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.

Comments

yakumo9275
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Legend of Blacksilver, neat,

Legend of Blacksilver, neat, boxed ones on ebay are rare and VERY expensive :(

That whole Questron I, II, Legacy of the Ancients, Legend of Blacksilver would make a good blogging epic. So too for the Magic Candle series...

I'm debating what I might blog next for AA :) I dont think I have the time for something hard core, but I'd love to do PoR, CotAB, etc but having not long ago replayed Silver Blades, I'm not that interested in doing it again :)

Eye of the Beholder/Dungeon Master dont hold much blogging interest since they are purely maze games rather than exploring, talking to NPC's etc.

I'm rolling some games around in my head....

-- Stu --

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Bill Loguidice
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Next blog series
yakumo9275 wrote:

I'm debating what I might blog next for AA :) I dont think I have the time for something hard core, but I'd love to do PoR, CotAB, etc but having not long ago replayed Silver Blades, I'm not that interested in doing it again :)

I'm rolling some games around in my head....

-- Stu --

You deserve something you know will be good after GoD...



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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

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Calibrator
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Re Re Re

Re Bill:

Bill Loguidice wrote:

You deserve something you know will be good after GoD...

;-)

About the enhanced Apple II U2.
From what I've read this version was available *only* in the Ultima Trilogy - not
separately.
About the differences: The graphics overhaul mostly consisted of a blue border
around the tile window - similarily to U4 but without the party stats, obviously.
Also, the the up and down cursor keys are usable now and one can play with the
keyboard set to lower case letters (for those who don't know: the original Apple
II/II+ had no lower case without non-standard third-party upgrades).
Both the original and the upgraded versions were 100% machine code so don't
expect a speed increase.

Re Matt:

I, too, think these retro-blogs are invaluable as they show what's playing those classics
(or forgotten games like Wizard's Crown) with todays eyes and brains. You can really get
an impression what computer gaming used to be in the past - if you weren't there in the
first place.
I play video games for more than a quarter of a century now and I often reminisce what
primitive presentation and often content used to be the standard back then - and how
games will be in another 25 years...

Re Stu:

In the later episodes of the Blogging Ultima blog he carefully tries to not avoid subquests.
A problem might be that he always played for some hours and wrote the blog entry on the next day.
This way not a lot of the content is invariably lost, the tedious bits are barely mentioned etc.
I also don't consider him a cheater - he may have exploited things a bit but not as a rule
(and who can throw the first stone of not having done this in the past?).

Cheating:

I always used cheats as a last resort type of help and mostly in adventure games.
But even then I don't play with a walkthrough near the game but get a tip, return
to the game and play with my own brains again. This way I'm simply more satisfied
and have the feeling that I've accomplished something.
Now I don't consider me either very intelligent nor dumb but some games have such
deviously designed puzzles that I would never come to a solution. I can live with
that but not with weak interface design or tiny objects consisting of very few pixels
to find in a graphics adventure. In such a case I'm more likely to ask for "external help".

I also think Zen philosophy can be applied to a video game: The way is the goal.

take care,
Calibrator

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Bill Loguidice
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Ultima II 1989 - Case Closed
Calibrator wrote:

Re Bill:

About the enhanced Apple II U2.
From what I've read this version was available *only* in the Ultima Trilogy - not
separately.
About the differences: The graphics overhaul mostly consisted of a blue border
around the tile window - similarily to U4 but without the party stats, obviously.
Also, the the up and down cursor keys are usable now and one can play with the
keyboard set to lower case letters (for those who don't know: the original Apple
II/II+ had no lower case without non-standard third-party upgrades).
Both the original and the upgraded versions were 100% machine code so don't
expect a speed increase.

Well, I'll take that then as definitive. I would imagine, for instance, ignoring the weak overall Atari 8-bit ports, that the version in the Ultima Trilogy (which is the only one I have) for the C-64 didn't need a graphical overhaul since it already benefited from being both ported and lightly enhanced already in its stand-alone incarnation. If what you described above was indeed the "graphical overhaul" the Apple II edition received in 1989 - and it obviously didn't get a Mockingboard update, then either the Apple II original or C-64 port would be more or less a wash, and one would be perfectly fine with the C-64 version. Works for me and I'll update the blog entry...



