Retrospective: The Ultima Series (IV through VII part 2)

Ultimas 4 through 7

These days "retro" is in.  Games that forgo high-poly counts and instead rely on 2D pixel art have seen a resurgence with the growth of mobile gaming and indie game development.  Retro-gaming has filled in a niche large publishers couldn't fill - low-budget, low-price gaming, but faster and with a modern skin.

Meanwhile, the Internet's hosted a slew of reviews, let's plays, and retrospectives of older titles - the very titles that have inspired this latest gaming wave.   I may be a bit late contributing to this trend with yet another retrospective of the Ultima series.  But I can't pass up the chance to write about my favorite games growing up.  I also plan to analyze these games from both a game design, as well as an engineer's perspective.

Let's start!

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

Ultima IV Box

In 1985 Origin Systems released what is now known as one of the greatest CRPGs of all time.  Its prequels were landmark games in their own right - but for some reason Ultima IV stands out in most gamers' list of top CRPGs.  It was the first CRPG series with a real, albeit simple, NPC conversation system.  The game design forced the player to role-play - to act out the role of an ethical individual, which was a first in the genre.  Think of the paragon/renegade role-playing in Mass Effect and Dragon Age, but instead of tangentially affecting the game, in Ultima IV it's an integral part of it.

Yes that sounds limiting (it is), but we're playing an almost three-decade old game here.  So why play it today?  If you can get past the interface - admittedly a big if - it still stands up as a quality game.

Ultima IV - Title Screen

I’m replaying this game for another reason; I never finished it when I played it back in 1986.  I remember the game locking-up deep down in the Abyss, likely because my Apple II copy was, well... modified.  Let's just say that in spite of that setback, it was because of Ultima IV that I went into game development.  And since I wanted to be a professional developer, that meant respecting games as a product.   Subsequently I ended up buying all the games I played from then on (I'm not going as far as crediting the game's "virtue" theme... but more on that later.)  I think that this is the second copy of Ultima IV I've bought - one from a CD based Ultima collection, and this one a digital version from gog.com.  You can get it for free as well, but buying the collection is a good deal.

That's enough summarizing.  Let's get to the game...  Stay tuned.