Review: Ultima V

Ultima V

ST Amiga Format Review

My Review
Download manuals

So, reviewing Ultima 5 is something that would ordinarily take a fuckload longer than I have spent on games so far, so this is going to be more an exploration. In a way many of these reviews have been an exploration of how I cope with the jank inherent in these older games. I’ve been a little surprised in that some of the more out there games turned out to be ok once I got used to them, but for instance Zak McKracken caught me out – I expected to be able to cope without too many issues owing to being fairly familiar with Scumm games. The thing that has tended to put me off most has not been so much arcane interfaces or weird keyboard shortcuts (though there have been some cases of poor controls putting me off – Barbarian 2 was a perfect example of that) but performance. When the jerkiness, the low frame rate, is so bad that it prevents proper timing in a more arcade-ish game, or when it makes clicking on things too tricky (and tooltips pop up waaay too late) as in Zak.

So, this review will be a short slice of life to see how I handle a very unfamiliar game series. The oldest RPG I’ve played is Final Fantasy 7 (original) which I’ve been playing a bit recently and enjoying, but I’ve not played anything older than that (I really didn’t take much of an interest until Morrowind – until that point RPGs were just not of interest to me as while I loved shows like Knightmare on TV I wasn’t really that into orcs and elves which was where most RPGs were – though perhaps you could count Dungeon Master from 1988 to which I devoted hours of gaming time) and the big question is whether the missing quality-of-life improvements and the probably-awful graphics make it impossible to get any enjoyment from the game, or whether it’s something I enjoy and will come back to later.

Running Automation menu disk 221 I’m presented with an attractive-in-an-80s-way lady and some actually quite decent chip music in which to select my game. I don’t fancy Starbreaker so Ultima 5 it is.

Into the game – the logo partly in flames – we have some inoffensive chip music that’s quite fitting to this kind of game – cheery and uplifting and a bit ancient. The first UI humdinger, I try the ‘onward’ option and find myself stuck in a loop because there are no saved games yet.

Let’s try again – Create a character – I shall name him Cuntius. Transphobic fucker asks if I’m male or female – does the bigoted cunt not know I’m non-binary?

Moving to a big wall of text I am grateful at least for one rarity in old games – readable text in a decent font. Setting the scene for figuring out my character. A series of questions will determine who I am, in a manner I’m sure many RPG fans will be familiar with. I’m sure some people know what to answer to get the alignment they want but I answer honestly and let the chips land as they may. The questions are suitably weighty – questions where there isn’t a clearly good response to give. Lots of thys and thous – all very medieval England.

Aaaaand it crapped out. Let’s try another cracked version. Eventually I get it sorted and manage to start Cuntius’ journey towards greatness. Dear fucking god the graphics are shit.

So it looks to me like Dwarf Fortress with a tileset. Controls are interesting. Initially I had some luck moving around by moving the mouse and clicking (an arrow appeared to indicate direction according to whether the mouse was above, below, to the left or right of the player sprite) but it seems keyboard is the more sensible choice given the many commands:

A Attack
B Board
C Cast
E Enter
F Fire
G Get
H Hole Up
I Ignite
J Jimmy
K Klimb
L Look
M Mix
N New Order
O Open
P PUsh
Q Quit and Save
R Ready
S Search
T Talk
U Use
V View
X X-it (what the fuck does that do?)
Y Yell
Z Z-stats
Space Abort turn

Commands are issued by pressing the key and then a direction, so to get something to your North you’d press G and then the up arrow.

The quick reference card also provides detailed stats on the weapons, which makes some sense. While a modern game can pop up a tooltip to show you a weapon’s stats, with a resolution of 320×200 one has to leave some information out of the software and put it in the supplementary materials instead, if for no other reason than there’s no nice way to present that information on screen. We also have a chart of spells, and honestly I’m actually quite excited reading this stuff.

Wandering around I come to a well and wish for poo on a stick. Sadly I get no such poo, nor do I know where the coin came from. Plucked from my cavernous anus no doubt. Onwards.

I wander the woods some more, encountering a farm but no farmer. Where are all the people?

Going north past a certain point it asks if I wish to leave. This leaves me in a forest – I didn’t initially realise but each square represents one area like the one I was just in. The hut and surrounding forest is one tile and I can return to it by choosing to Enter it. This may be teaching granny to suck eggs, in which case I apologise, but this is new for me.

