Retronauts Pocket Episode 4

Retronauts Pocket 4 cover

Hey folks, here’s today’s episode. Pardon this post’s brevity, but real life calls and I’m en route to do important day-job things in a few minutes.

Episode 4 of Retronauts Pocket brings to bear the long-awaited Kickstarter backer requests. In this case, a fine fellow by the name of Dave Epp has asked us to speak about Ultima IV. Conveniently, while neither guest Scott Sharkey nor I have played the game in a dog’s age, we’re both well aware of its innovations and importance — as are fellow co-hosts Bob Mackey and Ray Barnholt. So kick back for 45 minutes and listen to us speak about this seminal RPG and how it’s influenced so many games since its debut.

By the way, there’s no music in this episode. People sometimes complain about the use of music to break up different portions of the conversation, so I thought I’d try an episode without. Spoilers: I kind of hate it and won’t be doing it again. Sorry, haters!

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Next week: More talk of old video games! More special guests! But fortunately you won’t have to listen to me as lead host. See, there is a merciful and just god after all.

Thanks again to Dave Epp and all our Kickstarter backers!

30 thoughts on “Retronauts Pocket Episode 4

  1. A series I’ve always wanted to like but came to much too late in their history for me to see them as anything but antiquated…

    Thanks for the knowledge!

    • They’re antiquated only in terms of interface and presentation. Actually, if you compare these old games to the standard contemporary AAA crpgs some of their elements feel incredibly advanced (as mentioned in the podcast). They’re much slower, require huge amounts of time, the pacing depends entirely on you (which to me is a huge plus) and, as a consequence, they are extremely satisfying to play and finish. If you can find the time.

      As for revamping these games, I’d go for a new interface, more text (yes, more. You can’t cut these games down in order to fit a modern audience with no attention span nor any patience for reading without throwing out aspects which make them unique and still talked about – and fun – to this day, and the lack of space limitations lends itself extremely well to expanding on the amount of text – of which there really isn’t a whole lot – in the games) and nicer graphics (which you can get by using a custom tileset, of which there exist a few), music and that’s kind of it. In the case of U4 maybe add diagonal targeting in combat, but that’s an improvement Origin already made for 5.

      And since we’re talking about remakes, there are remakes of Ultima 5 & 6 for the Dungeon Siege engine. I’ve been playing a bit of 5 recently and I have to say that even though the technical side of isn’t that impressive (clipping through walls nad objects, some problems with the camera, custom assets are badly integrated into the rest of the game etc.) and the real time combat is pretty shallow in comparison to the original, the expanded (very much in the vein of Ultima 7s) dialogue is pretty incredible. It’s not only very faithful the source material, but also fantastically written and, most importantly, completely seamless. I usually dread reading anything in a mod, but whomever did the job in this case completely nailed it. On top of that, the soundtrack is really good, with the highlight imo being the incredible main theme:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7kaPNORc2g
      Still sends chills down my spine every time. Damn, I love that game.

      So what I’m trying to say is that it’s worth a look:
      http://www.u5lazarus.com/

      And you can find the U6 Project here:
      http://u6project.com/

      • I was thinking about how someone would modernize this. Maybe the best way would be to make it a Sykrim mod. Or a mod on some other such modern game with good gameplay and graphics already established.

        I also like the Prog episode. One thing I did awile later since I had very little exposure to the genre, was to make a YMO channel on Pandora. They played a lot of and YMO and Kraftwerk and the thing I noticed was that this sounds just like Japanese Videogame music. The influence was obviously there listening to random tracks on Pandora.

  2. Don’t listen to the haters. Keep the music. It helps with the pacing of the show, allows for nice break points if the listener needs to pause the episode…and what kind of soul-less person doesn’t like good music?

    • The only issue I’ve ever had with the musical interludes is when the music comes from really primitive hardware and goes on for too long. This would be like having 40 seconds of a Master System track, in which the music is shrill.

  3. The DVD cover of Mazes & Monsters is hilarious in the way it tries to make you think that it’s a more recent Tom Hanks film.

    Of course, what’s really funny is that it ran on CBS around the same time that the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon was airing on the same network.

    Corporate America. Profiting simultaneously from both the phenomenon and the hysteria directed at it.

  4. I like the idea of music separating segments, but sometimes you do get carried away and the interludes get a bit too long, Jeremy. Ray’s podcasts strike a good balance, I think. It’s not that big a deal, anyway.

    Also, yay for more Sharkey and Ultima.

