Sunday, February 28, 2021

Odin Sphere


When development for the PlayStation 2 began dying down and the gaming world was focused on the following generation of consoles, the PS2 still had some life in it, gaining several notable RPG releases such as Persona 4. Among the other titles that Sony’s first sequel console received was Odin Sphere, exalted for its art direction under developer Vanillaware and director George Kamitani, whose previous credits included the Japan-only title Princess Crown. The original Odin Sphere would see rerelease as a digital title on the PlayStation 3 and as a companion to the refined version, Odin Sphere Leifthrasir. Does the original incarnation still hold up?

The game focuses on five different playable characters who participate in events leading to Armageddon, with a heavy Nordic influence. Each luminary receives plentiful development, with some good supplemental backstory revealed through texts acquired throughout each character’s quest, and a satisfactory ending, with variations depending upon which characters the player use to battle each of the five final bosses, although given the unskippable voiced dialogue in cutscenes, the plot feels forced down the player’s throat. The translation contains an old-world English disposition, and is legible for the most part, although there are some literal portions such as “Demon King Odin,” errors such as “to whence,” and asinine names such as “Muggle” for a fruit and “King Valentine,” among others.

The game mechanics have plenty of good ideas, with each character having their own unique fighting style that eases up on the repetition, although some players won’t appreciate the need to start fresh with a different protagonist after spending hours developing the last. Odin Sphere’s gameplay occurs in various stages with a certain number of toroidal areas where the player has to eliminate all antagonists and receive a score based on the performance in battle, dictating how much treasure they receive as a reward, which includes seeds to plant and grow into consumable food that heals HP and provides hit point experience, ingredients for cooking recipes at restaurants that provide fixed maximum HP increases and supplemental experience, and coins used to purchase items and cooked recipes.

Key to cultivating plants is the release of Phozons when enemies die, which the current protagonist can either absorb to increase Psypher experience for occasional leveling and increased attack power (sometimes alongside the occasional skill that consumes a number of stored Psypher levels when executed). However, players can allow planted seeds to absorb these, in which case they gradually grow and release fruit or other food. In the case of the former, the player can wait for some time and obtain rotted version of the cultivated fruit, which is actually sometimes necessary to formulate certain recipes obtained in stages and used to cook food in restaurants sometimes accessible in between chapters.

The gameplay works alright for the most part, although there are several issues such as the potential difficulty of late-game battles, even on the easiest difficulty setting, and consequential need to spend time grinding for Psypher and HP experience (which players can mercifully accomplish for each character before the final quintet of boss battles). There’s also a heavy emphasis upon inventory management, with players initially able to have up to two eight-item bags, although these don’t become available until each character’s later chapters, and there is potential to waste money on pouches that hold fewer items, with no facilities to store excess items.

The mentioned issue with inventory management is a chief complaint of the original version’s control aspects, alongside the inability during cutscenes to skip through voiced dialogue, sure to alienate hearing-impaired gamers, although the scenes themselves are fully skippable, and players need not rewatch them before things such as tough boss battles. The save system is also fair, with players able to preserve progress in stages in toroidal areas that have shops, and the structure of the game is fairly linear, with little opportunity to get lost. However, there are other issues such as the awkwardness at times of each character’s unique control scheme, along with the fact that the in-game clock doesn’t track time spent in the often-lengthy cutscenes. On the whole, interaction is average.

One of the stronger aspects of Odin Sphere is its aural presentation, with the voice acting, despite the developers forcing it down the player’s throat during cutscenes given its unskippability, being good for the most part, the battle voices luckily not annoying. The soundtrack chiefly composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata is great as well, with plentiful standout tracks such as the vocal title screen theme, which receives several remixes towards the end, and different tracks in each stage for non-enemy-infested areas and battle toroids. However, there is a technical issue with the same music restarting when the player transitions between visited areas in a stage, but otherwise, the aurals are generally pleasing.

Odin Sphere utilizes a two-dimensional visual style, with character and enemy sprites containing good anatomy and animation, with lip movement during cutscenes as well, not to mention pretty environments and vibrant colors, although the game’s beauty one could describe as superficial. I say so, given the myriad of issues such as characters changing handedness depending upon whether they’re facing left or right, the choppiness when attacking enemies, the cookie-cutter environments for each area of a stage, some reskinned adversaries, and nothing in the way of FMV cutscenes. Generally, the graphical presentation isn’t appalling, but there are various kinks the designers could have worked out.

