Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be meticulously typing out the first half of the Ultima story, covering roughly 1980 to 1990. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.
Though I will be citing my research throughout the article, I’d like to draw particular attention to a few major sources:
Table of Contents
Ultima I: First Age of Darkness (1981)
Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress (1982)
Ultima III: Exodus (1983)
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985)
Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (1988)
Ultima VI: The False Prophet (1990)
Richard Garriott had just finished his sophomore year of high school when he encountered Dungeons and Dragons at a University of Oklahoma computer camp in 1974. TSR’s tabletop role-playing game had yet to find commercial success among the broader American public following its release the same year – that would come later in the 1970s with a series of expanded guidebooks – but in-the-know fantasy and wargaming enthusiasts like Garriott’s fellow campers had already begun to explore its complex charms. Upon his arrival on campus, Garriott was nicknamed Lord British (due to nothing more than an audibly non-Southern US accent) and began a seven week crash-course in the nascent world of role-playing games.
Dungeons and Dragons, along with the work of JRR Tolkien, heavily influenced Garriott’s first attempts to develop his own games on teletype for his friends. He would create graphical maps on paper using an electronic typewriter, printing these out in an interactive fashion while playing the role of Game Master for groups of friends; a friend indicating that his or her character wanted to move north, for example, would be offered a newly updated overhead map from the machine displaying their character’s surroundings. From these humble origins visually augmenting a game of Dungeons and Dragons came one of the most influential video game franchises of the 20th Century.
First, though, Garriott needed to learn how to program. Steve Wozniak’s Apple II computer made its debut at the 1977 West Coast Computer Faire and rapidly established istelf as one of the first commercially successful computers in North America, becoming the default design tool for the rapidly evolving world of game development. Garriott taught himself BASIC programming language during the last two years of high school and used that knowledge to produce his 28th Dungeons and Dragons campaign on his high school’s new Apple II PC.
After graduation, Garriott split the cost of an Apple II with his father and used his free time to work up the so-called D&D28 into his first commercial product: Akalabeth (1979). Akalabeth sees the player, in the role of a character generated using typical Dungeons and Dragons stats like strength and dexterity, explore a fantasy overworld from a bird’s-eye-view and battle monsters in wireframe dungeons using a first-person perspective. Though the former is pulled from Garriott’s teletype experiments, the latter was inspired by Silas Warner’s Apple II maze game Escape (1978). Dungeons are procedurally generated using a seed number offered by the player at the game’s start. Various other mechanics, like eating food to maintain stamina and turn-based combat, are derived directly from Dungeons and Dragons. The rudimentary plot’s key quest-giver is Richard Garriott’s alter ego Lord British, similarly marking the low-key debut of a character who would serve as an anchor across the following two decades of Ultima releases.
Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness (1981)
The first Ultima is a spiritual successor to Akalabeth, incorporating much of that game’s mechanics while introducing players to an entirely new game world. All inputs are again handled through a keyboard. Though no direct narrative justification is offered, Lord British reappears here following his debut in Akalabeth.
That lack of complex plotting is similar to dungeon crawler Wizardry (1981) – Ultima‘s primary competitor in the world of early computer RPGs – but would grow to be an anomaly as the Ultima series expanded and developed its own identity during the 1980s. The only characters of significance in Ultima I are the player-created protagonist, an evil wizard named Mondain, allies Iolo and Shamino, and ruler of the player’s starting realm Lord British.
Ultima I‘s world consists of four continents with two cities on each landmass; this world would be referred to as Sosaria in Ultima III and Ultima I‘s 1986 remake but is unnamed in the series’ debut. Tasked with averting a worldwide calamity wrought by the apparently-invincible Mondain, the player character must journey to each of the world’s eight cities and complete quests for their rulers. These quests tend to involve exploring and slaying enemies in nearby procedurally-generated dungeons. In a sign of the thoughtful storytelling to come in the Ultima franchise, the player character eventually discovers that he or she must make use of a time machine to travel into the past and assassinate Mondain before he comes to possess the source of his immortality.
