Ultima: Quest of the Avatar, NES/Famicom

Ultima: Quest of the Avatar on the NES/Famicom was developed by FCI and published by Pony Canyon in 1990. It is the most different Ultima IV port available – in relation to the original – and has been altered to play more like a classic JRPG. Which is not a bad thing. In fact: some may even prefer this over the original.

Setting up your playable character is the same as in the original: you answer a series of questions based on a eight virtues and this determines your character class and their starting location. If you want a more detailed explanation of this: read my review of the Apple II version.

You can choose the game “speed” at the beginning (1 to 9). The problem with this, however, is that – if this is your first time playing the game – you’ll have no context in which to choose this, and the game doesn’t tell you whether nine is faster or slower than one, so you can end up choosing blind, and you can’t change it later. So you can end up having a text speed that is too slow and re-starting later. For the record: “1” is slowest and “9” is fastest. I’d recommend choosing something over six because sentences will always wait for a button press anyway, so it’s not like you’ll miss anything. This also affects the speed of battles too, and you don’t want them to be too slow.

Combat in the overworld initiates randomly and you don’t see enemies moving around, like you do in the original. So it can happen at any time. The scene still cuts to a separate battle screen when combat starts, though, and you issue commands to your individual characters via a menu. There’s also an “auto” option, which you can apply to each character individually, in turn. Or you can make your moves manually. One good thing about combat in this version is that you can go back and change commands of individual characters – before the round begins. You can’t do that in the original and it is welcomed in this. Also: ranged attacks (be they magic or arrows) can be fired from any direction, so you don’t need to be in line with a target to hit them. Finally – regarding combat – characters in this conversion can carry both a ranged weapon and a melee weapon, and they’ll automatically use whichever is appropriate in battle, depending on their proximity to a target.

Magic casting is slightly different in this too. You don’t have to mix reagents (or, as they call them in his, “herbs”) to make spells – the game does it for you. You just need to have the recipe for the spell in your spellbook, enough Magic Points (MP), and the ‘herbs’ in your inventory, and the game does the rest. I started my first game as a Mage, so I used magic in combat a lot, and it took me a little while to figure out that spells like Magic Missile will only fire during combat if you have enough ‘herbs’ in your possession. Thankfully you start the game with 9,000 gold pieces so can afford to buy quite a few reagents, and also weapons and armour if you need them. It depends on what your starting character is.

Conversations with NPCs are also different in this version. Instead of asking about certain keywords, each NPC has their own set of lines to say and they’ll give you clues as per the script. Which makes playing the game easier overall.

Other differences that are worth mentioning: the menu command “Status” is buried within a sub-menu and it should really have been put top-level because it’s one you’ll use often; The Runes of Virtue are hidden in different places to the original; Magic Keys cost 2,000 gold pieces each in this, which limits their use; the overworld map is different in places, as are many interior locations; the Tinker character from Minoc, called Julia in the original, has been changed to Julius, and is now a man instead of a woman; you don’t need mantras to meditate at shrines; sailing ships seem to appear in abundance; and you no longer have to worry about food consumption (because the food requirement has thankfully been removed from the game).

Dungeons are more or less the same as in the original. They’re a mixture of first-person exploration, with the infamous overhead rooms acting as junctions. While the first-person sections are graphically a little lacklustre, and the encounter rates in them are quite high, the dungeons I explored seemed a little easier than in the original. Which isn’t a bad thing because the original dungeons were brutally unforgiving. It might be down the JRPG-style combat system, the earlier availability of the crossbow, and the fact that ranged weapons in this rarely miss (and also seem to travel through walls and rocks).

It’s worth noting that, to save your game, you need to visit an inn and ask the proprietor to record your progress for you. It took me a little while to figure that out.

The graphics are mostly very good in this conversion, and the music is excellent (being jaunty renditions of Ken Arnold‘s original tunes). Gameplay-wise, you do have to re-wire your brain to play this differently to the originals, but if you can do that then you’ll find a really good RPG hiding underneath it. Would I play this instead of the originals? I’m not sure if I’d go as far as that, but it is a decent game. It’s certainly a damn sight better than the awful NES version of Ultima III.

More: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar on Wikipedia
GOG: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar on GOG.com [free]
GOG: Ultima 4+5+6 on GOG.com

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