  5. 1. The Musical interludes are Awesome, bring them back.
    2. Haters gonna Hate
    3. Sharkey had better read his notes next time. LOL

  6. I haven’t listened quite all the way through yet so I don’t know whether this is mentioned or not, but Ultima IV is actually free on gog.com both on PC and Mac http://www.gog.com/game/ultima_4

    And I actually loved the prog rock episode, sort of prior to even listening to it as I’m a fan of the “genre”. Heck, I want more episodes about topics that aren’t inherently about games just like it.

  7. Cool, I got Ultima 4 for free on GOG. I’ll give it a shot, but it might be hard after binging on Skyrim.

    I dug the prog rock episode.

  8. In talking about what aspects of Ultima IV have appeared in other games, I wish you had mentioned Akitoshi Kawazu. In a Nintendo Power interview, he singled out Ultima IV as a reason he got into making RPGs. And more so than most Japanese RPGs, I think his games tend to feel more like old school PC RPGs, with their more open worlds and opaque mechanics.

    I tend to think his games would click more if people went into them expecting a more Ultima-like experience rather than Final Fantasy.

  9. Just a heads up – the Game Boy Ultimas (there were two of them, Runes of Virtue 1 & 2) were original games. These were actually action RPG spin-offs of the main series.

  10. Actually guys, there was an NES port of Ultima V. Long story short, it was terrible, far below even the previous NES ports of III and IV. Basically, being such a huge PC game in 1988, they (I’m assuming Pony Canyon) cut had to cut out a heinous amount of content.

  11. I’ve always known about Ultima, but have never played it. This rundown on the forth game in the series should be quite eye- opening, especially considering my fondness for all things rpg.

    I’m glad Sharkey came back for a couple of podcasts.

    Enjoying the retro comeback, keep it up. Bye!

  12. Speaking as someone who has never played an Ultima game, this was an excellent conversation to listen to. I thought it was interesting how Ultima IV seemingly went against the grain by not having a “save the world” scenario as the primary goal. One of the reasons why I love games like Dragon Quarter and Alpha Protocol is that they feature more personal stories as opposed to the derivative epics most RPGs tend to deliver.

    I’m glad Alpha Protocol was at least brought up when the conversation shifted to morality systems. I liked the way that game handled conversations and how each choice was a result of the personality of the character: it wasn’t ‘good’ or ‘evil’, but rather ‘James Bond’ or ‘Jack Bauer’ which affected the plot in a myriad of ways. Mass Effect tried to do this to an extent with Renegade and Paragon, but it ended up feeling too binary by the game’s end. With Alpha Protocol, you at least have a sense that every situation is unique, calling for a decision that may not align with your previous choices. Dragon Age also excelled at this like Sharkey mentioned.

    Sharkey was phenomenal these last two weeks. It reminded how much I missed hearing his thoughts. Keep up the great work guys.

  13. I know Bob was joking about this being a jogging episode, but I actually do frequently listen to these while I run. Great way to get through all the old ones since I am late to the party. It has really helped me as I train.

    Anyways, I love the music breaks, but kudos for trying something different and not being afraid to mess with it.

  14. I love the podcast, but the omission of Witcher series in the discussion about morality systems in games made me cringe a bit. With all their flaws these games perfectly represent the mature, non-binary ethics of the world we live in.

  15. One gameplay element introduced in Ultima IV that still sticks with me is the ability to have conversations with NPCs in the towns. It wasn’t the simple canned responses from NPCs that you saw in other games of the era but you could actually interact with them. Ask them ‘name’, ‘job, ‘health’ and pick up clues from their responses to ask them further questions. Their responses also led to subjects to ask NPCs in other towns to help you figure out what needs to be done to progress through the game. In future Ultimas, they expanded upon the conversation system that it became one of the identifying traits of an Ultima style CRPG game (at least during the Origins heydays).

  16. Hey, cool! I finally got the comments working!

    First of all, I just discovered retronauts a few weeks ago, while bored at work, and have been tearing through all the existing episodes from back in the day in short order. It’s been like watching five (six?) years go by in five or six weeks. Crazy fun!

    Quick comment on last week’s episode as I settle down to listen on this one: I remember you guys mentioning Kee games merging with Atari. I wasn’t sure if it came up in the episode, but that was one of my favorite “video game” moments, because it was all a plot of Nolan Bushnell’s! Kee games was started by a friend and employee of his and the whole plan was a way to get around the distribution restrictions of the arcades. Just one of those clever moves in the industry that makes you feel like the video game industry is full of a bunch of pirates and rogues, rather than stuffy businessmen…

    Anyway, excited to hear the Ultimate episode! Not an Ultima player myself, but I will forever think of it as the game which tried to do an ecosystem and learned quickly that humanity online would send itself into an eco-crisis within minutes.

