Patrick Hope: Dream a little dream of Mars
It’s Earth Day, which is one of those holidays where the jokes kind of write themselves. Oh? There’s already a humor column on that? Well, that makes this a bit easier. Here at Welcome to Bonus Stage, we’re going to celebrate the only way we know how — by talking about a game set on Mars.
Back in the early days of the PC gaming, Origin Software’s “Ultima” series carried considerable weight as one of the premier sources for role-playing games.
The ongoing saga of the Avatar and his (or her) adventures in Britannia was popular enough that six games were released by 1990, prompting creator Richard “Lord British” Garriott to launch a spinoff series: “Ultima: Worlds of Adventure.” The first, “The Savage Empire,” was a pastiche of Meso-American things and Doyle’s “The Lost World.”
But we’re here to talk about the second, 1991’s “Martian Dreams.”
“Martian Dreams” is set in a Victorian world where famed astronomer and Mars canal theorist Percival Lowell decided to investigate Mars in the best way he knew possible: through a giant cannon that shot a bullet through space all the way to Mars. Sadly, while Lowell was leading a group of the era’s greatest luminaries on a tour of the cannon at 1893’s Columbian Exposition, someone — SPOILER ALERT: It’s the one blatantly evil character in the game, Rasputin — ignited the fuse and shot everyone off to Mars, which is unfortunate, as there’s at least one Nobel laureate and a future U.S. President there.
Fast forward to 1901, when Nikola Tesla, who’s palling around with Sigmund Freud for some reason, decides to mount his own expedition from his Colorado facility.
The Avatar and his buddy, Dr. Spector (based on Origin’s Warren Spector, who would go on to create “Deus Ex” and “Thief”) travel through time from 1991 to help out and then the two of you are off to Mars, accompanied by legendary reporter Nellie Bly.
“Martian Dreams” plays like all other “Ultima” games from this time period, with all battles taking place in real time on the world map as you battle various forms of Martian flora/fauna otherwise known as “plantimals.” Interestingly enough, you don’t really have to engage in combat very often with these creatures, which include the planther and the creeping cactus, the latter of which will absolutely wreck you in big groups. As a review from “Computer Gaming World” surmised, “Martian Dreams” is a lot closer to an adventure game in many parts than a traditional role-playing experience.
And what adventures you will have. While your goal is to get Lowell’s expedition back to Earth, you’re going to have to rebuild a lot of the advanced Martian society in order to do so. You’ll restore power to the planet with the help of Thomas Edison, refill the canals by melting the ice caps with the help of some quick glass repair work on the part of Louis Comfort Tiffany, and storm Rasputin’s fortress with the help of Andrew Carnegie’s cannonballs. And then there’s the whole Martian dreams thing, too.
See, the Martians were big into dreams (Hey, that’s why Freud is there!), and when their society collapsed, they transferred their collective consciousness (No, Jung is not in this game) into Dream Machines, which some of the Lowell expedition unwittingly activated, transferring the Martians into the humans and trapping our eminent Victorians in the Dream Machine.
So the dreams are a big part of the game, even containing a reference or two to previous “Ultima” games.
As a spinoff in a series that hasn’t really seen a release since 1999’s disastrous “Ultima IX,” it’s not a surprise that “Martian Dreams” is kind of forgotten. Obviously, it shouldn’t be. Few games can take plots this crazy, throw them into historical context, and produce a workable game, much less make them fun.
This is probably the only game in existence where you get makeup tips from Sarah Bernhardt and get “Communism for Dummies” from Lenin.
There are a lot of games out there that play like “Martian Dreams,” but none that really replicate the atmosphere. It’s one of my favorite games ever made and thanks to EA’s beneficence, it’s now available for free on gog.com.
This is a game that played no small part in my interest in the Victorian era, whether on Mars or not. When they said “Ultima: Worlds of Adventure,” they meant definitely meant WORLDS of adventure.