Conquering the Pile of Shame, Week 2

Geckos, Gargoyles and a Gelatinous Cube

For the past week, I’ve kept plodding on with Ultima I, Fallout 2 and Heretic, and I’ve managed to successfully complete one of them! However in tackling my Pile of Shame, I’ve also encountered another obstacle — the distraction of other games.

The gameplay, design, mechanics and themes of many of these old games reminds me of other games that I’ve played and loved. Ultima inspired me to go back and check out Ultima Online, while the combat in Fallout 2 reminded me how much I love Fallout Tactics, which was the Jagged Alliance-inspired tactical offshoot of the classic Fallout games.

On top of that, there is also the distraction of more recent games. I’ve recently returned to playing Stardew Valley, and any fan will tell you that this is the sort of game that utterly consumes you. It can be very difficult putting down something as addictive as Stardew Valley in favour of an archaic title like Ultima I.

If there is one trait that is needed when approaching your Pile of Shame, it is discipline. You need to have the willpower to say:

“No. I will not plant one more crop of parsnips. I have poorly drawn skeletons to slay.”

It’s harder than it sounds.

Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness (Origin Systems, 1981)

Status: Complete

Think this is a generic fantasy game? Think again.

Tick the first game of 2021 off the list. It took me around a week to complete this one. I’ll be honest though — I didn’t play it “organically”. I referred to a fairly detailed walkthrough, and I think that’s okay.

The reality is, when you’re playing games this old, the mechanics are so incredibly dated that they are often a major obstacle to enjoying the game. So I used a walkthrough to guide me through the game because I simply don’t have the mindset of a 1981 gamer.

Ultima I is quite difficult without a walkthrough, and I died several times on my first few attempts. One of the early monsters you encounter is the Gelatinous Cube, and I discovered the hard way that they instantly destroy any armour you’re wearing. The pathway through the game is quite obscure, so much so that I’m amazed anyone worked out what they had to do.

Here’s me fighting what is definitely not a TIE Fighter from Star Wars, during Ultima I’s rather odd “space ace” chapter.

If there’s one term I would use to describe Ultima I, it is “ideas vomit”. Once you settle into the groove of the gameplay mechanics, it’s still quite enjoyable. However the setting is all over the place. At first, you are in a traditional fantasy RPG, killing skeletons and evil wizards with your sword and magic. Then before you know it, you are boarding a shuttle to fly into space and defeat aliens to become a “space ace”, before returning to Sosaria to travel back in time to defeat the boss, Mondain. Apparently, during development, Richard Garriott was obsessed with Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981), which could probably explain the disjointed hybrid setting. Ultima I is uniquely chaotic, but that’s part of the charm. This is a title from gaming’s early days, when designers were still experimenting with what worked.

Would I recommend Ultima I to others? In 95% of cases, I’d probably say no. It is incredibly dated, and you’d be better served by watching some YouTube videos. But for the other 5% — gamers who are fascinated with videogame history, or RPG diehards, I would say it’s worth a go. Grab yourself a guide (RPGClassics.com and the Ultima Codex Wiki are invaluable), a coffee and dive into this RPG out of the annals of gaming history.

Next game to complete: Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress

Fallout 2 (Black Isle Studios, 1999)

Status: In Progress

This past week, I’ve made some solid progress on Fallout 2. After the frustrating opening dungeon (you will tear your hear out unless you put some points into melee/unarmed combat in character creation), the world opens up and you’ll soon be getting your arse handed to you by mutated geckos.

This damn temple. Seriously.

I’ve completed the first couple of major quest hubs — The Den and Modoc. Game directors Tim Cain and Chris Avellone are on show in Fallout 2. The writing is excellent, and the level of freedom is incredible when you consider when this game was released. There are dozens of ways to complete most quests, and the game rewards experimentation.

Sulik (and his “friend” Grampy Bone) is a heavy-hitting NPC that you should definitely take with you.

Don’t expect a forgiving game if you decide to give Fallout 2 a go. Ammunition is at constant shortage, and it is quite easy to come across a game-ending fight while exploring the wasteland. In the town of The Den, there is a gang of street urchins that lurk outside many buildings who will try to pickpocket you every time you walk past. I lost many expensive weapons and items before I realised what was happening.

One minor point —Like so many games from the guys who would one day become Obsidian Entertainment, Fallout 2 has no shortage of bugs. For that reason, I recommend Killap’s Unofficial Fallout 2 Patch. You could also install his Restoration Project mod, which returns cut content, but I’m a purist and want to experience the game mostly as it was intended.

Heretic (Raven Software, 1994)

Status: In Progress

The plasma rif… er, I mean the Hellstaff is a great weapon.

So far, Heretic has been enjoyable, but lacking a something I can’t quite put my finger on. It was part of the first generation of post-Doom shooters, but in many ways it feels inferior. The level design is somewhat opaque at times, and even a few levels in, I’ve often found myself stuck. Weapons are rather shallow variations on the standards established in Doom (the crossbow is basically a shotgun, and the necromancer gauntlets are basically a chainsaw). Heretic, so far, has failed to achieve the “flow state” that Doom and many other shooters of the era so adeptly mastered.

Hmm…where have I seen this before?

That said, the “gothic fantasy horror” aesthetic is quite cool, and I’ve found Heretic to be an entertaining, mindless distraction from the much more complex gameplay of Fallout 2 and Ultima I.

Until next week, happy gaming!

At some point in about 1989 I played my first videogames on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This was the beginning of a lifetime obsession with games...