I Played That! #3: Ultima III, II, and I (C64, PC)

If there is a single game that formed the basis of my videogame interests, it’s Ultima III. I can’t overstate how influential it was to me. Once I played it, there was no turning back, and that’s kind of an unfortunate thing.

Ultima III: Exodus had it all. It was a graphical, colorful adventure on a large map, with all kinds of secrets hidden on it. It teased you with views of places you couldn’t get to yet, and it hid things from you in clever ways. It was also just plain fun. You had a party with different skills, a bunch of spells and weapons, you could fight on ships, steal from merchants (I had looting the town of Dawn down to an art form), explore dungeons…there was just so much going on. I played it over and over.

It could also be brutal. Every now and then it would spawn a monster that your party was simply not strong enough to fight yet, and if you couldn’t get to a ship to blast it with cannons, you were out of luck. This could easily kill the game for you and dampen your enthusiasm, but it never got me down.

As its name implies, Ultima III is the third part of a trilogy. When I played it, I hadn’t played the others (hence, my ordering of them above), but that didn’t matter. All you needed to know was that the villains from the first two, Mondain and Minax, had an evil offspring called “Exodus” and you gotta stop it. Boom, now you’re all caught up. Nothing from the previous games really carried over, so the backstory wasn’t important.

Eventually I did play Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress, which was something of a different experience. First off, I got this one (as I did with Exodus) pirated, and the files for it were somewhat corrupted in the process. As a result, there were weird glitches all over the map, including a “bridge” of castles connecting two landmasses and an infinite supply of boats. So it was kind of tough to play it as intended.

Secondly, Ultima II is just kind of bizarre. It takes place in different eras, some of which are more or less on Earth. At one point you’re in the Soviet Union, where “WARREN BEATTY ASKS: HAVE YOU SEEN DIANE KEATON?” So that’s a sort of thing that happens. It still has a lot to impress: there are still dungeons, secrets, flying a spaceship, dying of starvation instantly, so it has a lot to offer, but after the more focused plot of Ultima III it was a bit off-putting. I still, however, can recite from memory the poem that you piece together through the game.

I mention that I pirated these two; I more than made up for that later. Eventually Origin released “The Complete Ultima”, which contained the first three games with relatively upgraded graphics. Not only did I finally buy the things, I got to play Ultima II as intended and Ultima I at all. I don’t remember much about that first one, though. (I also re-bought them via GOG.com.)

Ultima III is the jewel in that particular crown, and it’s old-fashioned keep-a-notebook-and-pencil-handy-to-take-notes role-playing gaming at its finest. And what would come after it was even better, but that — and why I describe my love for the series as “unfortunate” above — is a story for another time.

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