Because of my love for Ultima III, I bought Ultima IV as soon as I could. Ultima IV would radically change the Ultima series forever, and in a better world we don’t live in, it would have changed all of RPG games. Subtitled, “The Quest of the Avatar”, the plot of the game wasn’t about triumphing over a powerful creature, but on self-improvement. A system of virtues, lost long ago, was to be rediscovered, and the player would become the Avatar, the champion of virtue. This involved interacting with people, recovering items, killing monsters (but only evil ones; killing non-evil things caused a loss of virtue), and meditation. Yes, you would discover mantras (most of which I still have memorized) that you chanted at shrines to become more virtuous. The game was steeped in Philosophy and Ethics 101 but was still compelling.
The limited dialogue system began one of the Ultima series’ greatest running jokes. You’d initiate dialogue with someone and then assaulted them with capitalized, one-word “questions”: NAME. JOB. HEALTH. If they said, “I work in the mines” you might then say “MINES” and they might tell you more. The impression was of this person striving to be the apex of humanity being a barking idiot, and it was great.
I played it the first time through with my then-girlfriend. Whenever someone said “Quest” we got all excited because it might mean they would join our party. We also kept a running list of characters we didn’t like, who were rude to us or something (imagine being rude to someone yelling “NAME” and “JOB” at you) who we intended to go back and kill after we finished the game.
Ultima IV delivered what it promised; a satisfying, interesting quest that was not primarily built around combat. While there are plenty of things to fight, you go to the very end without a “boss” and yet it’s considered one of the best RPGs of all time.
Ultima V took the virtues of Ultima IV and expanded on them. The ruler of Britannia, Lord British (the in-game personification of designer Richard Garriott) has vanished, and in his place Lord Blackthorne, who is certainly not a bad guy with that name, no sir, has taken over. He continues to use the virtues of the Avatar to guide Britannia, but they become perverted to their bad extremes. For example, his rule for Honesty is, “Thou shalt not lie, or thou shalt lose thy tongue.” You have to rescue Lord British and restore the correct balance to the virtues. There is also the corrupting influence of the Shadowlords, evil beings which taint the cities they visit and provide a constant threat.
Despite the Shadowlords and the bad guy of Lord Blackthorne, once again, this isn’t leading to any kind of miniboss or end boss battle. They are dealt with in non-combat ways (in fact, fighting a Shadowlord is almost certain death and, even if one is victorious, doesn’t get rid of it permanently). Once again, there’s nothing unsatisfying about this.
Ultima V was similar in look and feel to IV, though with some enhancements. It’s seen as one of the weaker entries, but I still have a soft spot for it. It came out in 1988, which means I almost certainly played it on the PC instead of the Commodore 64, but I remember playing it in color, which I didn’t have on the PC for a while.
Ultima VI presented huge changes in the game design, and I hated it at first. The game engine I’d been used to since Ultima III had radically changed and therefore was bad. In fairness, the changes were even more dramatic for me. It was designed for a computer mouse, which I didn’t have yet, and the keyboard commands were very different from what had come before. Also, I was still playing on a green screen monitor, so the various colored potions — some of which were bad and shouldn’t be drunk — all looked the same to me. In addition, it was big, and playing with just the floppy drive was not an option. This was the second game that prompted the purchase of my 10MB hard card.
The much larger scale of the game was impressive, but also a bit irritating. Travel could be tedious, and there’s a particularly arduous central quest that maximizes this. There’s a stone tablet you need, which was found by pirates. They buried it with their loot and made a treasure map which is broken into nine parts. You have to get each part, and often you have to do something else (which sometimes involves multiple parts of another thing). It takes up the lion’s share of the game and sends you all over the world.
The problem in Ultima VI is that these beings called Gargoyles have appeared and are angry about something or other and attacking people. You, the Avatar, have to figure out what the problem with them is. At first this doesn’t seem like it has much to do with the virtues and such, but, as with everything in this trilogy, they prove to be central.
This is a fantastic trilogy of games. The themes are established and developed well, and while it takes the world into a new direction, it features numerous callbacks to the original trilogy. The goal of self-improvement was novel, and unfortunately still is, providing a completely different experience from everything else on the market. Mix all that with an interesting, fleshed-out world and a lot of cool mechanisms and it’s no wonder this series is so revered.
I keep talking about the lack of a combat focus. Again, there is combat in the game, plenty of it, but none of these three games end with you finally being strong enough to beat up a guy who needs to be beaten up for the world to be right again. It’s refreshing and interesting and all the games still provide a thrill of victory upon completion, despite the lack of a boss battle. Unfortunately few-to-no other games took up the challenge, and this series remains an exception. In fact, for the most part, RPGs went in the complete opposite direction, becoming combat engines that sometimes have some plot involved. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve mentioned to others that I wished more RPGs weren’t boss battle centered and was told that such a thing would be impossible and unsatisfying. This is what I meant when I said, in the first Ultima entry in this series, that the influence of Ultima III on my gaming tastes would eventually become an unfortunate thing.