Gameplay articulates in two primary modes, as had been the case in Akalabeth. Traveling between towns and dungeons is perceived from a top-down perspective on an overworld consisting of colored graphical tiles. Dungeons themselves are navigated from a first-person perspective. Enemies appear randomly on the overworld or in dungeons, taking turns trading blows with the player character until one of the two loses all of their hit points (HP). Defeating enemies lets the player character accrue experience points and level up, improving his or her skills and making combat with more powerful enemies viable.
Ultima I is regarded as the medium’s first truly open world, as the player character can generally move across the overworld as he or she desires. Gating progress are increasingly powerful enemies which make short work of an under-leveled character, establishing a mechanical precedent which would inform the progression mechanics of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) and other open-world titles well into the late 2010s. Access to more powerful equipment and spells – which are treated here as consumable items – is likewise restricted to player characters who have accumulated enough currency to purchase them from shops in cities. Though the series would later become known for its impressively chatty townspeople, interactions in Ultima I are limited to a ‘transact’ command primarily used to receive new quests from kings or do business with vendors.
One of the most peculiar features of the first two Ultima games is the presence of tonally inconsistent science-fiction elements. Though it ostensibly takes place in a fantasy world influenced by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings fantasy novel trilogy (1954-1956), Ultima I includes lightsabers and space dogfights plainly drawn from the first two films of George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy (1980-1983). In a nod to those movies’ thrilling dogfights, the player actually takes part in a handful of deliriously incongruous real-time arcade shooter sequences that include Star Wars’ iconic TIE fighters.
Ultima I was initially published by California Pacific Computer Co. on the Apple II in 1981 and was ported to the Atari 8-bit home computer by Sigma Micro Systems in 1983. 1986’s Apple II remake was fully reworked from the ground up in assembly programming language by Garriott’s studio Origin Systems and later became the template for all future ports, including contemporary versions localized on Japanese personal computers like the MSX and PC-88 and the iteration available to modern audience through CDProjektRed’s Good Old Games (GOG) digital marketplace. It features improved performance, slightly greater visual diversity, and even mechanical improvements to the way that enemies behave on the overworld map. The commercial popularity of the series’ debut ensured that California Pacific Computer Co. was ready to publish a sequel as soon as one was ready.
Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress (1982)
Richard Garriott was attending the University of Texas at the time of Ultima I’s release and began working on a sequel during his sophomore and junior years. Believing that he could not further build upon the fundamentals of Ultima in BASIC, Garriott reached out to Ultima’s publisher California Pacific Computer Co. for assistance in learning a new programming language. The company set Garriott up with programmer Tom Luhrs, who taught the young developer assembly over an intensive one-month summer training session.
Unsurprisingly, given that it was being written in a language which its developer had just learned, Ultima II took eighteen months to move from conception to release. This period was filled with personal and professional turmoil, as California Pacific Computer Co. shuttered due to financial mismanagement and Garriott dropped out of university. Though the latter development granted even more free time to work on the game, the former left Garriott with no publisher. Happily, Ken and Roberta Williams’ On-Line Games – which was founded in 1979 and would later become better known as the much-celebrated Sierra – picked up the promising game designer and worked out a deal to publish the next entry in the Ultima series.
Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress is largely iterative, improving on the underlying mechanics and visual design of Ultima but not fundamentally altering how the game plays. The player still creates a character by assigning stat points in the Dungeons and Dragons model and alternates between exploring an overworld from an overhead perspective and dungeons from a first-person perspective. Developed for the Apple II, which would not support a mouse peripheral until 1984, Ultima II’s inputs were again restricted to keyboard buttons.
The narrative picks up several years after the conclusion of Ultima I. Mondain’s lover, Minax, picks up his cause and seeks to avenge Mondain’s death by finishing the apocalyptic work he started in the preceding game. Jarringly, Ultima I’s fictional setting has been replaced by Earth and its neighboring planets. The protagonist, canonically the same character as in Ultima I even though the player has newly created their hero at the start of Ultima II, must utilize a series of time portals to move around Earth and halt Minax’s plot. Though the player character can travel to and explore other planets (though no longer participate in space combat), these celestial bodies are largely irrelevant to the game’s main quest.
