The Versions of the Ultima Series to Play and the Reasons Why

Bill Loguidice's picture

UltimaUltimaWe've been having a bit of a discussion about Ultima in the Gates of Delirium Live - Post 11 blog comments, and I was curious what everyone's thoughts were on the most authentic, interesting and error-free versions of each of the nine main Ultima games, not counting Akalabeth (though we can throw that in there too). This is both for my own selfish reasons of wanting to play these at some point (and to do it only once for each game) and also because I think this would prove to be an interesting discussion as I know everyone is very opinionated about the series. So, assuming you have access to any version - and any version's optimized hardware setup (for instance, you have an Apple II with two Mockingboards or a C-128), which would you pick, and in what order, say up to the top three systems for each version of the game? I'll start with my own only partially informed opinion.

0 - Akalabeth - World of Doom: PC DOS (version on Ultima Collection CD-ROM), Apple II original, dimjon's J2ME version

My reasoning: Since Akalabeth is such a simple and often frustrating game, it's best to play it in the most painless way possible. While the PC DOS version is not an original version, it does work well in Windows and is probably the easiest version to play. The Apple II version is the second choice because it's the original, but it's not readily available in ROM form and impossible to find an original. The Apple II version is also supposed to be rather slow, which is not appealing in an already dated and frustrating game. dimjon's J2ME version is one I've played on my old Nokia cell phone and seems to be a very faithful recreation, so that's why I put it as the third option. Having played quite a bit of Akalabeth, I really have no interest in ever finishing it, so this is one I'd definitely pass on, though again, if I ever did play it, I'd probably go with the PC DOS version.

1 - Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness: C-64 (1986 remake), Apple IIGS (1994 port), Apple II (1986 remake)

My reasoning: I don't think it would make much sense to run the original Apple II version, since it was written in a combination of BASIC and Assembly code as far as I know, making it a bit slow and buggy. The re-release in 1986 was an official remake entirely in assembly language, which also features slightly improved visuals. The idea of a IIGS-specific port intrigues me, though I'm not sure of its availability and how faithful it is considering it's not official (I'd rather not experience unofficial interpretations, even if they're better). I would be less opposed to playing an enhancement of this game as it probably benefits from it and was already done so by Origin themselves (meaning the unofficial IIGS update is not a foreign concept). If I received some assurances as to its worth, I'd definitely consider moving it to the first slot. I'd also rather avoid PC DOS versions whenever possible, since I know I'll be stuck on that platform for the later releases and I'm not a fan of PC speaker sound.

NOTE: Atari 8-bit was removed in combination with the C-64 in favor of solely the C-64

2 - Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress: C-64, Apple II (1989 update), Apple II (original)

My reasoning: It's my understanding the official Apple II 1989 update - the only updated version of the game released - features bug fixes and a very slight tweak to the graphics and interface. Since the C-64 version already had all of this and more with the addition of extra sound in the first place, that would be the original version to go with.

NOTE: Atari 8-bit was removed in combination with the C-64 in favor of solely the C-64. The Atari 8-bit version was deemed graphically inferior to all versions courtesy of a poor port.

3 - Ultima III: Exodus: Apple II (original with Mockingboard support), Atari ST/Amiga, C-64

My reasoning: The most authentic version would be the Apple II release with Mockingboard, giving you originality and good sound. You get similar sound on the Amiga/Atari ST versions, as well as updated graphics. I'm not sure the latter is really necessary, though, and it may be more enjoyable on an older system. The C-64 version would be a good standby since it's very much like the Apple II release and has similar sound to the Mockingboard version.

4 - Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar: Apple II (original with Mockingboard support), Atari ST/Amiga

My reasoning: The Apple II is competitive with all other 8-bit versions in terms of graphics and sound (with Mockingboard), so there's no reason not to play the original in this case (it also helps that I have this version complete in the box). Again, the ST/Amiga versions would offer updated visuals if that were important to me. By the way, this is one where the Sega Master System (SMS) version is rather tempting in that it appears to be a very faithful and visually updated representation of the 8-bit computer version, unlike the bastardized NES versions of the series.

