Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, one of the original nine Ultimas (nine!), is so
huge and cavernous it’s honestly hard to properly review in 2019 thirty-four years after its original release without startling shrieking bats out of some ancient floppy drive.
Beyond the game’s massive scope and intricate complexity it also left a gigantic footprint on the CRPG landscape forevermore. So the game has
to be considered in the context in which it entered this world - a time of excessive hairspray, time traveling Deloreans as well as the birth year of our beloved Amiga (although Ultima IV didn’t get ported to it until 1987).
Saying the series helped define CRPGs as we know them would be a gross understatement. But to pluck the fourth installment from a series that spans over two decades and give it a grade is no small task, either, and not one I take lightly here.
Thus, to give Ultima IV its proper due, this review will stumblingly meander from the historical to the mechanical all the while attempting to answer one
question before it’s all over: Is Ultima IV fun to play today in 2019?
To be clear, this is a review of the Amiga version which again was released in 1987 two years after it generated rivers of tears from 8-bit machines.
A Brief History of Time (Gates)
First, for those that have never played Ultima IV or any of the other Ultimas, a quick bit of background to help set the landscape is in order.
Technically, for argument’s sake, you could say there were 11 original Ultimas, not 9. There was a proof of concept pre-Ultima I that was sold commercially (in ziplock bags), and Ultima VII was broken into two separate releases. But for simplicity’s sake there were nine. Those nine are often grouped into thirds like this:
-) Ultima - Ultima III (1981-1983)
-) Ultima IV - Ultima VI (1985-1990)
-) Ultima VII - Ultima IX (1992-1999)
The first group was where the creator, Richard Garriott, developed the basics of his game world and fleshed them out to a startling level nearly single-handedly. He leveraged games of the early days, including Wizardry and of course Dungeons & Dragons, and borrowed from books and movies as do most fantasy games.
Garriott hand-coded the first three games entirely on Apple II hardware, and they followed tried and true single-player adventuring recipes:
-) One character to adventure across great lands (for Ultima I & II)
-) One singularly evil wizard/sorceress/thing to destroy
-) Hack and slash your way across said world and down into dungeons to banish the evil from the world. Typically you need to find certain artifacts along the way in order to progress and unravel a few puzzles.
And that simple formula has been repeated by nearly every single RPG since the first Ultima.
With Ultima II, Garriott introduced a clever mechanic to allow your character to travel vast distances of space and time: the Time Gates. If that concept sounds familiar, it’s because he directly borrowed the idea from the 1981 fantasy movie by Terry Gilliam, Time Bandits, as well as to a lesser degree from the wardrobe portal concept found in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.
Back in 1981 Time Bandits hit movie theaters in Gilliam’s own “Trilogy of Imagination.” One of the things about Time Bandits that really stuck with Garriot was the main character’s map
, which the characters could use to jump through different periods in time and space.
In fact, there’s a humorous story where Garriott and some of his friends watched the movie over and over one day to try and copy down the drawings on the map in the movie (there was no pause!) so he could later study it and determine how it worked. He soon realized the cartography was purely for aesthetics, but the idea hit him so hard - both the concept of the Time Gates as well as the map - that he forced his games to always
be sold with cloth maps for gamers to have and to hold.
Had those cloth maps never been put in the game boxes, Garriott admitted he’d be a much wealthier man. They weren’t cheap to produce. But it was important to him to complete the experience and he fought for it - and won nearly every time. I say nearly because with the Ultima VI Amiga version, the map was reduced from cloth to paper while other platforms still got the cloth. Not cool, Richard!
Anyway with Ultima III, Garriott introduced to the game a larger party of characters, something we rather take for granted these days. Back in 1983, it was a big freaking deal. Sir-Tech’s Wizardry series had introduced this innovation as early as 1981, so Ultima needed to “catch up” so to speak. At least, that was Garriott’s belief.
With Ultima IV, it was like that joke from Spinal Tap where everything got turned up to 11. Except it was pulled inside out and flipped upside down. Again, Garriott wrote this game by hand himself as well.
The graphics improved (on some machines), the sound improved (on some machines), the vast complexity of the quest and puzzles got dialed up - everything. But Garriott willfully broke away from the CRPG formula he helped to create.
The Ultima games were already legendary as being tear-jerkingly hard. If you ever finished one you were encouraged to take a photo of your screen and mail it to Origin to receive an autographed signature by Lord Brisith himself (Garriott) congratulating you on the nearly impossible achievement. To be honest, I wonder if they still do? Having just finished Ultima IV myself during the course of this review I’d be thrilled to death if that process was still honored. I doubt it. Hm..
