Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

A Quick Revisit to Serpent Isle

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 10, 2010

I  try to devote a certain amount of time each week to playing RPGs. Yeah, it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it *g*. I do it to keep myself grounded in what’s out there, what the classics have done, what’s new, what the indies are doing, and to keep my mind working on what I love (and hate) about these games.  Old, new, console, PC, mainstream, indie – I try and play a smattering of everything (which means I don’t complete many). They are motivational, inspirational, educational, and … well, just plain fun. The last reason is probably the most important, but the other ones are how I justify it when I’m so friggin’ late getting Frayed Knights out the door.

I generally don’t have a big problem with retro-gaming. It’s not hard for me to look past the graphics of a game, and even (sometimes) the cumbersome interface. But usually I play games that I missed the first time around. It can be a little dangerous revisiting an old friend. Sometimes you don’t want to take off the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

In spite of that, I decided to expose myself to harsh reality with an old favorite. I’ve long held that Ultima 7: The Black Gate (and its expansion) is my favorite RPG. I never finished the second one, Serpent Isle, due to a game-killing bug in New Magincia Moonshade  that left me waiting forever for a message that would never arrive (UPDATE: D’oh! No wonder the message never I arrived, I was waiting on the wrong continent / world…).  The earliest save-game I felt comfortable reverting to also resulted in the same bug occuring, so I was hosed.

So I never really got to know Serpent Isle all that well.  Rather than replay The Black Gate, I figured it was finally time to load up the Exult emulator and give it a fairly serious spin in the sequel. Who knows? Maybe this time I’ll get past New Magincia.

Now, I can’t be positive that Exult is truly delivering an authentic experience, and so problems I encounter could be an artifact of the emulator rather than the original. So I kinda rely on old memories to help me out.

So far, having just beaten the Knight’s Challenge in Monitor, I have to say the experience has been a mix of wonderful and disappointing. I don’t remember if the fireballs / lightning traps were as stupidly random-feeling in the original game as this one (though it feels familiar), but the stacking / climbing puzzle? Sheesh. Sloppy and painful even when you know what you are doing. And the combat… Can I have turn-based back, please? Yeesh.  So far, I have to say the combat sucks.

And it was designed to run at around 8 frames per second. Ugh. Forgivable in a turn-based game, but in a game where you have to dodge fireballs and perform real-time combat? Sad. And yeah, I rummage through your bag each time, with the items randomly overlapping each other, has become no less painful over time.

The lack of feedback in the interface is also painful. This game also came from an era where you were expected to play the game with the manual off to the side. Otherwise, there’s no way to tell whether a mace or two-handed sword is the better weapon. There is no description of items beyond a one-word name and a low-resolution picture.

On the other hand, storyline, characters, and dialogs have been good.  It’s tough to call them “great” and compare them to modern characters and dialog.  But I really do like the keyword interface of the Ultimas. I still end up exhausting the entire conversation tree, but it does feel like I have more control over the conversation than in conventional dialog trees of today. And especially over the limited canned dialog of today.

I love how you can click on just about anything in the game and see its name. It’s especially cool that this is how you detect a secret door. Walls are normally named “wall” but a secret door or illusionary wall is a capitalized “Wall.” And again, it may be more of a problem with the emulator than the original game, but I found that a couple of the combats were nearly impossible unless you took advantage of the terrain – leading the cyclops into the hallway with all the fireball traps.

There’s also something to be said for the terseness of some of the explanations. While much of what is going on is explained in dialogs, notes, scrolls, or whatever – there’s a lot that is implied without being explained. Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like my imagination gets invited to “fill in the blanks,” and rises to the challenge. I end up seeing a lot of detail that might not actually be there.  I think there’s some kind of happy medium (which may be different for each player) between too much exposition and too little. Too little, and things just are just confusing and feel annoyingly random. Too much, and I mentally go to sleep and let the game spoon-feed me whatever I need to know. Or worse, I skip past the “need to know” stuff because it’s long and boring and poorly presented, and so I get the worst of both worlds…

Anyway, I imagine I’ll continue to make forays into old Serpent Isle from time to time. I just found out I gotta go back to the dungeon and pick up the corpse of that wolf I killed so it can be turned into a cloak or something…

Filed Under: Design, Retro - Comments: 10 Comments to Read

  • Adamantyr said,

    Serpent Isle is my favorite Ultima of all. Even more so than the Black Gate.

    Oh yeah, I know it’s more linear. And it does have some very bad bugs… the fact a major NPC is wandering about who you summon MUCH later in the game is one of them. I also had a party member trapped in the fighting area once, so I used a powder keg to blow the doors open. Afterwards, the guard who opened them spewed a bunch of C code as dialogue and finished with “Uh, the arena’s closed, come back later!”

