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.


MagerValp said...

Regarding which version is the best to play, take a look at my enhanced C64 ports:


Crisper graphics than the A2, the best music on any platform, no speed problems like the PC version, and fast load times with no disk swapping.

Natreg said...

I'm really enjoying this reviews. Keep them coming.

About Ultima III... I didn't like it much when I first played it. It was better than u1 and u2, but the combat system was slow in my opinion. Ultima IV really made it way better.
and Ultima V is just great.

About the best versions for the games...

I see it this way:

Akalabeth: Ultima collection version

Ultima I: FM towns version (has
music and better graphics)

Ultima II: FM towns version (also has music and better graphics).
Patched PC version with EGA graphics is also good.

Ultima III: Either PC version patched with music or FMtowns version (problem with this one, is that the music is different...)

Ultima IV: PC version with music patch

Ultima V: PC version with music patch

Ultima VI: FM towns version (has voices and conversation menus)

Petrell said...

Interesting reading. I personally never have never played III; only IV and up (well I've played I as well but after IV and V so did not like it that much).

Anyone given the LainWare's Ultima III remake a try (http://www.lairware.com/ultima3/)? Just wondering how does commercial remake of old classic compare to classic itself.

Anyway, keep them coming and when you're done reviewing the original series do consider giving the remake's a try. Maybe by then Ultima 6 Project (just released it's 5th milestone) and Redemption are completed. ;)

Anonymous said...

´´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.``

This is true in every respect, this insight is a precondition for treating computer games as pieces of art. Great to know that there are at least some people out there that understand both, the games and art.

´´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.``

On the first glance it may seem to be caused by insufficiently advanced technology, but it made the designers create games more thoroughly. They had to decide what was to be kept and what to throw away, so what stayed are, although few, those ´memorable moments`.

Thanks for reviewing UIII, your blog is outstandingly good written.


Rob said...

Actually, there is a rather cool mac port of Ultima 3.


I believe you can run it on a PC with a mac emulator, but I have never tried.

This port does its best to stay true to the original game, but it has numerous enhancements. Most notably, there is the option for automatic combat. I love this. It allows me to just let combat play out and I can turn auto combat on/off at will when I want/need to direct whats going on.

It also supports alternative tile sets. You can make the game look like any of the old U3 versions, including mono apple ][ style, c64 style, and even the NES version.

If you are looking to play through ultima 3 and aren't completely invested in playing the actual old version, I highly recommend checking this version out.

Thompkins said...

Re: natreg

The FM towns versions of Ultima I and II are very good...if you speak Japanese! Otherwise you'd better have memorized all those spell, weapon and armor numbers.

The FM Towns version of Ultima III sadly has some engine changes that make it a hassle to play. Some of the worst ones are:

1. You can flee battles (this is actually good for regular play, but it makes Castle Exodus so easy it's sad)

2. Monsters spawn very fast on Ambrosia, making the usual 4-shrine run a major hassle

3. (The worst one) Characters, instead of eating 1 food per so many steps, eat 1 food PER LEVEL per so many steps. Thus a level 25 character eats 25 food when a level 1 would have just eaten one. And it even continues increasing once your hit points stop increasing at level 25. This makes it almost impossible to even break even at higher levels, at some point you give up and just let your characters starve while gathering gold.

Even the NES version of Ultima III is more faithful to the original than the FM Towns version (in terms of gameplay rather than graphics).

Re: rob

I too have played the LairWare version of III - it is the best version. It can be adjusted all the way down to Apple ii graphics and gameplay, or adjusted up to the level of a modern 2D RPG you might play on the DS. My only complaints are that (1) the dungeon graphics don't change, they're always "modern" and (2) the character sprites are wrong if you select "NES" art. Otherwise it's perfect.

Natreg said...

Well, I knew about Ultima III FM towns change about fleeing from battle. I didn't knew about all the other changes.

Those gameplay changes really change the experience. Lately I have started a blog like this one in spanish, and playing Akalabeth I notice that the save feature really makes the game too easy.

About Ultima I & II for the FM towns... they are in english as far as I know. You can play in either english or japanese to those games. The only thing that that is not translated it's the intro.

The only things that bother me about Ultima I remakes is that the dungeons doesn't have any traps, thus making the rope and spikes useless.

And I wonder if the FMtowns Ultima II version has that bug with the maps from other planets...

Thompkins said...

Re: natreg

To clarify, I should have said that in the versions I've played, you need to be bilingual to play most of the (generally very good) Japanese ports of the early games. They have some words in English and some in Japanese (for example it will say "Attack->Hit!->Killed" in Japanese but "Gold+02 Exp+03" in English right under it). However as the keyboard commands are the same if you've played the English version you can probably guess well enough.

Luckily the PC-x86 Japanese versions can be purchased legally on the Japanese Ultima collection from EA. They even provide an emulator that will run these games under WinXP. I had thought these were identical to the FM Towns versions because FM Towns was a 386 based architecture however I'm probably wrong. Maybe someone can clarify this?

Natreg said...

They are different.

The pc x98 ones are indeed in japanese and have some music and all that

The fmtowns versions were bilingual, you can choose to play in english or japanese. Also the music is different from the PCx98 ones.

The looks and graphics I think are mostly identical.

Thompkins said...

You're right natreg. I suppose PC-x86 was referring to the fact that the PC-9801 used an 8086 CPU.

From screenshots it appears that the FM Towns Ultima IV has the Ultima V graphics, whereas the PC-9801 Ultima IV has similar ones to Ultima I-III on PC-9801. Based on this Ultima III on FM Towns might be different too and lack some of the problems I mentioned...though being able to flee in Castle Exodus still would make the endgame too easy imo - even in Ultima IV you have to worry about your Valor plus make your way across rooms for example.

Unfortunately right now the FM Towns versions appear to be going for the equivalent of $100's each:

Ultima Underworld FM Towns

Ultima V FM Towns

Anonymous said...

Hey, where'd you go!?

stu said...

So where is the next installment?

Claus said...

I found U3 to be really really hard when I played it for the first time around 1989 (at that time, one waited for four to six weeks for a game to arrive - unbelievable).
Plus, I already knew U4, so interest was focused elsewhere quickly.

Hm, speaking of which, I need to find my U4 game, where my party is waiting to enter the abyss.

What I liked a lot about U3 was the fact that you could find weapons and armor (rarely) after finishing off some monsters. It made the game more realistic, though not if you slew a herd of horses and found a plate armor.

What I hated was the randomness of the game. One time, you enter the dungeon to get the mark for levelling and you meet nothing, then in the next game, you meet a bunch of balrogs on the first level. Brrrrrr.

Anonymous said...

What I hate about the console version of Ultima 3 and Ultima 4 is that they jack up the difficulty as you level, instead of it progressing gradually (and much, much slowly) like the PC/Atari version did. It makes the game a total pain in the arse to cope with, and frankly, it annoys the hell out of me. It is too bad tho as they are beautiful, and just take reagents automaticaly in U4's case for each spell, no need to waste time on mixing for spells.

Oh well. This is why I am forever hoping for a well done remake/enhancement of both game (but U3 needs it the most).

U5 is my favorite by far, followed by U4. As for U3, I loved the Atari version of it, I just was too young to get into the plot and finish it. And nowadays I just can't deal with it's ackward inventory/food/gold system. There needs to be just one inventory for everyone, like later Final Fantasies.

See you guys around, and thanks for that blog.
-- Francois424