Developer: Pony Canyon
Released: February 1989
US Cartridge ID: NES-UL-USA
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 2 megabit
Mapper: MMC1 (256k PRG)
The storied 9-part Ultima series sits amongst the most critically revered and financially successful video game franchises of all time. Richard Garriott, or “Lord British,” as he would later become known, created Ultima as a follow-up to the surprise success of his first game, a high-school project titled Aklabeth, released in 1979. Alongside Wizardry, Ultima pioneered many important ideas that would go on to shape the identity of the western RPG, and its influences can still easily seen in modern releases.
Ultima: Exodus is a port of the third game in the series, and also serves to conclude the first of three trilogies, The Age of Darkness. For Ultima‘s debut on a gaming console, Pony Canyon focused on the first entry in the series to heavily rely on story, character interaction and graphics, rather than the simplistic, combat-driven play of the first two. Taking place in the land of Sosaria, the player assumes the role of a summoned hero. Britannia has suffered before, at the hands of both the wizard Mondain (Ultima) and his vengeful devotee Minax (Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress). As he had done in the past, Lord British once again calls for the true heroes in this darkest of hours – Exodus, a new evil born of Mondain and Minax, has appeared on the Isle of Fire, striking fear and despair into the hearts of the citizenry.
These four summoned heroes comprise the party that the player must lead through the dangerous wilds of Sosaria. Appearing before Lord British’s throne, the player must either create four champions, or populate a party with pre-generated ones. In creating a party, five options of race are provided (human, elf, dwarf, bobit, and fuzzy), each with their own strengths and weaknesses. After selecting the race of the champion, a profession must be selected (fighter, cleric, wizard, etc.); while any race can be assigned any role, the game harshly punishes inappropriate choices in battle through crippled stats. Humans, for example, are well-rounded creatures and can capably perform the duties of any role, whereas a fuzzy, a tiny hominid creature, is extremely weak, rendering it a poor choice for a fighter, though its intelligence makes it an ideal candidate for magic-casting classes.
Departing from Castle British and Royal City, the adventurers explore the kingdom of Britannia, strengthening themselves through battle, speaking with the people, and searching out the magical marks and items that will ultimately allow the party access the Isle of Fire where Exodus awaits. Cited as a major inspiration for console-based RPG’s (including Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior), Ultima: Exodus plays from an overhead perspective, and all primary actions are driven by menus that replace the original’s keyboard based control system. The party must visit Sosaria’s various towns in order to hear rumors of where they might find necessary items and other things of importance, placing a much larger emphasis on non-player character interaction than is found in previous series entries. The battle system is based around the party mechanic, another series innovation in Exodus (inspired by Wizardry), combining menu based attacks with a gridded battle field, akin to more modern turn-based strategy games (Fire Emblem, Shining Force). There are also several puzzles to be solved, many revolving around Britannia’s lunar phases – certain places only become accessible at particular times during the lunar cycle, and the player’s destination when traveling via Moongate is decided by the current phase. Dungeons are played in a similar way to how they were in previous Ultima games, though the previous wireframe outlines of old are replaced with textured walls (again similar to those found in Wizardry‘s upgraded NES port), and must be explored with a careful eye on the compass, as no maps are provided.
While Ultima: Exodus represents a huge leap forward for early RPGs, its transition from the home computer to the gaming console was not flawless. Some of the more interesting features do remain intact, including the ability to catch a cold and give it to other party members, as well as the ability to attack any character, foe or otherwise. The menus, however, serving to replace keyboard commands, are at times obtuse and often require navigating several submenus to find the desired option. The graphics are greatly improved over the computer versions, though they pale in comparison to most native NES games. Though the game now features full-color graphics and limited animation similar to other console-specific Japanese role playing games of its time, they are entirely unattractive: badly clashing colors and big-headed, anime style characters are entirely at odds with the mood the game attempts to set. The game also slows down terribly when travelling by boat or horse through an area where vision is obscured, as the game constantly stutters while readjusting the “line of sight” blackout areas around the party. The soundtrack is brand-new, though it is a rancid attempt in light of the fantastic music in the original Apple II version from 1983 (due to its excellent composition and the Mockingboard soundcard), replacing the original soundtrack with an aggravating combination of synthesized flat tones and obnoxiously arpeggiated runs excessively looped.
Ultima: Exodus‘ battle system involves a great deal of strategy and is extremely involving, though it quickly loses its appeal as the difficulty level hits any of its several massive spikes. While the player and enemy parties are evenly matched, carefully considered moves, attacks, and spells are rewarded with a significant tactical advantage. Unfortunately, though characters can level up every time they accrue an additional 100 experience points, there is very little reason to do so until the player nears the game’s conclusion. Though gaining levels increases hit point capacity, this does not affect the characters’ battle-related attributes: stat boosts must be purchased in Ambrosia (for an exorbitant sum). Though the monster’s levels will generally be close to that of the party’s, the enemies automatically receive the commensurate stat boosts, making it absolute suicide to speak to Lord British (who grants level ups) before the party has purchased enough improvements to allow them to meaningfully damage higher level monsters. If the player attains a sufficient level, however, the game’s balance swings the other direction: at level 25, the highest that the heroes can attain, every adversary, including those in the final dungeon, pose little threat.
The storyline is interesting, and the conclusion is certainly unexpected, but Ultima: Exodus’ potential impact is largely blunted by its balance issues, its offensively pedestrian aesthetics and its technical issues. Though it is a functional example of an early console RPG, the tedium and frustration involved in playing wholly undermines the experience.
|ウルティマ 恐怖のエクソダス (Urutima – Kyoufu no Ekusodasu)
Ultima – The Terror of Exodus
Pony Canyon, 10/1987