5 - Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny: Apple II (original with Mockingboard), C-128, Atari ST/Amiga

My reasoning: Since this is the last version ever made originally for the Apple II and really pushed that system to its limits, this has to be the preferred version. Also, with two Mockingboards, you have up to 12 sound channels/voices, though I don't believe they were all used (still very, very cool). The C-128 has to be the second choice since it's one of the few games to directly support the C-128 in some manner; on the C-64 you get no music, on the C-128 because of the extra memory, you get full music. The Atari ST/Amiga again, because of the enhanced visuals. I suppose the DOS port would be OK too, but definitely as a fourth choice for the hassles associated with DOS alone.

6 - Ultima VI: The False Prophet: DOS, Amiga/ST, C-64

My reasoning: DOS was the development platform, so that's the version that needs to be played. In addition, it supports pseudo-VGA and sound cards (though sound effects are still PC speaker). The Amiga/ST versions from my understanding were just straight ports of the DOS version and have few enhancements, as well as run slower. The C-64 version is supposed to be pathetic, but it's the only 8-bit version released (shockingly, the Apple II market was supposedly not considered viable enough for a new version of the game by 1990), so that has to count for something.

7 - 9 Ultima VII - IX: DOS/Windows

My reasoning: By this point there were no other ports to speak of, so playing the originals is where it's at. I would however play IX with the various fan-made patches to avoid many of the glitches, one of the few times I would really seek such a thing out. I may be wary of some of the content changes, however.

So does anyone have any thoughts about this? Know something more about any of the versions above? I own all the Ultima's on the PC, Ultima I - III (as part of the Trilogy box) on the C-64, and Ultima IV and V on the Apple II, so that could certainly play factors in my decisions as well. However, I obviously have the ability to pretty much recreate any version on any platform that I so choose, especially since I have all of the original materials and maps and what-not, so I wouldn't lose anything in the experience, making me very open to alternatives.

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Calibrator
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Some thoughts

Here is some personal history and some thoughts about the conversions. Bear with me if not all is like I remember it ;-)

Akalabeth & U1 - never played them and apparently I didn't miss anything as they seem to be rather primitive. Yes, you can throw stones at me now!

U2 - this was in fact the first Ultima and the first CRPG I ever played. 1984(?) it was pretty good and a good port on the C64: It used the 40 character mode with a redefined font for the surface world so it was very speedy and had some sound effects.
The gameplay and fighting "system" are rather simple by todays standards and the graphics whore in us would surely object against touching this game, but well it was where I started ;-)

U3 - also played it on my friends C64. No character mode but relatively colorful hi-res graphics and some music in this conversion.
Lord British raised the bar with much better graphics (I loved the line-of-sight algorithm), party management, a noteworthy combat system, a more diversified world and mucho better atmosphere.
Us players raised the bar by using cheating character stats to thwart the evil Exodus in less time the good Lord intended to...

U4 - more of the same but even better. Also played it on the C64 which was barely fast enough to update the beautiful tile graphics. Better line-of-sight, better combat, better dungeons etc. but I remember even more disk swapping.
I not only became the avatar - I nearly failed my school exams ;-)
Didn't really play the freely available, upgraded PC version but it's VGA graphics surely do look acceptable to me and it has good MIDI music.

U5 - my second favorite Ultima. Played it on an Amiga and couldn't install it on harddisk (I had a gigantic 20 MB one!) so I had to change disks all the time. This was a major pain even back then and I would prefer the DOS version anytime.
This game has great atmosphere and a "real living world" with a day-night-cycle and the townsfolk having their own schedules.
Many many objects to use and secrets to find. The enormous gameworld must be one of the biggest for years.
I remember some crashes but thankfully never lost character data. In 1991 I sold my Amiga stuff including many expensive books to jump on the PC VGA ship (after U6 came out for it) - the Amiga version of U5 is the only thing I didn't sell.

U6 - I swapped RPGs with a friend for a time so that I didn't have to buy that much stuff and I was so excited about U6.
Of course it looked great in its VGA glory where one "could count the blades of grass" but I was in parts disappointed of the game.
First of all the viewport is very small - especially your party of six "blocking" even more space. I also didn't like the whole gargoyle thing which developed in later Ultimas further.

