Ultima IV -- 25 years old today

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!

Ah, Ultima IV. Played it on my 8 bit Atari, never finished it. But I will one of these days.

One of my favorite things about it: the goal of your quest isn’t to kill Foozle or save the world, it’s to read a book.

If there was a game that cemented my tastes in electronic entertainment then this would be it.

Hmm, yeah the C64 version must have come out a bit later because my brothers and I were waiting on it very eagerly and we didn’t get it till Christmas. I doubt we’d have been patient enough to wait 3 months.

Obviously one of the epoch-making CRPG releases, not only for the ethical stuff but for the scope of it – the thing just felt huge compared to its predecessor Ultima III (which was itself a wonderful game), and for the numerous iterations on the game engine (many more of which would be implemented in U5, which I have a particular fondness for). I remember Christmas Day 1985 as being predominantly “Ultima IV day” – my brothers and I were oblivious to anything else. I spent an hour or more peering over my older brother’s shoulder as he rolled a ranger, appeared in Skara Brae, popped into a moongate and started wandering around. The whole time we were absorbing everything, and comparing it all to Ultima III – the music, which seemed new and strange compared to the old tunes we were used to; the weirdness of beginning with only one character and recruiting new ones; the innovative keyword dialogue system; the improved, fluid animations. Even the fact that the mountains were colored white instead of brown (on the C64) or that there were now three different types of water tile reflecting different shallowness. But the thing that made the strongest initial impression was the gigantic size of the surface world.

I still have a notebook with original clues I wrote down from U4 a quarter century ago, as well as some stuff written in the runic alphabet – yup, I was that big of a geek.

Hats off, Mr. Garriott!

I think everyone in my family did the test at the beginning of the game to see what class they would become, although most of them didn’t play much more than that.

Thanks for posting this. I played through Ultima IV as a kid and it was just a profound experience, matched only by the next game in the series, which I loved even more. I’ve been into games for as long as I can remember but I often feel like I owe it to Ultima IV and V for convincing me early on that I wanted to devote large portions of both my life and my mental storage capacity to gaming, and ultimately that I wanted to make games myself.

Ultima IV (and, to some extent, Seven Cities of Gold) was a turning point for me as well. Though I only got to make games briefly (about three years or so) it was pivotal in getting me to learn how to program and enter the Computer Science career. One of my big regrets, however, is not sending in word of my accomplishment as urged at the end and receiving a certificate from Lord British. That and sitting on the box one night, ugh. I still love it, though, creases and all.

Also, if I ever win the lottery I have only two things in mind (after setting my family and friends up for life) – build an authentic 80s arcade and buy the Ultima brand from EA. It may be silly but I’d re-release the original Age of Enlightenment in their original packaging (except for Ultima VI, which I’d have re-made in the slimmer, “gold border” form to be consistent with Ultima IV and V) and retro Ultima VI graphics-wise to the Ultima IV and V look. I’d also fund a re-make of all three games into one continuous game using pretty much all of Ultima V’s attributes (night / day cycle, schedules, magic system, conversations) for all three parts. Not sure it’d make any money but who cares!

I could have sworn I replied to this one already…

Anyways - Loved the game, although Ultima V was my entry to the series. As Gordon Cameron noted, I also still have arounc 20 pages of handwritten notes, maps, and a complete translation of the runic alphabet featured in the game. I did this by taking the sign near the town called British, and working my way backwards from there! Crazy amounts of time spent on that kind of stuff, including maps in Pool of Radiance with all dialogue written down, and maps of Bards Tale.

There was something very special about being in the world of Ultima back then. Perhaps it was the fact that these kind of openworld games were unheard of, perhaps it was that there was no internet to get jaded over games with, and no spoilers on the internet to find as well (For me at least at that time).

I still remember the feeling when I discovered dungeons in Ultima V… It was the most awesome thing ever seen.

Good times - thanks for taking me back.

Despite any other flaws/foibles/failures Richard may produce, I bow to him humbly and say ‘VERAMOCOR’.

This was one of my first RPGs, along with Questron and Phantasie (both great in their own ways too), and the depth simply blew me away. I mentioned in another thread that I could not foresee myself playing it again because of the interface, but I would love to try. I had a folder at home for many years with my notes from playing the game. Ultima V is also very close to my heart as my brother and I played it on separate Commodore 64s trying to see who could get to the end first. Ultima VI I never finished, the graphics were too hard and shockingly different from the previous two, but VII and its intro with the Guardian sucked me right back in.

The Might & Magic series hold a special place in my heart for its puzzles and just corniness, but Ultima will forever be the greatest RPG series ever produced.

It’s also fun to talk about the events that lead to Ultima IV. Garriot was apparently going through a depressed period, and he was taking some flak for the cover of Ultima III, which featured a particularly nasty Daemon on the cover. While the criticism was ridiculous (something along the lines of “you are trying to turn kids into satanists!”) it got him thinking about how CRPGS tended to ask the players to be heroes but then just have them slaughter monsters (at best) or engage in decidedly un-heroic behavior (like stealing) to get ahead. The result was Ultima IV, which was the first true RPG on a computer, I think.

