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Ultima VII is without doubt one of the greatest CRPG’s and perhaps one of the best RPG games ever made. It is also without doubt one of the hardest games to get running correctly. In this article we are going to take a look at building a PC specifically for the purpose of playing one game, Ultima VII and Ultima VII part II, Serpent Isle

Before I get into the meat and potatoes of this article I do want to point out there are various patches and fixes to allow Ultima VII to play on a Windows 9X computer, there are also other methods that allow one to play the game on a machine that normally would not play U7 optimally such as utilities or jumper tricks to slow down faster PC’s or simply using a boot disk to configure things correctly. That is not the reason or focus of this article. In this article we are building a PC specifically for the sole purpose to play U7 as optimized as we can using “mostly” period hardware in a DOS environment without the aid of patches or boot disks.

The first question one might ask is “Why would I want to play Ultima VII”? The answer to this question I actually answered in the first paragraph. U7 is widely considered one of the greatest RPG games of all time so if you are a RPG lover you owe it to yourself to play this game. The second question one would likely ask is “Why is it so hard to get this game running correctly, or for that matter running at all”? That is the question we will be looking at below as well as how to put together a PC that addresses these issues.

There are basically two major reasons and one minor reason this game was and still is so hard to get running. I’ve read stories of people buying this game back on release and having to return it due to not being able how to figure out how to make it run. We’ll start with the more minor issue first and then work our way up to the major roadblock to getting this game to run properly.

1 ) Hard drives usage – Ultima VII accesses the hard dive A LOT. This can result in continuous stuttering or pauses as the screen scrolls. This though is the most minor of issues when hoping to play U7 on real hardware. The simplest advise I have for this is find the fastest hard drive and hard drive controller you can find for your build and use that. I went with a VLB controller paired with a none era correct compact flash card which I think works very well as a solution.

2) CPU speed sensitivity –  Ultima VII is one of those games that require a vary specific CPU speed or things will either play to slowly or to fast. You can play the game on a 40mhz 386 or early 486 but the game just bogs down. On a 66mhz 486DX2 or above the game just plays way to fast.  a 33mhz 486 is largely considered the “official” recommended CPU speed but I would say the U7 Goldilocks range is between a 33mhz 486 and a 50mhz 486DX2. On a 50mhz DX the game just runs a little to fast and on a 66mhz DX2 it becomes almost unplayable especially if your chasing something on screen such as a monster. Users of 66mhz DX2’s can play with jumpers on the motherboard and set your FSB to 20mhz to simulate a 40mhz DX2 (which never existed as an actual 486 CPU) which plays the game pretty optimally. Those trying to slow down their machine by using programs to disable internal cache may find a nasty surprise as the game re-initializes cache if it is disabled.

3) Memory management – The greatest hurdle in getting U7 to work at all is the custom memory manager known as the Voodoo Memory Manager that the game REQUIRES to work. This manager is incompatible with just about all expanded memory managers such as EMM386. On top of this the game requires a fairly large amount of conventional memory, as much as 585kb. This is the core of the problem. In normal use a user would use a program such as EMM386 or QEMM to move essential drivers into upper memory thus freeing up conventional memory for games. The requirement to use the custom Voodoo manager thus prevents this and in turn you can’t free up enough conventional memory for the game since it’s eaten up by drivers for various required things such as CD-ROM drivers, mouse drivers, SMARTDRV, ect… This requires users to either use a boot disk with a minimal setup  or hand pick the smallest compatible drivers that can be found and trim the system down to the required basics.

Here is a look at my “Ultimate Ultima VII PC” and how I set things up to play U7 without the need for a boot disk or any slowdown utilities.

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I came across this machine at a local swap meet and thought the compact case would be perfect for this U7 build I had in my head.

The motherboard I’m using is a version of the FIC 486-GVT U2, and Is the same board I have used previously in my 50mhz DX machine. I’m using 24MB of RAM (U7 only requires 4MB) as well as 256k of L2 cache.

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Before I get into the software side of things and show you how I’ve set up DOS to have enough conventional memory while retaining the needed drivers and using the custom Voodoo Memory Management system U7 requires lets go over the hardware.

