The Versions of the Ultima Series to Play and the Reasons Why

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Bill Loguidice's picture

UltimaUltimaWe've been having a bit of a discussion about Ultima in the Gates of Delirium Live - Post 11 blog comments, and I was curious what everyone's thoughts were on the most authentic, interesting and error-free versions of each of the nine main Ultima games, not counting Akalabeth (though we can throw that in there too). This is both for my own selfish reasons of wanting to play these at some point (and to do it only once for each game) and also because I think this would prove to be an interesting discussion as I know everyone is very opinionated about the series. So, assuming you have access to any version - and any version's optimized hardware setup (for instance, you have an Apple II with two Mockingboards or a C-128), which would you pick, and in what order, say up to the top three systems for each version of the game? I'll start with my own only partially informed opinion.

0 - Akalabeth - World of Doom: PC DOS (version on Ultima Collection CD-ROM), Apple II original, dimjon's J2ME version

My reasoning: Since Akalabeth is such a simple and often frustrating game, it's best to play it in the most painless way possible. While the PC DOS version is not an original version, it does work well in Windows and is probably the easiest version to play. The Apple II version is the second choice because it's the original, but it's not readily available in ROM form and impossible to find an original. The Apple II version is also supposed to be rather slow, which is not appealing in an already dated and frustrating game. dimjon's J2ME version is one I've played on my old Nokia cell phone and seems to be a very faithful recreation, so that's why I put it as the third option. Having played quite a bit of Akalabeth, I really have no interest in ever finishing it, so this is one I'd definitely pass on, though again, if I ever did play it, I'd probably go with the PC DOS version.

1 - Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness: C-64 (1986 remake), Apple IIGS (1994 port), Apple II (1986 remake)

My reasoning: I don't think it would make much sense to run the original Apple II version, since it was written in a combination of BASIC and Assembly code as far as I know, making it a bit slow and buggy. The re-release in 1986 was an official remake entirely in assembly language, which also features slightly improved visuals. The idea of a IIGS-specific port intrigues me, though I'm not sure of its availability and how faithful it is considering it's not official (I'd rather not experience unofficial interpretations, even if they're better). I would be less opposed to playing an enhancement of this game as it probably benefits from it and was already done so by Origin themselves (meaning the unofficial IIGS update is not a foreign concept). If I received some assurances as to its worth, I'd definitely consider moving it to the first slot. I'd also rather avoid PC DOS versions whenever possible, since I know I'll be stuck on that platform for the later releases and I'm not a fan of PC speaker sound.

NOTE: Atari 8-bit was removed in combination with the C-64 in favor of solely the C-64

2 - Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress: C-64, Apple II (1989 update), Apple II (original)

My reasoning: It's my understanding the official Apple II 1989 update - the only updated version of the game released - features bug fixes and a very slight tweak to the graphics and interface. Since the C-64 version already had all of this and more with the addition of extra sound in the first place, that would be the original version to go with.

NOTE: Atari 8-bit was removed in combination with the C-64 in favor of solely the C-64. The Atari 8-bit version was deemed graphically inferior to all versions courtesy of a poor port.

3 - Ultima III: Exodus: Apple II (original with Mockingboard support), Atari ST/Amiga, C-64

My reasoning: The most authentic version would be the Apple II release with Mockingboard, giving you originality and good sound. You get similar sound on the Amiga/Atari ST versions, as well as updated graphics. I'm not sure the latter is really necessary, though, and it may be more enjoyable on an older system. The C-64 version would be a good standby since it's very much like the Apple II release and has similar sound to the Mockingboard version.

4 - Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar: Apple II (original with Mockingboard support), Atari ST/Amiga

My reasoning: The Apple II is competitive with all other 8-bit versions in terms of graphics and sound (with Mockingboard), so there's no reason not to play the original in this case (it also helps that I have this version complete in the box). Again, the ST/Amiga versions would offer updated visuals if that were important to me. By the way, this is one where the Sega Master System (SMS) version is rather tempting in that it appears to be a very faithful and visually updated representation of the 8-bit computer version, unlike the bastardized NES versions of the series.

5 - Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny: Apple II (original with Mockingboard), C-128, Atari ST/Amiga

My reasoning: Since this is the last version ever made originally for the Apple II and really pushed that system to its limits, this has to be the preferred version. Also, with two Mockingboards, you have up to 12 sound channels/voices, though I don't believe they were all used (still very, very cool). The C-128 has to be the second choice since it's one of the few games to directly support the C-128 in some manner; on the C-64 you get no music, on the C-128 because of the extra memory, you get full music. The Atari ST/Amiga again, because of the enhanced visuals. I suppose the DOS port would be OK too, but definitely as a fourth choice for the hassles associated with DOS alone.

6 - Ultima VI: The False Prophet: DOS, Amiga/ST, C-64

My reasoning: DOS was the development platform, so that's the version that needs to be played. In addition, it supports pseudo-VGA and sound cards (though sound effects are still PC speaker). The Amiga/ST versions from my understanding were just straight ports of the DOS version and have few enhancements, as well as run slower. The C-64 version is supposed to be pathetic, but it's the only 8-bit version released (shockingly, the Apple II market was supposedly not considered viable enough for a new version of the game by 1990), so that has to count for something.

