Sunday, April 25, 2010

Game 16: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985)

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
United States
Origin Systems, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for Apple II and Commodore 64; 1986 for Atari 800; 1987 for DOS, Atari ST, FM-7, PC-88, PC-98, and Sharp X1; 1988 for Amiga and Sharp X68000; 1989 for NES; 1990 for Sega Master System
Date Started: 25 April 2010
Ultima IV offers a roleplaying experience like no other CRPG, set in a world as rich in detail as anything in the modern CRPG era. Although the gameplay has advanced only a little since Ultima III, the story, game world, and quest are a huge leap forward.

Remembering back to the mid-1980s, it feels like I played Ultima IV for years, first on my friends' Commodore 64s and then on mine, before I won. I have no idea what took so long. When I replayed it in 1994, I was surprised and disappointed at how quickly the game progressed, and how many of the gameplay features I thought I remembered were actually from Ultima V. I played it a third time in 2000 and won it in, I think, a single long day. I hope that 10 years later I've forgotten some of the details and I can approach the game fresh. Blogging should slow down the progress.

Searching for a fresh experience, I decided to play the "recreated" version of the game offered at Everything about the game is the same except the graphics and sound are much better, and there are beautifully designed screens at certain points, such as when you meditate and achieve part of your avatarhood.

I'm going to try something different with this game and blog it in the order of gameplay, elucidating new features as I come across them, rather than summarizing them at once in long blog posts.

The game begins with a character creation method absolutely unique for its time, and rivaled today only in Morrowind and Oblivion, both of which are paying homage to Ultima IV. After you give yourself a name (mindful of Lord British having obtained his name from his homeland, I chose "Americus") and sex, the game draws you into Britannia slowly. You begin at your own home, in the real world, on a walk in the countryside.

Wow. It's like the game knows me.

You fall asleep under a tree when suddenly a moongate appears in a circle of stones (moongates were introduced in the Ultima series in Ultima II). Before it disappears, someone tosses through a package containing an ankh cross, a cloth map, a copy of The History of Britannia as told by Kyle the Younger, and the game's spell book. These items, of course, were contained within the original Ultima IV game box. The game insists that you read the book of history.

All right! Jesus.

The map and the History introduce a rich and detailed game world that will remain essentially the same through Ultima VII Part 1. What happened to game manuals like this? After recapping the light stories of Ultima I, Ultima II, and Ultima III, it describes the new land that arose from the "rubble of Sosaria," which Lord British named Britannia. In the new era of peace, Lord British was able to concentrate on improving the quality of life, erecting institutions to learning, meditation, and martial prowess.

Eight major cities developed "into cultural centers for one of the eight major professions." Moonglow focuses on mages, Britain on bards, and so on. One of the towns is Skara Brae, apparently an homage to The Bard's Tale but ultimately drawn from the name of a neolithic ruin in Scotland. The professions, or character classes, include two new ones: shepherds and tinkers.

The map that I know better than my own home town.

Equipment, character classes, monsters, and terrain are described in florid and exciting detail. Oh, we must have some examples:

  • "DAGGER: Ten inches of beautifully worked steel make the standard Britannian dagger. The traditional basket hilt looks very functional. A favorite weapon of novices."
  • "FOREST: The going is slow through dense woods, with thy speed cut fully in half. The oak so dearly loved by the Druids predominates here, along with healthy growth of Ash and Beech. There is quite a lack of visibility in the forest regions."
  • "HEADLESS: Another evil being best suited to terror and destruction, the Headless is indeed a creature of nightmares. Many a traveler has fled in abject horror at the sign of these headless torsos bearing down upon them."

Only at the end of the manual do we get a hint of the quest to follow. In an afterword penned by Lord British himself, he says that "we seek the person who can become a shining example of our nation and guide us from the Age of Darkness into the Age of Light. We have sent this message out to the farthest reaches of the known universe; indeed, we have even spoken across the void of time. Is there one who can complete the Quest of the Avatar?"

Here we have the key to what makes Ultima IV unique. The game is not about fighting some "big bad" like Mondain, Minax, and Exodus; it's about achieving moral enlightenment. There is nothing else like this in CRPGs.


  1. Ultima IV is the first CRPG I ever played. The Commodore 64 version is spectacular, the music is worthy of a Hollywood production.

    Ultima IV is Richard Garriott's magnum opus. It's the culmination of 28 simple CRPG games he made on the high school computer (DND 1 thru DND 28), Akalabeth + the first 3 Ultimas.