Not being entirely sure what to do at this point I decided to dig deeper into the resources that came with the game. We have:
– a 2 page journal
– a 2 page quick reference (keyboard, weapon attack points, armour defence points, and a chart of spells)
– an 8 page reference card (from the c64 version – I couldn’t find an ST version)
– a 60 page lore book

Firing up the emulator once more I attempted to get back to where I was, only to find that the emulator would lock up and refuse to continue playing. Back to the start again for me. In the end, the slog of getting it to work, an interface which gives too little away, and insufficient time and energy lead to me giving in and moving onto the next issue of ST/Amiga Format in search of fun.

For those who are interested, and don’t want to faff with an emulator, there is a version on gog.com in a collection which also contains Ultimas 4 and 6. I found that while it got me away from the horror of the emulator and rid me of the incessant disk access, it was still a bit too dated for me to really get much from it.

Review: Barbarian II

Barbarian 2

My Review
So I thought it would be worth giving Barbarian 2 a quick look. I would however contend that its best feature is the box in which the game comes, which at least has the advantage of tits. Everyone loves tits.

After a bit of loading we arrive at the warrior choice screen, either a bloke or a bird, with a well-sampled voice asking us to choose our warrior. The game itself also features some nice sounds, likely sampled, which work pretty well, including an excellent burp when a dragon bites your head off.

The fight itself is a bit too jerky to be as much fun as I’d like, but it’s serviceable. I think they tried to cram too many controls into 1 button though.

As difficult as it is to remember all the combinations it also doesn’t feel very intuitive to perform those joystick moves and it can also be a dreadful pain in the arse to turn your character around – indeed even when you press the right key combination, half the time it is ignored.

Fights themselves are short and brutal, with a decent helping of gore (within the parameters of c64-level graphics), but the jerky animation typical of ST games early in its life just lets it down and leaves the experience lacking in fluidity.

In hindsight I can see how ST Format decided not to cover it, especially when one looks at the games they did cover.

Review: Zak McKracken

Zak McKracken

ST Amiga Format Review

My Review

Zak is the second release from Lucasarts using the Scumm engine, as later found in the Monkey Island games, Sam and Max, Grim Fandango, Day Of The Tentacle, etc. Classics, every one, but this is that rare thing, a Scumm game I’ve never played before. For anyone following along, you may wish to pick up the manual at https://openretro.org/file/4beafd838f3e71e98988cde8ab2df8ba2eb2120d/Manual (en).pdf – you might also want to look at playing the game on ScummVM if playing on the ST doesn’t do it for you. I’ll be playing the version found on Automation’s disk 192 which features some fabulous sampled music in the cracktro.

From the off it’s clear that this is a port from the 8-bit machines, not really utilising the ST’s capabilities in the way Monkey Island later would. It has a similar visual with flat colours and limited detail to Leisure Suit Larry 1 for instance, which doesn’t stack up so well against later releases like Operation Stealth. I won’t hold that against it though because if it has that Lucas magic then who cares about graphics, but if graphics do matter to you then you may wish to go for the 256 colour FM Towns version available on gog.com for a fairly sensible price.

We begin in the office of the National Inquisitor bitching to the boss about having to make up crap stories and being sent to Seattle to investigate a vicious two-headed squirrel and write about a UFO incident 50 years ago.

An intro with some crappy chip music and animation at 2 frames per second (I may be being a tad generous with that) ensues as our hero has a weird dream, and we are deposited in his room to figure out what to do next, with the hint that you should make a drawing of the map you saw in the dream (I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do that).

In typical adventure game fashion I leave the first room with a kazoo, a phone bill for $1138 (too many sex lines I presume) and a fish in its fish bowl. Sensing a clue I dial 1138 but get nothing. No messages on the answering machine either. God damn it this game is so slow and unresponsive.

Into a room with a huge TV. Let’s see what’s there. Meanwhile, in a secret room, aliens are plotting. The annoying noise emitted from my Atari ST however proves to be the final straw, my patience expired. I’d love to play Zak McKracken, but I don’t want to do it on an Atari ST as this version is absolute shite. I’ll recommend the GOG version instead.

Review: Populous

Populous

Check out that box art – it’s a cut above the standard of the time and really helps the game stand out on the shelf. EA had a budget and could really splash out on quality artwork and marketing.

The ad looks pretty damn cool too. It’s all in keeping with the EA house style of course but does such a good job of selling the experience of playing Populous.

ST Amiga Format Review

My Review

So, just to get it out there, I’m cheating a little by using a cracked version that comes with the Promised Lands expansion – this means there may be some small differences with the game released in early 1989 but it ought to be close enough. The manual is pretty essential as I couldn’t remember what the various icons did – I got mine at http://macintoshgarden.org/sites/macintoshgarden.org/files/manuals/Populous_Manual_Amiga.pdf and while that is the Amiga version it’s perfectly applicable here.

