RPG Refelctions, Part III: Culture Clash

Part I: A Slime Draws Near!
Part II: Falling Into the Niche
Part III: Culture Clash
Part IV: But… the Future Refused to Change
Part V: …Dear Friends, Once More

RPG Refelctions

PC gaming was something I was never heavily into, not because I wasn’t interested, but mainly because I rarely ever owned a PC that was capable of running the games of the time. So, I became aware of most PC game series through their ports to home consoles, and their subsequent coverage in Nintendo Power. It was how I was introduced to Origin’s Wing Commander franchise, which I was a big fan of, and it was one of the few PC series I did attempt to follow.

Origin’s other big franchise, Ultima, was a little more of a mystery to me. My earliest experience with it was through Ultima VIII: Pagan, which came with a bunch of other games when we upgraded our clunky old PC with a CD-ROM drive. I didn’t play much of it, though, because Origin’s games tended to be so technologically intense that they were a bit unstable, and our PC wasn’t good at running things in general. But in 1997, we finally bought a spiffy new PC that ran all the old games swimmingly. As this coincided with the flow of console RPGs to the Sony PlayStation, and me being left high and dry with my Nintendo 64, perhaps it coaxed me to take a closer look at Ultima for an RPG fix.

Ultima VIII
Ultima VIII: Pagan (1994) - This is definitly not Final Fantasy.

I knew a little about it, just enough to pique my curiosity, but really nothing in-depth. When I actually started playing it, however, I was, to put it simply, overwhelmed! I had no experience with Western RPGs (unless you count Secret of Evermore on the SNES), and I quickly learned that everything I knew about the genre from playing Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger and Dragon Warrior meant absolutely nothing in Ultima. Kill monsters for money? Nope. Talk to every NPC I come across? Pointless. Cast spells by selecting them from a list? Not happening. Gain experience points to raise my level and get stronger? Sort of, but not exactly. This was an entirely different beast altogether, and I was completely lost.

And yet, I was also completely fascinated. Something about the style and atmosphere, as well as the series’ legacy, intrigued me to no end. My recently gained Internet access allowed me to learn more about the franchise, as well as its huge fan base. Little of it helped me to get a grasp on the gameplay, but one day I decided that I was determined to get through the game, and I relied heavily on an old walkthrough, step-by-step, until I finished it. It was only after the fact that I realized I was playing the unpatched version of the game, which some fans considered nearly unplayable anyway.

Ultima VIII
Ultima VIII: Pagan (1994) - It did have some cool graphics and sound.

In fact, Ultima VIII was viewed as the worst chapter in the series up to that point. I can understand why, as it has a frustrating interface, confusing design, and was pretty much released unfinished. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it, myself, but being that it was my first Ultima, I admit I have a bit of a soft spot for it.

I picked up a copy of the Ultima Collection when it was released, which contained all of the main games up to VIII, and I was able to explore more of the series. Yet, most of them were so archaic by that point that they didn’t hold my attention, and the ones that did (VI, VII and VII-2), I never actually finished. I didn’t really get a firm grasp on these Western-style RPGs, even though I loved their designs. They addressed the misgivings I had developed with Japanese console RPGs in that they were more open-ended, less linear, and it felt more like I was the one driving the story rather than being led around by a leash. On the other hand, I had also been a bit spoiled by the simpler, more streamlined designs of console RPGs, and Ultima was asking for a little too much work on my part.

It was frustrating, because I really wanted to see the best parts of both Japanese and Western RPGs combined into the best of all possible worlds. Instead, they seemed to represent two opposite extremes, each of which was somewhat alienating. My taste in games was changing, too, and I would slowly drift even further away from RPGs over the next few years….

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4 thoughts on “RPG Refelctions, Part III: Culture Clash

  1. Pingback: Nester’s RPG Refelctions, Part III: Culture Clash « LVLs. – Gain Experience!

  2. Jason X

    It really is a shame that those older PC games have become so dated. Like you, I never had a decent computer as a kid, so I wasn’t able to play any of the Ultima games until part VI received a port to the SNES. It was actually a lot of fun at the time, though. Like you said, they were very open-ended, which was both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

    People often lament today about how modern games force players to endure mandatory tutorials for everything, and never let you figure anything out for yourself. There’s a good reason for this, though. Games like Ultima VI gave you absolutely NO guidance, leaving you as little more than a blind man stumbling through the dark. I certainly felt a rush whenever I’d find something new and useful in Ultima VI, but damn. I’m glad that we’ve progressed since then.

    It would be great to see the entire series remade from the first entry on forward. Never gonna happen, but it would be nice.

    1. Nester-Lvl

      There are multiple fan projects that do just that (if they don’t get C&D’d, that is).

      Writing this article made me go back and tinker with the Ultimas a bit. The interfaces are really tedious. I suppose that was pretty impressive in the early 90s, but having to micromanage your inventory just isn’t fun these days. Ironically, I think maybe Ultima VIII has aged better because it was deliberately meant to be a little more streamlined and accessible (which is something it was actually criticized for back then).

      1. Jason X

        It’s crazy how something that was “true” in the past could somehow become clearly “untrue” just through the passing of time. I never got to play part VIII, but I do remember people saying that they were disgusted with how it tried to pander to the console market.

        Just goes to show us all. Ultima IX was a total flop, so everybody loses!

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