Ultima II’s other mechanics are more or less unchanged from its predecessor. The player character still acquires quests and equipment in towns, though the towns themselves are much larger than they had been in Ultima I. There are a few more noteworthy NPCs this time as well, including one who must be paid for the player to increase his or her character’s level after accumulating enough experience points. With the rise in NPCs, unfortunately, come more instances in which the player’s progress is gated until he or she finds and talks to a key individual; given the scope of the game world and the fact that at least one such individual – an otherwise unremarkable old man – is located on the distant Planet X, this heightened reliance on interactivity is a mixed blessing.
The most significant update in Ultima II is the use of portals to travel through time; inspired by Terry Gilliam’s film Time Bandits (1981), these portals appear at intervals around the overworld map and must be tracked using a pack-in cloth map to reliably travel where the player intends to go. The portals serve to change up how the player navigates and engages enemies while simultaneously introducing a novel use of supplementary materials to the medium. Whether this is superior to in-game text or a barrier to player engagement and resale is a matter of perspective.
Ultima II was a critical and commercial success, receiving a positive review in Computer Gaming World’s (CGW’s) March/April 1983 issue and selling over 50,000 copies within the still-niche market of computer game enthusiasts. Though it did not fundamentally grow the concepts established in Ultima, it did further reinforce Richard Garriott’s unique translation of Dungeons and Dragons systems to PC hardware. Ultima II would also be re-released much more extensively than its predecessor (at least prior to Ultima‘s 1986 remake), quickly being ported to the Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, and DOS computers in the United States while introducing the series to Japanese video game enthusiasts in a 1985 version ported to the PC-88, PC-98, and FM-7 personal computers by Starcraft, Inc.; this overseas market would prove particularly fruitful in the coming years, increasing demand for home console versions of Ultima on Nintendo’s Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment Sytem (NES) and establishing the basis for a new genre of home-grown Japanese RPGs.
Ultima III: Exodus (1983)
The professional partnership between Richard Garriott and publisher On-Line Systems dissolved during the development of Ultima II. There are varying interpretations, placing the blame either on the studio refusing to pay royalties or Garriott’s increasingly strident self-confidence in his vision, but it is certain that Ultima’s creator returned to Texas from California following the publication of Ultima II. He soon went into business with his former roommate Chuck Bueche and his brother Robert, a successful businessman with his own history developing 64K RAM chips for Texas Instruments. The three ambitious young men founded Origin Systems in the Garriott parents’ garage in early 1983 and quickly got to work on Ultima III.
Though still programmed in assembly for the Apple II and bearing a broadly similar appearance to Ultima II, aside from the debut of multi-sprite character animations and , Ultima III: Exodus represents the first major revision on the franchise’s basic template. Rather than controlling a single character, the player is now required to generate an entire four-person party of adventurers. The first of these is intended to be the same protagonist from Ultima I and II, now called the Stranger, but the remainder are supportive allies who play key roles in Ultima III’s new battle system. Each character is customized using the same parameters as the protagonist, including class, race, sex, and starting stats. The wise player, who the game assumes has already thoroughly perused its manual, creates a balanced team of classes focused on melee combat, spell-wielding, and stealth.
Navigation of the overworld is fundamentally unchanged from Ultima II. The player is tasked with finding and defeating a mysterious foe, the eponymous Exodus, as his or her victories over Mondain and Minax have failed to stem the tide of monsters appearing across the world. In yet another jarring revision to the series’ own history, Ultima III is again set in Ultima I‘s Sosaria with no reference made to Ultima II’s Earth setting. More significantly – at least in the way that it would codify certain genre trappings for the following two decades of RPGs – Ultima III marks the series’ first entry with no space travel and virtually no futuristic technology. With the key exception of its main antagonist, Ultima III plants itself firmly in the world of Tolkienesque fantasy.
