Monday, March 8, 2010

Game 8: Ultima III (1983)

My first impressions of Ultima III: Exodus are that it redeems Ultima II. It feels like a real game instead of Richard Garriott screwing around. It (at least so far) keeps the game grounded in more standard fantasy conventions without involving light swords and rocketships. Combat is more tactical and interesting (if longer), equipment and items are more varied, the magic system is more sophisticated, dungeons have a reason to exist, and the overall gameplay, to me, is a lot more satisfying. This is the first game from Origin Systems, Richard Garriott's company; his first two games were published by established game producers.

Ultima III was released in 1983 for the Apple II, the Atari, and the Commodore 64. I'm playing a DOS port from two years later. In fairness, I should mention that I also downloaded and installed a graphics and sound upgrade package designed by some cool programmers over a decade ago. Compare the screen shot above to the original below, and you'll see why.

Ultima III begins an era of games in which it really pays to read the manually carefully first. The manual and its accoutrements are one of the things that Garriott and Origin really excelled at. Each game in the original series came with a hand-drawn cloth map (I read somewhere that it took Garriott a long time to find a publisher for Ultima II because he insisted that they produce the cloth map with every game) and an ornately-decorated, magniloquently-written game manual. Consider the opening paragraphs of the manual:

Welcome back, oh illustrious adventurers! Long has been thy sojourn in this strange realm, though 'tis a fitting respite for great heroes. Glorious are the names of those adventurers who slew the mighty Wizard Mondain and his evil consort Minax. Lord British's minstrels still sing thy praises for the epic battles waged in the overthrowing of those two crimson necromancers. The chronicles of Ultima I and Ultima II bear witness to thine effects on behalf of the good subjects of the realm of Sosaria.

"The time of thy rest is now o'er. Thou wouldst not be here if thou hadst not heard the distant braying of the war horns, or felt in thy blood the cry of kinsmen in dire peril. Thou art Called, and from such a Calling none of the People may turn aside. It is thy duty and thy destiny.

Aside from the fact that Ultima II has nothing to do with Sosaria, it's beautiful prose. Sometimes, they go a bit campy with their metaphors. Nothing beats: "With the fall of Mondain and Minax, peace had flowed like molten honey around all of Sosaria." Yes, there's nothing like the molten honey of peace.

The basic setup is that a new evil, called Exodus, the "child" (either metaphorically or actually) of Mondain and Minax has appeared on an island of lava in the middle of the ocean. None know whether Exodus is "man, monster, or daemon." The only way we know its name is that the word "EXODUS" was found written in blood on the deck of a ship from which all crew had vanished, "as if plucked by some evil force." Also, a "shattered man found wandering the groves" outside Lord British's castle had this to say: "from the depths of Hell, he comes for vengeance." I tell you, I just eat this stuff up. In a modern game, this would all be handled with a cut scene, but I almost find the manual more fun.

Nothing compares to the spell manuals, though. Ultima III follows Wizardry's (and, for that matter, Dungeons & Dragons's) example of dividing spells into priest spells and wizard spells (or holy magic and arcane magic, if you prefer). In-game, you cast a spell by specifying the character and the spell letter. There are 16 spells on each side, each with a letter from A to P. Cleric A is turn undead while wizard C is light. But, God, how the spell book describes them!

I didn't put this much effort into my wedding vows.

To cast a light spell--or "Lorum," as the book has it--you don't just type (c)ast and "c": you chant "sum obla uricum obrey" while casting into the air a small portion of lorum dust, collected from "a spider's bath, which has been warmed by strong sun for many hours." This is art, people. I almost feel bad that I created a little text file as a reference. There are a couple wizard spells so thickly described that I still have no idea what they actually do.

