Everything about Martian Dreams makes me giddy, I admit. First of all: Mars. Not many settings can compete with the alien world nearest to our home. And Martian Dreams doesn’t give it the gung-ho treatment of a Red Faction. Nor does it have the technical coldness of a rover or colonization sim (as cool as those can be). Rather, it admirably constructs a place that could have flowed from the imagination of Ray Bradbury, who knew that Mars and Martians could tell us a lot about Earth and ourselves.
Then there’s the history. Not history told through some dusty tome. Not a calculated reconstruction of some past time or place. This is history through characters: Percival Lowell, Nikola Tesla, Andrew Carnegie. Mark Twain! Marie Curie! Tiffany and Rasputin! I love the joyful, colorful way they are sprinkled around on Mars, each with their special role to play in the story.
Finally, and more abstractly, I love the balance in the game between exploring a world and following the story’s objectives. This is an RPG–it’s got a party with stats and a simulated world–but it’s very story-driven, really an adventure game in RPG clothing. Mars is a broken world, and it has broken the human societies that have arrived there, and there are some specific things you need to do to fix it all.
This is a ripping steampunk yarn with an appropriately pulpy sensibility that nevertheless is smart and genuinely intriguing.
Martian Dreams was made by Origin in 1991, and it sports all the gameplay features of its parent-game, Ultima VI: The False Prophet: A nearly seamless open world, rich simulated environments populated with hundreds of items (many useful, some purely ornamental), a solid and useful conversation system, an accessible combat system. As Warren Spector tells it, Origin realized it should still produce games between the major releases headed by Richard Garriott and Chris Roberts, so it looked to its more junior designer-producers, Jeff Johannigman and Spector. They made these self-contained spin-offs from the Ultima world, both with pulp slants: Savage Empire and Martian Dreams, respectively.
And they are self-contained, just to be clear. Although it’s the second in a series of spin-offs of a venerable decade-old franchise, Martian Dreams sloughs off all the Ultima baggage with some quick time travel and a rocket-load of characters you are never going to see in Brittannia.
I hope you’ll find Martian Dreams as lovable as I do. If you’re skeptical, at least you can try it FREE from GOG.com!
GOG’s version has the very useful map, a manual and reference card that will help you get used to the primary interactions if you’re not familiar with the Ultima 6 engine, and also a cluebook that might help save you some time on a few of the quest branches if you really need it. You WILL need to take some notes, particularly of Lat/Long coordinates of different landmarks.
Enough blather. Hop onboard the space cannon with Nikola Tesla, Sigmund Freud, and Warren Spector himself, and let’s go to Mars!