If a consistent sense of place represents Ultima III’s most important narrative update to its predecessors, its battles constitute its most noteworthy mechanical evolution. Though the player still encounters enemies as abstract outlines wandering the overworld or dungeons, gameplay shifts to a third view once these enemy sprites are engaged. On this newly introduced screen, each of the player character’s party members and each member of the enemy’s party take turns independently moving around a small, gridded arena and attacking one another. Once one party triumphs in combat, play shifts back to dungeon or overworld exploration. This battle system harkens back to the wargaming roots of Dungeons and Dragons and would directly influence later tactical RPGs like Fire Emblem (1990-2019) and Ogre Battle (1993-2001).
Other important, if less memorable, iterations on RPG design popularized by Ultima III include more robust NPC interactions and a hidden underworld. With regard to the former, players can now bribe and steal from NPCs in addition to transacting with them. Transacting itself offers slightly more dialogue than had been present in earlier Ultima releases, foreshadowing a greater emphasis on character interactions in the next series entry. The underworld, on the other hand, can be easily missed by players who manage to avoid a whirlpool which moves around Sosaria’s seas. Players who sail inadvertently into the seemingly deadly environmental feature – or are clued into it by cryptic hints gleaned from NPC dialogue – are transported to a largely barren mirror realm called Ambrosia which houses shrines used to pay for character stat upgrades. The concept of a mirror realm would be famously echoed by the Dark Realm in Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1992/1993).
As with its predecessors, Ultima III sold well and was ported to other personal computer platforms throughout the 1980s. It was the first to be remade for the Famicom/NES, though, by Pony Canyon. This 1987 port sold far more copies in Japan than the Apple II version had sold in North America when it released in that territory shortly after Chunsoft’s hugely influential RPG Dragon Quest (1986), a game which had already adopted Richard Garriott’s overhead approach to map exploration at the suggestion of developer Koichi Nakamura. By the end of 1987, Ultima had become involved both indirectly and directly with the meteoric rise of the Japanese RPG.
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985)
While Richard Garriott had relied on his own intuition for improvements made to each of the first three Ultima games, cutting out the publisher middle-man after Ultima II made it possible for Garriott to receive fanmail directly from players. The result was a troubling discovery: players were not playing his games remotely as intended, and were instead wreaking havoc on the NPCs of Sosaria as they sought to make their own characters all-powerful. Garriott had designed his worlds to offer the chance for players to become heroes, not opportunistically rob and murder NPCs in pursuit of self-enrichment. He would next set out to create a game which more directly encouraged players to follow a moral code.
Surprisingly, this ambitious approach to game design caused no small amount of dissent among Origin Systems’ staff. A tester memorably recoiled at one moral dilemma included in the game – whether to attack a group of violent children who are later revealed to be monsters – and Robert Garriott requested that Richard alter the game to remove this unpleasant encounter. Richard Garriott refused, believing that the uncertainty and emotion that it provoked in the tester was exactly the result he hoped to achieve among players. Robert took the question to the brothers’ parents, who likewise suggested that Richard remove the offending scenario. Richard Garriott won the confrontation by offering an ultimatum: he would scrap the game entirely if the encounter was removed.
The younger Garriott’s instincts proved to be prescient when Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar was released to critical acclaim and commercial success on the Apple II in 1985. CGW hailed Ultima IV as an instant classic in its January-February 1986 issue and, for the first time, an Ultima entry overtook the debut release of long-running rival franchise Wizardry as the magazine’s readers’ favorite computer game in April 1986. Richard Garriott himself would later recall the game, alongside the series’ seventh entry, as his favorite Ultima title.
Much of its success is down to a breathtakingly innovative narrative. Introduced with a series of static images telling a story for the first time in the franchise’s history, Ultima IV soon shifts to a series of hypothetical questions posed to the unseen player character by a fortune-teller. These binary questions require the player to choose between answers associated with one of eight virtues – Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility – and then be assigned a character class based on the results. The player can likewise no longer choose a race, as all non-human player character races have been omitted from Ultima IV.
Rather than attempting to conquer some powerful antagonist, as they had done as the Stranger in earlier Ultima games or virtually any other RPG, the player was expected to guide his or her character in the quest to achieve Avatarhood. This grand assignment is bequeathed by Lord British at the start of Ultima IV and sees the player character exploring the continent of Britannia as he or she attempts to locate and meditate at eight shrines, each associated with one of the aforementioned virtues. Upon acquiring sufficient expertise in all eight virtues, the protagonist can descend into a dungeon called the Stygian Abyss and gain the title of Avatar by finding the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom.