  17. Okay, listened! The discussion of morality and choice in video games is very interesting. I remember this came up a lot when Mass Effect was released, though after the first game, I feel that the whole choice thing kind’ve fell apart there.

    A game that felt more like it got it, for me, was Blade Runner.

    The way BR worked was a “narrowing down of possibilities” style. At the beginning of the game, you had seven or eight endings available to you. By the end of the first chapter, your choices would’ve closed two off. By the end of the second chapter, another two would be closed off. By the time you got to the actual endgame, only two or three endings would still be available. You couldn’t play a Replicant Lover for the whole game and suddenly, in the end game, unlock the “Best Bounty Hunter” ending (also known as the Krystal ending, for the hot babe you get to be with if you go this route). That one was closed off very early on if you made moves to support Replicants.

    What this led to was a true need to play the game multiple times and try being a different character each time. Because you couldn’t play nice all game and then suddenly be a dick in the last hour of the game and unlock the “dick” ending. It took more commitment than that, and thus the reward was more fulfilling. When you made decisions, they mattered, because other decisions were closed off.

    Mass Effect had such opportunity to do this, and to a degree it does. It handles who lives and dies very well, especially in the Krogan and Geth story lines. The dating is a little weaker, because you can romance everyone to a certain point, but it’s still satisfying. But Mass Effect doesn’t quite bring the choices as far as it could. Much has been complained about the “here’s three doorways” ending, but even beyond this, Mass Effect had very few choices which affected gameplay or game design at all.
    Here’s an example.

    What if, in Mass Effect 2, you could make the effort to save everyone in your team from death in the final Reaper assault, but doing so meant you had to give up the opportunity to teach Shepherd two very useful and unique psychic abilities? This would make such decisions much more dynamic. It would even make sense: a Shepherd who was willing to sacrifice her team to be a one-man army would have stronger solo-capabilities; a Shepherd who was giving up those abilities would naturally be relying more on teamwork.

    Another place this could have easily been put in place was upgrading the ship. Why is it so cheap to upgrade your ship fully? You can easily upgrade the ship, upgrade everyone on the crew, upgrade Shepherd, and still have plenty of creds left over to buy a few dozen fish (to replace the ones that inevitably starved the last time you bought fish). Why was this the case? Why weren’t credits more precious or the ship more expensive to build up, so that you couldn’t choose to both upgrade Shepherd and the ship? Here was an easy opportunity to force players into choice based gameplay. Upgrade your ship to save everyone, or spend the precious credits on upgrading weapons and powers,

    As Mass Effect 2 stands now, there is a “right” and “wrong” way to play the game. Once you know how to save everyone (something that I figured out on my first playthrough without much trouble), you’d have to consciously fuck up in order to have anyone die in that missions. Essentially, you’d have to willfully plan to have them get killed, and without any benefit to doing so. It’s one reason I’ve avoided a second Mass Effect playthrough, because I can’t imagine making those kind of changes to my first playthrough. There’s no incentive to change those things and, in a game that tries to showcase its choices as ME does, such lack of incentive is anathema, and unfortunate.

    Chrono Trigger was another game that did this right, with the choice to save Magus and get him on your party, or to kill him and free Frog from his curse. While most people couldn’t pass up the chance to get one of the coolest characters in any RPG on their party, it was not inconceivable to defeat him to save Frog (who was the second coolest character to many), and letting Magus live always carried with it a slight pang of guilt.

    Anyway, just thoughts I’m musing on. I’m still waiting for the next Blade Runner or Magus moment in gaming, and I’m surprised that ME wasn’t the one to deliver on it, with all the many sophistications of its programming and branching story. But hearing about Ultima reminds me that this was something that may have already come and gone, such as with the early Fallout games. Maybe because it was easier to program the graphics back then?

  18. Hey, guys, I just discovered this podcast as you were beginning the new run (I believe the first episode I heard was the Ninja Gaiden ‘cast, but I quickly downloaded the previous two), and have fallen quite head over heels. Wish I had known when the Kickstarter was going on; I would have loved to contribute. I guess my five star iTunes rating will have to suffice for now.