If you’re reading this it’s likely that you already know about Populous, but just in case you don’t I’ll provide a bit of backstory and discuss the game. So Bullfrog at this point had put out a couple of fairly mediocre games, one being Druid 2 and the other being Fusion. It seems those were just quick projects to pay the bills until their true passion project came out, and that project was Populous. Populous was the first god game and Bullfrog would use the same isometric style for Powermonger (one of my favourites) and Populous 2. Later Bullfrog would go on to create Syndicate, Magic Carpet, Theme Park and Theme Hospital, all of which were enormously successful, the latter two being huge favourites of mine, though it must be said that the years between Theme Park and Theme Hospital were low on quality. Dungeon Keeper would follow after Theme Hospital however, with Populous The Beginning and various iterations of Theme Park rounding up the releases. One can see a decline after Dungeon Keeper as Molyneux departed to form Lionhead Studios and release the bat-shit insane Black And White, where he would make outlandish promises which would only half make it into the game, setting a pattern that would see him eventually create the awful Godus and Cube games and that cunt from RockPaperShotgun calling him a liar.

The objective is to defeat the other god. You don’t have any direct control of your people however, so it’s not an RTS in the traditional sense. What you can do is set off earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural disasters in the opposition’s land to disrupt their population until such a point as you can invade. You also need to grow your own population, and the best way to achieve this is to flatten the land so they can build more. Bigger houses take longer to fill but have more defensive value, so you will want to bugger up a bit of land to push your people to go and look for somewhere else to build, before returning the flattened land to make for easy building.

Sound is not particularly exciting, but the visuals are excellent. The 3D landscape looks fantastic, the simplicity of its shape rendering it readable, the book on which the worldmap sits looks gorgeous, the houses and castles look great, and the little people wander around doing their thing. It’s not quite as refined as it would become in their later work but for the time it’s quite extraordinary. In a way Populous is one of the first games to truly showcase what 16-bit computing could really achieve, moving beyond the arcade conversions that were the vast majority of releases at that time. The game even allows you to connect two STs together for a two-player game (which was a rarity at the time).

The game isn’t without its flaws. It doesn’t run super-quickly or super-smoothly despite limiting the playable area to a small window, and the view is so zoomed in that it’s hard to get a wider picture of what’s going on, something they fixed in Powermonger by having zoom levels. Also, the icons aren’t that obvious and the game does a poor job at times of telling you why you can’t do something (in that it just doesn’t tell you anything).

Despite its flaws, his game has an important place in history, showing you don’t need a high score, you don’t need rapid reflexes, you can make a game that requires thought. It paved the way for games like Sim City later on to offer more direct control and its lineage can be quite clearly seen to Black And White far later. It’s a fun game in its own right but it’s also an important game.

As to whether it’s worth playing today, I would argue that it’s probably better to play Populous 2 instead, but Populous 1 is still pretty awesome and you’ll have fun playing it.

ST/Amiga Format Issue 10

Issue 10 – Download

The World in March 1989
News for March 1989 is somewhat sparse. Time merged with Warner to become Time Warner, George H W Bush banned import of certain assault rifles, and the Exxon Valdes spilled 240000 barrels of oil into the sea. At the oscars, Rain Man won best picture, with Dustin Hoffman picking up best actor and for best actress Jodie Foster won for The Accused. The quality of the competition was poor. The 12 nations of the EC (as it was then) agreed to ban production of CFCs by the end of the century to solve the big environmental scare of the day, holes in the ozone layer.

In film we see Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dani De Vito as Twins holding top spot ahead of Rain Man and Dangerous Liasons, Terry Gilliam’s Adventures of Baron Munchausen pops in at #6 (a film I’ve never seen – I adored his other film Brazil though), and the rest of the chart is pretty uninteresting.

The album chart sees Gloria Estefan on top, deposing Simply Red from top spot, Texas arrive at #3 with Southside (from which the hit I Don’t Want A Lover is taken), Sam Brown holds on at #6 while we have greatest hits from Bananrama and the Style Council and Michael Jackson’s Bad spends its 81st week in the charts. Roy Orbison is not in the top 10. The singles chart too is mercifully free of Roy, with Jason Donovan taking a break from Neighbours to have a number 1 record, followed by Madonna’s magnificent Like A Prayer, a shit charity record at #3, a fantastic Donna Summer hit at 4, the brilliant Stop from Sam Brown at 5, the also fantastic Straight Up from Paula Abdul at 6, then absolute shit from 7 to 10, but overall it’s a good chart with some absolute bangers. Other notables include Guns and Roses with Paradise City entering at 21, We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It with International Rescue (seriously it’s a banger) at 23, and Marc Almond and Gene Pitney finaly heading out of the top 40 at 39 after 10 weeks.

