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Avatars Of The Past

For whatever good it does me, I am on vacation... which is to say that this part-timer has scheduled to take three days off that, merged with my next four days off, becomes an eleven day stay-cation.  Frankly, after that nasty cold I have been suffering (I still have a slight touch of it) combined with not being allowed to my have last bizarro weekend to myself, my need for a vacation has never been stronger.
So, how about that last entry?  If I did more like that, I might actually have more than a couple followers!  Instead, it seems I feel obligated to update this blog every couple days whether or not I have anything particularly valuable to say, because here I am!  Well, if I can't be insightful, I should at least try to be brief.

Now playing: Ultima IV.

Since I seemed to be so very impressed with Ultima V, I thought I would go ahead and give it another play.  But, if I'm playing to replay it, I'm going to go all the way, and that means importing a character from Ultima IV first.

As outlined in the last entry, Ultima IV lands smack dab in the middle of the golden age of the series, three games behind it, three games in front of it, then everything went south.   The subtitle of this game is The Quest Of The Avatar, and it is aptly named, as it is a grand adventure where you start as The Stranger from the first three games (a later retcon) and, by embodying the eight virtues, become the Avatar by the end of the game.  "The Avatar" is all your persona is ever known as in all the games to follow.

It seems neither Steam nor Origin carries the Ultima series anymore, I had to go to Good Old Games to pick up a copy - the second Ultima trilogy for only about six bucks, not bad!  Then I went to get a fan patch that upgraded the graphics and added music.  I even had to get a fan patch for the fan patch due to incompatibilities with 64-bit windows.
Ultima IV looks MUCH better with the fan patch, the graphics are
even more vibrant and better stylized than Ultima V!

As of about 10,000 turns in to my new game, I have to say that I underestimated just how much of a sweeping improvement Ultima V was over Ultima IV.  Off the top of my head, here are a number of things that the next game improved:
  • The start of the new magic system is here in the form of the 7 reagents that can be mixed to make spells, but the magic words (e.g. "Corp Por!") had yet to be implemented and, if you want to mix up a batch of spells, you need to do each one individually.
  • In combat, you can only attack in four cardinal directions.  The monsters, cheating buggers that they are, can make ranged attacks diagonally.  Any angle between 45 degrees can't be done, though monsters are happy to waste shots anyway.
  • Moving eight characters in combat, one step at a time, is every bit as awkward as I remembered it.  Six is more reasonable.
  • Ships' sails cannot be furled (for rowing against the wind) and there is no ability to lower a dinghy (for traveling into shallows). 
  • You can actually permanently lose attribute points by having enough experience points to level up twice or more upon visiting Lord British.  This is because he only levels you to your current level and skips any levels in between.
  • Defeating an encounter drops a chest on the main overmap, and the contents of that chest are random.  Consequently, there is not much difference in defeating a dragon or a rat, you'll get the same amount of gold regardless.
Again, these are all problems in Ultima IV that Ultima V addressed.  There were additional features introduced in Ultima V as well, such as NPCs acting out schedules throughout the day.  However, even for all Ultima IV may lack over its sequel, the core gameplay fundamentals of a modern Ultima game are still well-represented.

The original graphics looked more like this, and check out
that sound advice the NPC is lavishing for no good reason.
For example, as I explore the various towns and castles (which are tiny by today's standards) I encounter NPCs that fairly trip over themselves revealing various secret items, runes, stones, mantras, shrine locations, ect.  These guys have a lot to talk about!  For maximum consumption speed, it might be worth your effort to sort the notes you will be taking into categories of location so you know where you need to go to ask what.  Of course, back in the day, you would be doing this with pencil and paper, so sorting your notes would be tricky.

I was really surprised about just how easy the combat is in Ultima IV.  I leaned towards the honesty virtue during character generation and started off as a mage.  This started me next to Moonglow, a magical town where I was able to easily procure plenty of spell components for the heal spell.   I was level 3, so (multiply by 100) I had a maximum of 300 hitpoints.  When most monsters hit me, even in my gimpy cloth armor, I would take around 5-10 points of damage, tops.  Throwing a heal spell recovers up to around 150 hitpoints, so I was pretty much immortal, and I should be able to support a fair number of party members the same way.

If anything, the greatest threat of my progress seems to be in gold accumulation.  I keep encountering rogues who pick my pockets as I fight them (apparently placing their ill-gotten gains in some kind of pocket dimension, as killing them does not get that gold back).  If I am poor enough for long enough, I cannot afford food, and my party will eventually starve to death.  Equipment does not seem to matter much, though, as I seem to one-hit-kill orcs almost as often with a sling as I do a crossbow, which tells me that either damage is too random or the starting health of enemies is.