U7 TBG - my favorite Ultima, hands down. The Exult variant crashed more on me than the original version on the 386 and 486 I had back then. IMHO the most beautiful and timeless Ultima ever created, aged better than any other version.
Easy to get into but not too easy. Lots of secrets and stuff to manipulate. Hilarious in-jokes like the Kilrathi ship.

U7 SI - this disappointed me the most. Even worse than U8 in it's original form. The dungeons were endless and I don't remember many fights there. More drama with a town going down and lots of NPCs getting killed.
Some improvements like the key chain but digitized character portraits and these hokey 3D-Studio animations with their cold clean render graphics.

U8 - had it for three days on loan from a shop back then (like movie tapes) but ran through it in a week. This was the original "Super Avatar Bros." version of the game and the jumping was the most fun for me. I didn't like the magic system but the presentation was acceptable (especially in the sound department though I didn't have the optional audio expandion pack).

U9 - still a good action-adventure but it's technical problems - if you don't use Voodoo hardware - may demotivate the potential player.
I played v1.18f - the official version sold in Germany back then - and had very little problems (only one or two crashes) but the game is unbalanced in parts and the ending is debatable. Strong atmosphere but the trademark Ultima repetitions (you must free eight shrines etc.) can get on the player's nerves.

So what's to recommend the (new) player?

- The Apple was the developer's platform of the first five games, they have reasonably fast disk access (provided you can live with the swapping) and OK color graphics. With a Mockingboard or a Phasor card the later U3 - U5 offer good music on the Apple, too.

- The C64 has better graphics on U2 - U4 (never saw U5 and U6 is intolerable) but has slow disk access.

- Most 8 bit Atari Ultimas suck in PAL country. Why? Because of the hires mode the programmer used instead to replicate the artifacting of NTSC (similar to the Apple II versions) and to re-use the graphics data. PAL sadly is too good to produce artifacting colors so these conversions are monochrome, badly dithered (no sexy hi-res Mac here!) and generally awful in PAL country. YMMV.

- The original PC CGA versions can only be played on appropriate hardware with correct colors. On anything else they look horrible and practically destroy the PCs biggest advantage: It's harddisk.

- The EGA versions of U3 & U4 versions don't look too great but the upgraded VGA version of U4 looks good and sounds well. It's also freely available so why not play it when you have a PC?

- U5 on the PC also uses EGA but is more detailed and looks very acceptable to me - the ST and Amiga look like they re-used all graphics but may not support hard disks (without patches) - you may enjoy the disk swapping but I don't.

- The PC at least was the developer's platform for U6 and all later games and there weren't many conversions (and mostly bad ones) so the player has little choice. I definitely recommend using Voodoo graphics for U9, though.

Note, that I didn't play any expansion packs as they were very expensive at the time (I also was disappointed in U7 SI) and no console conversions.

take care,
Calibrator

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Bill Loguidice
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More Ultima

Interesting, Calibrator. That makes me lean towards Ultima II on the C-64 if I can't find the 1989 update for the Apple II. It's really a toss-up with the authenticity of the C-64 version versus the Apple II version of Ultima II as the only updated version of the game ever made...



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Matt Barton
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Great topic, Bill, and great

Great topic, Bill, and great response, Calibrator.

I managed to hunt down the original versions of all the games in ROM form, though some were of course easier than others to find. The 1986 remakes are nearly ubiquitous; it's harder to find the originals.

As much as I love these games for their historical value, I can't see myself sitting down to play them. If I did, I'd probably opt for Ultima III, and even then getting all the way to the end would be a real chore. I might note that I've made two efforts in recent years to get through Pool of Radiance and failed both times. Interfaces have just evolved so much since 1988. It's hard to deal with the many cumbersome aspects that we didn't even notice back then. Heck, I even noticed it when I was playing Might & Magic: Mandate of Heaven and Ultima Underworld; there have been so many improvements in graphic technology that it's hard to see past the limitations. While this is acceptable in a classic action game, it is harder to get into a RPG. Adventure games also benefit because there is always the story, puzzle, and character factors, but there's no denying that good graphics have always been part of CRPGs.

