The Wheel of Dubious RPGs Episode 019-021: Ultima IX, Dungeon Hack, and Dungeon Lords

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ArbitraryWater

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Edited By ArbitraryWater

Ultima IX: Ascension

THEY KILLED Mass Effect ULTIMA
THEY KILLED Mass Effect ULTIMA

Developer: Origin Systems (RIP)

Release Date: November 23, 1999

Time Played: A little over 3 ½ hours

Dubiosity: 5 out of 5. You might be able to convince me that it’s a 4 by simple value of “it’s pretty playable” but from a historical angle I can’t say anything less than a 5.

Virtues: 1 out of 8 (Sacrifice, probably)

Would I play more? You know, I’d rather play this weird franchise-killing piece of shit over more than half the other games I’ve played for this feature and I don’t know what that says about me.

Of every single game I’ve played on this feature so far, I cannot think of one more infamous than Ultima IX, the game that not only killed the Ultima franchise, but also killed Origin Systems after its disastrous release. It’s also, to be entirely honest, exactly the kind of garbage I want for this feature. I enjoyed my time with Ultima IX, not because it’s a good game, but because it’s the perfect combination of what I want out of a stream fodder dubious RPG. It’s an ambitious game from a renowned series which whiffs massively on execution, trying to appeal to both series fans and newcomers without quite managing either. It fundamentally misunderstands the Ultima series’ core themes and ideas, which sure is a problem given that it’s the conclusion to the franchise. I’m someone who deeply respects Ultima from afar, but as someone who wasn’t alive on this planet when most of the series’ games came out, I’ve found going back to them to be quite difficult. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take being an Ultima Expert to know why this game seems like “a real bummer” while still being the exact level of bullshit I’m willing to tolerate in an RPG like this.

Like most Ultima games, this one starts on Earth before a magical gypsy wagon(??!?) helps you determine The Avatar's class.
Like most Ultima games, this one starts on Earth before a magical gypsy wagon(??!?) helps you determine The Avatar's class.

A lot has been said about Ultima IX’s troubled development by the people who worked on it, Richard Garriott especially. In case you needed a reminder that Electronic Arts’ history of driving talented studios into the dirt goes back decades, look no further than Ultima IX’s “Holiday 1999 or bust” release date leading to massive swaths of cut content. I can’t speak to “what could’ve been” but the game as it is now is a little fascinating? Ultima IX brings a top-down party-based isometric series into the realm of a 3D, third person, single character, action-RPG. I think the transition would’ve been awkward even if the ideal version of this game had come into the world, but regardless the game that does exist is sort of fascinating in a “they were still figuring things out” sort of way. As my recent rude awakening revisiting Mario 64 has reminded me, game developers were still very much figuring out how games controlled in a 3D space during the mid-late 90s, and Ultima IX’s mouse-centric, utterly baffling UI and inventory management is no different. I am on the record as being entirely pro-Paper Doll inventory, but Ultima IX goes one step further by just asking you to awkwardly drag and drop equipment onto (your avatar) The Avatar. I think it’s supposed to be accessible? Accessible for whom I’m not entirely clear, but one gets the impression that putting most functions to the mouse was meant to make the game *easier* to handle.

Pictured: Lord British, thinking about making Tabula Rasa and going to space
Pictured: Lord British, thinking about making Tabula Rasa and going to space

Anyway, there are also some rudimentary physics and particle interactions in Ultima IX, which continues a lot of ideas established in games like Ultima VII, and are pretty impressive for the time period. You can light and extinguish torches, blow some things over with wind, or toss an infinite number of rocks at a stupid rat while your game audio redlines on stream. What are these mechanics in service of? Sub-Zelda dungeoneering puzzles, it turns out. Did you want platforming in your RPG? No? Well there’s platforming in Ultima IX, alongside an abundance of “what if you pressed this button” or “what if you lit all the torches in this room” style design. Alongside combat that mostly consists of ineffectually clicking on enemies to whack them, there are ideas at play here, most of which are in service of very simple, somewhat janky solutions.