Finally, including the time spent in cutscenes, finishing all characters’ chapters and the endgame takes somewhere from one to two days’ total playtime, although the in-game clock will certainly show less, and there’s plentiful lasting appeal in the form of PlayStation Trophies, the adjustable difficulty settings, the battle rankings for each area of the various stages, the ability to skip cutscenes and not have to rewatch them (with each scene preserved for later viewing, in case the player wants to view the narrative chronologically), and the general fun of building Psypher and HP levels, although there’s little in the way of sidequests, given the linear structure.

In summation, Odin Sphere definitely is an amazing game in several respects, such as its fast, oftentimes enjoyable gameplay, the enjoyable narrative, the solid sound, the good art direction, and the abundance of lasting appeal, although it does have some serious issues of which players need to be aware before experiencing it such as the bit of grindiness, the overabundance of inventory management, the unskippable voiced dialogue during cutscenes, the average localization, and the various kinks in the visual presentation. Given these various issues, it’s hardly surprising that Vanillaware would refine the mechanics in Leifthrasir, and I would recommend that iteration instead.

This review is based on a playthrough of the Original Mode included alongside Leifthrasir, digitally purchased and downloaded to a PlayStation Vita.

The Good:
+Gameplay can be fun.
+Enjoyable story.
+Solid sound.
+Good art direction.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Can be hard and grindy, even on easiest difficulty.
-Too much inventory management.
-Unskippable voiced dialogue during cutscenes.
-Average, sometimes literal, translation.
-Game’s beauty is superficial.

The Bottom Line:
Not a bad experience, but you may want to play Refined Mode instead.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Game Mechanics: 6.0/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 8.0/10
Graphics: 5.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 7.0/10

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Over the Moon


I watched this due to a review by my friend Moonhare, and reasonably enjoyed it, being about a Chinese girl who loses her mother and her father moves on, and she tries to make a homemade rocket to the moon to prove the moon goddess Chang'e exists. The animal imagery was definitely the highlight of the film.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Ember Falls


Like its predecessor, the second entry of the Green Ember tetralogy by S.D. Smith opens with an excerpt from The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner, with Prince Lander questioning how he will die, with one possibility being monsters carrying him away. The main chapters open with Picket Longtreader traversing fog with Prince Jupiter Smalls, still seeking his missing family. Birds of prey give chase, and the two find nothing in an enemy camp. Picket’s sister Heather, in the meanwhile, is training to become a doctor, finding her initiation bittersweet.

Some chapters give focus on the slaves of the avian villain Morbin, including the female Sween, a skilled songstress. Picket continues to train with his master Helmer, and there is revelation of royalty thought lost. The rabbits have several battles with the antagonistic wolves and their allegiant birds of prey, and lapine loyalties regularly go to the test. One of the characters, Emma, ponders sacrificing herself to reach a ceasefire with their enemies, although Heather goes in her place, finding herself in Morbin’s lair, the second book ending with one of Sween’s songs giving her hope.

All in all, I found this a fairly enjoyable sequel, given its focus on animal characters, many of which are far from interchangeable, although akin to fellow animal-focused literary franchise Redwall, some species have no “good” members among them, although the rabbits are more black, white, or gray in that respect. The backstory is also good, and the pacing is relatively quick given the brevity of most chapters, the illustrations giving readers further insight into the relative “look” of the events in the book. Those who enjoyed the first book in the series will most likely in the second, and after reading the excerpt from the next book, I’m definitely game to read it.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Deep Look - Super Mario Sunshine

 Super mario sunshine.jpg

Mario’s Dark Side

Recently, I had the chance to borrow a copy of Super Mario 3D All-Stars for the Nintendo Switch, collecting three of Nintendo’s resident plumber’s adventures in three dimensions, beginning with Super Mario 64, which many critics hailed as a revolutionary achievement in a largely-lackluster gaming library for the Nintendo 64 system. Despite the critical bootlicking the game received, it left me incredibly unimpressed, given its incredible reliance upon typical Japanese videogame cheapness such as the ease of death. I expected the next 3-D Mario for the GameCube, Super Mario Sunshine, to be an improvement, which it was in respects, but it proved to be just as excruciating an experience.