CPU – Initially I went with the generally recommended 33mhz 486DX but after some further research I concluded the optimal CPU for my tastes is the AMD 486DX-40 running on a 40mhz front side bus. I decided on this CPU over the 33mhz because I felt that later in the game when there are multiple enemies and things happening on screen the extra CPU power could really come in handy in preventing things from bogging down to much.

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Video – For video I went with my old VLB Diamond Speedster Pro based on the Cirrus Logic GD5428 chip. I have used this card in the past and overall it is a fast and compatible video card for DOS.

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The combination of the 40mhz DX CPU and fast video may result in the game running marginally fast in areas such as the city but nothing that ruins the game. To be honest if it is running slightly faster then it should in these areas I’m not noticing it to any great degree.

Also please note there seems to be some sort of incompatibility with cards using the ET4000 chipset and Ultima VII. The issue seems to be a shimmering effect or what I see as sort of “VCR tracking lines” appearing at the top of the screen. I have confirmed this is an issue effecting several ET4000 cards by testing multiple cards from different manufacturers and also talking to others that share the same issue.

Here is a video showing the effect when U7 is played with an ISA ET4000 based card.

Audio – Ultima 7 offers the option to use the MT-32 for music as well as FM. Obviously the Roland MT-32 midi module offers superior quality in music and so that is the direction I took my machine. I didn’t want to spend extra money on a Roland midi interface card but thankfully U7 does not require intelligent mode to play its midi via the joystick port on a standard sound card. Knowing this I went a slightly unexpected route and went with a sound blaster clone card, the Audio Excel PNP16.

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I decided to go with a clone card because the Sound Blaster Pro cards do not support midi via the joystick port and Sound Blaster 16 cards are prone to the “hanging midi bug”. A careful observer may notice the complete lack of a real OPL FM chip on this card. For me this wasn’t an issues as I do not plan to use FM and only need this card for the MIDI interface capabilities and for digital sound effects. If you are planning on using the FM track for music as opposed to a Roland MT-32 I would recommend a Sound Blaster Pro 2.0 or Sound Blaster 16 with a real OPL FM chip.

Hard Drive – As I mentioned earlier U7 thrashes most hard drives so I strongly recommend getting the fastest hard drive and controller you can. I decided to go for a VLB HDD controller as well as a era incorrect 512mb compact flash card to use as a hard drive.

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The hard drive controller I’m using the the VLB  DTC 2278 enhanced IDE controller card. There are certainly faster controllers out there but not wanting to spend money on expensive and hard to find controllers with on board cache RAM I felt this card was quite capable.

For the hard drive itself I went with a Sandisk 512mb compact flash card on a IDE to CF adapter. I also housed this card in a removable HDD caddy so If I ever wanted to use the machine for something other then Ultima VII and did not want to mess around with my configuration I could simply and easily swap hard drives.

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So now that we’ve taken a look at the hardware lets take a look on how to setup DOS to get U7 running.

getting enough conventional memory to run Ultima VII and Serpent isle (which requires even more memory then part VII) without being able to utilize upper memory was a bit of a chore. Firstly you only want to load drivers that are needed for the game so this would include CD-ROM drivers, mouse drivers and sound card drivers if required depending on the card your using. SMARTDRV is also recommended to help with speeding up hard drive access. This means you don’t want to be loading any drivers that are not necessary to the games so nothing for example like drivers for a ZIP drive need to be loaded.

Next you need to search for the smallest sized drivers you can and hope they are compatible with whatever motherboard or drives your using. Some of these nonstandard drivers may have compatibility problems with other games but for the Ultima VII PC we only care if they work with U7. here is a look at my memory usage on my U7 PC and the drivers I’m using.

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This setup gives me more then enough conventional and XMS memory for Ultima VII and Serpent Isle. Here are some of the recommended drivers I used.

