How did Ultima 4 define the RPG genre?
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar is considered to be the classic of the multimedia entertainment industry. This is one of the first such advanced RPGs, the game that has shaped the genre for years and set the trends for multitudes of its followers. When the remastered version was published on CSDB in early 2015 the community reaction was super positive. Ratings 10/10, songs of praise, bows and opinions, that this might actually be the best crack on a C64 scene ever.
So we decided to take a closer look at the phenomenon of this game. We wonder what really makes it so unique; what causes the fact that simultaneously to the premiere of Witcher 3 – a perfect RPG by all means – the retro community keeps getting back to Ultima from 1985? What drives the enthusiasts to still devote their time to improve the game code, and players to once again roam the Britannia in a never-ending mission to become a spiritual leader or Avatar? We analyzed 10 distinguishing characteristics of Ultima 4 in search of some unique features, although we all know that the success and timelessness of this game lies mainly in its innovation. Because the original ideas of U4 were fresh, inventive and, most importantly, they survived till nowadays and found multiple imitators in almost every subsequent role-playing game.
Plot: In contrast to all Ultima predecessors, as well as other games of this genre, U4 is not a typical hack and slash, and its story is not limited to wipe out some abstract power of evil. The aim of the game is to acquire the eight virtues that will make our hero the spiritual leader of the world. It sounds unique, builds an intriguing setting and puts the player in front of a previously unknown adventure. Show me another game with such a bold and unique plot in its time.
World: Oceans parted, lands pierced the earth, and the continent of Britannia has grown considerably. A certain geographical order of the world has been established and the continent deserves to be printed out on a cloth map attached to the game’s box. U4’s geography has been used in all the upcoming games without any major revisions.
Exploration: U4 is considered to be the first video game with such an obvious and dominant exploration factor. The freedom of choosing a path, the availability of directions spanning the entire continent, multiple cities and villages embedded in the wilds, mountains and lakes, the ability to travel by boat or balloon – it all built up a sense of atmosphere and setting that totally made up our minds about its vast size. Other games of the 80s still offered a single-axis movement limiting players’ choice to specific imposed path to walk upon.
Freedom of choice: The superior goal of a game was there, but the ways of achieving it highly depended on a player. You could choose the path of nobility, or not, it was possible to observe the law, or blatantly break it. U4 offered freedom of choice: you could attack units in the cities, plunder scrubs, cheat on merchants, steal and cause trouble. It was easy to become powerful right from the beginning of the game, but this in turn made the game a much longer and more difficult to complete.
The morality: Starting from the character creation process, with its multiple questions of moral choice, it was obvious how important morality is going to be in the game. Decisions taken in U4 have their far-reaching consequences, and our choices have a direct impact on the game world. Compared to other RPGs, in which our behavior usually does not have any serious consequences, such a morality system was a breakthrough.
Dialogues: We also received a substitute of a real conversation. A little clumsy, very basic, but nevertheless it was a real attempt to create a dialogue. Communication with NPCs using basic phrases as HEAL, HELP, GOLD, MONEY, BYE was pleasant and most importantly, has opened a number of possibilities for the future.
Bonuses: The box of U4 provided us with some additional items that perfectly complement the storyline of the game. In addition to the aforementioned map, players received physical copies of the Manual and the Spellbook. And it was not just art for art’s sake – to beat the game you really needed their knowledge. Sometime later Origin also published the Clue Book with some additional story info, as well as characteristics and maps of various locations. Images around the text are just taken out of these books.
The combat system: The U4 combat system includes quite advanced tactical play, even though the game doesn’t really offer a wide variety of equipment, weapons or monsters. Larger skirmishes were based on the strategy and allowed to perform some advanced solutions, like enemy flanking, using the variety of terrain, setting traps, summoning monsters, etc.
Dungeons: Getting down there was like a completely separate game. Dungeons were pseudo-three-dimensional, mysterious, difficult and challenging. They offered valuable prizes, equipment and gold. Today we can’t even imagine a RPG without dungeons, and back in 1985 players had to use maps to beat some of the hardest locations.
Finally, game’s importance and its brand is widely recognized as it’s the flagship work of Richard Gariott. Similarly to Will Wright and SimCity, Sid Meyer and Civilization, Hironobu Sakaguchi and Final Fantasy series, Ultima is the most beloved child of Lord British. And U4 in particular plays a special role in Garriott’s heart, and is considered by himself as a “most important game”.
Many modern western RPGs are inspired by the ideas of U4 back from 1985. Only some, though, took a risk and went a step further, and just a few games per decade are unique enough to be remembered. And that’s why Ultima 4 is eternally alive: in players’ memory, the magazines’ charts of all time games, and among developers.