The story of Ultima IX, in which the villainous Guardian has corrupted the eight virtues of Brittonia, is particularly derided by the fanbase with the way it handles and concludes the long-running series. As a relative Ultima neophyte, the idea of a (particularly clueless) Avatar bumbling around and solving people who are now “opposite day” versions of their city’s particular virtue is very funny, alongside an abundance of full voice acting that can only be described as “of its time.” It seems poor, and a pretty obvious step down from what I’ve seen of prior games, even going back as far as something like Ultima VII, but for my twisted purposes it seems the exact right amount of dumb to be entertaining. This game is not some hidden gem. It’s not a misunderstood hidden classic, but nor is it an irredeemable trash fire like I was led to believe. I had a good time with Ultima IX. You should not play Ultima IX.

Dungeon Hack

More like...
More like... "Done with this game-geon" Hack

Developer: Dreamforge Intertainment

Release Date: Couldn’t find a clear release date. 1994ish?

Time Played: Exactly one run on stream, which was about 30 minutes.

Dubiosity: 4 out of 5

Would I play more? I shouldn’t have put this game on the list in the first place.

Dungeon Hack is a procedurally generated solo dungeon crawler using the Eye of the Beholder III engine. If you ever wanted the side-stepping, switch-hitting, item juggling magic of a “Dungeon Master-like” without bespoke level design or puzzles, then boy do I have the game for you! The combination of having to manage only one character and the lack of interesting gimmicks within those proc gen levels means I lasted about half an hour with Dungeon Hack before I decided I’d had enough. Doesn’t seem especially well-advised, or interesting enough to make any sort of content about, but for the sake of completion I will record that I played it. Honestly, should’ve probably put something else on the wheel, but it’s a learning experience for all involved.

Dungeon Lords

This is a real video game that really was on store shelves and was really sold for money, and not just the $3.74 I paid for it during a Steam Sale
This is a real video game that really was on store shelves and was really sold for money, and not just the $3.74 I paid for it during a Steam Sale

Developer: Heuristic Park

Release Date: May 5, 2005

Time Played: About two hours on stream (about four hours total)

Dubiosity: 5 out of 5

Clickiosity: I had to take some tylenol so my arm wouldn’t hurt

Would I play more? Hahahahahhahahahahah maybe

For this feature, I’ve made a deliberate attempt to avoid a lot of smaller independent games, as that feels a little like punching down on small teams or low-hanging fruit. One of the reasons why something like Inquisitor, an ambitious, earnest, and misguided piece of shit, hasn’t been featured (other than the part where I never want to play it again) is because it wasn’t a big, full-price release (that said it might get its own “hall of fame stream” depending on how things go) No doubt there are plenty of questionable RPGs once you get into the indie space, and especially the realm of stuff like RPGmaker, but I’m not really interested in dunking on those. In any case, if things like this next game are any proof, there are still plenty of boxed retail video games put out by actual publishers that are more than capable of filling my dubious needs.

Okay, so you know how I have a lot of very nice things to say about Wizards and Warriors despite the game itself being more than a little janky and not much of a looker? Now imagine, if you will, all of the esoteric jank that made Wizards and Warriors charming, but with the bizarre levels cranked up all the way and the actual mechanics replaced with incessant clicking. That’s right! It’s another game from Heuristic Park, the studio that noted CRPG alumni David W. Bradley founded after his departure from Sir Tech and the Wizardry series. The pedigree is there, the lineage is evident, but also this fills all the quotas for “weird, obscure, and questionable” you could possibly imagine.

Not Pictured: Me going
Not Pictured: Me going "Waht" constantly

I say, without equivocation or exaggeration, that Dungeon Lords is the single most dubious game I’ve played for this feature. I mean that in the sense that it’s a bizarre hack-n-slash attempt at “modernizing” the classical CRPG dungeon crawler, built on the corpse of a canceled MMO. BUT ALSO, It’s basically broken-ass Diablo Musou with the deep class building mechanics of D.W. Bradley’s other games, and you can absolutely subject other humans to it. Sure it doesn’t seem like it has an active player-base, but if you're that one guy who was hosting a server when I was streaming I would not be opposed to seeing what this game is like with eight people. Quests and environments seem to be a little more crafted and bespoke than your average “looter slasher” (back off Godfall) but instead of random encounters enemies will continually spawn at a fixed rate. Basically, imagine a constant stream of rat gank squads coming after you, with questionable, poorly-mixed audio design and a MMO hotbar of spells and abilities as you fill up your inventory with vendor trash, BUT ALSO you can do a bunch of ridiculous, dense multiclassing nonsense like you were playing Wizardry 7. It somehow manages to be profoundly mindless and surprisingly in-depth at the same time; an enviable feat.