Wii: 1345 2773 2048 1586 | PS3: ArmchairArcade
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

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Calibrator
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C64 version of U2
Bill Loguidice wrote:

Well, I'll take that then as definitive. I would imagine, for instance, ignoring the weak overall Atari 8-bit ports, that the version in the Ultima Trilogy (which is the only one I have) for the C-64 didn't need a graphical overhaul since it already benefited from being both ported and lightly enhanced already in its stand-alone incarnation. If what you described above was indeed the "graphical overhaul" the Apple II edition received in 1989 - and it obviously didn't get a Mockingboard update, then either the Apple II original or C-64 port would be more or less a wash, and one would be perfectly fine with the C-64 version. Works for me and I'll update the blog entry...

I'm 100% sure that there is no U2 version that supports the Mockingboard as I would've
read about that in countless usenet postings and the keepers of this website gladly
would've included it together with U3, U4 and U5: http://www.applevault.com/ultima/

Actually, I'm not sure which (if any) version has music at all - I don't remember any in
the C64 conversion.
There are also some japanese MSX2 and FM Towns versions and they may have music
but I doubt it (I wonder who did the conversion).

Now, I haven't played any Apple U2 version - would've done that if I had the chance -
but the C64 is pretty much all you need. It's fast, has enough colors and some sounds.
I don't know if the slower disk access is a problem but I don't remember that a problem
back then.

take care,
Calibrator

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Matt Barton
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RPGs and cheating

I have mixed feelings about using exploits, guides, and cheating. What I usually tell myself when I start a game is that I will plow straight through with no help at all, and then if I like the game enough to go through it again, I'll freely use guides and walkthroughs to ensure I see all the content. Then, if enough years go by, I suppose I could try again from scratch. However, what usually happens is that I get stuck and need some help. However, I vastly prefer tactical advice or clues rather than a cheat code. Cheat codes are an awful last resort.

That said, some games demand them. For instance, I can't imagine anyone going through all those random encounters in Final Fantasy (the first one). It's boring, repetitive, tedious, etc. You simply must bypass that crap. What I can't tolerate is someone saying, "This battle looks like it will be tough, I need to use the cheat code." That's just laziness, and to my mind not getting the game. I could see, "Well, I need to get some advice on this battle," but not "I need a code to instantly kill the mob."

I usually bought the hint books along with the gold box games, and even with those, the games are tough. The only thing you really gain by not having them is the sudden need to make your own maps. Even then, you'll probably pass over secret areas, not find important mobs, etc. Thankfully, most CRPGs that have puzzles opt for a reward and punishment system rather than outright refusing to let you get past. I was thinking of the riddles in the ..heck, where was that skull asking riddles--Baldur's Gate II, perhaps? Anyway, if you got them wrong, you just took damage and had to fight; you could still pass. Compare that to an adventure game where not knowing the answer means the game is over.

I think these blogging walkthroughs are invaluable for historians. I know while I was writing D&D I didn't have enough time to play through most of the games, though I at least tried to dedicate an hour or two to each one. Having blogs like this would have made up for a lot, particularly since you get the gamer's impressions and reactions in addition to an insider's view into the game in question.

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Matt Barton
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Might I suggest waiting for

Might I suggest waiting for the book? :) I'm sure there must be some games I talk about in there that may pique your interest!

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adamantyr
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I have an authentic 1982

I have an authentic 1982 copy of Ultima II for the Apple II, and I've even played it on an actual Apple IIe I own. Honestly, the Apple II version is pretty slick; I'm impressed with how fast the tile engine goes, considering that the Apple II had to blit everything to screen, and not rely on an internal cell-based screen architecture. The Apple IIe was also superior in color depth to most other contemporary systems running Ultima II. Six colors is a lot better than four, albeit with some limitations.

