Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ultima V: Final Rating

If you don't have Lord British's sandalwood box, your characters end up just wandering around his chamber. Forever. Thankfully, we have plenty of food, and the male/female ratio is about equal.

Looking through several walkthroughs for Ultima V, I realized there were a few things that I missed. First, some of the surlier characters in the game, including a mage named Flain in Skara Brae (who was a pain in the neck to get to), the characters at Windmere (which I talked about a few postings ago), and the corrupt Judge Dryden in Yew, were members of "The Oppression," a society dedicated to helping Blackthorn. This didn't provide an alternate ending to the game, but I could have tried to infiltrate them and obtain their "black badge," which apparently would have made Blackthorn and his guards friendly. An interesting side quest.

The second thing was that I completely overlooked mystics! I guess I could have gotten both mystic swords and mystic armor from a volcano in the underworld. I do vaguely remember a clue of that nature, but I neglected to follow up on it. It didn't hurt me any, but this makes the second game in a row in which I ignored the fabled mystics. The third overlooked item were the plans for the HMS Cape, which were hidden in the shipwright's in Britain. I remember an NPC telling me that the master had lost them, but it didn't occur to me to just search his house. The plans would have made my frigates faster and probably cut down on some of the sea battles.

If I had to not be paying attention to something, I suppose it was a good thing it was this and not the sandalwood box.

In looking over these spoilers, I learned a little about Ultima V: Lazarus, a 2005 remake using the Dungeon Siege engine. Apparently, it greatly expands the dialogue and back stories, and includes extra quests, including more on the Oppression. I had told one commenter that I would check it out while playing Ultima V, but it seems like a game worthy of its own entries, so I've added it to my game list for that year.

On to my GIMLET. I would note, incidentally, that my blog is the third entry if you search for "gimlet" on Google. The second entry, a Wikipedia page, notes that the term, in addition to the drink, describes a tool, an unincorporated town in Kentucky, a surface-to-air missile, a rocket, a fantasy character, a tree, and a Transformers character. It's a diverse term. Oh, and it was director Ed Wood's favorite cocktail.

1. Game World. Large, open, and interesting. The back story of the game is compelling and well-narrated, and the world itself is full of interesting terrain, cities, towns, keeps, lighthouses, dungeons, and other places to explore. Origin's manuals continue to top the competition in their history and description of the land and its people. It's one of the few games of any era in which the entire world--rather than just discrete pieces of it--is explorable from the outset. I went into this thinking that I needed to exceed my score for Ultima IV by at least one, but I think I rated Ultima IV too high (8). Ultima V's world is fantastic, to be sure, but the game lacks one of my key elements here: "decisions and actions measurably affect the game world." I was a bit disappointed that no one--not even Blackthorn--bothered to notice when I killed the Shadowlords. I have to save perfect scores for games like Morrowind that not only have a large, interesting world but lots of little diversions and a sense of adaptation to my actions. Score: 8.

The Book of Lore is well-written and sets the back story nicely.

2. Character creation and development. The character creation process is essentially the same as Ultima IV, but the consequences are less noticeable, since no matter what virtues you choose, you end up in the "Avatar" class (which is an adaptation of only three classes: bard, fighter, and mage) and you start the game in the same location. While basing characters on virtue is an interesting concept, the rest of the character development system is a bit of a let down. You can progress through eight levels, but you really have to grind to get past six. You only have three ability scores, and a few limited means to raise them. Tying spell levels to character levels does make development a bit more necessary, and the "karma" system is unique for the era. Overall, though, I would have liked to see more options here. Score: 4.

The paltry selection of character attributes.

3. NPC Interaction. The Ultima series continues to blow its rivals out of the water with the number of NPCs and the depth of interaction with them. The dialogue system is almost unique to the series, and talking with NPCs is absolutely essential for both advancing the plot and proving your virtue. The game goes beyond Ultima IV in offering more than just dialogue options during NPC interaction--you follow around suspicious characters, avoid guards, free prisoners from jail, among other things. Certain NPCs join you--Origin was the first for this in IV, I think, and in this game they have another first in that there are more NPCs who will join than you can accomodate, allowing you to choose based on value to the party. Finally, the daily activity cycle kept by the NPCs is a first in this game, and doesn't recur even in a lot of modern games. The only thing it lacks is true "dialogue options." Score: 8.