Sunshine opens with Mario and Princess Peach vacationing to Isle Delfino, encountering a goop-covered piranha plant that the plumber battles with a Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device, or F.L.U.D.D., which he then uses to attempt to clear his name, as an entity resembling him known as Shadow Mario has been polluting the island. The storyline adds a little new content to the overall Mario mythos, but eventually devolves to a typical damsel-in-distress plot when Peach finds herself kidnapped. The translation is legible, but messages such as “Shine!” when acquiring one of the plot-centric golden stars somewhat make obvious the game’s Japanese origins.

Thus, it’s up to the gameplay to shoulder the burden, and while the camera is a major improvement over that in Super Mario 64, there are a host of other issues that prevent the gameplay from being even remotely passable. The mechanics are largely similar to those in the preceding 3-D Mario game, with Mario able to go through graffiti to enter other areas of Isle Delfino, each with several sequential episodes, the seventh of each being the pursuit of Shadow Mario. Fulfilling certain gameplay objectives rewards Mario with a Shine Sprite, necessary to advance the central storyline.

Mario can shoot water at enemies and sludge from F.L.U.D.D. and hover in the air for a few seconds with fluid from the sentient backpack, the player able to refill the mechanism through one of many water sources available in the game. As in Super Mario 64, moreover, the plumber can execute three consecutive leaps with each being higher than the previous (although players can turn him around and instantly use the most powerful jump), and do a straight vertical stomp that’s oftentimes necessary to kill enemies. He also has a life meter that regular coins can replenish, with the loss of all life, or a fall into a bottomless pit, costing him a life and kicking him back into the hub of Isle Delfino.

There are also mandatory stages where Shadow Mario steals F.L.U.D.D. from his adversary, and the real Mario must traverse a three-dimensional level where death via falling into the bottomless abyss will happen very, very frequently, and if this happens, the player has to start from the very beginning, with the exhaustion of all lives resulting in a Game Over and the need for the player to retrace their steps to said level. One could have very easily made a drinking game out of the instances where I advanced through one of these areas only to encounter the same exact situation that killed me in the first place, and the repetition is nothing short of maddening.

Unlike in Super Mario 64, the player has to advance through a stage’s episodes sequentially in order to advance the central storyline and see the ending, if that even miraculously occurs, and the overall inconsistent difficulty really hurts the game, bordering on unplayable, even with the assistance of the internet. Many episodes are essentially walls preventing the player from seeing the game from start to finish, and the above-average, oftentimes artificial, difficulty makes Sunshine incredibly inaccessible to mainstream gamers. There are also countless areas when falling off a ledge and the need to retrace steps is necessary, needlessly wasting the player’s time, and all in all, I didn’t exactly find the gameplay a joy to experience.

Those familiar with the controls in Super Mario 64 will undoubtedly find those in Sunshine easy to handle, although the art of firing water from F.L.U.D.D. while keeping Mario still takes lots of getting used to. The plumber’s jumping patterns are also wildly unpredictable, and he sometimes performs his most powerful somersaulting leap when the player doesn’t intend him to, which can make safe landings to be incredibly difficult. While the player can save progress any time, moreover, doing so doesn’t preserve their current location, so they can’t just quit in the middle of an episode and resume where they left off. Generally, the game is fairly user-unfriendly.

Sunshine has okay music, even if much of it consists of remixes of tracks from prior Mario games such as the subterranean theme, and there is a little voice acting, although players will quickly tire of hearing Mario wail when falling into a bottomless pit, along with the horns that blare whilst he loses a life and when the player sees the Game Over screen for the millionth time.

The visuals have actually aged slightly better than those in Super Mario 64, with Mario, Princess Peach, and other character models scarcely being blocky, the colors being vibrant, and the rippling heat effect and water reflection being nice touches, although there are many reskins of Isle Delfino’s NPCs, and some of the environmental texturing is blurry and pixilated.

Ultimately, that I needed to use a guide to figure out how exactly to win the first boss fight in the game should have served as a warning indicator as to the true quality of Super Mario Sunshine, and I hardly had a fun time with it, given its many classic Japanese videogame kusottare such as the ease of instant death and maddening degree of repetition. While it does have areas that Nintendo improved over Super Mario 64, such as the camera, the various other issues this particular entry introduced bring it down, and for the sake of my mental health, I couldn’t bring myself to play it to completion, and certainly won’t touch Galaxy with a yardstick.

This deep look is based on a playthrough of eight hours on the version included with Super Mario 3D All-Stars, borrowed by the reviewer.


