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Episode 82

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Ultimate Play The Game

As 1984 arrived, Ultimate made the decision to move to larger boxes, and although they looked nice and stood out on the shelf, it also meant a price increase. Their normal tape games released so far retailed for £5.50 but the new cardboard boxes would cost £9.95. Ultimate stated it was done for two reasons, firstly to reflect the amount of time put into the games and secondly to try and combat piracy. They thought having paid nearly ten pounds for a game, you were less likely to allow your friend to copy it. Looking back I think they were wrong about the second one though, as Ultimate games were very popular amongst playground pirates.

The first game to be released in 1984 with the larger boxes was Sabre Wulf. A top down maze game, again with added depth of having to fight enemies with your sword, protect yourself by eating a variety of plants and trying to locate the four pieces of an amulet.

This game introduced a new character, Sabreman, who would go onto to more projects later including a GameBoy game, cameos in Banjo-Tooie, Donkey Kong Country and Golden Eye on the N64.

The game was a top seller, selling over 350,000 copies and enjoying a long period in the charts. It also spawned a mass of map making, with magazine running competitions for the best entry.

Following this came the further adventures of Sabreman in Underwurld. This side-on platform game didn’t break any new ground apart from having a massive 597 locations. There were three exits, each having a guardian to defeat, and each guardian requiring a different weapon. Each exit would take Sabeman to one of the three sequels of the game, Knight Lore, Pentagram or MireMare.

It was obvious that, if these games were actually named, that they must be under development, which got fans in a frenzy waiting to see what Ultimate would do next. The truth was, that at least one of them was finished before SabreWulf, but more on that later.

As Underwurld hit the shelves, news of something very special was beginning to reach the magazines.

Something Very Special

A new style of game had arrived and it took gameplay, style and graphics to another level. Normally when companies made these claims, they were politely ignored, but this time it was Ultimate. As 1984 was coming to an end, the game that created a whole new genre, and that made everyone stare at their Spectrum in disbelief was released.

Knight Lore used a new technique, labelled Filmation by Ultimate, to display the game world in an isometric fashion. The result was stunning. That type of graphic details and look had never been seen before. Games like Ant Attack had come close, but this was something very special.

The game saw Sabreman searching for items to put into a wizard’s cauldron that would cure him. Oh yes, didn’t I mention, he has been cursed and at midnight turns into a werewolf? Each room has a different set of blocks, some requiring careful jumping, others required the manipulation of objects to be able to get to exits. Things could be picked up, moved to another room, dropped, stood on and jump from.

This game stormed the charts and players everywhere were again praising the innovation that Ultimate were bringing to the Spectrum. Ultimate won game of the year with it in 1984 from C&VG magazine. What people didn’t know until much later though, was that remarkably, this game was finished before Sabre Wulf. Not only that, but Alien 8 was also well into development. But, being in tune with the market, the Stampers knew that Sabre Wulf’s sales would be affected if they put Knight Lore out first. With that, they sat on this game, biding their time until it was right to release. That must have taken some guts.

The game spawned a whole avalanche of copies, and the genre was well and truly established.

The next game saw the return of Robbie The Robot from PSSST in Ultimate’s first game for 1985. This time he was given the isometric treatment in Alien 8. He has come along way from his garden, and is now in charge of fixing the cryogenic units of a space ship that were damaged during an attack. His thankless task is to collect 24 objects that are to be found around the huge spaceship, and place them in the correct sockets to keep the cryogenic units functioning.

The controls were the same as Knight Lore making this game easy to get into and the task was simple. The gameplay is very similar to Knight Lore too, triggering some complaints from the press and game players that the game was just Knight Lore with different graphics. This game, for me at least, relied more on jumping precision than its predecessor, and some of them were very tricky, requiring direction changes at crucial points. Regardless of this, the game sold well.

Using an upgraded game engine named Filmation 2, the next game sees you playing a knight on a quest to rid a village of four demons, in Nightshade. As with previous Ultimate games, each demon has a specific weapon required to defeat it. The village is populated by plague ridden people that can pass on their disease to the knight if bumped into. To reverse the affect, the knight can use antibodies. which also doubles as a throwable weapon.

The game engine moves away from the previous isometric flipscreen and onto scrolling, which is a nice improvement, although the actual screen area is reduced somewhat.

For some fans, it seemed that Ultimate were losing interest in the market, as their next released did not break any new ground or introduce anything new to the Sinclair machine. The Spectrum games market seemed to hold less interest with the Stampers, their attention now firmly on the blossoming Japanese console market. In the background they had been working on this for quite a while, since 1984 in fact, trying to reverse engineer the Nintendo Entertainment System so they could start to write games for it.

To allow them to move on, they had to part with the company name, and so it was sold, along with Ultimate’s back catalogue, to US Gold in 1985 bringing to an end a great and innovative time for Spectrum development. They still had a few games in development that US Gold distributed under the Ultimate name.

Gunfright released in 1986 swapped the knight for a sheriff, out to rid the town of outlaws. Again using the filmation 2 engine, the only main difference between this and earlier games is the shooting section in which the hero has a duel with the outlaws. He also has some money that is reduced if the outlaw shoots someone and is ref-filled if the outlaw is disposed of. There are 20 different outlaws to track down, one at a time, each becoming faster on the draw, and therefore more difficult to kill.

The Stampers claimed that this was the last title developed by the proper Ultimate team.

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