ultima runes of virtue 2 (and note that i’m talking about the second one, not the first*) is a gameboy** game from 1993. i keep coming back to this game; it’s bristling with secrets. i just finished the game for my third time, and i saw things i’d never seen before, a secret pirate lagoon, a maze hidden under a town. most new players lose it when they fall in a hole in the starting castle and discover its huge basement catacombs.
the combination of the game’s scripting system, which lets any object function as a trigger for landscape-changing events, and the fact that the player’s primary means of interacting with the world – her primary verb, if you will – is simply touching things, means that anything could hide anything. touch the locker at the foot of a bed, maybe a coin appears. touch a bookcase, maybe a hidden staircase to a dungeon appears. none of the objects in the game are really consistent in scale: a see-saw is as big as a rabbit, a statue, a barrel, a cannon. the effect is to make those images into symbols in a large vocabulary, with the purpose of any single instance dependent on context.
there’s certainly a narrative sensibility to the layout of these digital castles and their tiny secrets. the lever that controls the outer gates is hidden in a suit of armor in the watchtower. this bar has a secret passage to the bartender’s bedroom. what quantifiable purpose does that passage have? none, but it adds to the texture of the world. this game world is bumpy.
the parts of the game that require finesse are clumsy – fighting monsters, pushing vases around. later, when the game starts getting hard, it can be tedious. if you play the game in a way that provides you with save states, all the better. but the appeal of the game for me is always the feeling that anything could be hidden everywhere, that every potted plant might hide a secret world beneath it.
tips for beginners: i recommend choosing shamino for starters, since he starts with a ranged weapon. most items you can assign to the A or B button on the inventory screen (press START to get there), but some items are used the moment you press a button when the cursor’s over them: bowls of soup refill hearts, potions refill stars (magic). if you move your cursor over the ankh and press B, you’ll reset the area you’re in. if you press A instead, you’ll warp back to the beginning castle. this is a great way to fuck up whatever you’re in the middle of doing. remember: B goes Back, A goes All the way back. the game doesn’t pause when you’re on this screen, by the way. monsters will chomp you. if you want to actually pause the game, try the SELECT button.
and if you’re in a deep cavern and you spot an unfamiliar ladder leading up, make sure you’ve rescued who you’ve set out to rescue before you climb it. the game saves every time you go from place to place. that’s it, go get em, hero.
* i haven’t played that much of the first game, frankly. it seems to have a similar sense of whimsy, but not as much humor or cleverness. plus you have to restart the entire dungeon whenever you run out of hearts, which is more time-consuming than seems worth it.
** there’s also a super nintendo version, made a year later, that seems visually more consistent with contemporary ultima games. to my taste, this doesn’t really suit the character of the game. and it looks pretty ugly.