Mouse – CTMOUSE, the most compatible and smallest DOS mouse drivers out there, I actually use these drivers as standard for my DOS PC’s. http://cutemouse.sourceforge.net/

CD-ROM – I used VIDE-CDD drivers for my CD-ROM drive and SHSUCDX as a substitute for MSCDEX. these both take up significantly less space then my usual GSCDROM and MSCDEX combo which combined can eat a whopping 57k of memory compared to 11k of the  VIDE-CDD and SHSUCDX combo. This combo may very well have inferior overall compatibility but remember, for this project we are only concerned with U7. One side effect of using VIDE-CDD is on boot up I get a brief speaker beep and illegal operation error yet the CD drive seems to detect and operate flawlessly. VIDE-CDD & SHSUCDX – https://www.hiren.info/downloads/dos-files

Everything else I’m running is standard with AEMIX being for my sound card.

If your having trouble finding drivers that work and that are small enough you can possibly get away with disabling SMARTDRV if your using a more modern HDD or a compact flash drive. SMARTDRV is primarily most useful in boosting performance of older more period correct hard drives.

Finally a look at my Autoexec.bat and Config.sys files.

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Ignore the GSCDROM line I have REMed. I was initially using them for my CD-ROM drive but switched over to the VIDE-CDD drivers in order to get Serpent Isle to run.

In conclusion I hope this information helps anyone out there looking to play Ultima VII on real hardware and helps alleviate some of the frustration associated with putting together such a build.

references

Nerdly Pleasures – Ultima VII on Real Hardware

Vogons post – http://www.vogons.org/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=32619

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The Ultima and Wizardry series are heavy hitters of the early CRPG days and generally considered must plays for anyone even remotely interested in the early days of PC RPG’s. Unfortunately if you want a physical copy many of these early games are not only hard to find but also command a hefty price. Fortunately for us collections of both these series were compiled on CD-ROM in the late 90’s and although these collections also go for a hefty sums these days they still not only represent the better value but you have the piece of mind of having all the games on a convenient CD. But what about us purists that long for the experience of these games on early 1980’s 8088 based hardware from the time they were released? After all these collections were released in the era of Windows 9X and were surly expected to run under that environment. Are these collections of any use to us? Well friends, read on to find out.

Will start with Wizardry Archives.

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Wizardry Archives was released in CD-ROM format in 1998 and contained the first seven games in the series as well as Wizardry Gold. The original Wizardry games were released on 360kb floppies and were PC booter games. This means that no operating system such as DOS was needed. simply put the floppy into your machine and power on. When it comes to the Wizardry Archives there is good and bad news.

The bad news is you cannot copy the games from the CD to floppy and play them as you would an original copy. On the archives collection Wizardry 1 through 5 are broke into three files, wiz1.com, wiz1.dsk and a save1.dsk the wiz1.dsk is exactly 320kb, Wiz1.com 2kb and finally save1.dsk is 640kb. Obviously these files will no longer fit on a 360k floppy.

This is because the games in the archive, amusingly enough, have been officially modified with a 3rd party, gray-area software loader (wiz1.com) to run off of a hard drive which is very good news for us. The modified files automatically advance through prompts where switching disks would otherwise be required. Of course there is the negative of not being able to play as originally intended off a floppy disk but I myself think it’s a good trade off for the ability to play and save straight from a hard drive and have the greater reliability that comes with that medium. I wouldn’t want to trust a floppy disk these days with save data for an RPG you may of just dumped hours upon hours into.

Unless you have a CD-ROM drive installed in your early 80’s PC (unlikely) your going to need a method to transfer the files. Your also going to need a hard drive in your machine to copy the games to, obviously. This will likely be an MFM drive but there are more modern methods such as using a 8 bit IDE controller card and an IDE hard drive. There are several other methods to transfer the files such as via a network connection or ZIP drive (if you have a NEC V20 or later installed) but I prefer a 720kb floppy drive as it is a very easy method and chances are you already have one installed. If not I would advise installing a 720kb floppy drive to make things very easy. Almost all floppy controllers can recognize 720kb floppy drives. Also you can use the cheap and abundant 1.44mb floppy drives on a older controller and have it be seen automatically as a 720kb drive.

