Ultima, Ultima

Matt Barton's picture

Hail, brave adventurer! That's right--it's time for me to start drafting the chapter on Ultima for Vintage Gaming, the forthcoming book by your very own Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton. Thankfully, I've already done much of the necessary research for this title for Dungeons & Desktops, but I'd still like to hear your stories about the Ultima series. What is the best Ultima? What is the worst? What do you consider the most important innovations introduced by the series? I can think of several right off the top, such as the focus on ethical decisions and the more personality-driven character creation system of later games. The series is also known for introducing really memorable characters and stories, years ahead of the more character and plot-driven JRPGs. Other factors worth considering are the heavy attention given to the interactive world in Black Gate, and the radical changes made to the engine from game to game.

Garriott seems to have been directly influenced by popular games of the era, and he was willing to change the engine to match the current fad. Thus, we get the Mario-like jumping in Pagan or the party-based gameplay of Exodus (Garriott said that he wanted this setup because Wizardry had it). The interplay between first and third-person was interesting in the early games as well.

Anyway, I know we have some Ultima fans here, so please let me know what facts and stories you consider essential for a definitive chapter on the subject.

I must admit to never having played an Ultima game all the way through. The problem is that by the time I finally got hold of one, I had already gotten into the Gold Box and Bard's Tale games. I never saw the later PC-based Ultima games until much later. That said, I have played most of them, including the Ultima Underworld games that made such innovative use of first-person, 3D graphics. Sadly, I've tried to get interested in The Black Gate and so on, but I don't think these games have aged very well. Did you just have to grow up playing these to really get it? I'm not sure why anyone would want to slog through the older games except out of nostalgic or historic interest, but I'd be happily proven wrong. I guess I'd wonder that if I were going to sit down and actually play all the way through an Ultima game, which one would be the one to pick? Which has best stood the test of time?

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Matt Barton
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Seriously? No one is going

Seriously? No one is going to chime in about Ultima??? I can't believe it.

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Bill Loguidice
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Ultima Comments

Everyone may have been tired from this thread, which I think will provide some useful nuggets: http://www.armchairarcade.com/neo/node/1764



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adamantyr
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Ultima

I think a certain degree of nostalgia is needed to really enjoy the earlier titles in the series.

I have a pretty good idea of this. My first computer, the TI, did not have any Ultima titles released for it. And I was unable to buy a new computer for many years, not until the early 90's in fact. And to add to my frustration, we still had an active Compute! magazine subscription from 1986-1888, so I was constantly teased with reviews and articles on games I couldn't play. (I have, in fact, the issue with Shay Addams reviewing Ultima 5.)

Events also seemed to conspire against me ever getting the chance to play Ultima. We had Apple II's at school and a professor had a copy of Ultima 2 (which suspiciously looked like a cracked copy, come to think of it), but without any guidelines on the keys I met a quick death, since I couldn't figure out the movement keys. Later a friend lent me his old Atari 800 with disk system to play Ultima 4... and his boot disk died on the second try.

In my late teens, I was finally able to start saving up for a PC. My goal was a PC that could play Ultima 7, which I had seen on a friend's computer. (He in fact gave me his copies of U6 and 7, with the maps and everything.) I bought the 1-6 compilation CD months before I had the computer, and even several of the hint books, some of which I was fortunate to get at that point, since they're worth a LOT on eBay now. My first PC, a 486, was up to the task of every Ultima out at that point (1-8), so I was at last able to play the series I'd dreamed about so long.

The one thing really lacking, though, in the earlier titles is the sense of mystique and the unknown. When I read an early review of Ultima 2, it sounded like a living world you were stepping into. I remember someone telling me that the first town you visited had some kind of festival going on... I'm not sure how he got that impression, since there's no such thing in the game's dialogue, but clearly imagination lent a large part of the verisimilitude to the games. If you don't have that, then it's just another game, really, with finite boundaries. The ONLY game I know of that has actually come close to a living world is Dwarf Fortress...

