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Learning from the Classics: Ultima Exodus

I found www.nesfiles.com [1] a while back.  For the NES junkies out there like me, Nesfiles is a site that allows you to play emulated NES games in your browser. Go nuts. I’m not sure of the legalities of emulators though, so go nuts at your own risk.

One of the games I found there that I had loved years ago was Ultima Exodus. Despite the fact that it’s a video game, there are still pertinent lessons to be learned from it. For those of you who want to go back and complete this classic adventure, you can find an excellent shrine with all the info you need to play the game [2] and an exploit guide that explains how you can complete it in under two hours [3] online.

Ultima Exodus was the 3rd of the Ultima Series of games, for a long time considered the best series of computer RPGs. For the most part, Ultima’s popularity was due to it’s sandbox style play which allowed you right off the bat to go anywhere and do anything in it’s massive game worlds. In addition most of the Ultimas had either a robust or free-form character creation system that allowed for dozens of different character choices. While by today’s standards some of these character creation systems are very limited, in their day, their selection of possibilities was staggering. Ultima 3 is no exception to these rules. It was the 55 character choices (some of them clearly superior to others) and it’s two large worlds to explore with teleporting moon gates, towns that appeared and disappeared, dungeons, seas and hidden temples that kept me playing the game again and again for years. 

Ultima 3 has the following basic plot: The king summons your band of four adventurers and asks you to defeat the evil Exodus. You have to collect the four marks, the silver horn, and the four cards, then infiltrate Exodus’ castle and defeat him. Simple right? The problems in that formula however start immediately. On every odd level, newer harder enemies spawn. Even with maxed out stats and the best gear in the game anything beyond the first few tiers of enemies will destroy your characters easily unless you use the battle strategy outlined in the exploit guide linked above.

Further, to get the stats necessary to cast the best spells, to buy decent equipment, and to recover your characters if they get killed (see: monsters destroying you w/o exploits above) takes TONS of money. As the difficulty ramps exponentially the money drops remain static, eventually making fighting enemies w/o exploits a negative sum equation forcing you to grind endlessly or to use one of a handful of money exploits (steal it from a town, clean out dungeons, create, strip and delete characters, or grind forever at level 1)  to improve your characters.

Add to this the fact that almost everything in the game is a secret and all the NPCs in the game are apparently cryptography experts and without a guide explaining how to proceed, the game boils down to creating parties, running them into the ground as they advance, then trying again. That’s how I spent those hours and hours in my childhood but thanks to the huge pool of character choices and expansive world while it was frustrating to never make progress it was still fun exploring.

The two major strengths of this game, options and exploration come with some caveats. In some systems they require a lot of work. Make sure you understand and are up to the workload they require before building a game around them. They can lead to option paralysis [4] easily too so make sure you understand this and have elements in place to take control of pacing when your players have the deer in the headlights look. Finally they’re simply not for some players, groups and GMs. I’ve GMed for groups before that want nothing to do with sandbox play. They want to be spoonfed clear objectives, complete them, and return next week. If that’s what your group wants think twice before throwing them into a world that requires self motivation. It may result in a lot of navel gazing.

The failures of this game fall mainly into two categories- balance and clarity.
The balance issues are more blatant and more obvious. You shouldn’t have to (but do) deliberatelysubvert the intended path of game play in order to succeed. In a tabletop game this is an easier problem than in a computer game. If you see your players floundering, getting frustrated or failing routinely, this might be an issue you need to address.

The clarity issues are a more subtle set of issues because the accepted level of cryptic clues, vague puzzles and hidden paths vary from group to group. Some players LOVE being armature Angela Lansburyies and if your group is one of those, feel free to find and download a transcript from Ultima 3 and use it in your game. If not, know the limits of what your group finds a fun challenge and what they find a frustrating pain in the ass and plan accordingly.

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5 Comments To "Learning from the Classics: Ultima Exodus"

#1 Comment By greywulf On August 10, 2008 @ 8:21 am

Well there goes my afternoon.

Darn you and your evil gnomish ways! 😀

#2 Comment By LesInk On August 10, 2008 @ 10:35 am

I’ll try to stay on topic concerning balance and clarity since you have brought up one of my favorite (past) games. My experience, however, was with the C64 version and I spent even more time with Ultima IV than Ultima III so there may be some differences. It sounds like Ultima III on the C64 was easier than the NES since I was able to win the game without using exploits.

As for balance, yes, the game got harder and harder as you played and got better. In short, it was almost counter intuitive — you were penalized for doing better. I guess the concept to be learned here is power is relative. If you keep making it harder on the players, it will make them feel like they are going backward, not forward. I would actually recommend a GM occassionally bring back a previous tough combat (redress it a bit) and have the players square off on it once again to help them realize how much they have improved.

As for clarity, yes, Exodus was hard to follow. You had to keep a notebook of all the clues you received and put them together like a jigsaw puzzle. Although tedius, I see this as just a method to keep the players moving from city to city looking for more clues. Obviously, having all the clues in a cheat book or walkthrough makes this much easier. I think what we can learn about clarity is to keep your clues more localized. Ultima was maddening on how you would get one clue per town and spend an inordinate amount of time running in circles. Some clue hunting is fine — even the one stored in a lost temple on island in the middle of the ocean — but try to keep most of them in smaller controllable regions. It’ll save your player’s sanity and keep things moving along. Also, I’d recommend limiting the number of open threads at a time — too many and the players may get confused.

#3 Comment By Tally On August 10, 2008 @ 11:05 am

I remember playing this game as a kid! I must’ve only been eight or nine when I picked it up; it was the first RPG I ever played. I remember well the adventures of AAA the Fighter, Bob the Barbarian, Tim the Thief, and Naomi the Lark. (I have no clue where that inspiration for the last name came from.) I never entered the dungeons; those green and yellow pseudo-3d corridors with goblins and bandits were way too scary. I never leveled up; too many monsters appeared. And I never opened treasure chests, because there might’ve been traps inside, and I didn’t know that the thief could open trapped chests, or that a cleric could heal people.

Which makes me wonder just what I was doing in that game when I was nine years old. I think I spent most of my time trying to find the city of Dawn, because I loved the idea of a hidden city.

I went back when I was in high school to play the game again, and oddly enough, it seemed even more difficult in high school then it did when I was a kid. I guess when I played as a kid, I never leveled up, so the monsters stayed easy.

Anyways, that was a nice nostalgia trip! I suppose the biggest thing that appealed to me about Ultima was the exploration; there’s always someplace new, and interesting, to go to. Each city had something different or special about it, and that’s an idea I’d like to take back to my DnD game.

#4 Comment By Airk On August 11, 2008 @ 8:17 am

At risk of derailing this a bit, I’m going to point out that the title linked above is the Nintendo Entertainment System port of the original Ultima 3: Exodus and that, as best as I can tell, it radically alters some of the basic game systems. While the “plot” of the game and many of the mechanics are the same, it seems like the rapidly increasing power of monsters as you level is a “feature” of the NES version.

Mostly though, it’s a game full of interesting ideas, and a whole lot of what they call “Nintendo hard”. Which is to say, rough, honest challenge where the game pulls no punches. Most folks won’t want to run their tabletop that way, though some people will.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On August 11, 2008 @ 10:27 am

The way you remember playing the game (several parties of PCs investigating the same world) reminds me of Ben Robbin’s [13] game. It’d be interesting to see if you could work the cryptography in… though I can imagine one wall of a tavern covered with clues from all the adventuring parties who have been through the region. That’d be a way that you could enjoy the puzzle solving without having to reset character knowledge to zero between games. I like that thought…