Ultima III is the first game in the series to allow multiple party members, and the classes and races have been expanded to include some that will not only never occur in any other Ultima game but as far as I can tell never occur in any game. For instance, one race is a "fuzzy"--literally little furry creatures--that I suppose could become the emps of Ultima VII but are never a player race again. In addition to fighters, thieves, wizards, and clerics, classes include paladins, barbarians, larks (basically a synonym for bard), illusionists, druids, alchemists, and rangers. Each has a different combination of combat and magic skills, so you have to choose carefully.

Gameplay is in some ways very similar to the previous Ultimas, with a top-down perspective and with actions tied to single keyboard letters. There is more depth to the game world, though, including an early type of "fog of war": you can't see around corners or through dense wooded areas or across mountains. There's also a mysterious (o)ther action command that allows you to do special things you have to discover along the way.

Combat is what makes this Ultima stand out from the others. During the main part of the game, your party of four is represented by a single icon, but when you enter combat, you become four distinct party members, each of which performs an action in turn, including fighting or casting. There are both ranged and melee weapons, plus a wide variety of offensive and defensive spells (although limited spell points), so battle is far more tactical than in many other games of the era. One annoying thing is that monsters can attack diagonally but you cannot. Different icons represent different character types so it's easy to figure out who's turn it is. I'm pretty sure this style of combat remains all the way through Ultima V.

As with previous Ultimas, dungeons are first-person, although a little more interesting in color and items. But the series continues its obsession with food, and keeping from starving is just as difficult as it was in Ultima II--more so, in some cases, because in the dungeons you keep running in to gremlins which steal it.

Hit points are dependent upon leveling, not upon bribing the nearest sovereign. You increase in levels by visiting Lord British, who as usual provides no helpful information. I note that Iolo, Gwino, and--making an appearance for the first time--Chuckles are all found in Lord British's castle, and it doesn't look like I'm going to have to kill them this time.

You're not going to demand a tribute from me?

In the early stages of the game, I've been exploring and mapping Sosaria--which isn't all that large--visiting towns, and getting clues from the locals. As with Ultima II, each person gives you exactly one line of dialog and most of them offer stock responds (although not as dumb or annoying as in Ultima II). From those that have something original to say, I've learned that Exodus lies beyond the silver snake, and I'll need to find exotic arms to defeat him, as only they will protect me from great evil. Other clues--and I'm not sure how they relate yet--tell me to seek a place called Ambrosia, seek the Shrines of Truth, journey through a whirlpool (I have a feeling these are all related), seek the jester in the Castle of Fire, and to find "marks" and "cards." There are apparently four of the latter, and I need to use the command to stick them into panels somewhere.

I haven't gotten a ship yet, and I can see towns and dungeons off shore, so I need to find a frigate next.

One word on the mapping: the game isn't conducive to graph paper, so I imported the cloth map as a raster image into a geographic information system (GIS) program called MapInfo Professional. I then created a vector layer to draw on top of the map, so I can note the locations of towns and their names. Overkill? Perhaps. But fun.


  1. I'm enjoying your level of commitment to these games. It makes for a very interesting read.

  2. Thank you, Brian. It's nice to know people are reading. Google doesn't seem to provide any kind of hit counter, so the only way I know I'm not just writing to myself is when people comment.

  3. > the only way I know I'm not just writing to myself is when people comment.

    oh noes! a guy who puts scanned cloth maps from 30 year old rpgs into mapping (pro!) systems to tag custom points of interest surely knows better than that! ;))

    check this sweet toy:

    and here's how to make it work with your blog:

  4. Thanks, Rizla. That took literally all of five minutes to complete. I don't know why I didn't search harder.

  5. glad to help, i've been pondering possible traffic here myself... it's an extreme niche nowadays, but then again, quite a unique approach, so i'd wager quite a few people will show up. well, now _you_ will know, which is good. (though i have to say i totally digged the first who-knows-if-anyone's-going-to-read-this-at-all posts here ;)

  6. Disorganized comments, par for the course:
    - Those updated graphics look great!

    - The old cloth maps were great. I remember that in Ultima 3 they were using the runic alphabet that they continued to use in later Ultimas, but they didn't offer a translation key. I can even now being in fourth grade, taking the map, and by knowing the names of a few towns figuring out the substitution key.