Bill Loguidice
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Ultima II, Dwarf Fortress and Nostalgia - A Cruel Mistress
adamantyr wrote:

IThe one thing really lacking, though, in the earlier titles is the sense of mystique and the unknown. When I read an early review of Ultima 2, it sounded like a living world you were stepping into. I remember someone telling me that the first town you visited had some kind of festival going on... I'm not sure how he got that impression, since there's no such thing in the game's dialogue, but clearly imagination lent a large part of the verisimilitude to the games. If you don't have that, then it's just another game, really, with finite boundaries. The ONLY game I know of that has actually come close to a living world is Dwarf Fortress...

Dwarf Fortress has intrigued me, but I haven't tried it as of yet...

As for Ultima II, I had a somewhat similar experience. My friend Brian had an Apple IIe back around the time I had just gotten my C-64. My other friend had an Atari 8-bit. Anyway, when we were at my friend Brian's house, the Apple IIe, which was in the living room and featured a green screen monitor, was being played by his brother. What did he have on it? Ultima II. It seemed magical at the time, especially since this was before I played my first CRPG, Phantasie (again on my C-64 and again an unforgettable experience). When Brian described the game to me, he was talking about traveling to various planets and all the other features of the game.

Still not having gotten around to playing it to this day, though very much wanting to, it was with great disappointment that my modern understanding of the game - based on countless Web reviews and opinions - is that the game is actually not that great and even Garriott kind of dogged it due to conflicts with Sierra (which in turn tried to screw him with "Escape from Mt. Drash"), even though superficially it sounds huge in scope. Certainly that magical memory and the game's description can NEVER live up to the actual experience of the game, particularly today, when I'm jaded by my experiences with dozens of videogame RPGs since.

Regardless, I think it's important though as a videogame historian for continuing to expand my first-hand understanding of videogame history to be sure to play as much of the series as possible at some point, which was the intent of that earlier posting I referenced. But yeah, a LOT of older games are colored by nostalgia, which is often a false or elusive memory (Penn & Teller's did a recent episode of Bullshit! on that very subject). This happens with all genres of games, but particularly videogame RPGs, as there is a LOT of story to fill in or remember more vividly than it actually happened.



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adamantyr
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Ultima, Dwarf Fortress

Dwarf Fortress is either the most "fantastic" game ever made, or you have no clue what the big deal is. :) I'll admit I didn't see it at first myself; I was only looking for a decent Rogue game at the time. Then after reading the DF wiki on starting a fortress and trying it out... just incredible. It's the kind of game you wanted to write in the 80's but there wasn't enough memory or processing power to do it. The fact it LOOKS like a game from the 80's adds to this sentiment.

Anyway, back to Ultima...

Ultima I - The PC remade version of this is pretty playable, very responsive, if a bit dry in scope and plot. It still has that BASIC game feel to it, and the random elements give it a really "game" feel. I think it falls apart when you go into space; it's totally different and it feels like a mini-game with no real connection to the prior game. Plus it's like "succeed or die" conditions, which isn't fun.

Ultima II - This actually plays pretty well; the Apple II version is very quick and responsive. The initial difficulty of the game when you're low level and weak is the challenging part... when you get the ship and the ship's cannons this largely disappears and the game becomes one of exploration. The dialogue and plot in the game is really weak, though... before walkthroughs and hint books, I imagine a lot of time was wasted trying to figure out HOW to win the game. (Sort of like Gates of Delirium... maybe it's more true to Ultima than we thought!)

Ultima III - This is really difficult to play on the PC; the UI for party control is very cumbersome. However, the PC version isn't too bad if you get into the swing of it. The downside is the primary focus of the many hours of play is to gain levels, money to buy up attributes, and collect quest items. The NES version of the same game is actually pretty playable as well, but with less flexibility. I found that encounters my low level party in the PC version could easily handle would result in a TPK in the NES version. For example, I tried travelling to a healing fountain in a dungeon close to Britain to save money; a common tactic on the PC version. Doesn't work on the NES version because it has an internal counter that guarantees an encounter when in dungeons after X amount of time.