7 - 9 Ultima VII - IX: DOS/Windows

My reasoning: By this point there were no other ports to speak of, so playing the originals is where it's at. I would however play IX with the various fan-made patches to avoid many of the glitches, one of the few times I would really seek such a thing out. I may be wary of some of the content changes, however.

So does anyone have any thoughts about this? Know something more about any of the versions above? I own all the Ultima's on the PC, Ultima I - III (as part of the Trilogy box) on the C-64, and Ultima IV and V on the Apple II, so that could certainly play factors in my decisions as well. However, I obviously have the ability to pretty much recreate any version on any platform that I so choose, especially since I have all of the original materials and maps and what-not, so I wouldn't lose anything in the experience, making me very open to alternatives.


Joined: 10/25/2006
This is half-OT and I try to be short ;-)

I call it "half-OT" as lots of early CRPGs were Apple-based ;-)

adamantyr wrote:

Cool! Know any websites that describe EXACTLY how the Apple hi-res mode works? I've looked for a few years for one, but they're strangely absent.

I can confirm your observation: There doesn't seem to be nearly as much available in electronic form (files or websites) than for other popular systems. Part of the reason could be that the Apple II wasn't as successful (it came much earlier, had higher prices) as the megasellers C64 or NES. On the other hand the Apple II wasn't perceived strictly as a game machine but rather as a universal computer with good graphics talents - at least until the machines with hardware sprites came out.

Actually, I have my knowledge from books (not with the pdf-extension - the ones with real paper ;-)

Though most books about Apple II graphics are also rather disappointing as they only deal with BASIC statements, there are some really excellent ones - for example "Graphically Speaking", based on a magazine column by Mark Pelczarski, author of the Graphics Magician which may ring a bell with you - but they are either hard to come by or rather expensive.
The original Apple reference manuals of the Apple II/IIc/IIe can give you very precise informations about the hardware - but they aren't tutorials and they expect you to be somewhat knowledgable in the Apple II (programming) world.

However, what I did find through the usenet group "comp.sys.apple2" two years ago is here:
The first issue of this short-lives magazine deals with graphics and has some useful articles as well as example listings. You can download a 20 MB PDF there.

What you don't find in there can be answered by me or in "comp.sys.apple2" - the people there are a terribly helpful bunch with some gurus from back then with a knowledge far far exceeding my humble bits and pieces.


I stand corrected. :) When I said "hack", I suppose I meant that internally, they were overlaying hi-res graphics on a text-screen, letting you use the standard text mode printing commands rather than having to plot text to screen. (Or, at least, I think that's how it worked. Again, more information on Apple graphic modes in excruciating detail needed!)

You think too complicated ;-)

Here's the basic stuff about the 6-color standard hi-res mode which works on all Apple II models is the most widely used mode in games (I ignore the lo-res modes with 40x48 pixels and the so-called "double-hi-res" mode which came with the IIc/e and wasn't as widely used):

What the Apple II *doesn't* have:

There are no colors in the text mode (only white text on a black screen), no user-definable character sets, no color registers(!), no separate color memory (like the C64 has), no hardware sprites, no display interrupts and except on the IIe no vertical blank detection mechanism (and by that I don't mean a CPU-cycle friendly "vertical blanking interrupt").
In fact an NTSC-capable Apple doesn't even output colors to the screen! Wait - how can that be? You see, the output are always (white) pixels - but at a certain timing. This results in the display to generate the colors - by artifacting. The Apple II was designed that way by genius Stephen Wozniak (aka The Woz) who exploited all kinds of things to keep the chip count on his motherboard low.

What's there, then?

You can have either 192 or 160 lines of graphics - the latter having four text mode lines at the bottom, as said before, but the memory usage is always the same: 8 KB. Because of this large framebuffer and having to write everything in 6502 assembler (no hardware sprites...) Apple II game programmers were often the best 6502 programmers - they had to write extremely efficient code.

The memory for the bottom four text lines (if enabled) is the same as in the text mode which resides at another fixed location.
In fact you can switch the four lines on or off with a single POKE (or equivalent machine code).

These hi-res modes have two framebuffers starting at fixed addresses ($2000 and $4000) which can be switched by software.
So you can - with careful timing - generate flicker-free animations.

The lines are sadly not linear but that can be a good thing as they don't cross page boundaries (which could cost a 6502 instruction an additional memory cycle).
The lines always consist of 40 linear bytes but the bits in them are reversed and bit 7 is used as a "color bit" that shifts the video timing a half pixel resulting in the video display generating different colors.

I can't get into too much detail here but let's just say: It's one of the most complicated frame buffer designs you'll ever see.
The link above should give you enough material to read and you surely will come to the same conclusion: That many games naturally used two bytes for their tiles (or a multiple of two like the innovative Origin RPG "Moebius" which used four bytes per tile).