4. Encounters and foes. There are a handful of memorable encounters in the game, with Blackthorn, the daemon guarding Stonegate, and a few others in which you have some role-playing options. Your enemies in the game are well-described in the manual, and they all distinguished by their methods of attack: wisps possess you, daemons summon comrades, squids shoot poison, reapers try to put you to sleep, orcs just charge. I like that they flee when they get to "critical" levels, too. Each type of foe carries a different volume of treasure, and I got a real tingle when I found myself facing reapers or dragons (if I knew I could beat them!). Monsters respawn constantly in the world, leaving plenty of opportunities for grinding. But the most original thing about this game is the different types of dungeon rooms, each of which requires a different strategy to defeat and navigate. Score: 7.

5. Magic and combat. The Ultima series, while never perfect in either aspect, continues to get better. I covered both magic and combat extensively in related postings. The game added a lot of variety to combat, with multiple attacks, attacks that go astray, the ability to target anywhere on the screen, lots of items to use, and weapons that attack at varying ranges. There were a lot of tactics associated with different terrains and party formation. I still never found it really fun in the way that Pool of Radiance was, but I can't say that it bored me like Ultima IV did, and it was a lot more dangerous. The magic system, with its requirements to mix reagents and its syllable-based spells, is, as I covered, very original and yet almost wholly unnecessary. I wish there had been more mass effect spells at lower levels and buffing spells to increase characters' ability scores. Score: 6.

Another member of the Oppression falls.

6. Equipment. A huge leap over IV. Instead of just a few weapons and armor, you have a large variety of ranged and missile weapons, helms, armor, shields, boots, rings, amulets, potions, and scrolls. Described well by the merchants, they are ordered in your inventory according to power, so you never doubt which is the best. In addition to the standard combat items, gems, keys, and torches are important for exploration, and there are a host of special items--grapple, sextant, spyglass, pocketwatch, amulet, crown, and scepter--each of which has a special purpose. I also liked that you could find equipment on slain foes; it wasn't just a matter of purchasing it. When every other combat seems to provide something new to don, wield, or use, I have a lot of fun with the game. My only quibble is that every character could wield every weapon and armor; I think some class restrictions would have made it more interesting. Score: 7.

Regrettably, I went right to magic axes.

7. Economy. For about 8/10 of the game, the economy is perfect. You almost always have an economic goal: buy a skiff, buy a frigate, outfit the party with magic axes, buy magic shields, stock up on reagents, max out on gems, and so on. The game also offers other ways to spend money by donating at shrines (if you need the karma), paying for information from some NPCs, donating to beggars, and purchasing healing. The only downside is that towards the end of the game, you have far too much money, but this does tend to happen very late. All in all, one of the best systems of the era. Score: 8.

8. Quests. Like IV before it, Ultima V has a very compelling main quest that, again, does not involve the traditional "slay the wizard" trope. Instead, you have to assemble some items and proceed through various challenges to rescue Lord British from the Underworld. It isn't quite as groundbreaking as the Quest of the Avatar, but it's up there. There are some quasi-side-quests, such as joining the Oppression and finding the hidden reagents, but these barely qualify. Score: 7.

9. Graphics, sound, and inputs. I loved the graphics in this game: the way the dungeon walls had their own textures, the furnishings and decorations in the buildings, the animated icons for the enemies. There were cute little touches, like the way you were reflected in mirrors and could "sit down" on chairs and harpsichord benches. I'm not claiming the graphics stand up to modern games, but all they have to be is "good enough" to get the maximum score, and these are definitely good enough. On the sound...well, Origin is trying. They were just a bit above painful, and it was cute how they made the clocks chime and the waterfalls ripple and the harpsichords actually play--even if the sound quality, on DOS machines of the era, is a bit poor (and, yes, I know it was probably better on other platforms; I have to rate what I played). The controls are near-perfect: Mastery is almost instantaneous, with each letter standing for a sensible action, and inventories simply controlled by the arrows. The best controls are the ones you never have to think about, and Ultima V exemplifies that. Score: 6.

