Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress
Developer: Richard Garriott
Publishers: Sierra On-Line, Origin Systems (re-release)
Release Date(s): August 24, 1982
Traverse deep dark deadly dungeons
And tall terrifying towers
Travel throughout the galaxy
To the planets of our solar system
And conquer time itself to battle
Minax the Enchantress
Welcome to the world of Ultima II! Richard Garriott’s second (third if you count Akalabeth as Ultima 0) game in the Ultima series. The avatar jumps back and forth through earth’s timeline via so-called “Time Gates” (later called Moongates as one of the defining features of the Ultima games) to defeat the evil enchantress Minax, apprentice and lover of Mondain (the villain from Ultima I). Apparently Garriot was heavily inspired by Terry Gilliam’s movie Time Bandits during development which came out in 1981.
Ultima II is generally seen as the black sheep of the Ultima series. And to be honest, i have to agree. There’s a lot to learn from the past, so let’s find out why the game is bad, what can be improved and eventually how to design better games.
Starting the Game
After creating your character in the typical D&D manner (pick a thief!), the game starts on the overworld of Earth in 1423 BC (It’s the only game in the Ultima series that doesn’t take place on Sosaria/Britannia). The character starts with 400 HP, food and gold. Without any instructions on how to proceed or what the goals are.
Who am I? What is my purpose? How have i come to this point? Why am i naked? Is there any connection to Ultima I? There’s no explanation on why you’re stranded, naked and far off from civilization. Suddenly the food counter begins ticking down.
You’ll see, Food is the most pressing issue when starting the game. If it reaches 0, you’re dead. And death is permanent in Ultima II. Luckily food can be bought in most towns in increments of 100 for varying amounts of gold.
Here lies the first problem, because actually reaching a town is probably the hardest part of the game: Surviving the first few encounters without weapons and armor, almost starving to death. Most enemies can also paralyze you for a few turns. It took me about three tries to enter the first city without dying.
Even the game’s manual states:
Don’t wander very far; your character isn’t apt to be very strong yet, and you have no weapons or armour.
Oh the irony.
Arriving at “Towne Linda”, the higest priority is to buy food. If you’re a Thief (which you should be!) it’s probably wiser to just steal food: Go to the counter, press S and the direction you want to steal from. It won’t always succeed and the success rate is determined by your Agility. Everyone in town will get angry and wants to beat you to death, but as soon as you exit the village your evil deeds will forgotten and you can happily repeat the process until you have either the maximum of 9999 units or you’re bored to death.
Improving the start of the game
The first few minutes are the most crucial, it sets the tone for the rest of the game.
It would have been so much more elegant if the game just started in a town (or at least near one, like in Ultima I!) without changing anything else. This would give the player time to get comfortable with the controls, emphasize interacting with NPCs to learn more about his purpose and at least hint at where the character comes from. The player would still have to figure out how to talk, venture into the wild, attack, buy and equip items.. As hard as it is, but in a less violent and more controlled environment. It would take a lot of frustration out of the game without restricting player freedom, dumbing down gameplay or changing the game altogether. It wouldn’t even be a technical challenge.
Lessons learned: Think about how your game starts. A game should be able to be picked up and played, give the player some time to get comfortable and communicate clear goals without taking the player for an idiot.
Okay, then let’s take a look at the game’s manual, but first.. how to pause this game?! Turns out looking at your character’s stats (Z) pauses the game. Of course. This brings us to the first of the game mechanics…
Advancing the characters stats and attributes is a little different in Ultima II.
Health Points (HP) can be bought(!) from Lord British by giving him tribute in the form of 50 gold pieces. Depending on how much HP you currently have, he will award you with 100-300 HP.
Attributes can only be increased by visiting the desk clerk of Hotel California in New San Antonio (1990 AD). Offer him 100 gold and when you’re lucky he might say “Alakazam!” which randomly increases one of your attributes by 4. It is as fun as it sounds.
Experience Points (XP) are gained by killing monsters on the overworld or in dungeons/towers. For every 100 XP, the character gains one level until a maximum of 9999 XP / level 99. As far as i know, there’s nothing to be gained from leveling up.
Improving character advancement
The resources in Ultima II behave and interact in weird ways as you’ve undoubtedly seen.