    Ultima IV is what made me want to make my own CRPG games. I only knew how to program in BASIC at the time, so my attempts were mixed, at least until recently when I took the time to make an old-school RPG entirely in assembly language lawst year.

  2. Good point about the music. As I said in some other posting, music in a CRPG usually doesn't do anything and I usually turn it off. But I must not have done that with Ultima IV because decades later I can still play every note of the original songs. At some point in my mind, the main title song even acquired lyrics, although I don't know if I invented them, heard a friend singing them, or saw them printed somewhere else. A Google search turns up nothing.

    Mondain rose
    hatching his
    evil ploy

    It was
    our Lord British
    who had him destroyed

    When Minax
    seized his power
    and scorched the world from
    east to west

    It was
    our Lord British
    who laid her to rest

  3. Ah, my first Ultima and really my first serious experience with a CRPG on my new C-64. I almost finished it until a buddy loaded my saved game, got me in an unwinnable battle then inadvertantly saved the game overwriting my months of hard work. I never went back. I'd like to try it again someday....

  4. RE: what ever happened to those manuals?

    Printing and binding the manuals costs 2x-5x as much as pressing and shipping the disks/CDs with the game. Printing the box cost about 2x-3x as much.

    Sad to say, those amazing manuals were annihilated by the demon Economics...

    1. True, but some of the Kickstarter "old-school revival" games coming out in the next year or two are going all-out for the authentic experience! Wasteland 2 and Project Eternity are both going to be available in old-school-style boxes with full print manuals (and PE will have a cloth map!).

  5. Wha...? How many songs are there? I only remember "Stones".
    6789878767653. Heh...

  6. Well, what can I say...this was my very first rpg, too. I did know the concept of "role playing games" only through the fighting fantasy gamebooks, and I already heard much about the Ultima series. This was one of the few games for the C64 I bought as a kid via the Ultima Collection IV-VI (or got as a present? Don't remember). It blew my mind. I didn't know such an experience would be possible with the good old 64 until then, it was like all the other games seemed pale (expect Last Ninja ;)) from a moment on. The genre never let me go nor did the Ultima series until that dreaded 8. part, well you all know the story. Ultima VII was my reason to desperately wanting a pc.

  7. For what it's worth, it isn't true that Lord British "obtained his name from his homeland" -- well, I suppose one could argue it's technically true in the sense that his name is derived from the country he happened to have been born in, but that's not the reason for the name. He was given the nickname "British" at a computer camp not because he was born in England (which the other kids at the camp probably weren't even aware of at the time) but because his campmates thought he sounded British (which was just because of his word choice and
    had nothing to do with his being born there -- I've actually been told I sound British myself and I've never set foot in England outside of a few hours in an airport).

    1. The IN-GAME version of "Lord British" obtained his name from his homeland, which is what I was referring to.

    2. Hm... I'd forgotten that.

      I was about to ask in what game that detail was mentioned, but then I realized I could probably check the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom and find out for myself. Turns out it's stated in the documentation to Ultima V, which explains why I didn't know it... that's one of the two Ultima games I never played. (The other is Ultima IX... I played IV, VI, VII, and VIII when they first came out (though I don't think I ever quite finished any of them), and I, II, and III years later as part of the Ultima Collection (it's not entirely impossible I had played some of all of those when they first came out as well, but if so I didn't remember them)... I do want to play Ultima V someday; from what I've heard about it I think I'd really enjoy it; but I want to replay Ultima IV (and play it all the way till the end this time) first.)

    3. On second thought, I guess there are more than two Ultima games I haven't played, if you count the Ultima Underworld games and the Worlds of Ultima games (I've played Savage Empire, but not Martian Dreams). And Serpent Isle, for that matter, if it's counted as a separate game, which I suppose it probably should be.

      Yeah... I do plan to play all of those someday, but... it's a matter of finding the time. But then I've got a lot of other CRPGs I want to play someday, too. I've got the Wizardry, Might & Magic, and Bards Tale collections, as well as all the Gold Box games; I have old compilations that include RPGs like Wasteland and Stonekeep... someday I hope to get around to playing them all...

  8. Just completed the NES port. Now to read and comment on these posts finally.

    Character creation in Ogre Battle is very similar to Ultima IV as well. Tarot cards are selected at random, and you answer moral or psychological questions based on the card drawn. The game as a shallow morality system with a single alignment bar as well.

    Alter Ego, is basically an entire game where you shape your character. I say game, but it's more a life simulator. There's a Japanese only game, Anearth Fantasy I believe, where you start the game as an abandoned baby. You cry out at a certain point to create your character, basically choosing which NPC to adopt you. Then I believe you play through youth choices similar to Fable (another example?) to decide your final character. I'm sure there are others with unique character creation.