10. Gameplay. V continues IV's tradition of nonlinearity. Yes, you have to achieve certain things to win the game, but you can achieve them in almost any order, and the sense of openness is very satisfying--witness the way I decided to follow Lord British into the Underworld when my characters were still low levels. The difficulty and pacing are both almost pitch-perfect. I thought it was a little too easy in the final dungeon, but beyond that, it was both challenging (as the number of full-party deaths I experienced can attest) and continually enjoyable. I wouldn't have minded a couple more dungeons, even. It is, alas, not very replayable, unless you want to try different challenges, like completing the game with a single PC. Score: 8.

I confess that my final rating of 69 is a bit of a surprise. This makes Ultima V the highest-rated game in my blog so far, beating Pool of Radiance by 4 points and its predecessor by 14 points. Truth be told, I think I enjoyed Pool of Radiance slightly more, but the difference isn't notable enough to revise the GIMLET, and I might have mentally ranked Ultima V higher if I didn't have to take such a long time-out in August. I might also have mentally ranked it higher if it had a better ending--I almost want to subtract points for that. Why do I keep helping Lord British if he's just going to boot me out of Britannia the moment he's done with me?

I have seen Ultima V described as the best CRPG of all time. I think you could make a strong argument that it is, at least, the best CRPG of the 1980s. I still like the plot of IV better, but the gameplay experience is far better in V. This makes it all the more surprising that Scorpia gave the game such a lukewarm review in the May 1988 issue of Computer Gaming World [large file]. While noting the graphics and object-interaction innovations, she bemoans the fewer characters found in V--I didn't notice this and don't actually believe it--and the lack of new monster types, which I also disagree with. She calls the combat system "irritating" and a "long drawn-out affair," and she spends a long time complaining about trivial omissions from the manual. Nonetheless, her "bottom line" is that the game is "not to be missed!" so I guess there's that.

Moving on, I think I'm going to take a quick "special topics" diversion on a little parody called Ultima IV Part 2 before checking out Visions of the Aftermath.


  1. Yay Ultima! Long live Lord British, and to the Avatar endless incarnation.

  2. Shay Addams had also reviewed Ultima V in Compute! magazine, and he made some similar comments:

    - Plot not as original as Ultima IV
    - Somewhat confusing for someone who hasn't played a prior Ultima
    - Richer gameplay and world design

    It's interesting that few reviewers make note of more practical considerations. The Apple II version of the game is on seven floppy disks, and you had to swap them frequently. Heck, even doing basic commands like mixing reagents would create a disk access! The PC version has none of those issues, though.

    Also, I think it's a fair point that the music is not available to you on the PC, so you can't rate the audio if it was only available to a very small subset of users. Plus, it seems like most of the tunes are the same as those in Ultima VI...

  3. Since I usually turn even the best music off, my rating system doesn't really consider it. But I agree that the sound effects were, overall, lower quality.

    One of the things I like most about playing these games in DOSBox is that I don't have to worry about swapping floppies, floppy corruptions, and interminable loading times. I can remember how painful that was on the C64.

  4. I think Origins manuals were great. For me they really help to build a good atmosphere, set the scene and fill in some of the gaps within the game where the graphics of the time are simple - like for example the appearance of the monsters. I was looking through my sons manual for Oblivion the other day and the it looks dull to me by comparison. Modern day manuals seem to just focus on the technical aspects of playing the game.

    Ultima IV Pt2 has some amusing moments from what I remember...

  5. To be fair, though, good modern games load you up with all kinds of lore IN the game rather than in a manual. Both Morrowind and Oblivion, for instance, fleshed out the back story and gameworld through the hundreds of books that you could find in-game, and the dialogue trees with NPCs.

  6. It may also be worth adding in the Ultima VI remake to your list (also for Dungeon Siege, and by the same folks as Lazarus I think).

    I have fond memories of Ultima V, and I'm glad to see it holds up well. Since my copy of the collection is long lost, I've bought them from GOG.com. Wish I'd held on to the big box copies I had, but when moving these things get sold or given away... what can I say, I was young and thought that the series would continue upwards and onwards forever.

    I'd recommend having a look at http://www.ultimaaiera.com/ if anyone wants to see what the fan community is up to.