Sunday, February 14, 2021

Super Mario 64


A Revolution Rife with Atrocities

In recent console generations, videogame developers have prided themselves in remastering older titles graphically and porting classic games to contemporary consoles, provided they actually held onto the programming code, unlike some game corporations (*cough* Sega *cough*). That aside, Nintendo would release a collection of three Mario games on their Switch hybrid console, Super Mario 3D All-Stars, similar to what they had done generations prior with classic Mario titles on the Super NES, with the first three-dimensional game in the franchise, Super Mario 64, among the games in the anthology. Has it stood the test of time?

The inaugural 3-D Mario opens with Princess Toadstool, now identified as Peach, inviting Mario to her castle for cake, although Bowser holds her hostage, and it’s up to Mario to save her. It’s more or less the same plotline as in prior Mario games, and while there are a variety of worlds the plumber visits, they don’t receive any backstory, and there’s little, if any, contribution to the overall Mario mythos. The translation is mostly a decent effort, although there are several kinks such as the initial voiced dialogue in which the princess addresses herself as “Princess Toadstool…Peach!” when “Princess Peach Toadstool” would have sufficed, not to mention the general unmemorable nature of the writing.

That leaves the gameplay to shoulder the burden, and lamentably, Super Mario 64 doesn’t fare any better in that regard. While some of Mario’s moves are fun to mess around with, the absolutely terrible camera and controls really hurt the experience, and while the plumber has a life meter, it becomes pointless in the face of easy instant death from long falls, which will happen quite frequently due to the camera seeming to have a mind of its own. Simple tasks such as chasing a one-up mushroom and walking across narrow paths become herculean, and the battles against Bowser where Mario has to grab him by the tail, whirl him about, and launch him towards mines, are needlessly tedious. In the end, the gameplay is often absolute torture.

Super Mario 64 would have also benefited from better checkpoints, and I experienced many cases where I revealed a star, their collection necessary to fight Bowser and advance what little narrative there is, only to die and have to repeat the tasks needed to reveal the star in the first place. Save opportunities also only occur upon collection of one of said stars, and despite contemporary technology, the Switch port doesn’t include a suspend save. Given the three-dimensional gameplay, furthermore, minimaps for each area would have been welcome, and there are plenty of difficult jumps and largely unrefined level design. All in all, the game scarcely interfaces well with players.

Pretty much the only remotely passable part of the game is its aural presentation, with several standout musical tracks such as the regal interior castle theme, the pretty nautical area music, and so on. However, there are plentiful lackluster tracks such as the Arabian-esque hot area tune, and the voice acting can be grating, especially when forced to hear Mario’s screams for the umpteenth time, and Bowser’s taunt whenever the plumber loses a life can be insulting. Ultimately, the sound is pretty much one of few areas where the game doesn’t fail, but certainly doesn’t excel.

The visuals, however, haven’t aged well, with blocky three-dimensional character models and scenery that contains plenty of blurry, pixilated texturing, along with plenty of environmental popup, and things such as the various Toads throughout the palace appearing ghostly the further Mario is from them. The characters, though, look as they should, and the colors are believable, but otherwise, the graphical presentation very much falls short.

Finally, the first three-dimensional Mario game is longer than its 2D precursors, with players possibly able to get through it in as little as twelve hours, and while there is theoretical lasting appeal in the collection of every star, the experience isn’t nearly enjoyable enough to warrant supplemental playtime.

Overall, time definitely hasn’t been kind to Super Mario 64, and while most can agree that it was a revolutionary title in its era, that doesn’t really mean it’s a good title, given its absolutely-abominable gameplay and control, the high degree of repetition, the generic narrative, the lackluster visuals, and the sheer torture of playing it longer to achieve one-hundred-percent completion. It really lends the impression that Nintendo rushed to release it without bothering to test it for quality or even playability, given its relative unrefinement in most of its aspects, and it’s incredibly difficult to recommend to mainstream gaming audiences.

The Good:
+Music is okay.

The Bad:
-Not short enough.
-Loads of repetition.
-Horrible camera and controls.
-Generic Mario plot.
-Graphics haven’t aged well.
-Tortuous to invest additional time in.

