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Monday, May 10, 2021

Tiermaker Funtimes: The Ultima franchise

Ultima is one of the defining CRPG franchises, paving new ground with practically every game to be released and defining countless design tropes that continue to be used to this day.  I got into it fairly late (first played VII at a friend's house), but nonetheless, I got interested enough to check out the series in its entirety, and the experience I had with the franchise was pretty instrumental in turning me into the enormous RPG dork I am today.  So, being a franchise that means a lot to me as well as an indelible classic in general, let's take a look at every game released under the Ultima banner and give them all a tier ranking. 

Akalabeth: World of Doom! (1979)

Of course, before we talk about Ultima, we have to give some mention to its progenitor.  Originally a self-developed and self-published release for the Apple II, a copy of the game made its way to the California Pacific Computer Company, who were impressed with its quality and offered Richard Garriott a publishing contract, kicking off his career. It was a pretty cool game for 1979 too, with seed-generated dungeons, a first-person perspective with wireframe-rendered enemies, and a choice of two classes - Fighter or Mage.  The latter gets much more choice of weapons to wield, while the Mage can control what spell effects they get from the Magic Amulets.  It's tough, too - not only do you have to keep your Hit Points above zero (with more only being earned by slaying enemies and escaping the dungeon after), but you have to keep your food stocked, which is not the easiest thing to do when it depletes with every step you take.  Your quests get progressively harder too, requiring you to dive deeper into each dungeon and slay progressively stronger enemies, so the game is equal parts luck and skill. A pretty cool game for 1979 and definitely an interesting piece of history, but it's pretty crude even by the standards of games that would follow only a couple years after.  This one gets a C. 

Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness (1981)

The first game to be released under the Ultima banner, as well as the second (and last) to be published by California Pacific.  Ultima I is more or less a remake of Akalabeth, though with a significant number of improvements made - four classes to pick from, equippable armor, vehicles and being able to boost your stats by completing various quests to name a few.  It was also one of the first RPGs I know of to take a very abrupt turn into science fiction toward the end - you start out in a typical fantasy world bopping orcs, snakes, thieves, gremlins, et cetera, but after a time you start to unlock air cars, powered armor and laser weaponry, and at one point you even go into space and venture around blowing up TIE fighters; awesome.  It's actually still a fun game too, which is a little surprising considering its age; it doesn't get bogged down in tedious grinding and if you know what you're doing, you can complete it in well under an hour.  Ultima I gets a B.

Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress (1982) 

The second game in the series was published by Sierra On-line, reportedly chosen because no other company Garriott went to would give in to his demand to have a cloth map packaged in the box (though friction with the company would later lead him to split and form his own, Origin Systems).  Ultima 2 upped the stakes quite a bit, taking place on Earth overrun by the previous game's vengeful lover and allowing the player to travel between numerous time periods via gates.  Not only that, once you reached a certain point you could swipe a rocket (from the USSR, no less) and explore the solar system, visiting every planet and seeing the sights; pretty awesome stuff for 1982.  Dungeons are also no longer randomly generated, instead consisting of collections of sixteen 16x16 floors, and collecting various items from random chests and enemies is now an integral part of the experience.  Blue tassels let you pilot ships, magic coins let you freeze time for a brief period, and boots, cloaks and green idols let you resist certain status effects from enemies, to name a few.  The familiar setting does lend itself to a few other quirks, too; my favorites being that the best way to earn food in the game is to repeatedly rob McDonald's, and that you boost your stats by staying at the Hotel California (yes, really). The downside, though, is that the game is much more grindy than the first - you will have to collect a lot of money to get enough food, equipment, HP and stats to make it through, and diving into dungeons to get that all-important Tri-Lithium rocket fuel is something you won't be prepared to do effectively for some time.  Some enemies (like pirate ships you can swipe) also only appear once you've gained some levels, and even then they appear totally at random. Thieves will also quickly become the bane of your existence, as they can steal key items from you and leave you stranded; checking your inventory after every encounter with one quickly becomes essential to not getting stuck in an unwinnable state.  There's a lot to see and do in Ultima II, and even though almost all of it is entirely optional, it's one of the first examples I know of that provided you not just a vast world to explore, but an entire solar system.  However, its slower, generally more monotonous design doesn't make it as fun as the first.  It's a C from me. 

Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash (1983)

Definitely the oddball of the series, Mt. Drash was the only game in the series in which Richard Garriott had no direct involvement; he gave permission for Keith Zabalaoui to use the name, and he in turn developed and released his game exclusively on the Commodore VIC-20 at a time when the platform was rapidly being phased out.  Because of this, the game was very obscure, sold extremely poorly and much unsold stock was disposed of (literally being dumped off a cliff by one distributor, which is where one of the few complete copies in existence was found years later).  Gameplay-wise it's a pretty basic maze game, though with a rather awkward combat system where your characters (in side-view) move back and forth and you have to strike at very specific weak points to defeat them.  That, plus the extremely short period of time you have to clear each floor, quickly turns Mt. Drash into a frustrating experience.  Proof that just because something is rare and expensive doesn't mean it's any good, Drash is a definite F.

Ultima III: Exodus (1983)

The first game in the series to be party-based, as well as one of the very first RPGs to feature animated character sprites.  It's also considerably less grindy than Ultima 2, as you not only get a lot more money from enemies, but you can do some discreet thievery in towns to bolster your finances as well.  Combat is more sophisticated too, taking on a turn-based system where you and your enemies move around on a grid to exchange attacks, spells or ranged fire.  Dungeons are once again an integral part of the experience; not just to level up, but to get several key powerups (the four Marks) and important clues to complete the game.  Still a fairly grindy game overall - you stil have to collect money and trade it for stat points, money and equipment - but it's a lot more smooth-playing and fun than 2.  It also marked the beginning of a series trademark in that the final challenge isn't a drag-out fight, but more of a puzzle.  Another simple, but fun early RPG.  I give it a B.

The NES port is also a decent one, giving it a slight JRPG flair with some added animations and chibi character designs, though the overall gameplay and design remains mostly intact.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1986)

The early Ultima games were pretty well-received, but they also drew controversy for their decidedly "demonic" box art and for forcing the player the player do things that were decidedly unheroic - attacking NPCs, stealing gold, robbing stores and so forth.  That formed the basis of an idea where you'd have to save the world again, not by defeating some great evil but just genuinely being a good person to serve as a shining example to others, and thus came Ultima IV.  A game built on following eight virtues and then venturing into the Stygian Abyss to recover the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom and become the Avatar of Virtue.  They go all-in with it, too - showing Valor by not fleeing from enemies, Honor by completing quests, being Honest by speaking the truth and not stealing, and even speaking Humbly when given the chance.  There's also a much heavier emphasis on puzzles now, making the whole thing a more cerebral experience rather than tedious monster farming.  The game that reinvented an already great franchise and became the first of many immortal classics, Quest of the Avatar is an indelible S.  Hell, even the console ports were pretty damn good, with a JRPG-esque reimagining on the NES and a PC-accurate (and quite good looking and sounding) port to the Sega Master System.

Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (1988)

Ultima IV a very difficult act to follow, but Origin managed to find a way.  Ultima V is set in a Britannia where Lord British has disappeared during an expedition and the corrupted Lord Blackthorn now rules the land with an iron fist, turning the virtues into draconian laws.  It effectively portray how "virtues" don't really work when they're forced on you ("Thou shalt donate half thy income to charity, or thou shalt have no income", etc.), but it makes your journeys a lot harder too - guards will shake you down for cash to enforce these laws, and towns aren't even guaranteed to be safe since the Shadowlords will randomly visit and cause everyone in them to embody one of the three anti-virtues - Hatred will make them attack you on sight, Cowardice makes them afraid to talk to you and Falsehood causes them to tell lies and mislead you.  Combat is much tougher too, with enemies who aren't afraid to use some very nasty tactics against you like confusing characters, making them flee in fear or summon more monsters to fight you, and they ofteb try to overwhelm you with sheer numbers.  Dying is punishing too, as it takes away experience points - not a good thing in an already tough game.  Still, the game's grim atmosphere and challenge really does make you feel like a badass underdog as you slowly turn the tide on the oppression and restore Lord British to the throne.  Extremely challenging but also very rewarding, Ultima V is another S.

(But for the love of God, skip the atrocious NES port.  They tried to remake it in Ultima 6's style on a platform with severe ROM limitations and gave you one thirty-second music loop to listen to the entire game.  It sucks.  Trust me.)