The Commodore 64 version had more colors, but they also decided to change the appearance of the game by using a non-black background. Not a terrible thing, but it gives the game a distinctly different appearance. It runs all right, and I didn't notice any particular sluggishness involving the disk drive. I think most developers at the time would throw out the built-in I/O and do their own, since that was the source of the problem.

I've seen the "upgraded" version that's been talked about, with the blue borders around the tiles. I think that was primarily done for the PC version at the re-issue in 1989. I don't think they did it for the Apple II, because the Apple II version was using a hacked video mode that rendered the top half of the screen in graphics and the bottom four lines in pure text. In order to overcome that, you'd have to go full-graphics, which would actually reduce the tile-count seen on screen, and add a lot more overhead, and be a LOT more work to do. Most of the effort in the collections went towards Ultima I (which justifiably commanded the most attention) and towards removing Sierra Online references from Ultima II.

Underworld Dragon's Notable Ultima pages are an invaluable source of information on the Ultima series... would that he not have disappeared a year or so before Ultima 9's release...

http://www.notableultima.com/collectibles/Title_Collections.html

Calibrator
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Tiles & Tales
adamantyr wrote:

I have an authentic 1982 copy of Ultima II for the Apple II, and I've even played it on an actual Apple IIe I own. Honestly, the Apple II version is pretty slick; I'm impressed with how fast the tile engine goes, considering that the Apple II had to blit everything to screen, and not rely on an internal cell-based screen architecture.

Every programmer halfway knowledgable in 6502 and with an understanding of Apple hi-res graphics can write a fast tile graphics routine, even I can give you one with source in Merlin format. It's more or less only a memcopy routine with a lot of special cases exploited.

When you examine the Apple hi-res graphics hardware you'll notice some things that are a given: You have to combine a multiple of two horizontally adjacent bytes (even, uneven byte position) to be able to replicate tiles without color problems. This is because of a clever color bit that Woz introduced to get the high amount of colors you mention in the next paragraph.
So if you want lots of tiles you work with the smallest possible tile width - two bytes. This pretty much defined the height of the tile as well: 14 to 16 lines to get an optically pleasing effect.

In fact most Apple rpgs (especially the ones released *after* Ultima) and strategy games of the time used these tile size.
Several of the strategy game programmers at the time used BASIC or compiled BASIC (or weren't as proficient as young Garriott) so the rendering is much slower. However, thinking a day about the algorithm before implementing it can give you a tenfold speed increase.

Quote:

The Apple IIe was also superior in color depth to most other contemporary systems running Ultima II. Six colors is a lot better than four, albeit with some limitations.

The Commodore 64 version had more colors, but they also decided to change the appearance of the game by using a non-black background. Not a terrible thing, but it gives the game a distinctly different appearance.

This is absolutely true - it gives the game a somewhat darker mood. Thank god the conversions of U3 and U4 were more faithful to their originals.

Quote:

It runs all right, and I didn't notice any particular sluggishness involving the disk drive. I think most developers at the time would throw out the built-in I/O and do their own, since that was the source of the problem.

AFAIK all Apple Ultimas used their own DOS (or a modified third-party DOS).

Quote:

I've seen the "upgraded" version that's been talked about, with the blue borders around the tiles. I think that was primarily done for the PC version at the re-issue in 1989.

Very possible.

Quote:

I don't think they did it for the Apple II, because the Apple II version was using a hacked video mode that rendered the top half of the screen in graphics and the bottom four lines in pure text.

This mode is a standard mode, not a hacked one.
It has 160 lines of hi-res graphics and four text-mode lines, while the pure hi-res graphics mode uses 192 lines.

Quote:

In order to overcome that, you'd have to go full-graphics, which would actually reduce the tile-count seen on screen,

On the contrary: You would get more tiles on screen without the text window at the bottom.

