October 04, 2005

Playable Classics: A Selected Ultima

by peterb

I have written in detail before about my obsession with the Ultima games. After much deliberation, Tea Leaves is designating one of the Ultima games as a Playable Classic. It joins the other classic games Fool's Errand, Star Control II, and Escape Velocity as a shining exemplar of the best that videogaming has to offer.

The Contestants

First, a brief review of the idea of a Playable Classic. "Classic" is fairly obvious: a game that has stood the test of time, and that was innovative or genre-defining (or busting). "Playable" is where we really winnow the wheat from the chaff. A game is playable if it meets two conditions. First, that the game mechanics are still fun (and tolerable) given modern standards. To use an example, the original Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord is surely a classic, but the fact that it more or less requires you to make a map with pencil and paper in order to win disqualifies it from being a Playable Classic. Secondly, the game can be played on Windows and/or Mac by double-clicking a single executable. If someone distributes a wrapper for an emulator to achieve this for a specific game, that's enough to pass this bar.

Arguments can be made for nearly any game in the Ultima series being "the best." Certainly, many of the games introduced innovations that are in use today. Ultima II, for example, introduced "moongates" as a means of travel, and cemented the game world as involving an odd mixture of medieval and futuristic technology. Ultima III introduced the idea of a separate combat screen and calculating line-of-sight dynamically to determine what was displayed, as well as the "name? job?" conversation tree that was used through the next three games.

Most of the Ultima games, therefore, have a strong claim to being classics. There are, however, only two that could reasonably be considered Playable Classics, and so we'll limit our discussion to those two games. They are Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar and Ultima VII: The Black Gate.

These two are eligible for consideration mostly because of the hard work of devoted amateur developers who created updated ports of these games for most modern operating systems. In the case of Ultima IV, that effort is called XU4. In the case of Ultima VII, the project is called Exult (links to both projects and other relevant downloads will appear at the end of this article, under "Additional Resources"). Both projects run on Windows and Mac (as well as other platforms). Both ports provide one-click launching.

I've been watching these projects grow for several years now, and I'm really excited by them. The very idea that there's more than one ancient Ultima game that I can run on modern hardware is cool. With luck, other teams will work on resurrecting other cool games from the past, and they'll make my job even harder.

But back to the issue at hand: from a usability standpoint, you can now play either of the two games on your modern box with ease. How can I decide which one to designate as a Playable Classic?

Ultima VII

The Exult team deserves extra credit for making their project work. Ultima VII was a DOS application that needed a ton of memory. Rather than use one of the already-available memory management schemes to accomplish this, Origin developed a memory manager called "Voodoo" that was extremely convenient from the point of view of the developer and absolutely, utterly, and didactically brain-dead from the point of view of the user. Many users had to reboot from a custom-made boot disk in order to play Ultima VII. The game was the paradigm of the hostile user experience. Or at least I found it to be.

Of the two, Ultima VII is surely more approachable for the player who doesn't know what he is getting himself in to. The graphics in Ultima IV are tile-based, and primitive — more iconic than anything — and the world the game takes place in feels much less alive, and more game-like. I complain about the memory management in Ultima VII, but its existence has a lot to do with the ambition of the game. It's easy to forget how primitive most other games were in 1992: this was before even Doom.

In 1992, most of us who bought Ultima VII experienced a buggy, crashy, and unless we had just bought a top-of-the-line computer, hideously slow (albeit attractive) game. Today, thanks to the Exult project, we can play the game as it was meant to be played. We see our avatar and the other characters in town wandering around, looking for all the world like small animated dolls. Non-player characters have routines and chores and habits. They work during the day, and they sleep at night. The occasional deer or squirrel will be found in the wilderness, minding its own business, and darting away if you get too close. The game world feels lush, verdant, and alive.

The plot of Ultima VII uses the framework of a detective story to drive the plot. You arrive in the world of Britannia after a horrific murder; the standard path through the plot is to chase two of the suspects from town to town. The plot is serious, and though preachy at times, is never intolerable. There are many optional activities and side-quests.

This is what Ultima VII brings to the table. A huge (and hugely detailed) world. The terrain does not seem at all tile-based. The environments are as richly varied as Diablo II, and the art is beautiful. The music is soft and textured, and the characterizations believable, at least within the confines of the medium. And Ultima VII is, quite simply, huge. It is the first of the series that I regularly got lost in. I think that's pretty cool.