While this would be an innovative approach to RPG storytelling in its own right, Ultima IV uses its eight virtues to inform an extensive morality system. Choices that the player makes throughout the game, including how to engage enemies in battle or how to interact with NPCs, raise or lower his or her acumen in a corresponding virtue. For example, running from enemies might lower Valor while helping a wounded NPC might improve Compassion. The stats and how players interact with specific townspeople have long-reaching consequences that are not always evident at the time the associated action is performed, so players slowly become aware that the game is tracking and adapting to their choices.
Given the complex results which can arise from player behavior, the transact command’s utility is expanded from earlier Ultima entries. Players can now enter one of three standard words – job, health, and name – when engaging in dialogue with NPCs to hear additional character-specific information. Each NPC also has two hidden words which they can respond to, though these differ wildly and are only revealed through contextual guessing or by finding another NPC who provides a hint. Having five dialogue options present for every character and requiring players to return to characters with knowledge discovered later significantly enhances the storytelling potential of Richard Garriott’s script.
Outside of the narrative structure and dialogue options, gameplay is largely identical to Ultima III. The player character still traverses a tile-based overworld from an overhead perspective and explores dungeons from a first-person view. Ultima III‘s tactical overhead battle system returns, though dungeons now feature unique combat arenas in certain rooms. Dungeons take on a less prominent role than they had in the past, however, as the player’s primary goal is improving his or her character’s mastery of virtues and gaining access to each of the eight associated shrines.
Ultima IV was ported to other PC platforms with varying audio-visual embellishments while Pony Canyon produced another well-received Japanese Famicom/NES localization featuring an anime-influenced appearance, heavily revised input mechanisms, and an entirely new spell-casting system. For the first time, SEGA produced its own port for the Master System in 1990. This version is noteworthy for its blend of Apple II and NES elements – visually similar to the former but featuring more mechanical similarities to the latter, alongside a unique overhead dungeon navigation perspective – as well as its rarity. Though European and Japanese copies are relatively common, the release of the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive a year before Ultima IV‘s Master System port ensured that its North American edition was produced in very limited quantities. It is far easier for the modern enthusiast to discover the RPG genre’s first meaningful morality system through faithful Ultima IV ports released in the 2010s on CDProjektRed’s GOG digital distribution platform or Apple iOS.
Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (1988)
The last Ultima natively developed for the rapidly aging Apple II platform would also be the last one featuring extensive coding by Richard Garriott. Though he would remain the creative director for all future core entries in the franchise, Garriott’s series had grown too popular and ambitious to reasonably be programmed by a single person. His work on Ultima V is augmented for the first time by a team of Origin employees led by lead programmer John Miles. Viewed as a siren song to the franchise’s first platform and original development process, Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny represented the most refined series entry to date.
From a narrative perspective, though, it sits in the middle of the second Ultima arc. The first arc – named the Age of Darkness following its conclusion with Ultima III – concerned the Stranger’s attempts to protect Sosaria (and briefly Earth) from external threats posed by Mondain, Minax, and Exodus. The second arc – heretofore known as the Age of Enlightenment and consisting of Ultima IV to Ultima VI – is defined instead by a preoccupation with ethics. The Age of Enlightenment likewise centers on a separate protagonist from the Age of Darkness Trilogy; this player character, who originates on Earth and explores Brittania by way of a portal opened at the start of Ultima IV, would be known as the Avatar after having attained enlightenment at the conclusion of that game.
In Ultima V, the Avatar is called back to Britannia and finds it in a profoundly troubled state. He or she rescues long-time ally Shamino from brigands and discovers that Lord British recently disappeared during an expedition into the mysterious Underworld. A dictator called Lord Blackthorn has taken over Britannia in Lord British’s absence, applying a particularly punitive legal code based on the eight virtues introduced in Ultima IV. According to a conversation between critic Jeremy Parish and Richard Garriott at Game Developers Conference 2018, Blackthorn’s tyrannical rule was intended to illustrate the concept that even noble causes can become corrupted or perceived from an alternate perspective. This underlying philosophical dialogue would inform future Ultima entries.