Ultima VI: The False Prophet (1990)

With Ultima VI, the series entered a bold new world not just in terms of tech (moving up to full VGA graphics and MIDI sound), but in realism.  No longer content to be a simple RPG, the game now effectively simulates the entire world of Britannia.  Everyone in the game operates on a timed schedule, you can interact with mundane objects and do things like milk cows, bake bread or lockpick open chests.  The story is another interesting one too, with a previously unseen race called the Gargoyles invading Britannia and occupying the shrines of virtue for reasons that aren't initially made clear.  Just one of many mysteries you'll have to solve by talking to people, uncovering clues and following dialog trees.  The transition isn't totally seamless, though - the limited viewpoint and cluttered layout of much of the overworld can make it difficult to navigate to some areas, though you can cut down on incidental travel quite a bit with the Moonstone, which lets you hop between many important points in the world in an instant.  Another impressive game on a lot of fronts and a great adventure, but clunky to play compared to its brethren.  I give it a B.

The SNES port is a passable one, with simplified gameplay and a lot of the violence toned down or cut entirely owing to Nintendo's policies of the time and the Gargoyles being slightly redesigned to be less "demonic" in appearance.  Still, it stays relatively faithful to the design and gameplay of the PC port, unlike the NES version of 5 and some later entries on the Super Nintendo.

Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire (1990)

 Ultima VI was very costly for Origin to develop, so the idea behind the Worlds of Ultima spinoff franchise was that they would reuse the engine to make shorter adventures spanning various time periods to recoup some of that money; a good idea, but it didn't really pan out as the series saw very mediocre sales and was canceled after only two entries.  The first of the two was Savage Empire, which took the Avatar and his friends Dr. Spector and Jimmy Rafkin to a mysterious and anachronistic valley where dinosaurs and several ancient human tribes exist.  Plagued not just by the threat of dinosaurs and erupting volcanos but also a dangerous sentient ant tribe called the Myrmidex, the Avatar tries to unite the tribes against their common enemy and find a way back home.  A pretty clever concept, but a rather short game overall - you can finish it in about 10 hours, and it lacks the complexity and depth of 6.  Still, it proves to be a good mystery and works in some creative mechanics (freezing lava with a fire extinguisher so you can cross), and is ultimately a short but sweet adventure.  It's a B.

Japan also got a SNES port of the game, but I don't recommend you try to track it down; not only is it ridiculously rare and expensive, but it runs on the atrocious engine that the SNES port of Ultima VII does and is really not fun to play.

Ultima Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams (1991)

The second and ultimately last of the Worlds spinoff series, Martian Dreams proved to be another interesting tale by Warren Spector.  Taking place in the Victorian era on Mars (!), the player actually has to contend with the harsh conditions of the red planet - hostile plant life as well as low oxygen (which can be offset by finding oxygen-rich rocks).  You'll also find all sorts of deactivated tech to slowly bring back online and a lot of famous historical figures (both prestigious and... much less so) to interact with as you slowly piece together the mysteries of the red planet.  The game can be annoyingly picky about some things (using the exact right item or tool for a given job), but the story is a good one with a lot of really imaginative beats, and I consider it the best of the three games to use Ultima 6's engine.  It's an A from me.

Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1991) 

Another legendary title that went on to inspire numerous prominent and successful games (including Half-Life, Deus Ex and Elder Scrolls), Ultima Underworld took first-person dungeon crawling to new heights.  No longer confining the player to stiff grid-based movement or even requiring most puzzles to be solved in a specific way, you were afforded a lot of freedom in Ultima Underworld.  You still pick a virtue to determine your starting class and stats, but you were also afforded a number of secondary skills as well, determining your proficiency with different weapon types, magical affinity and a number of useful skills like swimming, acrobatics, picking locks and identifying items.  This allows you a tremendous amount of freedom - getting past a locked door could entail smashing it down with a weapon, finding a key, casting an Unlock spell (if you had the MP and the proper spell runes), using lockpicks to force it open, or - if you're clever - tricking enemies into opening it for you.  The story is once again a good one, taking a basic premise and throwing in a clever twist at the end that you don't see coming.  It's a methodical, puzzle-focused experience that doesn't hold your hand, and therein lies the brilliance of it, making it a great game even today despite its clumsy control layout.  The multiple approaches to each puzzle, character customization and plenty of hidden secrets give it a ton of replay value as well. A rank for sure.

I'm aware of the Playstation 1 port of the game, which only came out in Japan and apparently features 3D-rendered enemies rather than 2D sprites, but I have not played it myself.

Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992)

Ultima VII proved to be as much of a leap over 6 as 6 was over 5, which is definitely no mean feat.  The intrusive HUD is done away with entirely, giving you a much larger view of the world, and the realism is upped even further, with some very detailed VGA graphics and the world feeling staggeringly alive in every front.  Every character has a day job they actually are seen doing (whether baking bread, bartending, patrolling castles, or whatever else) and the action is real-time but can be paused to adjust tactics or use items.  Combat is now largely automated, though you can set each character's AI to suit the situation or cast spells with the Avatar when necessary.  The presentation is mindblowing too, with fluid animation, ominous music and even some surprisingly menacing voiceover by the series' new antagonist, the Guardian (voiced by Bill Johnson).  The tone was definitely darker too, as the Virtues began to take a backseat to stopping the machinations of a new and dangerous enemy who wasn't above subterfuge and brutal assassinations.  It's not the deepest RPG ever, but it's incredibly fun to go exploring in this world and get immersed in its convoluted storyline, and I still consider it one of the greatest games of all time (as well as the greatest PC game ever made).  Definite SSS rank for me.

But again, avoid the SNES "port".  It's retooled into a bad Zelda-like with no post-hit invincibility, its story is cut down and censored to the point of being farcical, the design makes little sense (you can walk into some random NPC's basement and get killed by a giant just chilling down there) and it's generally just a miserable experience.

Ultima: Runes of Virtue (1992)

The first and only handheld-exclusive Ultima game, released for the good old Game Boy.  As you'd expect, though, you're not really going to get a deep storytelling experience on such a low-powered system.  What you do get is more of a simplistic dungeon crawler with a lot of teleportation mazes, switch puzzles and killing monsters, sort of like Gauntlet by way of ZZT.  The problem is it's not especially fun to play - puzzles almost invariably boil down to tedious trial-and-error, with a wrong guess forcing you to leave the dungeon entirely to reset it and repeat every prior puzzle before you get a chance to try again, which gets irritating very quickly.  It does at least provide a little bit of that Ultima-style exploration, having you venture across the seas on ships and via moongates, but it's a far cry from the computer games.  RoV gets at least some points for being the first multiplayer-capable Ultima game, but I can't imagine too many people have ever done co-op runs on this one.  A mediocre game in general but especially for Ultima, but at least a passable dungeon crawler for time and platform it debuted on, I'll give it a C.

Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds (1993)

In terms of story Ultima Underworld II takes place shortly after Ultima VII, but in gameplay it's very much the same beast as the first Underworld, setting you in a sprawling dungeon (or in this case, numerous parallel worlds to hop between) and letting you figure everything out and solve problems on your own.  It does mix things up, though, in that the game really can't be completed in a linear fashion - you will frequently have to leave some challenges for later as you simply can't finish the first time you come across them, whether that's due to a strong enemy or a spell you can't cast yet or some key item is missing.  You'll also slowly witness a plot unfold within Lord British's castle with the Guardian manipulating people and there being a traitor in your midst whom you must weed out.  Another great title, and even with some rushed elements, it fits neatly between two of the greatest CRPGs of all time, becoming a great one in its own right.  Another A.

Ultima VII Part 2: The Serpent Isle (1993)

Serpent Isle is another game that reuses an engine - Ultima VII's to be precise, albeit with some significant modifications made to allow for cutscenes and triggerable events and add a few other cool features like a paperdoll equipment manager.  It uses these to great effect throughout, creating a narrative that feels much deeper and more dynamic than Ultima VII's.  Character portraits are much higher resolution as well (using several prominent figures from the Ultima Dragons fan group as well as the developers), and the game is optimized to run better in most situations.  This comes at the cost of being a much more linear experience, though - you're afforded relatively little opportunity to free-roam, and there isn't a lot of point anyway as the world is very sparsely populated and designed compared to VII's.  The story is rushed too, especially once you pass the halfway point - design documents reveal that they had much bigger (and more complex) plans in mind than what they ultimately went with, and the dungeon design slips really hard into mediocrity compared to what came before.  Toying around with the game's debug menu also reveals large portions of the map containing incomplete dungeon fragments and items that aren't used anywhere, so they clearly had much bigger plans in mind for Serpent Isle that never got realized.  The game could have been another SSS if it weren't so rushed (maybe even better than VII), but they did the best they could with what they had to work with, and it still stands out as a fantastic RPG.  Solid A.

