The year was 1983. I was 13. It would be a time that would solidify my passion for computers and the idea of Role Playing Games. It would also take place on two separate continents.
I first saw Ultima III as I was completing the 8th grade in Adelaide, Australia. I’d loved the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of books and spent a lot of time replying the book to see how many different ways I could get the story to end. I’d also just started learning about this new game called Dungeons and Dragons. I hadn’t actually seen it in action yet, but I loved the idea of it.
Computers were a misunderstood fancy at the time and most people dared not enter the realm of such nerdery. Most considered it to be a useless machine, but to me it was a wondrous device waiting to be explored. Our school had a couple of Apple ][ machines, a staple of the time. My experience up to this point had been with the TI 99/4A. Computers and their operating systems were a dime a dozen, each one using something different. Standards were an unheard of idea and the IBM PC hadn’t yet proliferated.
Games at that time were quite rudimentary, with text based games being the norm. But even still, there was something very amusing about getting a computer to understand commands and perform actions. And when you got the right set of actions the story moved forward. It was interactive fiction!
I was introduced to Ultima III on the Commodore 64. You may laugh now, but the color graphics and animation quite literally took my breath away! The character could move and interact with items. The computer characters would “speak” and you had a library of commands to use. It was mesmerizing!
And I was absolutely shattered that my computer couldn’t play it. It was downright cruel! But I spent plenty of time in the medieval world of Sosaria fighting monsters, sailing ships and seeking out this mythical beast called, Exodus. I spent a lot of time over at friend’s houses using their computers and copy of Ultima. We would play on weekends for as long as we could. We’d formulate our strategy and take turns guiding our player from town to town. We could take whatever risk we wanted, but if we got him killed we had to fix it. Oh the vulgarity that spews forth from the mouth of a 13 year old when his character dies!
Playing on the weekends just wasn’t good enough. Eventually, we got a copy of Ultima III for the Apple ][ and played on the school’s computers every chance we got. There was no such thing as Computer Science so there was only a handful of machines to work with, but that didn’t stop us. We’d all gather around a single machine, writing down clues and names and towns in notebooks, taking note of where we needed to go and what items we needed to finish the game. On set of hands may have been on the keyboard, but we were all playing. Democracy doesn’t always present itself in those sorts of situations.
It was also my introduction to the “hex editor” which we used to max out the stats of the character so we could cheat our way to victory. I remember searching for text strings and seeing all sorts of interesting phrases scroll by. All the different things the characters could say was fascinating. I had as much fun reading that as anything else.
I learned massive amounts about the Apple, the operating system, hex editors and we even dabbled in the idea of making our own text based games. None of us knew a damn thing about graphics and animation. My greatest want was to be a game designer and write something as cool as Ultima III. I later found out how old Richard Garriott was when he wrote it and I was floored!
After finishing the 8th grade I moved to the US and started school as a freshman. My new school actually had computer labs and a lot more machines to work with. And what I learned is that Ultima III was still incredibly popular. I picked up right where I left off playing Ultima with my friends for an entire weekends by staying up late eating potato chips and drinking ridiculous amounts of Coca Cola. We were playing on both the Apple II and the brand new IBM PC. Oh my goodness the graphics and sound were amazing!
We cheated our asses off and spent a great deal of time investigating the protection scheme on the disks. How was Lord British stopping us from copying these discs? What real life magic was he using to thwart our attempts? And yes, we spent plenty of time trying to figure out how to kill Lord British. Our attempts were not successful.
You also have to remember, this was decades before the Internet would become commonplace so getting help or finding walk throughs was just about impossible. The best you could do was find a local BBS (remember those?) where you might be able to find some info if you got stuck. Barring that, you just had to hack and slash your way through the game as best you could.
I’m also going to say that Ultima III was my first real use of an alias or handle. Up to then you were a nameless character on the screen or you played your imaginary self in a book. For Ultima you needed a name and the cooler the better. I’d never really thought of an alter ego before. The name Lord British would stick me for years. It just had a ring to it that none of my names could ever match. In fact, I can’t think of a single character name I used from those days. I’m still jealous of people who have a wickedly cool alter ego. I suppose I better get working on that before SotA actually comes out.
But back to the game. After completing Ultima, through regular play and through cheating, we spent a lot of time figuring out how the game worked. That hex editor was used to change a lot of things characters would say that’s for sure. We had immense amounts of gold and stats that were unbeatable. We quite literally spent the entire year picking that game apart until Ultima IV came out.
By the time that happened, my knowledge and interest in computers was on fire. I scraped together every penny I could get my hands on and bought a used Apple ][+, just so I could play Ultima at home. The Apple IIe had hit the streets and people were eager to upgrade. It may have been last gen goods to most, but to me it was awesome. I would have that Apple ][ for years.
I look back on Ultima with extremely fond memories. Not only was it an introduction to computers, role playing and adventuring, it was the primary way my friends and I spent time together. The world of computers was just opening and we spent our time together learning and playing. I also saw the massive future of computers. If Lord British could make a game like Ultima on a computer, what else could it do? What other mysteries did it hold? What would his next game be like?
It’s 30 years later and I’m still asking those same questions.
More brilliant musings about my adventures in New Britannia
- 1988, Ultima V sends me off to college
- A Brave New World in Ultima IV
- Last decade’s nerd is today’s mainstream gamer
- Jumping Back to Ultima II – If only for a little while
- Ember by N-Fusion Interactive – A game inspired by Ultima
- The entire Ultima Collection is On Sale for 60% off at GOG.com (Good Old Games) – 3 Days Only!!
- Happy New Year to One and All!!
- Freegameslist interviews: Richard Garriot
- Tracy & Laura Hickman’s Sojourner Tales Board Game – The Final 12 Hours
- A Question of Virtue