On TV we had the 2nd Red Nose Day, a day on which comedians go on TV and yell at us to give money to charity. Mike and Angelo made its debut on ITV, as did Children’s Ward. March was quiet for new content however.

The Magazine
This month’s issue of ST/Amiga Format gives away a copy of Devpac 1 – an extraordinarily generous offer considering Devpac is the favoured tool of game developers on the 16-bit systems (where one had to program in Assembler to get any kind of speed – C was too slow and BASIC was waaaaaaay too slow). There’s a big feature on computer vision, a remarkable thing to cover considering it’s only in the last few years with the advent of neural networks and machine learning that such a thing has even been possible.

We have a discussion of whether adventure games are dead – of course we all know that adventure games died after the release of Escape From Monkey Island, their corpse occasionally resurrected by Telltale and Wadget Eye for the modern era. In a way the discussion of the dumbing down of games because people only buy flashy graphics is familiar to gamers today and all through history, but I thought it might be a nice read for some here.

Previews
This month’s previews include weird pinball-thingy Ballistix (not a wholly accurate description but I’m not sure what would be), a game of the cartoon of Ghostbusters, Blood Money (shooter from Psygnosis), Battletech (RPG), Airborne Ranger, Outrun Europa aiming to right the awful wrongs of Outrun in an ambitious game featuring motorbikes and boats in addition to the usual cars, Millenium 2.2 which honestly I have no fucking idea what it is and Vigilante (beat-em-up).

Reviews
Missing the cut were yet another strip poker game thistime from Tomahawk, Codemasters with the excerable Advanced Ski Simulator, US Gold’s Human Killing Machine criticised for being too easy (game journalists calling a game too easy????), and Prison. Not an especially distinguished bunch. Controversially Barbarian 2 didn’t make the cut, though that might be becuase there’s a decent selection of games in this issue (albeit they seem to review such a tiny number of games [7 in this issue] – maybe they didn’t have enough reviewers at that time).

Games reviewed this month:
Ultima V (RPG – Microprose – £24.95 – 86% Format Gold)
Populous (God Sim – EA – £24.95 – 92% Format Gold)
Cybernoid II (Shooter – Hewson – £19.95 – 70%)
Denaris (Shooter – US Gold – £24.95 – 83%) – Amiga Only
Titan (Weird Breakout Thing – Titus – £19.99 on ST, £24.99 on Amiga – 79%)
Zak McKracken (Adventure – Lucasfilm – £24.99 – 71%)
Silkworm (Shooter – Sales Curve – £19.95 – 70%)

I’m certainly going to cover Populous, a game of tremendous importance as it invented the God game but also birthed Bullfrog as we know them today (until that point they’d done some mediocre arcadey games but after this they became known for their more strategic releases like Powermonger, Theme Park, Theme Hospital, etc). I’d like to cover Ultima V though I suspect my skills in that area may be lacking and I might not do it justice. I’m keen to try out Zak McKracken as while it’s not the first game to use the SCUMM system (that honour falls to Maniac Mansion) it’s still an important link in that particular chain. I’d quite like to have a look at Barbarian 2 which missed the cut, though I’m aware that 4 games for one magazine may slow output somewhat. Let me know your thoughts guys. These bigger posts take a couple of hours typically, the game reviews themselves are a mixed bag but for instance Populous would take a while to review properly if I wasn’t already familiar with it, Ultima will be a bit of a challenge, Zak should be ok as I’ve played a fair few Lucasarts games over the years and Barbarian should be ok being an arcade game.

Reviews This Month

Review: Ultima V

Ultima V ST Amiga Format Review My ReviewDownload manuals So, reviewing Ultima 5 is something that would ordinarily take a fuckload longer than I have spent on games so far, so this is going to be more an exploration. In a way many of these reviews have been an exploration of how I cope with…More

Review: Barbarian II

Barbarian 2 My ReviewSo I thought it would be worth giving Barbarian 2 a quick look. I would however contend that its best feature is the box in which the game comes, which at least has the advantage of tits. Everyone loves tits. After a bit of loading we arrive at the warrior choice screen,…More

Review: Zak McKracken

Zak McKracken ST Amiga Format Review My Review Zak is the second release from Lucasarts using the Scumm engine, as later found in the Monkey Island games, Sam and Max, Grim Fandango, Day Of The Tentacle, etc. Classics, every one, but this is that rare thing, a Scumm game I’ve never played before. For anyone…More

Review: Populous

Populous Check out that box art – it’s a cut above the standard of the time and really helps the game stand out on the shelf. EA had a budget and could really splash out on quality artwork and marketing. The ad looks pretty damn cool too. It’s all in keeping with the EA house…More