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Ultima Runes of Virtue
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What is Ultima Runes of Virtue??

The Runes of Virtue games - there are two of them - were developed for the Game Boy by Origin and published by FCI / Pony Canyon. They have almost nothing to do with the Ultima games beyond the names of characters, places, and (in the second game) the layout of the world. The first one was primarily designed by Dr. Cat, the creator of Furcadia, and the second was mostly by Gary Scott Smith.

Selected Screenshots

Runes of Virtue

Runes of Virtue II

What's so great about them?
  • They're really playfully designed. The first Runes' Cavern of Injustice is one of the most hilariously sadistic game levels I've ever played. The Cavern of Hatred in the same game features an arena where you can watch teams of two of the game's monster types fight each other for no reason other than that it was easy to script using the game's technology. So much of the game feels whimsical, there because it can be and because the authors were allowed. The games feel personal: Dr. Cat's self-insert character shows up a ton in his original Runes.

  • Runes II is just speckled with secrets and details to discover. Partly owing to a scripting system which allows almost any object to trigger or interact with anything, all of its architecturally interesting spaces are full of little interactions to find. The castle where you start is full of secret passages and spaces, a whole secret floor, a big underground cavern. You can walk into a bookshelf in this game and find a hidden passage to a secret dungeon. This has happened to me. It reminds me of ZZT in this respect, that all the game's scenery becomes symbols whose meaning changes with context, and also of Cosmic Osmo, in how densely the world is populated with trivial, playful interactions.

  • I guess there's a two-player cooperative mode, if you have a link cable? With original two-player stages? Has anyone ever played it??

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Nintendo Power Issue 21

Nintendo Power Issue 54

What's not great about them though?
  • They're really hard. If you're playing the first one, I recommend playing on Easy mode, which lets you continue from the room you died in upon death (with as many - or few - resources as you had upon entering that room). Even so, it's a hard game. It'll toss overwhelming numbers of enemies at you and thinks nothing of draining your limited magical resources until you're forced to back out and restart.

  • Combat is super awkward in Runes II. Enemy movements are no longer constrained to a grid in this game - bats flutter, hover, flutter; trolls waddle back and forth, daydreaming; zombies lurch toward you, get spooked, shuffle away. There's a lot of really communicative motion in this game. Unfortunately, since the player still mostly moves and attacks in the four cardinal directions, this means monsters often have the advantage, and can attack from blind spots and avoid the player's attacks easily. Collision detection is often a little funky.

  • A Super Nintendo version of Runes II was developed and released alongside the Game Boy version. It's the same game but really ugly. (It tries to emulate the weird perspective of Ultima games like The False Prophet but the scale just makes no sense in higher definition than a Game Boy screen, and plus the colors are garish and the new perspective looks super forced.)

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Game Boy Player's Guide

Tips and such
  • Okay, so that Ankh on your inventory screen: It lets you warp home if you get stuck. In the first Runes, this means back to Lord British's castle. In Runes II, depending on whether you press B or A it'll either reset the room you're currently in (if you need to start over) or warp you all the way back to the castle. Hope you remember which button does what! Here's a mnemonic to help you remember: B is for Back, as in Back to the Beginning of this screen. A is for Avatar, as in "We must summon the Avatar to the castle."

  • You can drop stuff from your inventory by pressing SELECT over it. You will need to do this, eventually, in Runes II.

  • Oh, and the game doesn't pause while you're looking at the inventory screen in Runes II. Better hope there are no enemies around.

  • There are a limited number of pirate ships available in Runes II - I think it's like three or four. If you die on one or use your ankh to warp home, the ship stays where you left it, and if they're all in places where you can't reach them, you maybe can't finish the game! Whoops! Fortunately, if you have at least one ship you can "walk" a marooned ship back to shore by repeatedly moving one ship toward the land, stepping from it to an adjacent ship, moving that ship toward the land, etc. until both ships are within reach of the land. Tedious! But it'll keep you from getting stuck.

  • In both games, hidden under certain towns, you can find a building populated by the creators of the games, who will assail you with unexplained in-jokes. Can you find them??

Instruction manuals

Instruction manuals for both Runes games are available for download at replacementdocs. The art you see above is by Lee MacLeod.

Direct links: Runes of Virtue and Runes of Virtue II. The first one is way prettier imo.

You can also find extensive maps of both games on GameFAQs.

Unsolved mysteries

Who are Herman Miller and Paul Isaac, anyway? A message in Runes II seems to indicate that a map design contest was held for the game. If you have any information on this, contact anna anthropy at collectfruit at gmail dot com!