough for you, the game offers a second quest that uses the same basic overworld, but with many details changed, and the dungeons both redesigned and relocated. The second quest introduces new mechanics like walking through walls, and is generally a whole lot harder than the original one. Still, the game is complete after one run through, so this really exists purely as a challenge, which is something still rare to this day.

The Legend of Zelda is a classic for a reason. It’s a generally well-balanced game with smart puzzles and lots of fun items to collect. Most of the hints you need are baked into the dungeon design, with the rest offered in broken English by various old men and women. While it’s easy to get stuck at times, the game is pretty fair–at least in the first quest! And unlike many original games from famous series, Zelda 1 still holds up, and doesn’t play exactly like any of its sequels. It’s definitely worth checking out!

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Zillion

Zillion is an action game in the Metroidvania style with a very solid design. Unlike the original Metroid, Zillion is a largely room-based game, featuring many simple puzzles as part of its main gameplay. The result is a game that feels ahead of its time, though even its own sequel didn’t copy the formula. Your mission in Zillion is to rescue two of your compatriots, gather five hidden floppy disks, and then set the base you’re doing all of this in to self destruct and get out. To do this, you’ll have to map out the base while managing several resources to survive.

The primary gameplay mechanic is that any given room might have a locked door. To open it, you’ll need to find four symbols in that room and enter those into the computer. This isn’t really a “puzzle” per se (though having some kind of aid to remember the symbols is helpful), since the symbols are always found in item dispensing nodes that are in plain sight. The main difficulty is in various obstacles: damaging lasers or mines, sensors that call reinforcements, and wandering enemies. You’ll also find ID cards, a valuable resource that lets you disable some of these obstacles temporarily. You have to decide whether to disable or deal with any given obstacle in each room, which keeps things interesting.

The game really opens up once you rescue your first ally. Each of your characters gains levels (via found items) and upgrades independently, so you have some incentive to plan out your upgrades. If you’re thorough, this may never be an issue, but having multiple characters also means multiple health pools. Health restoration is not that easy to come by (though you can always return to the starting point to fully heal), so the challenge becomes balancing between your abilities and staying alive.

The game is superbly paced, with an opening area that introduces the basic mechanics, a middle section that is high on combat, and a final area that has a more focused puzzle aspect. Instead of simply opening the door and moving to the next room, you’ll find yourself opening a door that can be accessed from another room, significantly complicating your exploration. It’s very well done and keeps things fun and interesting.

Unfortunately, there is one major downside to Zillion’s design: the lack of a save or password system. The game takes several hours to complete, and has limited continues, which can make it extremely frustrating if you fail.  The play control on the Sega Master System controller leaves a lot to be desired, and you will often take extra damage as a result. In a game this potentially unforgiving, that’s a problem. Playing conservatively helps, but adds to the already significant time investment.

Zillion is an extremely fun game, in my opinion a largely forgotten gem. It doesn’t have a huge variety of gameplay mechanics, but it is well designed and well paced. A simple password save may have made it a masterpiece of its time, but as it is, it’s worth a playthrough if you like this style of game.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Ultima III: Exodus

Despite the name, Exodus has nothing to do with traveling (well, no more than any other Ultima anyway). Exodus is merely the game that put together the mechanics of Ultima, if not the plot, for the first time. And unlike its predecessors, it was a damn good game.

Among the concepts introduced in Exodus were a party system, separate-screen party combat, actual moongates, nonstandard villain, and even whirlpools as a means to reach secret locations. As a whole the game still resembles simplified D&D, with clerics and wizards and a series of random races, but the table has clearly been set for Ultima IV.

The gameplay itself is surprisingly satisfying, with the usual Ultima assortment of quest groups that can be completed at your leisure. The overall quest is to slay Exodus, the “child” of Mondain and Minax (villains of the first two Ultimas). Despite the huge demon on the box art, Exodus is… well, it’s hard to say exactly what he/it is (and it’s a spoiler anyway), so let’s just say Exodus is Ultima’s first non-standard final boss.

The flaws in Exodus stem mostly from its ancient play control (though it suffers from the early Ultima problem of exploitable money-gaining tricks as a primary source of income as well). Your four party members do not share an inventory, or even money, and must constantly trade items and gold between them. This can be very annoying, and is in fact the reason it took me so long to beat Exodus in the first place. Still, after a few hours you learn the key combinations for trading and can do it pretty quickly.

The game also still isn’t pretty, once again being presented in four-color mode, and once again with a fan patch that restores the game’s graphics and midi to their superior non-pc versions. The game world is nearly square, and loops across two corners, making it difficult (and boring) to navigate.