I've heard The Black Gate praised so often that I'd feel tempted to really give that game a real chance to grow on me. Even there, though, the interface is dated and would require a very open mind to get into. Later Ultima games got mixed reviews even back then, so I'd probably pass on those.

Of course, so much of this has to do with what you grew up with and enjoyed back in the day. The nostalgia factor makes up for lack of mouse, blocky graphics, etc.

Honestly, if I were determined to sit down and play through a classic CRPG I'd opt for something like Wasteland or Autoduel, or possibly the interesting Ultima games that used the Ultima engine but for a different purpose (I believe those are called Ultima Adventures). One I saw was based on an Amazon theme and looked very intriguing.

I should make a list of CRPGs that have stood the test of time and still play well today. I know for sure that this would be a much different list than what I consider the most important or influential CRPGs. Just a quick stab at it--

  • Sword of Fargoal. Easy to pick up and play--highly recommended.
  • Bloodstone: An Epic Dwarven Tale. I played a little of this game and really enjoyed it; it's supposed to be a prequel to the Magic Candle series.
  • Rogue. There are many versions of this out there, but I'd probably go for Nethack. I still fire this up and play occasionally.
  • Dungeon Master. Another old game that plays surprisingly well today.
  • The Dark Heart of Uukrul. Similar to the Gold Box games, but with a smoother interface and lower learning curve.
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Bill Loguidice
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RPG's
Matt Barton wrote:

Heck, I even noticed it when I was playing Might & Magic: Mandate of Heaven and Ultima Underworld; there have been so many improvements in graphic technology that it's hard to see past the limitations. While this is acceptable in a classic action game, it is harder to get into a RPG. Adventure games also benefit because there is always the story, puzzle, and character factors, but there's no denying that good graphics have always been part of CRPGs.

I agree with that in regards to 3D games, but I find I actually have a preference for old-style 2D sprite graphics. It's something akin to a sweet spot for me. Today's attempts at 2D sprite graphics are often rather garish for my tastes - I seem to prefer simpler, less detailed pixels. I think an RPG CAN get by with minimal graphics, at least for me, if they're done in 2D. Rough 3D is hard to take no matter what the game is...

Matt Barton wrote:

Honestly, if I were determined to sit down and play through a classic CRPG I'd opt for something like Wasteland or Autoduel, or possibly the interesting Ultima games that used the Ultima engine but for a different purpose (I believe those are called Ultima Adventures). One I saw was based on an Amazon theme and looked very intriguing.

I have and beat Autoduel for the C-64 (I've since picked up the Atari ST version as well, though I think the Amiga version was the best). It looked, sounded and played exactly like the Apple II version. With that in mind, I think you'd be very frustrated with it, as I was even then, though I did come to love it. It relies a great deal on arcade sequences, particularly for the intrinsic vehicular combat in arenas. It's a blast, but the cars control in a very slippery and imprecise manner. I plan on revisiting either the ST or Amiga version (again, the former is supposed to be poor) to see if that was fixed for those technically superior systems (the C-64 version could have been much better if it wasn't Apple II shovelware), but I bet it's still not as a good as even a mediocre action game. My point is, while I love and highly recommend the game, it's one you definitely need patience for (and it's helpful to have the original fold-out map).

Matt Barton wrote:

I should make a list of CRPGs that have stood the test of time and still play well today. I know for sure that this would be a much different list than what I consider the most important or influential CRPGs. Just a quick stab at it--

  • Sword of Fargoal. Easy to pick up and play--highly recommended.
  • Bloodstone: An Epic Dwarven Tale. I played a little of this game and really enjoyed it; it's supposed to be a prequel to the Magic Candle series.
  • Rogue. There are many versions of this out there, but I'd probably go for Nethack. I still fire this up and play occasionally.
  • Dungeon Master. Another old game that plays surprisingly well today.
  • The Dark Heart of Uukrul. Similar to the Gold Box games, but with a smoother interface and lower learning curve.

That would be a good list, particularly with a good list of reasons why, but it's an intensely personal thing nevertheless. I think most old games would be intolerable for most modern gamers regardless.