If your one of the lucky ones that have a high density 1.44mb floppy controller in your 8088, are using a 286 with a high density drive or are using a parallel port 1.44mb drive or one of the other methods mentioned you can skip this part but assuming most people will have a 720kb drive were going to need to ready a 720kn floppy disk. First off we need to ready a disk or two. If you don’t own any 3 1/3 inch 720kb disks, no problem as you can easily make a 1.44mb floppy into the 720kb sort by simply covering up a hole as depicted in the image below.

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The most common method is to tape over the hole. I use black electrical tape but even clear scotch tape will work. It also serves to mark which disks you have as 720kb formatted.

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So now that we have a disk ready we need to format it. This is very easy in Windows 95 and 98 as you can format disks for 720kb right through My Computer. Just insert the floppy disk, click on My Computer and then right click the floppy drive (likely A:) and you should be presented with a list of option. Click Format and then you should get a options screen and a pull down menu that allows you to format for 720kb.

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This option however was removed from Windows XP and up so in this instance your going to need to use the command line interface to format your disk. Open a new command prompt by going to Start->run and typing CMD. Type Format A: /T:80 /N:9 and hit enter and that should do it. I haven’t tried this with Windows 7 and up but I’ve read it does work. Honestly I’ve never had luck with floppy drives and Windows 7 as they usually end up coming out corrupt.

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The wizardry Archives breaks the games up into their own folders so once you have the game files on your floppy disk it’s just a matter of copying the files to your chosen PC’s hard drive via the COPY command.

That’s basically it. I made a folder called WIZ1 on my 4.77mhz 8088 PC and copied the first game there and it works like a charm. Just go into the file and run WIZ1 and it loads right up. Saving within the game works without issues as well. Now I haven’t tested the other games on the archives or tried transferring the party between games as you are required for Wizardry 1-3 but seeing as they are set up the same the process should be identical.

20150815_203549_LLSJust hit S and the game starts as normal bypassing all the Make Scenario Disk stuff.

I have played down to level three in Wizardry 1 so far and sunk well over ten hours into it without a single issue. The game runs as it should on my 4.77mhz 8088 which is the type of CPU that this game was originally intended for. I did try running the game in 10mhz turbo mode but all it does is speed the message screen up making it very difficult read information during a battle before it goes off screen. I never bothered playing the archives in a Windows  9X environment but I’m guessing theres some kind of slowdown utility included.

Now on to the Ultima Collection.

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The Ultima Collection was released on CD-ROM in 1997 and contained the first eight games in the Ultima series including several add-ons and the speech pack for Ultima VIII. All the games in the Ultima Collection as far as I can tell are unmodified in any way. These are not ports for Windows but the original DOS versions so for retro enthusiasts this is a boon as like the Wizardry Archives they will all have no issues running on period hardware. The collection does include a registered version of mo’slow to allow the games to run on faster computers but from what I’ve read Ultima VII and VIII are still virtually unplayable within Windows (though getting Ultima VII running even in DOS is a challenge and is going to be its own article).

I won’t go over again the transfer process but its basically the same as with the Wizardry archives and the games will run just fine on native era hardware for which each game was intended.

The collection includes Akalabeth which was retroactively named Ultima 0, being the very first, and primitive, Ultima game. This game was never given a DOS port and was only available on the Apple II cira 1971 – 1981. The version of Akalabeth that comes on the collection though requires a 32-bit DOS extender so will not run on a 8088 or a 286. It should run fine on a 486 or possibly a 386 but that’s about as close as you’ll get to Apple II era hardware. The game is slightly different from the Apple II version as it has color and basic midi as well as a title change to Ultima 0. It also plays much better and smoother then the original version. There is an unofficial bootleg port of Akalabeth though floating around on the internet that I’ve read will work on 8088 hardware for those interested.

akab4Playing the Ultima Collection version of Akalabeth on my Dell Dimension Pentium II PC.

Ultima Fan Upgrade Patches

That normally would be all I had to say about the Ultima Collection but I think its worth getting into the subject of fan upgrade patches. Generally I’m very picky about upgrade patches, After all why would I bother playing on original era hardware if I wanted anything but an “original” experience but in the case of the Ultima Collection I think the upgrade patches may be worth checking out for a few reason.