  7. Regarding manuals...

    I've not played Oblivion so hadn't picked up on how much in game lore there is - my chance of getting on the Xbox is about nil. Morrowind however is sitting on top of my PC ready to be installed.

  8. While it's true that some modern games present you with a bunch of lore in-game, I find that it's often a chore for me to read through it all. That obviously depends on whether or not I find the game world itself interesting, but also on the way the lore is presented and how it's spaced out over the course of the game.

    I always read the bits in the manuals, though, back when that was the primary way for most games to tell the backstory, although that was often prior to installing the game, so the anticipation would keep me going through even mediocre writing.

  9. I'm not surprised to see U5 get the highest rating so far. I want to thank you, Addict, because your playthrough gave me the kick to play the game again myself. I know I'm not alone in this, and in fact I've toyed with many of the games you've gone through, but this is the first time I've played one through completion along with you! It's every bit the wonderful game I remember from the Apple II and reminds me why I fell in love with the Ultima series in the first place. I believe it was the experience of U5 that got me hooked on CRPGs in the first place, since it was the first non-arcade-style video game I ever played.


  10. wasteland coming up, my favourite!

  11. Ultima V is a good game, but not better than Pool of Radiance I think. But then for me it's the combat engine and the encounter design that makes or breaks a game, while story and NPC interaction is not that important.

    U5 was a great improvement on U4 in most respects. I think the actual Quest in U4 is probably the best and most original in any CRPG, and the need to uphold your virtues and really think of the consequenses of your actions was something I missed in U5.

    U4 sadly had the most boring combat of all the old classics. U5 is better, but I still think the combat is mediocre at best, and no game has made me feel so impotent. My party miss their attacks far too often and when they hit they only scratch the monsters. Either weapon damage is too low or the monsters have too many HPs. I suspect the latter.
    But what saves U5 from being a boring grind fest is the fact that encounter design is good. Hardly any random encounters and the fixed encounters are varied.
    Still, there isn't much room for tactics in battle and Lord British's Crown is horribly unbalancing. Before finding it there was actually a chance of meeting something that could beat your party, but after finding it you are immune to enemy spells (as long as you remember to have it activated).

    So personally I think the combat ratings are a bit too generous. I found combat in games like MM1, MM2 and Demon's Winter more fun.

    Objectively there is no doubt that overall U5 is a classic, and has a better mix of exploration, NPC interaction and combat than most other CRPGs.

  12. I have to disagree that MM1, MM2, and DW are better for combat, except that the two MM games had the CTRL-A feature, which I would have loved while grinding in U5. Part of it is that I simply tend to favor top-down combat more, where you can view each character as an individual. DW had that, of course, but I just found the terrain, tactics, and options much better in U5.

    None of them are fantastic, of course, and POR just levels all of them. Perhaps the issue here is that I rank each category equally, while combat ought to be weighted a bit more since you engage in so much of it over the course of the game. I don't know. The GIMLET usually works pretty well for me, and it only fails by a little here.

  13. The ending of a game is almost worth its own entry in the system: So many great games fall down right at the end, don't they?

  14. Scorpia... perhaps a little overrated. There, I said it.

  15. When someone first pointed me to her reviews in CGW, I thought that the writing quality was pretty awful. I still think so, but I've also looked at her web site and blog (which she no longer maintains), and the quality is much better there, so either it was an editorial thing, or she was just much less mature as a writer back in the 1980s.

    Nonetheless, she was one of the few people reviewing CRPGs in this era, and one of the only ones whose reviews we can still access, and I gather she was pretty famous among the gaming community. Thus, I think her reviews are pretty important historical artifacts.

  16. If you don't like Scorpia (Jon Van Caneghem didn't) you can fight her in Might and Magic 3. :-)

  17. Ultima V is a true classic. The story of U4 was more original but what makes U5 the far superior game in my opinion is the DETAILS. No other game up to that point had been so detailed. All the new graphics, the complex dialogues, the day/night features and NPCs that all had their own schedules, the immensely deep lore and history of Britannia, the great writing, the amazing music (some songs from U6 were copied but they're still amazing in their own right) and other stuff I can't think of right now.

    I'd say that it was the best game ever made at that time and the next game that rivaled it would be Might and Magic 3 to come out a few years later.

