C64-Port of Ultima VI
Briefly, Richard Garriott had wanted to write Ultima VI using the 8-bit Apple II as a base, as he had done with each of the previous Ultimas. However, after a short amount of time and for various reasons (see this article's Discussion page), Origin moved the primary development platform to an 80286-based IBM PC with VGA graphics and soundcard. The game's creative progress went very fast after that decision.
However, after the game was finished and in the stores, the matter of ports came up; the PC, though it was increasingly dominant in the market, still had its competitors at the time, especially in the gaming department. While ports for the 16-bit Amiga and Atari ST computers were straightforward enough, as they could easily handle a game of this scale (albeit with some minor compromises in speed and audiovisual quality), there was one older 8-bit platform that was too tempting for Origin to pass up: the Commodore 64, which despite its age and increasing limitations still commanded a sizeable percentage of the home computer market at that time. As a bonus, a C64 port would mean the complete second trilogy would be available on the platform, something only the PC, Atari ST and Commodore Amiga could otherwise boast (since the planned Apple II version had been stillborn). However, although the C64 was theoretically a more powerful system than the Apple II, such a conversion faced a similar problem to that which Garriott had dealt with early in Ultima VI's development: Ultima had become so complex and demanding by this point that it had, simply put, outgrown the 8-bit systems of old.
Regardless of the difficulties involved, Origin got the help from Axel of Imagitec Design to somehow reverse-port the game to the C64. The only 8-bit version of Ultima VI (and the last 8-bit mainline Ultima), the C64 port was released in early 1991, just about one year after the release of the original.
Porting a game of this size and complexity to the C64, with its limitations (64KB memory, approximately 1 MHz CPU speed, graphics with 16 fixed colors at 160x200 resolution with restrictions on color placement, and disks formatted for a maximum of 170KB per side), required many compromises and sacrifices. Unlike Ultima V, there is no "enhanced" version for the C64's more capable successor, the Commodore 128, that could have taken advantage of the system's larger memory capacity.
While the PC version provides an option to run directly from its floppy disks (for systems lacking a hard drive), the C64 release requires it. The game shipped on three double-sided 5¼" disks totaling just under one megabyte of data (roughly a quarter of the PC original). The disk sides are named "Surface", "Dungeon", "Populace A," "Populace B," "Populace C," and "Game." The "Surface" disk contains the overworld of Britannia and the Realm of the Gargoyles, divided into cities and wilderness; "Dungeon" contains all dungeons in the game; character dialogue is stored across the three "Populace" disks; lastly, the "Game" disk holds the introduction, endgame, and character creation sequences, and is also used to initially boot the game.
Although the division of areas is mostly logical, the handling of conversations is more complicated. The method used requires the player to perform the following procedure for every in-game conversation:
- The player attempts to speak to a character.
- The appropriate "Populace" disk must be inserted, and its data loaded.
- The player must then re-insert the "Surface" disk and wait through another disk access.
- The conversation will then begin.
Commodore 1541 floppy drive (while there were faster disk drives available for the C64, none were 100% compatible with the 1541 and thus were not guaranteed to work with all software on the market). Additionally, Ultima VI on the C64 does not support the use of more than one disk drive, unlike IV and V, which support two and therefore require less disk-swapping.
EDIT: The 1571 drives worked fine and were faster than the 1541s - and you could use two of them with Ultima VI; I did so when I first played the game in this format, though I was using a C128 in C64 mode - do not know if that made any real difference. The amount of disk swapping was still insane.
The control scheme is somewhat altered from the PC version's allowance for both a mouse and keyboard. Here there is no icon-driven, mouse-controlled interface, meaning all actions are restricted to keyboard commands (e.g. "U" for use, "D" for drop, etc.) as in the previous five Ultima games. The joystick is used for movement and also for targeting a crosshair at objects the player wishes to act upon; a keyboard command switches this crosshair between the main window and the inventory panel.
The influential British magazine ZZAP! 64 gave the Commodore 64 conversion an overwhelmingly positive (98%) review in their May 1991 issue.
What is missing
Due to the limitations of the C64, the developers were forced to eliminate a number of gameplay elements to make the conversion possible:
- The game features no sound effects and, aside from the introduction and endgame sequences, no music.
- There are no character portraits.
- The number of usable items has been reduced. For example, there are no powder kegs (meaning that doors have to be blasted open with the Explosion spell).
- The number of spells has been reduced. The list of "missing" spells is below.
- The size of the party is reduced, from 8 to 6.
- As a space-saving measure, the conversations have been streamlined.
- Horseriding is eliminated. The programmers use the excuse that the gargoyles have eaten all the horses; Smith is the only exception, although he is disguised as a cow of all things (cows are in the port).
- Peering is impossible. Peer Gems do not exist, along with the equivalent spell. This makes mapping a lot more difficult.
- The interactivity of the game world is reduced. For example, the player cannot look into closets to find clothing, and telescopes can't be used.
- Casting can be done without a spellbook. There is still one in the game, but it has no use.
- The world itself is less detailed. For example, many decorative items are missing, and there are no tables (when one is needed, wooden-floor tiles are reused for this purpose). Also, there are no bags or chests; they are all replaced by barrels.
- The intro has less text and some pictures are missing.
- The built-in cheat menu is reduced in functionality, and it is not accessed by saying specific words to a certain other party member as in the PC version, but rather by talking to yourself and saying another set of specific words (the ability to talk to oneself is new in the C64 version).
- The number of weapons has been reduced, as well as some of the armour (for example, Ring Mail is not available). The Triple Crossbow also doesn't exist.
Some of the gameplay changes that were made can't be explained with technical reasons and are a deliberate change made by the programmers.
- There are several invisible levers. They can't be seen but used. Finding these can be a really annoying task.
- Two of these levers are in the basement of Sutek's castle. These are found on the northern wall, where in the PC-version are four levers.
- The first level of dungeon Wrong/Covetous has three of these levers strewn throughout the it.
- The fourth level of Stonegate has one invisible lever (for the force field) on the northern wall of the center room.
- Phoenix' belt is simply hidden under some flowers in her house and doesn't need to be pickpocketed, so the programmers removed the spell as well.
- For unknown reasons, the shipwreck of the Unnamed Pirate was moved to a different island at the coordinates 1A8 3A8.
- On Dagger Isle, you will find another map piece in the barrel instead of behind the harpsichord.
- To open the locked door of the treasure room on Treasure Island, you have to use the Explosion, because of the absence of Power Kegs.