    - The major difference between the combat in U3 and U4 and U5 is that in U5 you FINALLY got the ability to attack in diagonal directions. In addition, U4 added in terrain that you had to strategize around.

  7. Nice read, keep up the good work! :-)

  8. I love (re-)playing old games too. Making them work in emulators like NES/Wizardry1 or DOS/Ultima1 and enabling HQ3/4x scalers gives them an almost new and shiny appearance :D

    I really enjoy reading your Blog and by that deciding which game to try next. Pity, that you decided to try only commercial games. I'd like to read your opinion about a few non-commercial RPGs as well :)

    Let's see what you will do after that first list from Wikipedia ;-)


  9. Although Fuzzies are never player characters again, they are explained in Ultima VI. There's a museum, I think in Britain, where there are exhibits that speak of Sosarian oddities. I'm pretty sure they have a Fuzzy skeleton.

    My main beef with this game is that it changed its own rules without explaining that it could/would do so. When I first started playing, I went in to the castle and "transacted" with Lord British. He made some statement and I forgot about him, assuming that he, like every other character in the game, had only a single sentence of information to impart. I had a Level 68 Fuzzy Mage before I found out you could improve your Hit Points in any way...

  10. @Anonymous -- I can't find info on Fuzzies ever appearing or being referenced after Ultima III. There's a peaceful vegetarian tree-dwelling race in Ultima VII that is somewhat alike called Emps, but it wasn't mentioned in the games whether they were the same thing, according to the Editable Codex, which is hard to beat for Ultima info:
    (I love the manual's image they've posted of a beer-drinking tavern-lounging Fuzzy... Somehow I can't imagine Emps doing that.)

  11. Napkin: When I get done?! Ha! My list has more than 1,000 games and I'm on #25. Don't hold your breath for a first-person shooter or console-based RPG blog.

    Anonymous/Xyzzy: I'll settle your debate when I get to Ultima VI/VII in like seven years. In the meantime, I'm inclined to agree with Xyzzy: they were a one-shot.

  12. I wonder if a Fuzzy was like a Little Fuzzy from the H. Beam Piper book of the same name? < >

    I have very fond memories of Ultima III. It is one of the few CRPGs that I have actually finished.

  13. Damn, Katy. I think you may have solved it. Garriott was a known connoisseur of science fiction literature and films, and that sounds like just the sort of thing he would have read. Nice going!

  14. Wow. Mapinfo for mapping in the game? Nice use of GIS tools!

  15. About time someone commented on that!

  16. You sir are hard core in the hardest sense. I just got through playing The Bard's Tale with help from a clue book and I found that hard enough. Keep up the great marathon.

  17. My first cRPG! You make it sound so easy but for, at 10 years old, this game was a BEAST!

    Your map solution is very impressive. Great work on all on all of this, wow. Onto the next...

  18. argh meant to say 'for me'... It's late.

  19. I love that you did all that work to create a map... putting the "addict" in your domain name!

  20. Yeah, but for whatever reason, I didn't do that for Ultima IV or Ultima V, where it really would have made sense.

  21. Addict, you didn't mention a speed problem. I obtained 2 versions of the game and for both, had to slow the CPU down to 30% before the game seemed to run at intended speed.
    This is the first game I had to do that for - even Ultima 1 worked perfectly without fiddling. I'm using a front-end; could you share what your Machine settings are when you play this? (machine, cpu type, cycles).
    (I know, its been months since you loaded it up!)

  22. Yeah, there's no way I can remember at this point. I have generally just adjusted the CPU settings liberally to whatever seems to work. I probably fiddled with it like you did and settled on something like 30%.