  18. Sometimes I think "Game Balance" should be included as a category in your rating system -- I say this as a hardcore Roguelike fan, where it's all about "balance", at least among modern designers. I mean, rings of invisibility basically break combat? Surely the game should be docked for that somehow!

  19. I think Game Balance should be part of the system to. Though I'm fine with it not being part of it. While I agree with the rating you gave it based on your scale I think the game lacks the balance of challenge and difficulty. It kind of breaks the world for me if the game is too easy.

  20. I always, always, always hated that.

    Thanks, Lord British, for -telling me- that this box you hid in a secret compartment in your bedroom locked by a FLUTE is the ultimate key to getting you out of a pocket dimension! Thanks for ANY hint of that, of any kind!

    Lord British. *shake fist*

  21. I am looking forward to be hearing about Ultima 6.

  22. Scorpia always had good criticisms, but too often she let them dominate her reviews of the games. Her review of Darklands, for example, raised a lot of good points, but the editor actually had to post a rebuttal, saying other people on the staff loved the game despite its flaws.

  23. I've always thought that the u4 / u5 style of combat has come in for a lot of criticism - personally I quite like that format and they tried to fix my two major issues of u4 in u5. These were lack of treasure and the lack of an active player option.

    Regarding scorpia's reviews - I don't agree with most that I have read. I came across an angry letter online from the author of might and magic 2 in response to her review. It was published in the letters page.

  24. Yeah, Scorpia's review of Ultima V is not well-written. For one thing, it's haphazardly organized; she goes from a criticism in one paragraph to praise of a completely DIFFERENT feature in the next one. I suppose standards of writing were a lot lower in computer magazines at the time...

    Her complaints that the manual doesn't contain all the details is a bit snarky. some things are meant to be discovered in play. And the target audience was familiar enough with D&D mechanics to be able to figure things out.

    I find it strange that both Scorpia and Shay Addams BOTH complain about the reduced number of NPC's... were they keeping count or something? Most of the NPC's in Ultima IV are just there to give you a virtue point of some kind, and many have names that are jokes or homages. At least in Ultima V, the NPC's are more fully detailed and interesting.

    It's also clear she didn't play the game in full... her comment that "all eight dungeons lead to the Underworld" is flat out wrong. There's only three exits into the Underworld from the dungeons, and not all dungeons have to be visited to complete the game. (A pattern repeated up to Ultima IX)

    As for Game Balance as a factor, I don't know if I agree with that... Balance is an illusion most of the time, and I'd consider massive outliers in the area (severe imbalance makes game too easy, or game is so balanced it's boring and static) to fall under Gameplay.

    1. Nope. Scorpia is right, you're wrong. All dungeons connect to the Underworld. (Which is, in part, WHY you don't have to visit all of them....) Check out http://ultima.wikia.com/wiki/Dungeon_Solution_for_Ultima_V

  25. "My only quibble is that every character could wield every weapon and armor; I think some class restrictions would have made it more interesting."

    This is very much a D&Dism, I think. Don't forget that Gandalf used a sword. I like the way games like ADoM work better--anybody can use any weapon type, but classes are generally divided up into fighter and magic-user types, and fighters get better with weapons faster. (The trend, slowly emerging, of having classless games, I think has much more potential.)

  26. @Adamantyr - all 7 surface-accessible dungeons have exits to the Underworld, though only 4 of them are mandatory (Deceit, Hythloth, Shame, and one of Wrong/Covetous).

  27. Yes, I really lost an eighth on that one. :) I suppose I'd better just play the game all the way through myself!

  28. The Apple II version wasnt on 7 floppy disks. It was on 4 double sided disks, I supposed technically you could say it was 8 sides but there was not 7 floppies in that box (mines sitting in front of me here).

    I dont remember having to do any disk swapping just to mix reagents. Are you sure theyre talking about the same game? The only time a disk swap was required was when moving in between the world map and a building/towne/dungeon/underworld. Other then that theres no disk swapping in the game for anything.

  29. I said disk access, not disk swap. As in, I push a single key and suddenly it has to go to disk for the space of several seconds.

    With some old floppy drives of that area, disk accesses made noises like someone snorting a booger backwards at high-speed. :) (In other words, something of a distraction from game-play...)