Put aside its interface and the fact that this game was published in 1983, and Exodus is the first good RPG in the excellent Ultima series. Sure, it’s a blatant hack-‘n’-slash, with no virtues or Avatars in sight, but both the gameplay and plot are surprisingly ahead of their time. A curious Ultima fan who’s willing to put up with Ultima IV’s graphics wouldn’t go wrong to try Ultima III (after a few patches, anyway).

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Operation C

A lot of early Gameboy action games didn’t seem to be made with the limitations of the Gameboy’s screen in mind. Operation C is a rare exception, with detailed graphics that don’t just make everything hard to make out. It’s a solid, though often ignored, entry into the Contra series.

Operation C’s most important legacy has to be the Homing (or is it Hunter?) gun. I imagine it was added to give players a fighting chance on the crappy Gameboy screen, but it would be brought over to Contra III and serve as a useful weapon in many cases. Here, it’s mostly just overpowered. It fires three shots like the Spread gun (though in Operation C you can get a second Spread gun for a normal 5-shot arc), and as the name implies, homes in on enemies. A lot of the challenge of Operation C is just trying to survive with the Homing gun long enough to get it to places it doesn’t normally show up. There isn’t a single opportunity to get a Homing gun in the last two stages, which is a pretty large chunk of a five-stage game!

More so even than Contra and Super C, Operation C is about memorization and figuring out patterns. Any given battle will generally go through your lives very quickly until you figure it out, at which point it becomes a breeze. It can take a while to get there, but it offers a good amount of challenge for such a short game. It may be a little too frustrating in places, with some truly unfair hit boxes on gun emplacements and the like, and unnecessarily difficult horizontal jumps.

The difficulty spikes are my only real issue with Operation C, but they did make me want to throw my Gameboy a few times. It’s easier than Contra but took me longer to be able to get through, if that makes any sense. Otherwise, this is a shockingly solid action game for the Gameboy, which I encourage any Contra series fan to check out if they haven’t already.

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: DuckTales (NES)

DuckTales is a fondly-remembered classic Capcom game, and for good reason. It has fun and unique play control, great graphics for the NES, and is based on a property that was quite popular at the time. The only real issue DuckTales has is that it’s a very abbreviated experience.

You control Scrooge McDuck, armed only with a cane that doubles as a pogo stick. Much of the game centers around using this effect to bounce to high places or defeat enemies. As you might imagine if you know DuckTales, Scrooge is aiming mostly to earn money. Indeed a lot of the diamonds and health restoration items you’ll find simply appear when you walk or (more often) jump to a particular part of a stage. The game rewards a whole lot of jumping around in this way.

DuckTales consists of only five stages, which is perhaps its biggest weakness. However, these stages are atypical for the NES era in that they are generally non-linear, with branching paths and many secrets. This can be frustrating when you don’t know where to go, but generally makes this a very exploration-focused game, particularly when combined with the item appearing mechanic. The downside to this is that once you’ve found everything, the game does lose a little bit of its luster.

Capcom compensated for the game’s brevity by giving you limited lives and no continues. This seems a fairly odd choice considering the game is based on a children’s cartoon, but it works relatively well at keeping tension up. You can visit the five stages in any order (though you can’t return to completed stages), so the “one chance and you’re out” design doesn’t restrict you from reaching any part of the game except the final boss. Still, it feels a bit cheap, even by NES standards, to have so few chances before you need to start over.

DuckTales is undeniably fun, but its limited chances can be quite frustrating. It’s a game that essentially demands you find all its secrets and learn the levels, which is fine for the era, but can be a bit shocking by modern standards. Still, if you have any DuckTales nostalgia, the graphics and music of this game will be a treat, and its unique gameplay mechanics still hold up to this day.

Review Score: B+

Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2

The original Dragon Ball Xenoverse was a surprisingly fun game, but suffered from a limited variety of gameplay options and a lot of content padding. The sequel, DBXV2, addresses all of those concerns, though it does introduce a few new ones. If you liked the original, or like simplified 3D mass Dragon Ball combat, this is the game for you.

As in the first game, there are a number of distinct play types when progressing through the game. In addition to the plot, master quests, and parallel quests, DBXV2 introduces five subplots and new 6-on-1 “Expert Missions.” Not only that, but master quests have been completely redone. No longer do you need to wait for your master of choice to randomly appear, or grind between each mission. Now all unlocked masters are immediately available, there are more of them, and progression is immediate (though sometimes capped by advancement test missions). Each fight also acts as a tutorial for the ability you earn from it. Parallel quests have also been revised slightly, in that a lot of the randomness has been removed. In my experience, if you fulfill the requirements for an ultimate finish, it always happens. Drops are still random, but they’re more spaced out so it’s a bit less grindy.