The Bottom Line:
The first 3D Mario, and it definitely shows.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 0.5/10
Controls: 0.5/10
Story: 0.0/10
Localization: 4.0/10
Music/Sound: 5.0 /10
Graphics: 2.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 0.5/10
Difficulty: Incredibly Artificial
Playing Time: 12-24 Hours

Overall: 1.5/10

Wards of Faerie


The first installment of author Terry Brooks’ Dark Legacy of Shannara series opens with protagonist Aphenglow Elessedil, or simply Aphen, finding a diary written by a young princess from the age of Faerie, Aleia, who meets a Darkling child of the Void. A search for the magical Elfstones initiates, and Khyber Elessedil, Ard Rhys of the Fourth Druid Order, wakes from her lengthy Druid Sleep as a result of the Elfstones calling out to her. As Aphen researches the diary, siblings Railing and Redding Ohmsford are up to mischief, with Mirai Leah visiting with her airship, the Quickening.

Khyber too comes to visit the Ohmsfords, although their mother Sarys is reluctant to have accept her into their lives. In the meantime, the Prime Minister of the Federation, Drust Chazhul, and his advisor Stoon, plot against the Druid Keep Paranor, and the main heroes find themselves visiting the Forbidden, where all sorts of dark creatures are imprisoned by the Ellcrys. Several battles conclude the first entry of the trilogy, with the cliffhanger of a voice calling out to one of the characters serving as a lead-in into the first sequel of the Shannara subseries.

All in all, this was an okay beginning to the Dark Legacy of Shannara trilogy, with plenty links to prior subseries and a good deal of fantastical action, the occasional politicking thrown into the mix. However, one can definitely find it difficult to keep track as to what races the various characters belong to, and while there is an illustration depicting several of the dramatic personae after the primary text, there’s no indicator as to who is who, and better descriptions of the appearances of the characters would have been welcome as well. Regardless, I would still be interested in reading the rest of the subseries.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The Green Ember


The first of author S.D. Smith’s Green Ember series focuses mainly on rabbit characters, beginning with a prologue where two wash up on the shore of Ayman Lake, Fleck Blackstar and Galt. They don’t seem to get any further mention, with the main chapters focusing on two lapine siblings, the male Picket and the female Heather. They reside Nick Hollow with their parents and baby brother, although the book doesn’t make a clear distinction between the names given for him, Jacks and Jacket, not saying which one’s his real name and which is his nickname.

Their father, Garten Lawntreader, begins telling them the tale of King Jupiter the Great, although the lapine patriarch doesn’t complete the story, but later on it does receive its resolution. The chief reason for this is an attack by wicked wolves that ends with the capture of the rabbit parents and baby brother, with Picket and Heather managing to escape due to the assistance of a woman with whom their parents had a past affiliation, Lady Glen, who leads them to safety. The vengeful lupine Captain Redeye gives chase, with the children’s Uncle Wilfred coming into the picture and granting them salvation.

They wander a labyrinth and find the enigmatic white rabbit Smalls, then reaching the lapine community at Cloud Mountain, where Picket and Heather receive instruction so they can defend against the wolves, several backstory-revealing paintings and the eponymous Green Ember playing roles. Several twists involving familial secrets and lineage abound in the latter portion of the story, with a great battle pitting the rabbits against wolves and avians occupying the final chapters, followed by a revelation about the whereabouts of Picket and Heather’s family lost to the initial lupine assault against Nick Hollow.

All in all, I found this a good beginning to Smith’s series, with its focus on animal characters being a plus and sure to attract those who have an affinity for such stories, especially younger audiences. The plot is generally straightforward, and while the lapine luminaries aren’t wholly black and white, the author treats all wolves as inherently evil, akin to the different species in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. The inclusion of illustrations somewhat clarifies the appearance of specific characters to prevent them from being interchangeable, and I very much look forward to reading the book’s sequels.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness


On the Origin of a Series

In 1979, Richard Garriott, son of astronaut Owen Garriott, developed and released the very first computer roleplaying game, Akalabeth: World of Doom, which I found surprisingly decent for the grandfather of one of my favorite gaming genres. It would later see rerelease alongside its sequel series, Ultima, whose first installment, retroactively titled Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, would in contemporary times find new life as a digital release through Given its inclusion alongside its first two sequels for the generous price of around $5, I took a chance on the forefathers of the franchise, a decision I definitely don’t regret.

When starting a new game, the player can create a singular playable protagonist from among several races and classes that dictate starting stats and things such as whether the created character can use certain magic spells. Visible enemies randomly wander the overworld, and when the player’s character sprite is in range, one tile from a foe or at most three if equipped with a ranged weapon, they can press the A key and input one of four cardinal directions to execute a standard attack. Enemies can, of course, counterattack if they’re in range as well, and as with just about any RPG new or old, the loss of all health results in death, and in Ultima I’s case, the player restarts with a little HP at a castle.

