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Vol. 2, Issue 12
February 15, 2000

Pixel Obscura:


by Josh Vasquez


Sword and sorcery in the computer age.

riting about Wheel of Time in a past article, I mentioned the difficulty of working in the Fantasy genre, it being a form that even bypasses science fiction with its obsessive hermeticism. Unlike sci-fi, however, Fantasy is far less a mainstream past time. It doesn’t seem to have an across the board kind of appeal, relying instead on a select although fiercely loyal audience. While science fiction certainly has its devoted fan base explaining the bulk of its success, one can imagine “the common man” going to see a sci-fi film or reading a sci-fi book (just look at Michael Crichton’s career) long before they would go to see the new Beastmaster flick or grab “Devil Dwarfs of Mordar” off the rack. There are people who treasure Aliens and X-Files and books like Dune that will tell you that they don’t even like sci-fi. Now, a rebuttal to this can be offered in the form of the remarkable success of shows like Hercules and, even more so, Xena.

But these programs rely on heavy doses of camp humor to draw in as relatively diverse an audience as they do, a mix of self-awareness and seriousness that more often than not slides towards the laughs. One tentacle of the entertainment beast, however, where straight forward Fantasy seems to have less difficulty in winning over people who otherwise show no particular dedication to the genre is the video game market.

Players are prepared to run with anything provided it makes a good game.

Aliens or dragons, race cars or damsels in distress, zombies or...zombies, as along as the action is there and the story is worth while, then game players will have at least a passing interest. For me Wheel of Time, while an admirable attempt, was really rather boring. It’s possible to convey the Fantasy’s genre uniquely convoluted back stories without being ponderous, and the cinematics of Ultima IX: Ascension, a new game developed by Origin, do just that.

The shadow of a dragon glides across the desert floor. We see a small plateau atop a spindly tower of rock from which sprout cracked pillars. A shaft of light pierces the center of the ruins, and a man appears frozen in the beam. After a second it deposits him and, looking dazed and baffled, the knight finds himself face to face with a rather crispy end. Dragon and rider fly up before him, and he barely has time to raise his arms before being engulfed by flames, courtesy of old scaly. Cut to a dark throne room where a man and his rather demonic looking lord watch the proceedings on a large mirror type gizmo.

The piece is a fairly simple one and yet quite charming. The overall tone is similar to one of the better Saturday morning offerings from a decade ago, like the fantastic Dungeons and Dragons animated series or the legendary “Legion of Doom vs. the Super Heroes” cartoons that you just cannot find on anymore (I wish that Cartoon Network would shelve some of those duds they produce and get their priorities straight...but pardon the rant). What united these cartoons was their faith in their own colorful melodramas, a seriousness of purpose matched with a wonderful air of childhood excitement. Ultima IX is not so in depth a work that I can rave on and on about the creator’s intentionality, but the feeling is there.

The music is just great, demonstrating an unusual attention to detail. The heroic theme, heard when the man appears at the ruins, is ever so slightly off kilter, a tonal uncertainty that perhaps parallels the disoriented state of the hero. When we see the evil castle in the distance, swarming with dragons, the music becomes appropriately menacing but knowingly so, the kind of deliberate use of cliche that you would miss if it wasn’t there. Overall the music is pretty standard fare for a film soundtrack but, like Nocturne’s score, is unusually well produced for a video game, sounding somewhat reminiscent of composer James Bernard’s work for many of the Hammer films from the fifties and sixties. The animation that accompanies this orchestration is pleasantly expressive in itself.

The features of the characters are nicely detailed. Of particular note is one sequence in which the deposited knight, faced with the dragon and its rider, reaches for his sword and, finding nothing there, slowly raises his head and stares apprehensively, eyes wide and mouth slightly open, into the face of his executioner. In turn his “enemy” grins back with a smile that is both childish and evil, a brain damaged kind of glee.

Later in the castle, the wizardish looking man, apparently called Blackthorn, replete with evil looking goatee (oh man that means trouble) and a voice humorously similar to William Daniels’, begins letting us in on just what the heck is happening. Through his banter with a brickish looking demon sitting on a throne, we learn that the man we just saw burned is the “avatar” and that he poses quite a threat to their plans to rule “Britannia.” The basic plot is laid down here, but rather than being tediously unwrapped like a stale old blanket, it is conveyed smoothly and with elegant simplicity, its vagueness making the game all the more tantalizing (and any piece that has a character use the word “lackey” is okay in my book). The creators again demonstrate their subtle building of character by having Blackthorn, turning to leave after being dismissed by the demon, roll his eyes and grimace slightly, mugging to the “camera” with a very Alan Rickman kind of “oh god I’m sick of this” look to let us know how fed up he is with this “lord.” And when the demon sits back in his chair with a look of smug self-satisfaction, you know that you’re just going to have to wait and see how this is all going to turn out, but that the ride may just be an enjoyable one.

Ultima IX: Ascension is a fun little bit of cinematics. The creators have fashioned more than an effective set-up to the game. If nothing else, the piece deserves some credit for successfully bypassing Fantasy’s generic pitfalls, relying on subtle touches and a smooth delivery to avoid what could have been just the same old sword and sorcery bit.


- Joshua Vasquez is the resident film critic here at loonygames. He also writes for the Internet film site Matinee Magazine

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Credits: Illustration © 2000 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 2000 Josh Vasequez. All other content is © 2000 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited, so don't do it, or we'll cut you in twain.