    When you use terms like "never a game like it" and "rivaled only by x and y" I feel the need to point out other examples, but I'll take your meaning as "no other popular titles" from now one; otherwise, I'll be doing this too often.

    1. In the last four years, I think I've learned to be a little more reserved as to my use of superlatives. When I wrote this, I was arguing from ignorance, having only played a fraction of the titles of the era.

    2. The Dragon Quest III remakes (SNES/GBC/Android) use a question-based character creation system (every hero is the same class, but the question affect your "personality", which affects stat growth...) and then it puts you in a scenario in-engine and determines your "personality" by how you act. (Question-based character creation is uncommon but not unheard of in JRPGs, and they all descended from Ultima IV.)

      Example from DQ3 remake:

    3. Dark Heart of Uukrul has you play through mini-scenarios instead of just answering RP questions? I thought it was just questions?

    4. Yeah, just questions. I didn't say it many years ago because Chet has still yet to touch Dark Heart and I didn't want to spoil it for him. Sorry for the confusion, Gaijin.

    5. "because Chet has still yet to touch Dark Heart"
      ? He played it long ago, it's currently 4th highest rated in the list

  9. I got this game for free from GOG. I almost bought the Ultima 1,2,3 collection from them but stopped when I realized Ultima 2 was terrible and that the Ultima: Exodus I played on NES was Ultima 3. I don't think the NES cartridges had the Ultima's numbered. Anyways, guess there is no excuse not to play this game now.

    1. This is true for all the Ultima games on Nintendo consoles. It's probably best to leave the console versions of this series alone though. Ultima: Quest of the Avatar is the highest rated/reviewed, and even it suffers from cut content.

  10. I've found your blog when searchnig for informations about Ultima V and (of course like everyone else) start reading it from the begining :)
    But for Ultima IV. It's probly the oldes CRPG I've played in my life, I've heard much about Ultima series and wanted to try myself. I was quite supprised how much this game hooked me into its world. For me there was no nostalgia involvedm and I've played it about two years ago. I had to read some faq just to know how to play it, learn controls ect. But it was worthy. For me this tiny little piece of oldie became one of the best RPG of all time! I've never finish it :( and probably never will because of the dungeons, I just don't have that much time and patient, so your blog is just the thing for my. I just love old games (especially adventure) but most of them are just too oldschool and hard for me to play. But to read? :D Keep up the good work!

  11. @Zenic - I agree that the S/NES versions are better avoided, but the Master System version of IV is very faithful. It has combat a little closer to Ultima V, top-down dungeons and an improved spell-mixing interface. Conversations are menu-based, which is probably the biggest loss, but the writing is completely intact.

    @Jalen - you're missing some of the best games in the series! V is incredible. The Underworlds are powerfully atmospheric. The Worlds are interesting diversions, although you'd better have access to the maps. Serpent Isle is almost certainly the best-written Ultima, with the most eventful story and with some amazing dungeons and settings.

    Even Ultima IX has some great content. The story is nonsense, the writing feels like an afterthought, combat is limp, NPC interaction is shallow and horribly-voiced and the game does awful things to your traditional companions, but the world is full of interesting nooks and crannies to explore. It really feels handmade in a way Oblivion and Skyrim don't. I really like the dungeons as well - they're easy but a lot of fun, full of environmental puzzles. You get to equip some very cool gear along the way too, although the easy combat makes it pretty pointless. So... Terrible Ultima but entertaining game?

  12. I've truly never played anything like this game before. The over-arching narrative is really one of a kind and immensely gratifying as you progress, and I still haven't even made it that far. For some reason I find the meditation sequence nothing short of awe-inspiring. At this point I've visited all the towns and cities that I'm aware of and mapped out most of the game world while taking exhaustive notes, and I think I've mapped out a pretty clear set of steps to the end-game, definitely still a ways to go though as I haven't hit the dungeons yet or reached enlightenment in any of the virtues.

    My main gripe with the game is the IMO absolutely absurd amount of random encounters. I felt like Ultima III had a much more reasonable balance (even though it made finding a frigate complete pain at times), where in this game I can't take more than five steps without combat, which is admittedly the least interesting part of the game for me. This kind of makes exploration a chore and I generally play in small chunks of time as a result, but it's definitely not keeping me from loving the game.

  13. Thought you might be interested to know that Americus is the name of a small city in southwest Georgia (pop. 15000 or thereabouts).


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