I really would like to try Dark Heart. I have a nice boxed copy and I've heard very, very good things about it, and it's certainly of the "underrated" variety. To your point, in playing Wizard's Crown recently, I was struck by how sluggish everything was in loading (particularly on a Commodore). That's the kind of stuff you kind of nostalgically gloss over and something we have very little tolerance for today, when 20 second initial loading screens are blasted for being way too slow...



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Bill Loguidice
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A Partial Explanation for my Present Day Insanity

And just to follow up that point, a lot of this does have to do with nostalgia. I remember very distinctly when I young in the 80's being over my friend Brian's house and his brother playing one of the Ultimas (either II or III) on the family's Apple IIe with green monitor that was sitting in the living room. It seemed like such a sophisticated and amazing experience, with the arcane commands and rough, but understandable icon- and tile-based imagery. And then in talking to Brian about Ultima II (meaning it was probably III the brother was playing) and going to all the various planets and what-have-you, it seemed like a truly extraordinary game experience. The closest I ever got to Ultima on my C-64 was pirated copies - I think particularly of IV - which was obviously NOT the way to approach something so intense as an Ultima game (I even hand-copied the map onto a large sheet of stiff rolled paper). It's no wonder I never got very far or felt the "magic" that I felt from afar.

Of course I also had come to acquire SSI's Phantasie after seeing the magazine ad for it and the amazing cover art. To my surprise, the C-64 graphics were far superior to the Apple II graphics featured in the ad. The game truly captured that D&D-like experience I so craved on the computer (having enjoyed it on a regular basis in the real-world with my friends). Of course it was not without its own set of trials and tribulations, as the game was prone to crashing in certain dungeons and accidentally wrote over the second side of my disk, having to pay SSI for a replacement copy. Still, I got through it and devoured the sequels (with II essentially being more of the same, but a smoother, less buggy experience, and III adding some unusual elements). As I've said before, it saddens me that IV was only released in Japan for the MSX and Sharp X68000 computer systems (luckily I have the MSX ROM, so I can try to play it on the real hardware at some point - I've thus far only played the game briefly on a Sharp emulator).



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Bill Loguidice
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The Bard's Tale

I see The Bard's Tale mentioned a lot. I made a point to collect various versions and what-not, but I've never been able to penetrate even the first game's oppressive initial difficulty level and early lack of personality. I think that's certainly one of those games where you have to persevere over the first few hours of game in order to start to get to the good parts and appreciate it. I will do that at some point, but it's not high on my list to try again anytime soon.



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Calibrator
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More opinions
Bill Loguidice wrote:

I have and beat Autoduel for the C-64 (I've since picked up the Atari ST version as well, though I think the Amiga version was the best). It looked, sounded and played exactly like the Apple II version. With that in mind, I think you'd be very frustrated with it, as I was even then, though I did come to love it. It relies a great deal on arcade sequences, particularly for the intrinsic vehicular combat in arenas. It's a blast, but the cars control in a very slippery and imprecise manner. I plan on revisiting either the ST or Amiga version (again, the former is supposed to be poor) to see if that was fixed for those technically superior systems (the C-64 version could have been much better if it wasn't Apple II shovelware), but I bet it's still not as a good as even a mediocre action game. My point is, while I love and highly recommend the game, it's one you definitely need patience for (and it's helpful to have the original fold-out map).

I had the Atari 8 Bit conversion - also a straight Apple port including those hideous artifacted graphics. Never could get into that game and at some point I accidently destroyed the game disk. Never really felt a loss - except for the money...

Quote:

That would be a good list, particularly with a good list of reasons why, but it's an intensely personal thing nevertheless. I think most old games would be intolerable for most modern gamers regardless.

I could imagine most titles successful as free webgames - but nothing a "real gamer" would pay for.
That being said I would be really interested in the revenues that Nintendo gets out of it's downloadable emulated games.