Ultima IV - Very playable, both NES and PC versions. You can get a ton of patches for the PC version these days to give it better graphics, re-integrate the original music, etc. Still some level-grinding involved, but a lot less annoyance than the prior games. Everyone should play this one at least once; I'd recommend you start with this one if you've never played an Ultima before.

Ultima V - Like 4, but with a lot more complexity. From what I remember of Ophidian's play-through, it's a lot harder in combat because the amount of hit points was reduced. Easy to run into "instant death" situations, don't enter towns when you have a "feeling of" something nasty otherwise a Shadowlord will pwn you. I've never played this one to completion because it's really hard, but I have a feeling it would be satisfying to win. NES version is stripped down and odd, stick with the PC version.

Ultima VI - Very playable, although the windowed display is rather limiting compared to the full-screen displays of 7-9. A decent game with a lot of depth to the NPC's and good side stories in every town to follow. Satisfying to play and win. The SNES version of this is actually quite good; it's missing portraits, some of the spells, and monsters that relied on the tile engine and couldn't be replicated with sprites easily (like silver serpents and the plant things). But the full-screen display really makes up for all that.

Ultima VII - What else to say? The best Ultima, bar none. Using the Exult engine or going to the trouble of setting up on a DOS machine, a truly great game, one of the last of its kind. In particular, the thick meaty dialogue that assumed you were an adult and not a 10-year old (*cough* JRPG's *cough*) was very welcome. A lot of neat nooks and crannies to explore and stuff to find that even walk throughs missed. Serpent Isle is more linear, but it was a refreshing change, and a re-visit to an old continent in new form was very exhilarating. One warning: Absolutely avoid the SNES version. In fact, destroy it if you find one. One of the worst PC->console ports ever. Playing may induce brain hemorrhage. You have been warned.

Ultima VIII - Reviled in its time, has been partly redeemed by the odiousness of the following title. At least 8 was still in 2D, albeit in an isometric projection. Overly difficult and with a lot of opportunities for instant death. Multiple spell systems are clever but hard to keep track of, and some of the spells are very imbalanced. (But Ultima's have rarely HAD balanced combat and spell systems.) Runs okay in DOSBox. Too much action and dexterity required, but the background stories and characters are still Ultima in nature... more than 9 had!

Ultima IX - It's not bad, but merely adequate. In particular, it's a pain to run on modern systems right now because 3DFX is no longer around and the Direct3D code was never fully tested. Has a bad habit of corrupting saves and crashing abruptly with no warning or reason given, probably related to 3D artwork. Don't ever enter the King's head tavern by the saloon style doors on the north side, it seems to cause permanent crashes in Britain if you open them and leave them open. Story and plot are juvenile and full of holes. The music is well done, though, and the artwork isn't too bad apart from the faces being fairly primitive. (Half-Life came out at the same time and was much better, even before the graphics upgrade.) If not a great or even a good ending, it IS an ending.

Rowdy Rob
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Ultima = "Robotron" of RPG's

I admit I haven't played an "Ultima" game since around 1983-84, and thus my memories of the game are hazy, but I do have some possibly-relevant inputs into the discussion. As a matter of fact, I don't think I've ever read "praise" that covered this aspect of the game, so maybe my viewpoint is unique! :-)

My high-school computer club was basically a video-game oasis during school hours when members had "study hall" periods. (Hmm, I wonder if that had anything to do with me doing poorly in classes and such?). Among the games that were played heavily on the club's Apple II system was "Ultima II & III." (There were MANY other games, since we had access to lots of pirated Apple II software).

