ultima runes of virtue II, released for the four-color gameboy, is the adventure game i cherish above all. unlike the computer role-playing games that share its name, runes is an action-adventure-puzzle game. other than the names and places, it has little in common with the rest of the ultima series.

runes II is beautifully minimalist, both in graphics and design. the game has a relatively small library of sprites - a switch will always be a switch, but sometimes an altar can be a switch, and sometimes a vase the key to a puzzle. images are recycled, and context invents new uses for the same small vocabulary. interactaction and exploration are required to understand the gameworld.

and this game rewards exploration. almost every location in the game bristles with secret passages and hidden nooks, concealed ladders to battlements where you can fire cannons on the countryside. the small castle where the game begins is a cluster of secrets, including a hidden observatory, a basement dungeon and to persistent - and ambitious - explorers a very helpful tool.

a library bookshelf hides a secret staircase to a network of underground chambers. a remote island hides a zoo containing most of the game's monsters (all of whom can be released by flipping the right switch). beneath one town is origin headquarters, where the game's staff will greet you. and this is all optional - you could complete the game without seeing any of these things.

the caverns, which are not avoidable, are among the best game dungeons ever devised. they combine exploration and zelda-like combat with clever and increasingly ruthless puzzles (culminating in the final dungeon's fiendish pie factory). each is just as filled with character as the towns and castles - a little room with table and chairs here, a bridge over a moat there.

the music - which doesn't play continuously in the background but instead drifts in at periodic cues as ambience - is some of the best composed for the original gameboy. the title music (and make sure you listen to the whole thing) may be the kickinest track ever recorded for the handheld.

runes II has a charming sense of humor and a much lighter tone than the computer games. the game is full of character.

a basic guide to playing: the START button brings up your status screen/inventory (note that the game isn't paused while on this screen - SELECT is the pause button - so only press START when you're out of danger). press A or B to assign an item to that button, or to use it immediately if it's a one-time item like food or a potion. pressing SELECT will drop an item, though you shouldn't hit your inventory limit until late in the game.

the ankh in your inventory is a unique and important object - pressing the B button over it will restart the room you are in (in case you get stuck or trapped in an unwinnable position). pressing A will teleport you back to the castle.

hearts represent your stamina and stars your magic - magic is used up when you use wands of fire, the chalice of healing, or any other magical object. you can find hearts and stars in various places, like chests and crates, which will replenish what you've used up.

you have a choice of four starting characters - shamino is probably the best for a beginner, since he starts with a throwing axe. dupre starts the game with no missile weapons, so beginners may want to avoid him. maria depends heavily on magic so you'll want to stock up on potions if playing as her. whoever you choose, you should purchase a shield from the castle blacksmith as soon as possible.

note that keys (three different shapes) can only be used in the area you find them, similiar to some items. and if you find a ladder in a dungeon leading up, and it's not the ladder you came down, it's probably an escape ladder to the surface. your goal in the dungeon is nearby, and be sure not to leave until you've found it!

the game autosaves whenever you enter a new area, so whenever you turn the game on, you'll resume playing at the last door or ladder you passed.

there's a version of this game on the snes, with graphics resembling the isometric style used in ultima VI and subsequent games. it's less charming than the gameboy game. the original runes of virtue is smaller than runes II and not as clever. it is also more frustrating - dying forces you to restart an entire dungeon, rather than just the floor you die on.

i currently own a cartridge of runes of virtue 2 with a completed game (score 325620), stamina and magic max and all stats 27, all of the game's secret artifacts, legendary weapons and armor, all runes, and a stolen pirate ship moored in each of the game's bodies of water. i replay the game sometimes in an emulator, but this cartridge is something sacred to me, and i will never start a new game on it.