Anyway, with the difficulty and time involved in solving the multitude of puzzles and quests, many folks analyzed (and over-analyzed) every single word on the screen throughout the games, every passage in the gorgeously written and illustrated manuals, and every over-arching action your characters had to employ to win. Garriott received a lot
of mail from fans and players who wanted to understand
what he was trying to say with these games. What has his ultimate
message? Some actually accused him of being a worshipper of Satan!
Those letters really affected him.
As he began to think through what Ultima IV might be about before he started designing it, he knew it couldn’t simply be more of the same old same old. He didn’t want people to think he was some Devil worshipper, even though he wasn’t a particularly religious person. No, it needed to go much deeper because his fan base was already going deep without him as they tried to analyze perceived messages they believed his games conveyed. In the past, it never dawned on him that his games might have secondary meanings or over-arching themes outside of the stories he’d written.
But with Ultima IV he changed all of that to make it as clear as he could.
He decided there really would be a message - and he was going to beat it over your head until the lump was tall enough to be seen from satellites in space. And he made all of the interlocking parts of the game fit together like a fine Swiss watch lubed with extra
goodness. So much goodness.
To this day, the concept of Ultima IV has rarely been copied but its impact sent shockwaves. To be honest, I have a sincere belief it may have changed some people’s lives for the better (including some reading this right now).
The premise is this: Rather than finding and destroying an evil wizard or force to earn glory, the goal of the game is for you - “The Stranger” - to learn the way of the Avatar.
In other words, you need to stop acting like you normally would in a fantasy RPG where you just kill your way through the game to the end. You need to ascend to something higher. And to get there the game is almost going to re-program YOU along the way.
Avatar, as defined in Wikipedia:
An avatar, a concept in Hinduism that means "descent", refers to the material appearance or incarnation of a deity on earth. The relative verb to "alight, to make one's appearance" is sometimes used to refer to any guru or revered human being.
Put another way more crudely, imagine you’re playing one of the classic Zelda games on your Nintendo console of choice. Now image you’ve pulled out your sword and slashed a helpless chicken roaming around the garden fence. For fun.
You just lost points in Ultima IV. And you don’t even know it. But you will learn…
You do things like give gold to town beggars, offer blood to healers in some of the towns, let certain monsters that attack you (like nature’s creatures) flee from battle should they try, and so on.
And if you don’t you’ll never finish the game.
To be fair, it was introducing a gray area never seen in video games. It’s usually shoot or be shot. With Ultima IV, it’s shoot only if you have to and you still might get shot anyway. It makes you kinda twitchy and really ponder what’s going on.
From “The Official Book of Ultima” by Shay Adams (1990):
With the public’s favorable response and his decision to expand the storytelling side of Ultima in mind, Garriott sat back and surveyed his last work. “Now that I had done this neat game showing the good way, the next logical thing was to see what happened when it went wrong.” Since Ultima IV was, in Garriott’s words the “ultimate Goody Two-shoes on the face of the planet” kind of story, he envisioned Ultima V as a game that would take the concept to its logical conclusion by asking what happens when the government gets in on the act and starts punishing people who fail to live in accordance with the eight virtues. “I kind of think of it as my statement against TV evangelists,” he says, “ or any other group which would push their personal, philosophical beliefs on anybody else."
Kind of a fascinating story arc, but Ultima V is for another day.
In the Beginning, There Was a Gypsy
Something else that is drastically different with Ultima IV compared to all other RPGs before and since is how you start the game. Usually in RPGs you are either told you are character X, or you pick a name then “roll your own” character and get to choose your class (fighter, thief, mage, etc.) based on your chosen stats.
This idea was turned completely on its head by Ultima IV by introducing a psychological quiz for players to take to determine one’s fate.
When I took this quiz I became a “Tinker.” No, not a fairy. Thanks. It’s a weird word for a blacksmith (Tink! Tink tink!) - a rather unusual class to be assigned in an otherwise fairly traditional fantasy setting.
And so begins the game.
After taking the awe-inspiring quiz at the beginning of the game and reading through the gorgeous manuals, it was time to learn what to actually do in this game!
You begin to reveal over time (a lot of time) that there are clever patterns of 8 freaking everywhere.
There are 8 main cities. There are 8 other “places” (not fully-fledged cities, but more like towns or places of interest NPCs might be hanging around). There are 8 dungeons. There are 8 Moon Gates. Eight Runes, eight mantras, eight colored stones, 8 members to add to your party, 8 virtues you need to personally aspire to and earn, and so on. And you really have to do it all. You just do. It might take you eight months to do, or eight years, but that’s not a strict requirement.
But how do you find all of this stuff?