The "Ultima" games look primitive today, but the low-tech approach (by even then-contemporary standards) may have something to do with its appeal! There were no super-cool graphics (most of the gfx consisted of stick figures and simple icon-based imagery), heavy animation, smooth-scrolling maps, complicated battle systems, or heavy resource management/inventory systems. While this sounds like criticism of the game, it actually stripped the game down to bare essentials and made the game FAST-PACED!

I can't think of a faster-paced RPG than Ultima II (or III), even accounting for modern RPGs. Your character, free from "walking" animations or smooth-scrolling maps, was able to ZIP around the map at nearly "Sonic the Hedgehog" speeds! Technically, your "hero" was faster than Sonic, since he was technically travelling hundreds of miles in a second! As fast as you could hit a movement key, your character sped across the terrain! This allowed you to "fast-forward" past the usually snooze-inducing travelling and get right to the good parts (battle, conversing with NPC's, etc.).

Battle pretty much consisted of "attack" and "run." Again, it was fast-paced, and could almost be arcade-like as you ran away, with other monsters trying to surround you and cut you off. If you were surrounded or trapped against the terrain, you were toast! It was very exciting; the simplistic battles pretty much threw out all the usual RPG strategies and was more about positioning yourself against your enemies.

NPC's generally were either informative or amusing (or both!). There was a whimsical feel to these Ultima games that made them appealing. They didn't take themselves too seriously, yet were not "cutesy" in a "JRPG" way.

The sound effects were minimal (at least in the non-soundcard-enhanced versions), but the attack and especially the "hit" sound effects were effective. When you got hit, the odd "buzz-scream-crunch" sound effect (that's the best way I can describe it) made you "feel" it!

The graphics were primitive, but the large world-map made exploration fun and intriguing, especially since you could explore it so speedily! The world-map exploration also set this fantasy RPG apart from the other "dungeon-crawl" RPG's of the time, which seemed like mere maze games in comparison. Rogue? Maze game. Wizardry? Maze game. Temple of Apshai? Maze game. (Hey, wait a minute, I liked Temple of Apshai!) The large, varied map gave Ultima an EPIC feel! Could you travel the seas and fight in a ship in these other games? No. Could you explore entire continents in these other games? No. Could you explore entire towns in these games? No. And so on and so on. Plus, you didn't have to "map" your way around like you did in games like "Wizardry," which was a plus for lazy bums like me.

Ultimas II and III were fast paced, approachable, uncomplicated, light-hearted fantasies for the masses. "Wizardry," its closest competitor, was highly technical and "hardcore" in comparison. Needless to say, I've never played "Wizardry," and was bored to tears watching other club members play it.

I don't remember the "3D dungeon crawl" parts of Ultima II at all, but reading "Dungeons & Desktops," I think I realize why: they were boring and irrelevant to the gameplay, which is why we probably didn't enter them much. It was much more fun to speed across the countryside and hack away at monsters....

(BTW, I did play a "freeware" knockoff of "Ultima II" on the Amiga many years ago, and I played it to the end. I forgot what it was called, though, but it is available on Aminet and it was very fun!)

"The Legend of Zelda" on the NES was clearly Ultima-inspired, but in trying to be "modern," it took away much of the "speedy" fun of Ultima, and thus I didn't like it.

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Bill Loguidice
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Ultima to Zelda connection?
Rowdy Rob wrote:

"The Legend of Zelda" on the NES was clearly Ultima-inspired, but in trying to be "modern," it took away much of the "speedy" fun of Ultima, and thus I didn't like it.

qoj hpmoj o+ 6uo73q 3Jv 3svq jnoh 77V

That's an interesting observation - one I never heard before, but it seems to superficially make sense (I'm no Zelda expert, though). We actually have a Legend of Zelda chapter as well. What do you think about that Matt?



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Matt Barton
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ultima/zelda
Bill Loguidice wrote:

That's an interesting observation - one I never heard before, but it seems to superficially make sense (I'm no Zelda expert, though). We actually have a Legend of Zelda chapter as well. What do you think about that Matt?