You can see this
The original Apple U2 uses 20x10 tiles - which fills the whole graphics window. (The C64 does the same but with character/text graphics).
The enhanced Apple U2 uses the same 20x10 tiles but draws a blue border at the screen edges - I guess they make a simple overdraw (which reduces speed a little). What they should've done is reducing the tile window to 19x9 - this way they wouldn't have any overdraw, had less tiles to draw and the avatar would be positioned exactly in the middle of the screen.
In other words: They didn't spend too much time with the "enhanced" Apple version as the PC had less speed problems.

In later Ultimas they used a different tile window which uses a 11x11 matrix - an additional vertical tile line.
Of course: 9 horizontal tile lines less than U2, but this is surely to save CPU cycles as the rendering with the line-of-sight algorithm is much more complicated (Nice disassembly on your site, BTW!).

Quote:

and add a lot more overhead, and be a LOT more work to do.

max. 20% ;-)

On the other hand you lose those sucky green and purple tinted characters when you can use your own carefully designed ones.

Quote:

Most of the effort in the collections went towards Ultima I (which justifiably commanded the most attention) and towards removing Sierra Online references from Ultima II.

Underworld Dragon's Notable Ultima pages are an invaluable source of information on the Ultima series... would that he not have disappeared a year or so before Ultima 9's release...

http://www.notableultima.com/collectibles/Title_Collections.html

Thanks for the link!

take care,
Calibrator

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adamantyr
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Tiles
Calibrator wrote:

Every programmer halfway knowledgable in 6502 and with an understanding of Apple hi-res graphics can write a fast tile graphics routine, even I can give you one with source in Merlin format. It's more or less only a memcopy routine with a lot of special cases exploited.

When you examine the Apple hi-res graphics hardware you'll notice some things that are a given: You have to combine a multiple of two horizontally adjacent bytes (even, uneven byte position) to be able to replicate tiles without color problems. This is because of a clever color bit that Woz introduced to get the high amount of colors you mention in the next paragraph.
So if you want lots of tiles you work with the smallest possible tile width - two bytes. This pretty much defined the height of the tile as well: 14 to 16 lines to get an optically pleasing effect.

Cool! Know any websites that describe EXACTLY how the Apple hi-res mode works? I've looked for a few years for one, but they're strangely absent.

Calibrator wrote:

This mode is a standard mode, not a hacked one.
It has 160 lines of hi-res graphics and four text-mode lines, while the pure hi-res graphics mode uses 192 lines.

I stand corrected. :) When I said "hack", I suppose I meant that internally, they were overlaying hi-res graphics on a text-screen, letting you use the standard text mode printing commands rather than having to plot text to screen. (Or, at least, I think that's how it worked. Again, more information on Apple graphic modes in excruciating detail needed!)

I hear it a lot with the TI's "half-bitmap" mode too... it's a perfectly legitimate mode, but because it involves address masking a lot of people consider it "non-standard", and act like a standard emulation can't or shouldn't support it.

Calibrator wrote:

In later Ultimas they used a different tile window which uses a 11x11 matrix - an additional vertical tile line.
Of course: 9 horizontal tile lines less than U2, but this is surely to save CPU cycles as the rendering with the line-of-sight algorithm is much more complicated (Nice disassembly on your site, BTW!).

Thanks. Yeah, doing an 11x11 matrix isn't too expensive, computationally. In fact, the Ultima IV LOS routine is not even optimized. I added several optimizations for special-cases to my TI version in order to speed it up. As is, the TI is about equal in speed, maybe a bit faster, than the Apple at the job. Of course, I'm also doing a slightly larger window, but I found with 15x15 that it could slow way down. I haven't checked, but I'd guess that now that my present version is timed via sound effects, I may be able to simplify the algorithm to run without optimizations and basically see the same performance.

What would be nice on the TI is if I could somehow utilize the full register for the LOS work, so I can do twice the amount of work in the same number of cycles. Take advantage of that 16-bits. :) I can't think of a way to do it, though, since the number of bytes involved in the window are odd...

Adamantyr

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