Despite several of you pinging me about Good Old Games’s release of the first Ultima trilogy last week, I skipped out on posting here because we all had to know the big news was still to come. And, as we all knew it would be, it’s here. Three of the best games to come out of that five year span from ’85 to ’90 -that saw games move from simple 4 and 16-color keyboard-driven affairs to awe-inspiring VGA graphics, mouse controls, and a splash of generally good music (I so loved the Ultima VI soundtrack)- are finally available to the masses and playable, according to GoG, on Windows 7 both 32-bit and 64-bit systems. That’s right, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny, and Ultima VI: The False Prophet are back.
So, on this memorable occasion, I bring you the Brakke Breakdown (not a dance), on these three marvelous games; what made them great and what you should know if you decide to make the plunge…
Let’s be honest, with Ultima IV we’re talking about a very simplistic looking game, that’s incredibly not simplistic to play, yet stands alone as one of the most important games ever made. You can see from the graphic what you’re in for here. What makes it complicated? It’s not just the lack of mouse support, it’s the sheer number of keys you have to memorize. Want to use a ladder? There’s two keys for that. One for descend and one for climb. Want to cast a spell? I hope you like memorizing the magical reagents in the game, because every spell has its own set of them that you’ll have to collect and mix ahead of time. Keep that PDF manual handy and be prepared. You should also expect to do a lot of the same tasks over and over again. There’s eight virtues you have to master to win the game, that means eight towns to visit and learn about, eight opposition dungeons you’ll have to delve, eight shrines you’ll have locate… eight, eight, eight. And if it doesn’t come in eight, it comes in threes. There’s nothing here you’re going to do just once… well, except win.
So, why again is this game special? Because it is. Don’t ask silly questions…
Fine, so you insist on more than that. For one, the virtue system. As noted, you have to master the eight virtues of the avatar in order to win. Todd inhales deeply. Valor, Honor, Sacrifice, Compassion, Justice, Humility, Spirituality, Honesty. When you’ve got that down, there’s three principles from which they derive that you’ll have to know too: Truth, Love, Courage. (Example: Love tempered by Courage is Sacrifice.) You master them by going out into the world and acting like something better than a douchebag. Give a blind shop owner the wrong amount of money for reagents and you’ll get quite a bargain. You’ll also lose honesty. This is one of the only games of the time I can think of where the game watched what you were doing. If you didn’t give blood when asked, if you ran from battle, if you lied, if you cheated, you literally could not win the game. The whole point of the game is that the evils of the past (Ultimas I – III) are gone and now it’s time to show the people a way to a better future. Although there’s monster battles aplenty, no game dared to send you into the end game without a big bad to battle. In Ultima IV you reached the final room and you answered questions that demonstrated your knowledge of the virtues. That was it. Simply unheard of. As a kid, growing to understand this game and why it was so unique, is what turned me into a lifelong gamer.
When people talk about Ultima, it’s usually Ultimas IV and VII that get the most praise. Ultima V usually gets looked over and it’s easy to see why. In terms of tech Ultima IV and V are really not all that different. Ultima V had a better color pallet and more refined terrain options and such, but you would be forgiven if you looked at screenshots from both and thought they were from the same game. And yet, this is my favorite of the Ultima series.
Where Ultima IV was a very black and white game -stealing is bad; murdering is bad; giving to the poor is good- Ultima V played in the gray areas. We talk all the time about games presenting you with difficult choices, loaded with gray areas, this game was among the first to really do that. Okay, you didn’t make choices with consequences in this game (or not many), but the game takes the entire theme of Ultima IV -the virtues are good- and turns that upside down by moving Britannia’s ruler, Lord British, aside and putting the realm under the rule of a decent enough fellow who’s quickly overwhelmed and corrupted by the weight of his responsibilities. Honesty is good, right? Well, let’s have a law that says if you’re dishonest, you’ll lose your tongue. Giving to charity is important, so if you don’t give half your stuff away, you’ll lose it all. Ultima V shows how a good idea can be twisted into a malevolent absolute. It’s a game about the dangers of extremism where even the Avatar, the embodiment of virtue, finds himself a criminal. It also has one of the best endings ever, both in finding Lord British and returning home. (“Gone also are your TV set, stereo, and home furniture…”)
This is a game that deserves to be played, but you really can’t get the most of it without having played Ultima IV first.
This is perhaps the least remarkable of the three games, and yet still vitally important. This was, bar none, the first Ultima game to look good. The first to be a bit easier to play. You could use the mouse. Keyboard input is dramatically simplified. It also is the first to have one map level (instead of an overland map and in-town maps) to explore. The story is a solid exploration of racism and fear of the malevolent unknown and the game sets you on the wrong side of the fence from the get go, aided significantly by offering my favorite introduction cinematic (embedded above) for any Ultima game.
Gargoyles have begun appearing everywhere. They’re screwing with the moongates. They’re causing problems for everybody. They’re evil. EVIL I SAY! Lord British wants them gone and he wants you out there butt-kicking for goodness. Except, as in any good story, maybe there’s more to these fanged, winged abominations. Maybe there’s a method to their madness. Desperation even. Maybe they have good reason to hate and fear the avatar and his people. Another game with a surprisingly non-violent ending that left me feeling good for having seen it through to the end.
The Ultima games are no longer games that any self-respecting gamer must play. They’re finicky. They’re long. They have a look that only a retro-gamer could love. But that makes them no less important. For me, they shaped me as a gamer and as a person. They are games about learning that life is better if you’re not a first-rate douchebag, about understanding that dogmatic adherence to a code without appreciation for gray areas tends to lead to bad results, and that fear of the mysterious “other” is an empty, counter-productive, and needless pursuit. These games have more to say about humanity and what it is to be human than most modern games I can think of. That makes them both special and lasting.Enjoy this? Share it so others can too!