Ultima V is not especially distinct, visually or mechanically, from its direct predecessor. Ultima IV‘s keyword-based dialogue system returns and is augmented by NPCs asking questions of the player character. Overworld navigation and dungeon exploration are unchanged, though Ultima III‘s Ambrosia is echoed in the presence of a vast Underworld beneath Britannia. The player accesses this area by exploring eight dungeons accessible from the surface.
The game’s chief mechanical innovation is the presence of three Shadowlords who periodically harrie the player character and must be defeated to complete the main story. These Shadowlords appear, seemingly at random, in cities across Britannia and exert a malign influence associated with their personality on nearby NPCs; the Shadowlord of Cowardice causes NPCs to flee from the Avatar, the Shadowlord of Hatred causes otherwise-peaceful NPCs to become aggressive, and the Shadowlord of Falsehood causes NPCs to engage in theft. By learning the Shadowlords’ names from NPCs, using a spyglass to understand Shadowlord movement patterns, retrieving a Gem of Immortality associated with each Shadowlord from the Underworld, and luring each Shadowlord into a corresponding sacred flame on the overworld, the Avatar is able to overcome these powerful foes and save Lord British. As in Ultima IV, combat is not ultimately the key to winning the game’s central conflict.
Ultima V‘s other significant evolution on earlier series entries, though less immediately recognizable than the Shadowlords, is the breadth of its world and that world’s interactivity. While Ultima IV had focused on expanding NPC interactions, Ultima V includes the ability to manipulate objects around the world and make use of numerous vehicles and tools to explore Britannia. Cities are larger than ever and the overworld features a day and night cycle for the first time in the series’ history. These embellishments serve to enhance the world’s sense of continuity and draw players still further into Ultima‘s comparatively deep gameplay experience.
As with its predecessors, Ultima V would be released across numerous computer platforms and the Famicom/NES. In contrast to Ultima III and Ultima IV, though, most versions are compromised by technical issues or design decisions. The Apple II version runs slow due to its outdated hardware and complex world while the Commodore 64 lacks the memory to successfully run the game’s soundtrack. The fully-remade NES version is shockingly bad, stripping out much of the script, introducing heavy input lag, and restricting the playable area to a shrunken Britannia. The 16-bit DOS and Commodore 128 ports are the most feature-rich and beautifully rendered versions of Ultima‘s fifth series entry. None of these technical issues kept Ultima V from being another commercial and critical success for Origin Systems, and its ongoing legacy is secure thanks to preservation on digital distribution platforms in the modern era.
Ultima VI: The False Prophet (1990)
Between the initial release of Ultima V and Ultima VI, SSI kicked off its esteemed Gold Box series of Dungeons and Dragons-licensed RPGs with Pool of Radiance (1988). This ambitious new series, which lacked the gameplay depth of Ultima but offered a comparatively impressive visual palette, outperformed Richard Garriott’s Ultima V commercially in its year of release. SSI would release three more entries by 1991, laying down a gauntlet and raising players’ expectations for presentation in the rapidly-expanding computer RPG market.
Ultima VI would be the first release in Origin Systems’ flagship series published since the debut of the Gold Box games and represents the most impressive visual upgrade in the Ultima franchise so far. This is not surprising, as it is also the first programmed from the ground up for a new generation of 16-bit PCs. The Apple II had been placed definitively in Richard Garriott’s rear view mirror. The new technology underpins a dramatically expanded color palette and overworld design. Britannia’s landscape is now comprised of sprites which flow elegantly into one another, while towns are rendered to scale rather than as abstractions entered into by the player character from a scaled-down world map. Character sprites are no longer near-featureless outlines and NPC interactions are enhanced by unique zoomed-in character portraits in accompanying text boxes. Ultima VI‘s in-game art more closely resembles the franchise’s box art than ever, as the in-game art team was led by packaging artist Keith Berdak.