You’ll Wish You Had a Squire
You have to try and locate virtually every single NPC in the game
and talk to them.
Now, many of the NPCs have nothing to offer you, but you won’t know unless you talk to ALL of them. I don’t know how many NPCs are in the game, but let’s say somewhere in the ballpark of a shit ton. And you’ve simply got to try and find every one of them and chat them up whether they like it or not (and many don’t!).
This particular game mechanic can become rather mind numbing because the process is so repetitive and often fruitless.
But it can also be a total thrill when you are told something of value (or something different). Thankfully the text parser options are narrow otherwise this game would have felt nearly impossible to figure out. Having a short list of commands to trudge through each time can be boringly monotonous, but it makes the game at least feel winnable for those with an iron will and a few spare toothpicks to keep the eyes open on really late nights. As long as you’re not in a hurry, hunting down people to talk to is essentially one of the main things you have to do.
And then write it all down, and keep those notes organized.
The mechanic to talk to NPCs is kind of clever. At least, it feels that way at first. It’s as if Garriott gave you four commands lifted from a text adventure like Zork then sprinkled them with a tiny pinch of organic life.
Those commands would be:
NAME (if the NPC hasn’t told you, they will with this)
JOB (if the NPC hasn’t told you, this will often be the key word to get them to open up)
JOIN (this is reserved for asking NPCs to join your party. You need 8 members, and they are all pre-determined yet unknown to you.) Have fun finding them! SPOILER: The most people that can join your party will map directly to your level. So if you meet someone too soon, too bad! Write it down and come back some other day.
BYE (leave the conversation)
Now this is where it gets kind of interesting. When you ask folks their jobs, they may say or sing (making this up as an example):
“I work hard for the money.”
It’s at this point where you can ask them about something in that sentence - usually the last word - to see if they have more to offer. For example, you could then type:
And they might continue the thread, which may lead you to a different town to seek a different NPC that knows about a rune you need to find, etc.
It’s as if these conversations form long threads that slowly weave into the cloth map you’re holding in your hands.
And the more conversations you have, the more details, the higher resolution the map will reveal to you as you become one with the Way of the Goodly Avatar. These conversations are one of the most tedious aspects of Ultima IV, but are also the most important thing you have at your disposal to get through this massive game and find “all the things.” So many things.
Honestly, I joked with a friend of mine that the game could have been named Grind and it totally would have worked, too.
Hither and Yon
So you’ve been transported to this world that feels gigantic and takes forever to cross on foot. You can’t walk over the mountains and the swamps will poison you. In the early days, before you learn how magic works, it feels like you’re constantly under the threat of being poisoned to death by everything…
There are a few ways to get around Britannia, however, beyond simply walking. In the town of Paws you can get a horse, which helps land travel quite a bit. By the time you hit level 4, you can try to battle a pirate ship (you have to do it from the shore and hope one attacks you there) and win the boat. Once you’ve got a pirate ship at your disposal, holy shiznit - the game changes immensely. You can go anywhere! (Almost.) It’s a very liberating feeling. It made me want to guzzle some rum and put on a few golden hoop earrings to celebrate.
But before you get to the ship, you really have to figure out the damned Moon Gates.
In Ultima IV, the Time Gates concept stolen from Time Bandits and used in the first trilogy was changed into a “Moon Gate”. Now I’ll be dead honest. This was a puzzle that took me a long
time to fully unravel and use. And without using the Moon Gates winning the game would have been virtually impossible.
The idea is this:
There are two moons. At certain times when the first moon waxes or wanes, a Moon Gate will appear in specific locations (see: cloth map). If you step through that doorway, you’ll wind up in 1 of 3 locations depending on the “beat” of the 2nd moon.
MILD SPOILER: In other words, say a Moon Gate appears. The second moon will be in a particular phase. If you wait a few seconds it will be in the 2nd phase, and in a few more seconds the third phase. After that, the Moon Gate will disappear until the first moon is back to its proper phase. Each of the phases of the 2nd moon correspond to a different location. Figuring out each of those locations is a major PITA! And each Moon Gate is completely different with its own set of destinations. Understanding this incredible puzzle will open up a whole new dimension of teleportation travel that is essential in playing the game. It damn near drove me crazy for weeks until I had it under control.
There are a few other modes of travel, too.
One I used to great affect was the Blink Spell. This valuable magic spell can transport a party in any of the cardinal directions to get to areas that are virtually impossible to get to by foot or by boat. It’s essentially a teleportation spell that zaps a party X amount of squares, where X is (I’m guessing) about 8-10 squares, but it feels a little more random at times. But this can zap you to the top of a mountain range or across a river, which is just jaw droopingly powerful. Seek out that spell!