On an abstract level, exchanging gold for HP isn’t so weird anymore, as it’s just that: Perfectly fine in a lot of RPGs (like Wizardry or Dragon Quest, for example). It’s communicated in a way that it feels wrong. How about sleeping in an inn to replenish HP? Much more natural.
Experience and levels have absolutely no impact on the game. We could either cut it out of the game entirely or, even better, introduce a maximum HP value and tie it to the characters level to give it some meaning. Rework the XP-needed-to-level formula so that it grows exponentially instead of linearly. Why exponentially? To control character growth and to ensure that the player continues on to seek challenges on his skill level and doesn’t stay in the starting area and grinds until he’s ready to fight the last boss.
Gaining attributes could also be tied to the character level and additionally weighted towards the characters class and race to give them some distinction and the player replay value.
Lessons learned: There’s a huge difference between actual mechanics and what the player eventually perceives. Only show the player values and stats that have (meaningful) impact on the game.
Equipment, Items & Means of Transportation
The character can Wear armor and Ready weapons, respectively. Both types can only be bought in towns.
Armor seems to lower incoming damage, but i’m not really sure, as there’s no place to verify it. Reflect or power armor is needed to fly through outer space. There’s no choice, better armor costs more and requires more strength.
Same with weapons, they probably increase the damage you do against enemies, but i really don’t know. The Quicksword named “Enilno” (“Online” backwards) is needed to damage Minax. Better weapons require more agility.
Almost all items to progress in the game can be acquired by killing thieves on the overworld.
There are four different means of transportation aside from being on foot. With the horse you’re able to outrun enemies on the overworld. The ship can sail over water obviously and fires very strong cannons. Also food doesn’t deplete while sailing. You need a Blue Tassle (from thieves) to board a pirate ship. The plane can fly over all terrain and enter time gates, but can only land on grass which makes entering some time gates impossible. The rocket can traverse through space and land other planets.
Improving Equipment, Items and Transportation
Both weapons and armor could have different attribute or class/race requirements for example. This would increase replay value and allow for some more interesting race and class combinations.
At least place some items around the game world if has to be this big! Allow the player to acquire certain items through different game mechanics, like combat, exploration, bartering or speech. This makes for interesting and meaningful choices and covers more player types as well.
The different means of transportation were balanced pretty good in my opinion. They are diverse, each one has its own requirements, uses and drawbacks. The only problem is that you irreversibly die when landing the rocket on anything else than grass.
Combat & Exploration
Third Person – Overworld & Towns
This is where the majority of the game’s combat takes place. Pressing A and followed by the desired direction initiates a blow. It will probably miss if your agility is too low, which it will be for quite some time.
Thieves can steal items when attacking and you’re not even notified when it happens. The longer it takes to kill them, the higher the chance they steal something from you. You have no means to take back stolen items. This mechanic just arbitrarily prolongs the game. For example, a barrier ring is needed kill Minax without sustaining 1,000 damage each time a energy barrier is crossed. After fighting through hordes of monsters and finally entering Minax’ castle, it turned out a thief stole the ring. So much fun!
The time gates and outer space part are both a nice touch, but they serve no purpose and make the universe feel even more devoid of life than it is already. There’s nothing meaningful to do and it doesn’t even change the way the world looks. It complicates things.
BioWare has made exactly this mistake almost 25 years later in the first Mass Effect (2007). It had “planets” to explore that felt soulless because each one looked like it came straight out of TerraGen after pressing the randomize button. Luckily they came to their senses when developing it’s successor Mass Effect 2.
First Person – Dungeons & Towers
Every time you Enter one of the dungeons or towers on the overworld, the game switches to first-person mode, with typical dungeon crawling already seen in Akalabeth, Ultima I and Wizardry I. You’re probably facing a pitch black screen, because you need to find and Ignite a torch first. Proceed through endless mazes with a lot of tough enemies that get progressively harder each level.
Now for the best part: It’s not even required to set a single foot in one of the ~5 dungeons (with about ~15 levels each) to complete the game. It honestly baffles me why this is the case for such a major component of the game.
Improving Combat and Exploration
Streamline combat. First of all combat could be simplified by letting the player attack via bumping into enemies with the directional keys. This would reduce the key-presses needed by 50% and significantly speed up combat. At the same time friendly NPCs in towns are more prone to be accidentally attacked, which in turn could be countered with a prompt asking if the player really wants to attack friendly NPCs. A welcomed trade-off.