Ultima VI‘s plot is kicked off when the Avatar grows bored of his or her life on Earth and returns to Britannia some time after Ultima V. As in the previous game, the Avatar finds that the mythical land has come under an existential threat in the intervening period. An army of gargoyles has besieged Lord British’s realm and catastrophe is only narrowly averted by the Avatar taking up arms alongside returning companions Iolo, Dupre, and Shamino. For the first time, an Ultima game opens with a playable battle sequence as the Avatar and his or her allies defend Castle Britannia from an assault by the subterranean invaders.
Though this narrative outline suggests a story bearing more in common with Ultima‘s martially-oriented Age of Darkness Trilogy than the comparatively high-minded Ultima IV and V, its evolution over the game’s lengthy playtime complicates what could otherwise be a simplistic quest. Ultima VI slowly reveals a level of sympathy for its gargoyle antagonists that forces the player to confront his or her own character’s role in unwittingly causing the central conflict. By the end of the game – as in the two preceding Age of Enlightenment titles – the Avatar can only resolve the plot by finding a way to meaningfully engage with his or her opponents rather than conquering them.
Mechanically, Ultima VI echoes its predecessors but improves the series’ approachability by leaps and bounds. Its user interface is colorful and informative, dialogue with townspeople is less opaque than the limited text fields of earlier Ultima games, and even its input mechanisms have been refined. Earlier series entries’ ports to other platforms had featured mouse support, but Ultima VI is the first to have its design optimized around mouse integration from the ground up. Due to the expanded memory of the DOS platform and a greater variety of input devices, Ultima VI also offers more ways to interact with and carefully inspect its environment than any prior series entry.
Finally, Origin Systems abandoned the first-person dungeon navigation perspective which had been inspired by Silas Warner’s Escape (1978). Players are instead presented with an overhead dungeon view which preserves continuity with overworld and town exploration. By eliminating the barriers which had previously existed between overworld, town, and dungeon, Richard Garriott was able to create the expansive open world he had been gesturing towards since Ultima I. Stripping away the first-person dungeon perspective would also shatter the last lingering connection between Ultima and its perennial rival, Sir-Tech’s increasingly outdated Wizardry franchise.
Ultima VI was published on eight platforms in the two years following its initial DOS release. Most ports attempt to faithfully reproduce the DOS version, though the Atari and Amiga versions fall short on their audio-visual presentation and the Japanese FM Towns version features unique voiceovers recorded for major characters in English by Origin Systems employees. Pony Canyon’s Japanese localization for the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) is much more similar to the PC original than its Famicom/NES ports had been, though mouse support is omitted in favor of a keyword system inspired by earlier Ultima games. At the time of writing in 2019, the game’s DOS original remains available to Windows users through GOG.
Richard Garriott and his team made a staggering amount of progress within the world of video game development in less than ten years. Prior to Ultima I, no commercially-released RPG had offered an expansive, persistent world to explore from a bird’s-eye-view perspective. Ultima III introduced tactical overhead combat and deeper NPC interactions than had been present in any other RPG. Ultima IV doubled down on NPC depth and established the medium’s first meaningful morality system, setting a complex precedent that few others could match even after such mechanics became commonplace following the release of Interplay’s Fallout in 1997. Ultima V and Ultima VI, while less mechanically revolutionary, brought greater layers of narrative ambiguity to a genre which had been heretofore preoccupied with good vs. evil conflicts. It’s hard to believe that many of Ultima‘s biggest surprises were still ahead.
What do you think about Ultima‘s first decade? Which is your favorite entry? How do you think Ultima IV‘s morality system stacks up against later models across the medium? Do you wish Ultima didn’t exist and games had just avoided dialogue altogether? Let’s discuss below!
Next week we’ll be covering Ultima VII to IX and the series’ major spinoffs. The latter actually feature some of the most influential releases to bear the Ultima name, so I hope you’ll join us for Franchise Festival on September 27 at 9:00 AM EST.
Here is a tentative list of other upcoming entries, including the column’s second annual Spoooky Month:
- September 27: Ultima (Part Two)
- October 4: Castlevania (2D)
- October 11: Castlevania (3D)
- October 18: House of the Dead
- October 25: Clock Tower