    I read somewhere that U5 stores a lot of its subsidiary code functions on disk so it can load them as needed only. This makes sense in a system with limited CPU memory, but the implementation with a floppy drive system is less than ideal. (From a coding perspective, SERIOUSLY painful. You'd need an advanced compiler system to deal with that kind of code segmentation cleanly.)

  30. Have you ever played The Magic Candle? I remember that usurping Ultima V and Pool of Radiance growing up. Only to be beated by Ultima VI a year later. But the Magic Candle was great. Replayed it a year ago was mad fun.

  31. "The character creation process is essentially the same as Ultima IV, but the consequences are less noticeable, since no matter what virtues you choose, you end up in the "Avatar" class."

    I played the C64 version back in the day and remember importing my party from my U4 disc which IIRC let me start with some better stats. Good times.

  32. I can't play Stones... when sitting down at the Harpsichord I can play all keys 0-9 on the keyboard EXCEPT for the number 7 key. Pressing down on the 7 key makes "no sound", and with that... no solution to the game for me :( HELP!

    1. I've never heard of this problem, Ed. Does it happen at every harpsichord or just the one in Lord British's castle?

  33. I finally won Ultima 5! The opening was rough, but with encouragement I made it through and it is an amazingly rewarding game experience. High challenge level and interesting puzzles. I did restore once or twice which I try never to do, but permadeath is not my thing.

    I never did find the sextant (is there one?), the plans for the HMS Cape, anything about the Oppression, or what to do with the rat spell. I also have no idea what the lady in Moonglow needed to remember, so it must not have been that important.

    Is it strange that the Underworld is never connected to Ambrosia? You get there in largely similar ways and there are shrines. Cannot be coincidence, but it can be Origin retcon laziness. They probably just forgot that they did the underground world once already...

    Looking over your review, I never had the "money problems" you did. I did all of my grinding on trolls rather than in dungeons and I was always short on funds, up until the very end.

    Popped in Ultima 6-- boy is that interface less mature. May take me a whole to get used to it, but if U6 is as good as U5 then it will be worth it.

    1. As I discussed a lot in my reviews of U6, Origin has always struck me as a little lazy and disorganized when it comes to their history, geograph, and lore. They miss obvious opportunities to make connections, introduce senseless retcons, and often seem to forget what actually happened in previous games.

      Glad you enjoyed the game, though!

  34. Your disdain for classic game music is quite literally the only area where your opinions seem to significantly diverge from mine, which I always find interesting. I feel like I already posted this years ago on some other game write-up, but to think back to all the times I would leave a game's opening theme playing while doing chores, or make a MIX TAPE of game music, or any other such thing...the idea that there were people out there actively disinterested in one of my favorite parts of the entire experience is still interesting.

    Then again, I bet the nearly-blind (or even blind in some cases) undoubtedly have very different ideas about compelling games too. No, I am not calling you nearly-deaf in a sideways glance, I promise.

    1. "Disdain" isn't quite the right word. "Disinterest," your later word, is more accurate. Your "nearly-deaf" comment aside, I'm actually a very musical person. But I'm an active listener, and I typically only enjoy music when I can focus on it. I don't like it in the background. I never have the radio or iTunes going when I'm working, for instance.

    2. It doesn't help that there are very few PC RPGs that made good use of music, especially in the eras we're in. Most of them only have one or two looping tracks, and the occasional event tune. Things like character-specific themes, event-based music, or even special music for certain fights remain a console-only thing in this era, and I'm not sure when that changes.

      The fairly small design teams and budgets of this era have something to do with it, but an even larger cause is the severe limitations of personal computers up until the mid-1990s (when proper sound cards became really common on the DOS/Windows machines). Because most of the popular platforms had very limited sound capabilities, putting significant effort into sound was a waste of money and manpower, both of which were at a premium for most studios.

    3. Most console RPGs were pretty terrible as well. I've been watching Zenic play and wow, lots of annoying beeps whenever you hit an option, blah blah blah.

      Ys is the only early RPG series I know of with good music, possibly Final Fantasy though I haven't watched it played myself.