The new modes are also a lot of fun. There are five side stories and five races, and each race gets an extended version of their own. Between this and the new racial transformations, the game clearly wants you to try out every race to see everything. There is a surprising amount of variety in the side stories, from repeated combat in defense of Namek to collecting food to feed Buu. They tend to be very generous with experience, which is actually somewhat problematic–but I’ll get to that. Finally, there are the expert missions, which introduce a lot of interesting mechanics and function as huge boss fights. Unfortunately, your computer-controlled allies don’t play well with the mechanics, and these missions get super hard. They would likely be a lot more fun with human allies, but I played the game late and haven’t had luck making that happen.

In addition to all the modes, DBXV2 introduces a huge number of new abilities. The biggest change is how transformations work. Rather than taking up a super or ultimate ability slot, there is now a dedicated transformation slot, and multi-tiered transformations like Kaioken and Super Saiyan are now a single ability. The level of transformation depends on your ki at the time of using the ability, which is generally a great idea, but can be annoying with something like Kaioken x20 that drains your stamina so fast that you might prefer a lesser version. The four non-Saiyan races also get their own exclusive transformations, three of which are fun but gimmicky. I’m glad they did something, but it leaves a bit to be desired. This is especially true since there are three versions of Super Saiyan (and I don’t mean 1, 2, and 3, but rather three different sets of stat boosts and restrictions).

All of this new content is great, but the game does suffer a bit from having too much of it. Specifically, if you do all the side missions as they come up, you’re probably going to outlevel the plot very quickly. If you do the plot, you’ll outlevel parallel quests, and so on. About 1/3 of the game will be trivially easy when you do it just because of how fast you advance. This problem is compounded by the fact that if you want to try out all five races, you need to repeat all of this for all of them. While your item and skill lists are shared (and thus you can at least skip the master missions), your plot and even parallel quest progression is not. A thorough player will spend a lot of time doing low-level missions at a trivial difficulty level.

The bottom line is that DBXV2 took the template of the original and made it way better and meatier. If you liked that game, you’ll love this one. There are some new basic combat options, and even trivial stuff like the hub world has been improved dramatically. The roster is enormous, and the DLC is getting into the new Dragon Ball Super. At least in terms of fan service, this game is everything a Dragon Ball fan could want.

Review Score: A−

Dragon Ball Xenoverse

Dragon Ball Xenoverse is a very fun Dragon Ball experience that has unfortunately been stretched out almost to a breaking point. It’s not the most technically in-depth Dragon Ball fighting game by any means, but its core gameplay remains interesting for quite a while. Just, perhaps not as long a while as the developers hoped.

3D arena-based fighting is the core gameplay mechanic of DBXV, but the game is structured much like an RPG (perhaps even an MMO) in general. You start by making a custom character of one of five races (human, Saiyan, Namekian, or the Buu or Frieza races), including a choice of gender for the two humanoid races as well as Buu’s. You’ll gain experience, money, and in some cases randomly dropped gear and abilities from your fights, and levels and upgrades are key to continuing through the game. While every battle yields experience, in the form of points, the game has three types of quest advancement that are designed to work in tandem.

The core story is contained in Time Patrol quests, which proceed in a linear fashion and roughly follow the events of Dragon Ball Z and the Battle of Gods movie. Typically your character will be inserted into a classic fight to correct some change (usually a power-up given to the opponent, but there are some surprises) and have to make things right. The story isn’t bad, but it’s nothing special. While you’ll run into many familiar characters, the major players are mostly new (with the exception of future Trunks, who acts largely as an advisor). You’ll gain levels but not abilities from doing Time Patrols, meaning you’ll very likely have to delve into other areas of advancement to get through the full story. The main benefit of advancing in the main plot is that you’ll unlock more of those other quests.

The game has a mentor system where you can learn abilities from various characters such as Goku, Vegeta, or Piccolo. There are 10 of these to start with, with more added via DLC. Conceptually, this works very well: you learn abilities associated with each mentor, and they will comment on your performance on all quests while you’re under them. Unfortunately, new mentors appear at random, so it can be frustrating to find the one you want. The process of learning their abilities is also needlessly drawn out, and subject to some vague rules that may or may not actually speed things up.

Finally, there are parallel quests, which are the real meat of the game. These appear as offshoots of the main Time Patrol quests, often with much crazier premises. For instance, instead of fighting super-powered Frieza, you may fight with Frieza against every good guy character that was on Namek. Parallel quests differ from other quests in a few key ways: first, you can bring two characters with you (including other actual players if playing online), which allows for more-or-less fair fights against large numbers of opponents. It also triggers banter between various sets of characters, which is super fun. Second, you can earn gear and abilities as random drops, either from specific foes or as a benefit of completing the quest. And finally, each parallel quest has special conditions to trigger an ‘ultimate finish’ which adds a more difficult second objective. The game is merciful in that you still get credit for the quest even if you lose at this point, but most of the best drops are earned with these finishes.