Hi, Bill and Rob!

I really loved reading about Rob's experiences with Ultima in the computer lab at school. That sounds like some really great times. I didn't have anything comparable to that, unfortunately. We had a computer lab at my high school, but they quickly found out my friend and I were "dangerous," especially after we put a funny program on the teacher's computer that mimicked DOS. Everytime you tried to type something into it, though, it'd say something like "I don't want to do that right now, I'm having my period!" We thought it was hilarious, but it was trouble. Funny thing was, the principle didn't seem to know what to make of it, so we didn't really get punished.

I also liked the emphasis on world exploration vs. maze games. I agree with that; thinking back on it, I can't think of many games (Phantasie comes to mind) where you have a big "overhead map" instead of crawling around in dungeons. Most games of the period seem to think that dungeon crawling is where it's at. The top-down perspective and tile-based graphics seems to make it easy to make big overland maps; it'd be harder to represent something like that using first-person wireframe graphics, I think. Bard's Tale is the first game that really tried to tackle that, and even there you only had one city (later games expanded it). Still, I don't think you really got the same sense of scale. I remember playing Morrowind and finally seeing that a world like that was huge; you had to be able to see things far off in the distance and know you could travel all the way there.

I'm not quite sure I understand the Zelda comment. I see some similarities to Ultima; the top-down view, for instance, but the gameplay seems really different with the arcade action on each screen. It definitely stripped out most of the RPG elements of Ultima. I can't remember who, but somebody made a good case that Wizardry was more influential on JRPGs, which I can see clearly in Dragon Warrior/Quest--but I still see a strong Ultima influence. I might say that Ultima is closer to Final Fantasy (the original), or perhaps Phantasy Star.

There's a story in one of these books about how Lord British was shown a JRPG and he felt it was a ripoff of Ultima II or III to the point where he threatened to sue them if they released it. They took it down immediately. I'd have to dig up my books to find this story, but I don't think the author gave details. In general, though, it seems Americans and Europeans were far more willing to make close clones than the Japanese (Gates of Delirium, anyone?)

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Rowdy Rob
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Zelda and Ultima?
Matt Barton wrote:

I really loved reading about Rob's experiences with Ultima in the computer lab at school. That sounds like some really great times.

It was really great times, and since our school had an odd "modular" class schedule, some days I would only have two classes, and would spend the rest of the day in the computer club room playing videogames! There was a separate computer "lab" in my school where students actually studied programming, and it was a much more serious atmosphere. Ironically, the "lab" was stocked with Atari 800's (not Apple II's), and double-ironically, the Ataris were stocked with "Microsoft Basic" rather than using the built-in Atari Basic.

Looking back, though, I have to wonder what the school administrators were thinking? The computer club was NOTHING but a videogame "oasis" where we played games all the time and hung out. It was not conductive to school at all.

Matt Barton wrote:

I'm not quite sure I understand the Zelda comment. I see some similarities to Ultima; the top-down view, for instance, but the gameplay seems really different with the arcade action on each screen. It definitely stripped out most of the RPG elements of Ultima.

Yeah, I'm starting to think someone slipped some crack into my coffee when I posted that. I may have Zelda confused with some other arcadish JRPG, but if I remember correctly, here's where I see some similarities...

The whole "interacting with NPC's" bit in Zelda seemed to be very reminiscent of Ultima, particularly in the "town" segments of Ultima. You wander around and meet up with NPC's who are wandering around, and dialogue occurs. Some of the dialogue is just chatter, while other NPC's have something meaningful to say. The NPC dialogue system was streamlined and refined a bit in Zelda, but it seemed to work the same.

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Mark Vergeer
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I more ore less find the

I more ore less find the series unplayable now. Really loved that Ultima clone walkthrough-series a while back. It sort of gave me 'replacement memories' of finishing that game myself. :-P



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