    4. Since when did he have videos? I haven't been following his blog much because his style doesn't really catch my attention, but I never saw much in the way of videos from him. In any case, from what I can tell he's pretty early on, and it appears most (not all by any means) of what he's played is either a shoddy port from PC or a direct attempt at a cheap copy.

      That said, from what I can tell, he's still in the very early era, and most of what he's played so far.

      This is the sort of thing that console games can do pretty soon after the point where Zenic is.


    5. Zenic streams his playing live at www.twitch.tv/zenicreverie

      Isn't that a Super Nintendo game?

    6. I didn't know he did that.

      I selected that particular game for comparison because it came out in 1991 (which is very close to the dates of the more recent games on his blog), and I knew it used music pretty well right at the beginning (so there's no chance of spoilers).

    7. On the Apple II the Ultima series had the best music around. Origin made their music on Ensoniq EQ-1 synths and played the music thru Passport MIDI cards. It was a joy to listen to for all those years on a Mockingboard C.

    8. Well...John. What a terrible comment thread for you to pop in and make your first comment on. Hie yourself to my reviews of Dark Designs, will you? I probably got half the facts wrong.

  35. "....she bemoans the fewer characters found in V--I didn't notice this and don't actually believe it...."

    Technically true, although the NPCs in Ultima V are so much more interesting, it's hard to notice if you aren't specifically counting. It really seems like Scorpia was grasping at straws and working hard to skew the review negatively.

    NPCs in Ultima IV: 256 (census: http://www.gamefaqs.com/pc/562660-ultima-iv-quest-of-the-avatar/faqs/7633)

    NPCs in Ultima V: 179 (plus generic guards. Census: http://www.gamefaqs.com/pc/562661-ultima-v-warriors-of-destiny/faqs/9662)

  36. Good stuff; this is also one of my favorites. I can't wait to hear your thoughts on Ultima V: Lazarus, as I was one of the chief developers of it. (A lot of us from Lazarus have since gotten jobs as professional developers because of it.)

  37. Here are two interesting articles about Ultima V from The Digital Antiquarian



    Hm, part about development of Ultima games have interesting bit.

    "He has always built his games from the bottom up, starting with the technical underpinnings (the tile-graphics engine, etc.), then creating a world simulated in whatever depth that technology allows. Only at the end does he add the stuff that makes his world into a proper game. Ironically given that Ultima became the CRPG series famed for its plots, themes, and ideas, said plots, themes, and ideas came in only “very, very late in the development” of each game."

    Story was last element in development.

  38. I loved the opening music from the Atari ST version. I still play the theme now and then.

  39. Looking forward to reading this one.

    Not sure where else to suggest this, but have you looked at "Sword of Aragon"? It is a SSI Fantasy/Strategy game, but I think it satisfies all your RPG requirements.

  40. Coverage starts here:


    I started off not liking it, but concluded thinking it was a fantastic game.

  41. Very nice. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the first RPG I ever played as a kid. It was on an Apple IIc and it blew me away. In a fit of nostalgia I recently grabbed a copy of it on GOG. I've not started it yet, though I played through Ultima IV recently, which I'd never played before.

    To this day I remember many specific details of Ultima V and it's been almost 30 years (holy crap). One is the "black badge" you mention and joining the Oppression. I did it. It's a very bad idea. From what I can remember, you have to betray someone to join and it tanks your virtue (karma), possibly permanently. At least after that I was never able to get Lord British's apparition to tell me anything except "thou hast strayed far from the path of the Avatar..." (oh how I came to hate that phrase).

    This is a huge problem if you're missing one of the mantras and the NPC who knows it won't tell you unless your karma is good. I finally started the game all over because nothing I did was fixing my karma or getting the NPC to cough up that mantra, and I couldn't progress any further without it. Getting the mantra from the hint book would have worked, but young me didn't even know the hint book existed.

  42. "I think you could make a strong argument that it is, at least, the best CRPG of the 1980s."

    I've felt this way pretty much since I first played it in '88, though I didn't beat it until years later. I'm replaying it now and sucked in all over again. Despite the relative lack of formal quests (except the shrine bits), there's a plenitude of goals and sidegoals you can pluck for yourself. ('Find this word of power! Explore this dungeon! Get more magic axes! Follow up on the barkeep's tip about how to get into Covetous, and while you're heading that way, stop by Cove to stock up on reagents so you can have enough Vas Flams for your next dungeon run... etc...') Bit by bit you feel the progression, and the Underworld looms, ready for you to visit whenever you think you can handle it.