Killing enemies, on the other hand, nets the player experience and money, with level-ups occurring every thousand experience points, although unlike most other RPGs, there really isn’t much benefit to higher levels, with the player’s hit points more critical to success in the game. How, then, does one raise their health? By eradicating foes in dungeons and then exiting, which rewards HP dependent upon how many creatures the player has slain. Another facet to consider is food, of which the player must keep a good supply, else perish from consuming it all, with depletion occurring regularly as the hero or heroine wanders the overworld.

Players can also obtain various means of transportation across the overworld’s four continents, such as horse and aircar, whose use slows the consumption of food, mercifully buyable in towns for a fair price depending upon the amount purchased. Another form of conveyance the player must use to complete the central storyline is a shuttle, necessary to enter outer space, where destroying twenty enemy ships through first-person combat makes the hero or heroine an ace, a title needed to win the game. Trying to fire lasers at enemies can be tough at times, given their constant movement, sudden change of position, and the inability to move the crosshairs diagonally (though players can recenter it with the spacebar).

Back to character development, Ultima I also has an interesting form of stat development, with the player increasing all stats except strength by reading one of eight signposts spread throughout the world, two per continent. One of said signposts gives the player the weakest weapon currently not in their inventory, so players may wish to hold off on selling weapons. In order to exploit stat advancement through these signs, the player mustn’t read the same one twice in a row. As for the other stat, strength, the player builds it by completing quests from kings in one of two castles on each continent, one involving reading a certain sign, and the other involving killing a specific foe in a dungeon.

The game mechanics generally work well, especially for a game whose original version released in the early 1980s, even more so than in contemporary roleplaying games, given the simplicity, lack of complex elements from tabletop RPGs of the time, and growth systems that remain unique even today. Granted, one may need to use a guide to understand how the battle system works in the first place, and there are some other issues such as the hero or heroine still receiving damage from enemies while turning direction in the first-person dungeons, and a cheap monster in the third and fourth levels of the dungeon that can destroy the character’s armor. Regardless, the original Ultima largely succeeds with its “keep it simple, stupid” philosophy of gameplay.

Given that the first entry was one of the first open-world games, direction on how to advance the narrative can be poor and necessitate a guide, but there are positives like the unlimited inventory, given that items are stackable, the fact that each dungeon has the same layout in a single playthrough, the existence of magic that allows the player instant ascent or descent through a dungeon’s floors, and the like. Granted, said magic can occasionally lead the player to get stuck in between laser barriers and need to reload, saving only allowed on the overworld, and the top-down outer space movement is somewhat awkward. Ultimately, Ultima I is slightly on the positive end of user-friendly.

As is expectant from a title of its time, the game’s narrative isn’t anything much to write home about, with much of the backstory relayed in the manual provided with the game, the player’s character generally being blank slate, and most plot development occurring in its latter portion, with what little story there is being generally decent, aside from the damsel-in-distress trope. One could correctly argue that the plot isn’t thrown in the player’s face unlike quite a few later RPGs, and in the end, despite the minimalist presentation, the storyline comes across as passable.

The sound isn’t anything about which to write home, either, given the total absence of music, the only effects coming in the form of blips and other generic computer sounds, although those during the space exploration sequences are good. Things could have definitely been worse, since there are rare cases where a game’s soundtrack isn’t good at all, and the original Ultima is still easy on the ears.

The graphics look okay for a game originally released in the early 1980s, with simple character sprites on the overworld and in towns, the colors being good, and the player’s protagonist and NPCs having decent anatomy despite their small size. There don’t seem to be any reskinned enemies, and another quirk is that within the first-person dungeons, foes show in different volumes depending upon how close or far they are from the player. Still, the dungeons are totally black and white with red laser barriers, and there’s no distinction of scenery within them, either. Probably the high point of the visuals is the title screen, and while they certainly aren’t an eyesore, they could have certainly been better.

Finally, the first game is fairly short, around three to six hours, with decent replay value in the form of different races and occupations to play as, not to mention the mild enjoyability of grinding, although there isn’t any narrative variation, and doesn’t have any achievements for the modern port.