Due to its various minor issues, Ultima IV is just barely enjoyable enough for me to want to keep playing it... but that's more than I can say for most games I see.

Now playing: The Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time 3D.

I originally beat this game on a Nintendo 64 emulator.  Nothing personal, Mr. Miyamoto, but I never owned a Nintendo 64 and ended up playing Ocarina Of Time after the console was discontinued in 2002-2003.  When I later bought a Nintendo 3DS, I certainly had the opportunity to get Ocarina Of Time then, but I never quite made the time for it because I knew that the 3D display was really hard to keep aligned correctly.

Well, I picked up the new Nintendo 3DS and the 3D display problems have mostly evaporated.  There is a slight hiccup from time to time when it loses track of my eyes... I don't understand why it feels the need to readjust the display to something incorrect when this happens, hopefully they will patch that bug out.  But, if you keep it at the recommended 14 inches away, the display works almost infallibly.
I could go on for dozens of paragraphs about all of the fine subtle touches that makes Ocarina of Time the single highest rated video game in videogame history but, in the interest of brevity, I can basically sum it up in four little points:
  • It invented the 3D game camera that didn't suck.  Consequently, you feel in control of exactly what you are doing most of the time, a nearly seamless integration of traditional Legend of Zelda gameplay into a 3D space.
  • It featured an open world: go anywhere, do anything, in 3D.  This was the first time most consumers were likely to encounter this kind of game before Grand Theft Auto 3 (a game released 3 years later) popularized it.
  • The characters and locations were beautifully stylized and realized, despite the crude 3D capabilities of the Nintendo 64, the first generation of consoles to make 3D a primary feature.  I would rate the attention to details even above even that of Kings Quest V, high praise, there is a certain zen aesthetic to everything in Ocarina of Time that is neither understated nor overstated.
  • A great musical score that elevated the happenings in the game perfectly.  It even featured audience participation because, in order to trigger certain magical effects, the player would push the right buttons to correspond to six on the titular ocarina.  Successful completion of these six notes would play the tune, simultaneously evoking the player's memories of where the tune came from.  Very high concept.
While I am sure there is more to it than that, I think these are the core fundamentals that made the game work so well.
There has also been a general increase in polygon count and
texture map quality in the remake.  They look less like puppets now.
Upon starting up Ocarina of Time on my new 3DS, I was floored by a coincidence that worked in favor of the game.  There are a number of cutscenes and other cinematic touches that were intended to show off the 3D capabilities of the Nintendo 64 but fell somewhat short because it was only displayed on a television.  However, now that the Nintendo 3DS brings true 3D via a parallax barrier, the attention spent on trying to showcase the Nintendo 64's 3D capabilities translates to some truly breathtaking views.  So, coincidentally, all that gratuitous effort to convey a sense of place in the original Nintendo 64 game finally found justice on the 3DS remake.

I think I am going to really enjoy this replay.

Development Progress: Progressing.

The morning exercise seems to be doing the trick to get me motivated on my days off.   I guess I just needed an effective way to wake myself up in the morning.

Thus far, I have been trying to give Construct 2 another run, this time with the goal of making an Ultima clone just as practice.  I carefully assessed the strengths and weaknesses of it versus my other two choices (Clickteam Fusion 2.5 and GameMaker Studio) and decided Construct 2 should have an advantage because it already includes tilemap support.  Mostly, it was about trying to do things the easy way, because why go through all the trouble of dealing with the ponderous interfaces of its competitors when you have the option of working in the sleek elegance of Scirra's design?

Well, this has not been the perfect solution I was hoping for, partly because Construct 2 does not support animated tilemaps, and partly because there is no default support for a grid-based movement system.  I was a lot closer to achieving what I wanted to do in GameMaker Studio, even with the awkward-to-use room maker and obfuscated access to global variables, because it required I would have to my own movement mode anyway and there was a fuzzy pathing function.

But I probably should not give up.  It should be easy enough to cobble together workarounds for all of my problems in Construct 2, and the improved user-friendliness of the GUI (including a good code completion mechanic) makes the effort worth it.  Some solutions for animating tilemaps and grid-based movement have already been found, and I am pretty sure I can jury-rig the existing pathfinding mechanics to just record a list of tiles.

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