Sunday, August 30, 2015

Game Boy RPG Series: Ultima: Runes of Virtue

I play a lot of handheld games, and I love RPGs. I've made it my mission to play and review every RPG released in the USA for the Game Boy and Game Boy Color consoles. My goal is to be able to experience these games and enlighten my fellow handheld collectors on their strengths and weaknesses. These games will be played in the order I find and acquire them. If you have any suggestions for games I should be on the lookout for, let me know.

Ultima: Runes of Virtue

It's time for another review of a Game Boy classic. Fans of Ultima take note; Runes of Virtue was developed by a Japanese studio looking to make a completely different game as a spinoff of the main series. While Ultima: Runes of Virtue (Or URV, as it will be referred to from here on out) is an adventure puzzle game that more closely resembles the original Legend of Zelda than it does it's RPG counterparts on the PC, URV has made it onto multiple lists of Game Boy RPGs online, and thus it and it's sequel are going to be featured on the Game Boy RPG Series. 

URV begins by giving you a choice between four heroes, Mariah, Iolo, Dupre, and Shamino. Each character has their own unique combination of strength, intelligence, and dexterity - along with a different starting weapon. Once your character has been chosen, Lord British fills you in on the story- The Black Knight has stolen the eight Runes of Virtue and it's up to you to travel Britannia and get them back.

The gameplay of URV is where the Legend of Zelda influence becomes very clear. Leave the castle, find a dungeon, move from room to room solving puzzles until you reach the rune at the end, which grants upgrades to your stats. Rinse and repeat. As you go you'll find weapons and armor, along with items that allow you to move to areas you couldn't access before. The world is also dotted with occasional NPCs who leave cryptic hints to help you along. Sound familiar? Of course, the games aren't identical. One of the big differences between the two is movement. URV uses a tile-based movement system where your character moves from space to space like a lot of more traditional RPGs. I think for this game it was the right choice. With the sheer amount of puzzles to work with and enemies to fight, it helps to know exactly how far your character will travel with each press of the d-pad. 

The standout feature of URV is it's punishing difficulty. This game is mindtwistingly, headsmashingly, Game-Boy-thrown-across-the-room-and-putting-a-hole-in-the-wallingly challenging. Most games of this type focus heavily on the trial-and-error aspect. Once you figure out how to get through a room, you can get through it pretty easily the next time if you have to backtrack. Not this game. No sir. On top of the headscratching puzzles are hordes of powerful enemies that will end you in a heartbeat. While the early part of the game wasn't too bad, the last few dungeons were nothing short of an ordeal to get through.

But enough about the difficulty and how it almost put me off playing games for the whole summer. Let's talk about graphics. For a puzzle-based game, URV's graphics do the job. They're simple and clear enough that objects can be easily distinguished. While they're nothing to write home about, they're about on par with other Game Boy titles released in 1991. The music and sound effects are also passable. Nothing too memorable, although the dungeon theme is still repeating itself in my head as I type this.

When reviewing a Game Boy game, it's important to take note of how well the developers built the game around the medium of portable gaming, and in this area URV has one feature that I wish more games had implemented: auto saving. Every time your character travels to another room or area, the cartridge saves your progress. There are no save points or menu saving. For a portable game this is a huge convenience. I never to think about how much time I'd be able to spend playing. I could play for two minutes or twenty and be confident that I wouldn't lose any progress. Curiously, the developers decided that dying in URV would restart the character at the beginning of the dungeon rather than at the beginning of the room they were in, leading to a strong incentive to just turn the game off every time the game over screen popped up. I think this was the wrong choice. With the sheer difficulty this game presents, starting over every time I died was just too daunting for me. I think that starting from the beginning of the room would have been an appropriate choice.

So... is URV a good game? Well, yes, maybe. Despite the poor review scores from it's 1991 release, I was impressed by the sheer amount of creative puzzles packed into the game. While it becomes extremely difficult, it never felt repetitive. However, it requires a lot of patience and determination to complete a full playthrough. This is not a game I'll likely be replaying, but if your main complaint about Legend of Zelda was that it was too easy, this might be the game for you.