The game has drawbacks, however. It is hobbled by an almost obsessive-compulsive attention to detail. You can pick up practically every rock and trinket in the game, which means that you will spend most of the game wondering if you should have picked something up that you didn't. There are also subtle rules about crime that don't make a lot of sense. Sometimes, you can pick up bars of gold without penalty, and then at other times you might idly eat a grape that you find in a tavern and suddenly all the members of your party will try to kill you for thievery.

The game tried to integrate combat into the main game engine; rather than decamping to a separate combat screen, and having "turn based" combat, it proceeds in real time. It works something like this: you see someone you want to attack. You click the "dove" button, indicating that you don't want to be peaceful anymore. The dove changes into a picture of a heart pierced by a flaming sword, which is of course the International Olympic Committee's symbol for deadly combat. Then all of the characters in your party rush headlong at the enemy and hack at them without any kind of organization and you all die. Then you go play a different game.

Ultima IV

A good choice for a different game, it turns out, is Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.

Originally published in 1985, Ultima IV stands out as the apotheosis of the series in terms of what may be the most underrated aspect of games: pacing. The game strikes just the right balance of aimless but interesting wandering, frantic combat, and determined searching. There are plenty of macguffins to search for, and a huge number of subquests. There's also quite a bit of dialogue, although the interface to engage in it is be a bit primitive (for years after Ultima IV it was a running joke within the series that the Avatar's main characteristic was that he walked around talking to every single person he met saying "Name? Job?")

From a narrative perspective, one of the most refreshing things about the game is its self-awareness of the clichés of the genre. All three of the previous games had been what are sometimes referred to by game geeks as "kill foozle" quests, meaning the only "point" to the game is "Bad guy over there. Go kill him." The overarching goal in Ultima IV is, not to put too fine a point on it, to become a messiah by exemplifying the eight virtues. All together now, people, let's recite them: Compassion, Honor, Justice, Valor, Honesty, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Humility. (It gets more complex when you consider that each of the virtues are meant to represent one combination of "the three principles" of truth, love, and courage. More or less, my presumption is that Richard Garriott was reading about Buddha's Eightfold Path one night while he was really really baked, and decided to build a game around it. Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, and...Right 6502 Assembler Coding?)

It would have been terribly easy for a game whose entire point was "one should be virtuous" to have crossed the line into preachiness. Ultima IV never ventures into the saccharine. The Bioware games Jade Empire and Knights of the Old Republic are great counterexamples. These games let you play as the bad guy but come across as preachier than Ultima IV. Part of this has to do with the eightfold path of morality in Ultima: the conflict, more often than not, is not "good versus bad" but "upholding one valued principle versus a different valued principle." The particular one that always messed me up was Humility. Characters in the game would constantly ask me "Are you humble?" And I'd sit there, for 2 minutes, not sure what I should say. "Yes! My ability to be humble kicks ass! I am the best at being humble in the world!"

So sometimes one can have multiple goals that are in total conflict. It turns out that even though I'm not saving the world, those are the sorts of decisions that I find difficult in real life.

There's another aspect of Ultima IV that I like, and that has to do with the nature of sequels. In each of the first four Ultima games, the locale changed. Ultima I took place on a nameless world with four continents. Ultima II took place on Earth. Ultima III took place on "Sosaria." Ultima IV takes place on "Britannia." By the time Ultima VII rolled around, the mythology of the world had been calcified and enshrined into canon. When Ultima IV was released, this hadn't happened yet. The game, therefore, goes out of its way to explain more about the world and what has come before. This makes it a bit more approachable to someone who hasn't played any other of the games in the series. Ultima IV is "just" a sequel. Whereas by the time of Ultima VII, the series had become an institution. As such, the latter game had to perform contortions to not contradict earlier tradition and upset rabid fans.

Ultima IV doesn't quite make combat optional, but you can advance very, very far without engaging in many battles, which is to my taste. If you prefer, you can try to kill anything that moves. Elements from the earlier Ultima games, such as moongates, are still present, and the game's tile-based nature will be familiar and understandable to anyone who has played Rogue.

