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This month for Together Retro we are going for a very unique title. Ultima IV is not a game about conquering an evil lord or demon bent on destruction. It is really a game about becoming a good person, an example to the masses of Britannia. How you accomplish this is so slyly implemented it makes it one of the best crpgs ever created. So come, lets quest for the avatar.
Set many years after the fall of Exodus (Ultima III), Sosaria has had major changes to its topography. Now, what were once four realms are now one, Britannia, under the command of Lord British and the people live in relative peace. Lord British grew worried about his subject’s spiritual health. So he calls forth the player character to become the embodiment of the eight virtues.
There is no getting around this one, Ultima IV is a CRPG from the late 80s. It is “ugly” graphically and can be an endless frustration if you do not understand how to play it. You will move the Avatar using your arrow keys and uses 26 text commands to do most anything you would want in game. Need to ride a horse? Stand next to it and type b. Need to open a door? Type O and move into the door. You will use almost every key on the keyboard for this one.
One of the most innovative parts of Ultima IV is that the NPCs do not just have canned responses. In most games of the era, generic npcs would give you one line adnauseum. However in Ultima IV you have to talk to them using the text input. To take the example out of the manual:
Talking with the people found in the game is one of the most important features of Ultima IV to master. It is almost impossible to solve thy quests without talking to virtually all people in each towne. Each person with whom thou dost Talk is capable of a full conversation. They can be asked about their “Name”, “Job”, and “Health”. Thou may “Look” again at their visual description. From this information thou shouldst be able to discern what else they might know, hinted at directly by use of \h& precise words in the conversation. For example: If thou were to ask Dupre about his “Job” and he were to respond “I am hunting Gremlins,” thou might think to ask him about “Hunting” or “Gremlins” – about either of which he might offer some insight.
Ultima IV Player Reference card
It is highly recommended to have the map and reference card for whatever version you are playing. This game features a lot of commands that are not intuitive – k = klimb, because c is used for cast. And also features the Runic alphabet.
So why is this game so slyly unique? Your purpose is to obtain the eight (8) virtues, but how you do that requires careful planning and a lot of strategy. For example to obtain the virtue of Justice, you must not harm innocent creatures. However to obtain the virtue of Valor, you must not run from battle. On top of that you do not simply choose your character class, you answer a series of morale questions and the game decides your class and stats.
Like previous Ultima’s, Ultima IV was developed for the Apple ][. However it was ported to every home pc of the time and a couple home consoles. The three most noted ports for our purposes are on the PC, NES, and Sega Master System. The NES and SMS version both have redrawn graphics, limitations to your party, some minor story changes, and simplified conversations, spells, and combat. None of these are major changes to the core story, but they should be noted none the less. The SMS version is also the only Ultima on a Sega system. The PC version is a perfect port, and is free (like beer) on GOG.
Ultima IV will forever be remembered for its innovative concepts. However it will always be known for being difficult and slow to get started. It was also the first CRPG that actually inspired belief in the medium from one of the creators of tabletop RPGs, Dave Arneson was fond of it, while Gary Gygax’s opinion on CRPG is found on other parts of Racketboy. And while the world of Ultima is no longer getting media attention, it still gets releases. In 2013 Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar was released for iOS as a direct follow up for Ultima IV.
There will be times shared, victories declared, and cheap defeats lamented. It will all be here in the Together Retro forums.