Ophidian Dragon blogs his way through the entire Ultima series, from beginning to end.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


So I thought my last post was a lot longer ago than it actually was. Barely a month!? I should wait a longer time before I talk about Ultima IV!

Actually, I've gotten a lot of comments lately. One person called me a retard for thinking "Pagan World" (whatever that is) is not a good game. This buffoonish insult made me almost skip several games and go ahead and talk about Ultima VIII, but it seems to me I can't offer any good reasoning without going through the previous five or six games and show why I think Ultima VIII went totally off the rails in terms of the direction the series had been headed.

Other comments included yet another request to play the remakes, which if I were to do would need to follow my completion of all my per-game discussions, which will take another decade or so. But I won't rule anything out...Finally, someone asked what games to play without having to start at the beginning. To my mind, you should play 4, probably 5, definitely 6 and 7 and Serpent Isle. This assumes you're only interested in the "main series." Ultima III is a fun game, but hard to play today, and unless the situation has changed lately I don't think there are any really good ports. All of the games before VI may be more challenging, or at least more repetitive in their challenges, than any of the later games. A big chunk of my time in Ultima III was spent stealing from the same treasure chests over and over again, for example.

On a total side note, it seems to me that if video games are to be considered as art I think we should abandon the criteria of "fun." There are plenty of works of literature and music and film which are decidedly unpleasant or disturbing to experience, but which are acclaimed. So there's a lot not to enjoy about Ultima III, like many early video games, it can be repetitive and unrewarding, but I don't particularly care.

Oh yeah, I think someone asked about which versions to play. The DOS versions of II and III are trash so forget them. The DOS version of IV has much better (well, more colorful) graphics and there's a patch to add the Mockingboard music from the Apple version--although I would add that you have to go to work to get it because it's currently bundled with a dubious graphics upgrade that I find detracts from the atmosphere. The Apple version of V stinks unless you really get a kick out of disk swaps, and after that there's little choice. Someone said that the Sega Master System of IV was enjoyable, because it gives it 2D dungeons, but IMO you're not even playing the same game anymore after that sort of edit.

Now, let's talk about Ultima III! The most substantial change between II and III is the inescapable sense that Ultima III actually takes itself seriously. You don't have anachronisms like space ships and air cars, and the characters in the game seem for the most part to be in character, insofar as they can be with only one line of text to say. That being said, the world itself is pretty damned loony. Death Gulch is a typical example--It's a ridiculous maze of mountains and trees, and really the only thing worth doing there is looting the armory. This is such an efficient way to gather gold that most likely you'll end up repeating the process over and over again. Most of this gold ends up being spent at shrines in Ambrosia where, oh by the way, you inexplicably find the cards used to destroy Exodus.

Still, the much-decreased amount of silliness in this game is appealing--except for one item, the name ("Exodus") which is totally inapt and nonsensical, almost as if Garriott didn't know the meaning of the word. There are fewer stock characters who have nothing of interest to say, and the dungeons no longer seem quite as randomly constructed as they literally were in Ultima I and seemed to be in Ultima II. Most of the locales in the game also have some value in existing--the dungeons even if they lack marks do have fountains and gold in them, and some of them are themed, such as the "Time" dungeon in which (also rather inexplicably) the Time Lord resides. We also see an increase in the number of puzzles and quests to figure out--there's the hidden city of Dawn, there's the whole continent of ambrosia, and there's hidden commands such as BRIBE and DIG that you only learn about as you progress in the game. In Ultima II, it seemed as if the puzzles were almost undocumented. I don't recall any hint to anyone that you needed to give money to the old man for him to give you the ring to enter Minax's castle, whereas Ultima III is far more effective at providing clues to the solution of the game.

Ultima III also features a boatload of new features, including an extensive character creation system, lots of character classes (some being a bit dubious, like the Barbarian and the Alchemist), and other standard RPG features like the concept of leveling up, restricted armor and weapons, and so on. There's also a fresh new party-based combat system, much of which would persist (with increased complexity) until abandoned in favor of the much-derided real-time combat of Ultima VII. The layout of the screen itself (party on the upper right, commands on the lower right, and a game view on the left) would also survive that long. Finally, I can't write this commentary without praising the music, which give the game a more exciting atmosphere. I much prefer the Ultima 3 through 7 style of specific, non-atmospheric melodies associated with activities and locations; with a few exceptions I don't go around humming the music from Ultima VIII or IX, despite the fact that they get more praise for their scores.

There are also ways in which Ultima III reminds me of its predecessors. First, it's still hard to survive the beginning of the game. You start with few hit points, and though the food situation is not so tight as to DEMAND stealing the way it did in Ultima II, there were still times when I trudged back from some adventure basically starving. On the plus side, magic is actually worth having in this game; in fact, it is utterly essential once poisonous monsters begin showing up. By the final castle I was casting the various mass-death spells with every single combat.

All that aside, the best feature by far of Ultima III is that it's chock full of memorable moments for a game of its age. One of the things I love about playing the early games is that the primitive graphics force a vagueness to the artwork, and the lack of memory prevents the text from explaining things you see except in the vaguest terms. When I play these I feel like I'm experiencing the story through the lens of some old, fragmented text, like reading Sappho, or like deriving a society's mythology through images on potsherds and sculptures. By far the best example of this is the Time Lord, who resides in the cave of Time, shows up as a "?" on the gem-map, and who appears in his stick-man form for a split second to announce in distinctive ALL CAPS the order of the cards to defeat Exodus (with the warning, "ALL ELSE FAILS"), and then vanishes. Even knowing the future of the series and his role in Ultima VII, this was pretty jarring. I've written extensively, previously, about the endgame, the first of a series of fairly anticlimactic endings, but with this made up for by its distinctive mystery--answering the series of questions posed by a booming voice in Ultima IV and drawing a Codex symbol in the process, and the visit to Lord British's distorted underworld "prison" in Ultima V. Ultima III takes the cake though, bringing you face to face with a computer complete with a card-reader defended by the very floor around it. It was a weird twist that was fun even though I already knew about it from long ago, much superior to fighting some random powerful boss.

So in summary, I think Ultima III was the first in the series of five games that really define the Ultima series for me; we get our first look at some of the styles and themes that would develop as the series continued. Its sense of immersion and 'seriousness' set it apart from its predecessors; the charming and mysterious experience of the world of Sosaria make Ultima III a classic.