Missing in combat most of the time is not fun, it’s punishing. Have very low miss percentages, or better let the monsters block now and then that absorbs some damage, not all.
Thieves shouldn’t be able to steal important and quest-related items from the player without any means to get them back. Let them flee but drop the stolen items on death.
Taking the character advancements into account, exploration of a few dungeons and towers should be vital to the game’s progress! Placing unique items at the last levels of dungeons and seeding the other floors with gold and equipment, for example.
Spells can only be casted in dungeons, which of course makes the Wizard and Cleric classes (you guessed it) useless. On top of this, spells also have to be bought for gold in packs of five which is much better invested in HP.
Lessons learned: Iterate on your core mechanics until they’re perfect. Players will do them over and over and over again. Don’t take hard earned, crucial items away from the player. If you’re producing content, make at least sure players have some incentive to explore it.
Originally released for the Apple II, Ultima 2 was ported for several other systems, including MS-DOS, Atari 800, C64 and the Japanese home computers NEC PC-88/98, MSX2 and FM Towns.
The Apple II version has four disks, which have to swapped regularly while playing. This can quite annoying, but apart from this, it has the best graphics of the original versions.
The MS-DOS version was released two years later in 1983 and features 4-color CGA graphics, a major step-down from the Apple II version. It never got the EGA treatment like the first Ultima. Sadly this version is the one that sticks around (and can still be bought). This is partly because it can be emulated quite easily with DOSBox.
I’ve never played the Japanese versions of Ultima II, so i can’t comment on them. Maybe i’ll try to get them working when i find some time.
Ultima 2 Upgrade Patch
The Ultima 2 Upgrade Patch by Voyager Dragon is for the IBM PC version and adds an EGA 16-color mode, various other features (saving while on board a vehicle!) and bug fixes to the game. The patch has to be applied using a DOS environment like DOSBox.
Mind you that this is a fan-made patch even using some graphical tiles from Ultima IV, so it certainly isn’t the original experience.
The MS-DOS version of Ultima 2 is one those games with a save-file that is super easy to edit. Grab a hex editor of your choice (I’ve used Sublime Text 2 with HexViewer – alternatives would be Frhed or HxD on Windows, for Mac OS X there’s the excellent Hex Fiend) and make the game a little more bearable.
First create a character (called “Player Disk” in-game) and write down his stats including HP, Food and Gold. Open the “PLAYER” file in the Ultima 2 directory with your hex editor:
The bytes 0x00 – 0x16 are reserved for the characters name.
What makes it so easy is that the characters stats, HP, food, experience and gold are not calculated in hexadecimal values, but in decimal values:
- Bytes 0x15 – 0x1A are the attributes: Strength, Agility, Stamina, Charisma, Wisdom and Intelligence respectively.
- Starting at 0x1B – 0x1C for HP, 0x1D – 0x1E food, 0x20 – 0x21 experience and 0x22 – 0x23 for gold respectively and are stored as words (2 bytes).
- Everything else (0x2E – 0xAF) is equipment and items.
Now just change the values to the ones you want to have. Maximum values are 99 for stats, and 9999 for HP, food, gold and experience.
NOTE: Be careful, attributes can and will roll beyond the max value of 99 and back to 00 if you attempt gain more and you’re not using the the Ultima 2 Upgrade Patch!
I won’t comment on the numerous pointless dialogues and in-jokes that Garriott thought were funny back in 1982. Stealing food from “McDonalls” while “Ronall McDonall” tries to beat me to death sounds funny but makes my brain hurt. Robert Woodhead and Andrew C. Greenberg standing in a building dubbed “Wizardry” while shouting “COPY PROTECTION!” also isn’t particularly clever.
Nonetheless i’m happy that Richard Garriott had the courage to try something different with each iteration of Ultima, in contrast to the Wizardry series which pretty much stayed the same from the beginning. Garriott himself states in the game’s manual that the development took him over four years.
There are some other mechanics I’ve yet to address in-depth, maybe some other time. But i guess I’ve paid Ultima II enough tribute as it is already. :)
Thanks for reading!
References & Links