    Anyway, as for Ultima, I’m one of the really weird people in the world, apparently, who actually only ever played the NES ports of both Ultima Exodus and Quest of the Avatar. What’s more, I adored both of them, and find it kind of fascinating how much different the NES version apparently was from the PC original. My family just didn’t get into computers until later. I do remember being fascinated, then frustrated to no end by the morality system on QOTA; I had an extraordinarily tough time getting either sacrifice or humility up, if I remember correctly. (I probably don’t; I haven’t played it since about 1994.) But it was still such an amazing departure from all the previous RPGs I had played; as much as I loved Exodus and all the various classes you could mess around with, the idea of actually trying to play a character as a real person was fascinating to me. Plus, my best friend and I were just beginning to get into Dungeons and Dragons thanks to a neighbour friend, and the idea of an alignment system was fresh in my head.

    I thought the discussion of the way virtue/karma/alignment/whatever the hell systems have moved into modern games was really interesting as well, and I thought I would throw my own hat into the ring on the topic. Two things, actually:

    In case anyone is ever playing Ogre Battle March of the Black Queen, I believe the biggest determining factor in how high your reputation meter goes is which units you choose to liberate towns with. The alignment of your main character is still a pain in the ass to control, as you have to consistently hold the unit back and only fight when enemies are tougher, but so long as you only liberate towns with high alignment units, you can at least keep your popularity high and hopefully avoid the instant assassination…

    As far as the modern examples of morality systems, you guys mentioned Fallout several times, and how it uses a seemingly interesting but ultimately very shallow and kind of meaningless karma system to determine what kind of person you are playing as. I agree with the point on Fallout 3, but I have to say I was a big fan of the way the alignment issue was handled in Fallout: New Vegas, where the overall karma meter was still present, but didn’t really have a big effect on anything. Rather, the issue that DID have a large effect was your reputation with the various factions throughout the game; certain questlines became completely unavailable due to the actions you took in regards to a specific faction. I thought it was a much more interesting, realistic, and ultimately rewarding take on the idea of behaviour in a game environment, and largely divorced the reactions of people and groups from your overall “alignment”.

    Although, to be fair, it was pretty obvious who was supposed to be the good guys and who was the bad, and your alignment did tend to go one way or the other depending on which faction you came down in favour of. Still, having a reputation in various settlements and within factions rather than a simple measure of good and evil was a really big step forward, I thought. Of course, the game itself stands alone as perhaps the single most ambitious, brilliant, fatally flawed disasterpiece I’ve ever played, so it’s no surprise to find such a great idea surrounded by so many problems, I suppose.

    Oh, and thinking on Ultima got me thinking about one other topic. I would imagine you guys have all your topics already laid out ahead of time, but if you’re looking for one, maybe a pocket, just do everyone’s list of all the Virtual Console titles they most wanted to see, and how depressed they are those games are probably never coming out. I remember when I first heard about VC back when the Wii was still just the fevered dream of a madman, and I immediately started ticking off in my head every old game I absolutely HAD to play. Both Ultimas were high on the list, along with another RPG port from the Apple II: The Bard’s Tale, which was my favourite game for quite awhile. Legendary Wings, Astyanax, I did get Faxanadu finally, which I was excited about, but the fact SquareEnix is apparently never going to release any of the Dragon Quest games for VC instead of doing their irritating ports for the DS just pisses me off to no end. I would do literally anything to be able to play Dragon Warrior 4, the original NES version, on Virtual Console. Anything. Seriously. Try me. Anything. Even weird stuff I usually have to be really drunk to try. Hear that, Nintendo? Weird. Stuff. Call me.

    Anyway, keep up the awesome work on these, everyone. I’m really loving the series. And I’ll mention I enjoyed the prog rock episode since a bunch of other people have brought it up here, even though most of the music itself is most definitely not my bag.

    Oh, and keep the music in the podcasts. It’s great.

  19. This is unrelated to the episode, but with Wario Land 3 being released on the VC, and then Ninja Gaiden II before it, I think it is safe to say, as you all once suspected, you have a fan working on the Virtual Console service for Nintendo. It’s past the point of coincidence at this point.

    • Hah! Yeah, now we just need another episode all about Mother 3. And maybe a few more on Yoshi’s Island… but then what would they complain about during the VC segments?

  20. Pingback: The Retronauts: Ultima 4

  21. The prog rock episode was fantastic, and a delightful (and totally relevant to games culture) surprise to see pop up. Don’t ever, EVER regret doing it!

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