Not pictured: roughly a dozen rats spawning out of nowhere for you to click on rapidly
Not pictured: roughly a dozen rats spawning out of nowhere for you to click on rapidly

Needless to say, it seems like it’s the product of a troubled development, and no amount of reworking (the steam version that I played is the second revision of this game) makes it seem like a great time. Playing Dungeon Lords feels like playing a fake video game, or maybe someone’s canceled, unfinished prototype that wasn’t supposed to be launched. The MMO skeleton is obvious, but the weird ways they tried to combine that with classical genre tropes is one of the more baffling things I’ve seen, and I’ve played a lot of Eurojank recently. Genuinely, for something I bought for under $5, it’s the closest any game on this feature has come to a fever dream. There’s also nothing else quite like it, which is why in spite of it clearly being, uh, not good, I wouldn’t be opposed to trying more of it.

Or not. Maybe I should just play a nice, relaxing game of... uh. Well, what do I play now? I got what I needed out of Hades, I got all 120 stars in Mario 64 after 23 years. Uhhhhhhhh. Maybe I'll get back to Dragon Age II? Nope. Nah. Not right now. Maybe. We'll see. Maybe I'll start streaming Troubleshooter or any number of guilty backlog games. Until then, take care of yourself.

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Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader and Divinity II: The Dragon Knight SagaSepterra Core: Legacy of the Creator and Drakensang: The Dark Eye
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Efesell

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I kinda like that mimic though.

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Relkin

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Ultima 9 seems like something I have to play at some point; I probably own in it on GOG, and yeah if you removed the HUD from Dungeon Lords it totally looks like another fake game that's briefly on screen in some cable crime procedural.

Was this the climax of this ill-fated endeavor of yours? Two 5/5's more or less back to back is going to be hard to top. I mean, I'm really looking forward to Drakensang, but I suspect things like Septerra Core and Thunderscape aren't going to...bring it in the same way these games did.

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Justin258

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Let's Player Kikoskia did a series on Ultima IX, which he either recently finished or is almost finished with. I watched a surprising amount of it while doing various things and yeah, that definitely looks like the kind of game that does horrible, unspeakable things to a franchise.

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#4 Mento  Moderator

Sometimes I wonder if the only reason we don't have a Wizardry 9 is because Ultima 9 and Might & Magic 9 exist. Unless you're Final Fantasy or Tales, 9 is one too many.

Man, I hope Ys 9 is good...

(Dungeon Hack was a real weird, potentially fun idea but I wish they'd balanced it for a party. It does get a bit tedious just having one guy in a D&D setting, even if you make them a Fighter/Cleric/Mage.)

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Onemanarmyy

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I totally played some Ultima IX from some demo CD. Had no knowledge of Ultima whatsoever and was still in that phase where any 3d RPG wowed me. So yeah, i remember being mostly clueless about what i was supposed to do, but just going out in the world and finding cool stuff was exciting already. I think this was one of the demo's that made me interested in something like Summoner.

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ValorianEndymion

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#6  Edited By ValorianEndymion

The thing about Dungeon Hack, is how by accident it points how this more free movement style of Dungeon Crawler depend on balance of many aspects. Like simple having a single character make the whole side step or back step in a tedious process, specially if you play with anything outside Fighter, Cleric, Ranger, Paladin or variations.

The dungeon customization for the time works sort fine and at least allow you to set something so your class choice won't hurt much (like disable draining levels or water levels in case you play as thief or something else).