The Decision

It's a close call. Both games, as I said above, have much to recommend them. If you have the time to play both, you should. But if you only have time to play one, then play Ultima IV.

The reasons are pretty simple.

Ultima VII is a fantastically ambitious game. As such, it does many things fairly well. It has multiple user interfaces for many different actions and behaviors. It represents a beautiful, richly detailed world, most of which you will never have the time or inclination to see. At times, it seems more like a primitive version of The Sims than a role-playing game. Ultima IV by contrast, focuses the same narrative ambition on far fewer game mechanics. There is less you can do, conceptually, in Ultima IV, but those things are easier (from a UI perspective) to actually accomplish. Ultima IV only does (comparatively) few things, but it does them very well.

In other words: Ultima IV is a smaller game, but it's more of a game.

The lack of realistic graphics doesn't hurt the game, any more than the iconic pieces in chess damage that game. I like the little icons waving swords. I like the little waiflike children that are depicted with what seems like only 10 pixels. I like the subtle way secret doors require you to actually notice a shift in the brick patterns of a wall. And, damn it to hell, I like walking up to random people and pestering them with "Name? Job?" over and over again.

And, lastly, for all of the seriousness of both of the games, Ultima IV has a worldview, a compassion, and an optimism that is I just didn't find in the later game. Both games exist in an intellectual grey area. Both strove to be morally and ethically complex, and they only succeeded to a very limited extent. Both throw tricky ethical situations at you, and, being imperfect, can be "gamed." Despite this, there is an ethos expressed in Ultima IV that striving to be a good person is a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself. And I think that's an attitude that should be respected, and honored. Ultima VII, from start to finish, batters you with murders, and poverty, and drug use, and questions of privilege. The moral ambiguity of pretenders to virtue is a worthwhile theme, but it's one that isn't played true in Ultima VII. The earlier, simpler theme — even if naive — strikes purer notes.

And sometimes, a simple tune is all one needs to have a good day.

Additional Resources

  • XU4, the update of Ultima IV, is available from xu4.sourceforge.net. The download includes everything you'll need to play. Origin generously released the source code to the original game into the public domain. Binaries are available for Windows and for Mac OS X.
  • Exult is available from exult.sourceforge.net. You'll also need the original Ultima VII. If you don't already own one, you could buy a used copy of The Ultima Collection from Amazon.
  • If you think I am exaggerating how advanced Ultima VII was for its time, read Wikipedia's article on 1992 in video gaming.
  • See The Avatar's Guide to Sin to see a bit of what I mean about crime being overly mechanical in Ultima VII.
  • If you want to look behind the curtain and see what effects different actions have on your virtue in Ultima IV, go ahead. But don't do it before you've played the game at least once.
  • The other games we here at Tea Leaves have designated as Playable Classics are Fool's Errand, Star Control II, and Escape Velocity. If you like our judgment on this game, you should try those others as well.

Posted by peterb at October 4, 2005 06:58 PM | Bookmark This

Excellent entry Peter.

These are my all time favorite games, and are truly the best ones created within the RPG genre.... until they created Ultima 8 and 9. :(

Posted by Woy at October 4, 2005 08:00 PM

I tried to play Ultima VII with Exult earlier this year. I got out of the city you start in, and then stopped playing. Ultima VII is the epitome of games I would have played and loved when I was younger. Also, it was clearly ahead of its time. But I found the hoops it made me jump through rather hard to enjoy.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past came out the year before Ultima VII. I personally believe this game has aged better than Ultima VII - which one may need to have played when it first came out to fully appreciate.

I'd like to try Ultima IV - the screenshot and theme really appeal! I don't suppose anyone is emulating it to run on a console? :)

Posted by Chris at October 5, 2005 04:28 AM

What's wrong with Ultima 8? Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant game, way ahead of it's time graphically, with a deep and involving story.

Admittedly... without the patch there were some pretty serious bugs (pixel accurate spells, impossible jumping) but with the patch it's one of the best RPGs ever made.

Ultima 9 was unfortunate. It had staggeringly high ambitions and just couldn't achieve everything it had aimed for. Ended up feeling very disjointed and sadly quite buggy. Still quite good... but... not great.