  23. Sorry for the late post, I've only just discovered this blog on a slow day at work (it's fantastic by the way). This was my first CRPG and I played it on the Atari ST. The graphics were the same as the upgrade you are using. I did actually manage to map Sosaria, Ambrosia, all the towns and most of the dungeons on graph paper. Nowadays I take screenshots and stitch them together - less time consuming. Can't remember why but I didn't complete the game. Looking forward to Ultima VI. I nearly completed that until my game disk corrupted and I lost the will to start over.

  24. One of the things I like about playing these games in the modern era is that it's far less likely you'll suffer file corruptions. It HAS happened to me--most notably with Ultima V--but I remember living in constant terror of it in the 1980s.

  25. Thanks, I read this before preparing my party having just beat Ultima:0,1, and 2 this weekend. I was hoping to read something that wouldn't spoil anything but give me some basics as to how to play the game before running into slaughterfest as was the case with Ultima 2.

    1. I hope it served that purpose, then. Good luck with the game.

  26. As a bit of additional background information, like the previous two Ultima's, you can get this one from GOG, in a bundle with games 1,2,3.
    It was also ported /very/ widely, including the Atari ST, Amiga, C64 and even the NES of all places.

    Not sure which version is the superior. I know the Amiga version gives you mouse controls and nicer graphics. Unfortunately when I tried playing it on my real amiga, rather than emulation, the game ran too fast, even on a 56 mhz processor, making the combat turns only a few seconds long.

  27. I played this game on NES. Picked it up at a pawn shop for next to nothing. I thought Dragon Warrior was hard! I must have been 10 or so when I played it and I never figured that moon gates appeared and disappeared when I was young, so never finished it. It wasn't until years later that with the help of an internet walkthrough I was just glancing through did I find out about this. Needless to say, I dusted off my NES and started it back up. Never felt so satisfied to BEAT a game.

  28. I played this game years ago on the NES before I ever played an Ultima game, still have only played IV. Couldn't get anywhere since I didn't use a thief and couldn't collect enough money to heal my characters of Poison before they died. Strange since I did play other games which used thiefs to unlock chests like might abd magic but before Ultima I only played Dungeon Warrior and Final Fantasy. You inspired me yo go back and look at Ultima 3 but the computer version.

    1. Every year around end April, someone's gonna comment here that they've played this game on the NES.

    2. I played this game years ago on the NES. In fact, NES has the best version of Ultima III, by far. Charming graphics, larger sprites, astronomically better music....yes, it was an excellent experience. A whole generation of people discovered Ultima because of this version. Ultima IV on the NES was quite interesting as well. The combat was actually tactical, virtually no games on the NES forced you to make moral decisions and the battle music is still my favorite battle music out of any game, ever.

    3. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesSeptember 1, 2015 at 1:34 PM

      There was a funny commentary on NES Ultima 3, in a Something Awful Forums Let's Play. Chrontendo also had an amusing commentary on Ultima 4 in one of the more recent episodes. I also recommend Nakar's parody Let's Play of the Ultima series, with the infamous Steve the Avatar which is a great commentary on the best and worst aspects of C.R.P.G.s.

  29. Gee, what you did with the map scan is quite awesome. Really shows you're playing these games with a "modern" mind-set.

    Back in the day, I did something similar when playing Ultima V in my C64 : I remember preparing little paper labels (same scale as the existing map text) and taping them to the cloth map. For my 11-year old mind this was the obvious reason that Garriott packed cloth maps with his software. The cellophane tape would have damaged paper maps, especially those that used glossy magazine-like paper and inks. I know becasue I tried the same thing on my glossy "Times of Lore" map and some of the printing came off with the tape. I assumed that this meant that Times of Lore didn't require "map-notes", and finished it without them.

    Nowadays, when I use scanned maps I print the ones that are really useful and annotate them with a pencil, to help with the old-school mood. Others I just load up in Paint.Net and annontate with text boxes and crudely drawn arrows.


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