Quote:

I really would like to try Dark Heart. I have a nice boxed copy and I've heard very, very good things about it, and it's certainly of the "underrated" variety. To your point, in playing Wizard's Crown recently, I was struck by how sluggish everything was in loading (particularly on a Commodore). That's the kind of stuff you kind of nostalgically gloss over and something we have very little tolerance for today, when 20 second initial loading screens are blasted for being way too slow...

I have the PC version as I bought practically every RPG back then. It's mostly a dungeon tactical fight simulator and the fights get brutally hard very quickly and I never finished it. It's not a graphics wonder (it never was) but it's interface is reasonably slick with menu commands visible and the game is fast on a PC.
It may be underrated because it was only played by RPG fanatics - there was much better stuff out there at the time.

However, I treasure my copy as it may pay for a car sometime in the future ;-)

take care,
Calibrator

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Calibrator
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I agree, Matt

I agree with your observations on interfaces & graphics, Matt, though I think that graphics aren't the big hindrance here - which is proven by the Wii to some point: Sometimes graphics only need to be "good enough" - it's often more important to get "into the game" quickly and to get instant gratification. For example by *not* fighting a single party fight for minutes (though there are certainly people out there battling for an hour against bosses in J-RPGs). I definitely won't ever fight through the dungeons of U4 or U5 ever again - killing all incentive to touch these games again.

When I analyze the games I play now I come to the conclusion that I favor deep story-based single character non-multiplayer games like Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Deus Ex and most importantly the Dark Project / Thief games - which of course aren't RPGs.
All of these provide good-enough graphics (some even have enhancement packs by fans) and instant gratification. Also the games consist of "levels" that I can work with (=finish) in a sleep-work-play-sleep-cycle.

By the way, the "amazonian" Ultima is called Savage Empire, and it's a good game. The presentation is IMHO a bit better than U6 (on which engine it is based) but the game is less grand in scale and finished much more quickly. There is one showstopper that can ruin your game which I did run into so I never finished it. It's also featured in the now famous Ultima blog:
http://bloggingultima.blogspot.com/2007/04/savage-empire-day-1-2.html

It's successor is "Martian Dreams" which I consider a brilliant game with many historic references and a very though-out setting. I had no problems with this game at all and I personally like it much better than U6.
http://bloggingultima.blogspot.com/2007/04/martian-dreams-day-1.html

There may be conversions of these two games (Mac/Amiga?) but I never have seen/played them.

Wasteland is a terrific game though I didn't play it much as I'm not into combat systems like Bard's Tale.
However, I finished Fallout 1 and nearly finished Fallout 2 which are somewhat similar and were already ancient when I started to play them.

The game I now wait for is Fallout 3 which maybe a reason to upgrade my hardware - which I seldomly do now.

take care,
Calibrator

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Matt Barton
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Bard's Tale

Well, I never finished Bard's Tale but have played very far into it. It's definitely a game that benefits from having not only the full documentation but a good hint book handy (unless you're the type that likes to draw maps). It is much easier to play via emulation, esp. one with a good save state capability. That makes the game 200% more playable, since you can simply load and save multiple states and avoid seeing your party demolished by a single random encounter.

The game actually gets far more playable after an hour or two, when your party gains a level or so. It's only the first dozen or so battles that are really difficult. As I said, I haven't completed it, but it did seem to get much easier the more I played.

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Calibrator
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Bard's Tale and Phantasie

I finished BT1 with a friend - again his C64 - and I'm fairly sure we cheated our stats as this game can be boring to hell. "999 ghouls attack!", "You kick down the door but find nothing" etc. The Amiga version has some smooth scrolling but after I had finished it on the C64 I had no intention to ever play something like that ever again.

The only Phantasie game I played was III on my Amiga and it was pirated and lent to me. I don't know if I finished it but it's title was very appropriate: It left everything to your imagination. Running a colored dot, less detailed than Pac-Man, through the dungeon corridors was to me not even as immersive as a good text adventure (or "interactive fiction" as it is called nowadays). The very stylized combat graphics were apparently a predecessor of J-RPGs with their combat poses, individual attack strikes etc.
I don't remember any big plot but the colorful city was only a simple graphics screen for some menu points like guild, armourer etc.
Disappointing to me and certainly not nostalgic.

take care,
Calibrator

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