First off keep in mind that the Ultima 1 was not released for DOS until 1986 as Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness. This means that the first Ultima was actually released AFTER Ultima II through IV. This can be fairly jarring to retro computer game enthusiasts that are playing through the games in order as the 1986 DOS release of Ultima I was improved over the original and displayed in EGA graphics (as opposed to the rather ugly CGA of Ultima II & III DOS ports) and makes the earlier released Ultima II and III feel like pretty massive steps backwards.

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Ultima I from the Ultima Collection on my 8mhz 8086 machine

Ultima II released for DOS in 1982 especially looks bad in CGA in my opinion. There is also a map related bug in all CD versions including the Ultima Collection that makes the game unbeatable. Add this to a number of other bugs and I would say the DOS version of Ultima II included in the collection is unplayable. Thankfully an unofficial fan patch was made that converts the game to EGA but also corrects the map bug along with many other bugs.

Even being unofficial I would call this fan patch essential. It not only makes the game winnable but the EGA makeover brings the game more in line with the 1986 version of Ultima 1. Just compare below.

u2cgaOriginal CGA version

100_8591EGA fan upgrade patch

So does the upgrade patched version still run on original hardware? Absolutely.

I applied the patch prior then transferred the patched game to my 8mhz NEC V30 system and it ran without any issues. Interestingly enough though the patched game does seem to have some issues in Dosbox. The bump up to EGA does create a little more processing overhead so a 4.77mhz 8088 may run it a little slower then normal. As I stated I played through the entire game on a 8mhz NEC V30 machine and everything played just fine. I would recommend playing on such a machine or perhaps a 8088 or V20 in turbo mode (7.16mhz or 10mhz). You may need to split the game over several 720kb floppies if your transferring by that method as the file is a good bit larger then Wizardry.

The patch is available at The Exodus Project

The next fan patch I want to talk about is the upgrade patch for Ultima III released in 1983. This patch also works just fine on actual hardware. The U III patch fixes multiple bugs as the U II patch did but also introduces a wider degree of video modes for EGA to VGA and emulated color composite. The VGA mode looks pretty good but I stuck with EGA as to stay closest with the spirit of the era this game came out (even though EGA did not come out until 1984).

Another very cool feature this patch implements is music. The DOS version of Ultima III lacked any music, likely because there were no real PC sound cards to speak of in 1983. Computers like the C64 on the other hand had sound hardware built in and thus had music in there respective versions. What this patch does is take official Ultima III midi tunes from the Commodore 64 and Apple II versions and add them to the DOS port creating whats probably the definitive version. I have a sound blaster 1.5 installed in the machine running this game and it sounds great.

Speaking of CPU. Ultima III was ment to run on a 4.77mhz 8088 and the original CGA unpatched version runs fine on one but the EGA and sound of the patched version again take a toll on the CPU. With the patch installed I would definitely recommend a 286 running at least 10mhz. Even my V30 PC at 10mhz seemed just a little off and to slow so I had to install the game to my 20mhz 286 that downclocks to 10mhz via a turbo button.

The patch for Ultima III is available at The Exodus Project

There is an upgrade patch for Ultima IV but as of now I have not attempted to try it. This patch also adds music and this time upgrades the graphics to 256 color VGA. I don’t really find this patch nearly as necessary as the earlier patches and when I get to Ultima IV I probably will decline to use it.

This patch though unlike the others WILL NOT work in true DOS but requires Windows or DOSbox. well….sort off. There apparently is a pached version of the patch that does work in DOS but I have not tried it myself.

Ultima IV upgrade patch

Patched version of patch for real DOS mode play

Finally there is a upgrade patch for Ultima V which only adds music from the Apple II, Commodore 128 and Amiga versions to the DOS version. Again I have not tried this patch but it should work under true DOS.

Ultima V upgrade patch

And that concludes our look at the Wizardry Archives and Ultima Collection. Thankfully for us retro PC enthusiasts we do have a means through them to play these convenient collections of some great classic CRPG’s on real era hardware.

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