    You’re quite correct about the NPC’s as well. What makes them interesting, though, is how they’re NOT enamored of the Avatar… they don’t even know who he is. And they all have a severe antipathy for Lord British, with no real basis. There’s a lot of machinations going on everywhere you go, and more often than not, the towns inhabitants end up the worse for it. They’re not evil, but they’re all spiritually devoid… – The people of Monitor hold courage in battle in high esteem but are elitist and lacking in honor
    – The people of Fawn regard physical beauty as a virtue, and consider ugliness a sign of evil and malice
    – The people of Moonshade venerate unrestrained magical research, but because they place no value on truth, they’re secretive and at odds with one another

    But what I enjoyed about it was the absolute mystery of the place. I had seen and played a bit of the Black Gate before getting my own copy (and a PC to run it) back in 1995 thereabouts, so it was sort of a known thing. Serpent Isle I had NOT heard of, it was like getting a whole new Ultima! I ended up staying up all night playing it several times because I was so deep into the mystery and dialogue of each place.

    The “Serpent” theme that plays in the very first cave by the red bush still gives me shivers… a cold unknown land with an ancient culture that, while not bad, is alien to you… Enemies ahead of you, setting traps and sending assassins… an oncoming storm that will tear the world asunder…

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Serpent Isle is a good game, but it was the start of the EA-related problems which killed Origin.

    I’ve always considered The Black Gate to be the better game, but there are many things SI did better, possibly because it’s a bit rail-roaded unlike the Black Gate’s open world.

    I’d really love someone to update the whole series in the way the Lazarus project is doing. Unfortunately the license is split between EA and Richard Garriot.

    Anyway, on my first playthrough of SI, though I was a little bit further than you (I’d almost become a knight, and had to go to my feast), and I went to the hall where you’re supposed to be. The doors were locked (you can tell from just looking). I waited until evening with nothing changing. I waited another day. Still nothing.

    In my frustration I double-clicked on the locked doors and they opened! I felt quite annoyed with it all.

    One thing I would mention though, there is a burned down building that you’ll find soon enough. There are ghosts inside, but for the love of god don’t try and talk to them. It will break the game. It’s a red-brick building with lots of scorch marks and some stuff in the basement.

  • Chevluh said,

    Regarding the weapons thing, it’s been a while but AFAIK the manual doesnt’ describe them either, or at least not with much depth. Instead, there’s an in-game book that contains the relevant information, usually found in houses that belong to characters that would have an interest in such topics (ie knights, blacksmiths). While kinda impractical from a gameplay standpoint immersion-wise it’s pretty clever. Of course the perfect mix would be if the fights were less fast and confusing so you’d be able to get a feel for the weapons yourself, an ask trainers about weapons instead of taking their books.

    Andy, I may be mistaken on that one but IIRC if your Exult is recent enough it includes an automatic fix for the ghost bug.

  • Andy_Panthro said,


    I guess that’s another reason to use Exult rather than Dosbox, even if you’re not getting the “authentic” experience.

    My take on the weapons was to always take them at face value. If the weapon is glowing or called the “hoe of destruction” then chances are it might be good! It’s far more important to train up, get magic armour and have a full spellbook.

    Once you have all your companions, there aren’t many battles that should be too dangerous.

  • Chevluh said,

    I’m not sure what the “authentic experience” is supposed to have Exult doesn’t have, except maybe wrestling with dos memory management.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    LOL – I don’t really want to have to deal with the VOODOO MEMORY MANAGER woes ever again 😉

    I’m not sure the pathfinding & AI is exactly the same as in the original — it seemed like the Cyclops got lost pretty easily chasing me. And I think I went to -2 hit points and remained alive at one point… not sure what happened there. But anyway – overall, it seems to click with how I remember the game.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    There are a few differences between using Exult and DosBox, but not enough to make a lot of difference. The main differences are all with The Black Gate, where Exult adds in some of the benefits of Serpent isle (graphical things mostly). There is also the way you can up the resolution (but not too high, or you can break the game!).

    Yes, memory management is definitely one of the things I’m glad to see the back of. Upper memory blocks, EMS, XMS, endless boot disks…

  • Chevluh said,

    Those things (paperdoll and hi-res) are optional and so you can turn them off and get an authentic experience still. They’re not even on by default. Coyote’s mention of differences in the actual game mechanics would be much more relevant.

  • Disgusted_Viewer said,

    Wow, your review is wrong on so many levels that it would take me DAYS to correct you.
    So I’ll be brief.
    You have NO credibility at this point. New Magincia? Game-breaking bug? Bullshit. That town isn’t even IN SERPENT ISLE!
    Complain about the story and chars all you want, but at least try READING THE TEXT before you do.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    LOL! I accidentally mixed Moonshade and New Magincia. It’s been 17 years since I hit that bug, so I hope most folks won’t judge me too harshly. Thanks for catching that. I’ll correct.