Posted by Andy P at October 5, 2005 08:03 AM

I always liked Ultima 5 the best. It still had the tile-based charm of the earlier games, but more interaction like in the later games. I loved playing those stupid little harpsichords in the game.

I do wonder why you've ruled out Wizardry for having to make maps, but not the Ultimas. I'm sure back home I have reams of paper for each Ultima recording what person X in Town 1 wanted me to say to Person Z in Town 7, what reagents make what spell, what the on-screen runes are translated to, or what latitude and longitude to sail to during a waning moon, or something silly like that. Things that belong in an in-game journal for any modern release. I don't think I'd have the patience to replay an older Ultima, even if I did magically have the time.

Posted by Adam Rixey at October 5, 2005 07:30 PM

Adam, good questions.

First: I was never able to get in to Ultima 5. This was because of a combination of too much real work, intrusive copy protection, and Origin's inexplicable decision to ship a 4 disk game that required constant disk-swapping without code to recognize more than one disk drive on the Apple ][. Supposedly, the XU4 team is ramping up to provide Ultima 5 support. So maybe I'll try it again then.

Regarding Wizardry: What I mean is that there were places (many places) in Wizardry where the dungeon would "spin" you around with absolutely no visual indicator, or teleport you with no indicator. The _only_ way to win the game was to have a paper map and to intuit that the teleport or rotation happened from that. By comparison, Ultima was just really really big. You're right about the note-taking, but somehow that seems on a different level of irritation to me than drawing a precise square by square map on graph paper.

Posted by peterb at October 5, 2005 08:12 PM

Chris: Actually, Ultima IV was ported to the Sega Master System and the Nintendo Entertainment System. So if you've got one of those, you could conceivably track down a cartridge and try it there. I've no idea how sophisticated those ports are.

Posted by peterb at October 5, 2005 08:19 PM

My understanding is the console ports were pretty influential in Japan - almost all of the "top down" games (FF*, &c) were influenced by the Ultima ports. One of those random Japanese gaming mags I had eons ago had a little chart on the history of RPG's, with a very readable "ultima" in katakana near the beginning of the chart, next to a very readable "wizardry" in katakana.

I generally felt that U5 was more fun than U4, although the disk swapping was a pain, I thought the combat was an order of magnitude more fun. I also had this incredibly cathartic experience when I stole the crown from the top of Blackthorn's castle and could start wailing on people with my 8th circle spells. I kind of went psycho throwing flaming cones of death everywhere.

Still, U5 loses because of that damn sandalwood box "puzzle".

Posted by Mike Collins at October 5, 2005 09:40 PM

Thanks Peter! I'll keep an eye open for an Ultima IV cartridge next time I'm in the US.

Posted by Chris at October 6, 2005 04:35 AM

Great write-up... thank you for the thoughtful romp down nostalgia lane...

Similar to the author, I too remember countless days riding my bike home from school to power up my IBM 80286 with an EGA graphics card to play Ultima 4 endlessly... and the same with Ultima VII on an Epson 80386/16... ah those were the days.

However, I'm more partial to Ultima VII. I just found the whole world simulation of the game to be utterly engrossing. While Ultima IV was no doubt a spectacular game, I really hated all the micromanagement involved with spell casting... obtaining reagents, memorizing spell names etc...

Anyhow, both great games. Thanks for the write up!

Posted by ImPissed at October 6, 2005 09:31 AM

Good stuff Pete! I of course love all things ultima.

IV was the last one I played full through, so I can't comment on VII. The simple elegance of the ultima 'engine', particularly for IV in relation to previous outings, allowed all focus to be on the characters and story. The data-driven nature provided the flexibility to create unprecented expansiveness of the game world, both in physical size and scope of ambition. The open-endedness which is such a desireable marketroid bullet point nowadays was still fresh and fundamental to the experience.

The suspension of disbelief was almost complete. It was very easy to stand at the shore, a pixelated marionette dancing between green dots and blue squiggles, and feel the world around yourself. I've had this sensation reading good books, which places Ultima IV in a higher circle.

Posted by Tim F at October 6, 2005 01:57 PM

If you like to play classic computer games, I suggest you checkout http://www.download-full-games.com. It's a really huge Archive of all the old classics from the C64, Amiga and PC.

Happy Gaming, Jessica

Posted by Jessica at January 11, 2006 02:52 PM

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