Big Weather, you are wrong about monster scaling in Ultima IV. It did in fact have scaling, though it was not a hard and fast thing. As you leveled, more dangerous creatures started to appear on the country sides. But you could still run into lesser foes, and they still appeared quite often. It scaled gracefully (unlike, say, Wizardry 8, which was sort of crazy on the scaling front).

I had forgotten about the flak he took but yeah, I could see how that might get him thinking about an alternate approach. Of course the fact that he did think of, and implement, that approach is remarkable as I’m sure it was a little bit of a gamble that the audience would buy into it. I think he knew, however, that even as early as pre-Ultima IV that he had a pretty devoted fan base.

Ah, yeah, I seem to remember that – it was a pretty light touch, thankfully. I know the difficulty definitely scaled by party size (as a single orc on world screen might be just two orcs in the battle screen when it is just the Avatar-to-be in the party but later when more heroes are present they added extras and mixed-in a tougher type or two, like ettins with orcs). Thanks for the correction.

I read a great book that detailed it. It basically covered the development of the first six Ultimas and then had walkthroughs for each (written from the perspective of the character going through the games, more or less), and also some comments on the future of the series. I don’t think Garriot wrote it but it featured a lot of commentary from him, of course. I suppose it was a little biographal. It was pretty neat.

Ah, yeah, I seem to remember that – it was a pretty light touch, thankfully. I know the difficulty definitely scaled by party size (as a single orc on world screen might be just two orcs in the battle screen when it is just the Avatar-to-be in the party but later when more heroes are present they added extras and mixed-in a tougher type or two, like ettins with orcs). Thanks for the correction.

I only mention it to point out that there are graceful ways to do these things. I don’t know if there was something in the Ultima mechanics that made this easier to do (or if other games make scaling harder to do unless it’s sort of “fixed”, where X increase in character level leads to some set proprtional increase in monsters). It made the game more exciting to see nastier looking monsters begin to roam the country side, IMO. It added to the escalation that takes place in all games as you approach the finish.

Of course, the fact that you could avoid monsters (if not easily) in the world map also made this implementation superior. Once you got better travel means avoiding monsters became trivial. Scaling is a real problem when encounters are largely unavoidable (as they were in many areas in Wiz 8), because then it just adds to the grindy aspect.

Still have an all original Ultima IV for the Atari 400/800/etc. computer at home. I should set that stuff up and see if it’s still working. :)

Being someone that was 500-sum days old at the release of this game, I missed out. I didn’t catch on until Ultima Online and (unfortunately) Ultima IX. The Ultima 9 experience left me jaded and the (“Dragon Edition”) box got lost to the clutter of my childhood home. A few weeks ago I was reminded while seeing a copy of the dragon edition on Ebay - that it came with Ultima 1-8. Last year I brushed up on quite a bit of gaming history, and I found the story behind the creation of Ultima (and the story points it contains) to be very interesting.

I’ll be visiting home in a month and it will be my quest to find this long overdue “codex”. I was planning to just jump in with Ultima VII with Exult, but after reading this thread I might try my luck with the earlier games. Specifically IV, here.

Is this the book you’re talking about? I really liked that book.

I don’t think so. The book I owned had a very different cover, and it covered Ultimas I-VI specifically. My book did have the U VI Avatar on the cover, IIRC. It was a much lighter cover, with some goldish trimming I think.

Also, let’s not forget the flash version of Ultima IV.

Wow, awesome. I guess I’ll be playing tonight, thank you sir.

I think Ultima IV and V were the best of the series, far outshining what came before and what came after. For me the series did not survive the transition from icon-based top-down to the fancier isometric graphics. Though I did play Underworld. That was cool ;)

Fortunately, VI’s shift in perspective and graphics engine still took place in that tiny viewing area. This made playing VI a headache for me. 7 was much, much superior. Alas, while it greatly improved things on that front it had awful combat and inventory management.

I cut my gaming teeth on Ultima III for the Atari home comupter, so that will always have a special place in my heart as my first Ultima love. When IV came out though I was all over it, and loved it as well. By that point I was a total CRPG junkie, having devoured Temple of Apshai, Telengard, Ultimas I & II, Wizardry I-III and many others. I think the first game in the excellent Phantasie series of games came out around the same time as Ultima IV (at least for Atari) as I remember bouncing back and forth between the two games a lot. Also released that year (1985) was the amazing Alternate Reality : The City, which I spent dozens of hours playing despite it’s pretty much complete lack of plot (it was intended as the first in a series of interlocking games, and was supposed to be the character development portion of the series, but only one more game, The Dungeon, was ever produced).

Man, the memories. When I think about all the hours I spent from 12-16 years of age obsessing over CRPGs instead of girls… Good times, good times.