In summation, I had a decent time with Ultima I, given its simple but quick game mechanics, half-decent control, okay visuals for the game’s time, and some semblance of replayability, although the other aspects come across as average, including the barebones narrative and the lack of music. It was very likely a good game for its time, while it admittedly hasn’t aged well, I very much found it preferrable to many more contemporary Western RPGs, particularly those that have roots in convoluted tabletop roleplaying games. The financial and temporal investments aren’t terribly burdensome, so it definitely wouldn’t hurt to try, but definitely don’t go into it blind.

This review is based on a playthrough of the version downloaded from alongside the second and third games as a human fighter.

The Good:
+Surprisingly good, simple game mechanics.
+No limited inventory space to worry about.
+A little lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Minimalist storytelling.
-No music.
-Graphics could have been better.

The Bottom Line:
A half-decent start to the Ultima series.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PC (
Game Mechanics: 7.5/10
Controls: 6.0/10
Story: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 5.0/10
Graphics: 6.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 6.5/10
Difficulty: Relatively easy if using the internet.
Playing Time: 3-6 Hours

Overall: 6.0/10

The Road to Dune


This combination of fiction and nonfiction opens with a long list of acknowledgements, including members of the Herbert family, and opens with a foreword by Bill Ransom that mentions Frank Herbert lived a fun life and was humorous, hailing from the Puyallup Valley in Washington State. The fathers of Herbert and Ransom were in law enforcement, with the latter moving to Port Townsend in the early seventies. William Faulkner is said to be one of the influences of Herbert, with the writer’s wife Beverly Stuart Herbert dying of cancer while Ransom went through a divorce, with the memories of Herbert and his wife living on.

Following the foreword and the preface in which it is said that Frank Herbert kept much documentation on the Duniverse and partially-written manuscripts is a precursor to the original Dune entitled Spice Planet, with Brian Herbert saying that he researched his father’s mythology carefully before formulating his own Dune stories, with Spice Planet having many different names for the characters that would ultimately find their way into the initial Dune. The novel itself opens with a fictitious quote in its first chapter, as do subsequent sections, with protagonist Jesse Linkam suspecting that the news must be important with an Imperial vessel touching down in Catalan’s spaceport.

Jesse is a foremost aristocrat, and wants Counselor Ulla Bauers to accept him as he is. The Counselor wants Jesse to pack for a return to Renaissance, with Grand Emperor Wuda wanting him to give a report on the production of spice on Duneworld. Dorothy Mapes is Jesse’s concubine and business partner, and it is mentioned that Jesse’s father, among others, nearly brought House Linkam to ruin. Bauers’ ship transports Jesse and his entourage to Renaissance, a wealthy planet, where the Emperor sees both Jesse and his chief rival, Valdemar Hoskanner, with a spice production contest proposed between the antagonistic Houses, which Jesse accepts.

As an advance guard for the new Linkam operations, General Esmar Tuek and a hundred Catalan men arrive on Duneworld, with William English as a spice-crew manager, having been a prisoner on the penal planet Eridanus V, although the Emperor and Hoskanners offered him amnesty. It is further said that sand geysers and giant sandworms threaten spice operations. Dorothy Mapes is ultimate introduced, who wants full devotion to Duneworld, and while she and Jesse aren’t officially wed, they have a son named Barri, alongside an entertainer named Gurney Halleck, with the young boy missing Catalan.

Throughout their spice operations, the Linkams suspect Hoskanner sabotage, alongside natural crises such as sandworms attacking, although despite these dangers, Jesse brings along Barri to help survey spice operations. Sure enough, Imperial ambassadors find Linkam spice operations to be below standards, and Jesse thus seeks to rectify working conditions, with propositions for dealing with the sandworms as well. There are some occasional twists in the story towards the end, with the novel ending on a positive note alongside the maxim that true nobility is not a birthright, but rather must be earned by individuals.

The book moves back to nonfiction with the section “They Stopped the Moving Sands,” with Frank Herbert flying to Florence, Oregon in 1957 to write an article for the USDA about sand dune stabilization, potentially useful for Sahara Desert inhabitants, with sand dunes in the State swallowing cities, roads, and so forth. It was proposed that European beach grass could stop the destruction of the dunes, with more than eleven thousand other grass types proposed but ineffective, although Herbert’s report was criticized for more describing the adversity of the sand dunes rather than the battle against them, and the author urged to give the story to a more interested American editor.