Speaking of magic…
When you own the boxed version of Ultima IV, it comes with a red-bound book of magic. Some of the pages tell you the “reagents” you’ll need to source and mix to cast them. Others, you’ll be told exist but it’ll be up to you to find the right expert out there to tell you how to mix and cast them.
Like Dungeon Master which came out later, Ultima requires you make each individual spell you wish to cast. And those spells require various ingredients. The vast majority of the ingredients can be purchased from a blind woman in magic shops. This is interesting on multiple levels. For one, just the ability to “Cure Poison” and stop living in constant fear of simply walking around in the world is a really big deal. But finding the shop to buy healing reagents is *hard* - harder than you’d think necessary to play this game.
Second, when it is time to pay keep in mind the woman is blind. So you are tested and judged on your actions every time you buy, say, Garlic or Ginseng.
That being said, other than healing potions and the Blink spell, I almost never really needed to use magic at all. Combat magic is a total waste of time in this game and can be ignored for the most part.
Battles are one of the things that will take up nearly 50% of your time in the game.
It’s worth pointing out that the SSI Gold Box games are often cited as being epic in terms of the tactics they introduced. And I think that’s totally fair. But it’s worth remembering that Ultima came first, and the birthplace of those tactics really started here.
In the early parts of the game, it’s actually strategically smarter to keep your party small. The more members you add, the more monsters you’ll face. And these battles never really get particularly interesting. Once you’ve done a couple of them, you’ve pretty much done them all. But the tactics you quickly learn to employ are somewhat interesting for that first couple of days.
You will fight or move in order one at a time, and you can decide to use melee weapons, ranged weapons or magic (depending on your class). Having ranged weapons in this game makes a massive difference and helps to speed things up a bit, too.
For some reason your opponents have the ability to attack diagonally. You do not. They also should always be fought and killed to the death unless they are creatures of nature (spiders, bats, etc.)
At the end of the day, while the various tactics you can employ are interesting and innovative for their time, the monsters in the game almost never came close to killing me. They could be annoying by putting you to sleep, or attacking you when you just wanted to get somewhere, but they were never hard. Never stressful. More than anything, they just felt like killing time that you were required to endure.
If you have a party of 4 characters, you can beat any and all piles of foes in this game without even breaking a sweat. I never once had to resurrect any of my characters.
I had NO idea when I first started playing the game that leaving a battle could hurt you. I became bored with some of the battles or the lopsided nature of some of the early ones so I’d simply leave the battle screen and be on my merry way. What I didn’t realize until deep into the game, and to my utter anger and despair, was each time I had “fled a battle” one of my virtues - Valor - took a literal numerical deduction that I couldn’t see. Also, each time I killed an animal that was trying to flee, I also took a knock. Like, if a poisonous spider is fleeing the screen, why shouldn’t I kill it? It’s still shooting poison at me and making my party sick! Take this arrow up your spindly spider ass, yo! “B-roing!”
Points taken away…
Near what I thought was the end of the game, I simply could not earn my Valor virtue and I could not figure out what else I needed to do. I had gone to a nearby dungeon and performed endless battles, ratcheting my level up to 8 (a good thing) but never being awarded Valor. What the hell?
In desperation I started to search ancient online forums for a clue as to what I had done wrong. That’s when I discovered the error of my ways in the game (which it never tells you - you are just left to wander aimlessly forever and never quite reach nirvana).
And then that’s when I saw it in a random comment on a forum. This one guy had a feeling you needed to win 49 random encounters. I laughed, “That’s all? I must have won hundreds!” But then I thought about all the ones I fled in the early days, and all of the creatures I’d killed no matter what.
And then it dawned on me. Those countless battles in the dungeons? Those weren’t considered to be random! They were rooms that guaranteed spawning the same monsters and gold chests every single time I entered them. I was to wander Britannia to look for fights in order for the invisible points to count.
The dungeons of Ultima are easily one of the most unique things about the game as they are presented in two different perspectives. The Gold Box games heavily leveraged this concept to some degree.
When you enter a dungeon you are presented to 1st-person 3D space. You see the ladder above you that you just descended, and the corridors around you to explore. You are only in this view for a very brief amount of time, however. If you ever have a random encounter or enter a room, the perspective completely changes to a top-down flattened 2D experience. The rooms and exits and walls all map to real maps in the game, but it’s just a very jarring feeling at first. One moment you’re looking at a door; the next you’re looking down onto the bowels of a very complex room with all of your characters standing there with monsters on the other side.
