Ultima VII: The Black Gate cannot be overemphasized in my gaming history. It was a watershed moment, the culmination of my long-held love for the series and solidified my tastes in gaming, for good or ill. It absolutely blew me away and held me in thrall. I’m not the only one, either; it regularly occupies top spots on “Best Videogames Ever” lists.
By the time that U7 came out the series was already established as one that emphasized plot over combat. An “end boss” hadn’t been seen since Ultima 2, and that included two spin-off games. This one, though, literally started out with a red-faced antagonist directly addressing the player and presenting himself as an ultimate foe. It looked like things were about to change in Britannia.
The game throws you right into the action, dumping you at the scene of a murder. Right away you’re given this quest, and a suspect to trail after. In addition, you’re introduced to a new force for good in Britannia, The Fellowship. But it doesn’t take long until that organization starts to look a little suspicious. Does it have anything to do with the murder? Or this red-faced “Guardian” who occasionally pops up to taunt you?
The graphics are gorgeous as well, with lush 3D isometric screens. Containers such as backpacks, chests, and even corpses, can be opened up to search. Interesting (and sometimes perplexing) things are hidden all over the spacious map. Everything, including the dialog, is mouse-driven.
Combat was even more sidelined. Although there are some things you can do in battle, largely you just set your guys to automatically execute certain attacks and they just go at it. No micromanaging every sword hit and sling bullet, which meant a fair amount of saving and reloading, but also you could more easily stay on track of the story and not have to get bogged down with fighting slimes too much.
How great was Ultima VII? It shipped with a game-wrecking bug. You could very easily get to a door towards the end of the game that you couldn’t open because the key had vanished from your backpack. And that was it; you couldn’t go any further or get the key again. It was a boneheaded bit of programming, and this was in the days before you could just grab a patch off a web site. Origins had to send you a replacement disk. (I think. I don’t remember if you could call their BBS and download it.) Nevertheless, I still adored it.
It was also one of the first games to have an expansion. The Forge of Virtue was an add-on that added more items, a new quest, and other goodies to the existing game.
And if that wasn’t enough, then came Ultima VII Part 2: The Serpent Isle. Not so much a sequel, as it didn’t continue the story so much as add stuff alongside it. The story in U7.5 is even better than the U7 one, as you are wandering among the ruins of a long-vanished race, trying to put together their story. It was more of what you got in U7, only in a new setting and with different goals. It too had an add-on, The Silver Seed. The complete Ultima 7 gave you hours of adventuring.
Unfortunately all this innovation came at a cost. To achieve the graphical feats the game boasted required a memory manager called VooDoo that Origin had developed. It was sometimes tough to get even contemporary high-end machines to run it well, and once new chips and operating systems showed up, it was all but impossible to get VooDoo to run. One of the best adventure games was unplayable on modern systems for years. That’s all been changed, though, and now you can buy the whole shebang off GOG for a pittance.
I have bought it, and started it up, but as I said, it’s a heavy time commitment. I didn’t get very far into it. But I really want to play the entire thing again, as I have such great memories of it.
The Serpent Isle ends on a shocking cliffhanger, to be resolved in Ultima 8! Things are getting better and better for this series and I’m sure the next one will be simply amazing!