Following this is a series of letters between Frank Herbert, prospective editors, and fellow authors, with the original version of Dune said to be rejected due to daunting length, and the final product barely resembling the final product. Herbert’s ambitious novel won several awards, with the writer himself having an interest in climate ecology. Afterward is a series of unpublished scenes and chapters from Dune and its sequel Dune Messiah, such as interactions between protagonist Paul Atreides and various characters, deleted chapters, and so forth.

After that comes a series of short stories beginning with “A Whisper of Caladan Seas,” which when published in 1999 marked the first Dune story written since Frank Herbert’s death thirteen years earlier, occurring concurrently with the Harkonnen attack on Arrakeen in the original Dune. The narrative itself occurs on Arrakis in the year 10,191 of the Imperial Calendar, with soldiers for House Atreides surviving an onslaught in a Shield Wall, with characters such as Elto Vitt and his uncle Sergeant Hoh Vitt. The short story does a nice job describing the conditions of the conflict and reveals backstory for the Vitts, ending on a negative note.

“Hunting Harkonnens” introduces the world of the epic Butlerian Jihad that long predates the original Dune, with ancestors of the Atreides and Harkonnens families battling machines with human minds. The short story opens with a Harkonnen craft leaving family-held industries on Hagal, Salusa Secundus as their destination, with Ulf Harkonnen as the pilot, having an adult son named Piers and a wife named Katarina. Cymeks, hybrid machines with human minds, attack, with Piers punished by being sealed in a lifepod that ejects from his family’s ship, and he lands among Caladan primitives. The narrative is ultimately enjoyable.

“Whipping Mek” occurs between The Butlerian Jihad and The Machine Crusade, opening with a Jihad warship arriving at Giedi Prime with expectant news of victory against the machines, although Vergyl Tantor believes the defense of the Peridot Colony didn’t go well, with Xavier Harkonnen as his adoptive brother, and the Jihad beginning with the infant son of Serena Butler and Xavier, Manion, killed by machines. Vergyl himself has a wife named Sheel, with the defeat at Peridot seen as a moral victory, and Xavier not wanting his friend to involve himself in the war, although he does allow him noncombat roles in repair and recharging, the titular mek making for practice against battle with machines. Another enjoyable prequel story.

“The Faces of a Martyr” occurs between The Machine Crusade and The Battle of Corrin, with the mention that mad scientist Rekur Van fled a lynch mob on his homeworld, with missing soldiers and Zensunni slaves said to be carved up to provide replacement parts for wounded warriors. Meanwhile, the robot Erasmus studies human emotion, finding their inherit goodness and hatching a plan to clone Serena Butler. Vorian Atreides receives an invitation from the widow of the Grand Patriarch, Camie Boro-Ginjo, who blames Xavier Harkonnen for her husband’s death. The story satisfactorily ends with a recall of sacrifice by friends.

“Sea Child” is the final tale in the book, occurring at the terminus of the Dune saga, with initial mention that Bene Gesserit punishments must have inescapable lessons, the Honored Matres conquering the planet Buzzell, and Sister Corysta, a disgraced Reverend Mother, caring for a phibian baby, which she doesn’t want to turn over to Monaya. The surviving members of the order are tortured for the location of the world of Chapterhouse, hidden homeworld of the Bene Gesserits, with further backstory exposed in the Famine Times after the death of Leto II, God Emperor of Dune. A bittersweet ending concludes this enjoyable Dune short story.

The anthology is dedicated to Beverly Herbert, with her husband Frank having completed Chapterhouse: Dune when she was dying in Hawaii, with Jessica Atreides based on her. Overall, this is an enjoyable book that gives some insight into the Duniverse, with the novel Spice Planet being a good precursor to the final version of Herbert’s original Dune. It even warrants rereads when those such as this reviewer choose to read the Dune saga in chronological order, and is definitely a good diving board for the average reader into the beloved science-fiction saga.

Mulan (1998)


The original animated film on which the live-action remake a little over a score later was based, following the eponymous heroine, Fa Mulan (or Hua Mulan, depending on your preferred style of Chinese), who wishes to take her ailing father's place in the Chinese army by masquerading as a man, and has the companionship of the diminutive Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon Mushu, who serves as the main comic relief, as do the spirits of Mulan's ancestors (and I spotted during one of their scenes a reference to Grant Wood's iconic painting "American Gothic"). The Emperor's dialogue to Mulan towards the end of the film was definitely the high point of the writing, and while the film of course takes liberties with the original legend, I definitely enjoyed this, and the music, particularly "When Will My Reflection Show?" was memorable.