Some small fun facts I just remember about the game:

  • Playing as Cleric or Cleric/Anything was a sort of easy mode, due spell such as Create Food (which solve all food problems and free space in the inventory), Healing (which speed things a lot) but more than anything: Spiritual Hammer, in the tabletop and most game is sort useless, but here, its amazing because is a ranged attack (you throw the hammer, but it returns to you) which cause damage twice (as hit the enemy and returns, at least if memory didn't fail me). This mean you can hit enemies with a range attack for most of the game if not all of it.
  • Later levels you do find some artifacts.
  • One dungeon customization option is allow enemy spellcasters, which amazing because due AD&D rules, any monster or enemy which cast spells give a lot of XP and if you enable the option, at least one level will be full of them, but their spell are too weak and you get a lot of XP.
  • Sometimes you can run entire levels filled with oozes which eat weapons, which were quite annoying.

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Genessee

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#7 Genessee  Online

@mento said:

Sometimes I wonder if the only reason we don't have a Wizardry 9 is because Ultima 9 and Might & Magic 9 exist. Unless you're Final Fantasy or Tales, 9 is one too many.

Man, I hope Ys 9 is good...

(Dungeon Hack was a real weird, potentially fun idea but I wish they'd balanced it for a party. It does get a bit tedious just having one guy in a D&D setting, even if you make them a Fighter/Cleric/Mage.)

All Grid 'Em Ups which feature a single character can get REAL dicey, period. Like 4-teamers can be deriative or feature-poor but maaaaaaaaaaan those singles most of the time.

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ArbitraryWater

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@relkin said:

Ultima 9 seems like something I have to play at some point; I probably own in it on GOG, and yeah if you removed the HUD from Dungeon Lords it totally looks like another fake game that's briefly on screen in some cable crime procedural.

Was this the climax of this ill-fated endeavor of yours? Two 5/5's more or less back to back is going to be hard to top. I mean, I'm really looking forward to Drakensang, but I suspect things like Septerra Core and Thunderscape aren't going to...bring it in the same way these games did.

This is 100% going to be the high point of dubiosity for this feature, although the I think we still have a couple of bangers left. Predicting it now: Thunderscape is going to be the game to watch. Might and Magic IX is also a blatantly unfinished, ugly, janky mess, but that stream is just going to be 2-5 hours of me saying "this isn't so baaaaad, look!" before you all look on in disbelief and I finish the game in front of you. Also very interested in giving Storm of Zehir an earnest shot, because I remember it having ideas,and then executing on those ideas poorly.

Let's Player Kikoskia did a series on Ultima IX, which he either recently finished or is almost finished with. I watched a surprising amount of it while doing various things and yeah, that definitely looks like the kind of game that does horrible, unspeakable things to a franchise.

I saw that, and I think Kiko's playthrough is going to be the thing that saves me from attempting to play much more Ultima IX.

@mento said:

Sometimes I wonder if the only reason we don't have a Wizardry 9 is because Ultima 9 and Might & Magic 9 exist. Unless you're Final Fantasy or Tales, 9 is one too many.

Man, I hope Ys 9 is good...

(Dungeon Hack was a real weird, potentially fun idea but I wish they'd balanced it for a party. It does get a bit tedious just having one guy in a D&D setting, even if you make them a Fighter/Cleric/Mage.)

To be clear I played more than the one run I did on stream and I think it's a lot of neat ideas, but doing a solo character bit with AD&D rules isn't the most thrilling thing in the world, especially with how featureless a lot of Dungeon Hack's randomly generated environments are.

The thing about Dungeon Hack, is how by accident it points how this more free movement style of Dungeon Crawler depend on balance of many aspects. Like simple having a single character make the whole side step or back step in a tedious process, specially if you play with anything outside Fighter, Cleric, Ranger, Paladin or variations.

The dungeon customization for the time works sort fine and at least allow you to set something so your class choice won't hurt much (like disable draining levels or water levels in case you play as thief or something else).

