Good Old Games (GOG.com) has released the first and second trilogies of the Ultima series. This is significant because for many people, Ultima was their first delve into computer RPG’s. Not only that, but the Ultimas for better or worse have shaped all the RPGs that have followed it.
Some things that are staples today in what is considered an “expansive world” (like the ability to cook, or NPC schedules) started or at least became popular in the Ultima games. And Richard “Lord British” Garriott, creator of Ultima, is a model for many developers who would like to strike it big in the world of game development starting from nothing but lines of code and a PC.
So, whatever your opinion of Ultima, it has a lot of historical significance. And so I bought the two trilogies on GOG.com and started playing through them. This article is going through the ones I have played, comparing my recollections of the games with my actual playthroughs and noting things that are interesting in each title.
This isn’t quite where it all started, as there was a game that came before it that isn’t really part of Ultima. However, its the first of the series. Back when it first came out, it was just “Ultima” as there was no idea that there would be 8 more games following it.
My recollection: an entertaining kind-of roguelike with a horrifyingly bad jaunt into space arcade, and pretty easy to beat.
My playthrough: Exactly how I remembered. I beat the game in roughly four hours (not one sitting, about an hour a night for a few nights), and I wasn’t even trying to beat it particularly fast. Of all the Ultimas, this is the one I’ve actually played to completion the most (a few of them I’ve never “beat” all the way) so I played it mostly with muscle memory at this point. Its a really good “mind numb” game, at least until you have to fight the space battle. Then you wish you could throw Lord British out the airlock for that part of the game existing.
What we learn: Simple can be entertaining. In fact, I wish more Rogue-likes were like this game, as the towns and overworld really fill out a complete universe that some roguelikes really seem to lack. This game is probably why I like Angband so much, which is the first roguelike that really captured me (and kept me, as I play it to this day) because the two have a lot of similarities.
Also, throwing something in because you can is a bad idea. LB put the space sequence in because he had extra disk space and wanted to make something fun for him to program. However, it’s the part of the game that stands up least to the test of time, to the degree that it is really just not fun and interrupts the flow. If you’re going to put something into a game, make sure it connects to your game as a whole!
My recollection: Almost unplayable, awful game. Stupid premise, stupid world, and very ugly. One playthrough in the distant past I got pretty close to beating, getting so far as Minox’s castle, but completing the game was too painful to bother and I’ve never beat it.
My playthrough: A little better than I remembered. For one thing, I went in playing a rogue this time. For another thing, I put a LOT more thought into my initial stats than I probably did back when I first played and this made my life a lot better. Through the power of theft, I overcame the initial hurdles that usually taint Ultima 2 (in that it is very easy to starve and very easy to not be able to kill anything due to your crappy weapons).
Also, the graphics patch helped. It still looks like the wrong side of a monkey compared to Ultima 1 in the dungeons, but otherwise was more or less the same. So I played it for awhile, found it was much much harder to make money and establish the character than in Ultima 1. I looked up online a few things that I couldn’t remember so well, like how to raise your stats.
And then I remembered something horrifying; not only does the game rely on random drops from dead monsters that it doesn’t tell you when you obtain (it tells you how much gold the monster dropped, but not if it dropped a brass button or one of the other random things that you need in this game) but thieves can STEAL these items from you. And several items one might consider sundry (like torches) are random drop items. And they don’t drop that frequently.
Yeah. No. I have better things to do. I stopped playing, just because this is not fun.
What we learn: Relying on random drops from monsters is always a bad design choice in my opinion. The only way this can work, in my opinion, is to make it something that drops most (if not all) the time when certain monsters are killed. Ultima 2 just makes it frustrating.
Stealing from the player is not fun. In Ultima 1, when they stole things from you that were of minimal value (puh, big whoop, you stole my spare sword worth 10 gold. Boo-hoo.) it was excusable. However, Ultima 1’s gelatenous cubes which would always eat your armor were really annoying. Still, armor didn’t seem all that useful anyway. Ultima 2’s rogues punish you hard, especially since there doesn’t seem to be a ranged attack or any way to prevent this.
The next game in a series should feel technologically superior to the previous game, or at least the same. Ultima 2 seems to take some big steps backwards; sure the towns are big and you can talk to people (kinda) which is revolutionary in a sense, but the game play is really a throw-back. No ranged weapons and dungeons where the monsters look way stupider and worse compared to the previous game makes this one seem just stunted and irrelevant.
Lord British’s last foray into space, at least until he goes into space himself — that’s a positive thing. Also space is considerably less annoying than in the first game. I didn’t see that in my playthrough this time, though, because I couldn’t stick with the game long enough to get to that section.
The “time gates” are kind of cool and mark the first appearance of teleporters which will show up in almost all of the future games. Though basing the game in the real world just makes the game feel kind of stupid and empty. The scale is all wrong and it just keeps the user in a constant sense of disbelief. This game would have been much more fun if it was still in the world of Ultima 1, just because it wouldn’t feel nearly as “stupid”.
In short: a lot bad to learn from this game, and sadly a few mistakes we still make in games. But overall, Ultima 2 is pretty irrelevant.