The reason for the jumble frame buffer architecture is that Woz used the counters of the DRAM refresh logic to drive the video output logic - at the same time and with a minuscule amount of TTL chips. IMHO this is his masterpiece on the Apple II mainboard (the other being the separate floppy disk controller but that one can't be explained in a forum posting by a mere human ;-)

So, from a (game) programmer's view the choice was pretty easy when he wanted to use either colored text or text and graphics at the same time: He _had_ to use one of these graphics modes.
But how to "print" something on them? Use BASIC commands or ROM routines? Nope - the motto was: "Write your own character generator!" or in other words: Printing text to the graphics screen became a standard exercise and lots of people got good at it and later expanded their character printing into a "tile printing" routine. "Plotting" text characters pixel by pixel to the hi-res screen was something for beginner's articles in low-level magazines - several Apple II specific ones offered machine code listings.

Also because of the way the color generation worked "good" programmers/designers didn't use the built-in character data as the basis for their hi-res printing routines but rather defined their own character sets (good examples: The "Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego"-series from Broderbund or the Sherlock Holmes graphics adventure "Another Bow" from Bantam Software).


I hear it a lot with the TI's "half-bitmap" mode too... it's a perfectly legitimate mode, but because it involves address masking a lot of people consider it "non-standard", and act like a standard emulation can't or shouldn't support it.

The Apple has no such mode but I agree with your position as the TI had a pretty fixed hardware.

Using illegal 6502 opcodes would be another example for this: On the Apple II you can't use them as the majority of the models was produced with a 65C02 that didn't support them but on the C64 you could use them without problems as the CPU wasn't changed (and emulators usually support them).


Thanks. Yeah, doing an 11x11 matrix isn't too expensive, computationally. In fact, the Ultima IV LOS routine is not even optimized. I added several optimizations for special-cases to my TI version in order to speed it up. As is, the TI is about equal in speed, maybe a bit faster, than the Apple at the job.

The 6502 in the Apple - unobstructed by stolen CPU-cycles of a video chip (like the 8-bit Ataris and the C64 have) - has quite a good memory access. And as a 11x11 matrix easily fits in a single 6502 memory page (256 bytes) it can be addressed very quickly.
I remember having re-created the U4 LOS-algorithm more than twenty years ago on my trusty Atari (simply by observing what was happening while playing on my friends C64) but I had no speed problems at all - and I won't dare to call my code optimized.
The Atari was clocked 80% higher than the Apple but the video processor stole quite a large chunk of the memory accesses resulting in a comparable performance compared to all other popular 6502-based machines like the unaccelerated Apple or the C64 .


Of course, I'm also doing a slightly larger window, but I found with 15x15 that it could slow way down. I haven't checked, but I'd guess that now that my present version is timed via sound effects, I may be able to simplify the algorithm to run without optimizations and basically see the same performance.

When in doubt I would make the gameplay a bit slower and NOT leave out sounds or other things that make a game world detailed - thus making each step a bit more "meaningful". At least if you aren't deliberately making an action-oriented game.
In the Apple II version of Ultima IV you can walk one or two steps per second(!). The problem doesn't seem to be the screen refresh/tile rendering but the whole gaming world including NPCs, monsters etc.


What would be nice on the TI is if I could somehow utilize the full register for the LOS work, so I can do twice the amount of work in the same number of cycles. Take advantage of that 16-bits. :) I can't think of a way to do it, though, since the number of bytes involved in the window are odd...

I'm in no way accustomed to the TI architecturen (other than knowing that it is quite complicated - at least in the standard 16K configuration with the built-in BASIC that is written in an interpreted language itself) so I dutifully agree ;-)

There - I said I tried to be short!

take care,

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
The Last Known Ongoing Ultima Blog Bites the Dust!


And yet another dig at Ultima II... Man, I've got to play that at some point!

Wii: 1345 2773 2048 1586 | PS3: ArmchairArcade
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

Anonymous (not verified)
i hate this

the only resson i got a computer is to do music and games i don;t appresiate asses that copywrite game roms games are part of a complete package including documents and proof of purchase and all the materials that came with that purchase agame like ultima 111 is not on the market the very few insiders that know were to download the roms half to do without as it is just the program that cant befound anywere the creators and publishors of these games should be roarin proud that some kid who wasnot even born when it was relleased wants to download and play the game esspesialy as outdated, but none the less fun ! game ass ultima games on the god forsakin system as the c64 thankyou

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
I don't know what that last

I don't know what that last post was either for or against.

Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

Mark Vergeer
Mark Vergeer's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
I am at a loss....

But as I am not a native speaker of the English language and still struggle with grammar and vocabulary I am at a true disadvantage here ;-)

Xbox 360: Lactobacillus P | Wii: 8151 3435 8469 3138
Armchair arcade Editor | Pixellator |

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
I think he or she is ranting

I think he or she is ranting against copy protection (not really copyrighting) and the need to look in the manual or other copy protection type devices.

The latter is a problem for less popular abandonware games, because in some cases the manuals either don't exist or are very hard to find. Even if you get the rom working in an emulator, you may not be able to progress very far in the game.


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