    It's a masterpiece. Thanks for a great writeup.

    Best CRPG of all time... ? For me it's probably still Baldur's Gate II.

  43. I'm making a concerted effort to finally finish Pillars of Eternity at the moment but it's a struggle not to click on the shiny little U5 GOG shortcut sitting next to it. I cracked my original big box copy open again recently - I've got all the notes in there that I took as a kid, punctuated with little pictures of magic axes :)

  44. Ultima IV > VI > V

    U5 is literally the weakest installment in the Age of Enlightenment trilogy in my book. The fact people are calling it the best CRPG ever is nothing short of shocking. Well, except when it comes to the "Ultima 5 was my first CRPG" crowd. Nostalgia goggles do that to people.

    I can understand people who like U4 the best, with its more unique gameplay, story and objective. I can also understand those who prefer U6, as it had more conventional gameplay, yet it greatly moved the CRPG formula forward, increasing the interactions and everything. But U5 is pretty much a middle point between U4 and U6. If you like U5 better than U4 for its additions to the Ultima formula, I'd think you would logically like U6 even better.

    1. I don't mind hearing contrary opinions; I just prefer it when they build upon the things I talk about in my entries instead of acting like we're starting the discussion from scratch. I discussed quite a few ways in which the U5 engine builds upon the U4 engine, including environmental manipulation, NPC day/night schedules, and combat.

      U6 was a step forward in RPG design, but that doesn't mean it's a great game on its own. I see the U5 interface as the apex of what could be achieved with an iconographic, turn-based engine. U6 is the very beginning of what can be achieved with a quasi-real-time axonometric engine. It's not crazy to prefer perfection in an earlier approach to infancy in a later approach.

    2. I agree with Mr. Addict.
      And I think U5 was the best Ultima game, even though I played U4 several decades before I completed U5.

    3. U5 is, I think, the last Ultima to feature challenging combats. And the first Ultima to feature NPC schedules and the runic spell system. And while U4 introduced the dialog system, U5 is the first Ultima where NPCs actually sound like people. So yes, 'apex' is a fitting term here.

    4. I didn't ignore your entry. I mentioned that U5 moved the formula forward too.

      I just don't see how U5 can be called a perfected form of the U4 formula yet U6 is supposedly something else. U6 is still turn-based. Its combat is an evolution of the U5 combat; battles just takes place in the overworld, rather than annoyingly forcing you into a separate screen. It also expanded on U5's NPC schedules and U4's dialogue system. What exactly sets U6 apart from U4 and U5's formula? What did the "U5 is the best Ultima game" crowd miss about U5 when they played U6? Every way I look at it, U6 is an improved, expanded version of the U5 formula.

    5. I love all three games and for a while Ultima VI was my favourite. It was the first Ultima I couldn't play on my Apple II so it seemed really exotic; it looked amazing; and the story, locations and systems deeply impressed tweenage me. I still think its combat system is the best in the series, even if I'd prefer the actual battles to be harder.

      But. Ultima V has endured as my favourite for a few reasons: I find it very atmospheric; I prefer the simpler interface, as inventory management in VI in particular just ended up feeling like busy-work; and the difficulty, not just in combat but in accessing the dungeons, sneaking around Blackthorn's castle, following the clues to some of the more obscure side quests, etc, made it feel dangerous and rewarding in a way VI didn't quite manage. I also think graphical fidelity is just right for firing the imagination.

  45. This comment has been removed by the author.

  46. I received Ultima V for my birthday in June 1988, just before going on vacation to Minnesota for two weeks. Such torture! I have vivid memories of reading and re-read the manuals and the diary of Lord British's descent into the underworld every day for those two weeks until I got home and spent the rest of the summer in Britannia. (These games took a lot longer to solve back then, right?)

    I was just in Minnesota again for the first time in two decades and while killing some time ran across your blog blog. It was a moongate to 30+ years ago. I read a little bit every day until I got home and could start at what was the beginning for me: Ultima III. I'm having a blast. Thank you for letting me rediscover a happy slice of childhood!


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