The problem with parallel quests is that the drop rates are abysmal. You’ll find yourself playing the same quest a dozen or more times trying to get everything, and when the drop is something crucial like the Super Saiyan powerup, this gets old very fast. Not only that, even if you trigger the correct Ultimate Finish conditions, there’s a random chance you will get the normal finish anyway. Some of these quests are very long and have complicated conditions, and fulfilling them without even getting a chance at the drop you’re looking for just feels unfair.

The other major problem with the game is that combat gets much cheaper in the harder quests. In combat you have three bars: health, ki, and stamina. Ki powers your attacks, while Stamina is mostly used for defense. You go through Stamina incredibly quickly, and losing all of it will put you in a defenseless state enemies will take full advantage of. Computer opponents, on the other hand, spam stamina abilities at impossible rates. Completing some later parallel quests legitimately is beyond me, though anything can be powered through with the patently unfair Super Saiyan power up. (I hope you’re playing as a Saiyan! If not, good luck.)

While there’s not much to the game beyond the quests, it does make some very interesting choices that are extremely cool. If you make another character, you’ll have access to all the abilities and items you unlocked with your first character, including those you can’t normally get until very high levels. The only downside is that there’s really no compelling reason to keep playing except leveling up.

All in all, Dragon Ball Xenoverse is a great game trapped within a lot of bad design choices. The fighting isn’t the best in the world, but the new abilities and even the banter keep it interesting. If they fixed the drop rates, master system, and generally tried to get less mileage out of making everything a grind, this could be a truly great game.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Dragon Warrior IV (NES)

Dragon Warrior III basically perfected the gameplay of the series, so Enix wisely decided to try some new things with Dragon Warrior IV. As is often the case with new ideas, some were successful, and some less so.

First and foremost (the subtitle of the game is “Chapters of the Chosen”) is the chapter system the game uses. Story-wise, this is great. You spend four chapters introducing the characters that will eventually team up with the prophesized hero, establishing their character and motivations. Each has a strong connection to the plot and at least some justification to why they would join the hero. And the stories told in these chapters are quite good on their own: related to the overall story, but generally pretty self-contained.

The downside of the chapter system is that you need to level characters up from level 1 without help four times. RPGs are often fairly boring in the early going, since the numbers are small and you have few abilities. DW4 does as well as you can with the situation, with a wide variety of low-level monsters between the chapters, but it still turns into a bit of a slog in the long run.

This is the first game in the series to have actually named characters, and they do a good job of filling in the roles of DW3’s classes. The basic melee classes are each covered, but the wizard and pilgrim classes each have their abilities largely split between a pair of characters. Once you have the full party, and the ability to (in some locations) switch between party members during battles, this design really starts to shine.

As cool as the wagon and character switching are, they come with the AI system, another cool idea that doesn’t work so well in practice. Unlike later versions, you don’t have the option to directly control every character, meaning that in chapter 5 you only control the actions of the hero. The party AI isn’t bad for random fights, and it speeds up the game considerably when exploring or leveling, but your characters waste a lot of actions and MP trying to kill bosses with death spells or use other tactics that are doomed to fail. It’s even a problem in certain normal encounters where you need to focus on particular monsters first and your party just isn’t interested in doing so.

The story is one part of the game I have no significant criticism of. The chapter stories are cool, and in the final chapter you learn that the bad guys are just as aware of the prophesized hero as the good people of the world, and are acting against him or her. It’s a nice take on the hero legend which will carry forward into at least DQ5. They subvert the hero trope in a few non-obvious ways that I enjoyed, but I don’t want to get into spoilers.

The villain in particular is quite good. Unlike previous series villains, this one actually has motivations and they even build some sympathy for his point of view. Rather than the usual big bad priest who wants to destroy everything, we get a bad guy out for revenge and gathering his power similarly to how the hero is. The story leads to a satisfying conclusion that plays off your expectations based on the previous games’ tropes.

Finally, there’s the gameplay. Largely unchanged from DW3, aside from the AI system, the gameplay is solid throughout. However, the game does offer up a few too many dungeons in the late going, and I found myself questioning what to do at several points. In particular, there is a tough boss that I figured I’d have to defeat later (which I did), but the game offered no actual advice that that’s what I ought to do. Considering how hard the AI system makes bosses, I really have no idea what the game was intending for me to do, even in hindsight.

All in all, DW4 is a very good entry in a very good series. Enix could have rested on their laurels and just made another DW3, but they changed enough to make DW4 its own game. Not every change worked, but advancement is rarely strictly positive. I still prefer DW3 in general because it has less flaws, but DW4’s story is certainly the best in the series to this point.

Review Score: B+