Ultima: Runes of Virtue II (1993)

The original Runes of Virtue was nothing special, but being portable lent it a certain appeal; even if the game wasn't especially good, you could at least kill a few minutes with it on a bus ride or something.  The second game lacks even that bit of benefit, being much the same as the original; same tedious trial-and-error design with only the barest minimum of Ultima elements pasted on.  Its existence just felt rather pointless, especially when you consider that the Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening came out the same year, uses the same basic style of design and is regarded as one of the very best Game Boy games ever made.  But then to compound it even further, RoV2 also got a Super Nintendo port the following year so the unfavorable comparisons could continue there against games like Link to the Past and Shadowrun.  The original Runes of Virtue was at least a fairly novel game in its time, but RoV2 was looking pretty dire for the time period it came out in.  So, it gets a D.

Ultima VIII: Pagan (1994) 

Another drastic changeup for the series, as it went back to having you control a single character.  Not only that, the game took on a more action-oriented format, complete with real-time combat and platforming, with the latter earning it the derisive moniker of "Super Avatar Bros".  Now, if it were a competent clone of Mario I might actually be okay with that change, but it's not; imagine a platformer with isometric graphics, grid-based movement, stiff hand-to-hand combat and having to control every single action you take with a two-button mouse, and that's what you get with Pagan.  Oh, and making a jump to a platform or slipping off and falling into the drink for an instant death?  Yeah, that's governed by a stat roll rather than any precision on your part.  Needless to say, this got frustrating very quickly, to say nothing of the clunky combat (so bad that I ended up running past almost all enemies instead of trying to fight them), the tedious samey dungeons, the stiff movement, constant inventory management and the amazingly irritating Sorcery spell system that requires pixel-perfect item placement to enchant foci; both times I played, I got so fed up with it that I just resorted to using the cheat menu instead.  On top of all that, the game was rushed, so huge portions of the story ended up being cut out and you never even get to command the element of Water despite it being a major part of the game's story.  Still, for all its faults Pagan isn't a total loss - the game does effectively paint a bleak atmosphere under the discreet oppression of the Guardian and his minions, and it looks and sounds really nice - a lot of the sound design and animations were really impressive for 1994, and even the Guardian constantly taunting you throughout the events is a nice touch (even if you get tired of it before long, as he he only says the same handful of phrases over and over again).  I can't fault it for being experimental, but I can for having a severe lack of the polish and attention to detail that made the rest of the series so great.  Easily the weakest of the mainline Ultima games, Pagan gets a D.

The game also famously had an expansion called "the Lost Vale" which, despite being completed and even having box designs finalized, was never released. It allegedly would have fixed some holes in the plot and expanded on Pagan's Lore (having the Avatar join forces with the three Gods of Emotion that ruled before the Titans), as well as adding some new spells, like one that would let you shrink and sneak through cracks in walls and other tiny spaces. Fun stuff; sadly we'll probably never see it as the source code has been lost. 

Ultima IX: Ascension (2000)

Ultima IX gets mocked by a lot of gamers these days, mostly for its laughably bad script that flies in the face of Ultima canon at every turn and its comically terrible voice acting.  Rightfully so on both fronts, but one must also remember that for 2000 this game was very impressive on a technical level; building a dense, detailed and almost entirely seamless world in a 3D engine was no small feat in that era, and Ultima IX did a surprisingly admirable job.  Granted, the execution wasn't flawless - Britannia feels a lot smaller than it used to, and as many people have highlighted, you can execute some major sequence breaks by using the strange physics engine to hop over mountains and even oceans and get to areas well before you should.  The game was also heavily criticized for being buggy (particularly at its initial launch, where the game was literally unwinnable and the developers were forced to unleash debug codes so people could actually finish it).  NPC AI is also... questionable at best, as they're often seen standing on countertops, glitching into terrain or simply wandering around and getting eaten by randomly-spawning enemies, making the game unintentionally hilarious as well as occasionally frustrating.  Still, it executes the action-oriented design of 8 much better overall (mostly because the controls are actually decent and workable now) and you can get just as much fun out of its unique brand of jank as you can playing it straight and enjoying its puzzles; maybe even more so.  It's also interesting to see what they ultimately did with the game under the strict constraints EA put on the developers; the script was originally intended to be much more grandiose and in-like with the series canon, but heavy meddling and strict deadlines led to major subplots being dropped and many elements quickly repurposed, resulting in the fascinating mess that is Ultima IX's final state. Another perfect example of a game that could have been legendary if not for EA being EA, Ultima IX: Ascension is still a decent and entertaining game, but definitely not up to the standards of Ultima's glory days.  Ascension gets a C.