I’ll get back to this one, promise! GOG released the second trilogy when I was coming to this game, and honestly Ultima 3 is my least favorite of the entire series (though it’s a better game than 2, it’s still my least favorite). I’ll get back to it, though.
Last game of this article!
My recollection: I’ve played several versions of this game over the years. The PC version that’s on GOG, the Nintendo version (which is freaking brutal compared to the original — I’ll get to that in a minute), and a few modern versions like xu4 and Shattered Moon’s multiplayer Ultima 4. I’ve actually only beat it twice; the first time was Shattered Moon’s version (I wanted to see if it worked!) and the second time was a couple days ago.
The first RPG that really captivated me was Ultima 5. So, in my youth, playing these games on the PC, my standards bar was Ultima 5. And Ultima 4 on the PC looked terrible and was close enough to Ultima 5 that it was familiar but far enough away that it didn’t give me the same “escape” that Ultima 5 did. So I never played it much on the PC.
I got really into it on the Nintendo because it looked awesome and was fun for me to play. However, I couldn’t quite beat it on the Nintendo; I could get all the way to level 8 of the Abyss but always died before I could finish. After a couple of attempts, I got fed up and stopped. The reason is simple; the Nintendo ultima did several things in a very “JRPG” way that the PC ultima spares you from.
The Nintendo Ultima had random monster encounters that you could not avoid because you could not see them on the map. You could use the “blink” spell to escape them, but you couldn’t avoid them outright. So when you set off to the Abyss, your resources are being drained immediately out the gate even if it’s just in the form of consuming blink spells (its worse if you actually fight, because you’ll consume more resources that you can’t recover). Additionally, you could not save wherever you wanted, nor could you rest wherever you wanted — two features the PC version had.
Once in the Abyss, you could only use the mystic arms because nothing else would damage the monsters in the dungeon AND if I recall correctly, virtue applied in the dungeons (so you had to kill all the monsters in a room before moving on). This is like fighting with one arm behind your back, because being forced to use close-range weapons when all the monsters can shoot is just cruel. In the PC version, you can use ranged weapons as long as they are “Magic” (Magic Bow or Magic Wand), which is vital for survival. Further, what happens in the dungeons stays in the dungeons, so you can just flee the room if you want.
And finally, if you made any wrong answers in the Abyss (it asks you questions at each level and then again when you get to the bottom), the Nintendo version would eject you from the dungeon, therefore killing your progress. The PC version is much more forgiving and lets you make mistakes, which is good because some of the questions it asks you at the very end are severely ambiguous 😛
Wow… that was a lot of recollection! Anyway, on to the playthrough.
The playthrough: First off, the VGA graphics patch makes this game enjoyable. Secondly, I think I beat this game in record time … I didn’t keep close track, but I completed it over the course of a couple nights. I had all the runes, locations, and mantras memorized out the gate which was kind of crazy. But I think a lot of gamers probably remember those things.
I played it rather streamlined; I didn’t let anyone join my party until I had become a full avatar, and I remembered the best way to get all the virtues and only talked to people just enough to level up Honesty and Humility. Of course, Compassion was the worst to grind.
When I was a full avatar, I collected all the companions and used the dungeon stone quests to level them up. I managed to avoid using the hot air balloon at all by making strategic use of blink, and I did pretty much everything from memory.
And really… no complaints! I had a hard time remembering where nightshade is, and I wished it was like in Nintendo version where you could buy Nightshade and Mandrake as hidden items in the store in Bucc’s Den, but otherwise it was pretty fun start to finish.
What we learn: Ultima 4 is a key example of how a simple game can have a lot of depth. There is a lot to Ultima 4, and a lot going on, and if you come from it as an open-minded newcomer it can be a fascinating place to get around in and a very unique gaming experience. Also, Ultima 4 manages to have a lot of interesting aspects to it without getting too off course (like, say, Ultima 1 and Ultima 2 tended to).
The concept of a Avatar is kind of silly how Lord British imagined it, but the idea of having to go around to different regions and learn things is a fundamental story concept used in a lot of creative media. Maybe more Avatar the Last Airbender and less Avatar the Last Virtue Bender?
Grinding virtues is … kind of stupid though. Compassion just stinks. It would have been more fun to have seen something like … give a begger 5,000 gold, and that beggar starts a business. And gets rich and well to do, and then becomes greedy, and the Avatar has to come and lead him back to the path of virtue. More depth to the idea of gaining virtue rather than just a value increment.
BUT one has to remember, they worked with what they had back then — technology wasn’t there to add that depth. Lord British did well with what he had, and I think Ultima 4 still has some relevance to it.
I’m on Ultima 5 now, which is sort of bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s my favorite game; seriously! My memories of that game still give me the warm glows that to this day no other game can compare to. On the other hand, it can never be the same; I know all the passwords, all the ways to get around. The sense of wonder that I first explored that world with is long gone. Will it stand up to the test of time? Let’s find out.
And seriously, I’ll get back to Ultima 3. Really. Probably. Maybe!