Some small fun facts I just remember about the game:

  • Playing as Cleric or Cleric/Anything was a sort of easy mode, due spell such as Create Food (which solve all food problems and free space in the inventory), Healing (which speed things a lot) but more than anything: Spiritual Hammer, in the tabletop and most game is sort useless, but here, its amazing because is a ranged attack (you throw the hammer, but it returns to you) which cause damage twice (as hit the enemy and returns, at least if memory didn't fail me). This mean you can hit enemies with a range attack for most of the game if not all of it.
  • Later levels you do find some artifacts.
  • One dungeon customization option is allow enemy spellcasters, which amazing because due AD&D rules, any monster or enemy which cast spells give a lot of XP and if you enable the option, at least one level will be full of them, but their spell are too weak and you get a lot of XP.
  • Sometimes you can run entire levels filled with oozes which eat weapons, which were quite annoying.

I wouldn't be opposed to playing more of it, but I think it's definitely more of an *interesting novelty* than a true dubious RPG. I bet going through Dungeon Hack as a pure-class mage, bard, or thief would be an experience though. A bad experience.

@genessee said:
@mento said:

Sometimes I wonder if the only reason we don't have a Wizardry 9 is because Ultima 9 and Might & Magic 9 exist. Unless you're Final Fantasy or Tales, 9 is one too many.

Man, I hope Ys 9 is good...

(Dungeon Hack was a real weird, potentially fun idea but I wish they'd balanced it for a party. It does get a bit tedious just having one guy in a D&D setting, even if you make them a Fighter/Cleric/Mage.)

All Grid 'Em Ups which feature a single character can get REAL dicey, period. Like 4-teamers can be deriative or feature-poor but maaaaaaaaaaan those singles most of the time.

Vaporum does the solo character "Side-Stepping, Rock-Dropping, Real-Time Square Dancer" well.... and that's about all I can think of.

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Genessee

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#9 Genessee  Online


@genessee said:
@mento said:

Sometimes I wonder if the only reason we don't have a Wizardry 9 is because Ultima 9 and Might & Magic 9 exist. Unless you're Final Fantasy or Tales, 9 is one too many.

Man, I hope Ys 9 is good...

(Dungeon Hack was a real weird, potentially fun idea but I wish they'd balanced it for a party. It does get a bit tedious just having one guy in a D&D setting, even if you make them a Fighter/Cleric/Mage.)

All Grid 'Em Ups which feature a single character can get REAL dicey, period. Like 4-teamers can be deriative or feature-poor but maaaaaaaaaaan those singles most of the time.

Vaporum does the solo character "Side-Stepping, Rock-Dropping, Real-Time Square Dancer" well.... and that's about all I can think of.

That was one I was talking about! lol

Monster-Closety and ran out of fresh ideas for fights/puzzles very very quickly. "Here, we'll have a dude with a shotty silently hide down a hallway you cleared long ago, we saved the back half of Level 6!"

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ValorianEndymion

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#10  Edited By ValorianEndymion

@arbitrarywater ....I wouldn't be opposed to playing more of it, but I think it's definitely more of an *interesting novelty* than a true dubious RPG. I bet going through Dungeon Hack as a pure-class mage, bard, or thief would be an experience though. A bad experience

I tried playing as mage and the experience was not great, despite the game allow you to start at level 5, you still have to struggle to with the opening the spellbook, finding the spell and cast it and doing it fast was hard.

Also, you need to rest a lot more to replenish your spell too and since you now no longer have a party, you can't just let the other party member do the work you until you rest. So there goes your food supply...

Now thieves can pick locks... but because the game always generate all the keys you need, you mostly like never bother picking locks anyway. Bards had their instruments, which was nice but nothing amazing too. Both of them due their low chances to hit and damage had to do a lot of the side/back step stuff like a billion of times more.

Oh, I just forget, unless you had access to identify items, half of the time you have no idea what you are using or how many charges were left. There were some ways for other classes identify items, but it was rare.

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I remember playing U9 during high school in the 2000s but never got the satisfaction of 'finishing' it due to a game breaking bug stopping the ending sequence from playing. As it was my first experience of Ultima games it made me realize what was so great about Ultima, but also how messy that period was for 3D open world games and shitty publisher influence. Fortunately it left me thirsty for more fantasy RPG content which led me to discovering Morrowind GOTY edition :D

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