By the time Ultima IV came out in 1985 the computer landscape had changed quite a bit. Apple had released two new machines, the Apple IIc and the IIGS. A friend of mine had bought one of the IIc machines and it was pretty damn sleek and cool. It was much smaller, albeit less expandable than the regular Apple II models, but the graphics and sound were nice. Oddly, most of us saw the world through green or amber colored glass. Full color monitors weren’t exactly the norm and monochrome still ruled. But when we did see color, even just 16 of them it was pretty sweet! Welcome to the world of imagination!
Ultima IV was eagerly anticipated and though I doubt we got it when it first came out, it wasn’t too long after the initial release that we got to go adventuring again. The first thing that struck me was the animation on the opening screen. There was the bat in the upper left and the dragon biting at it’s chain in the upper right. Pretty lame for 2013, but cool as hell for 1985. I always wondered if Lord British had programmed some little secret “easter egg” in there that would eventually let the dragon bite free. He had the programming chops and humor to pull off something like that.
But right from the beginning Ultima IV was different; we had Virtues. There was no picking a class or race, you had to answer questions and let the computer decide your fate. That alone was very cool! I wonder what kind of profile I fit into by how I answered those questions?
The graphics and layout were so familiar, but yet they looked so much better! Again, I was absolutely amazed at what this Lord British fellow had put together. We jumped straight into the game and literally spent a year playing it. I loved the story and how you needed to become an Avatar, someone skilled in all 8 Virtues. At 15 that was a pretty noble goal. It was great fun to travel around looking for the different towns that embodied the different Virtues and then asking one of the characters of that town to join your party. There was also the temptation for all those gold chests and the chance to steal weapons. But not so fast, what impact would that have on the game? We would eventually find out the nefarious things you could in the game it’s responses. Being chased out of town or going into battle with the guards was never a good thing.
The other big thrill came in the form of playing Ultima IV on the Apple IIGS, Woz Edition. My school actually got two of these limited edition machines, which we thought made us pretty cool in the world of geekery. The IIGS was faster and as the name suggested had beefed up graphics and sound. And what better way to show those off than playing our favorite game on it. Every chance we got that was the machine we played on. Nobody else seemed to know the difference. Now whether Ultima IV really ran better on that hardware or not is debatable, but we felt it was better and that’s all that mattered. Plus, we were on a IIGS with a color monitor. To hell with that IIe and monochrome business! It was beautiful.
Apart from the gameplay, I was absolutely intrigued by the references, items, story and wording used in Ultima IV. Imagine my surprise when I learned there was such a thing as a real Avatar! I researched the idea of the bell, book and candle from the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. I even looked up what Codex meant. To be honest, I was looking up all sorts of things related to this game. I thought Lord British was brilliant for pulling in these real historical items and elements into his game. They were real things you could actually look up and see. This became far more than just a game for me. This was a history lesson. This was an English lesson not just with new words, but with ties to Shakespeare, Marlowe, the Church and Medieval England . I was learning codes and values. I was learning about religions. Did this have an impact on my becoming both an English and History major in college? Well, that’s debatable too.
Like Ultima III, we played every chance we got. We spent weekends staying up all night to see how far we could progress. And like before we became just as intrigued about the technology of Ultima IV as the game itself. What neat copy protection schemes was Origin using? How could we make a backup copy so we could edit the heck out of characters and not ruin the original disks? How could we make copies and play a game on the IIe and the IIc at the same time? How do we notch our disks with a hole punch and make sure they work? Not only was it discovery about the game, but about the machine that made it all work. How did Lord British make it all happen? How did he put this game together? What’s at this sector of the disk? What happens if we change this value in the hex editor? What other secrets is he hiding in this hex code? And a game that took up multiple floppy disks and they were double-sided? Oh my god, the game was huge! That was hundreds of K’s worth of data making up the towns. That alone was amazing to me. Ultima IV was virtually and physically bigger than Ultima III. What would Ultima V be like? Would there even be one? I was fascinated and riveted. It was an amazing puzzle we could play as well as take apart.
Not only was Ultima a turning point in gaming, it had a pretty big impact on me personally. I became very interested in the historical elements Lord British was presenting. The whole idea of Dungeons and Dragons being Satanic was a complete farce to me and I was just as fascinated by that lore and method of storytelling. This was literature coming to life. This was a history lesson in the form of a computer game. We’d moved passed the idea of just hacking at monsters to something very deep and complex. Computers were now becoming part of the culture and I could clearly see the impact they were going to have. And I knew there would be bigger and better games coming.
Just like before, Ultima IV gave me wonderful memories and made a lasting impression on me. I love that game, I really do. It was such an amazing creation. It was so imaginative, so story driven, so steeped in history and relics. I probably read a lot more into it than the guys I was playing with, but we all had a wonderful time playing and discovering. My zeal for RPGs was born, but not just any RPG. I’ve skipped over so many of them over the years. Only a few have been compelling enough to get my attention. Ultima set the bar so high that few could compare.
More brilliant musings about my adventures in New Britannia
- It all started with Ultima III
- Jumping Back to Ultima II – If only for a little while
- 1988, Ultima V sends me off to college
- The entire Ultima Collection is On Sale for 60% off at GOG.com (Good Old Games) – 3 Days Only!!
- Ember by N-Fusion Interactive – A game inspired by Ultima
- Last decade’s nerd is today’s mainstream gamer
- Happy New Year to One and All!!
- Sojourner Tales Telethon Countdown
- A Question of Virtue
- Freegameslist interviews: Richard Garriot