And once a battle is over (spoiler: you always win) you have to painfully and tiresomely navigate each of your characters out of the room one square at a time, in order. So at the end of the game, when you have all 8 characters - lordy lord lord getting through those mazes and solving the puzzles of some of the levels will damned nearly drive you insane. The puzzles alone are sometimes mind-bendingly hard and borderline cruel, but add on top of that the painful party navigation and it can make the veins of your temples bulge.
Over time, I really rather grew to like the bizarrely bipolar way of viewing the dungeons. I never grew to enjoy walking my party through the 2D parts, though.
The game is simply awe inspiring.
To try and put yourself back in 1985 and dream this game up the way Garriott did is breathtaking. Some of the mechanics introduced were partly due to the machines he was developing for, but it doesn’t entirely hide the fact that a few key components of the game mechanics are pretty weak (combat & magic especially). As such, the game can feel like quite a chore at times in 2019.
But the overall story and message of the game is so amazing, so unique, it’s hard to look at Ultima IV and not see one of the greatest and most ambitious CRPGs ever written. It takes an iron will to gut through the entire game - and a very well organized pile of notes - but it can also provide a massive reward of accomplishment at the end for those who make it that far.
CRPGs are not for everyone, that’s for sure. But if you are into CRPGs, and have the time, Ultima IV is an interesting artifact to study and appreciate. Just go in fully prepared for a very long ride. And no, we’re not almost there - just stop asking and keep playing.
Technical Notes and Comparisons
This game was played on an Amiga 1000 with 2MB Chip RAM and 8MB Fast off of floppy disks (pretty much 1 disk). It only really required 1MB of RAM to play.
The game was not accelerated, and in fact acceleration can ruin things. Ultima IV was written in such a way where the game speed is entirely based on the speed of your computer processor. Thus, an accelerated Amiga can literally accelerate the game to an unplayable state depending on how fast your machine is. So, an Amiga 1200 will nearly double the original normal speed of the game. A 2X experience probably wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but it will be different. For example the phases of the moons will occur twice as fast as intended. This might be problematic in terms of how fast your food supply is depleted, too, for example.
I originally tried to play the game on my A2000 that is at 40MHz, and it was just terrible. There’s no mechanism in the game to speed it up or slow it down like in some other CRPGs. So, to see the moon gates wax and wane at a ridiculous rate made things far too anxious and virtually unplayable. Add to the fact that all of the animations on the screen were nearly blurry from speed, the 2000 was not going to be the machine I would use for this game. Disabling the accelerator on every play would have been a massive drag, too.
So it was played on an unaccelerated A1000 with plenty of RAM, and it was just glorious. Disk reads and writes were minimal and fast.
Compared to the 8-bit machines that received Ultima IV two years earlier, the Amiga version has more colors, better graphics and animations and loads far faster. The graphics are not jaw dropping, but they are noticeably better than, say, the Commodore 64 version and stay pretty true to all other platforms except the NES (which looks and sounds great and is designed more like a JRPG). This doesn’t affect the gameplay in any way, but it’s certainly prettier to look at than its 8-bit kin.
The music on Amiga, however, is in my opinion pretty awful. The C64 wins in this department, and it’s not really even close.
Thankfully the F1 key can be pressed to toggle music. So as soon as I started the game I would slap that button to turn the music off. It was OK for the first day or two, but over the course of months it was not something I looked forward to hearing at all.
The game comes packaged with a single Program Disk as well as two beautiful manuals, a cloth map, a few other paper odds and ends and a real metal ankh. My copy has everything but the ankh… I’m half-tempted to rip one off the ear lobe of the next goth I see just to make my copy complete. Hah!
To play the game, players use a boot disk and Player disk. Your original Program Disk stays unused and safe in the box after you’ve made your disks. I love this approach from a disk longevity standpoint.
The game was originally created to be played from the floppy and not the hard drive. Insert the boot disk, then “Journey Onward” using your Player disk. Any time you decide to “Quit” the game will save your progress (but won’t actually quit). This is notable as there is only 1 single save slot. However, should something happen you’re not happy about in the game you can always pop your disk out and reboot the game. There are times when it looks like your disk is being written to - heart in your mouth! - but rest assured the game is actually just reading the disk most of the time.
Out of worry and justified paranoia, I actually made a backup of my Player disk, as my 1st disk seemed to be slightly corrupted and unstable. I was getting the occasional loading error. Using my newer backup those all went away - thank goodness - and it was smooth sailing.
So from a graphics standpoint and game loading experience, the Amiga is superior to most of the other machines that sold the game. From a musical standpoint, it’s probably not the worst, but the C64’s SID (and the actual tunes written for the C64, which are different) wins. The sound effects were virtually the same.