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1/06/2015

Spoony Plays Ultima VII: The Black Gate, Part 0: Getting the goddamn game to run in the 90s

In lieu of the usual character generation/import thing that usually goes here (a bit pointless since Ultima VII pares it down to a simple name and gender choice), I will instead regail you with a slice of the hell that a 90s gamer had to go through to play Ultima VII!

First of all, you needed a pretty beefy machine for 1994 just to run the thing; 386 + 2 megs of RAM was the stated minimum, but anything under a 486 + 4 MB ram and a decent disk cache ran slow as molasses (assuming it ran at all).  That was a recurring trend for most of the series, but especially evident in Ultima VII since there was a four year gap between it and 6.

If you tried to play the game after 1995, you also faced problems because the game hated - HATED - Microsoft's resident memory manager, EMM386.  Ultima VII would adamantly refuse to load if it spotted EMM386 in memory, insisting on using its own proprietary one instead.  So you either had to create a boot disk and do a clean boot into DOS or find a clever workaround to temporarily suspend the program.

Oh, and woe if you were trying to run it on a newer machine too, as it would run too quickly to be reasonably playable (having no built-in frame limiter like many of its predecessors) and it was incompatible with many newer sound cards as well!

Then you start the game up and - whoa no - there's no mouse cursor.  Instead, you're stuck painstakingly moving the pointer around the screen one pixel at a time via the arrow keys.  It's not because your machine is defective, it's because Origin didn't bother including a driver for it, so you either had to provide your own or just give up playing the game...

But even if you managed to have a decent machine to play it on, jumped through all of its technical hoops and launch the game, your problems were just beginning.  If your sound card wasn't 100% compatible, you'd get tinny or no music and the voice samples wouldn't play right.  In particular, I recall the Guardian's opening speech never playing properly on my machine; he would just belt out "AVA--" followed by a minute of lip-flapping silence.  It wasn't too much of a concern in-game as you could turn off the voices to have them appear on the screen in subtitles, but you were still missing out on part of the experience.

Then came the bugs.  Oh yes, the bugs.  From the game's display shaking off the bottom of the screen due to an improper graphics chip to random lockups in arbitrary spots (I recall one particular tile in Britannia that would always freeze the game if I stepped on it diagonally.  Every single time) to ones that were actually a bit funny, such as walls vanishing from Castle Britannia and leaving tapestries and paintings and doors suspended in midair.  One particularly infamous bug in early releases would also cause keys or other items to vanish from your inventory as you slept, which could potentially leave the game in an unwinnable state.  This was before the Internet was widespread too, making getting ahold of a game-fixing patch a significant issue...

Thankfully we now have a much better alternative in DOSBox, where almost any modern machine can run a full-fledged emulation of a 90s gaming PC to the last detail.  You don't even have to fiddle with IRQs or memory managers or drivers or installing different sound cards anymore; just tweak a few options in the configuration file and you should be up and running in no time.   Ultima VII is still a relatively buggy game, but it is generally a much more pleasant experience when you don't have to worry about arbitrary lock-ups or losing items out of the blue...