Happy 40th Birthday, Ultima!

I’ve been a gamer since the days of Impossible Mission, Druid, Ghostbusters, Winter Games, and others on my Commodore 64. The Winter/Summer/California Games series was the first franchise I fell in love with, but there was one franchise that made me fall in love with an entire genre. That franchise turns 40 this year. We don’t know the exact date that first game came out, so we’re talking about it on January 1.

The Ultima series is quite possibly the most innovative series in the history of video games, let alone role playing games. My first exposure was with Ultima VI: The False Prophet, an open world concept game released in 1990. It didn’t take long to realize the depth of story I was in for. While the “long” console RPGs, such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior (which later reclaimed its proper name of Dragon Quest) were boasting 50-70 hours of gameplay, Ultima games were offering closer to 200 hours. In addition, the stories were non-linear, and they departed from the usual fantasy cliche’s in their tone and goals.

Of all the games in the franchise, the one that stands out to me as the most innovative is Ultima IV: The Quest of the Avatar, released in 1985. Brittanian society is starting to crumble. Their culture is based on eight virtues, and each of the eight major cities tries to embody a particular virtue, and is associated with a character class. You build your character by picking a (binary) gender, as the franchise had allowed you to do since the first entry in 1981. Then, you are asked questions of a moral and ethical nature, in which you are in hypothetical moral dilemmas and are forced to choose between two options that embody two different virtues. Once you answer all seven questions, your virtue emphasis determines your character class and starting point. You will eventually learn of your quest: the people feel it is impossible to live up to all eight virtues. You are to do so and set an example.

There is no evil entity causing problems you must defeat.

There is no set order to the tasks.

Your goal is to be a good person. That’s it. No villain to destroy, no set path to walk. Actions have consequences. Did I mention this game came out in 1985?

I could go on at much greater length, but instead, I’ll point to a far better written Wikipedia article. Electronic Arts currently owns the rights to the franchise, and distributes them through GOG.com, powered by DOSBox and released in their original incarnations. At the time of this writing, Ultima IV is free. I just miss the franchise terribly, and wish it still existed in its proper form, instead of slightly off-brand spinoffs (with or with the involvement of Richard Garriott, series creator).

Other purchase links (which are not referral links):

  • Akalabeth: World of Doom – The unofficial “Ultima 0”, this game was released in 1979 with no in-game ties to the Ultima franchise, but series creator Richard Garriott started here and expanded on these themes and techniques in later games. Free at the time of this writing.
  • Ultima I, II, III – The games that introduce the Stranger.
  • Ultima IV, V, VI – The so called “Avatar” trilogy, where the Stranger becomes the Avatar and eventually deals with racism and equality.
  • Ultima VII: The Complete Edition – The first game I’m aware of with add-on content you could pick up later, included in this purchase.
  • Ultima VIII: Gold Edition – The second part of the Guardian trilogy
  • Ultima IX: Ascension – Ending the Guardian trilogy rather decisively.
  • Ultima Underworld I and II – First person perspective games, the first of which came out after Wolfenstein 3D but before Doom, and which features actual 3D, so you can’t get clawed to death by a monster 30 feet below you because you stood too close to an edge that doesn’t really exist.
  • Ultima: Worlds of Adventure: The Savage Empire – A spinoff using the Ultima VI game engine, complete with its open world isometric view.
  • Ultima: Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams – Feel like meeting H.G. Wells and Nikolai Tesla in 1893? Here’s your chance.

At the time of this writing, you can get the entire franchise for $41.94 Canadian.

2 replies on “Happy 40th Birthday, Ultima!”

  1. This game also wpawned one of the first MMO’s Ultima: Online. It was unique in that it didn’t have archetypes but a pool of points that you could spend in any combination you could create. If you didn’t like the atribution you could unlearn some skills to learn others. “Bank Sitting” originated here.

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