Today marks the anniversary of the release (for the Apple II, at least) of one of the most unique and influential CRPGs in history.
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar has a very unique plot. After the trials of the Age of Darkness (Ultimas I - III, in which the player defeated Mondain, his consort Minax, and their “spawn” Exodus) the land of Sosaria was remolded as Britannia. The people, longing for peace and a bit of prosperity, needed a champion willing to study the eight virtues (Honesty, Humility, Justice, Valor, Honor, Sacrifice, Compassion, and Spirituality) and earn the right to bring the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom from the depths of the Stygian Abyss where its truth could be revealed.
Beyond the player’s main goal being to better him or herself the game is also notable for having no villain, bosses, or the like. There are hordes of monsters to fight but they have no grand purpose for evil or anything.
Also interesting was the character creation – the player answered a series of moral questions (with two choices for each) to determine which of the eight classes the (future) Avatar would be. The player then collected a party of seven other adventurers, each of a different class representing a virtue each, throughout the quest.
The magic system was unique, 26 spells represented by A(waken) to Z(down – don’t ask!), that were prepared in advance with the use of reagents. Combat was along the four compass directions and turn-based. Combat occurred mostly in a dedicated battle screen and the dungeons had many custom rooms (one with graves and skeletons at the bottom of – I think – Shame stands out). Conversations consisted of the name / job / health / bye variety with up to two other keywords and the possibility of yes / no queries.
The music was superb, as always. The graphics were (for the day) state-of-the-art and even in 2010 hold up well (as they made no great attempt at realism). Packed in the box was a metal ankh, a cloth map, the game disks, a reference card, and superbly illustrated books introducing Britannia and describing the magic. Among the best documentation / feelies in CRPG history. The cover was of a wizard standing on a rocky promontory with a staff topped by a glowing ankh while the back was a shield with the ankh emblazoned on it. Absent was any suggestion of conflict.
While later games added day and night and NPC schedules (Ultima V) as well as a more fleshed out magic system (8 circles of 8 spells each), Ultima IV laid the foundation for much of the golden age of Ultima (Ultima IV through Ultima VII: Serpent Isle). It also built upon the very solid foundation of Ultima III, a game that was (along with Wizardry) very influential in the evolution of the JRPG. It presented a remarkably (for the time) alive world and encouraged the player to explore (and without level scaling that exploration could prove deadly).
Ultima IV was the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment in the Ultima saga, easily one of the best RPG arcs. While Ultima IV was a quest for virtue and the recovery of the Codex, Ultima V was a cautionary tale about the perversion of those virtues. Ultima VI dealt with xenophobia and its plot was rooted firmly in the consequences of the recovery of the Codex and setting the situation right for all.
I could ramble forever about Ultima IV but I just wanted to post something to recognize one of the all time greats, 25 years old today!