Wednesday, August 30, 2006

"We must make haste, Avatar!"

I'm playing through Ultima 7 Part II: Serpent Isle again, just since it's been a really long time and since I'm on a retro games kick after having built my retro machine. I have a bit of a history with the game: I bought when I was in....7th grade I think, and immediately regretted my purchase after finding out that I had not bought the wolfenstein-like Ultima Underworld that was also on shelves at the time. I made the best of it however, loaded it up and started playing. The first thing that struck me about the game was the sheer amount "virtual sandbox" gameplay it featured. I could wander around town, in the forests and mountains, fight anyone and take anything (well, hopefully without getting caught). I didn't get very far without buying the hintbook, which I still have, since the more subtle plot directions in the game were lost on me at that age (there was no "quest log" or anything, just dialogue with NPCs and the trust placed in the player to figure things out).

I never actually finished the game that first time through, since later that year I got a cd-rom and sound card kit for Christmas and after installing them found that I didn't have enough main memory left in DOS to play the game (it's infamous for both having huge memory requirements and being incompatible with EMM386, an extended memory manager). I didn't know enough about modifying things like autoexec.bat and config.sys at that age, so on to the shelf it went. For about 4 years I'd try again to get it to run, but to no avail. I really missed playing it, and as bizarre as it sounds, the game would start popping in to my dreams in various forms, I think it's safe to say I was obsessed. I only ever finished the game for the first time sophomore year of high school when our new family PC, some all-in-one piece of crap from Compaq, came with a DOS utility called Buttons for DOS that made it easy to restart the computer without things like CD-rom drivers and such. Loading it up again 4 years later was a moment of truth; the game was just as much fun as I had remembered.

If you ever want to check out the roots behind explorable, open, and incredibly detailed RPGs that are so popular and so well done nowadays (read: Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, Oblivion), check out Ultima 7, both parts. Getting them to run on modern machines has ceased being an issue since the latest release of DosBox, a full DOS environment emulator. Just make sure you have a relatively fast machine, and use a good front-end for DosBox, such as D-Fend.

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